10th June, 2013
By Femi Osofisan
The house is like any other along the street, without any special adornment. We are in the largely middle-class suburb of Surulere in Lagos. But to my pleasant surprise, the street, which I have not visited for several years, has now been turned into a double carriageway.
We get down from the car and enter through a gate leading to a side door. There are flowers along the base of the walls. Past the open garage to the right, where a car is sitting, we climb up a short stairway, and find ourselves in the office, where the neatly dressed secretary receives us with visible courtesy. Behind her is a door, and I can hear the man’s voice inside, giving instructions. But we do not wait for long before we are ushered into the inner office to meet him.
I look at him again as he hugs my assistant familiarly and shakes my hand. He has not changed in any noticeable way since I saw him last at the Unilag some six months before. He is still dapper and trim, lean and well-kept, with the trademark central parting across his low-cut hair. His voice is also the same clear, polished lilt, with its elaborately cultivated diction. As usual his affability is disarming, and his elegance unforced, even in the casual clothes he is wearing.
He leads us on through some doors, past walls that are decorated with paintings, and soon we are back downstairs in his private sitting room. ‘Madam’, whom I still have not met, is not around again today, I learn.
The room is filled with mementoes everywhere, on the floor, on the walls, on chairs and tables. Photographs, lovely framed, stare at you, some benignly beckoning, some aggressively posturing, others with some statement that is difficult to decipher at once. Most are of children and grandchildren, in-laws and close relations, and of himself and his wife at obviously memorable moments. The room speaks noisily of the biography of a man who has lived an exceptional life.
“The children don’t like this room,” he tells us with a chuckle. “They don’t feel at ease here; they say it’s like a museum.”
I am thinking to myself that, if I had a magic wand this moment, I would gather all my songs, all my fables, and weave them into a golden garland, and offer it to him as a birthday present. But sadly, I am no magician. All I can offer are my words of good wishes.
My host accepts them with grace. At 80, this man has been acknowledged as one the nation’s finest gentlemen. But you would never know this by simply looking at him.
He is one of these fortunate beings who are blessed with a frame of Adonic youthfulness. Together with his sprightly gait and clean physique, his body offers a picture that totally belies his age, giving the impression of a much younger man. But it is not because of his looks that I am here today. This is a man who is more or less a living legend, with a curriculum vitae that reads like an intimidating dictionary of select awards and distinctions.
He has remained “simply Mister Onosode” by choice and by humility, but it is difficult to think of an important private or public sector business or initiative that he has not chaired at one time or the other in the past 50 years at least. He is a Fellow or Board member of countless business organisations and financial institutions nationally and internationally.
And in the educational area, to which he seems to have directed much of his abundant energy in recent years, he has been Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Governing Council of several of our leading universities, the latest being the University of Lagos, Akoka. I can go on, but how many shall we count of the teeth in the mouth of Adepele? It is not to enumerate his achievements that I have come either.
My mission, among other things, is to find out from him the tricks of survival in a cruel age such as the one we live in.
In his biography, published ten years ago, one learns of the rather unfair number of occasions he has been in and out of hospitals and undergone serious surgical operations both here and abroad. Furthermore, he has had to witness the passing away of the people dearest to him, some of his most cherished siblings, leaving him to carry enormous responsibilities even at an early age.
How then, with such losses and so many records of near-fatal encounters, has he managed so magnificently to conquer the terror of death, such that the approach of his 80th birthday fills him with no trepidation at all about his mortality? Who, simply, is the man behind the public image? Does he bleed like the rest of us?
I decide to be cautious. I begin by asking him about his background. Coming from what was a lowly rural background, how did he manage to pull himself to such a lofty height in our society and join the ranks of the elite?
But he corrects me. Rural, yes, but his roots were not ‘lowly’. “In that community,” he explains, “we saw ourselves and we were perceived as the elite, okay? I remember my father used to ‘import’ a bag of rice from Warri, and when I say ‘import’, I mean that it was like God having come down and brought something. He probably was the only person who had a Raleigh bicycle in town… And we lived in a compound with zinc roofing, corrugated iron roofing, as opposed to thatch. The compound was a huge square with boundary demarcations.”
This was the vicarage at Oginibo, in what is now the Delta State, where his father worked as a Baptist priest. The conditions were in fact so favourable that Onosode had an early access to books: “My father had a library. And I thought it was an enormous library even when I was eh… in the secondary school. It was only much later in life, after I went to the university, that I discovered that this ‘enormous’ library was only actually one tiny segment of my library at 44 Adelabu Street… But to me as a child it was enormous.”
He pauses, thinking back with nostalgia. The he continues: “I used to sit there in his chair, in his easy chair—you know this kind of thing where you put this Calico cloth and uh—and pull the books out one after the other. There were all kinds there: English Literature, Mathematics, even some science books, theological books, and, uh…poetry, and so on. And…I guess that had an impact on me later on, because many of my contemporaries in the secondary school didn’t see a collection of books until they got to the school. Whereas I was brought up among books.”
The company of books was really fortuitous then, because his parents had very strict ideas about their children mixing with others in the community: “At home, we were brought up to be stay-at-home children. We were not encouraged to go out because my parents believed that the influence of the world around us was more likely to be negative than positive… and I haven’t really outgrown that really. I’m still very much a-stay-at-home boy.”
This explains a number of things. Certainly it explains his present reclusive nature. And now, expanding on that, he makes a shocking revelation, that he was born with a natural disability: “I was the only child of my parents who had a stammer… I think that is part of the reason why I… I was very quiet, you see … because I was a stammerer. I would only open my mouth if I had to…”
A stammerer?!! I look at him incredulously. This man who is generally regarded as an orator, from whose lips words pour out at all moments with mellifluous ease, and whose polished elocution would be a boon to any media house any day?
He must have noticed my astonishment. He smiles. The stammer, he explains, had disappeared miraculously when he was made a school prefect in the secondary school. “… I said to God, how am I going to discharge this responsibility of making announcements? And you know with stammering, there usually is an emotional kind of thing that fuels it, such that the more excited you are, the greater your chances of stuttering. But God just said, ‘My boy, don’t worry, I will be with you.’ And without subjecting myself to any therapy, any therapy at all, the thing just vanished! Yes, God just did it!”
So now we understand his unbending faith in Christianity and the Baptist Church.
But however, apart from this speech defect, there was also the fact that he began to carry family responsibilities right from youth: “I seem to have developed without having a period of adolescence… I took over from my father long before he died… And the result is that I didn’t really have fun like others.”
This ascetic solitariness became a habit. Even in school, he did not take part in sports: “I didn’t like sports… That’s one thing I have against Government College. Sports appeared to have been so emphasised, that I detested it… it was like, this was some oppression that I had to endure.”
Nor did he have girl friends or womanise, like most Nigerian men: “The bottom line is that I was… even before I came to Ibadan… that I took every opportunity that was available to build up my faith and my character. I did not think sexual activity was some kind of fun likedrinking tea every Sunday afternoon. No!”
So what does he then do, you wonder, in his leisure hours? There are the church activities of course, which he never misses. But are those all? Does he never relax?
“In fact, that’s my problem,” he admits. “You may find out that perhaps I’m one of the most boring human beings you can come across… I am a private a person as I am. I am not a society person, and I don’t join societies and clubs… I don’t go anywhere to dance, to eat or drink… So, it’s a dreary kind of life. But I’m happy.”
My assistant and I exchange looks. How much of what he is saying is true, and how much is he deliberately pulling our leg? “You see,” he continues, “there are some people who say I’m an unsmiling person… I don’t really…I don’t play games… It is surprising that I even know how to laugh…”
And of course at that we all burst out laughing, the three of us. It is interesting how the exterior so often masks the identity of the inner man. For if there is anything Onosode does not know how to do, it is certainly NOT how to laugh! At least not in our company since I have come close to him. His face may be stern and austere—like a permanent advert for sainthood, some people say—but you soon discover that behind that steel exterior is a soft and compassionate personality, prodigiously generous, and easily vulnerable in fact because of that.
Indeed in his company there is never a dull moment, for he tells many stories, some of which can crack your ribs. Even now, as I ask about his days at GCU, he repeats one of his favourites, an episode long ago from a drama production: “It was… one Emordi. He’s dead now. He died a long time ago. They were presenting Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and when it got to the point where something was to happen to the dead body of Caesar as he was lying there, Emordi said, after looking blank and agitated for a brief moment, he just said—‘Carry am make we go!’…The following morning, our Principal, Powell, almost wept in the assembly. He said, “Yes, you can be forgiven for not remembering your lines… If you had said, ‘Please help me remove this body…’ But, Carry am make we go! How could Shakespeare have known pidgin English?
The humour ends however when it comes to work. In this, Onosode will not joke with the matter of efficiency or competence. And above these, is the question of ethics. This, again, is the powerful shadow of his father. “My father was a highly organised and disciplined person… he would never compromise on principle.”
Gamaliel proudly recalls the unpleasant occasion when his father was denied ordination, even after graduating from Ogbomosho, because he would not bend to the presiding pastor’s view on polygamy. Sent out of the vicarage, he moved unrepentant and without shame to his wife’s half-completed house, and lived there for several months. And in the end it was the Church that had to recall him.
Like father, like son then, one can see. This rigidity on the matter of principle is the recurrent trait that has marked Onosode’s career. It is where he has earned his reputation of unyielding probity, as a man who would rather quit than compromise. “Oh, I was the first in so many things and so many areas… and I always resigned on protest in each case.”
It takes great courage to do that, especially in our morally depraved situation in Nigeria. “Sometimes, quite often,” he confesses, “I just walked into the night! …I didn’t know where I was going. By the time I resigned, I didn’t know what the next job would be. I just said well, don’t worry, I’m not going to tolerate that nonsense just because I want to keep a job.”
But the irony was that, because of this risk and the flawless reputation he acquired through it, Onosode has always found other doors opening almost immediately for him.
Honesty pays, once you wear it like a garment. It is his creed of honour: “When I’m telling people to be courageous, to stand for what is true, I’m not just passing on what I read from Aristotle or from Socrates or from whoever. No! I’m sharing my personal experience. I’m not asking them to do what I did not do myself…This is the Christ in me.”
It will not be easy. It has never been easy to live a clean life. Still, as he says: “A man has to be a man… You have to be bold to stand for what you believe…You see, if you really stand for a principle, if a principle is really for you a principle, you must be willing to pay the price. You can’t have your cake and eat it.”
And he concludes: “The reason why we have not achieved as much or even what could have been… is because of the lack of personal integrity. There’s no substitute to that. As a Christian, everything revolves round that. … I mean, if there is no integrity, no amount of skill will produce the desired result. It takes only one little man to throw in a little spanner and the whole thing collapses, right? But, at the same time…it takes perhaps just one man to introduce an idea, a concept, a process that has a transforming effect. So, never give up!”
I look at my watch. Incredibly we have been here for five hours. What a day! It is time to leave the old man to rest.
•Osofisan wrote this articule for TheNEWS magazine.