(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday 29 June, 2020)
It will remain true forever that on the day of death, there is no medicine. Bolaji Tunji, Senator Abiola Ajimobi’s spokesman, said his boss took all the precautions of these malevolent times: He washed his hands, watched his steps, wore face masks and stayed safe. Then a small plane came to pick him in Ibadan for a party meeting in Abuja. He left his home full of life, got to Abuja healthy and did his meeting without hassles and issues. Then fate took over his journey from there, it finally dropped the passenger, not back to base in Ibadan, but at the port of eternity on June 25. He died. They said he had coronavirus and suffered multiple organ failure.
His exasperated boy asked a flurry of questions: “He observed all due protocols. So, what happened? How did it happen? None of us was sick. So, where did this come from?” He said he was “still trying to find answers.” Bolaji couldn’t be the only one looking for those elusive answers. Even the man who died must have asked those questions. “For the dying, the top question is ‘what made me sick?'” That is how human health expert, Steven Magee, put it.
When I read Bolaji Tunji’s teary soliloquy querying why his boss went to Abuja very fit and on his feet but returned to Ibadan in a box, I remembered a similar journey by Major General Babatunde Idiagbon in March 1999. My people say Ònà àrà ni’kú ngbàá p’èdá (death kills in inscrutable ways). It does not matter whether you are healthy or sick or sickly; when death says it is time for the final trip, you can’t cancel or reschedule your flight; you must fly. General Idiagbon, for 14 years after his August 1985 overthrow, kept away from the public and public affairs, but in the last week of March, 1999, he went to Abuja for a meeting. He left home fit and healthy. Inside Aso Rock, Abuja, he was seen full of life. But he came back home very sick, “stooling and vomiting” and died shortly after of what was described as gastroenteritis. A shocked nation asked: What does that mean? The then president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Dr Sunday Mbang, told newsmen in Lagos that he was shocked when he heard the news on the radio. “I met him (Idiagbon) a few days ago when I went to meet the Head of State in Aso Rock and he was quite well…I asked him jokingly, ‘why are you not in politics like others?’ He told me that politics was for small boys…”
Idiagbon was wrong. It wasn’t enough that he said he wouldn’t join politics; fate had already dragged him into the vortex of its Red Sea. That Aso Rock where he uttered those slim words is where the deity of politics collects its offerings. As it was then, so it is now. Think deep here as you read Bolaji Tunji saying his boss never wanted the political post that flew him to Abuja: “He (Ajimobi) never wanted anything else after the general election. He only wanted to take a long, due rest after serving for eight years without break. But another position was thrust on him. He never solicited for it and he did not want it. But they convinced him to accept it…”
That was it. He must accept that last post to fulfill his destiny. He had to take the job because it was fate at work; its bullet knows no armour.
Several others before Ajimobi had experienced their own last flights to Abuja. The city is a metaphor for so many things – just as COVID-19 with its rainbow colours of grief. Those two have something in common: they change people’s stories for good and for bad – especially for bad. Think beyond death in the physical sense. Abuja is toxic; if it spares the body, it goes for the soul of whoever it fancies. A lot of water has streamed into the caked soil of the ghastly land. Adorable Dora Akunyili was a bubbly lady of the nation. She was Nigeria’s reliable cane against fakes, human and medical. Then suddenly, Nigerians heard that she had cancer. Why Dora? If you are the type that gets drifts, you would reflect on the unending waters under the Styx of Abuja. Other good people who are not lost to cancer or coronavirus have lost their souls to the corrosion of the golden city. And the pinkie black sea is not tired of winking at new suitors.
Some philosophers say life is a race between what you have and what may yet come. Others insist there is no race in life, that everyone has a measured step to take towards meeting their assigned destiny. Whichever is correct here, the truth is that life is a journey. For some, it is a long, winding trek; for others, it is a flight, some straight, some with stopovers and connecting flights. And you ask: To where? All of us, ultimately, will land at what the Yoruba call our ‘èbúté’ – our individual ports of disembarkation. Ajimobi was buried yesterday in Ibadan, the place where his story started.
I met Ajimobi, the man who just died, a few times in his years in government. Those very few official meetings were enough for one to form a solid opinion on this politician who could talk – and he really was never afraid to talk. Sometimes, he talked himself into real trouble and strolled off unperturbed. You looked at him and pitied him. Even in terrible storms, he must crack jokes and smile and laugh. If there were no enemies to whip with costly vibes, he would turn the dissing homewards. “They say I talk, but I am a bona fide Ibadan man.” He said this at an occasion and you couldn’t really fault his code. Ibadan people would say whatever is in their mouths, their own way, even if the roof is on fire. Ajimobi was an original Mèsìògò who never took his mouth to the washerman. He was his own man. He was not a perfect man; he made mistakes, some very unnecessary. But he did very many good things which should make him evergreen, unforgettable.
He was extremely lucky – and blessed; he broke jinxes to become a consummate Bòròkìnní Ibadan. In several decades of its existence, Oyo State never allowed a governor to have a second bite at the cherry. For Ajimobi, it did. Again, by December 16, 2019 God gave him an opportunity to do what his fathers could not do: He clocked 70. Yet, it wasn’t that life had always smiled at him. He travelled and hustled abroad doing what made him weep: “I left Nigeria in 1963 to study abroad, but throughout my stay there, I was washing dead bodies to support myself to go to school,” Ajimobi once told the media, and continued: “Whenever I got home from work, I would be weeping, remembering the number of dead bodies I had washed. My boss at work then said I should not be afraid or fear…He encouraged me to always see those dead bodies as iced fish. But against all odds, I survived.” He survived, truly, because he was determined – and destined- to break myths, subsequently.
Every river flows where it must. He died in Lagos and was buried yesterday in Ibadan – in the very soil that contains his placenta and umbilical cord. He was lucky that he completed the cycle, surrounded by family, friends, benefactors and beneficiaries. The world can go on gazing at the mound of earth that remains. He is gone. An era has just ended; many more will end as the world trudges on.
Ajimobi was that good man from Ibadan who held nothing back. He was our very good friend at the Tribune House. We didn’t really start out as friends. There was a mountain of unsmiling ice between his part of the ocean and the Nigerian Tribune’s. There were several standoffs, both sides sizing up each other. There were real tense moments, even exchange of hostile letters. He later realized why we were what we were and why the Tribune could not let a governor and government roam freely. Then, gradually, the ice thawed. Then he told us very many things which only a friend would tell as he helped strike down conspiracies of dark politics aimed at killing Nigeria’s oldest newspaper. We understood him; he understood us. The rest is history.
We lost a friend, a staunch supporter. May his soul rest in peace.