In honour of Ezeilo and Okafor: Two distinctive women, By Omoniyi Ibietan

So, the other day, about 50 of us gathered at the instance of the Neliakus, to honour Professors Ngozi Joy Ezeilo and Kathleen Ebelechukwu Okafor, who recently became Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN). It was at Asokoro, the Ikoyi of Abuja, a neighbourhood that had recognisable roads for promenading. I used to live on Samora Michel, next to the Anenihs. Asokoro has exploded now into Abuja’s distinctive neighbourhood and district.

Today, many Abuja boys and girls of those days of Abuja’s humble beginning, would need Google Maps to locate places in the district. Prof. Ezeilo had invited me to be her guest and tried to give descriptions and I told her that building is the home of the Neliakus and my second home. “Ooh! You know them?”, she querried. I said ‘Yes, my dear sister. It is a long, good story, but the most recent anecdote in that trajectory was a honour done to me and others by that family when the Neliakus hosted to a party, right at the heart of their home, just three months ago when I became a fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR)’. ‘Small world!’, Prof. Ezeilo screamed. She continued, ‘you know everybody, comrade’. We laughed and I told her when we gather eventually on the day of her honour, we would discover the world has really grown smaller, not in a geographical sense but its network of nodes that link all of us together.

On the day, I arrived 20 minutes before the party was slated to commence. I had stopped by to take a gift sent to me to commemorate the yuletide by a friend in the East of Nigeria. A huge frame of my portrait. It was couriered through a logistic company. So, after taken delivery, I proceeded to the party before the infamous Abuja logjam would commence. Ten minutes after my arrival to the warm reception of Dr. Ike Neliaku, fnipr – and her daughter, the pleasant young lady, a lawyer who was inducted into NIPR alongside her delectable mom, months ago – the cerebral professor of strategic management and human capital development, as well as communication professional, Okey Ikechukwu, arrived with his son, Ifeanyi. Prof. Ikechukwu and I were inducted into the NIPR Board of Fellows in August 2022. Then came the diplomat, Alex Ugochukwu Oriaku, a very amiable man who personified the true dignity of the Nigerian nation. Honourable Ifeanyi Momah of the House of Representatives was also there as well as Prof. Ernest Ojukwu, SAN, and the Mbanefo brothers, but not before Prof. Jerry Gana.

Gana, scholar and politician, was former Minister of Information and pioneering chief executive of Nigeria’s most ambitious national orientation project. He also arrived the venue promptly. Aging has ‘swelled’ him gracefully but not a tincture of his oratory, civility and conviviality had diminished. Prof. Ezeilo, one of the reasons we had gathered, arrived with her daughter, about the same time with Gana. Quickly, we began to recall the past as we settled into the living room of the Neliakus.

Ezeilo was the running mate to Gana when the latter attempted to be president of Nigeria. But that was just a point in the trajectory of her evolution as social entrepreneur, social rights (particularly women’s rights) activist and a distinctive scholar. She was Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, during which she redefined the intersection of scholarship and development. Even that will be another juncture of her evolution. As my friend, Dr. Emeka Agbayi of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas company had rightly noted in his kind tribute to the women of honour, it is difficult to grow up in Enugu without knowing WACOL, the Women Aid Collective, founded by Ezeilo. Dr Agbayi and I became friends at the Lagos Social Media Week (LSMW) in 2020 when our mutual friend, Yemi Aremo Adeyemi, the Prince of Ode Omu, my coursemate in the MA Programme at the University of Ibadan, now communication specialist at NLNG, introduced Agbayi to me at the NLNG Pavilion at the LSMW of that year.

Ezeilo was also Coordinator of Women in Nigeria (WIN), Enugu State chapter, when I met her in the early 90s. I was a member of at the Abuja branch and had the honour to serve WIN as the Deputy Secretary when Toro Oladapo was National Coordinator, we were elected at the 1996 convention which took place at the University of Lagos. WIN is the most radical, left-wing women organisation in Nigeria, and the only one that permits male membership. Yes, men who believe women suffer additional prejudices besides the deprivations imposed on the rest of us by a badly governed society, were free to join WIN, and WIN had been led by great women, Ayesha Imam, Eka Williams, Glory Kilanko, Mary Abubakar, just name them.

So, I told the gathering as I spoke about Prof. Ezeilo, the scholar-activist. I spoke about her commitment to nation-building. Indeed, I said tellingly that she had done well, and I expected nothing less from a UN Special Rapporteur on human trafficking. I spoke about her courage when I recalled an incident in 1995. The Enugu Chapter of WIN which she led was hosting the WIN Annual Conference at the Presidential Hotel when the Abacha goons came to ‘burst’ our conference and ordered us to leave. In the stampede, I saw Ezeilo standing. She refused to be stampeded, insisting we were gathered at Enugu legitimately. She emboldened others and after the disruption, we reassembled to do what took us to Enugu. Prof. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, a scholar of excellence with a special focus and interest in human rights, constitutional, and criminal law, now holds the national honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON).

I spoke about womanhood and motherhood, amplifying the voice of professor Ikechukwu, who made very distinctive conceptual clarifications. Anybody with the right biological constitution can bear children but womanhood is not just about gender. It is all-encompassing, and I proceeded to say that without the real woman, humanity would have disappeared, not necessarily for lack of procreation, but humans, in a generic sense, would be bereft of the care it requires to flourish.

I had used the analogy to describe the two great women who recently joined the silked tribe of Nigeria’s legal profession. I placed on record that Okafor, whom I discovered on LinkedIn that night, had proved, like Ezeilo, why she should be called a woman. I recalled her distinctive, flourishing legal practice and her transition to the academia, becoming a professor at the burgeoning Baze University, as an epitome of communal service.

Professor Okafor, who specialises in property and commercial law is Dean of Law Faculty at Baze University. She started her legal career at the Chambers of Dr. Lateef Adegbite. She also worked at Shell Petroleum Development Company and was company secretary at the Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Company. Kathleen Ebelechukwu Okafor is the initiator of the Lady Kate Okafor Scholarship Scheme, an initiative of the Grooming Centre she founded to provide succour to those in need of mentorship and who may be indigent yet desirous of qualitative education.

When it was the turn of Prof. Jerry Gana to speak, the moment he said, “We are here to celebrate two great women who had done their works well”, we all laughed to our fill. The word ‘well’ gave a great feeling of déjà vu, at least to anyone who was alive to witness the great beginnings of MAMSER or MAMZER (Mass Mobilisation for Self-Reliance, Zero Justice and Economic Recovery). It was a mantra sold to the nation by Prof. Gana while he presided over the affairs of MAMSER, the forerunner of National Orientation Agency (NOA) established in 1987 as a political orientational commission based on the recommendations of the Dr. SJ Cookey Political Bureau, set up to fashion a new political philosophical orientation for Nigeria.

It was an opportunity to meet Gana again. Just before the party as we settled in the living room of the Neliakus, I reminded him of some of our past meetings. First was in 1989 when I sat between himself and General Yakubu Gowon, former Head of State. My oldest brother, Professor Olajide Ibietan sat after Gowon. It was the inauguration of the first diocese of the Anglican Communion Abuja, where His Lordship, Peter Jasper Akinola was consecrated as Bishop of Abuja. Akinola would later become the Primate of All Nigeria Anglican Communion when he was elected eleven years after. Gana remembered the story but not the little boy who sat between himself and Gowon. I had sat ‘jejely’ at the back when the two great men came in to sandwich me. My brother had got up to use the bathroom and, on his return, found his seat taken, and he took the next space after Gowon, not immediately realising it was Gowon. My brother just greeted and took his seat.

Prof. Joy Ezeilo reconnected us again that night, bring joy and living up to her name as she wont whenever I was at Enugu, when she would dispatch her driver to fetch me for breakfast at her home. I congratulate her and her colleague, Prof. Okafor on the attainment of another goal. I particularly thank our host, the Neliakus, the multicultural, ecumenical family that has come to define the beauty of heterogeneity and the attendant peace that comes with it. Thank you, Dr. Ike Neliakuchukwu, for all you do for our country.

-Ibietan PhD, is Head of Media Relations, Nigerian Communications Commission

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