￼By Ikeddy ISIGUZO
WHEN Col. Maharaj Mamudu and I met 36 years ago, he was a Captain and the man who made the meeting possible the Alaye of Ode Remo, Oba Funsho Adeolu, Sataloye II, better known by his stage name, Chief Eleyinmi, in the television series Village Headmaster, was still a Prince. Port Harcourt was the setting.
Maharaja, as he was popularly called, had arrived at the National Sports Commission, NSC, with the novel title of Executive Secretary. We were used to Director-General that served under a boarded Chairman. The Chairman then was Brigadier Kehinde Sho-Silva, an avuncular officer with a lingering smile that was almost unsoldierly.
There was no way anyone could miss Maharaj. He stood ramrod straight. His epaulettes seemed to have a shine to them. He never walked. In and out of uniform he marched, spreading his handsomeness everywhere as he surveyed his environment. A colleague Dr. Emeka Odikpo called him “a beautiful man”.
Some deemed him arrogant. His interaction with those close to him knocks that notion. He once explained to me that he was an infantry officer. He said something about the infantry being the heart (or soul) of the army. He was proud of the army, and his country.
Chief Eleyinmi on a late January night in 1984 told me that I needed to meet someone very important. He gave no details. We were in Port Harcourt for the Olympic trials of the athletics team. Eleyinmi was a board member of the athletics association, I, a reporter at The Guardian. He promised that I would be happy at the surprise.
As he drove his Peugeot 504 estate into Presidential Hotel, the surprise unraveled in a most uncanny manner. In stepped Maharaj and we had to share the remaining seat at the back. Once Eleyinmi made the introductions, we charged at each other. Maharaj accused me of not hearing his side of the story while writing about him and his NSC style. I retorted that he was unavailable and unwilling to speak to the press. He would not relent on his bid to play the victim. I asked for an interview on the spot; he said I was not serious.
Eleyinmi, a 110m hurdler in his days, continued playing the peace maker and was instrumental to enforcing my term of peace which was that Maharaj should grant me an interview. Our outing was over in the early hours. Back in the hotel I kept a vigil for the 7am appointment Maharaj gave. I made it to Presidential about 30 minutes earlier, hovered round his room until I knocked at 7am.
He was impressed and granted the interview. Days after, I found out that he had travelled to Los Angeles to inspect facilities the Nigerian team to the Olympic Games would use. The Guardian used the story, wondering why the man would not be on his seat and do the NSC job. Those were testy days for Nigerians. Maj-Gen Muhammadu Buhari had sacked the civilian government of President Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari only months ago.
It was Eleyinmi again who intervened. Maharaj did not like the story; apparently he wanted a quiet trip to Los Angeles. He was happy with the interview that introduced him to the world. We became friends. He and Chief Frank Okonta would visit my place at Shomolu. I was in my NYSC days. Chief Okonta departed in August 2019. Eleyinmi passed in 2008 as Alaye of Ode Remo.
Maharaj came to NSC with experience of decades of service in the army’s sports departments, his first outing being a Sports Officer at the army barrack in Onitsha in early 70s. Gideon Orkar of the failed 1990 coup was his course mate in Jaji.
He had a tasking year at the NSC that included preparing the Olympic team, and the head hunt for its Director-General. The NSC had not had a Director-General following the 1981 suspension of Isaac Akioye after the 1980 Olympics debacle. Maharaj’s successor was Mallam Babayo Shehu who died in March 2011.
The Olympic team won two medals – the first time Nigeria won more than one medal at the Games – Peter Konyegwachie’s silver from boxing, a bronze from the men’s 400m relay team of Innocent Egbunike, Sunday Uti, Moses Ugbisien, and Rotimi Peters.
Maharaj returned to the army as Secretary of CISM Nigeria (Conseil International du Sport Militaire), International Military Sports Council. He was chairman of the organising committee of Africa Junior Basketball Championship in Lagos in 1985, and was in-charge of accommodation for the 1995 CAF U-20 Championship in Lagos. He also played a role in the hosting of the 2003 All-Africa Games in Abuja.
Maharaj read Law in the course of his military career that saw him, among other postings, in the peace keeping operations in Iran in 1989. He maintained a low profile after his retirement, operating mostly from his native Auchi.
News of his passing on Wednesday 2 December 2020 came in bits. Sam John, who knew him well, drew my attention to a Facebook posting that suggested something was amiss. Bashiru, his aide confirmed the story. So did Maharaj’s younger brother Umoru.
He was not ill. He had gone to bed on Tuesday healthy. When he failed to meet a guest who was waiting for him for a morning appointment, they forced his room open – he was gone. Maharaj was buried the same day according to the rites of his religion.
It is another shocking passage that has left most friends and associates speechless. On 24 November 2020 he had “queried” me for not informing him of Bisi Lawrence’s death. He offered his condolences. I apologised the next day. That was the last time we were in touch.￼
“A bright star is gone. Those of us who interacted closely have lost a true friend in Maharaj,” Alhaji Ibrahim Galadima, who was in the National Sports Commission Board in 1984, wrote in a sports Whatsapp Group, Family United By Sports, FUBS. “May his gentle soul rest in peace,” Brig-Gen Emma Okaro, a former CISM Secretary, added in the same group. Ken Emechebe, national basketball federation Chairman in 1985, was too shocked to comment. “May the Almighty Allah grant him eternal rest,” Godwin Dudu-Orumen, Executive Chairman of the Edo State Sports Commission posted in another sports Whatsapp Group, Sportshaq Msterclass.
Maharaj appeared not to have recovered from the 1 March 2018 death of his son Lt-Col Abubakar Ewela Mamudu, one of the commanding officers of the Nigerian Army Strike Force Group, who a vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device killed in Sambisa Forest. The younger Mamudu, described as a fearless fighter, was months away from his promotion to Colonel.
Farewell Colonel Emeritus, as you would have me address you. You made your marks in the military and sports. May the Almighty grant you rest.