Continued from last week
2 2. Adagbo Onoja. A few people probably know this mild-mannered, even-tempered, admirably brilliant, modest, and well-spoken activist-journalist as Governor Sule Lamido’s Special Adviser on Media. Some may even remember him as the Secretary General of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) in 1993. But few people know him beyond that.
Well, Adagbo’s story is not nearly as dramatic as Umoru Ibrahim’s, but it’s remarkable in its own right. He is one of my living heroes of all time, not least because his broad mind, large heart, compassion, and exemplary conduct have been some of the most significant influences in my adult life.
Here is a man who, because of economic difficulties, started out as a lowly radio announcer shortly after his secondary school education in the early 1980s. After only a few months of working at the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria in Kaduna, he decided to venture into print journalism. He worked for the Community Concord, the Reporter, TSM (The Sunday Magazine), the African Guardian, among many print publications he wrote for. But, although he had become a star reporter and a well-skilled writer in these papers, he couldn’t afford to go back to school.
In 1991, he gave up everything he had in Lagos and relocated to Kano to enroll for a diploma in mass communication and then a bachelor’s degree in political science at the Bayero University, Kano (BUK). When he graduated in 1995, he was in his thirties. He is presently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Ibadan.
I met Adagbo because I was not supposed to meet him. My dad decided against my going to study at the University of Lagos because of the “rebellious streak” he noticed in me as a young man, which he said would only be fertilized in UNILAG. So he pleaded with his relative who was the commanding police officer of the mobile police force in Kano to get me a place at BUK.
When I got to Kano, the first thing my uncle (who is late now; may his soul rest in peace) told me was that I should avoid a certain “radical and troublesome” Naseer Kura (who would later become the president of the National Association of Nigerian Students). He also warned me to avoid student union activism altogether. He didn’t want to find himself, he said, in the uncomfortable situation of arresting his own relation.
But the first thing I did when I got to BUK was too look for Nasser Kura. I was told that he was addressing a students’ rally somewhere on campus. I went to the place forthwith and met an older guy addressing students. His words flowed with effortless and musical ease, his diction was immensely elevated, his composure was measured and self-assured, and he roused the crowd to a tumult. Being the sucker for elegant language that I have always been, I was bowled over.
I later learned that the speaker was not Nasser Kura but Adagbo Onoja, the Secretary General of the National Association of Nigerian Students. My friendship with him started a few days after this encounter.
But what I find really amazing about Adagbo is that for the three years we became close “comrades” at BUK and subsequent post-BUK years, he’d never once asked me where I was from. In school, he gave me money when I was in financial trouble, he generously shared his books with me, introduced me to many important people who have influenced me, and even introduced me to some of his family members. When I worked in Kaduna, he gave me a room in his three-bedroom apartment for free. But he never asked what state I was from.
It’s a fitting testimonial to his cosmopolitanism and broadmindedness that he is probably the only person in Nigeria today who holds a cabinet-level position in a state that he is not an “indigene” of. Adagbo is also the only public office holder I know of who perpetually goes broke because of his compulsive desire to share with friends and comrades and family, who is his boss’ severest critic, and who self-consciously works to avoid betraying his activist constituency.
3. Professor Attahiru Jega. Well, this highly regarded former president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and current vice chancellor of BUK is clearly not little-known, nor is he by any stretch of the imagination unsung. But while he is often celebrated for refusing to give in to IBB’s carrot and stick during ASUU’s strikes in the 1990s and for rejecting Abacha’s offer to appoint him as education minister, few know about his legendary self-discipline.
I got to know Jega through Adagbo Onoja. It later turned out that he was friends with my cousin’s ex-husband, Mr. David Gunu, with whom he did the compulsory one-year national youth service in Rivers State in 1978.
One day, two of my friends at BUK brought a strikingly beautiful girl to me. She was distraught with grief. Her eyes were bloodshot from excessive crying. She was in danger of not graduating because she failed a course Jega taught. My friends brought her to me because they said I was “Jega’s boy” and could help her. By her own admission, she didn’t deserve to pass the course.
She said she was sure that she could use her beauty and incredibly tempting bodily endowments to compel any lecturer to give her whatever grade she wanted. She told me she’d actually “passed” other courses that way. But she said when she went to Jega’s office in her most provocative dress—one that, according to her, could rouse a dead man to life— Jega didn’t even look at her twice. He firmly said there was nothing he could do to help her. She wondered if he was sexually impotent. Well, I told her Jega had beautiful children who were, in fact, his spitting image.
She promised to give me “anything” if I could help talk to Jega to change his mind. Of course, I told her the moment I even dared to bring that kind of issue up would be the moment Jega would stop relating to me. The young grieving lady left and said “his [i.e., Jega’s] wife must be very lucky.”
When the Trust started in 1998, it was Attahiru Jega who advised me to join the paper. He gave me a letter to Mal. Kabiru Yusuf, the then Editor-in-Chief and MD of the paper, who is now its chairman and CEO. After reading the note, Mal. Kabiru asked me start immediately if I wanted. I thought I would be interviewed and tested first, as is the norm— even at the paper.
As if he was reading my mind, Kabiru said, “I’ve known Attahiru from childhood. He would never recommend his dad for a job if he didn’t think he was qualified for it.” I have never been able to erase those words from my mind.
I actually saw this first-hand myself. One day I was in Jega’s office when a former student of his came in and requested that he write a recommendation letter for him. Jega said he frankly didn’t think well enough of the student’s academic performance to write a good recommendation for him. And he didn’t want to lie.
Three months after working at Trust, I got a note from the company’s general manager asking me to formally apply for the job I had been doing for months. He scribbled the note on the letter Jega wrote to Kabiru about me. For modesty’s sake I won’t reveal what he wrote. I can only say it’s one of my most cherished compliments ever.
There are many more people with Jega’s personal integrity, self-discipline, and unwavering commitment to principles. We only need to identify, celebrate, and put them in positions of leadership. We would all be better for it.
Beyond Yar'adua: Tributes to Little-Known Heroes (I)
Beyond Yar'adua: Tributes to Little-Known Heroes (I)