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By Tarila Marclint Ebiede
My teacher, mentor and friend, Kimse Amaebi Biye Okoko, has transitioned away from our world. Kimse Okoko lived an exemplary life as a man, a scholar, an activist and public servant focused on improving the conditions of the Ijaw people of Nigeria. He was first my teacher, and quickly became a mentor, friend and father. I will remember him as a kind, fearless and wise man. His passion for justice and his kindness towards others, made him a father and friend to both old and young.
When I was growing up in Port Harcourt and Yenagoa, Kimse Okoko’s name and activism was known to everyone interested in the struggle of the Ijaw people. I first met him in person when I went to study at the University of Port Harcourt in 2008. I was a young 23-year-old, passionate about my studies. He was a fulfilled professor of Political Science and serving leader of the Ijaw National Congress (INC). In class, he taught about socialism and shared his life experiences through stories. Outside class, he taught me about the importance of hard work and shared stories of his search for education. He told me of how this search was started by his father, who held his hands and trekked with him from Obunagha to Ahoada, a distance of 46 Kilometers, so that the young Okoko will take his secondary school entrance exams. We became quite close. Once, I did not submit my coursework for his class. He waited for me long after the deadline. When I finally submitted the assignment, he scolded me and expressed emotions shared by a father towards a failing son. He warned me about the consequences of failure in Nigeria. He called me his son. From then, I knew the depth of his care for me.
I remember how happy he was when I told him I had been offered admission to study for a PhD at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. He provided all the necessary support to help me actualize my dreams. While studying in Belgium, he would call me to check up on me and provided support to me when I ran out of financial resources to fund my studies. In the early days of our relationship, I often wondered what drew this giant to a young man like me.
My interactions with him shaped my life in many ways. As a Political Scientist, Okoko belonged to the left. At different times in his career, he played active roles in foremost leftist organizations such as the Council for the Development of Economic and Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and Nigerian Association of East European and Sino-Soviet Studies. As a left leaning scholar, Kimse Okoko recognized both the value of the Marxian dialectics and the contradictions of the real world application of socialism. In his magnus opus, He argued that “the socialist economic theory does not deal adequately with the problem of designing an economic strategy for transforming underdeveloped economies” and that there are internal contradictions in the practice of socialism, manifest in the struggle between the bureaucratic bourgeoisie and the political leaders, which inhibits the achievement of the goals of socialism. Yet, in class, he will argue that ‘socialism in atemporal and aspatial’. From a distance, many people were critical of Kimse Okoko’s ideological commitments to the left. In my close interaction with him, he constantly taught me that the logic of the left is one that promotes justice. If anything, I believe that Okoko’s left leaning scholarship is reflected in his consistent stand with what is just, with what is fair and with what is right. These left leaning values are now an integral part of my own scholarship, politics and everyday life.
I learnt bravery from his actions. From changing his name from Cornelius to Kimse and his dislike for western clothing; his strong sense of Ijaw identity shaped most of his struggles in life. In times of crisis, he did not necessarily take the side of the powerful, but the side of justice. But he also knew when a battle was over. This, he expressed to me through many examples of the battles he fought.
In one of our many father and son discussions, he told me how he decided to pursue an education in political science to enable him participate in the politics of Nigeria. But political science education does not necessarily prepare one for politics. If anything, it makes one critical of politics and politicians. This is exactly what happened to Kimse Okoko. Instead of returning home to participate in politics, he returned to contribute to the training of the next generation of thinkers, public servants, journalists and leaders. He came back to become the left leaning intellectual that used his knowledge to fight for the rights of his Ijaw people.
He had an extremely sharp sense of humor. The last time I heard his voice, though weak, he still made me laugh. As a Christian, I think of his departure as home going. C.S. Lewis said “If we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home,’ why should we not look forward to the arrival?”. Daddy, I hope you arrived home safely. Do mo timi!
Tarila Marclint Ebiede is a Political Scientist. He was trained at Niger Delta University, Bayelsa State, University of Port Harcourt, Choba, Rivers State and earned a PhD in Social Science from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. He writes from Maastricht, Netherlands.
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