It was a mini-national burial, what with the delegation of five from Bayero University, Kano where he got his first teaching appointment as a lecturer in Building Engineering; Benue Polytechnic where he was the Rector for eight years and whose principal officers, staff and students became the institutional chief mourners; the Federal University of Technology, Minna where he was an Associate Professor before his rather violent and instant demise in an auto crash on June 1st, 2015. Along with him in the car that day was Mrs Comfort Okpella Ella, the wife of his senior brother, Ejembi C Ella, a retired Water Engineer. The pain and sense of loss in the extended Ella family is obvious. But it is more for an impoverished community like Edemoga District of Okpokwu LGA in Benue State which has not got many tested or experienced managers of state establishments but losing one of such few. Having managed Benue Polytechnics for eight years, however that was, he was a ready-made material for whatever such responsibilities that came his way. The communal sense of loss will, therefore, take a very long time to fade.
The burial for the two from 17th to 19th June, 2015 was understandably one of the most solemn and emotion charged rite of passage for everyone who was there. It was solidarity with someone who, somehow, cut very powerfully into communal psyche. An unusually unassuming and rather withdrawn Ella surprisingly metamorphosed into a community activist with his appointment as Rector. In spite of the financially, politically and communally constraining environment in which he worked, including a tough politics of re-appointment, everyone would testify that he was such a fantastic interventionist in healing one fissure or another in the communities. He never allowed any such fissures that he could intervene to linger on. It is difficult to know how he got into such a positive habit because both as a student and even when he became an academic, he was happy being with himself rather than the outgoing or talkative type. In this sense, Ella was a sampler in the notion that we never know the good or bad person until s/he gets into power. In his own case, power got him so positively community minded, taking expansive responsibilities in settling conflicts across the communities, the kind of things the politicians should be doing but which they do not.
That was a surprising turn in Ella, contrary to what we thought of him: the born engineer. In fact, as young people growing up in the hamlet, we used to hear his senior brother joke that O.B Ella could reassemble the broken pieces of a bottle or a glass. It was a perfect reading of him. For, except lack of the right spanners, for example, he never needed to take his car to a mechanic. He did it better than any mechanic. He was, indeed, a born engineer. Somehow, it was Building Engineering he got admitted into at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria but his Masters Degree and the PhD was in Civil Engineering. Before the PhD, Bayero University, Kano offered him appointment as a lecturer in their Engineering Department. It was from there the Benue State Government appointed him the Rector of Benue State Polytechnic in 2003. And from where he returned to Bayero University before relocating to Minna.
He surprised me one day when I squatted in his accommodation as a Diploma student in BUK. He surfaced one morning with the manuscript of a book which broke down Building Engineering grammar for non engineering or non-science citizens. Oyi, (Idoma concept for ‘comrade’) when did you have time to do this, I asked him. He said he had been doing it gradually and he wanted me to take a look at it as an archetype non-science student. I protested my qualification to do that. I have no head for anything that has to do with 2 + 2 and I had no ambition to add that to my list of worries, chief of which was coping with Dr. Othaniel Gudu’s course in the Professional Diploma in Mass Communication programme in BUK. I was not alone. Everyone feared Gudu’s course. He opened the first lesson for the session with incidents of students abusing him in buses to the township and other places to his hearing because most of the students would be doing so on the basis of what they heard, not from any encounter with Gudu yet. I was so scared of Gudu that even when our Benue identity took me to his house, I was not relaxed. But when I read his notes today, I wish he were still alive so that I could go and say, ‘thank you. You were a great teacher of News Reporting and News Writing’. Gudu moved to Benue State originally to join The Voice, the Benue State Government newspaper. That didn’t work out eventually. He then moved into Benue State University before meeting his death shortly after. May his soul rest in perfect peace!
I think it was Ogbe Obande who was also lecturing in Chemistry at BUK then whom we eventually took Ella’s manuscripts for the initial assessment and comments. That must have been his first publication, a magnificent proletarianisation of science to the level of our brothers and sisters who are not lucky to have the kind of educational foundation that would enable them to easily overcome the cultural and linguistic barriers in English. Interestingly, Ella was to end up as Rector of Benue Polytechnic in 2003, the same job Dr. Obande completed his own tenure before moving on to become Nigeria’s ambassador to Switzerland. He said at Ella’s burial that all the eulogies showered on him were informed by the truth. In other words, Ella earned them all.
Man can say to death: do not be proud. For me, that is nothing but a statement of frustration. Why wouldn’t death be proud if it could snatch away anyone anytime irrespective of how much communal responsibility the victim was shouldering? And even when his or her children are still very young! And the father was a wreck coming to grips with the unbelievable. Or when death could touch and take away Mrs Comfort Ella just after retirement from service. Or when someone’s wife was crushed in an instant along with his junior brother! And to think that Ella would win any contest of the most careful and systematic drivers anywhere. So ‘scientific’ in that he did not think the official driver was careful enough that he drove himself, most of the time, even as Rector. This time, however, eye witness accounts claimed that he saw from afar that an on-coming trailer had lost its tyre. He then tried to dodge it by deliberately driving his jeep off the road. He was only half successful. The claim is that he got stuck and couldn’t go far enough as to escape the trailer choosing that spot where Ella was stuck in the sands to crash and into him. The rest is now history as the two died instantly. Such is life.
One implication is that the former Rector’s four children are without a father at so young their age and at a very difficult time in a difficult country like Nigeria today. As a product of a school like Holy Rosary College, Adoka, Mrs Ellah, on the other hand, was automatically a prized wife, mother and community activist. In her death, Edemoga District, in particular, lost one more of that generation of women who got opportunity to acquire secondary school level education and who did so from Adoka which was a Finishing school. In order words, it was a leadership training ground for women in Idomaland whose products no questions were asked in whatever terms you can think of and it shows in her own case, in the intellectual and professional progress she made. One can only imagine what has become of that college in the disaster that has befallen education and, in fact, the society in that state in recent years.
No matter how difficult, the rites of passage had to be performed. And so, Mrs Ella was the first to be interned at Opidlo-Amejo on June 18th and then O.B Ella at Ogene-Amejo on June 19th, 2015. Opidlo and Ogene are among the nine village of Amejo clan in the District.