Remembering the Great Mathematician Late Prof. Chike Obi.

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Prof. Chike Obi, the first Nigerian to obtain a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) Degree in Mathematics, passed on. He was aged 87. While he lived, he acquired international renown as a consummate mathematician, a maverick politician, an international scholar and a passionate patriot. He, along with Adegoke Olubunmo, the late first Professor of Mathematics and Professor James Ezeilo simplified and revolutionised Mathematics research in Nigeria. In particular, Chike Obi became a role model and an inspirational figure for younger persons who developed interest in the study of Mathematics.

Prof. Chike Obi was born in Zaria (now in Kaduna State) on Thursday, April 7, 1921. He attended St. Patrick’s Primary School, Zaria (1933) Christ the King College, Onitsha (1935-39); Yaba Higher College, Lagos (1940-42); University of London, as an external student (1941-46); University College, London (1947); Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, England (1947-50), and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA (1950). His consuming interest in Mathematics, a subject that many a student considered difficult was simply legendary. He exhibited extraordinary versatility in all areas of Mathematics, including pure and applied Mathematics, although his area of special focus was Non-Linear Differential Equation of the Second Order.

It was in this seemingly unnavigable labyrinth of Mathematics that Chike Obi, who became a world-acclaimed mathematical virtuoso, gave scientific proof to a 361-year old mathematical puzzle known then as Fermat’s Last Theorem, named after the 17th century French mathematician, Pierre de Fermat: This theorem stated that “xn + yn = zn; where x, y, z and n are positive integers and has no solution if n is greater than two”. For over three centuries, Western mathematicians strained at this theorem until 1994, when they solved it, with the aid of modern technological gadgets, such as the computer.

Soon thereafter, however, Chike Obi, relying only on his fertile brain, presented in 1998 an elementary proof of the arcane Fermat’s Theorem which had been described as one of the most famous problems in Numbers Theory. A Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Science, the late Chike Obi won laurels, including the Ecklund Prize from the International Centre for Theoretical Physics for original works in Differential Equations and for pioneering works in Mathematics in Africa.

He started his career as a Lecturer/Senior Lecturer, University of Ibadan, 1959-62. He became an Associate Professor, University of Lagos (UNILAG) in 1970, and a full Professor (of Mathematics) of the same university, a year later. From 1971-73, he was Dean of the School of Mathematics and Physical Sciences of UNILAG, and Chairman, Department of Mathematics, UNILAG, from 1971-77. From 1981-82, he was acting Dean, Faculty of Science of the University, and in 1985, he became Emeritus Professor of the University.

In 1986, this illustrious polymath won the University of Lagos Silver Jubilee Anniversary Gold Medal Award. At various times, he was visiting Professor to the Universities of Jos, Rhode Island and the Mathematics Institute of the Chinese Academy of Science. The late Prof. Chike Obi was a man of many parts. His incursion into the arena of politics was no less significant than his accomplishments as a teacher of Mathematics. In the days when it was almost a crime for an Easterner to belong to another political party other than the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), the late Chike Obi veered away from “custom” to found the defunct Dynamic Party, which simultaneously won seats both in the Federal House of Representatives and in the Eastern House of Assembly (1960). When, in 1961, he won election to the Eastern House of Assembly, he refused to vacate his seat in the Federal Legislature, whereupon the Speaker of the House ordered that he be physically carried out of the House. This order was obeyed, and he proceeded to the Eastern House of Assembly, where he served till 1966.

A maverick politician, the late Prof. Chike Obi was a man of great conviction. He was passionate about the politics of Nigeria, and the country’s development process. He was an adherent of Kemalism, an ideology based on the teachings and beliefs of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk (1880-1938), the putative father of modern Turkey. Ataturk sought to create a secular nation-state based on the principles of Republican democracy, social revolution, rule of law, and nationalism. Prof. Chike Obi shunned tribal politics and kept religious fanaticism at an arm’s length.

He, however, was such a “fanatical” believer in one Nigeria that he christened his two sons Balogun Chike Obi and Mustapha Chike Obi, thereby building nominal bridges to link the West, the North and the East. Father also to many great mathematicians, the late Prof. Chike Obi established the Nnana Institute for Scientific Studies, located in Onitsha, Anambra State, to encourage research efforts, among other things, into mathematical theorems and “to bring about a scientific technological revolution in Nigeria”.

In appreciation of his laudable services to humankind, particularly in the realms of Mathematics, for which he became world famous, and politics, in which his positive non-conformism was generally acknowledged, the late Prof. Chike Obi was honoured with garlands of national and international awards, including, Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON), and the Sigvard Ecklund Prize of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (1986). In Onitsha, his native community, he was a highly regarded member of the Agbalanze society He was also a distinguished member of the Mathematical Association of Nigeria, and author of Our Struggle, sub-titled “A Political Analysis of the Problems of Peoples Struggling for True Freedom” Part I (1986) and Our Struggle, Part II (1962).

Additionally, he had numerous publications on Non-Linear Differential Equations in both national and international journals to his credit. Survived by a widow, Melinda, herself a Mathematician and midwife of note, and four children, the late Prof. Chike Obi was a martinet, a stern disciplinarian, and an optimist who insisted that all equations must be equal. 

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