On Monday 6th March 2017 at about 10am, I received a call from an older associate asking if I had received the news about Onukaba. I asked ‘what is the news’? My mouth was turning dry at this point. From the sound of my caller’s voice, it was predictable the news he was going to relay was no good news. He responded; ‘he died in an accident along Akure-Ilesha expressway yesterday evening’. I felt instantly numb. My informer went on to mumble a few words before the conversation ended. I am not sure I exactly heard the rest of what he said.
I stood dazed on the spot. That the well-spoken Onukaba was dead was beyond comprehension. I instantly assured myself perhaps there had been a mix-up. Maybe my informant had not been well informed. I instantaneously with trembling hands reached for my phone again and dialed ‘Dr. Onukaba’ on my phone. For well over thirty minutes, I was unable to get through as his phone kept saying ‘the number you are trying to call is busy’. I also ‘googled’ his name quickly, there was nothing beyond news of his last political outing at this point. I assured myself my informer had likely been wrongly informed. My mind however kept pounding, inspite of my self-assurance.
A little into an hour later, I dialed again. As the call was answered, a voice that was definitely not Onukaba’s responded. In a terse sentence, he confirmed the worst. The word ‘sorrow’ only begins to describe the feeling that enveloped me.
My path and that of Dr. Adinoyi Ojo Onukaba’s first crossed at the University of Abuja in 2010. He was a lecturer at the department of Theatre Arts where I was pursuing a post graduate degree in Media Arts. He was so easy to fall in love with. He often dressed very simply in his traditional wear of native trouser and jumper, but often turned out well dressed. One attribute I particularly liked about him was his neatness that came with his good looking skin. These attributes he complimented with a rich voice (one with no accent to any local parts of the Country/ Nigeria) and a deep intellect.
Onukaba, as many of my school mates (who took his course) at the time acknowledged, was a refreshing change from the usual haughty tutors that paraded the premises of many of our Nigerian universities. He was amongst the few who gave room for dialogue during lectures. His lectures were mostly interactive and could pass for a group conversation. He brought ease to learning and made it quite interesting. Even his own ideas were not above criticism as far as he was concerned. Like many of my then school mates, I found his lectures which mostly held on Fridays irresistible.
Onukaba encouraged intellectual freedom. When students argued with him, he was not an individual to talk down on anyone as most of his colleagues would, but would slowly and often with a smile bury you with the force of his logic. He was so easy to approach and discuss with. On more than one occasion, I had rode with him back to town from the premises of the University of Abuja permanent site. On such rides, we discussed everything from politics, economy and our common profession – the media where he of cause had decades of experience. You hardly would conceive he was the same man that had held position as the Managing Director of Daily Times or the Senior Special Assistant to former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar , on public communication.
Inspite of his characteristically warm nature, Onukaba was a man of order. A particular incident comes to mind; he had made class presentation part of our academic requirements for onward grading. Like many of my school mates at the post graduate level, I was juggling school alongside means of livelihood. Certain factors had necessitated my skipping his lectures simultaneously on some occasion. I did not realize my presence had not gone unnoticed by him. I then called him on phone one Thursday to inform him I will be doing my presentation the following day of Friday. He instantly asked me on the phone ‘what are you coming to present when you have not been attending lectures’? I will not allow you!’ It took quite an effort before he allowed me do the mandatory academic presentation. In a funny twist, after I was done with my presentation and was still standing in front of the classroom, some ‘backbenchers’ shouted ‘we did not hear you at all’. Onukaba lightly fired back, ‘but you raised no objections while he was talking’. At that point I realized his earlier stance was not personal. This was corroborated when he later said ‘The idea of any degree is knowledge. Don’t just end up with a degree. Get the knowledge that goes with it’. I smiled and thanked him. He once again gave me another ride to the temporary site of the University where he mentioned he was going to get some books at the library.
After I ended my post graduate program, we still kept in touch. Our point of meeting was mostly the City Library at Wuse Zone 4. He was a well-known face at the library and was familiar with many staff of the place. When I conceived the idea of a biography project, he was the first I discussed the idea with. Onukaba embraced it and encouraged me. He then gave useful tips on how to proceed and cautioned against doing a hagiography. He was at the time preparing for the Gubernatorial election of Kogi State. This was in late 2015. He informed his participation in the project was going to be minimal. In my heart, I did not think Onukaba stood any chance of winning elections as Governor of a highly contentious state as Kogi where the politics was not about ideas or principle, but as the rest of Nigeria, money and banditry usually had its way. But I simply wished him well. When next we saw, he lamented on how the entire process of the primaries were flawed. Nigeria is a place that often suppresses its best brains and hands while propelling the incompetent. When pictures of him surfaced on Facebook in Agbada, I called to ‘yab’ him. This was after commenting on the one of the pictures. He always responded to every comment made on his pictures.
Sometime in January, my wife sought a job at the University of Abuja as a lecturer. I called him on phone seeking advice as to how to start the application process. He characteristically gave lot of useful advice. It was at that point he informed me he had quit lecturing at the University and was now working at a certain telecom outfit. As our conversation came to an end, he said ‘Waniko, let us try and see soon’. I informed him I will call him again soon and meet up with him. That turned out to be our last conversation.
Onukaba’s death re-emphasizes the state of bad infrastructure and insecurity in Nigeria. The death that has claimed such an intellectual giant compressed in a humble persona is quite revealing. In a society where the lust for material acquisition has overwhelmed knowledge acquisition, Onukaba and others possessing his mind and conviction are a dying breed. Knowing I will never hear his rich voice again is a blow. Nigeria has lost a rare man.
– Innocent Nzeke Waniko