It was just before Christmas, and I was on my way to Italy to spend Christmas with friends. I had stopped to make a telephone call to Nigeria, to wish family and friends a merry Christmas. I had just finished wishing the first of them a Merry Christmas when she yelled, “These people have killed Bola Ige!”
I froze, literally, and then ran to catch CNN, and it was true. Uncle Bola was dead…. murdered in cold blood. It ruined my holiday, even as I tried to put up a brave front and not spoil the holiday for my friends who had kindly invited me to share their Christmas. I always planned to write this, to put on record the Uncle Bola I knew, but just could not bring myself to it.
I attended the memorial service held by the Nigerian High Commission and listened to speaker after speaker extol his wit, his intellect, his charm, and still I could not bring myself to write. A few weeks ago, my final results were in and I had passed with distinction. After sharing the news with family and friends, I thought of one person who would have delighted in my success, but who is no longer here to share in my joy….and so, finally, I write…
The first time I met Uncle Bola was at the aborted launch of his book at the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs. The cream of Nigeria’s political and intellectual class had gathered to do honour to their own, when a message came from the SSS, the launch could not be allowed to go on. In characteristic good humour, Uncle Bola mounted the stage, thanked everyone for coming and promised that we would regroup. Before then, I had only heard of the Cicero, had read his book, Kaduna Boy but never met him. I wasn’t disappointed. As we milled around outside the hall, he moved from group to group, slipping from Yoruba to Hausa to English chatting and slapping backs, completely unaffected. I was charmed.
The next time I met him was again at the NIIA, my friend Dipo Soetan was presenting his collection of poetry and Uncle Bola was chairman. Effusive in his praise for the young lawyer-poet, he explained why he had driven down from Ibadan to chair the occasion – his love for the arts and his belief in the youth of Nigeria. He read one of the poems, in his characteristic flawless diction, and I was charmed again.
By 1999, I had moved to Abuja and with Victor Anoliefo and Ken Okere started the nucleus of what was to become the Abuja Literary Society. Getting support was an uphill task – in the cultural desert of Abuja, philistinism reigned supreme. Then, we invited Ojo Maduekwe, then Minister of Culture to one of our readings. He couldn’t make it, but sent his staff to represent him. Apparently encouraged by what they saw, they invited us to be a part of the reception for Chinua Achebe’s homecoming.
At the reception that night, at the Minister’s house, with some of our members, we presented poetry and drama. As I stepped away from the microphone, someone clapped me on my back “Well done young man…that was very well-read, are you by any chance the son of my friend…” It was Uncle Bola. On the spot he demanded to become a part of the Abuja Literary Society and promised to support us. And he did. Amazingly, in spite of his tight schedule, he would from time to time, drop in unannounced at our meetings. He talked us up, even at meetings of the Federal Executive Council. He promised to host us to a dinner and reading at his house, which he eventually did.
When Chief Ojo Maduekwe conceptualised the first Khunu Ago (Culture House), a forum where the leadership could be brought in contact on a regular basis with contemporary Nigerian art, writing and culture, Uncle Bola, I am told, enthusiastically supported him at the Federal Executive Council. At the first edition, he was active, reading his own poetry, other people’s work and dancing quite skilfully to the Afro-jazz tunes of Heavy Wind. And he was generous in his praise, making us feel that our work was not a waste of time.When we held a reception to mark the appointment of the Chairman of our Board of Trustees, Ferdinand Agu as Director General of the NMA, Uncle Bola was chairman. In spite of having received the invitation only a few days to the event, Uncle Bola was among the first to turn up. No sirens, no fuss. He slipped effortlessly into the venue. Again, he was generous in his praise, pouring encomiums on the initiative and thanking Enitan Sanusi, owner of GODI and publisher of Policy magazine for providing us free accommodation over two years for our monthly readings. To crown it all, he promised to fund the publication of our first anthology, something he had just done for ANA Ibadan. Sadly, the anthology had not been completed before his death. I understand it is now being published in the Netherlands through the kind instrumentality of Michel Deelen, another strong supporter of the society. Fittingly, it is entitled Uncle Bola’s Promise.
What marked Uncle Bola out for me was his humility, his deep and genuine love for the arts and his deep concern for the younger generation. He cared, he always wanted to know how one was doing and understood quite clearly, unlike many of his generation how difficult it was for young people in Nigeria to make a living, to make progress. I did not always agree with him, politically, but he was always willing to listen and argue his point in his characteristic eloquence.
When I gained admission to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Uncle Bola urged me on, insisting that nothing including funding should stand in my way. He promised to contribute his own widow’s mite and actually approached people on my behalf. That a man so busy could maintain a healthy interest in the minutiae of other people’s lives was truly remarkable.
I last saw him at my brother’s wedding, a few weeks before I travelled, three months before he was murdered. He was chairman of the occasion and in his characteristic way took charge of events. Even then, he paused to ask how my study plans were progressing. I hear he also kept asking after my progress, and was incensed to learn I had not been granted study leave, and even sought to intervene…
And so you see, why it hurts that he isn’t here to share in my joy. And why each time I read the news from home and learn that his killers have not been found, and that life has virtually gone back to normal, I shudder for my country and shed a tear for Uncle Bola. So from across the vast oceans, I lift my flute to my lips and blow a dirge for Uncle Bola, great man with a golden heart, friend and mentor of the youth, patron of the arts, a man without whom, Nigeria is infinitely poorer.