Fellow Nigerians, today is not a normal day. It is so abnormal that I had to search for the appropriate Latin expression for the title of my epistle to you. For the second week running, I’m compelled to pay tribute to one of our fallen heroes. Last week was dedicated to the master storyteller, Chinua Achebe. This week, it is the turn of our big brother, mentor and friend, Chief Oluwole Bolade Akanni Awolowo, one of the friendliest souls I ever encountered.
As a matter of fact, the death of Achebe had eclipsed the passing of two other great Nigerians I had known and received tremendous inspiration from in my growing up days, Evangelist Timothy Oluwole Obadare and High Chief (Dr.) Oreoluwa Ilemobayo Akinnola MFR, The Lisa of Ondo Kingdom. I still vividly recollect how I used to be part of a mammoth crowd to witness the special prayers and the miracle-filled crusades of the great Prophet at the Christ Apostolic Church, in More, Ile-Ife, before the New Age Pentecostal Churches became the norm. We all believed in the spiritual efficacy of such Aladura version of Christianity. Despite his blindness, Apostle Obadare could see what those with complete vision could not see. He was one of those who helped to soak our lives in the blood of Jesus and fortified our future in a land littered with all manner of spirits, good and bad. His death was definitely a blow to his many followers worldwide.
As for Baba, High Chief Akinnola, an esteemed journalist par excellence, he was one of the most cosmopolitan Nigerians that ever lived. His impeccable dress sense and adept command of English language was always a beauty to behold and enjoy. He spoke the Queen’s English like a man who was brought up in the inner precincts of Buckingham Palace. As a budding writer, I used to visit him as regularly as possible at his New Bodija residence in Ibadan. He was one of those who inadvertently laid the foundation for whatever our media exploits has become today. We were greatly blessed to have such resourceful men of uncommon pedigree to boost our morale and set us on the path of honour.
If I was moved by the death of all those great men, I must confess that I was totally shattered by that of Chief Oluwole Awolowo on March 27, 2013, in the city of London, just a few hours after I left his bedside. I have never seen anything so gripping and dramatic in my nearly 53 years on earth. The love Uncle Wole (as we all called him) and I shared was deep. From the moment we first met through his niece, Olukemi, nee Oyediran, who’s married to my best friend, Prince Adedamola Aderemi, in 1986, it was a case of love at first sight. Uncle Wole and the then Editor of the Sunday Tribune, Mr Folu Olamiti, gave me all the necessary encouragement to write weekly in their influential newspaper. They did not mind that I also contributed occasionally to the opinion page of Nigeria’s most intellectual newspaper, The Guardian, where I encountered some of the most cerebral and iconic writers like Stanley Macebuh, Olatunji Dare, Patrick Dele Cole, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Andy Akporugo, Odia Ofeimun, Edwin Madunagu, Amma Ogan, Chinweizu, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, and others, and learnt the ropes of editorial writing. That was Nigeria’s golden era when there was no pressure or desperation to write for money. I wrote free of charge for The Sunday Tribune while The Guardian offered a honorarium of N25 per article and I usually waited to publish four articles before travelling from Ile-Ife to Rutam House in Lagos to collect N100.
Uncle Wole became one of my biggest fans and discussed my articles anytime I had the opportunity to run into him. The first thing that struck me about this wonderful man was his total and uncommon objectivity without minding if the issue affected his own family. I remember an occasion when I wrote a story as the Editor of Classique magazine about the Awolowos which the family felt was a bit controversial and His Imperial Majesty, The Ooni of Ife, had instructed me to travel to Ikenne, to explain what I wrote and apologise to Mama, Chief Mrs Hannah Idowu Dideolu Awolowo. On getting to Ikenne, the first person I approached before going in to see Mama was Uncle Wole who assured me he had read the story but could not see what the fuss was about. He told me that he was certain Mama would not have complained but for some people who would have gone to sell ulterior motives and conspiracy theories to her. He then advised me not to argue but just go in and tell Mama to forgive and forget. I was so touched by his candour and unflinching support and loyalty to a young friend. That was the hallmark of the Man.
Truly, when I went in Mama was seated with The Tribune Editors, Biodun Oduwole and Folu Olamiti, as witnesses. As soon as Mama saw me, she told me in her usual sonorous voice, “Dele, iwo omo onikokuko yii, ewo tun ni eyi too ko yii?” (Dele, you this reckless writer, which one is this you’ve written again?). Based on my strategic meeting with Uncle Wole, I did not say much, I just went flat and prostrated to Mama, and others in the sitting room did the same and supported my sincere apology. After I reassured Mama that I would be more careful and sensitive in the future, Mama calmed down and returned to her affectionate role to everyone around her. I continued to visit and stayed occasionally in the house with her grandson-in-law, Adedamola and Mama would ensure we were all catered for. The first thing Mama would always ask for, till this day, is “Damola ati Dele, ki le maa je, ki le maa mu?” (Damola and Dele, what shall you eat and drink?). Even on a recent trip, Mama took the pain to cook Ikokore and fish, an Ijebu delicacy because I had specially requested for it ahead of time.
Uncle Wole was a friend of young people whose growth he nurtured. He never discriminated on account of age, gender, religion or social status. He was as cool as the cucumber and he attracted everyone the way the mango attracts flies. There was our group of friends that met him at the home of Prince Adedamola’s mum in the Apata area of Ibadan one afternoon many years ago. Our group was a potpourri of strange bed-fellows who were either children of sworn enemies and political foes or children of friends and associates, and a few of us with no political pedigree. This informal association included Wole Adelakun of the Eruobodo Busari Adelakun Family of Ibadan and Ladiran Ladoke-Akintola who married Bola Ige’s niece Oluwatoyin Dele-Ige despite the rift between their families. On the other hand was the case of Prince Adedamola Aderemi, the grandson of The Ooni Oba Titus Tadeniawo Adesoji Aderemi who married Olukemi, the grand-daughter of Chief Jeremiah Oyeniyi Awolowo. Interestingly, Prince Adedamola’s maternal grandfather was also a Premier in the old Western Region, Alhaji Dauda Adegbenro from Abeokuta who was a stout member of the Action Group. The other outsiders were Adedokun Abolarin, and yours truly. Our friendship was so tight that if you saw one, it was as good as seeing all of us. Uncle Wole was always fascinated by that bond, and when he saw us in Ibadan, he sat down with us and told us never to let go of our close ties.
The last time I visited Uncle Wole in Ikenne before he was flown abroad this final trip for treatment, he was thrilled to see three members of our group, Oba Adedokun Abolarin, now a king The Orangun of Oke-Ila in Osun State; Prince Adedamola and I. Despite his obvious excruciating pains, he kept referring to me as “My President in waiting, your own time will come.” I was deeply touched by his endless love. He had never been tired of going out of his way to support us no matter how inconvenient it was on his person.
How can we ever forget how he once jumped on the train with us in London when Prince Adedamola wanted to contest the Governorship election in Osun State. Uncle Wole travelled with us to Kent where we met the Late Cicero of Esa-Oke, Uncle Bola Ige, to intimate him of our plans in 1999. Chief Bola Ige kept calling Uncle Wole “the Unbreakable”, an acronym Chief Obafemi Awolowo had given his son for his tenacity in the face of adversity. We spent quality time with Uncle Bola who also showed his culinary expertise to younger friends including Femi Alafe-Aluko. It was always a pleasure having Uncle Wole around during my exile years. He would call as soon as he landed and invite us over to his regular hotels at Regent’s Park and Portland Place from where we would take a walk to the West End. He and Chief Segun Osoba were fond of such walks.
For a man that active, you can imagine Uncle Wole’s acute frustration after the debilitating accident that incapacitated him since the past seven years. He had undergone all manner of surgeries and only his unbreakable spirit kept him going. I’m happy he achieved one of his wishes which was to attain the age of 70, even if it met him on the hospital bed. The prayer had become intense when he received no comfort from treatments that took him to several continents.,
Prince Adedamola and I had visited him two days after his 70th birthday on December 5, 2012, at The Wellington Hospital in St. John’s Wood where he was already in Intensive Care Unit. We were so moved when we walked in and announced our presence and we instantly saw how he was struggling to communicate with us but unsuccessfully. We prayed for him and spent time watching all the gadgets of modern medical science all around him. I wished a day would come when Nigerians would have no need to travel long distances to seek medical miracles.
Uncle Wole had not improved by the time I visited him on March 27, 2013, at the same hospital. I stood by his bed and offered silent prayers even if he was totally oblivious of my presence. Somehow, I felt a premonition it was going to be my last time of seeing a man I had grown to love like a blood brother. I left the hospital after spending over two hours with his daughter, Lola and niece Olukemi. My thoughts remained with him and I was sad at our helplessness.
The news of his demise would hit me like thunderbolt later that evening. I had just discussed with Damola who said he was on his way to visit him. I told him to hurry. It was as if I knew he would not meet Uncle Wole alive. A poignant reminder to us all that death waits for no one, not even Princes. As soon as I saw Olukemi’s missed calls, I knew there was some bad news. I called back and my worst fear was confirmed. I was so enveloped by the trauma that I automatically broke out in excessive sweat despite the chilly winter cold. I broke the sad news to Prince Adedamola who was still on his way and we agreed to meet at the Wellington Hospital. I quickly dressed up and headed for the hospital where I joined his two eldest daughters, Yejide and Lola; his niece, Mrs Dolapo Osinbajo and nephew-in-law, Prince Adedamola Aderemi.
Soon enough, the undertakers arrived to pick up his remains. We peeped as they did their job with clinical precision. There was no sign of emotion on their part as they must have become accustomed to death. In a few minutes, they were done and as they took our great Egbon away, I renewed my belief in what I had always known, that this life is all but vanity.
Uncle Wole, thanks for being our great teacher to the very end. Thanks for reminding us that man came from nothing and he shall return to nothing.
You were unbreakable to the very end. Though your body may have been broken, your spirit never was and you remained resolute and determined to the last. Now in death your remarkable spirit lives on in perpetuity.
Ave Unbreakable, cum salutant. Good bye, our very dear and unforgettable Brother.