Celebrating a Fine Officer and Gentleman: Senator Tunde Ogbeha at 70, By Dele Agekameh

Indeed, many have praised Ogbeha for his indubitable strength of character, his readiness to stretch himself thin for friends and acquaintances and ability to diffuse any situation with his inimitable oratorical prowess and native intelligence.

Last Friday, September 1, 2017, marked the 70th birthday of the quintessential officer, a senator and a gentleman, Tunde Ogbeha. Not surprisingly, a blizzard of well wishes buffeted the ‘birthday boy’ from his friends and admirers all over the place. The stream of good wishes on this occasion was not unexpected, considering the personality involved.

For the distinguished senator, turning 70 was a wonderful excuse for a party or, well, a celebration, in grandiose hue and form. For his many well-wishers, it was another chance to celebrate the redoubtable gentleman and retired general in the Nigerian Army, a sheer reminder of his sterling military career and the impact he has had on humanity even after his retirement.

While he is not known for gaudy parties, there is no doubt that he has had his fill of well-wishes from friends and associates, beneficiaries of his humaneness, mentees and millennials, with each putting their own spin on the ‘birthday boy’s’ incredible legacy and place in the Nigerian narrative.

In the flurry of tributes for the day, that of Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State, concisely encapsulates his brilliant military odyssey spanning 23 years. Though in his late teens when Ogbeha served as military administrator of Akwa Ibom State between September 1987 and July 1988, Governor Emmanuel has nonetheless penned a heartfelt tribute. He states, “Thirty years ago, you embodied the collective dreams of the good people of Akwa Ibom state. You came to a state that was bereft of even the basic infrastructural amenities, but you were undaunted. You went to work and laid the foundation upon which successive governors have built on to move the state forward. Today, Akwa Ibom state has become the destination of choice with world class infrastructural amenities… As you turn 70, on behalf of the grateful people of Akwa Ibom state, I send you our heartfelt felicitations.”

From the beautiful wordings of the tribute, one thing is clear, Ogbeha remains, for the people of Akwa Ibom State, a pathfinder and precursor of the greatness among other Nigerians that they enjoy. It is no less so in his other military postings. At the time he was governor of Akwa Ibom, he was just 40 years old. It was from there that he was posted to Benin City, the capital of the then Bendel State, now Edo and Delta States, as governor.

It was while he was governor of the old Bendel State that I first met him, shortly after the late Major Gideon Orkar’s abortive coup in April 1990. That day, I was in the entourage of Peter Ayodeji Oyedokun, who had assumed duty as the then Zonal Commanding Officer, ZCO, Federal Road Safety Commission, RS2, comprising Bendel, Enugu and Ondo States. I had been involved in arranging the visit through the late Steve Osemeke, who was then the chief press secretary to the governor. By dint of hard work and providence, till date Osemeke remains the longest serving CPS in Nigeria. He occupied the office of the CPS in the then Bendel State for a long period of time, serving almost four or five governors at a stretch before ending up at the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) and later the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). He passed on a few years ago.

During our visit to the governor on that day, Ogbeha promptly attended to us and listened with rapt attention to the remarks made by the new Zonal Commander. When it was his turn to respond, he did it solemnly and picked his words carefully. He then promised to be available at all times whenever his attention was needed. We took photographs together before he broke protocol by seeing us off to the ground floor of his office, a gesture that was not common among his peers in those days. His conduct on that occasion, endeared him to me and from then on our chemistry clicked.

Our next meeting was in 1999. At that time, he had been elected as a senator representing Kogi West in the National Assembly in Abuja. That Monday afternoon, I ran into him at the Muritala Muhammed Airport in Ikeja, on his way back to Abuja after spending the weekend in Lagos. I was also going for an official assignment in Abuja and so we boarded the same aircraft. It was when we landed in Abuja that I told him right there on the tarmac that I would have loved to have an interview with him. He promptly obliged and fixed a time within the week for the memorable encounter as he confidently answered my questions. At the end of the day, it was a good copy that could thrill any editor. That was how we reunited till date.

A man that shows and embodies social grace and tact, Ogbeha was born in Lokoja, Kogi State in 1947. His father was a police officer, while his mother was a pastry-maker. Even at that young age, he had been attracted to the cleanliness of officers in uniform. Also a precocious kid, he blazed through primary and secondary schools in flying colours. His military career began with his commissioning as a second lieutenant in 1970. Regarded as an officer of uncommon wit, intelligence and candour, it did not take long before he began to get the attention of his superiors. Disciplined and diligent, by the turn of the 80s, he had become so entrenched in the military that he could not be over looked when it came to service to the nation. And he delivered his part at all times with clinical, yet, courteous precision.

In 1985, he was appointed an ambassador to Equatorial Guinea, for a period of two years. On his return, he was deployed to Akwa Ibom State as its first ever governor. He laid the foundation for what is today regarded as a modern day wonder in the South-South, a fact Governor Emmanuel attested to in his tribute. But he barely spent one year there before he was redeployed to the old Bendel State, where he spent the next three years.

When General Ibrahim Babangida stepped down as military president in 1993, General Ogbeha also retired from the military. He was just 46 years old then. Famed for his abiding loyalty to friends and causes he believes in, it was this part of him that former Senate president, Senator David Mark, his bosom friend, alluded to in his own tribute, saying, “I am pleased to note that you have remained steadfast, focused, consistent and constant as the northern star. Your commitment and dedication to our brotherhood and friendship is unequalled.”

Indeed, many have praised Ogbeha for his indubitable strength of character, his readiness to stretch himself thin for friends and acquaintances and ability to diffuse any situation with his inimitable oratorical prowess and native intelligence. Throughout his senatorial sojourn, his was a voice that resonated loudly whenever issues of national interest came up for debate. Perhaps too straightforward for his own good, he doesn’t pander to sophistry to satisfy any interest. He refused to return to the Senate in 2007 for a third term, opting to nurture to profitability, his new baby, Kogi State’s first private broadcasting station, Confluence Cable Network, in Lokoja. In the intervening years, though he does not see himself as a grand old man, he has mellowed with age but his vociferous voice in the affairs of the nation still reverberates, especially in the governance of his beloved Kogi State.

No doubt, humanity and the larger polity have been blessed with the existence of this fine officer and gentleman. For a man who has worn so many hats for people, there is not a scintilla of doubt that he deserves all the encomiums so far heaped on him, and more. Happy Birthday Sir!

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