It was four days to his 57th birthday. It’s exactly five years ago on Sunday, 5th March 2017, that Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, one of Nigeria’s finest, most innovative and most resourceful journalists of recent time, died in continually befuddling circumstances.
He had attended the 80th birthday celebration of his erstwhile benefactor and boss, Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s pioneer President in the current democratic milieu, in Abeokuta earlier that day. He was being chauffeured back to his base in Abuja, by a kinsman and friend, Adas Sadiq, a chartered accountant.
The evening was speedily creeping in, dusk decisively outwitting the day in the horizon. He had attuned his mind to a night stop in Akure or Okene, his hometown, a situation which diminished every thought of a long haul to the country’s capital city on Nigeria’s capricious roads, where he set out from two days earlier.
According to accounts, Onukaba and his friend ran into a roadblock mounted by armed robbers, around Ilara Mokin community, on the Ilesha-Akure road, about 10 minutes away from the Ondo State capital that evening. Seeing that commuters were fleeing their vehicles and seeking refuge in the vegetation on either side of the road, he followed suit with Sadiq. They took cover in various sections of the bush in the melee.
A vehicle which reportedly escaped from the immediate jurisdiction of the daredevil criminals, lost control and skidded into Onukaba’s haven, killing him instantly. Probably oblivious he had killed someone, or still jittery that he was still within the span of the robbers he had just outwitted, the driver dragged his car from the scene and fled. It was a police team which, typically, arrived after the fact, that discovered his body in the agbada he wore on that day.
Onukaba’s reputation went far ahead of him before our eventual meeting in the build-up to Obasanjo’s ascension to the presidency late 1998. He had built the reputation of a fearless, fiery, dogged and prolific journalist, an inspiration to would-be professionals. His reports, mostly from the aviation beat, domiciled primarily at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, bore a novel vibrancy. They got featured prominently in the newspaper he worked for, The Guardian. It was on this beat he first met Obasanjo back in 1984, and they subsequently struck a father-son relationship. Onukaba, who departed Nigeria for further education in 1989, obtained a Master’s degree in journalism and a doctorate in performance studies in New York University. He had kept in touch with Obasanjo over the years.
In furtherance of this pre-existing relationship with Obasanjo, Onukaba returned to Nigeria late 1998 to lend a helping hand in the publicity directorate of the campaign infrastructure. The division was ably led by Onyema Ugochukwu, one of Nigeria’s iconic media professionals. I was already the campaign press secretary to Obasanjo, accompanying him everywhere he went on the political trail and coordinating my small media team to ensure comprehensive and timely reportage of events. Onukaba was seamlessly integrated into the publicity directorate and that was our first encounter. We hit it off straightaway.
I was curious about Onukaba’s doctoral thesis which, he explained to me, focused on masked masquerade performances in Ebiraland. Having watched some masquerade engagements, notably the echane and ekuechi festivals in Okene, the heartland of the Ebira, I spontaneously coined a nickname for him, “masquerade!” This was my trademark for addressing him till the very end. A number of our mutual friends adopted my coinage. Whenever I told my wife I needed to see masquerade, she knew who it was.
Onukaba equally had a subsisting relationship with Atiku Abubakar, who was selected as Obasanjo’s running mate ahead of the presidential election of February 1999. The same year he first engaged Obasanjo in 1984 at the Lagos airport, he equally met Atiku who was the area administrator of the Nigerian Customs, with his office at the Lagos airport. They got on well in the line of duty and became good friends. Fortuitously therefore, Onukaba had two “foster fathers” in the emerging political structure.
Following the inauguration of the Obasanjo/Atiku presidency on 29th May 1999, Onukaba was appointed Special Assistant on Media to the Vice President. The administrative template established by the new administration was somewhat convoluted. It provided that appointees were, first and foremost, personnel of the President before deployment to the offices, agencies and departments in the Presidency. A curious component of this arrangement was that the President could reassign or fire officials across the board in his government. After a few months in office therefore, Obasanjo redeployed Onukaba to Lagos as Managing Director of the Daily Times of Nigeria.
He returned to Abuja in May 2003 upon the inauguration of Obasanjo and Atiku for a second term. This time, he was designated Senior Special Assistant to the Vice President on Media. Barely two years on the job, Onukaba was sacked by Obasanjo for an innocuous press statement. Onukaba had attempted to absolve Atiku from complicity in a purported bid for the erstwhile residence of the Vice President in Lagos under the monetisation and sale of government property programme of the administration in the line of duty, an undertaking Obasanjo construed as insubordination.
On the heels of this development, Onukaba’s mother-in-law, Anna Ebikere Ogirri, who heard the news of his exit from office in Benin City where she lived, got into a commuter vehicle, destined for Abuja to support her son-in-law and her daughter, Rachel, his wife who was pregnant. The date was 5th April 2005. She never made it. She died in an accident. A concerned Atiku encouraged Onukaba to take a break with his young family which had earlier produced Asuku, his little son, and proceed to the United States for a while.
Atiku placed Onukaba on a generous monthly stipend within that span. And the restless writer he was, Onukaba used the opportunity to firm up the manuscripts of a biography he was writing on Atiku. It was later published as: Atiku: The Story of Atiku Abubakar. Ebikere, named after her late grandmother, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, within the period. While he was away, the government-owned property Onukaba lived in, was reallocated and his property almost thrown to the streets. I speedily rallied friends around to salvage his belongings, which we transferred to a property I had just developed at the time.
29th August 2009, Rachael Akiomuado Ogirri Onukaba, his wife, tragically died of cerebral malaria at 32. A thoroughly flustered, despondent, bewildered and despairing Onukaba soldiered on bravely for six years before marrying Memunat Aliyu-Onukaba at a quiet ceremony attended by just a handful of close friends in Kaduna. The union produced Onyeche, the baby of the family.
Amidst the general lachrymose and pervading gloom which attended Onukaba’s demise, Atiku established an Adinoyi-Ojo Onukaba Endowment Fund, to support the young family. At the fundraiser in Abuja on 2nd May 2017, about N13 million was aggregated in cash and promissory notes. Atiku made the single largest contribution of N10 million. A board of trustees, chaired by this writer, which includes select family members and intimate friends of Onukaba was emplaced. Side by side with this effort, Taiwo Obe, a longstanding friend of Onukaba, rallied friends and colleagues on the Lagos stretch, to poll resources for the family.
Happily, Onukaba’s family is wearing a brave face and trying to cope without their father. In the absence of both biological parents for Asuku and Ebikere, Memunat their stepmother is filling the gap, as well as she can. Onukaba’s siblings, notably Audu have also been supportive. Frugal management of the endowment fund ensured that Asuku and Ebikere continued their educational progression in one of the topmost private secondary schools in Abuja. They completed their senior secondary school education in flying colours in that institution without being dislocated from an environment they had acclimatised in over time.
On 24th August 2019, Atiku, from his abode in Dubai, fulfilled his pledge from two years earlier to grant fully-funded scholarships to any of Onukaba’s children desirous of studying at the American University of Nigeria in Yola, owned by him. Asuku Onukaba, who turned 19 recently, is in his third year studying Software Engineering in the institution. Ebikere has been taken up by her maternal uncles, Festus and Kenneth Ogirri, who both live in Houston. Because she’s just 16, she’s been enrolled in a community college, pending her transfer to the university, when she is of age. Ebikere’s aunt, Ethel Ogirri-Omeye, lives next door in Canada, with her family. Last year, the proprietor of the Cradle to Harvard Schools in Abuja, Phrank Shaibu awarded a full scholarship to Onyeche, now five years old.
Kogi State Governor Yahaya Bello, a kinsman of the late Onukaba, visited his family house in Ihima, Okene, during the Muslim three-day prayer for the departed in March 2017. He promised to buy a property in Abuja for his family when he learnt Onukaba lived in rented accommodation at the time of his demise. He noted that this contrasted with his looming public profile.
Bello directed his Chief of Staff at the time, Edward Onoja, who is now his deputy, to set up a meeting to this effect between him and officials of the endowment fund on the subject. Five years after, the meeting has not happened. Bello’s Finance Commissioner, Ashiru Idris recently committed to reopening the matter with the Governor to push it to a successful denouement when I brought the issue to his attention.
Onukaba, the masquerade who never donned a mask, continues to be missed by many. He was a gentleman par excellence, cerebral, imaginative, forthright, unsuited for Nigeria’s political madness and rapacious rat race. I reminded him in our several debates, that he was not cut out for a country like ours, which continues to confound the world with its self-inflicted ordered disorder, and disorderly order. I would tell him that a certain measure of agbero DNA is needed to navigate the Nigerian conundrum, which I equated with Daniel Fagunwa’s 1938 novel in Yoruba, translated to English as The Forest of a Thousand Demons, by Wole Soyinka.
I always insisted he was better a professor and knowledge producer in a Western country, where he would thrive as the journalist, playwright, biographer, scholar and arts connoisseur he was. To be sure, his authorial production which includes eight published and performed plays and four biographies, among others, would be the envy of many professors today. At the time of his departure, he was collaborating with Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru, a former chairman of the Federal Internal Revenue Service, on a landmark publication on Nigeria’s multifarious ethnicities, which had many respected intellectuals and professionals as contributors. The first volume was all but ready before he left.
It’s been five years on and we miss Onukaba, every day.
Olusunle (PhD) poet, journalist, author and scholar, is a member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE)