28th May, 2013
By Kanayo Esinulo
If there was no heavy traffic on Ikorodu Road, Lagos between the hours of 12 noon and 1pm on Saturday, 4 May, 2013, Chief Edwin Igbokwe and I could have met Pini Jason Onyegbadue, known more as Pini Jason, one of Nigeria’s finest journalists and public intellectuals, alive. He called me on Saturday, 27 April, from Abuja Airport to say he was on his way to Lagos. He sounded unwell and his voice did not sound cheerful. I wished him a smooth flight. He called me again when the aircraft landed at the local wing of Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos. I asked if he needed me to meet and take him to his house in Surulere, a middle class area of cosmopolitan Lagos. He said, “No.” A driver would be there to pick him and drive him straight to see his doctor at Tares Clinic, Yaba, Lagos. “Ah,’ I shouted, “I knew you were unwell when you called me from the Abuja airport. I could feel it from your voice,” I said. I thought it was the mischievous malaria fever that keeps sneaking back after treatment. “I don’t know what is chewing my intestines. Don’t worry; my doctor will check it out.” I only saw the usual Pini humour in what he said.
He saw his doctor quite alright, and arrived his house by 9p.m. or thereabouts. When I called the following morning to find out how he was feeling, he spoke of fever that made him feel cold all the time but was hopeful that the medication from his doctor would take care of that. But his greatest worry, he told me, was the stomach pain that refused to go away. “For how long has this been going on?” I asked out of curiosity. “For some days now, Kanayo,” I heard him saying. I became uncomfortable. He said he was going back to see his doctor because he had a really rough night. “Should I join you at the clinic to keep you company before you see your doctor and after?” I asked. Pini said there would be no need: “Oby [his wife] would perform that role, but I will keep you posted after seeing my doctor.” The discussion ended.
The next time Pini communicated was through a terse text message that simply said: “Am in for surgery in the morning. Pls pray for me. You can always reach my wife on tel number . . . or call Ama [his son].” The text unsettled me. I called him and we spoke. We ended with our earlier plan about where to lodge at Ogidi or Onitsha during Professor Chinua Achebe’s burial. He suggested places we could stay.
Then, the day of the surgery: Chief Igbokwe and I kept monitoring progress on telephone and were elated when we were told that it was successful and if we wanted to speak to him, it was better we called back in the evening of Friday, 3 May, by which time he would be strong enough to speak to us. We were already missing his humour. Two hours later, I called Oby, his amiable wife, to ask if what someone at the hospital told me was true. She confirmed that it was successful and that he even demanded his usual cup of tea. Pini liked to drink tea. And here was Oby telling me that, “Your friend was even demanding his tea.” I then knew that all went well. It was all God’s doing.
I conveyed the cheery news to Chief Edwin Igbokwe because I knew that he was as worried as I was over the suddenness of the surgery. Any piece of news from the hospital meant so much to us. We then decided to see Pini and share jokes with him before he was discharged. This was happening in the evening of Friday, 3 May. The arrangement for Saturday was simple: I would drive to Igbokwe’s house, park, and join him and his driver in his car to the hospital. We planned to be with Pini at the hospital in Yaba by 1pm, but by 11.02am, our mutual friend, Emma, called from Abuja to ask where I was. “Lagos,” I answered.
“You know our friend, Pini, is in hospital. I urge you to please move to the hospital and tell us what the situation is like. We called his wife and she was crying uncontrollably. Go and see what is happening,” he said. When I recovered from this bad news, I called Ama, Pini’s son. How was his father last night, I asked. He said his dad was fine when he visited the hospital, except that he was having “breathing problem”. Somehow, I felt that was not cheery news. I called Chief Igbokwe to say that if he was ready, it was better we left for the hospital ahead of the agreed time. I told him what Emma said. Igbokwe advised I come over immediately. I arrived and joined him in his car. We were on our way to Tares Clinic, Yaba, Lagos. As we stepped into the reception area, we were met by Pini’s wife, eyes totally wet with tears, directing me to “go and see your friend”. I knew the worst had happened.
We have lost Pini: a fine and decent man, a man of ideas, a patriot to the core – all his writings pointed only in one direction, how Nigeria could be made better for everybody.
Pini would never lay claim to being an intellectual, but we knew he was one. He lived primarily on ideas – in a classical western tradition. He knew no other way of earning a living except through writing. He was happier and more comfortable in the company of those who allow ideas and great dreams to interface and flourish, and he made his contributions without being haughty or aggressive. You may disagree with the Pini position, but you could see where he was coming from and the paradigm or platform upon which he premised his points. The sheer sincerity of his arguments and the truth and clarity with which he consistently delivered them often helped to reduce his vulnerability. He was a great mind, never afraid to take on those he often referred to as pseudo-intellectuals, particularly the intellectual clan that paraded jaundiced views and positions that hinder national development. He fought many battles trying to get Nigerians to think right and pursue worthy political causes. And he won so many of them, if you ask me.
As the Mortuary Officer at the Military Hospital, Yaba accepted his body, and just before the body was rolled away that ugly Saturday afternoon, I approached the roller (that shiny enamelware with which attendants collect bodies at morgues) and looked into Pini’s face and chest one more time, and tears rolled down – something I tried to avoid. Pini’s cousin, Arch. Eddie Ndukaire and his son, Amandi, were all there and no one was strong enough to console the other. It was only Chief Igbokwe who remained largely calm and composed, but we were all devastated. As we left the mortuary to drive back to the hospital to collect Oby and her little ‘belongings’ – she had camped at the hospital all these days – on a painful journey to their Surulere residence, I began to think and visualise the hollowness and emptiness that life actually really is. That is, perhaps, where the wisdom of my people’s popular saying is drawn from: “Our duty is to perform the sacrifice, and leave the blame at the doorstep of the spirits.” Pini performed the sacrifice (his duty to society) and he performed it well, in my view.
The only tribute worth paying this decent, humble and remarkable man is to continue speaking the truth, especially to those in authority, and doing so without fear, with clarity, with patriotic zeal and deep respect. He was a personal friend and for years, I called him ‘a writer-in-residence’, and he wrote with deep commitment and passion for one of Nigeria’s leading national dailies. As Pini is committed to mother earth, and back to his creator, on Saturday, 1 June, at Obizi, Mbaise, in Imo State, I say to him wherever he may be: I will definitely miss you. Good night, Pini Jason!
•Esinulo wrote this article for TheNEWS magazine