Yesterday in Ilorin, Kwara State, I performed one of the most difficult tasks that life can deal anyone: Burying a younger sibling. I come from a close-knit family of five children comprised of four males: Adeoye, myself, Olaniyi and Agboola (now of blessed memory) and Mrs Abosede Adebimpe Okuneye, the last and only female. We lost our father in 2006 at a fairly old age of 86 and our mother five years later in 2011. But the pain of their loss cannot compare with that of Agboola. And if I feel this way, one can only imagine what his wife, Funmilola, is going through. At the age of 9 and 8 respectively, Oluwatofunmi and Oluwamayowa may be too young to comprehend what the loss of a father means.
It’s less than a week since Agboola passed away. I have moved from denial to confusion to withdrawal and even with the burial yesterday, I am yet to feel a sense of closure. There have also been those ‘What if’ moments when you wonder whether the outcome could have been different if you had made certain interventions. In trying to come to terms with what happened, I have read a bit of motivational literature on the death of a close sibling. The only lesson I have learnt is that there is no statute of limitations on such grief. “There is no other love like the love for a brother, and no other love like the love from a brother”, wrote Kady Braswell, whose therapist described the death of her sibling as akin to losing a limb. “If someone tells you it gets better with time, the person’s lying to you. Yes, cuts get better and wounds do heal, but when you lose an arm, it’s foolish to await the day it ‘gets better.’ You simply learn to live with one arm.”
At the invitation of Rev Moses Owojaiye, I was in Ilorin on 7th June this year to deliver the third Vitality Lecture 2019 at the Centre for Biblical Christianity in Africa titled, “The African Church in the Public Eye”. Because I had a book reading the next day in Ibadan, I decided to hit the road immediately the programme ended. Agboola insisted on driving me, despite the alternative arrangement I had made for a vehicle. I am so very glad he did. The journey that should ordinarily take between two to three hours took six hours because Agboola’s vehicle broke down at some point and we had to look for a mechanic to repair it. He was very apologetic for ‘inconveniencing’ me but I assured him I was enjoying myself, and I truly was. We sang Yoruba hymns almost all the way through the journey as we reflected on early years; talked about our late parents and recalled so many things from the past. That was perhaps the longest time the two of us ever spent together alone as adults. Today, I cherish every second of that experience.
Since I returned to the country last Friday evening, I have been overwhelmed by heartfelt messages of goodwill and the incredible support offered by a network of close friends, including senior citizens, who were always around to literally hold my hands. I appreciate them all but I must single out former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Muhammad Lawal Uwais, who, at 83, made it a point of duty to visit me at home last Saturday morning. I was really touched and am also grateful to all the callers as well as those who have sent messages. On Monday night in Ilorin, when I couldn’t sleep, I decided to scroll through the hundreds of text and WhatsApp messages, mostly by people who were not on my contact list. I came across one that brought tears to my eyes.
When I returned to the country in 2011 after my Fellow’s programme in the United States, Agboola told me he wanted paid employment. After asking around, a friend said I should bring his CV. But when Agboola came to Abuja, he brought someone along. He called me aside and pleaded that I should give the offer to the guy, a friend of his, for two reasons. One, he said because of his family background, the guy needed the job more than him. Two, his friend, he said, had better academic qualifications. Of course, I was angry but I acceded to his request and the person eventually got the job. His condolence message on Monday night spoke to who Agboola was: Kind, extremely generous and always considerate of others, even at his own expense.
Agboola returned from his migration sojourn not long after I married, mostly at the instance of my wife who became a counsellor to him. So, quite naturally, they became close. But it was to my children that he was closer. Their beloved ‘Uncle Ago’ with the crucial B always missing in their pronunciation of his name. Meanwhile, I first shared highlights of Agboola’s experience as an irregular migrant in my ‘Platform Nigeria’ presentation on 1st October 2015 where I discussed how many of our young men and women are coming to the same conclusion about our country as the lepers did in the Biblical account of the siege on Samaria: If we stay here we die. And the desperation that is pushing many into perilous journeys across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea.
Agboola’s story of his encounter in an Italian suburb with an Indian, Mr. Edward, who claimed to be running an NGO that defended the vulnerable, is illustrative of just how lucky he was. “A month after I arrived Tivoli, Edward told me the price of my freedom was to run an errand for him which he promised to pay me for. Unknown to me, I was to be a drug courier. He secured a South African International Passport for me and I was asked to go to Almeria and from there to Barcelona. I was at a train station after delivering the first consignment when the Police arrested me. I contacted Edward who came to the station, collected his package from the Police and left me to be repatriated to South Africa.” He eventually arrived Nigeria on a Sierra Leonean passport!
That Agboola survived to tell his story was simply by sheer providence. At every point, he always found favour with whoever mattered. There was ‘Uncle Ben’, the trafficker who had soft spot for him and actually helped him despite being in a trade that left little room for mercy. Then there was Chi, the young woman who became his sister. And then Mr Raphael (Papa), his guardian angel.
Indeed, Agboola’s life was a study in grace. In 2011, shortly after he gave the job offer I got for him to his friend, he was with me in Lagos when I was going to see Alhaji Aliko Dangote in his office. On our way, Agboola asked me to make a pitch for him, that he would like to be selling cement. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea, especially knowing he would depend on me for the finance but I nonetheless told Dangote who gave Agboola his number and introduced him to one of his directors. While the distributorship deal didn’t work out because Agboola did not have the capital outlay required, he struck up a friendship with Dangote and his long-time Executive Assistant, Mr Taiye Ajiyen, both of who took a liking to him.
About a month ago, Dangote called me from New York and said, “You didn’t tell me Agboola is sick. I just got his text message now and he says it is very serious. When I return, I will ask doctors to go and see him. If it is not too late, we can fly him abroad for better treatment.” Of course I didn’t hear anything again from Dangote and I refused to bother him. But as I waited to board my flight to Prague, Czech Republic, 13 days ago, I received a message from Agboola asking me to thank Dangote and Ajiyen for him. When I called Ajiyen, he told me that Dangote had asked him to arrange transferring Agboola from Ibadan to a specialist hospital in Lagos but he (Agboola) declined the offer. My plan was to go to Ibadan upon return to see whether Lagos would be a better option but by then he had died.
The contrast between Dangote and my brother could not have been more stark: the richest man in Africa and one of the poorest men on the continent; even if we choose to forget religion and ethnicity. Yet, they found a way to connect. I cannot count the number of times Agboola would be beside me on the phone in animated conversation at the end of which he would say, ‘Alhaji, please wait for boda Segun’ before passing the phone to me. While I used to find it amusing, I had always attributed the relationship to Dangote’s humanity and generousity of spirit. That may be so. But in the wake of Agboola’s death, I have had to reflect. May be it was also about Agboola. Perhaps it was his strength of character that made almost everyone he came in contact with to overlook his status in their relationship with him.
The finality of Agboola’s earthly journey hit me yesterday as we buried him and it was comforting that my cousin, Olawale Banmore was around. In the end, Agboola may have left us with tears but I am assured he is in a better place. My elder brother, Adeoye, who was with him in his last hour at the hospital recounted what happened. “Where is my wife?”, he reportedly asked, and after Funmilola was brought to him, he started a popular Christian hymn, “Gbogbo aiye, gbe Jesu ga” (All hail the power of Jesus’ Name!) in a voice that was hardly audible. With his wife helping him, and my elder brother joining in, Agboola sang to heaven.
In my statement last Saturday to announce Agboola’s death, http://bit.ly/33XgeiN, I spoke of the release of an online edition of my book, ‘From Frying Pan to Fire’ which was inspired by his experience as an irregular migrant in the nineties. I have been assured by the Chief Executive of Bookcraft, Mr Bankole Olayebi that the e-book will be out next week; and the ‘print-on-demand’ version, the week after. I have also instructed Bookcraft to create a special account for royalties due to me on these versions of the book. Half will go to Agboola’s widow and children while the remaining half will be donated in Agboola’s memory to charities working in the area of irregular migration.
May his gentle soul rest in perfect peace.
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