Chief Sunday Awoniyi:  How did I forget the 5th anniversary?

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LAST week, the 5th anniversary of the passing of our much-lamented Chief Sunday Awoniyi was commemorated. It took a few newspaper advertisements, to remind Nigerians of a wonderful patriot; statesman and the quintessential public servant: honesty; loyal and fearless! On the morning his death was announced, I was attending DAILY TRUST’s Editorial Board meeting. I called Alhaji Adamu, WazirinFika, who confirmed the news. I couldn’t stop myself crying!  Later that day, I was requested to pen a front-page sidebar to accompany our comprehensive reportage. It was certainly one of the saddest moments of my life!

In the previous six years, I had become very close to Chief Awoniyi. He would offer very nuanced comments about my writings; volunteer clarifications about historical events and personalities involved; assist me, as he did others, to see links in events around us, and what went before. But it was in his passionate espousal of the ideals of the late Sir Ahmadu Bello, that one saw the full measure of the man. Sometimes I wondered that he actually saw the late Northern Premier in his mind’s eye as he recounted tales from his days at the Premier’s Office in Kaduna. He was remarkably in thrall and kept his loyalty to his mentor, till the end of his own life.

For younger generations of Northerners like myself, Chief Awoniyi was the essential link to an era recognised as the best period in our post-colonial history. And as contemporary experience of underdevelopment; increased alienation of the mass of the people; break down of inter-communal and inter-religious harmony; the poverty and scandalous depths of corruption led to greater despair, the tendency to romanticise those years deepened. Chief Awoniyi and members of the Kaduna “clan” of leaders of the old North, such as older patriarchs like Malam Yahaya Gusau; Alhaji Liman Ciroma and then Malam Adamu Ciroma; and AlhajiAdamu,Wazirin Fika came to represent what was highly respected about the Northern character, especially during those remarkable years from the killing of the Sardauna and maybe, up to the mid-1980s.

I learnt a lot from Chief Sunday Awoniyi; and I recall having lunch with him, a few blocks from his modest London flat, in an Italian restaurant, during the winter of 2005. The owner ushered us in with respect to his customary corner, on a cold afternoon, which he nevertheless warmed up with his effusiveness. He spoke for hours, letting me into issues of security; episodes in Northern Nigerian bureaucratic/political history; personal health issues; even the challenges of matrimony. My twin children were in their first year and he was full of wisdom about parenting! But he was particularly concerned about goings-on in the Nigeria of surreptitious plans for Obasanjo’s Third Term Agenda. I had received a death threat because of my anti-Third Term writings and his security tips were top draw, helping me navigate the worries of the period.

In Chief Sunday Awoniyi, Nigeria had an example of adutiful patriot. He loved his country passionately and felt that his generation had a duty to mentor younger people who would carry the touch of all that was decent about our humanity, into the future. It was testimony to his personal qualities and the trust he engendered, especially in Northern Nigeria, that his leadership of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), was universally acclaimed, all over the region.

Yet, he was not just a Northerner, because he built a network of friendships in all parts of Nigeria and he was genuinely mourned throughout, following his death. I had written on the day he died, that Nigeria was a head shorter, with Chief Sunday Awoniyi’s death; and that his, was one of our best heads. Five years down the line, as we wrestle with Lilliputians (in thought and action), messing up our country, we must certainly feel a tragic form of nostalgia for the giant of thought and action that Chief Sunday Awoniyi was!

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