Happy birthday Elder Sunny Ojeagbase

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OSHODI remains one of my most favourite spots in Lagos. I am talking about the Oshodi of the 80s, when you could not stand for a fraction of a minute without someone shoving you. He could be after any of your possessions, or simply wanted to make the point that you should be moving. One thing was guaranteed – you moved Oshodi or it moved you.

Neither of these ever happened to me in Oshodi until one October day 35 years ago. I was passing through the rail lines, which then was a street, a market, and some people’s office, for it was where they either snatched a thing off you or asked you in their meanest voices to surrender it. I passed there regularly.

Imagine my fright when a hand grabbed me. Its gentility compounded my confusion. Who could this be in Oshodi? I was a few days from returning to conclude my studies at the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu. I had spent a year on industrial attachment at The Punch, on the Sports Desk.

The Punch was where I began my career in 1978. Owo Blow (Owolabi Ilori) was Sports Editor, Iyiola Afolabi (Deputy Sports Editor), Tony Eke (edited my first story), Isaac Ibhafidon, Biodun Onadipe, now PhD (we called him Quickie, whatever that was), and Raji Akanni (Baban Kano) were all on the Sports Desk. Segun Adenuga, famous for his West Coast trips, and Lanre Lawal had left a little before I arrived in September 1978 – first assignment, All Nigeria Open, tennis (lawn).

Sunny Ojeagbase was that Oshodi hand. I suffered a mixture of fright and flight. How did he get here? What could be my offence? I didn’t even know he knew me, not to talk of knowing my name, or picking me out from a crowd, the Oshodi crowd.

As the strictly Oshodi crowd pushed, we planted our feet firmly on terra firma. He explained that he wanted me to join a project that was starting soon, a new newspaper. I reminded him that I still had a year to go in school, he promised to wait for me. Back in school, I got a letter from him, reminding me to visit him when I was in Lagos. He waited, assigned duties to before I arrived for the NYSC, which he facilitated.

The Oshodi meeting was the first time I was having a conversation with Mr. Ojeagbase. He was not my mate by any stretch of imagination. A retired soldier, he was among the few privileged to be let into the office of the Public Relations Manager of the National Sports Commission, Mr. Ajibade Fasina-Thomas, who came to the job after a stint as Editor at The Punch. Ojeagbase, at the time was midwifing a revolution in sports writing at The Sunday Concord. The style was imitable, the attention to details unprecedented. When you read him, you came off with the impression that a craftsman had done his job, very well. Everyone was talking about him. He was in Oshodi talking to me.

The project was The Guardian, which started in February 1983. When I finally arrived in July 1983, I reunited with Pat Opara, we had been at The Punch in 1981; we had lived in the same Orile Iganmu neighbourhood, Chris Okojie, and Trigo Egbegi. It was the most competitive Sports Desk I had worked on. The space was usually less than a page, some days we got two pages, almost like a miracle.

Mr. Ojeagbase farmed out the space with equity: the most important stories went first, the application of seniority was related to the importance of the stories, not who wrote them. We also learnt brevity, but momentarily lost it when Tam Fiofori covered the 1st World athletics Championship, in Helsinki for The Guardian. Tam captured the emerging Jamaican girls in print and pictures. We would spend time after his return, haggling with Mr. Ojeagbase for more space for his works.

Brevity vamoosed with the arrival of Mitchell Obi, circa October 1983, with enthralling prose that endangered brevity, a dash of French and the one that got Mr. Ojeagbase on one of those days that he was battling to cut a script that he would rather use in full was “ennui”. What was that? Mitchell used to think first in French. He waffled. Mr. Ojeagbase ruled, “no more ennui”. Mitchell’s long features won, and became part of the expectations, when we travelled, which was often.

We worked late to ensure that the paper matched the expectations of those we had told on billboards all over Nigeria, “Sooner or later, you will read The Guardian”, under the expertise of a man we all looked up to, in deeds and indeed.

I was to work at Complete Sports, his publication that has spawned other enterprises. While he was away at the 1984 Olympics, and with the powers at The Guardian ambivalent about giving my set a job, I took Vanguard’s offer, which Chris Okojie arranged. He had left in November 1983 for The Democrat with Ely Obasi, Amuzie Akpaka, Frank Aigbogun, Lanre Idowu, and Adigun Agbaje. It was a major exodus that hit The Guardian. Mr. Ojeagbase was hurt that I didn’t wait for his return. He had sent a post card from his assignment at the US Open, asking me to wait for his return.

His own departure from The Guardian, about a month after I left, ameliorated the feelings. He still treats me like the father and elder colleague he was at The Guardian, though the terms and conditions of the various responsibilities we have assumed have made those sessions less frequent, in fact rare.

On the occasion of his 67th birthday, I have taken liberty to share the story of my life, how the Almighty used him to make me most of what I became. I learnt a great lesson from SO, as we popularly called him about the fact that more people than you can imagine are watching you, and they would make decisions about you based on their perceptions.

I celebrate a man of humility, whose knowledge selflessly, without being pedantic.

Happy birthday sir, trainer of men (and lately women), mentor, friend, father, exemplar, firm and fair, motivator by actions, more than words. You are the man who taught me purposeful hard work. You were a brother more than a boss.

I wish you more years of contributions to making more lives more purposeful.

Enjoy your day sir and thank you for giving me a different perspective of Oshodi.

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