by Chude Jideonwo
“Are you Levi Ajuonuma?” the question escaped, my voice lowered to its depths; my mind overpowered by awe.
It was 2000. I was, with my mother, at a prayer session in a Lagos church when I nudged her, pointing out the man who was one of the most famous TV presenters of the 90s. She asked me to walk up to him and confirm – and I did. I also had just written a novel and wanted the world to know about it.
Dr. Levi Ajuonuma had an amused look on his face as he confirmed his identity – it was a look that became a constant over four years of working closely with him.
He would be amused as he gave me ‘transport money’ (and he was generous: it was always a chunk) after a recording, amused as he denied his daughter the pleasure of riding his sports car because it would spoil her, amused – a twinkle in his eye – as he blasted then deputy governor Kofoworola Bucknor-Akerele with Bill O’Reilly-style relish live on television, amused as he caught sight of me outside of church and shouted “Chido!” just before the ride to the studio in any one of his assortment of cars; a broad smile on his face as he called out to his wife in his native-tongue whenever she came around. He always had a smile when he saw her; always.
I had the pleasure of getting close to this man because after he did me the favour of inviting me on The Sunday Show, he offered me a job – as a presenter of the youth segment. It was the first job I would have. It was quite possibly the one that laid the foundation for the rest of my career. It was, for me, a miracle.
He passed on the cursed day of the #DanaCrash. The news hit me in the pit of my stomach. For days, I told myself not to write this tribute until I had spoken to the family, that it wasn’t in good taste until his body was, at least, found. Every excuse to avoid this wrenching exercise came forward, until the realisation dawned – that it was denial. His daughter’s voice over the phone finally confirmed it: he’s gone.
But Dr. Levi deserved the denial. He deserved every shred of hope I could hang on to that he was alive, somewhere. Because he was a good man. Oh, he was a good man. At least, he was good to me.
It is impossible to forget that Sunday afternoon when he came straight to my 18th birthday. I had left him a note that “it would mean a lot to me sir”, and so he made it – honoured a request that meant the world to me at the time. He said a prayer, and he added colour: the guests wondered how this little boy had managed this big get. The fatherly validation from that action made me feel special for a long time.
I was blessed to know him –
to learn from his astute business sense, his flawless understanding of the power of the media, to learn from his common sense (never argue with a Nigerian policeman, he taught me), from his complete refusal to be anything but humble, his drive to be something more than the run-of-the-mill TV host; his ability to churn off new – and profitable – ideas and projects with the ease of a master (his shows included The Sunday Show, The Nation Today, and Open House Party).
This was an immensely talented, and accomplished, man. In addition to a Ph.D. – secured before he was 25 – and a career as a university lecturer soon after, he had talent; an ability to break down the most complex issue with a deceptive colloquial-ness that connected sharply with audiences both elite and mass. I will never forget the familiar way that bus drivers and conductors would talk about “Livi” when they saw me – like they knew him; like he was one of them. He could connect with state governors as easily as he would the NTA’s studio hands, or the woman who sold books to him in church, whose daughter was always so excited to serve him.
It was a gift.
Not surprisingly, it was not so easy to see or speak with him after he got into government. I spoke to him in January this year, but it wasn’t a regular occurrence, as explained to some of the people who called me to commiserate after his passing. But I paid attention to the work he was doing.
If I say nothing negative here about that work or about his person, it is not because this was a man without flaws. Far from it. It is rather because, at a time like this, there is no utility to remembering any of that.
At the end of day, both those close to and far away from Nigeria’s oil wealth are all victims of it. Including this good man, Levi Ajuonuma – a man whose large heart changed the course of my life. And for whom, surely, there has to be a heaven.