Michael Omolewa @80: A tribute

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By Jide Osuntokun
It has become a habit of mine to take the privilege I have as a columnist, to celebrate those who have made great impacts ether in terms of public or international recognition or appointments or sadly people who have finished their race of life and are sure to get the crowns of glory from God Almighty for the impact they have made on our country and Ipso facto on other Nigerians. It is however better to celebrate a person when he or she is alive, well and kicking than to celebrate them posthumously. This is why I write about good citizens who happen to be my friends.
I knew of ‘Biola Omolewa before I ever met him. I went to Ibadan Grammar school for the Higher School Certificate course for two years between January 1961 and December 1962 and stories about the rascally boys in previous years were told to us country bumpkins from Ekiti where my previous school, Christ’s School Ado- Ekiti is located. The exploits and appropriate punishment on the two rascally friends of Abiola Omolewa and Isaac Oluwole were told us like broken records.
Luckily I met Oluwole in the school in the science section of the upper sixth form as the British called the second year of the two-year program preparing students for the Advanced Level certificate that was to see us enter any university in Nigeria or any part of the Commonwealth and the United States. Oluwole’s physique and stature were not intimidating! I therefore dismissed the stories of the duo’s rascality as exaggerated. So when I met Biola, I was again surprised because Biola’s centre of gravity was even lower than that of Oluwole’s, if you know what I mean.
Biola after some time in Lagos went to Christ’s School, my old school for his Higher School Certificate thus switching school with me. It was in Christ’s School in 1962 that I first met Biola. I don’t know if there were stories about me Biola heard when he got to Christ’s School because my set (1956 to 1960) did not lie down and allowed ourselves to be run over by the bullies who were our seniors. Some of us only luckily escaped being rusticated by the then principal, Canon Leslie Donald Mason, who always backed the prefects no matter how unjustly they treated us. His credo was that discipline must be maintained at all costs! I remember how some of us in 1959 narrowly escaped being sent down but given the last chance not by an “act of merit but grace “ perhaps divine grace, as Archdeacon L.D Mason , our English principal tearfully put it.
My friendship with Biola really developed from 1964 to this day. Biola entered the University of Ibadan in 1964. I was already there since 1963. We both were in the History department. Biola excelled in his first session that he became a university college scholar. He did so well in the subsidiary French course that he and others like Ladipo Adamolekun were sent to Dakar, Senegal for advanced French course for three months. He did so well that the History department nearly lost him to the French department.
When he returned to Ibadan, we were both involved in running the Historical Society of the university. I remember with fondness our trip in 1965 to Ghana and Benin and my struggle with the French language during the soirée amicale the students of L’Ecole Behanzin organized for us. After the Soirée amicale, female students who felt I was courageous to have danced with the wife of their principal, something none of them would have dared to do, flocked to us boys actually asking us to take them to Nigeria. That was the good image of Nigeria then in West Africa even before the oil boom/curse. What these young people did not understand was that we were undergraduates not high schoolers. We however like all boys enjoyed the adulation and we bragged to our female members how foreigners appreciated us and that it was a case of too much familiarity breeding contempt. I enjoyed my time in the limelight of being called “Monsieur le president “by adoring Beninois girls!
When I left the following year on a one year Exchange Program with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London, Biola took over from me as president. The following year, he followed the same trajectory of being chosen as one of the two students exchanged with SOAS and Saint Mary’s College of the University of London. When I left for graduate studies after graduating in 1966, I knew Biola would follow my footsteps like my “running mate”. He did. The late Professor J. F. Ade Ajayi wanted to have Nigerians specialize in European Studies so that when the white professors handling those courses departed for their countries, there would be Nigerians prepared and ready to take their positions. He wanted Biola and myself to be prepared to do this. He also had the same plan for Nigerians to be able to specialize in American Studies for which he chose the late Okon Uya and another person, an Igbo chap whose name has escaped my old brain. It was not an easy thing for me and Biola and particularly for Biola whose effort was sabotaged in Ibadan by the same people he was trying to replace. Eventually Biola switched to Education which was the plan of God for him and he has excelled and distinguished himself there as the foremost Nigerian professor of Adult Education.
He has achieved so much in the field of education that his advice and expertise and experience are highly sought after by the federal government, UNESCO and other international organizations like the Commonwealth that pay close attention to and interest in education. To crown his efforts, the federal government appointed him as ambassador and permanent delegate to UNESCO in Paris in 1999 and he held that position for almost a decade and this he did with distinction. I am not writing a reference for Biola . He doesn’t need one from anybody but God at this stage of his life. He invited me to collaborate with him in editing two huge biographies of Professor J. F. Ade Ajayi our mentor and the other was on Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye, our spiritual father. I hope we did a reasonably acceptable job.
Biola is a wonderful person. He as an energetic person who seems not to get tired even at his age. He recently went to Abakaliki for a meeting of council of the Federal university located in the place. I believe he hired a taxi for part of the trip. When he contacted me from there, I felt sorry for him and I asked him what the hell he was doing there in these days of general insecurity? He disarmed me by saying God was with him there. I told him off rather irreverently even though I am an elder in my church. I am of the credo that God helps those who help themselves. Abiola is blessed with two brilliant daughters and a son who are doing well abroad. One of the girls has inherited the gift of mastering foreign languages particularly French and German and of course English like her dad. Unfortunately Biola lost his Gambian wife, Yamin almost a decade ago and like me in our adversity, he soldiers on. Biola has this wonderful gift of never being unhappy or perhaps he has a way of masking his unhappiness because with Biola it’s jokes all the time, at least when we are together. He is a prodigious researcher and a workaholic. He knows all the research libraries in London and Paris and also the art galleries where whenever he sees a painting of divine personages Biola would stop and offer a prayer! He once took me to the London Gallery of the Arts and while others were snapping photos, Biola led me in prayer every section we went to my embarrassment and amusement of onlookers! Later he took me to Saint Stephen in the Field, an Anglican church, built right on a cemetery in Trafalgar Square London. I would ordinarily not go to a church in cemetery and later have breakfast in the same cemetery! This probably came naturally to Biola!
Biola is a genuine Christian who contributes to Christian institutions financially like he did throughout his sojourn in Paris. He also builds up people and I have been a recipient of his generosity when my daughter was getting married in Dublin when he sent his wife Yamin to represent him all the way from Paris with a heavy present to lift my hand up just as he did to me when I visited him in Paris. Biola and I have come a long way experiencing the usual ups and downs in our journey of life. I wish I could have the inner joy that Biola seems to have. Unlike me Biola never drank despite his sojourn in Paris where red wine is cheaper than Evian water! This separates him from us “les hommes sous develope”. I am sure Biola knows the joke of this comment. I throw it in because how can I write this short congratulatory tribute without making Biola laugh?
Biola deserves whatever accolades that may be heaped upon him. In his inimitable way, Biola never mentioned his coming celebration to me. I always tell him he is a magician who disappears and appears at will. I love you with all your eccentricities perhaps the hallmark of a true academic!
Wherever you are, Biola have a blast because you are worth it!
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