Before I’m accused of name-dropping, let me start by stressing that though it’s implied, such an intention is as far away from it as Port Harcourt is from Kaura-Namoda. After all, this is not about railway lines. Or their terminuses for, that matter, but the goodness inherent in humanity.
This preamble wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. The more so if you are as intrigued by human paths and their crossings like my humble self. No doubt, not unlike myself too, you’d have probably had cause now and again to ponder the wonderful maze they have inadvertently deigned to spin. Making you, perhaps, shudder in bewilderment.
The recent demise of Otunba Michael Olasubomi Balogun (CON) had such an effect on me. Admittedly, I never set my eyes on him while he lived. Pictures of him on the television, social media and the newspapers notwithstanding, I might not have been able to identify him even from a gathering of two.
The same cannot be said of the late Ide Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme. Apart from when he was Vice President, he used to hail from my Local Government Area. On account, I had occasions to see him physically, though from afar. Like when as VP he paid a courtesy visit to the palace of our then traditional ruler – also late – and met his absence. Passing by, we beheld him and his entourage at the palace gate with teenage glee.
Like it came to pass, I wasn’t to meet him face to face until preparations for his 80th birthday got underway. One way and another, I had gotten a commission to interview the erudite renaissance man ahead of the event. This time the glee was even more palpable. It was more like American writer James Baldwin Going To Meet The Man alive.
I had met him on schedule in his country home. To call the meeting an anticlimactic occasion will be economical with the truth. As a typical village boy who attended primary school in a town next to his, I had cause a couple of times to pass by the well-appointed compound, well aware of its owner. However, it never crossed my mind that I’ll one day step foot on its hallowed grounds.
That appointed day many years later, I must confess to having entered the compound with guided trepidation. Nevertheless, I was amazed at its frugality. There and then it struck me that it was – and still is – very modest for a man of his achievement. In fact, it was more meagre than those of the many mentees whom he had personally made via his famed scholarship scheme.
Anyway, the interview session was to prove that I was in the right place. Of course none else could tell the Ekwueme story. From a backwoods school in the east he went to Kings College Lagos and the USA to later become the nation’s first elected Vice President.
But of the many names that propped up while the discussion lingered, none enthralled me like that of Subomi Balogun. Like the latter concurred in his autobiography The Cross, The Triumph and The Crown their relationship dates back to the pre-Civil War days when they ended up neighbours somewhere in Lagos.
Following the outbreak of hostilities, Ekwueme had had to beat a hasty retreat to the east to save his head from decapitation.Only to return to meet his house renovated and rented by Balogun who promptly squared him the accrued rent. A favour returned by Ekwueme when as VP he helped him get approval for his bank First City Merchant Bank.
Of course, way before Ekwueme’s recount of this tale to my ears, I’ve been encountering Otunba Balogun’s name and endeavours in more ways than one. Like, citings in the press apart, en route to Lagos on the Benin-Sagamu expressway, I used to behold the Otunba Tunwase Pediatric Centre at Ijebu Ode. Torn between feelings, I would often wonder – driving or being driven by – at the kind of heart it took to commit so much to charity.
Then it came to pass that when my wife put our next issue to bed, she turned out with a complication. After all the local consultations in our Onitsha residence, one verdict prevailed: that we should take the baby to the University of Ibadan Teaching Hospital. We – my wife and I – could not but oblige.
After a harrowing trip by road to the town of rust and gold, she was admitted to the ICU of the paediatric ward. Lo and behold, it was bequeathed by Otunba Balogun’s philanthropy. Though the baby gave up the ghost some three months later, she succeeded in indenting Otunba Balogun’s name in my heart. And it has remained there ever since.
In our nation where tribe and tongue differentials are often taken to the heavens, these two interventions by Balogun matters. Yes, though with Ekwueme it was a big man helping his fellow, my own case stands out for its philanthropic magnitude. It could have anybody from anywhere. For instance, transferred to the general ward later, we were to meet with another family from the east already on admission.
Yet such stories abound in Nigeria. Like when the late General J. T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi was being taken away by the revenge putschists in 1966 and his host Col. Fajuyi opted to tag along. A trained soldier, he knew the stakes. But rather than abandon his visitor, he opted otherwise. Talk about the type of friendship and camaraderie true patriotism should imbue.
The situation reminded me of back then in the newsroom when we once did a feature on the kind of gifts offerable to a man like Sobomi Balogun who has almost everything. En route back to Onitsha with my child dead and buried in Ibadan, I decided that the first thing I’d do back home was to buy one or two shares of First City Monument Bank Plc.
That was years ago. And, like then, news of the death of Otunba Balogun in faraway London saw me insisting that I must tell this story to the world in recompense. Otunba, my child’s tiny grave in that Ibadan cemetery remains a memento to your bigheartedness. Adieu Atunwase!