Yemi, the enhancer
Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi turned 70 on April 13 this year. Since Nigeria’s longevity age is said to be 53.1 years, Yemi has beaten that death-line by 16.9 years. But he doesn’t look like a man who has done three score and ten. His face doesn’t say it. His gait doesn’t say it. He is ramrod straight, no stooping walk, no hunch-back feet-shuffling. He walks straight like a freshly-minted athlete. If he carries a walking stick it is because he is a traditional chief, a Balogun of his community. He needs no walking stick to support his well-chiselled body.
He is tall and imposing, a six-footer. If he wanted to be a basketballer he would have qualified for it. If he wanted to be a boxer he would have fitted into the heavyweight category but he would have been only a slim heavyweight. At 70, most people age differently. Some struggle with fitness and other life’s challenges and are denied the opportunity to age gracefully. For most people these challenges are worn on their faces and their heads. The bags under their eyes and the rolling wrinkles on their faces say volumes about their state of well-being. Their charcoal hair transforms into inferior white. For Yemi the story is different. He seems to be very well taken care of. His face is still delightful to look at. I do not know whether he has charcoal and chalk hair because he is clean shaven on the head. But all things considered he is aging very gracefully and carrying his age well. Age often gives people away by telling on them. That is why many aged people never tell their age. Age has not told on Yemi.
Yemi was born in Kano to a Yoruba father, Vincent, and an Igbo mother, Annah. This cross-cultural marriage and his early life in Kano made him to master Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa languages fluently. This polyglot status has transformed him into a detribalised Nigerian who can mix and mingle effortlessly with Nigerians from all corners of the compass. His studies at New York University (NYU) for his masters and doctorate degrees must have facilitated further his ability to accommodate varying viewpoints because NYU is an urban university that believes in the virtues of diversity.
Yemi was a lecturer at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, and rose to the headship of the Theatre Arts Department. The 70s and 80s represented for Nigerians in the academia a period of intellectual ferment with communism and socialism on the ascendancy. Every student or lecturer especially in the arts and social sciences knew a thing or two about the Communist Manifesto and its global superstar and ideologue at the time, Fidel Castro of Cuba, who died recently. Ahmadu Bello University and University of Ife seemed to be the theatres of ideological conflict between Capitalism and Socialism. Yemi was in the socialist bandwagon but it was obvious that there could be no practical implantation of socialism in a country with a capitalist base. Besides, Nigeria had acquired its independence only a decade or so earlier and was not interested in being distracted by an ideology that seemed inchoate and unlikely to usher in the good life. So socialism in Nigeria was a purely academic endeavour for the expansion of one’s intellectual horizon. As students at the University of Lagos we were happy to mouth those slogans as evidence of our with-it-ness. We never wanted to be practising socialists and never even believed it was an ideology that Nigerian leaders believed in.
It was no surprise when Yemi left Ife and socialism behind and came into the real world practising journalism at The Guardian and Daily Times in Lagos. At this time the USSR had disintegrated with the ascent of glasnost and perestroika and it was unlikely that socialism would receive a standing ovation anywhere in Nigeria. At The Guardian Yemi edited the two volumes of Perspectives on Nigeria Literature 1700 to the present. He got such literary giants as Abiola Irele, Ernest Emenyonu, Ropo Sekoni, Isidore Okpewho, Olu Obafemi, Femi Osofisan and Chidi Amuta to make seminal contributions to the book series. In addition, he was able to arrange ground-breaking interviews with many African leaders which greatly enhanced the marketability of The Guardian as a brand under the editorial leadership of Lade Bonuola.
It is perhaps at the Daily Times that the full stretch of his versatility was on parade. He headhunted some of the best brains in the business who helped him to turn a dying newspaper into a must-read brand again. His achievement at the Daily Times had a hint of genius when you realise that this man never studied Journalism or Business Management, but he gave the paper a complete make-over that enthralled the reading public.
He seems to have the Midas touch. Now he has veered into the business of textbook publishing, a project from which he has made a bundle. He seems to have a nose for smelling where success resides and goes there and hunts it down. He has excellent public relations. From time to time he arranges high profile dinners at his Victoria Island residence for the heavy-hitters to meet with senior people in the media for the purpose of relationship building and fence-mending. This aspect of his life is helped by the fact that he has an enormous capacity for making friends and keeping them. He is also a very courteous man. An extrovert, Yemi is invigorating company. He lights up any room he steps into and leaves it almost hollow when he steps out. A man with a sense of decorum and charm, he has enough charm to disarm a bandit. He dishes out jokes easily. He also laughs easily, the sign of a good man. One day he and Stanley Macebuh met the billionaire businessman and politician, Chief MKO Abiola, who reminded them of the sugar importation that got them into trouble with the publisher of The Guardian, Mr. Alex Ibru. Abiola said to them “sugar sweet oo.” They responded: “money is sweeter.”
He is a kind-hearted man. His friends, relations and associates speak warmly of his sense of generosity and his readiness to lend a helping hand when the need arises. This is an indication that he is a people-pleaser, a man who wants other people’s lives to be better than they actually are. This makes him a keen dispenser of happiness, not only in words but also in deeds.
Yemi is a consummate collector of art works of different genres – paintings, carvings, drawings. His house is like a museum of valuable antiquities. His dress code has changed from the batik with African designs of those socialism days. Now he wears the image of a successful businessman: Rock star silk suits and flamboyant well designed agbada from “the source.” This mode of dressing enhances his image as a PR superstar. But perhaps his most outstanding attribute is the fact that he is an enhancer, a man who makes things happens. That is why some of his close friends call him Mr. Activity.
Yemi has just been appointed Chairman of the Governing Council of Obafemi Awolowo University. That university, like most first generation universities in Nigeria, is in an advanced stage of obsolescence. Low funding, cultism and petty politics have turned that once pre-eminent citadel of learning into a carcass of its former self. Yemi therefore has a herculean task to bring about the kind of transformation that will make it truthful to call the institution Great Ife once again.
A man’s life is different at 70. The wear and tear of many years’ exertions have taken their toll. At that age if a woman says yes to you, you are likely to feel flattered. If she says No you are eminently relieved. But Yemi looks built to last and my hope is that even at 70 he will still feel able to achieve all of his heart’s desires for the benefit of Nigeria and humanity.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.