If you never met Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, who died last Sunday, you missed an exceptional human being. Anyone who knew him would attest to this.
Yes, I know that when some someone dies, we tend to speak well of them. In every culture, unless someone has really been a scoundrel, good upbringing encourages us to say good things when they pass.
Well, Onukaba is one of the few about whom you need no effort to say something sweet because there was nothing “bitter” about him. You do not remember him without remembering just how genuine he was.
I met ‘Kaba in 1983, when we served on the foundation staff of a newspaper in Lagos called The Guardian. He always said that he landed at The Guardian by accident; upon graduation from the university, he’d had no idea what he would do with himself. Nonetheless, in a few years he did excellently well, reaching the highest levels of The Guardian on Sunday, and inexplicably becoming a friend of one Olusegun Obasanjo.
That relationship had begun when Onukaba did an adverse story about the General and continued when he forayed into government in 1999 at the invitation of the new President Obasanjo. It sadly ended on Sunday after he attended an event hosted by the former president.
But this is not his biography. I provide this background only to support what those who knew him have said in the past week: Onukaba was an extremely decent and special person.
It was because of his exemplary character that you will hear even casual acquaintances describe him not just as a friend, but as a brother. Everyone will tell you of his simplicity of person, his humility of spirit, his sensitivity to injustice.
He was also a man of exact standards, which is why he excelled at so many things. But he will always be remembered by friends and admirers for his presence as a person. He had the unique ability to infuse a room with tranquility and warmth, treating people high and low with the same disarming respect.
On Monday, as news of his passing spread, I spoke to some old friends on the phone who could only communicate in syllables, any verbal coherence drowned in tears.
It was impossible to answer all the questions. Indeed, it was impossible to answer any of the questions. It is one thing for a man in the prime of his life to die of illness, but another to be killed in an avoidable road crash or in an attack by armed robbers as so many of ours continue to be.
Just three months ago, I had the privilege of touring Indonesia and Singapore, an event I have been too ashamed to mention in this column. But to visit places where human life matters, where talent and character is encouraged and honoured—and where public resources are dedicated to the public end, and development means moving society forward rather than worshipping the massive egos and insatiable stomachs of depraved rulers—is to understand why Onukaba should not have died.
Let us be clear what the passage of this extraordinary man in his prime means: every trip on a Nigerian highway is a gamble, and that is why the world avoids us. You can be had as much in the daytime as at night: by roads that were never built to meaningful security standards; by a bloated governor who is angry you did not stop for his convoy; by armed robbers; by a hungry policeman, by a cattle herdsman.
The truth—as daily reports testify—is that Nigerians are being had by all of them. I write about Onukaba only because I know him; many are dying and have died and will die whom I do not know. I am sure you have lost someone. And the leaders and former leaders in whose hands are, and have been, the responsibility and the responsibility to provide and protect tell us they have done extremely well because Nigeria has not fallen apart.
Perhaps Nigeria hasn’t fallen apart, but that does not mean it is not in pieces. We have pieces of us wandering in every country in the world fleeing our meaninglessness. There are pieces lost within Nigeria, denied place and grace. There are pieces in the Sahara or in the Mediterranean trying to reach somewhere, anywhere.
And we have many being routinely and needlessly laid six feet below, in their prime. That now includes my brother, Onukaba. Our nation has become a carnivorous beast which perpetuates itself—and our darkness—by feeding on its young, its most vulnerable and its most productive.
Hopefully, the tragic death of Onukaba and people like him will also remind Nigerians of this simple fact: we know how the disrepair of Nigeria came about. The time has come to stop blaming the animals responsible for it and take responsibility for the work of repair through vigorous political engagement and education, and summoning the courage to distinguish the road to heaven from the road to hell. That a governor is of your stock does not mean he is honest; nor does it mean your child will not die on a bad road he authored.
Yes, you can become “rich” in Nigeria, especially if you choose to adopt the sordid ways for which we are known. But as Lily Tomlin once observed, “The trouble with being in the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat.” There can never be such a thing as a “successful” Nigerian if he cannot guarantee he will return alive from a trip to his village, or to the other end of the city, or to Abuja from Otta.
There can be no such thing as a “successful” Nigerian if he is afraid to send his child to school; or as long as a sitting president—or the wife of a sitting president—scorns the best medical facility in the country for treatment abroad. There can be no such thing as a “successful” Nigerian as long as we prefer relatives and weaklings for high office and celebrate thieves and thugs.
That is because that is how we created this despicable abattoir of persons and talent and opportunities which minimizes us in so many ways.
But Onukaba, may his wonderful soul rest in peace, should not die in vain and abandon his young family to be laughed at. That is why I have collaborated in establishing a Trust Fund, at FBN Quest, to ensure that his three young children receive a good education. That work will be concluded this week.
Dust up your address book. Let us celebrate the man by standing up for him.