By Lasisi Olagunju
(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 5 April, 2021)
“People’s editor, you know Yinka has not done one percent of what he came to this world to do?” His worried wife told me two weeks ago while we agonized over his ill-health. I agreed with her. We further put him in the healing hands of God. He was too full of life to be lifeless – with so much to-do stuff on his slate. But we were wrong! Exacted by fate, the labourer’s task was over on Saturday, a day after Good Friday. His eagle took the final flight and a shriek of grief rent the skies from the sea to the Sahara. Yinka Odumakin and I knew each other ‘faintly’ in the mid to late 1980s as undergraduates in Ife. Our paths crossed in very many fortuitous ways. We attended same university, read same course but he was a year ahead of me. He was in campus politics and became the Students Union’s public relations officer in a very bitterly contested election that saw some of us ranging a worthy candidate against his aspiration. He was in campus journalism where his tendency worked very hard to defeat my aspiration to be president of the Association of Campus Journalists. Then we left school, the dust of youth settled and we met again. And, joined by the pursuit of higher causes, like kindred spirits, we became close – very close in the last ten years.
Yinka was an omoluabi who had a million friends in concentric circles. He built and maintained relationships and paid attention to detail in very amazing ways. He was a very busy political actor, but he was never too busy to dote on friends, pay surprise visits and honour invitations. Yet, he was sensible enough to carefully manage friends and friendships with their assumptions and boundaries. He once tried to take me into Afenifere, he saw my hesitation and left me to continue with my free-roaming. He was never absent where his voice or his very person was required. When it was necessary to intervene in dire situations, he did with everything he was blessed with. He spent the last five years of his life actively involved in building bridges and alliances across deeply unthinkable divides. He was hyperactive everywhere: in Yorubaland. In Southern Nigeria. In Southern and Middle Belt. In the Federation of Nigeria. He befriended the desirable and fought those on the opposite lane with his gift of the garb. He was a field commander who did both the shelling and the mop-up with the dexterity of a tested General. There is an online/offline group of some intrepid English Studies graduates of OAU, Ile Ife which he co-founded. Although made up majorly of his classmates, he drafted me there. And he would be there as a lead discussant morning, afternoon, night, wafting through the grains and the chaff of the sick Nigerian spirit. When we started, his pan-Nigerian leaning was not in doubt. Our conclusion on Saturday when he transited was that in the last one year, our friend had accepted, in dejection, that it was fruitless watering the Nigeria plant.
He was a one-hundred-percent man in everything he did. Only a Yinka Odumakin would beg his doctors to let him write his column before putting him on the ventilator. He did that. And that said so much about the strength of character he carried through life. He combined the bold carriage of a lion with the stealth alertness of a tiger. Nothing caught him off-guard; ambushes were for him familiar terrains. As Afenifere spokesman, there was always a pin-point riposte for every insult thrown at his race. We used to joke about the source of his valour, the fearlessness which serially defined his engagements. Yinka’s parents are at home, very old. God will comfort them. We used to tell him that he never cared about having wounds because he was not an orphan, that he had carers at home. He would ignore us. We would add the tease that his lion had a very old father at home who watched his back for him. And he would smile off the joke. Now, the lion has left the lair.
Our friend’s outings filled the coward with apprehension. He had knowledge; he had language; he had style; he had delivery and performance; he had courage. He held fire and he held water. He was a warrior the enemy never wished to engage. Was that why the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) clinked glasses as condolence on Saturday? The ACF said it was mourning Odumakin, yet, it wrote a condolence message tipped with a warhead against the departed and his group. It said: “We continue to hope that the Afenifere will one day turn a new leaf and see issues not from the narrow and limited perspective of one ethnic group but from the broad perspective of a multi ethnic federal republic…We had hoped that Odumakin will live long enough to work for and see the new day. His death today has robbed us of that opportunity.” Is this how Northern Nigeria mourns the dead? If our friend were to reply this from the other side, I am almost sure he would simply say, “clash of civilizations.” That is his favourite phrase each time we interrogated why Nigeria’s north always flew its plane in the wrong direction.
Fortunately, not all our husbands were mad in this case. President Muhammadu Buhari recalled Yinka as “dutiful, and a person of conviction” who died when he still “had a lot to contribute to society and the nation at large.” Former President Goodluck Jonathan said “a great voice for equity is gone.” Jonathan added that Odumakin was a man with rich democratic credentials who “played active roles in the years of activism that birthed and stabilised civil rule in our country.” Senator Bola Tinubu described him as a “committed fighter for democracy, dedicated civil society activist, courageous and outspoken defender of whatever ideals and principles he believed in and a patriotic citizen in every sense of the word.” The Obafemi Awolowo Foundation described him as a gallant General who fearlessly championed the cause of the downtrodden.” From every corner of the country has come something to celebrate about our friend. He was a success.
We will not all be king but we can be royal in service. The accolades Yinka has been getting since his death are king-size. They reflect the correctness of his way and the justness of the cause he pursued. If Yinka was a state governor or, even, president of a country, he couldn’t have garnered greater encomiums. Life is definitely not about its start and length but about its meaning and end. Yinka’s birth was not heralded by anything, now we’ve seen how his fifty-something years existence had everything impactful packed into it. We witnessed his battles and exploits and his thunderous exit. We hold the celebration of his memory as consolation for his mid-life flight back home. The Yoruba have a way of attacking ugly death whenever it misbehaves and takes the wrong lamb. They say “iku yi, o o seun” (this death, you have not done well). Any reaper caught scything the unready deserves a rebuke. We’ve always known Iku with its heartlessness but sometimes it uses its discretion; it holds fire and waits for the fruit to ripen. That discretion it refused to exercise in this Odumakin case. But, really, what can man do to mute the final boarding call? There is no armour against fate.
A philosopher said birth and death are the bookends of our lives. Death itself is a confounding reality – a solid wall that we all hit as the very end of our future. It is also, paradoxically, the doorway through which we must all pass to a place called eternity. It is a destination we are born to reach. For some, the journey is an involuntary race; for some others, it is a leisurely stroll. At the end, we all arrive. But at what age we breast that tape, no one alive guesses that correctly. For our friend, the end came on Saturday- midway between his 50th and his 60th year on this plane. We will all return home.
American novelist, Ernest Hemingway tells us to know that every man’s life ends the same way. He adds that it is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another. Seventeenth century Anglo-Welsh royalist poet, Katherine Philips, in her ‘Epitaph’ also ponders on life and its (lack of) meaning: “What on Earth deserves our trust? / Youth and beauty both are dust.” Goodnight, Comrade.