So My Own Alhaji is Gone! By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, this is not the best of seasons in our dear beloved country. In the past few weeks, we’ve lost some great citizens: Justice Chukwudifu Akunne Oputa (INTEGRITY PERSONIFIED), The Emir of Kano Alhaji Ado Bayero (ICONIC MONARCH), Dr Dora Akunyili (MADAM EFFICIENCY) and now my own Alhaji Azeez Arisekola Alao (BABA ALAANU – BENEFACTOR OF THE POOR).
While Justice Oputa and Alhaji Ado Bayero attained a ripe old age, Alhaji Arisekola Alao was 69 and Dr Akunyili was only 59. So much has been written about the lives and times of the first three personalities during their lifetime and after so kindly permit me to pay special tribute to the rare gem who quietly touched thousands of lives directly and hundreds of thousands more indirectly without the attendant public acclaim that he thoroughly deserved.
Indeed he taught me some lessons of life. I will begin with the amazing drama of his last one week on earth before I do a flashback to his exciting lifestyle.
Though Alhaji had battled cancer for some time, a fact that was known to family and friends, no one expected him to die so suddenly. He had carried out his treatment regime with uncommon strength and he didn’t allow it to affect his kindness, friendliness and joviality at any time.
Alhaji Arisekola boarded a British Airways flight on Friday 13, 2014, from Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, accompanied by his son. He had arrived early enough from Ibadan and was ushered into the airport by his usual retinue of friends and aides. After clearing Immigration, Customs and security, he headed to the exclusive Gabfol Lounge, the favourite of high-flying passengers of his status. Just before he got to Gabfol Lounge, he turned to his son and said it was compulsory to buy some snacks for his grandchildren in London. Alhaji spent about 30 minutes picking plantain chips, kilishi and a few other items that ran up to about N70,000. He was clearly elated and determined that he was not going to see the kids empty-handed.
At the lounge, he was very warmly received by the polite and courteous staff who will never forget how he gave them a tip of £1,000 not too long ago. That was Alhaji for you. He was never tired of giving succour to those lucky to meet him. Aare Musulumi Arisekola Alao was a good friend and protégé of Aare Ona Kakanfo Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, and they shared common traits one of which was their uncommon generosity. I shall return to the others later.
Alhaji made himself comfortable in a private corner of the lounge and requested for his usual chicken satay, coke and water. He was as lively as ever. Alhaji was an eloquent story-teller and you could never get bored in his presence. He chatted with the Chairman of Gabfol, Foluso Adeagbo, a fellow Ibadan indigene who personally attended to him throughout his stay in the beautiful lounge. He said he was going to rest for a few days in London and return to Lagos on Friday February 20, 2014. They discussed Oyo State politics and he said he was very impressed about the way Governor Abiola Ajimobi was transforming Ibadan and other parts of Oyo. He tried to reach the Governor by phone before he left but didn’t quite succeed. He told all those who cared to listen that he was a friend to all the different political parties but would acknowledge performance above sentiment. He walked to the boarding gate and spent ample time chatting before going to board the flight.
All those who saw him off said he did not appear like someone who would die in a few days. Even while in London he was home most of the time resting and bonding with his family. He had invested heavily in giving his children very sound education. For a man who did not have much education himself, he had painstakingly brushed himself up and he believed that his family would not be as disadvantaged as he was in this respect. He blended tradition with modernity with great aplomb.
Alhaji was one of Nigeria’s biggest Muslim leaders but he was tolerant of other religions. He attended church ceremonies and sat through church services without any sign of irritation or impatience. The last time I saw him was less than a year ago at the Methodist Church Agodi, at the funeral of his much older friend Sir Gabriel Adeagbo. He was at the church service even before the arrival of the corpse and the family.
The story of Arisekola is the stuff of thrillers any day. I had heard about him from musicians who praised him endlessly. But the first time I saw him face to face was about 35 years ago at a party to celebrate the passing of the father of legal luminary, Professor Gabriel Adesiyan Olawotin (SAN), on at the High Court premises on Aderemi Road, Ile-Ife. Alhaji who must have been about 34 years old at the time and was already a household name had breezed in with his tag-team, Chief Akanni Aluko who by a twist of fate had attempted to visit him the day he died and probably ensured his death was discovered sooner. The duo spent some time spraying cash on the African Beat maestro, King Sunny Ade. My best friend, Prince Damola Aderemi, and I watched these fabulously rich men as they took over the stage. We prayed to God to open our own doors of fortune someday. We returned to Great Ife campus fired up to work even harder so we could enjoy almost as much as adults. We never begrudged them for enjoying their money like many people tend to do nowadays, but they edged their names permanently in our minds.
I never saw him again until many years later when I joined Concord Newspapers. My job gave me privileged access to the rich and famous nationwide. Mine was a dream profession. The love Iavished upon me by my legendary boss, Chief Moshood Abiola, also opened powerful doors almost effortlessly. Alhaji Azeez Arisekola Alao was born with affability. We just hit it off instantly and I paid visits to him most times I was in Ibadan. There was never a dull moment in his company.
He was very fond of Chief Abiola and always had great things to say about him. This is no surprise as their lives and lifestyle was similar. Alhaji constantly had people milling at his gate round the clock just like was used to be the case at Abiola’s house in Ikeja, Lagos. He was blessed with many wives and wonderful children like Abiola. He made stupendous money from contracts and invested wisely like Abiola. He attracted powerful friends everywhere and courted the military like Abiola. Arisekola and Abiola had an incredible propensity for splashing cash on friends and even total strangers. They were both very close despite their age difference. After Abiola, Arisekola said the man whose generosity he respected so much is the Chairman of Globalcom, Dr Mike Adenuga Jnr. He was fond of quoting Abiola’s favourite saying: the hand of the giver is always on top
What I admired most in him was his incredible loyalty to friends from different ideological and political persuasions. Alhaji Arisekola was exceptionally close to General Sani Abacha. It was under the regime of General Abacha that I fled into exile. I was pleasantly surprised when Alhaji Arisekola located me in London and invited me over to his house in Brondesbury Park. I thought he would be afraid to identify with dissidents but he was too smart to alienate any of his friends on account of politics. He showed this by staying close to the Abiola family when others deserted them and never dabbled into the murky waters that beclouded the political firmament at the time.
I discovered his staying power was the ability to accommodate everyone while minding his own business. Those were very delicate days when it was dangerous to make wrong friends. But Alhaji stuck out his neck and made us feel welcome. I used to sit with him on the floor of his bedroom in London to eat some finger-burning amala and apon, the special delicacy of Ibadan people. After that, they would serve us basket of oranges and he will cut each into two and pass it round for partakers to suck. I will forever treasure those moments when many politicians and emergency contractors avoided us like the plague. That was the period he gave the pet-name he called me to the end, Dele Onitemi (my own Dele). In return I used to call him Alhaji t’emi (my personal Alhaji). Wherever we met, he accorded me the highest esteem and recognition. He was such a charmer.
I had planned to see him today in Ibadan after attending the funeral of yet another prominent Ibadan son, Chief Amos Olasupo Adegoke, popularly known as Adegoke Motors. I had been postponing this trip because of the ordeal of travelling on the notorious Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. Little did I know that I will never see my own Alhaji at home again. I doubt if he knew that his time was up. He had promised to return home yesterday. The irony is that he actually came back as promised. To demonstrate that life is nothing but vanity, he had flown out in the First Class cabin of British Airways but returned in the cargo hold of Virgin Atlantic yesterday morning, totally lifeless.
It is a great lesson for us all, and in particular to our political gladiators who are fighting stupidly for power as if they will live forever. Only if they could be wise enough to know that no one knows the day or time when death would sneak in and take away the oracle-man with his bag of divination.
May Allah accept the beautiful soul of Alhaji Azeez Arisekola Alao… Amin.
A Tear For Aunty Dora
And so Aunty Dora Akunyili died and we didn’t even have time to say goodbye.
Such was the pain I felt when the bell finally tolled for a woman I had come to accept as part of my family. Our closeness surpassed all understanding. We had met one day at her official residence in Ikoyi, Lagos at her invitation while she worked and made endless headlines at NAFDAC. She wanted me to advise her on a few things that troubled her. First was the spate of attempts on her life by the kingpins of fake drugs. She feared for her personal safety.
Next she wanted to think of life after NAFDAC. She considered going abroad to live in peace. I said she could do that if she got an international appointment but that Nigeria needed her more. If people like her abandon the struggle, where rests the ordinary man’s hope? We went through a few permutations and she became less anxious.
From that moment we talked regularly and met in Lagos and Abuja whenever possible. When she was appointed Minister, I was one of the first people to be notified. She wanted me to see her in Abuja at the Ministry of Information. I agreed but it was impossible to see properly on that occasion. I noticed that the government ‘experts’ had instantly stormed the place and laid siege on her. We spoke briefly and I gave as much advice as was possible under the circumstances. The pressure on her increased tremendously. I know she preferred to be given the opportunity to clean up our health sector which was her passion but instead she was shoved into a Ministry that required mendacity on behalf of government since the Government was only interested in leveraging on her goodwill. Aunty Dora, like the consummate professional that she was, did her best to make a bad job look good enough.
She had a wonderful soul and an incredible love for our difficult country. She was a woman of conscience and this was displayed in the twilight days of the Yar’Adua administration. She stood up boldly and said she could no longer continue to pretend that all was well and most Nigerians applauded her guts for this brave stance. She was one of those that ignited the quest for President Goodluck Jonathan to assume the mantle that had become rightly his at the time.
There is not much I can write about this Angel that you don’t know already. Her life was an open book. She will be missed sorely and surely. However, I’m certain she’s already at home with God, nestling in His bosom.
Adieu Aunty Dora! Rest in Perfect Peace.
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