Urhobo Historical Society |

**For Professor Chike
Obi**

*By Edwin Madunagu*

Culled from:

Thursday, March 27, 2008

**
T**HE
purpose of this short tribute to Professor Chike Obi, who died in his
hometown,

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

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.

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

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

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

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 "

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.