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THE GUARDIAN
CONSCIENCE, NURTURED BY TRUTH
LAGOS. NIGERIA.     Thursday, June 27 2002

 

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To remember and to honour
By Edwin Madunagu

OF all the contemporary social developments that currently sadden me, one of the most painful is the disconnection of Nigerians, especially the younger ones, from their own history, including the history of their own immediate environments. I can put my finger on a number of interconnected factors responsible for this historical disconnection. Our educational system pays little attention to our history. Most of the current generation of teachers are products and carriers of this deficiency, so what do you expect from the new products? Our media, print and electronic, from time to time, put our historical materials and programmes. But many of them are disgustingly eclectic, distorted and full of errors of fact and sequence. Our post-independence history is short, just 43 years. But you are asking for a heart attack if you dare ask any final year undergraduate or young politician to name, in historical sequence, the regimes that this country had had since independence.

Our young intellectuals and political activists have heard of the leading political players of the First Republic: Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Alhaji Ahamadu Bello, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Malam Aminu Kano, etc. They have heard of, or seen, or even interacted with, recent and contemporary rulers: Generals Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, Abdulsalam Abubakar. They know Olusegun Obasanjo as current President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, but cannot connect him with General Obasanjo who succeeded General Murtala Mohammed in 1976 as military Head of State. Gowon and Ojukwu, they have been told, once had a fight; but they are not sure if the fight was a boxing match or a abysmal state of our self-knowledge I have decided to periodically introduce some of our heroes and heroines, especially those who have not been in the media of recent. I shall be starting with a giant among Nigerian nationalists and patriots, a hero and partisan of the masses.

Peter Ayodele Curtis Joseph was born of Benin City parents in Ikare on November 8, 1920. He will be 82 years old in about four months. He is well, and lives in retirement in Lagos. He is a self-educated and self-made man, by which I mean that his parents played only a brief, though critical role in his education and exercised only a moral influence in the development of his career. By the time he emerged from his teens, the young Curtis Joseph was "on his own", as the saying goes. Nigeria and the world have benefited from this early independence. After his primary education, Curtis Joseph was employed by the United Africa Company (UAC), the leading European trading company in colonial Nigeria. It was during this period that he became a militant nationalist and later, a Marxist, Socialist and Communist. In 1947, he was with the UAC at Okitipupa when Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe led a delegation of National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC) into the town in the course of the nationalist party's 12-month country-wide tour to mobilise nationalist opposition to the colonial constitution. The other members of the delegation were Michael Imoudu and Oged Macauley, the son of Herbert Macauley. It was Curtis Joseph, even as a staff of UAC, that piloted the delegation into Okitipupa. Predictably, action created problems for him, but he managed to remain with the company until 1951 when he resigned and went into full time leftist politics, journalism, publishing and business.

On May 1, 1961, Curtis Joseph, together with Gogo Chu Nzeribe, Tanko Yakassai, M.O. Johnson and J.B.K. Thomas founded the Nigerian People's Party (NPP), a Marxist-Leninist Party formed, in his own words, "to lead the peoples of Nigeria in their just struggle for peace, friendship, national reconstruction, a better future and the triumph of socialism". From that moment on, Curtis Joseph has remained a prominent and leading Nigerian Marxist and communist. Between 1966 and 1969, during the Civil War, he published and edited the New World, a Marxist-Leninist magazine that was as lively, entertaining as it was political and educative. Curtis Joseph was the Founder and President of Nigeria Council for Peace. In this capacity he was elected member of the Presidential Committee of the World Peace Council. He voluntarily withdrew from the Council in a Berlin conference in 1969 following the split in the Nigerian delegation to the conference. The split was caused by the Civil War then raging at home. He withdrew from the conference although he was recognised as the overall leader of the Nigerian delegation. He was awarded the Golden Medal and Ribbon in 1965 by the Czechoslovak society for Foreign Relations. The following year, in 1966, he was awarded the International Lenin Prize. He was a member of Royal Commonwealth Society, but resigned in 1986 "in protest against UK governments policy on South Africa". His business virtually collapsed in 1983 following an accident, and has now "settled down to full-time research and writing on human problems - individual, national and international". He is a divorcee, although he has eight children.

I first came across Curtis Joseph in the second half of the 1970s through my study of the Nigerian Socialist Movement in the period between the formation of NCNC (1944) and the Zikist Movement (1946), and the end of the Civil War (1970). He struck me as a clear-headed Nigerian patriot and nationalist and as an internationalist and non-sectarian Marxist in both ideological and political sense. My tentative impressions were confirmed by some comrades who knew him in person and had worked with him. But I did not have the urge to search him out although I knew he lived in Lagos. Then in 1988, when I was serving as acting Editorial Page Editor of The Guardian, I processed some of his letters to the editor of the newspaper. Although it was taken for granted that a Nigerian Marxist must be de-tribalised, I noted that Curtis Joseph must be a particularly de-tribalised Nigerian Marxist. Still, I did not search him out. Then, in April 1988 I wrote a piece in my Thursday column titled Nigerian leftists and the lessons of history. There I criticised the Nigerian leftists for breaking into factions behind the war-lords during the Civil War. I argued that they ought to have developed a nationalist third force, the type Wole Soyinka attempted to developed and for which he was detained for a greater part of that war. Late Comrade Ola Oni attacked my position, insisting that Nigerian Marxists had the duty to oppose the "Imperialist" design to divide the country. Comrade Ola Oni justified the support given to General Gowon's war efforts by a faction of the Social Movement.

Then comrade Curtis-Joseph intervened in a letter-to-the-editor, endorsing my position and supplying more information including the fact that he had played a leading role in the efforts at creating a united front of Nigerian Marxist, Socialist and nationalists against the war. It was then I decided to search him out. But before I did so, he came to me at The Guardian. He was then 68. We remained constantly in touch until I left Lagos and The Guardian in 1994. Every encounter with Curtis Joseph was, for me, like going back to school. I felt the same way I used to feel after meeting with Chief Anthony Enahoro, late Mokwugo Okoye and late Samuel Ikoku. But being a convinced, committed, well-read and well-travelled Marxist, and communist, Curtis Joseph had a stronger effect on me. He still does, through his writings and private communications.

About a year ago, I sent Curtis Joseph a long questionnaire. In question Number 17, I asked him to name his "most admired or respected persons". This was his response: "Jesus Christ as a son of Joseph and Mary, as philosopher, physician, revolutionary and communist; William Wilberforce (anti-slavery); Herbert Macauley: Nnamdi Azikiwe; Aminu Kano; Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti; Mrs. Margaret Ekpo; Karl Marx; Vladimir Lenin; and Robert Mugabe.". To the question, "what is your guiding principle?", he replied: "To continue acquiring knowledge till I die and desire for peace, through justice and equality among all peoples."

When I asked him, through the same questionnaire, to mention the most memorable things that had happened to him, he mentioned three: completing reading the Bible at age 15: Nigeria's independence in 1960; and membership of the Presidential Committee of the World Council of Peace. I was embarrassed, and then humbled, when, to the question of the person or persons he would like to meet, he replied: "Edwin Madunagu, for extensive discussions on politics, Marxism-Leninism, Anglo-American current alliances, my life generally, and handing over my remaining books and files". He had shortly before this donated to me his entire library consisting of more than 7,000 books, 10,000 newspapers, 4,000 magazines and many files containing newspaper cuttings, documents, articles and essays. These materials now take up the entire Library 2 of the free Research Library I run in Calabar. Please, join me in saluting Peter Ayodele Curtis Joseph.

 

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