Happy Birthday Onochie

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ONOCHIE Anibeze belongs to the world, let me abbreviate that, the world of sports belongs to him. His longevity as Sports Editor, Group Sports Editor, and possibly the longest serving Sports Editor in the modern era, in Nigeria, is not mere co-incidence. Onochie worked hard on his position and earned plaudits.

Onochie Anibeze

When he turned up for a job at Vanguard in 1985, he had that “I can do it attitude” that drew attention to him. He reported the judiciary first. His deployment to the Sports Desk was a blessing to us all. Our boss and brother Chris Okojie took him in; Onochie regaled us with stories of what he wanted to do with Vasco da Gama, the football team that Nigeria’s telecommunication company sponsored, but which Enugu Rangers suffocated in their perennial rivalry.

An injury scuttled Onochie’s playing career. He invested his energy in writing sports, always reminding us about the “need to choke up the midfield”. A counter-poise to the eminence of the midfield could be the quote attributed to Christian Chukwu when asked why Rangers famous, long thrusts ignored the midfield. “Did you see any goalpost in the midfield?”

Onochie loves football, tennis, when it was still played in Nigeria with international circuits in Onitsha, Kano, Benin City, Lagos, Kaduna and smaller tournaments in many other parts. We still remember those days, especially now that all we have is tennis, among other sports, via international television.

When Chris Okojie became Deputy Editor in 1986, I moved up as Sports Editor. Onochie was my deputy. We worked together until 1991, when I became Deputy Editor, and the Sports Desk became his. That Desk had a great assemblage at various points – Abimbola Allen Akinloye, At Large, now gone, Eyobong Ita, Philip Aghante, Seyi Fasugba, didn’t stay long, Emma Whesu, McJohn Ogunsola, our photographer, Tony Ubani, who succeeded Onochie, Chuks Ugwoke who became Saturday Editor and Commissioner in Enugu State for eight years, and a few others, who left so quickly that I do not remember them now.

I have fond memories of working with Onochie. Hard working, not hardly working. Assertive, knowledgeable and willing to learn. The competition we generated on our Desk seeped out to keep other colleagues on their feet. Unknown to them, we were trying to make our marks too. We had a routine of spending the last Friday of the month (prayer vigils were not the thing then) in my place in Ajao Estate, making merry, strictly the Sports Desk. It bonded the Sports Desk and provided opportunities to review our work, away from work. Departure was by noon, after environmental sanitation, the next day.

The night of Saturday 12 August 1989 was defining. Sam Okwaraji died. We knew him well enough. Onochie knew him back in Enugu. On a first visit to his relation’s residence in Festac, Onochie led me to the place, I discovered that Sam’s elder sister, whose house we were visiting, attended IMT too. It was a reunion of sorts. So, we lost Sam at various levels – friend, family, compatriot. Everyone plunged into the story.

We drove from the National Stadium, to the General Hospital, Marine, to the mortuary on Broad Street, to Festac’77 Hotel, now Golden Tulip, to the office, in appropriate sobriety, yet the story was racing through our minds. Nobody remembered the game that took Sam’s life. The chill of leaving the mortuary with the confirmation that Sam was really dead benumbed us momentarily.

Onochie called Sam’s club in Belgium, a testimony to the depth of his involvement in Sam’s life. We all worked on the story with a sentimental detachment that ran throughout the agonies of Sam’s passing. Our Editor Toye Akiyode, Agosco, was impressed. He wrote letters of commendation to each person on the Desk and we got N50 (Fifty Naira) each. It was money then, after all the rent for my three bedroom Ajao Estate pad was N230 (Two Hundred and Thirty Naira) a month.

We mourned Sam without it affecting our work. The intensity of working under pressures brings out the best in Onochie. My singular most lasting disagreement with him was over the Dutch Clemens Westerhof. I thought he won’t amount to much as a coach, Onochie thought otherwise and built a partnership with Westerhof that benefitted Nigeria immensely.

In that instance, as in others, I was wrong and I am glad that he had a mine entirely his on this issue. His roots in sports are deep, so deep that few know that he has been Editor of Saturday Vanguard for over two years.

Possibly one of the most travelled in our ranks, he brings rare perspectives to our trade in reports that bear the crusts of learning, experience and perseverance. He is tough, rough and thrilling as the job demands. In our younger days, when Lagos was safer, and the absence of street gates testified to it, we could set our drinking sails from Festac to Surulere and lowered the anchor as each person got home.

I learnt a lot from Onochie about family, he is so dedicated to his that early in our relationship I knew all of them, including his mother, who considers me a son. We are family.

He taught me to drive. What a firm, patient teacher he was. I never forget to “choke up the midfield”through life’s challenge, even if there is no goalpost in the midfield.

As my friend and brother celebrates his birthday today, my family and I wish him more years of contributions to humanity. May the Almighty keep blessing you.