Dele Momodu: Rest in peace, my dear friend Onukaba

by Dele Momodu

Fellow Nigerians, as for me and my house, no news could be bigger and sadder than the gory death of my dear friend and brother, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo. This has been a week of major events but none touched me as mightily as that of Onukaba, one of Nigeria’s finest journalists.

Where and how do I begin to tell you about Onukaba?

I first encountered him on the pages of one of Nigeria’s greatest newspapers of all time, The Guardian. His name then was Shuaibu Ojo but he later changed to Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo. At the time, I read everything he wrote except those that escaped my attention. I was his devotee, to put it mildly. He was a pen god and many like me worshipped his writing prowess. He wrote with so much authority and maturity that made me assume he was an old man until I met him. There were many distinguished writers and reporters at The Guardian – Stanley Macebuh, Patrick Dele-Cole, Chinweizu, Olatunji Dare, Odia Ofeimun, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Sonala Olumhense, Greg Obong-Oshotse, Edwin Madunagu, Tunji Lardner Jnr, Seyi Olu Awofeso, Andy Akporugo, Amma Ogan, Tunde Thompson, Nduka Irabor, Eluem Emeka Izeze, Ben Tomoloju, Mitchell Obi, and others – but Onukaba stood out in his own right as a reporter and writer. The Guardian was home for literary giants and Onukaba was clearly one of them even though he was relatively younger than most. Any self-respecting writer therefore wanted to appear on The Guardian’s effervescent pages. I was one of such dreamers but didn’t know how to go about it.

Onukaba was God-sent. Our paths crossed by pure chance. I was managing Motel Royal Limited, a holiday resort in Ile-Ife owned by The Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olubuse II. Onukaba loved culture and came on several occasions to do stories on the Ife palace and its festivals. Olojo was the biggest cultural event in the traditional calendar of a town reputed to be the cradle of civilisation and famous for its 401 deities. Onukaba was lodged as a guest of His Majesty at the hotel during one of such festivals at the time when I was managing the hotel. I recognised his famous name as soon as his registration was forwarded to my office. I sent word out that I would love to meet him as soon as he arrived.

Ours was a case of love at first sight. I found Onukaba to be my age mate. This was the first surprise. I was shocked to see that he was smaller if not shorter than his gangling pen. He must have wondered why I stared endlessly at him. He wouldn’t know or even imagine how much I respected his brains. As a budding writer, I craved his talents. We got talking and we realised we shared common interests, especially our love for the African Writers’ series. It was fashionable in those days to impress people with authors and books you’d read, not like these days when your bank statement is the easiest way to show off. Onukaba was stunned about my robust knowledge of African culture. I regaled him with tales of Ife idols. He was fascinated by my Bachelor’s degree in Yoruba from the then University of Ife as well as my plan to be the first graduate of Yoruba Studies ever to attempt a Master’s degree in Literature-in-English.

Onukaba encouraged me to write a piece on the popular Olojo Festival for the African Guardian magazine which was edited by Nduka Irabor. I co-authored the essay with Kwesi Sampson and Onukaba was our courier to Lagos. A few weeks later, the article was published by the magazine. It was the biggest thing to happen to me personally and I was on top of the world. I bought copies and showed to anyone who cared to listen to me. Being published in any of The Guardian titles was a big deal to everyone at the time, and I was no exception.
Onukaba encouraged me to write more. Through him and the inspiration of Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi, I started contributing as regularly as possible to the op-ed page. Dr Ogunbiyi was a lecturer from the Dramatic Arts Department at the University of Ife but later served his sabbatical at The Guardian and rose to become a Director at Rutam House, Lagos. Like Dr Ogunbiyi, Onukaba would later serve as Managing Director of the Nation’s foremost newspaper of those days, the Daily Times. I was paid N25 per article and always waited to publish four essays before travelling from Ife where I was now a post-graduate student to Lagos to receive the princely sum of N100. Trust me, it was a lot of money to an indigent student like me and it came in handy on several occasions. The Naira had great value in those days.

I remember my first article in The Guardian titled, ‘The Politics of Language’. It was a defence of Ngugi wa Thiong’o when he decided to stop writing in English language and chose his Kikuyu language and Odia Ofeimun was miffed about the decision. Of course, Ofeimun fired back thunderously at me to attack what he called my jejune thesis. This was how I got initiated into that exalted company of writers in Lagos. I kept writing for The Guardian and was also appearing in the Sunday Tribune at the introduction of my best friend Adedamola Aderemi, the Prince of Ile-Ife because of his conjugal ties to the Awolowo family. The Sunday Tribune had a fantastic Editor in Mr Folu Olamiti who did everything to encourage me. Onukaba followed my trajectory with keen interest. He rhapsodised about how beautifully I wrote.

Despite being able to establish myself as a writer, my real love was teaching. My ambition was to be a teacher, marry a teacher and live happily ever thereafter. But man proposes and God disposes. I searched and scratched everywhere for a teaching job but there was none anywhere. In frustration, I became exasperated. All my friends had jobs except me. And I was dying in silence, almost going off my rockers. I met Onukaba in Lagos and he said he could introduce me to a few Editors but could not really promise anything. He asked if I was ready to migrate to Lagos and my response was an instant yes.

Onukaba invited me to his office at Rutam House one afternoon and he took me round the powerful offices. He suggested that it might be easier to get a job from the African Guardian and he physically walked me to the office of Nduka Irabor, the Editor. My heart palpitated as we walked in. Onukaba was a confident speaker and his voice boomed as he introduced me to the big man. I was in awe of Nduka who had become larger than life since his sojourn in Buhari’s prison alongside his co-conspirator, Mr Tunde Thompson. Both men had been detained and jailed under a draconian decree in those dark days of dictatorship in Nigeria.

Onukaba left me to discuss with Nduka, my would-be boss, but the deal fell through and my destiny led me elsewhere. My test was to write a report on night life in Lagos, a topic I felt was too difficult for a JJC (Johnny Just Come) village boy just coming from Ile-Ife, and I simply absconded. I returned to Onukaba and told him I could not oblige with Nduka’s test and offered to go back to Ife. But Onukaba, in his usual indomitable spirit, said I couldn’t go yet, that we must try one more Editor. He personally led me to The African Concord magazine, owned by Chief Moshood Abiola. He told me he was friends with the Editor, Lewis Obi, and he was sure Lewis must have encountered my writings somehow because I had gained some recognition and popularity.

In all honesty, The Concord Press was not my idea of an ideal media organisation. My heart and soul had been substantially poisoned against its proprietor and Chairman, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola. The barrage of attacks against Abiola by his opponents was enough to stultify anybody’s enthusiasm in the man and his business. Onukaba taught me to keep an open mind and this would become very useful throughout my entire career. He believed a good journalist should give everyone his right to fair hearing. Onukaba’s level of maturity was uncommon. At any rate, I needed a job so badly. And according to an old adage “a one-legged man cannot say the man carrying him stinks…”

I followed Onukaba to The African Concord office near the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. Unknown to me that’s where my Destiny waited patiently. We did not meet Lewis Obi but met his deputy, Bayo Onanuga and his right-hand man, Babafemi Ojudu. They told us Lewis was out but I could wait for him. To my greatest surprise, when Lewis came in, he invited me into his office. I told him Onukaba brought me to see him. He was obviously fond of that great name and he gave me a listening ear. I did not mince words. A man cannot hide his body from the undertaker who would bury him, my dear mum had told me repeatedly. I told Lewis I needed a job, pronto.

Lewis looked up and scanned my face as if searching for a specific expression. I tried to keep a straight poker face. When he finally responded, I couldn’t believe my luck. “How much salary would you like to earn…”, he asked, almost rhetorically. I didn’t know what to say. How can you ask a poor needy boy such a question? Besides, I didn’t know what salaries journalists commanded and for me simply to join the ranks of the employed was the most important thing! I remained tongue-tied and speechless! Lagos, with its unusual ways, was as strange as London to me. To cut a long story short, Lewis employed me on the spot and I remained eternally grateful to Onukaba.
Onukaba would later travel to the US for studies and jobs. He earned himself a handsome PhD and we started calling him Doctor. We were proud of our friend. He later worked at the United Nations and I visited him and Sonala Olumhense once in New York. When Ovation International was berthing in the city of London in 1996, I invited both of them as Contributing Editors and they graciously accepted to support the ambitious project without hesitation. They generously made impeccable and intellectual contributions to the journal. It is impossible to repay their kindness fully but their names are indelibly etched in our common history.

Onukaba returned home to Nigeria and we met every now and then, particularly when I myself returned from self-exile. He was a great disciple of General Olusegun Obasanjo and was an authority on the life history of one of Africa’s living legends. Onukaba left everything to launch a global campaign for the release of Obasanjo when he was incarcerated by General Sani Abacha. Onukaba was forever loyal and dependable. He joined Obasanjo’s government naturally and was posted to the office of the Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, where he formed another permanent bond as usual. He authored authoritative biographies of both these Nigerian leaders, amongst other books that he wrote or co-authored. I could go on and on and on about Onukaba and his many parts but space would not permit me. In summary, he was a journalist, playwright, dramatist, author, envoy, administrator, politician and lecturer. Above all he was an admirable friend and great family man. Everything he undertook, he did with great passion, consummate ease, excellently, gracefully and effectively.

Onukaba died under very bizarre circumstances last Saturday as he returned from the celebration of Obasanjo’s 80thbirthday. It would have been unfathomable for Onukaba not to have attended any of the ceremonies lined up for a living legend he admired so much. His deep loyalty to people and causes would not have allowed such escape. Onukaba played the role that was expected of him but died on his way home.

This bitch of a life!

May his soul Rest in Peace…

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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