Remembering Onukaba

By Amma Ogan

When I first met Onukaba Adinoyi Ojo, he called himself Shuaibu, and he was the seminal generation of talented reporters who set The Guardian apart from any other journal of its time. The newspaper blazed a trial with its crop of specialist correspondents each one of whom, sooner rather than later, to invoke the wit of Eddie Iroh, carved their niche by starting our first in their field. The Guardian’s aim was to grow reporters who were tuned into their beat -no more helicopter journalism- who could develop their own contacts, and acquire the knowledge and experience that would enable them provide both facts, context, background and professionalism to authoritative coverage.

Onukaba’s beat was the airport, and he found it rich unmined territory, a gateway to breaking stories about corruption, high and low. Muritala Mohammed Airport was a hub of intrigue and crime: customs, immigration, drug enforcement, smuggling, scandalous liaisons, VIP movement: a whole network of laws to be broken and violated by Nigeria’s unrepentant elites. From the high and mighty who strode through unhindered, to the masses of hustlers, shake down artists and scammers who thronged its entrances and clogged its accesses it was an example of Nigerian dysfunction in microcosm (Thirty years: two carousels!)

Other newspapers quickly upgraded the importance of the beat after Onukaba blazed a trail there.

And Onukaba could write. He had a flair for the drama of a story and the sensitive eye of a keen observer. He worked hard, he was driven and he had a clear sense of right and wrong. When he dropped the name Shuaibu and became Onukaba he did it on principle. I cannot now remember what it was, but he showed the same moral commitment when he went on pilgrimage to Mecca, he saw it as marking significant achievement in his life.

Onukaba dressed well, neat and smart and clean cut. He was humble and polite, had a great sense of humour and he could tell a story and was great company. He would recount escapades in his experience as a reporter, some of which I cannot possibly repeat here, that would leave you rolling with laughter.

He had a special place in my heart because he consistently reminded my husband of what a lucky, undeserving unmentionable he was to have married me.

Almost a month ago I reached out to him on Facebook to ask how he was. This was his response:

“Thank you, Amma. I am fine. I ask after you and the two lovely ladies each time I see or speak to that my rascally junior brother, Dele. I hope he has been delivering my greetings. Happy New Year and best wishes”

Friends long before I met Dele, the two of them would greet each other with a hail of abuse whenever they bumped into each other. Onukaba was there when Dele and I began dating, he was at our wedding in New York and at the birth of our first child. We hung out together when Onukaba was working with General Obasanjo on his biography and on his doctorate in drama. There was a group of us at the reading of one of Onukaba’s early plays, at some café in Midtown Manhattan in the early nineties. I remember the title was about a death in the family and the perennial Nigerian fight about who would bury the body ended in the most dramatic way. In an inspired moment of camaraderie and beer, and coke and tea, we launched into a rendition of Fela’s Confusion Break Bone and Onukaba took the floor.

“Deadi bodi geti accident ye pa,

Confusion breaki boni, ye pa,

Na double wahala for deadi bodi an de owner of deadi bodi…”

And so the sound track for the future premiere of the newest “up and coming” foremost playwright of our generation was set!

Onukaba’s compassion and generosity of spirit showed in other ways too. I remember he went out of his way to put himself at the disposal of the late Stella Obasanjo in the difficult days following her husband’s incarceration by the late Sani Abacha.

And Onukaba never stayed still, from his success as a journalist he moved into other fields with international organisations such as the UN and returned to Nigeria to head the Daily Times in 1999 as its Managing Director. In his 56 years Onukaba besides being a successful journalist, taught, was an acknowledged biographer and critically acclaimed playwright. Driven by a commitment to national service he made a bid for elective office, and probably paid the price because political office in Nigeria is as far from service as theft is from charity.

Onukaba had more than his share of pain and tragedy. In a paean to his late wife he recounted the story of her death from mismanagement of her sickle cell disease, it must be said, at a hospital in Abuja. It left him with three children to care for.

Onukba’s passing at 56 (he was born March 9, 1960) is the second this week of someone I know well who can be said to have died from the Nigerian condition, a syndrome that can affect the poor and the not poor, the gifted and struggling equally. Yes we can list the different circumstances under which preventable deaths occur in Nigeria, but one phrase can explain it all: abysmal governance. Death is the end for all of us, but to use the local lingo, “the way and manner” in which many Nigerians die, is simply an indictment of the country’s leadership.

Together with Dele Olojede, Onukaba wrote Born to Run, an inspired act of homage to the late Dele Giwa whose infectious bravado, drive and pride in his profession influenced many. One day perhaps the history of that era in Nigerian journalism will be written; when the press went toe to toe with the Nigerian military leadership and acquitted itself with surprising courage. Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo’s name will be there.

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