As phone call after phone call woke me up in the early hours of March 6, 2017, my gaze was glued to my travelling bag on the left side of the foot of my bed. The bag had been lying there, packed, since the evening of Thursday, March 2, 2017.
It was an unending relay of calls from friends, colleagues, political associates, even family members. Some were enquiries, some were confirmations, some were outright exclamations, yet some were lamentations.
My bosom friend, Adinoyi-Ojo Onukaba and I, had spoken early that Thursday, and discussed the possibility of going to Abeokuta to attend ceremonies commemorating the 80th birthday of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. We both served in the administration of the former helmsman and shared various levels of relationships with him.
Travelling together to places and events: formal, semi-formal, political, social, across the world had been a dominant feature of our relationship over the years. Indeed, Onukaba and I had both just returned from Makurdi, Benue State, Monday, February 27, 2017, after attending a string of events commemorating the ascension of a mutual friend of ours, higher up the rungs of the public service. And we rode in the same car. Tivlumun Nyitse my longstanding friend who is also a journalist, and Emmanuel Manger, the Benue State Commissioner for Works, were among our hosts.
Baba, as most of us Obasanjo protégés refer to the old man, would be delighted to see us, Onukaba and I reasoned. So we agreed to harmonise our travel plans so we could both go as our usual “tag team”, to the event.
Coming out of sleep Friday, March 3, however, I felt some pain on the sole of my left foot, as I stepped out of bed. I limped about for a while, hoping the pain will subside so I get some locomotional equilibrium. It didn’t seem to get better and I had to be seen by a pharmacist friend who prescribed PrimpexCortrimozole tablets and NCP cream, to manage the situation.
I quickly apprised Onukaba of my situation. I told him I will be utterly miserable and dysfunctional in the anticipated behemoth the Abeokuta function was most likely going to be. I told him that the way I was, I would not be able to wear smart, slip-on shoes and will be limping around in pain in that mass of human traffic, answering questions from friends. I imagine he was not happy we wouldn’t be in each other’s company on the trip. But he simply told me: “I understand. I will try to make it…”
By his itinerary which we discussed the Thursday before, he was to attend a meeting in Lokoja, Saturday, March 4, 2017 disengage therefrom, begin his road trip to Abeokuta, and pass the night on the way, so as to be in Abeokuta early enough on Sunday, March 5.
Thoughts of him kept tugging at my mind in the evening of Sunday, March 5. We hadn’t spoken in nearly two days which was most unusual. I was keen to know how his trip went, so I called his two lines repeatedly between 7:37 pm and 7:40 pm. The calls never connected. I called his wife, Memunat’s line as well. I excused it all to the perennially erratic telecommunications network which has come to be a part of our daily living.
Much as one call after another, in the early hours of Monday, March 6, repeatedly called my attention to facebook posts, tweets and headlines scrolling on the newsbar of several television stations, I could not bring myself to piece together the confounding puzzle.
I called Onukaba’s line, for some reason at 9:32 am that Monday, and somebody took the call. It dropped after 11 seconds. I remained unyielding and called again at 9:33 am, virtually barging through, this time around. I introduced myself and wanted to know who was at the other end. He introduced himself. He was a familiar person, a kinsman of Onukaba. He then narrated the tragic incident in a five-minute conversation which seemed like eternity.
We met in December 1998 on the Publicity Team of the Obasanjo Campaign Organisation, immediately he returned from his decade-long stint in the United States and the United Nations system. We hit it off since that first meeting and we remained what soccer aficionados will refer to as “five and six”, in reference to the on-field inseparability of the central defence pair of a football squad.
Onukaba joined a team of some of the brightest and finest minds in the Nigerian media, who were working on the Obasanjo Project. Very ably led by the highly cerebral, experienced and urbane Chief Onyema Ugochukwu, the team included Chris Mammah, Farouk Omar Ibrahim, Segun Ayobolu, the late Femi Olatunde, Emeka Nwosu, Louis Okoroma and I.
From that list of media professionals who drove and shaped public discourse on the Obasanjo agenda, Mammah and Onukaba were the very first to be appointed into the new administration. Vice President Atiku Abubakar who had a subsisting relationship with both men, which pre-dated the Obasanjo Presidential Project, wasted no time in naming Mammah and Onukaba his aides on Special Duties and Media, respectively.
Onukaba’s first stint as presidential aide was very brief. He was soon appointed Managing Director of the Daily Times of Nigeria PLC, about August 1999. He thus became the third doctorate degree holder to head the media conglomerate, after Dr. Patrick Dele Cole and Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi.
Despite the occupationally-inspired geographical separation, we remained best of friends. October 19, 2002, Onukaba invited me to Benin City, amongst select friends, to take Rachael Akiomuado Ogirri, for a wife. It was a quiet ceremony, since Onukaba was just emerging from a not too successful union, consummated in 1999.
Onukaba returned to The Presidency June 2003, following his appointment by Vice President Atiku Abubakar, as Senior Special Assistant on Media, subsequent upon the inauguration of the Obasanjo-Atiku ticket for a second term. I was also re-appointed by President Obasanjo into the President’s Secretariat, to my old schedule, the Special Duties brief.
My family was his family, his folks were my people. Of course, he was my regular guest in Isanlu my hometown on several social engagements and get-aways from the hustle of politics in the capital.
At the height of the animosity between the former President and his deputy, which culminated in Onukaba’s forced resignation, it was a compassionate Atiku Abubakar who, knowing that Onukaba was bereaved, and was managing a grieving and expectant wife, offered a palliative. He arranged for Onukaba, an all-expenses paid, three-month break in the United States. Ebikere, his first daughter, was born within that period.
And as ever, I made out time to go and seek him out in Maryland. We regularly hung out with Sunday Dare who was heading the Hausa Service of the Voice of America (VOA) at the time, and several of our other friends.
Onukaba was as plain as a white sheet of paper. You would never find Onukaba introducing himself with his well earned “Dr.” title. He was that unassuming, that humble. He could not understand why, for instance, the rift between his bosses in The Presidency, which consumed his job, equally incinerated the opportunity he had to own a house in Abuja.
Under the monetisation programme of the Federal Government, he had the right of first refusal over the house he lived in as Presidential aide. He lost the accommodation in the deathly politicking of that milieu.
Onukaba lost his beloved wife, Rachael, on August 29, 2009, to cerebral malaria. She was just 32 and she left him with two precocious little children, Asuku, aged six at the time and Ebikere, four years old.
Onukaba trudged on without a wife and helpmate for six years. This was until he bowed to persistent pressures from family and friends to take a new wife. He consented and sometime mid-2015, I joined less than a dozen invited friends of his, to ask the hand of former Memunat Aliyu in marriage, in Kaduna. Like he explained, it had to be low-keyed, because it was his third marriage in 16 years, by no fault of his. The union was blessed with a beautiful baby girl, Onyeche, on December 25, 2015.
Onukaba wrote and produced several plays including:A Resting Place, Her Majesty’s Visit, Tower of Burden, Virginity Fee, The New God, Nine Lives andSoomalliya, between 1991 and 1995. They were produced at various times in theatres in the U.S. and Kenya, and have since been staged and published in Nigeria. In 2010, his play, The Killing Swamp, (2009), an imaginative dramatisation of the final hours of Ken Saro Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and environmental rights activist who was hanged on November 10, 1995, made the list of finalists for the 2010 NLNG Nigerian Literature Prize.
Onukaba published the very first and perhaps most authoritative biography on Nigeria’s former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, in 1997. Titled: Olusegun Obasanjo: In the Eyes of Time, it was released by Pine Hill Press Inc, New York. He followed up in 2006 with a biography of his former boss and benefactor, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, titled: Atiku: The Story of Atiku Abubakar.
He equally published The Mbuti: A Profile of a Group of Hunter-Gatherers in the Ituri Rain Forest of Congo. More recently, he authored a biography of his late wife, Rachael, which he called Remembering Rachael (2012).
Take a deserved rest from the stomp and shove on this side, beloved brother.