Tuesday, November 13, 2018 12:19 pm
By Richard Elesho
I cannot remember precisely the time I first heard the name, Awoniyi. Most children in Okunland of the late 70s through the 90s would have eavesdropped on that name randomly in political discussions among adults. Indeed, like other children in the neighborhood of then Oyi Local Government area of the old Kwara State, I became familiar with the letters of that word from childhood. With time, the name carried the familiar acronymic initials, S. B. In our largely indigent environment, our infantile minds conceived of Awoniyi as a most prosperous personage.
But, my first real meeting with the elder statesman, Chief Sunday Bolorunduro Awoniyi, late Aro of Mopa, did not come until many decades after the infantile fancies. It was far from being fortuitous. It was a product of an inevitable appointment, carrying the threat of imminent rebuke. Here is a quick recap. Sometime in 2,000, at the turn of the new millennium, I had anchored a story with Awoniyi as an intro in TheNews Magazine, as a budding reporter. A scene of a failed banquet appointment between then President Olusegun Obasanjo and some chieftains of the then ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP, including Awoniyi, was used to demonstrate crisis within the behemoth political body.
The old man found the story distasteful and did not hesitate to ventilate his opinion. This was customary of him. On enquiry, he gained intelligence that the author of the offending article was a kinsman from Okun land. His anger subsided and pronto he offered the young reporter an opportunity to meet his acquaintance. Of course, I declined.
Not long after, another opportunity for me to meet the old man came on the horizon. That was in 2002. Kola Ologbondiyan, a fellow journalist from Okunland, who was then reporting for ThisDay Newspaper, also in Lagos was the facilitator. Baba was to mark his 70th birthday and had chosen Mopa his hometown, as venue to entertain guests. Kola offered me free ride for the occasion. Again, not sure of how the celebrant would receive an arrant reporter, at his birthday bash, I avoided the journey and ceremony altogether. A time came when I could run no further.
Later that year, around October 2002, management of TheNews decided at an editorial meeting to haunt Awoniyi for a state of the nation interview. The lot fell on me to handle the assignment. I reverted to Ologbondiyan for Baba’s number and other contact details. He graciously granted me the needed information. I then put a call through to the line. A man picked. After exchanging pleasantries, I introduced myself as a journalist seeking an interview with the elder statesman. The man at the other end told me Baba was not in, and that I could repeat the call later in the evening. He took down my name, medium and promised to deliver my request.
I was about to end the call. But then, a new voice sauntered at the other end introducing himself as Awoniyi. He listened patiently to my introduction and request for interview. Then he asked of my name again. I told him. He asked of my state. I told him Kogi. He wanted to know which part and the particular Local Government Area. I told him Kogi West and Mopamuro L.G. “Oh Okay, I see” he responded.
He further requested to know where I was brought up and if I could speak any Okun dialect. I confirmed I could speak Iyagba fluently. To be double sure, he greeted me in Iyagba and I responded. Then, calmly he snapped, ‘Elesho, o mo goo.’ (Elesho, you are foolish). He added in our local dialect, why are you so foolish, that you were speaking English to me, instead of Iyagba. I apologized and we had a few more conversation about home. He encouraged me to visit home more often. Back to my interview request, he deliberately gave me a three months appointment for December 26th, in his country home in Mopa.
The D-Day came and I was at the gate of Boja Industries, a company owned by him and where the elder statesman had his residence. I arrived the factory about the time Baba was traveling to Oranre for a social engagement. One of the two guards at the gate declined me entry, explaining the old man was set for a journey. However, the second guard took my name, hopped on a bicycle and rode speedily to the house about half kilometer away. In a jiffy he came back and ushered me in.
I met Baba in front of the house surrounded by a coterie of elderly women who were obviously paying Christmas homage to a worthy leader. I offered my greetings. In response, he took my hand, sized me up like someone he had known all his life and warmly said, ‘Elesho, is this you? Welcome son.’ He introduced me to the women as a newsman from Lagos and politely dismissed them. He was impressed that I kept the appointment and did not hide it. Next, he delayed his journey, led me into his private room where we had a revealing interactive session. Baba was calm, eloquent and laid out his responses lucidly. He completely down played the issue of our earlier frosty relationship and in no time, I gained back confidence I was in privileged company.
From that first encounter, Baba showed the stuff of diplomacy that distinguished him in all his dealings. He was affable and ever made you feel wanted. On my return to Lagos, the elderly man was the first to call to confirm my safe arrival. Henceforth he related with me like a son. He was never tired to pick my calls. In fact, whenever he missed any, he was sure to call back as soon as possible. Metaphorically speaking, even though he could be likened to the Biblical descendants of Anak, the Giants that scared the Israelites from entering the promised land and I to a grasshopper, Baba never for once looked down on me and my opinions. Even when my questions and contributions looked foolish, he was patient and without ego provided a superior argument. He was willing, in fact eager to put his vast experience at the disposal of others.
In early 2004, when I was planning for my wedding, I called Baba to inform him. He was excited and obviously not willing to burn my call credit, promised to call back. He did. He took time to know details of the program and the bride. He wanted to know where and how I met the woman and how long we had been in courtship. Jokingly, he asked me why I was going to far away Delta to pick a wife in spite of the so many beautiful ladies that adorn Okun land. I was ambling for an answer when he bailed me out. ‘Don’t mind me Elesho. Love is where you find it and not restricted to Okun land.” He promised to attend the program.
About a week to the wedding however, Baba called. He conveyed his inability to attend and expressed his regrets. He also asked me to see his son, Abayomi in Lagos to collect a modest contribution to defray the expenses. I was very grateful and did not hide my feelings. Then Baba halted me with a word of advise. “As you go into marriage, you must strife to establish your home on laughter. You may not have money. There may even be no food to eat sometimes. There may be several other challenges. But, don’t let laughter be scarce in your home. Laugh away your problems and let your wife be your friend always. Remember to make laughter available in your home at all times.” With that ageless wisdom Baba wished me well in my marital journey.
Nearly 15 years down the line, and those words still ring true in my home as they did from its foundation. Baba was accessible and kept in touch always. He had my family number. Even when destiny directed my path to Kogi to work as media aid to former Governor Ibrahim Idris, a year after my wedding, Baba followed my career. Regularly he would call me and rarely my home line for routine checks.
When on the 18th of November, 2007, I heard about his involvement in an accident on Abuja-Kaduna road, I was worried. Just five days before, Baba had called to ask after my well being and delved into some political discussions. He expressed concerns that the local zoning arrangement of elective offices which the elders managed to institute in Okun land may not endure the test of time because of the attitude of younger politicians. He said such attitude was not only selfish, but also an agenda for chaos. He wished that current actors will see the wisdom in zoning. He spoke about national issues and we both expressed the hope of ‘seing soon’.
That was not to be. When his car flipped over on his way to Kaduna, he was rushed to the National hospital Abuja where doctors labored hard to safe his life. He was then flown abroad for further medical attention. He did not make it back home. On 28 November, he breathed his last. How time flies! It’s already more than a decade, and Baba now belongs to the ages. He was a good man. But, he still lives in our hearts. Adieu, Sadauna keremi, late Aro of Mopa, the great Sunday Bolorunduro Ipineteyan Awoniyi.