A WORD ON MY FRIEND, LEADER, AND PATRIOT, PROFESSOR NIMI BRIGGS, JP, KSC, OON, MBBS, MD, FRCOG, FWACS, FICS, FMCOG, FAS, FIPS, DFMC, HLR, DSc, NNOM (1941- 2023)
By: Godknows Igali
On the day of its father’s funeral, the famous bird, the Woodpecker, had a boil on the foreskin of its beak and therefore could not carve its choicest drum to celebrate. Indeed, there are certain moments when the ink of the wordsmith dries up, and the stylus is unable to scribble the deserved elegy and panegyric. Then, the hoarse voice cannot sing the composed ballads to a deserving hero.
2. Like the proverbial elephant of common mythology, Emeritus Professor Nimisoere Dimkpa Briggs who is being laid in his final resting place today, May 20, 2023 in the coastal town of Abonnema in Nigeria’s oil-rich Rivers State was a man of many parts and superlative qualities; even though simply known for the particular. That being the fact that he was an academic of a special genre. He rose through the ladder of the knowledge industry to be a ‘Fellow’ of virtually every foreseeable global body in his chosen field of specialisation and academia in general. He was 79 years before his passing, but bearing a visage of the mid-60s.
3. From when he passed on Monday 10th April 2023, Nigeria’s outgoing leader, President Muhammadu Buhari, wailed thus: “he lived for the good of the country and humanity”. Again, preceding his final interment, Buhari, who had dealt with him closely in attempting to unravel the beleaguered plight of Nigeria’s tertiary education system, once more, saluted his legacy as “a monumental loss to the country”.
4. With events lavishly spread around the world, for a man who in life was sternly adverse to the klieg lights, encomiums flooded from statesmen and academia all over. More visibly were the mammoth gatherings in Leeds in the United Kingdom, in Abuja, the nation’s capital, at the University of Lagos, his alma mater, at Alex Ekwueme University, Abakaliki, where he was a serving Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Governing Council, and at the Bayelsa Medical University, Yenagoa where he was also Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Governing Council. Similarly, the Federal University Lokoja, an institution where he also served as former Pro-Chancellor, held a Special Senate Session in his honour. Likewise, the University of Port-Harcourt, where he cut his teeth in scholarship and university administration. In several of these universities, even in death, he was admitted into strings of posthumous Doctorate Degrees (Honorari Causa) through commemoratory Convocation ceremonies!
5. Of particular note were the events of May 16, 2023, where President Buhari, represented by his Chief of Staff, himself a scholar and diplomat of tenure and dozens of managers of the education sector, leaders of academic bodies and activists of labour unions, congregated in overflowing numbers at the little heard off, ‘Secretariat of the Committee of Pro-Chancellors and Vice Chancellors’ to rend their hearts in oratory sessions. As if not comforted, the train moved venue to the commodious halls of the National Universities Commission for rehashing of tributes by ‘Directors of Academic Planning’ from the country’s over two hundred licensed universities, most of whom “NIMI” as he often preferred to be addressed, directly coached and mentored.
ABONNEMA AND TRAIL OF FIRST-RATE INTELLECTS
6. Though born in the once renowned “Garden City” – Port Harcourt on Tuesday 22nd February 1944, Briggs returned to his hometown Abonnema to start basic education at Nyemoni Primary School. His father, the Right Reverend Dimkpa Tobins Briggs, had himself risen through the rungs to be Bishop (Head) of the Nyemoni Church, which championed educational development of the Abonnema people and the Kalabari sub-group of the Ijaw ethnicity since the town’s founding in 1882. Abonnema, which keeps a pseudonym of Nyemoni, rose over the years from being a trading outpost for dealing with Europe to emerge as a centre of knowledge and western civilization. A fair listing of some of Nigeria’s early professional class effused from the town and the general Kalabari area. Famous jurist and Attorney-General of the Federation, Dr. Nabo Graham-Douglas, pioneer Paediatrician at Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Dr. Melford Graham-Douglas, four times Minister, Alabo Tonye, World-acclaimed “father” of Gynaecology, Prof Kelsy Harrison, early educationists, First indigenous Principal of famed Government College Umuahia, Isaac Erekosima and pioneer Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education, F Ajumogobia, pionner mathematician, Professor Afonya Bestman, famous lawyer and Nigerian nationalist, Chief Wenike Briggs, Jurists and Law Professor, Adolphus Karibi-Whyte, Second Republic political giant and entrepreneur, Chief OB Lulu-Briggs. Abonnema also produced quite early, Elections Administrator, Chief Summer Dagogo-Jack and more lately, oil magnates, Chamberlain Oyibo, Tom Fabyan, Odoliyi Lolomari and security czar, Albert Horsfall.
7. Also from the Kalabari stable were the likes of the pioneer Solicitor-General of Nigeria and Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dr. GKJ Amachree, pioneer boss and father of Nigeria’s diplomacy, Amb JTF Iyalla, Prof Tam David-West, Prof TJF Princewill, early Nigerian physician and Petroleum Minister, Dr MT Akobo, etc.
8. Against this background, Nimi Briggs started his educational life in 1949 at the missionary school atop his peers, not just around his area but in much of then Eastern Nigeria. From there, he proceeded to the Baptist High School Port Harcourt in 1957. Established in 1940, the school was intended for high flyer young men and, true to its mandate, had some of Nigeria’s first class brains, public intellectuals and foremost politicians – Dr. Walter Ofonagora and Ambassador, Dr. Dele Cole, also from Abonnema, during that era. Yet, Nimi could manage to come first, bagging most of the awards and standing out also in sports. Not surprisingly, his next destination for higher school, on scholarship in 1962, was Government College Umuahia which was established in 1929 alongside Government College Ibadan, and Government College Keffi. During this era, the British colonial government ensured that only the best of Nigeria’s youths went to these schools. Needless relate the expected, that Nimi again towered afloat, bagging multiple prizes. Spectacularly, his brilliance attracted three overlapping sweepstakes – Niger Delta Area Special Scholarship, Federal Government Scholarship, and Eastern Regional Scholarship.
9. It is from this pedestal that he went on to the University of Lagos (UNILAG) to pursue his medical education in 1964, ending up in 1969. UNILAG again turned out to be a field for academic garlands as he packed such prizes as Best Student for Paediatrics, Best Student for Obstetrics and Gynaecology, each with cash rewards.
10. With performance, he earned two more funding windows, being the Federal Government and the Commonwealth Postgraduate Scholarships for Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Hereon, he proceeded to the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the United Kingdom for three years. Later, he continued another five years, back in UNILAG, to earn his doctorate degree. In addition to this rich educational background, he kept earning further specialist training and retraining around the world, more often through earned funds, throughout his teaching career in the university system, spanning about fifty years.
NIMI AND THE MYSTERY OF HUMAN PROCREATION.
11. In his chosen area of specialisation, being the medical sciences, and in particular the branch of physiology dealing with the entire gamut of reproductive health, he was archetypical maestro of global standing. From Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where he started his teaching career and latter to Port-Harcourt, his Midas touch on issues connected with preconception, management, and wellbeing of pregnancy and childbirth were incomparable to none and only appertain to a level that could only be compared to divinity.
12. Indeed, Nimi’s life work, more than most others, continues to attract renewed appreciation to the area of human knowledge and scholarship surrounding the mystery of procreation and its management. Having become initiated into the deeply dense world of managing how life is brought to being, both from the point of view of the mother and the estimated one hundred and forty million infants that are birthed every day into this world, he carved out a niche that makes his ilk worth daily celebration by all. In his own case as a professor, he was at the highest rank in tutoring countless generations of his kind in being available to care for our womenfolk and thereby giving us all the opportunity of being part of the human community.
13. Today, his products, both in general medical practice and gynaecology, are themselves professors who have churned out a third generation of professors. This is not only in Nigeria but all around the world. Many of his products are today Academic Deans, Heads of Medical Department, Chief Medical Directors, Medical Consultants and Provosts of Medical Schools, and not to mention the daily hands in our various hospitals.
ADMINISTRATOR AND HONEST BROKER
14. Yet, beyond these labels of professional medical finesse, Nimi was known as a humanist who cared for the good of all around him. All those who came along his way will attest to the fact that he derived the greatest pleasure in bringing comfort and dignified humour wherever he found himself. He was highly organised, and in a timeless manner related to every individual name by name.
15. No wonder he was found fit and proper to hold almost every foreseeable position in academia, from Head of Department to Dean and Provost of Medical College and twice as Acting Vice Chancellor. His days as Vice Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt, 2000-2005, are remembered by all as the golden era of that institution, which goes with the appellation “Unique UNIPORT”. He took that institution not only to greater heights, but to global reckoning in scholarship and even sports.
16. Amongst his peers around the university system in Nigeria, he was severally coerced to serve as Chairman, Committee of Vice Chancellors and later, Chairman, Association of Nigerian Universities.
17. Closely related to his profession, the Federal Government, at various times appointed him to Chair the Governing Board of the University of Benin Teaching Hospital; Chairman, Governing Board of the apex National Hospital, Abuja. He had also served on the Federal Government’s ‘Visitation Panel’ to several universities. Ultimately, he got called to serve as Pro-Chancellor to various universities mentioned earlier. He was particularly excited at his appointment as Pro-Chancellor of Bayelsa Medical University, as he hoped of pouring out his entire experience and mastery in breeding world-class medical personnel for Nigeria and the global scene for the twenty-first century. In just three years, he already achieved exponentially by ensuring the right standards and learning environment, and getting all the pertinent disciplines accredited by the NUC and the relevant professional bodies.
18. From day one, immediately after graduation as a fresh doctor, in July 1969 to June 1970, he joined the Nigerian Army as Field Doctor attached to the Third Marine Commando commanded by then Col Olusegun Obasanjo. He is recorded to have saved many lives from the two sides in the unfortunate conflict. Much later in life, the government both at the state and national levels found him useful as a problem solver outside the hospital and university environment. For this, he was appointed as Member of the 2005 Political Conference and in 2014, one of the four hundred and ninety-four delegates. At State level, he served tenured appointments as Chairman of Rivers State Independent Electoral Commission, Chairman, Rivers State Economic Advisory Committee and Member, Rivers State Elders Council amongst others. In other respects, he was a major problem solver in Rivers State, within his Kalabari Kingdom and his Ijaw ethnic nationality, Nigeria’s fourth largest group.
19. Even higher, the restless and intrepid Prof. Briggs carried out all these activities while also at the forefront of so many other national assignments, especially as it pertained to the tertiary education system. In particular, he was for many years at the leadership of the negotiations between the Federal Government and Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the various labour unions of the university system. His role in these delicate assignments was balanced, dispassionate, and focused on the long-time success and stability of the Nigerian academic environment. He was neither ASUU nor was he Federal Government, but was in between to ensure peace that was fair and sustainable. He was a dispassionate arbiter and peace maker.
20. Furthermore, he remained one of the most resourceful hands for such institutions like the Federal Ministry of Education, National Universities Commission, Tertiary Education Trust Fund, etc, to ensure the success of their various mandates. In 2021, his colleagues in the Committee of Pro-Chancellors appointed him unanimously as Chairman; thus making him Chairman of Chairmen and contemporary father of Nigeria’s tertiary education system up till his death.
THE BEATITUDES OF GODLY LIVING
21. From his days of infancy, Professor Nimi is accounted to have always exhibited unusual attributes of the finest virtues of human perfection. Although part of it could be contributed to his clerical family background. Especially was his extra strict and rectitude habituated mother, Lady Esther Telema Harry who equally stood her ground that he became what he turned out to be. So for him, it was a consistent lifestyle in pursuit of excellence, and perhaps, unwittingly pursuit of “ the beatitudes” laid out by the Lord Himself, in Matthew chapter 5 of the Holy Bible . In that well commonly recited scripture, what we may call a good man is expected to be pure in heart, state of soberness and contritely temper, being peacemaker, pursuit of righteousness and the likes.
22. Nimi did not need to parade his deep Christ-like living before anybody but was easily discernible at all times. His spirit of humility, simplicity, self-denial, and sacrificial outlook were archetypical. Added, he was exceptionally humane and always saw himself as a gladsome burden bearer for others. Finally, he maintained one-on-one relationships and often got into the kitchen of others by being a cheer leader at times of joy and pillar of comfort whenever the tide of life turned.
23. Nimi was punctual almost to an discomfiting state of obsession and was known as a man of great wisdom, tact, and sufficiently seasoned lips, especially when conveying dissenting views to higher authorities.
24. Any flipsides of life? Yes. In addition to his bustling and slavely routine, he continued to undertake research and published regularly, including eighteen books and over tons of academic publications. Similarly, he kept alive supervisory routine of tens of doctoral works. Undoubtedly, his multitasking obsession with getting things done left meagre time for rest, especially in the fourth quarter of mortal coil. A recent case in point being the enervation from peace-making in the 2022 labour unions and federal government standoff. Indeed, some colleagues from the ivory towers censure his acceptance to chair a ‘Renegotiation Committee’ when Abuja had habitually shown a penchant for defying previous agreements.
CONCLUSION OF THE MATTER
25. As it is the way of men, Prof. Briggs has now gone to rest. However, all are little perturbed, for he has lived a great life. So we his life is being celebrated with intense amount of thanksgiving to the Almighty and strings of awards including Nigeria’s Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON). Indeed, like the Apostle Paul stated in his First Letter to the Corinthian Church, we can beat our chest and say, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”. So, rather than remorse and pain, today, all have gathered to celebrate life. Yes, life lived in full and in abundance.
26. We all join to hold up the hand of his now widowed life partner of fifty-one years, Dame Data Nimi Briggs, the children and wider family in choruses of adulation.
27. May the soul of this mighty man of valour and charm rest in perfect peace.
_Igali, a retired Ambassador and Federal Permanent Secretary, is Pro-Chancellor of Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA)_