First time with The Esama Of Benin
Chief Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion will be 83 years old tomorrow. I have only used one prefix: ‘chief.’ If I decide to go the whole hug, it will go this way: Sir, Chief, Dr Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion, CFR, CON, LLD, D.LITT, GCKB, Esama of Benin Kingdom. Even at that, so much is still left un-captured.
In real terms, the man is larger than what can be briefly described with titles. For instance, there is no exact title to describe his philanthropy. And then, if we were to add the kingdoms, home and abroad, where he is a chief, it will require a volume. He is even an ambassador to some countries. He calls his home in Benin, which spreads across four streets, the Garden of Eden, where perhaps everything is provided and only requires obedience to the rules to reap the arising benefits.
I got introduced to the Esama sometime in 1994, when The Guardian was shut down by late Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha. I was at Igbinedion Education Centre Benin-City for some media related business. Preparations for the Chief’s 60th birthday were on and every hand was on deck to ensure nothing went wrong. The Chief’s amiable wife, Lady Cherry Igbinedion and a team were struggling to strike the right note regarding the Chief. They had been at it for a while, proposing and disposing when I pushed in: He came, encountered and conquered and still conquering!
Lady Cherry, herself a grand mistress of presentations and creativity, turned and looked at me intently and nodded repeatedly and approvingly. Thaaaat is it my dear! Who aaaare you? She enquired with a highly cultivated accent and mannerism. “I am a reporter with The African Guardian Magazine ma.” Goooood! Goooood! Goooood! My dear, you shall follow me to the house to meet chief!
At the Chief’s home, the unveiling ceremony was in stages. Lady Cherry asked me to sit at a corner in the vast waiting lounge. The intimidating ambience was something to overcome. Everything around seemed to be cast in gold; the door handles, the rails, the seats and so on. It was a mixture of trepidation and anxiety as I waited to meet the Great Esama. It was the kind of feeling an applicant experiences while waiting to be invited in by the panel in an all-important job interview.
There were many other seemingly more important waiters, some in Benin chieftaincy regalia. I wouldn’t know how Lady Cherry had presented my matter before Chief. But while doing a mental calculation of the order of protocol and how long it would take for me to be invited to meet Chief, a steward walked in and asked: “Who is Abraham…” instead of Ogbodo, he said “Agbado?”
The purpose was served all the same. As I stood to go, the well-attired chiefs looked at me and were like asking themselves: “who could this small boy be?” The preliminaries were still on. I had only been moved from the outer lounge to a parlour in the 18-parlour Benin home of Chief Igbinedion. A steward asked for my choice of drink. I felt like cooling off with cold beer but I didn’t know what constituted the pre-trials assuming I was being tested for good conduct. I shouldn’t start so early to destroy the impression of “a very good boy” that Lady Cherry had had of me. I hesitated and then told the steward: “malt will be okay.”
After a while, Lady Cherry entered with Chief. His special seat in the outlay was unmistaken. It was a kind of throne and part of the over-bearing air of royalty further accentuated by Benin bronze artistry in the Garden of Eden. On sighting me sipping away at the glass of malt drink and perhaps feeling that nothing warranted my being there at that point in time, the Chief had wanted to thunder out something. My heart skipped a beat.
But Lady Cherry saw I was in trouble and knew what to do. She quickly stemmed him. “Ehen Chief, here is Abraham, the journalist I have just spoken about to you.” His countenance returned to a friendly mode and when his voice came, it was soothing. “Welcome my dear. My wife told me that you are very clever.” “Yes sir, thank you sir.” There was something in the opening sentence that sounded ominous. I refused though to believe that Chief meant ‘clever’ in the derogatory sense. What followed was more of a monologue as I resisted being drawn into any form of engaging dialogue. I must try in this first instance not to show over-sabi even though the Chief and his wife had graciously placed some premium on my brain.
I just wanted to leave the suffocating ambience. The conversation lasted eternity. Lady Cherry who had gone inside for some business re-entered to announce that lunch was ready. While she was still beating about the courtesies of inviting a complete stranger and a non-class visitor to the dining table, Chief grabbed my hand and pulled me along. No point describing the lunch; it was the best in African and continental presentations. I got less artificial and for the first time since I entered the Chief’s home, I became my real self. I did justice to the presentations in all ramifications.
At last, it was time to escape. “Lady Cherry told me that you used your brain to solve a problem for us” Chief said. “Take this for your brain my son.” He handed an envelope to me. “The Guardian is closed and since you live in Lagos, you should meet Nosa (Lucky Igbinedion) in Lagos. I will call and tell him to find you something to do.” I thanked him and left.
I became an instant celebrity as I stepped out of the house. A handful approached me for some personal details. Perhaps, a few more would have been disappointed when I did not step outside the house into a waiting car. None knew I was just a reported rendered redundant by official high-handedness. I walked down to the gate, got to a distance when it was safe to peep into the envelope and saw it was packet of N50 notes. This was at a time when the highest denomination of the Nigerian currency was N50 and my salary before The Guardian closure was less than N4000.
In Lagos, it was as directed by Chief. Mr. Lucky Igbinedion, who later became the governor of Edo State (1999 – 2007) and a chief too, was then the chairman of Liman Bravo Loans and Savings Ltd., on Ikorodu Road. He did not ask questions. He signed me on as the public relations manager of the outfit, a position I kept until the re-opening of The Guardian on October 1, 1995.
On the whole, I have known Chief Igbinedion for 23 years. But the lesson of that first encounter has defined my relationship with him, which is also like the relationship between father and son. The Esama is generous, but he is even more generous when the caller has something to offer him. He is not frivolous in spite of his elaborateness. He is a disciplinarian who cares for his children, but never indulges them. The closer you get to him, the more you understand why the Esama has remained evergreen in spite of intervening winter seasons.
For instance, if you set out to cheat him, you are likely to end up being cheated by him. His brain is extra-ordinary and a measure of that is the fact that he can sit on a sport, and without a directory, place phone calls across to more than a hundred people. And then you need to get closer too to Lady Cherry to understand why she is the only woman in this whole wide world that can effectively manage the maverick chief, who has shot far beyond Benin Kingdom to become Esama of the Universe. Happy birthday Chief!