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Onukaba: Missing the maskless masquerade five years after

By Tunde Olusunle
07 March 2022   |   1:57 am
It was four days to his 57th birthday. Exactly five years ago on Sunday March 5, 2017, however, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, one of Nigeria’s finest, most innovative and most resourceful journalists of all time..

Adinoyi Onukaba Ojo

It was four days to his 57th birthday. Exactly five years ago on Sunday March 5, 2017, however, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, one of Nigeria’s finest, most innovative and most resourceful journalists of all time, died in continually befuddling circumstances. He had attended the 80th birthday celebration of his erstwhile benefactor and boss, Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s pioneer president in the current democratic milieu in Abeokuta, earlier that day. He was being chauffeured back to his base in Abuja, by a kinsman and friend, Adas Sadiq, a chartered accountant. The evening was speedily creeping in, dusk decisively outwitting the day in the horizon. He had attuned his mind to night stop in Akure or Okene, his hometown, a situation which diminished every thought of a long haul to the country’s capital city on Nigeria’s capricious roads, where he set out from, two days earlier.

According to accounts, Onukaba and his friend ran into a roadblock mounted by armed robbers, around Ilara-mokin community, on the Ilesha-Akure road, about 10 minutes away from the Ondo State capital, that evening. Seeing that commuters were fleeing their vehicles and seeking refuge in the vegetation on either side of the road, he followed suit with Sadiq. They took cover in various sections of the bush in the melee.

A vehicle, which reportedly escaped from the immediate jurisdiction of the daredevil criminals, lost control and skidded into Onukaba’s haven, killing him instantly. Probably oblivious he had killed someone, or still jittery that he was still within the span of the robbers he had just outwitted, the driver dragged his car from the scene and fled. It was a police team which, typically, arrived after the fact, that discovered his body in the agbada he wore on that day.

Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo’s reputation went far ahead of him, before our eventual meeting, in the buildup to Obasanjo’s ascension to the presidency, late 1998. He had built the reputation of a fearless, fiery, dogged and prolific journalist, an inspiration to would-be professionals. His reports, mostly from the aviation beat, domiciled primarily at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, (MMIA), Lagos, bore a novel vibrancy. They got featured prominently in the newspaper he worked for, The Guardian. It was on this beat he first met Obasanjo back in 1984, and they subsequently struck a father-son kind of relationship. Onukaba, who departed Nigeria for further education in 1989, had obtained a masters degree in journalism and a doctorate in performance studies in New York University, (NYU). He had kept in touch with Obasanjo over the years.

In furtherance of this preexisting relationship with Obasanjo, Onukaba returned to Nigeria late 1998 to lend a helping hand, in the publicity directorate of the campaign infrastructure. The division was very ably led by Onyema Ugochukwu, one of Nigeria’s iconic media professionals. I was already the campaign press secretary to Obasanjo, accompanying him everywhere he went on the political trail and coordinating my small media team to ensure comprehensive and timely reportage of events. Onukaba was seamlessly integrated into the publicity directorate and that was our first encounter. We hit it off straightaway.

I was curious about Onukaba’s doctoral thesis, which he explained to me, focused on masked masquerade performances in Ebiraland. Having watched some masquerade engagements, notably the echane and ekuechifestivals in Okene the heartland of the Ebira, I spontaneously coined a nickname for him, “masquerade!” This was my trademark for addressing him till the very end. A number of our mutual friends adopted my coinage. Whenever I told my wife I needed to see masquerade, she knew who it was.

Onukaba equally had a subsisting relationship with Atiku Abubakar, who was selected as Obasanjo’s running mate ahead of the presidential election of February 1999. The same year he first engaged Obasanjo in 1984 at the Lagos airport, he equally met Atiku who was the area administrator of the Nigerian Customs, with his office at the Lagos airport. They got on well in the line of duty and became good friends. Fortuitously, therefore, Onukaba had two “foster fathers” in the emerging political structure.

Following the inauguration of the Obasanjo/Atiku presidency, May 29, 1999, Onukaba was appointed Special Assistant on Media to the Vice President. The administrative template established by the new administration was somewhat convoluted. It provided that appointees were first and foremost, personnel of the President, before deployment variously, to offices, agencies and departments. A curious component of this arrangement was that the President could reassign or fire officials across the board in his government. After a few months in office therefore, Obasanjo redeployed Onukaba to Lagos as Managing Director of the Daily Times of Nigeria (DTN).

He returned to Abuja in May 2003, upon the inauguration of Obasanjo and Atiku for a second term. This time, he was designated Senior Special Assistant (SSA) to the Vice President on Media. Barely two years on the job, Onukaba was sacked by Obasanjo, for an innocuous press statement. Onukaba had attempted to absolve Atiku from complicity in a purported bid for the erstwhile residence of the vice president in Lagos, under the monetisation and sale of government properties’ programme of the administration, in the line of duty, an undertaking Obasanjo construed as insubordination.

On the heels of this development, Onukaba’s mother-in-law, Anna Ebikere Ogirri, who heard the news of his exit from office in Benin City where she lived, got into a commuter vehicle, destined for Abuja to support her son-in-law and her daughter, Rachael his wife, who was pregnant. The date was April 5, 2005. She never makes it. She died in an accident. A concerned Atiku encouraged Onukaba to take a break with his young family, which had earlier produced Asuku his little son, and proceed to the United States for a while.

Atiku placed Onukaba on a generous monthly stipend within that span. And the restless writer he was, Onukaba used the opportunity to firm up the manuscripts of a biography he was writing on Atiku. It was later published as: Atiku: The Story of Atiku Abubakar. Ebikere, named after her late grandmother, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, within the period. While he was away, the government-owned property Onukaba lived in, was reallocated and his properties almost thrown to the streets. I speedily rallied friends around to salvage his belongings, which we transferred to a property I had just developed at the time.
To be continued tomorrow
Tunde Olusunle, PhD, poet, journalist, author and scholar, is a Member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, (NGE).