In recent times, many eminent Nigerians have crossed the great divide between the living and those who now belong to the ages. No matter how old our loved ones may be, we do not want to lose them. The question then arises what is the age when we will be comfortable with the death of our loved ones ? The Bible in one breath said 70 but in another breath it says 120. I have not met any one who will want to live for 120 years. It is therefore safe to assume that the time one should go is when one is no longer useful to society. It follows that longevity should go hand in hand with how useful a person is to his or family, immediate or national environment. In other words age is mere number!
When I heard that Chief (Mrs ) H.I D Awolowo passed on, I called one of her children to commiserate with her and to say mama lived well and died strong! She died at a time when she was still aware of her environment and that her death called for celebration. Of course I know no matter how old she was, the children would still mourn her departure and naturally shed tears of sorrow. But her death is a celebration of life. As believers, we know what has happened is a transition to a higher realm. On her own, outside the achievements of her husband, mama was in the words of her inimitable husband, a jewel of inestimable value. Need anyone say more? Nothing can be added or removed from that testimony.
When Deacon Gamaliel Onosode joined the saints triumphant, I shed some tears not because he was too young at 83. But because we may never see the like of him again in this country. Onosode graduated from the University of Ibadan in 1957 with a honours degree in Classics and was recruited for management training by the British and from then on he never looked back. At one time or the other, he was chairman of several blue chip companies that were Nigerian branches of British transnational companies such as Lever Brothers, Dunlop, Nigerian Breweries, Cadbury, National Acceptances Limited that metamorphosed into NAL Merchant Bank among many others. Wherever he went, he had the Midas touch and every thing he touched turned to gold. He never soiled his hands as would have been the case with other Nigerians. Whenever he was not listened to as chairman, he did not throw his weight around, he simply left quietly without making a fuss. This kind of behaviour earned him the sobriquet of Mr Integrity. What better accolade can one dream to have in a country where corruption cries to high heavens for intervention. With this kind of reputation, the nation sometimes called on him either as a Special Adviser to the corrupt and inept Shagari regime or as mediator between the government and one industrial body or the other such as in dispute between the Academic Senior Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU). In whatever position he found himself, he served well. Onosode the romantic that he was even toyed with the idea of running for president. But he was before his time. A country deserves the leader that it gets and obviously Nigeria was not deserving of a leader like Onosode. Nothing but apparent headache came out of his political venture. But we must acclaim his trying. Many of us are closet or arm-chair politicians who cannot take the plunge into the real political competition.
One of the areas Onosode left an indelible mark is in guiding universities to the right path of doing things properly. In this regard at different times, he served as chairman of council and pro- chancellor of the universities of Ibadan and Lagos. He remained the pro-chancellor of the University of Lagos until politicians saw such a position as part of the spoils of office and moved to take over in their usual buccaneering approach to public life. I remember listening to Onosode doing a clinical analysis of what is wrong with Nigerians being the fact that our people live two lives of separating public life from private life. He said whatever is wrong in private life cannot be right in public life. We are very frugal with our personal resources yet we go on to loot the national treasury and waste state resources thoughtlessly. We abhor and deprecate dishonesty in our individual lives but see this as being smart in public life. We are individually religious but our religion is forgotten when dealing with the affairs of state. He was clean in character and in appearance, always well dressed in western suits except when for cultural reasons, he may be found in his native Urhobo attire. Even though he could afford living in the high-brow areas of Ikoyi or Victoria Island, he remained till the end in his bungalow in Adelabu Street with the masses in Surulere, Lagos.
On a personal note, the Kayode Osuntokun Trust approached him some years ago to chair its annual lecture in memory of the late Professor Kayode Osuntokun, my brother. He asked what he was supposed to do. He was told all he had to do was chair the occasion and call for a few questions after the lecture. He agreed that since the man being honoured was a honorable man, he would do us the honour of presiding. On the day of the lecture, he announced that he would like to donate some money to the Trust but he had no money at that time but he was expecting some money from his investments and that as soon as he got the money he would send a cheque. We had actually forgotten his promise when his cheque of a substantial amount of money came in . That is the kind of man Onosode was. He was a blessing to mankind and a challenge to us in Nigeria to rise above our petty jealousies and pedestrian life to a life devoted to serving man and God. Onosode demonstrated that we must be Christians in truth and in deed and not just in name. Vox populi vox Dei – the voice of the people is the voice of God – so goes the Latin saying that Onosode would have been familiar with in his lifetime and we Nigerians affirm the goodness and righteousness of this man and we believe that God in His infinite mercy will look favourably on his soul. Onosode was a simple but not simplistic Nigerian, a man of culture and erudition, a renaissance man if ever there was one!
When tragedy struck in Saudi Arabia, one prayed that no Nigerian would be involved. But as we waited with bated breath for details of the casualties, we were told by the Saudi authorities that some African pilgrims did not follow strict instructions and thereby precipitated the stampede that led to the death of close to 1500 souls. We still felt maybe our people were not involved. When we learnt of those involved like Tijani El -Miskin and our own dear Hajia Bilkisu Yussuf, our sorrow was deep and we became inconsolable. First of all, we learnt through the Iranians who lost up to 500 souls that the Saudis were lying. What the Iranians told the world was that a Saudi Prince was approaching where the pilgrims were performing their rites and in an attempt to make way for him by his large security detail, a stampede ensued. The racially motivated statement by the Saudi government was quickly withdrawn to be replaced by promise of compensation! What value can one place on lives of the departed souls?
Bilkisu Yussuf was a friend and a colleague. She belonged to the radical group of Northern Nigerian intelligentsia nurtured by our friend Bala Yussuf Usman, the radical historian from Ahmadu Bello University. Bilkisu was a radical and at the same time a conservative Muslim lady. She rose to the height of editing the Triumph, a newspaper founded by Abubakar Mohammad Rimi’s government in Kano in 1979. She was a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on International Affairs. In fact, I gave her name to our chairman Chief Emeka Anyaoku as a replacement for Professor Joy Ogwu when she was appointed Foreign Minister. Bilkisu served on this council for about 10 years through the presidencies of Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan. She was a very useful member ferreting information from different sources on the problems facing Nigeria externally. She also belonged to innumerable NGOs particularly devoted to girl-child and women issues as well as the issue of peace and religion. She never missed her prayers in spite of her sometimes punishing schedule. It is only God who can make plain the reason for her death in Saudi Arabia. May God forgive her sins and have mercy on her soul.
From the lives of these three people who made impact on various areas of our national life, we know that it is the courage that one brings to life that counts and not the tonnage of our gold and diamonds. We are all on an earthly journey and what will matter at the end is whether we are an instrument for good or ill and a curse or blessing to our generation.