Mathematician, Chike Obi, frequented Shrine, danced to Fela’s music–Madunagu

Mathematician, Chike Obi, frequented Shrine, danced to Fela’s music–Madunagu

Sunday, July 10, 2016 11:21 am



Chike Obi

Chike Obi

Dr. Edwin Madunagu, one of the few Marxists still standing, has just turned 70. One of those who influenced his life–apart from Karl Marx, Vladmir Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro or Che Guevara–was his teacher, the late Nigerian legendary mathematician, Professor Chike Obi.

Madunagu revealed that Chike Obi was not only about Algebra or Trigonometry! He enjoyed frequenting Fela’s shrine and danced to his music or “yabis”!

Below is the revelation by Madunagu in his article, entitled:

For Professor Chike Obi

By Edwin Madunagu

The purpose of this short tribute to Professor Chike Obi, who died in his hometown, Onitsha, on Thursday, March 13, 2008, at the age of 87 is to fill some gaps in the mountain of tributes I have so far read. I am doing this from my personal knowledge of him as my teacher (1972-1975) and my study of his politics and scientific works. The trajectory of his life and work can be found in many publications, including the tributes that have poured in since he departed from us. I provide only a sketch here.

Born on April 7, 1921, he obtained a B.Sc. degree in Mathematics as an external candidate. He also started the M.Sc. degree as an external candidate before moving to the University of Cambridge where he obtained the Ph.D degree in 1950, the first Nigerian to attain that height in Mathematics. He returned to Nigeria. From that year to 1966, when the Nigerian crisis erupted, he was engaged in academics and politics. He was in Biafra during the Civil War (1967-1970). After the war, he moved to the University of Lagos. He retired in 1985 as Professor Emeritus. He then moved to his hometown, Onitsha. He continued his research in Mathematics and Mathematical Sciences until the end.

I read somewhere that in Mathematics you cannot make a breakthrough, that is, solve an existing problem or make a new discovery, after the age of 35. After that age, you can only write books from your experience. But Chike Obi made a breakthrough at the age of 78 by providing a “simple proof”, 10 pages long, to what is popularly known as Fermat’s Last Theorem. The theorem is called Fermat’s last theorem, not because it was the “last” theorem the 17th century French mathematician, Pierede Fermat (1601-1665), formulated, but because it was the only one of his many theorems whose proof remained elusive. However, he indicated, in his notes, that the proof existed and that he had worked it out.

Edwin Madunagu

Edwin Madunagu

Simply put, Fermat’s last theorem is the impossibility of generalising the Pythagoras theorem which every junior Secondary School student is expected to know. More explicitly, the theorem says that if you change the number 2 which appears in the Pythagoras Theorem to n, where n is greater than 2, then there is no whole-number solution. Not that you cannot find the solution, but that no solution exists. That is the theorem Chike Obi, in retirement, solved in 1999, not using computers and modern techniques, but using the methods and techniques available to Fermat. So, Chike Obi’s solution is superior to other solutions, or claimed solutions.

I read somewhere that some mathematicians have said that Chike Obi’s solution contains some flaws found in some false solutions. Hence, his solution is no solution! I laughed as I remembered an episode in the career of Albert Einstein of the “relativity” fame. He had just relocated to the United States of America from Nazi Germany. There he propounded a theory which he regarded as minor. A conference of eminent theoretical physicists decided that Einstein’s new theory was false. >From the conference hall reporters rushed to break the bombshell to Einstein. The man’s laughter embarrassed the reporters. After this laughter, for which he apologised, he told the reporters that to prove a scientific theory wrong required not a conference, but just one person. Let one person come forth with a refutation. Theoretical physics is not electoral politics which is decided by numbers! We may rest the matter there.

Through Chike Obi I saw the beauty of mathematics and the elegance of its language. Incidentally I discovered the power and beauty of Marxism almost at the same time: the first half of the 1970s. Chike Obi was particularly challenged by Fermat’s Last Theorem (the non-existence of solutions to a deceptively innocent-looking equation) because my teacher’s main area of research in mathematics was the existence of some classes of solutions to some classes of non-linear differential equations of the second order. You need to see how he “played around” with complicated equations, showing the existence or non-existence of solutions and the qualitative properties (such as periodicity, stability, and boundedness) of these solutions where they exist. Why could he not establish the insolvability of a simple-looking equation mischievously thrown at the world by a secretive French mathematical genius? I am happy Chike Obi did it.

I said I would fill some gaps in the tributes I have so far read. The first gap is in his political career. Most of the time Chike Obi was either with the police, or in prison, or in court. The offence was either sedition, incitement or defamation. But one particular arrest that has not been mentioned – to the best of my knowledge – took place in 1962. Chike Obi was one of the people arrested and detained with Chief Obafemi Awolowo on the charge of treasonable felony. He was later released for “want of evidence”. I regret that I could not ask Chike Obi whether, indeed, an attempt was made to overthrow the Federal Government of Nigeria in 1962 and if he was, despite his release, part of the plot.

I am still asking that question because my attitude to those accused of treasonable felony and jailed was not, and is still not, condemnatory. I had asked a similar question regarding Wole Soyinka’s alleged armed seizure of a radio station at Ibadan. I obtained no satisfactory answer until the man himself answered the question in his recently published autobiography, Go forth at dawn. The second gap I want to fill in the tributes so far paid to Chike Obi is in his experience in Biafra during the Civil War. In addition to several things he was doing, Chike Obi was a Biafran combatant, a militia leader. At a point he was detained by the Biafran authorities. He remained in detention till the end of the war.

It is well known that many myths were built around Chike Obi’s intellect and his mathematical ability. Beyond these, however, were jokes about his social life. Some of these jokes (mainly by students) are true, some are exaggerated, and others simply untrue – just our speculations about how he would have reacted to certain situations. One of the true stories is this: It was one night in June 1973. The M.Sc. written examination in Differential Equations was to take place the following morning at the University of Lagos. Chike Obi was the teacher and examiner. I was one of his two students in that course.

I felt that night that I had read enough and deserved to “wind down”. So, together with a group of friends, I left the hostel for a lower-middle-class bar at Yaba. We sat, not in the main drinking hall, but in the open space behind the building and overlooking the lobby. The beer had been served; my glass had even been filled, but I had not taken even a sip. I was still adjusting my seat. Then I heard the shout “Fatherland!” I looked and saw Chike Obi being greeted by admirers in the lobby. Don’t ask me what happened next. All I can say is that I vanished. But not before saying “goodnight” to my bewildered companions.

My colleague in that course was less than charitable when I told him of my experience. He laughed and laughed and finally reconstructed that experience into one of the jokes about Chike Obi. Ironically, not long after this, my colleague had his own experience. He had gone one night to a popular nightclub, again in Yaba. Not long after settling down, the live band started playing Fela’s “Open and Close”. My friend took to the floor. Just then he noticed, not too far from him, a bespectacled tall man wearing “Ankara jumper” and really digging “Open and Close” in the manner prescribed by Fela himself. My friend vanished, not just from the dance floor, but from the nightclub – without saying “goodnight” to his companions! Another joke about Chike Obi was born.

It was after this second incident that I carefully studied Chike Obi’s movement outside his home. He usually arrived at the office early in the morning. Between that time and when other offices opened, he solved his Differential Equations. I also established that whenever he returned to the office in the evening he usually moved from there to town to “wind down”. And I knew his usual joints. So, whenever I was going out in the evening, I had to go to the department and check if his K70 Volkswagen car was parked at the usual place. If it was there, I would either cancel the outing or move farther afield.

But Chike Obi was not mean; in fact, he was the opposite. He was intellectually hard and disciplined. But no other teacher of mine was as tolerant of me as Chike Obi. For I was not a particularly “obedient” student. I don’t think he knew what a secret was. If you told him something and requested that he should tell no one else, he would wonder why you had told him. At the earliest opportunity he would pass on the message. This attribute of his worked to my advantage when I was in detention.

This article by Dr. Edwin Madunagu was published on Thursday, March 27, 2008. Credit:

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