Thursday, March 12, 2020 4:20 pm
By Babafemi Ojudu
It was a hot and sweltering afternoon in 1995. Reporters were returning in droves to the newsroom to file in their reports for the day. I edited AmNews then and was debriefing the news editor, Gbenga Olawuyi and Features Editor, Mr Gbemiga Ogunleye, on the reports available for the day. Suddenly they came. The men of the State Security Service stormed the office turning everywhere upside down.
And they came by this man with goatee unruffled and leisurely walking towards them. You know the man Odia Ofeimun walks as if he owns the world and not just the word. So surefooted and confident!
He was then the Chairman, Editorial Board of AM News, the publication which we started then as a morning counterpart of PM News , the afternoon paper which had grown very popular on the streets of Lagos for its immediacy and ‘ today news today’. PM News was a precursor to the present ‘news as it happens ‘of today’s social media.
AM News was established a moment after a number of dailies were proscribed by the Sani Abacha government and their staffers sent home. We took on many of the staffers of the publications. Big names and talents from The Punch, The Guardian and Vanguard came on board and joined the editorial board which Odia , as both the young and old called him, chaired.
That afternoon, the security men came looking for Seye Kehinde who had anchored a story: Maryam Abacha – The Unauthorized Story. Right at the corridor, just between the entrance to the newsroom and the exit to the reception, three security men accosted Odia; barking orders demanding to know who he was. I came in between them and said, “so you don’t know this man, an accomplished author and icon of our nation?”
One of them replied in anger, “who cares ?”
Just as they did not care who Odia is, so too he never cared who they were. He left them and went about his work as they took me away to jail in place of Seye Kehinde after they failed to identify him among the scores of staffers they lined up on the street to be identified one after the other by me.
On another night, we were at our then uncompleted head office on ACME road getting the next day’s edition produced when security men stormed the premises and found Odia sleeping on the couch. Odia , in the first place , had no reason being at that venue. It was not the board room neither was it the newsroom .It was a secret location for production. Our computers and printing press were located there. But because he always turned in his script very late, never a respecter of deadline and in the habit of always wanting to attain literary perfection, he had to join us on ACME.
He was tired, fagged out and deeply asleep on a couch in the small office used by the General Manager, Mr Idowu Obasa, that night when the goons came. While I fled into the printing press at the basement pretending to be servicing the machine, Odia was woken up with the butt of the gun. How and why they didn’t take him away that night still remains a mystery to me. I would have loved for him to be kept in detention for two to three weeks so that he will thereafter respect deadline and not write five pages when asked to do one.
Just as the security men never cared about Odia and his literary accomplishments, so did Odia never cared about deadline nor the the editor’s instruction on the number of words he was allowed to write.
He also does not care about things of this world: wife, own children , property, etc. Material things generally means nothing to him. The last car I saw him owned was a Volkswagen. Only God knows where it ended its service to him. When he used to put it to use, it was almost his home and library. It was a time when every young men and pretender to literary talent hopped in that car and traverse the length and breadth of Nigeria with him until there is no more money and they headed back to his people’s pad at Seriki Aro Street in Ikeja. It was a house of intellect, of incubating revolutionaries, of rebellion . A house of refuge.
The management of TheNEWS once suggested buying a car for Odia so that he could stop jumping from bus to bus in Lagos. Each time this came up, Odia will go into a lengthy and often annoying lecture about that not being his priority but a center for writers.
When he took residence in Oregun , the house became a place for us to make noise about Nigeria and abuse dictatorial military leaders. It was a house of books that incidentally do have a kitchen without anyone to cook. When you visit him in the forest of books, you also just have to find comfort with his books and his repertoire of stories, products of his many years sojourn at the libraries in London researching pre and post colonial Nigeria.
I don’t know if he still lives there now, but I knew he harbored the idea of one day buying the property if he is able to get the money. We all knew he could not because he never got involved in anything that could make him get it. He was spartan to the core.
Such is the man whose work I first encountered in my early 20s as third year student of Literature in Ife .
The best of Nigeria literary movement had gathered then at the Facilty of Arts amphitheater for a night of performance. Niyi Osundare, Harry Garuba, Funso Aiyejina, Bob Fox, Biodun Jeyifo, Oyin Ogunba, Toyin Falola, Tess Onwueme, Ropo Sekoni , Godini Darah, not sure now if Wole Soyinka was present; Mutambuka who was MC that evening and several others who came from far and near.
It was an experience I will never forget. For several years I carried around the tape of the performance of that night. The alliteration and tenor of Osundare’ “Jenje Kiti, Kiti Jeje” kept following me wherever I went. I related very well with his songs having drank from the same Ekiti rivers. It was my first experience of the coming together of a collective of creative geniuses. Odia performed “The Poet Lied” that night, and his sonorous voice with rasp edges I could still hear. He was then godlike to me. Odia , they say had worked with that god himself , Obafemi Awolowo.
I would later follow him in The Guardian and religiously dissected his raconteur and of course much later our path met as guerrilla journalists in The News, PM News , Tempo and AM News. He was our link with the statesman and businessman, Pa Alfred Rewane, who did quite a lot to keep our publications alive after Dr Ofonagoro and later Uche Chukwumerije as Information Ministers instructed government establishments not to buy our publications or do business with us.
Odia became a friend and brother to me and my colleagues. He was also a godfather in a true and decent sense of the word. He hosted Kunle Ajibade’s family in his Oregun home a couple of times when Abacha took him in for three and a half years. He sacrificed so much during this terrible time but demanded little or nothing in return. We teased and pulled his beard the way a toddler does his or her father when carried on his laps. He was our sounding board for crazy ideas and the one with the historic and institutional memory. He told us tales beyond what we demanded and could process.
We cannot thank him enough for what he meant to us just as we cannot stop asking: “ when will you marry and where is the Awo book? “
I can hear him say as he used to: “STUPID MAN! WHO CARES?”
Of course we do, unlike those goons of yesteryears . We care about Odia, we love him and appreciate his service to our nation and commitment to incorruptible journalism and pristine literary engagements. A literary giant, who worked for Chief Obafemi Awolowo, one of the greatest Nigerians that ever lived as private secretary, we cannot but wish him longer life and good health, and of course the finer things of life.
We know what Odia cared about, certainly not what most of us do. We know that he cares about excellence, about his trade – poetry , about intellectualism, about many of us his adopted children, about Nigeria , about Africa and about humanity.
To Odia at 70! Cheers.
-Senator Babafemi Ojudu is Special Adviser on Political Matters at The Presidency