Sufuyan Ojeifo pays tribute to former Chairman of Arewa Consultative Forum, Chief Sunday Awoniyi, who died five years ago
“To die completely is to be forgotten. He who dies and is not forgotten lives forever.”Samuel Butler
I cherish my privileged relationship with the late Chief Sunday Bolorunduro Awoniyi, the Aro of Mopa and the Sardauna Keremi (little Sardauna), who died on November 28, 2007 in a London Hospital from injuries he sustained in an auto crash on Abuja-Kaduna road.
Our paths crossed in 1996 in the course of my journalism practice. I was with the Vanguard newspapers as Deputy Bureau Chief; and, later Bureau Chief in Abuja when we met. He was a director of the newspaper and I had to take copies of the newspaper to him every day.
I loved to do it because it afforded me the opportunity of daily engagements with him. He was profoundly intelligent. Like a father, he would tell me stories about one remarkable event or the other while he was in the public service; and on each occasion, I always drew huge lessons from such narratives.
He was devoutly God-fearing and man-caring. He was a man of integrity and stickler for proper conducts in and out of public office. He was a man of details whose pen was incontinent. He was a careful writer, a prose stylist. Our relationship was more than the kind that is wont to exist between politicians and reporters.
By his own admission, he was not really a politician, but a public administrator sucked into politics. This, perhaps, explained why he was meticulous throughout his political engagements and his later life assignment as Chairman of Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), the socio-cultural umbrella organisation of the North.
We both did not abuse the privileges of our relationship. Despite his prime position in the Vanguard newspaper, he did not notoriously appropriate the platform to project or defend his positions. He was always reluctant to grant interviews. I would occasionally mount pressure on him to offer perspectives on some national issues.
There were times when he would suggest to me that he would like to speak on some issues, which he would itemise; and, he would, in his quick witted manner, ensure that his responses to questions and follow-ups were tied up with the issues on his mind. He was fastidious when it had to do with publishing his interview and, therefore, he would always be pleased if you allowed him to go through the transcribed interview before going to press. He would cross the “ts”, dot the “is” and make lucid, all tedious sentences.
He was a simple man. He showed me fatherly affection. He was at home with my family. I remember when I travelled to Indonesia in 2000 to cover the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Conference, leaving my wife who was due to put to bed at home; he took it upon himself to visit her in the hospital while I was away. He was giving me updates on mother and child.
I miss a terrific motivator, who was always on hand to provide some forms of succour in times of distress. His interventions were great. Above all, I cherished his respect, in spite of the wide age gap. He never talked down on me. He spoke with me and not to me. He was always ready to receive me into his home even at odd hours.
At some point, he would ask for my opinions before granting interviews to the press. There was no doubt that he was fond of me: he loved my writings and he would say so. I was always writing to celebrate him on his birthday. There was a time I did a tribute, as usual, on him. He had called to appreciate my effort. “Oj”, he said, as he was wont to address me, “you have done what Napoleon could not do; you have surpassed yourself.”
He was good at touching base with me. He would call to let me know that he was travelling and when he would return, just like he did on his ill-fated journey to Kaduna. On getting to his destination, he would call to let me know how he was doing; and, by the way, the last journey to Kaduna shattered all that ritual.
One day, long before his demise, my phone rang and the old man spoke from the other end: “Omo okun; aku rigidi.” He was greeting me in Okun dialect. I thought he meant to call somebody else and I was trying to let him know that he was speaking to “Oj.” He said he knew and, instantly, I got the essence of his resort to Okun dialect: he was simply saying he had adopted me as a son and I should therefore be sucked into the Okun etymology.
This, perhaps, explained his pains when I was asked by the management of Vanguard newspapers to resign as Abuja Bureau Chief, certainly not for editorial incompetence or fraud but for some other reason(s) that bordered on office politics. He was on holiday in London. I called him on August 12, 2005 to inform him of the management decision. I could hear him shout “no way” at the other end. “I would call (Uncle) Sam. You are going nowhere.”
I allowed him to finish and I told him quietly: “Sir, do not bother to call anybody. Let me go and take care of myself. It is not the end of life but the beginning of a better life.” Although, he was due to return to Nigeria three days from the day I spoke with him, he called me 21 times to ask after my well-being and to reassure me of his support. As he was calling me, he was calling my wife.
I could have used his influence to keep my job, but I did not. That was one of the lessons I learnt from the great man: not to feel humiliated if anybody tried to humiliate me. I was not worthless. I had time to complete some post-graduate studies at the University of Abuja. It was he who spoke with Malam Kabir Yusuf, then Editor-in-Chief of Daily Trust, to engage me at the newspaper where I worked for six months before I left for THISDAY.
He respected my decision when I decided to leave for THISDAY. He was interested in my progress at work. He was concerned with the well-being of my family. I remember the small frame which bore a spirit that passionately espoused northern cohesiveness within the context of national unity; I remember a man whose Spartan and disciplined disposition to public office and politics helped to define his eon and peculiarities.
I remember a man whose trajectory and track record of integrity in life have continued to interrogate the antics of a vast majority of duplicitous political actors who bestrode the nation’s political landscape, spurning the base metal of the electorate by which they ascended to power. I remember his exploits in the murky waters of Nigerian politics where he was temperamentally impatient with the political shenanigans and chicanery had marked him out as a rare breed.
In his life and times, he demonstrated integrity and accountability in public and private life in the tradition of the late Premier of the Northern region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto under whose tutelage he (Awoniyi) honed his leadership skills.
His involvement in politics began in the ill-fated Third Republic when he represented his people of Kogi West in the Senate on the platform of the defunct National Republican Convention (NRC). When the political transition failed and there was another attempt at transiting from military to democratic governance, he was involved in the process by first participating in the Constitution Conference organised by the regime of the late General Sani Abacha.
In the political process that followed the conference, Awoniyi partnered the like of Mallam Adamu Ciroma and Alhaji Bamanga Tukur among others, to form the defunct All Nigeria Congress (ANC). He was then the protem national chairman and one of the intellectual bulwarks of the most organised association that sought the defunct NECON registration.
But with the formation of the Peoples Democratic Party(PDP) in 1998, he had played a prominent role in the election of the presidential candidate, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, who later became president. He had also wanted to lead the party as its national chairman. But the powers-that-be conspired against him and ensured that he did not achieve his desire through the instrumentality of the “transparent rigging” at the Eagle Square.
And for being in the vanguard of protest from within the party against the chicanery of Obasanjo and the PDP leadership, the same powers had also plotted his ouster from the party. Awoniyi had celebrated his expulsion in the following words: “This is my own democracy dividend. In the words of the Negro Spiritual: I am free at last, free at last. From now on, I am blessed in that I do not need to sit in the assembly of the ungodly nor walk in the path of the unrighteous, political infidels and duplicitous electoral manipulators.”
From then on, Awoniyi recoiled into his shells. It was from that cosmos that he defined a trajectory to the ACF where he became chairman of the Board of Trustees in 2000 and Chairman of the Forum’s Central Working Committee (CWC) in December 2004. He had played a fatherly role in the forum, stepping in at some critical times with wise counsels that had helped in defusing tension.
The life of Awoniyi- his imprints, his ideals, his positive affectations, his nobility, et al- is a big directional signboard for public administrators and politicians to emulate. He was zealous about the Sardauna of Sokoto on whom, in 2000, he delivered the spellbinding 5th Arewa Lecture. It was touching as Danladi (Sunday), as he was always addressed by the detribalised Sardauna of Sokoto (Ahmadu Bello), declassified his late mentor to the audience; it was therefore understandable why many people in the North found it easy to refer to him as Sardauna Keremi (little Sardauna).
This was a great honour for a Yoruba man of Okun descent. Even in death, honour for Awoniyi, in and outside Okun land, has not diminished. Those who crave the culture of decency in politics continue to recall his peculiar genre.
•Ojeifo is a journalist based in Abuja