GOODNIGHT, JO, COMMISSIONER NUMBER ONE

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Yusuph Olaniyonu pays tribute to John Olusegun Odubela, lawyer, administrator and a jolly good fellow

Why do I like pretending that no death can shake me again? Why was I deceiving myself that I have heard about and seen enough death in my short life time that none can shake me again? May be because as a 13-year-old boy, I had woken up in the morning to find out the person lying next to me, another young boy, was stone dead. May be because I had experienced speaking to my mother on the phone at about 2pm, she was hale and hearty only for her to slump six hours later and die. Maybe because I had seen my usually bubbling and happy father gradually become incapacitated by cancer and eventually gave up the ghost. Really, I had experienced the death of too many people close to me, including three siblings.

Now, I pretend that as a muslim, I am prepared for death and that no death will shake or disorganize me. Also, I thought I had steeled my heart so tough that I now consider death as part of the bargain of daily existence. However, all these posturing came out empty to me on the night of Monday, March 15. While watching the television, my son, Oladapo suddenly shouted “Inalilahi! Daddy, they are speculating that Mr. Odubela is dead”. I frowned and looked at him to be sure he was okay.

John Olusegun Odubela, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), was Dapo’s boss as he had influenced the young lawyer’s employment with Rickey Tarfa and co, a leading law firm where he was a partner and Head of Chamber. The young man had in the afternoon of the same day informed me that the senior lawyer was indisposed and that I should try and contact him. For Dapo to start talking about the death of this my friend and brother a few hours later was confusing and unimaginable for me.

From that moment, I was disorganized and was only wishing there was a mistake somewhere. Some minutes after, Dapo confirmed the news. The man I loved to call JO had passed on. This was one sad news I could not live with. Throughout the night, I was awake and this time, I was not in the mood to do any of the normal things I usually resort to when I have sleepless nights – Tahajud (night supplication), reading a book or writing.

It is still difficult to believe that JO is gone. I first met him in 2011 when we were part of the new appointees into the cabinet of the Ogun State Government under our captain, Senator Ibikunle Amosun, who served as governor between 2011 – 2019. Odubela was Commissioner for Education, Science and Technology. Since we both left Ogun State government in 2015, we had kept in touch and maintained a close relationship. JO was one of the ‘salts’ of our administration. No dull moment with this lawyer who permanently wore smiles on his chubby face like a glowing skin.

The Governor named Odubela ‘Commissioner Number One’ because his portfolio, Education, was the first in the five cardinal programmes of the ‘Mission to Rebuild’ agenda of the Amosun administration. And he actually lived up to the appellation. Odubela was passionate about his job. He served with all his energy and the only time you could get him looking disturbed were those periods when schools were about to resume or it was time for the terminal examination and he could not get the approval for funds to put all resources and other arrangements in place.

The energy JO put into his work and how he tried to mingle with and befriend the stakeholders in the education sector was commendable. During any first week of school resumption, JO could visit as many as 50 primary and secondary school across the three Senatorial districts to assess the state of readiness of the management, students and facilities for the new school term. He was so active that the state television station, OGTV, had no option than to permanently place a television crew at his disposal to cover all his official functions.

During the period, he accompanied me to my alma mater at the primary and secondary levels. Despite his tight schedule, JO would also attend all social events in honour of his colleagues and he was a man who was friendly with both political appointees and the bureaucrats. Whenever JO needed to write a crucial press statement, he usually would prefer I handled it for him. He would walk from his office about 500 meters away with all the relevant officials to the Ministry of Information and Strategy, and we would all sit down to get the statement prepared, after which he would walk away with the hard copy. JO always cracked jokes that he liked sitting beside me at events because he knew the cameras would beam on the Information Commissioner and he would be on TV and in the newspapers.

He was a man of drama and I believe that had he not taken to legal practice he would have made so much money from the Nollywood industry in the area of acting, script writing and directing. He would crack jokes and appear so serious that you would not know what to believe. In those four testy and dizzying years, I can’t remember seeing JO frowning, unhappy or engaged in any hot argument. He would always crack jokes and played pranks. It took our Commissioner for Budget, Mrs Oluwande Muoyo who we all called Mrs. M. over one year before realising that Odubela was not a medical doctor because he talked about the food he ate with his friends as surgical operations. Odubela would in jocular manner switch from one side of an argument to the other and he would appear serious that only those of us who knew him very well would know he was just being mischievous.

He was our spokesman during the agitation by cabinet members that our salary was too small and needed special augmentation from the Governor. The agitation was code-named “commencement”. However, each time after the State Executive Council meeting when we raised the issue, Odubela would argue so beautifully for us but immediately the Governor hailed him as “Commissioner Number One” and gave him friendly signs that he should not be leading agitation against him, he would jocularly make a u-turn. “What is commencement?”, Odubela would blurt out with that funny expression on his face, “we can’t be putting His Excellency under pressure. Don’t worry, sir, they have to manage. This is Mission to Rebuild Ogun State”. He would say it with that very funny expression on his face and everybody will burst out laughing. That day, the Governor had won, once again. Thanks to Commissioner Number One.

On another occasion at the Executive Council meeting, when JO needed approval for the request for funds for his ministry, he would say Mrs. M, the Budget Commissioner was “the best” and even relinquished his “Number One” title to her. Once he got the approval he would say “who is Mrs. M? I don’t know her. Finance is the best. She is number one”, that was a reference to Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, the Commissioner for Finance. And he would continue switching his adulation for both women, depending on whose intervention on his ministry’s request was critical at the point in time. He said those words in a unique way that anybody around would be forced to laugh.

One day he announced to the Governor that his ministry was ready for a press conference and that the entire global media, including “CNN, Aljazeera, BBC, VOA and the rest of them were already gathered”. He made the declaration so frankly and emphatic that the Governor believed him. Meanwhile he did not even have Channels TV and AIT present at the event. As our administration got older, Odubela would tell me that he could not address any press conference if the Information ministry would not get CNN, Aljazeera, VOA, BBC, Sky TV and the rest to be present. As Information Commissioner, I would also assure him that all “your choice stations are there, you can now address the world”.

At a time, I found out that anytime his day in the office ended before it was dark, JO was always walking from the secretariat to his official quarters in Ibara GRA and I started joining him. That is a work-out of about two kilometres. His younger brother, Tola, and another aide of his were usually part of the party. The ‘Commissioner Number One’ would order customized cooked Ofada rice wrapped in leaves from his home town, Ikenne, to Abeokuta from a woman called ‘Ayamase’ and distributed to many of us, his colleagues. He was very proud of his Ikenne origin and did so much to contribute to the development of the town which had earlier produced Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, Chiefs Kehinde and Idowu Sofola, as well as many other giants who preceded Odubela in the legal profession and its inner Bar.

Like a master Nollywood script writer, during our long sojourn in a Coaster bus called “Exco Bus” used to convey members of the cabinet across the state and its 236 wards during the campaigns for the 2015 general elections, JO created an imaginary Sacred Order which had himself as the “Founder”. There were many of us who held different top positions in the Order. That included Prince (later Senator) Lanre Tejuoso, Segun Adesanya, and myself. He later named my second son, Oladipo, a teenager, as the “Deputy Founder”. Without knowing what the Order was all about, JO would create stories about the Order and myself and Segun Adesanya would just key in and continue as if we were talking about one international, exclusive, powerful and secret group where influential people from across the world held meetings, discussed and influenced how to shape the world.

While we talk about this “imaginary Order”, the other Exco members in the bus would just be watching in amazement. They did not know what we were talking about when we discussed deliberations at “a meeting in New Zealand last week hosted by General Koinyan and the promise by Grandmaster Patshon to host the next meeting in Malta”. It was when JO started talking about Awolowo, Zik and Chairman Mao attending our meetings that the bubble burst and people realized the Order was just a fantasy and non-existent. The script was so well verbalized that it was easy for the rest of us, the members, to join the conversation and fit in perfectly.

JO was a good friend. He would call me from the blues and we would gist about politics and other developments. JO always showed fellowship with his Muslim friends. Every Friday, he would send me and many of his Muslim friends Jummah messages. The last one he sent on February 26 reads as follows: “Oh “ALLAH”, make life easy for us and our households, make us your beloved and righteous slaves, forgive all our sins and accept all our duas. Amin. Barka Jummah, my brother”.

JO was a fantastic husband and father. You need not spend a long time with him before you realized this. He always kept in touch with his wife and children, even while handling the most serious assignment.

He was a lawyer’s lawyer. He loved the profession. He really worked hard to be called into the inner Bar. I am particularly happy that he became a Senior Advocate four years before his death. He craved the silk and worked so hard for it. Before he was admitted into the inner bar, he was always asking me to join him in prayers as he went through the process. And I did. Only Allah knows the depth of my joy when JO was admitted into the inner Bar. His elevation brought to me the feeling that typified the Lagos Street lingo: ‘now, I can go around and commit’. Honestly, I knew if there was a case that required employing a SAN, JO would be there for me. And this time it won’t be his usual joke about “let us go to court…We will sue them”. I am sure he would truly file or defend a case on my behalf.

There are actually so many good things one can write about the life and times of this great lawyer, a consummate professional, a committed patriot, a loyal friend, passionate public servant, a devoted husband and dotting father. To say the truth, JO’s death shook me. Since that sad Monday night, there was no day I did not mutter his name ‘JO’ about 20 times. Unconsciously, I would just soloquise and mention the word ‘JO’ as if I longed for him to respond in his usual way “My Honourable Commissioner”. I hope this piece, despite its imperfections, will be a catharsis for my deep feelings.
Adieu, my brother. I pray that Allah helps you take care of Mama, Madam Bimpe, the children, Tola and the rest of your family. In your absence, may Rickey Tarfa Law Firm continue to grow, because it was part of the legacies you bequeathed to your loved ones.

Olaniyonu was Commissioner for Information and Strategy in Ogun State 2011 – 2015.