I had just finished a crucial corporate meeting with a partner in a hotel in Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria. Rather than hurry back to the office for another appointment, I succumbed to my partner’s plea to accompany him to another brief meeting.
The place we arrived was another part of Victoria Island. Nothing prepared me for the man I was about to encounter. Not the structure, a modest duplex. Neither the number of staff, just five at sight. For here was a man who commanded thousands of men on land and waters nationwide and beyond.
Now he was on the phone as we stepped in. Instantly I could feel his impeccable speech that carried the elocution of a star actor. But just as I tried to digest this, he code- switched to Hausa language and still spoke with unblemished fluency. I could tell he spoke this language like a native Hausa. But the man was not done yet. Dropping the phone, he turned to my partner, and hailed him with a perfect, stainless Yoruba language and intonation. And soon they were rapping in Yoruba. He had mastery of the raw Yoruba and the lingo to embellish it. And as I introduced myself with an Ibo name, this Navigation and Direction specialist switched once again to Ibo. And learning I was from the Ibo speaking part of Delta state, he spoke my Ibo dialect with undiluted accent. ‘This man must be a total Nigerian’, I muttered. Then it dawned on me that this is Dele Joseph Ezeoba, retired Vice Admiral of the Navy and former Chief of Naval Staff.
In the conversation that followed, and focused on Nigeria, I was jolted by his acute sense of history, incisive thinking, and certitude about the unity of Nigeria and faith in her unalterable destiny despite the current din of socio-economic challenges. “This country was created by God to be one nation. Our diversity should be strength, not weakness,” he asserted. “I have been privileged to travel the length and breadth of this country, I know this country inside-out. I have sat at table to eat with the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Fulani, all,” he continued. “I have seen the abiding love, I have long seen that our languages, cultures and religions are no barriers because no body discusses that when we eat or share a drink. It was always in an atmosphere of love and friendship. All we need to do as a nation is to continue to work hard, to elect leaders that love this country and would work tirelessly to find lasting solutions to our economic and political problems; you know, give us good leadership without manipulating the people for selfish interests and you will see how this great nation will explode with prosperity”, he stated.
Ezeoba’s solemn patriotic spirit, his sincere hope for a prosperous nation, and his dignified faith that Nigeria would overcome the current political jangles, plus his polyglot’s traits inspired me to pry more into the life of this former student of Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna and Britannia Royal Naval college, Dartmouth, United Kingdom.
Indeed I soon found out that he was born in Jos, and had his education in Jos, Agbor in Delta State and Kaduna. His parents hail from Ibusa in Delta state, but of Ibo extraction. Now I could connect the languages he spoke, yet it still remains a fit to me. But it was one of his childhood friends, Chris, who would give me a rare insight into Ezeoba’s character traits, his passion for the military, his patriotic zeal and willful disdain for indiscipline even as a teenager. “Listen my friend”, Chris began. “You don’t know that guy. Right from the time we were about 10 to 14 years of age, he had made up his mind he was going to be a military man. And he behaved like them. His clothes were stiffly ironed, he wore beret like them and he hated any form of sloppiness or acts of indiscipline. And I am telling you, this was while we were still kids”. Continuing, he adds, “That man you are seeing has an inviolable integrity. As kids, if he senses you don’t tell the truth or that you are a traitor, it’s over between you and him. And you can count on his loyalty, he was ever ready to stake everything for his friend or brother. He was simply a leader. That’s why I was not surprised he attained such a status in the Navy. That was his choice, his decision from childhood”, Chris narrated.
Chris’ narrative, turned out a portrait of his childhood friend. Indeed a combination of fierce discipline, iron-cast will, an untrammeled integrity and loyalty would propel Ezeoba through an amazing career of distinction in the Nigerian Navy. He would attend such respectable institutions that include INS Venduruthy, Kochi, India, US Naval War College, Rhode Island, USA and Nigeria’s Armed Forces Command and Staff Cellege, Jaji, in addition to the University of Ibadan, Nigeria where he obtained a Masters degree in Strategic Studies and Havard Kennedy School of Government, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
With a vault full of distinction in career courses, certificates and degrees, providence would place this scion of Ibusa on the path to joining that revered pantheon of Navy gallants. Having distinguished himself in several command appointments, prominent among which is the Commanding Officer of the nations flagship NNS ARADU, a multi-purpose guided missile frigate, it came as no surprise that he was awarded the Command at Sea Badge, Navy Distinguished Service Medal and Defence Superior Service Medal, a testament to his competence and professionalism.
An American trained business mogul and Chairman of Sadiq Petroleum, Chief Peter Eloka Okocha, who had followed Ezeoba’s history in the Navy since the early ‘80s also pointed to one strong character trait. His loyalty. In his words, Ezeoba’s loyalty to his bosses and his nation never flinched. “No matter the challenge he is faced with, he will not breach his integrity. He is a man of incredible conviction”, Okocha stated.
Notably, attaining the status of Chief of Naval Staff, beyond professional competence, could be political. Yet many close watchers of the Nigerian Navy and the military in general were so optimistic that it was a pedestal reserved for a man they described as kind, and compassionate, but one who would make hard choices to actualize tough hopes.
For his professionalism, he was promoted to the enviable rank of a Vice Admiral. And for his untainted record, discipline, service and allegiance to the cause of his country, he was made the mascot of the Nigerian Navy as he was appointed Chief of Naval Staff.
Without the often touted influence and prompting of a godfather, with sheer brilliance, steely courage and a robust faith in his manifest destiny, and almighty God, this unusual man, a father of two daughters and a devout catholic ran a solemn and enviable career marathon that spanned over 30 years. Some of his prominent career staff appointments would include Directing staff at National War College, now National Defence College, Abuja, Principal Staff Officer, Administration, Armed Forces Command and Staff College, Jaji, and from Director of Training, Defence Headquarters, he ascended to Chief of Training and Operations, Naval Headquarters and Chief of Defence Administration, Defence Headquarters, Abuja. He would next become the Deputy Commandant, Armed Forces Command and Staff College, Jaji, Operations Officer, Eastern Naval Command and Director of Operations, Naval Headquarters.
Ezeoba indeed seemed to have seen and done it all. Therefore attaining the pinnacle of his career, becoming the hallowed symbol of the Nigerian Navy as Chief of Naval Staff appeared decreed to happen.
His achievements as Navy’s numero uno, many say, would remain immortal. That will be subject for another piece. Suffice to conclude that Ezeoba’s storied career was that of a gallant officer who detested the inglorious footnotes of time. His place was designed to be on history’s centerspread, and that he accomplished. Needless to add he took a bow from the Navy adjudged accomplished and distinguished.
The gallant Vice Admiral having retired has since gone into private business and has been elected into the board of many blue chip companies. And he seems poised for more accomplishments.
Zik Zulu Okafor, Media Consultant and award winning journalist wrote from Lagos.