Fellow Nigerians, this is not a good season for some reason. I have written several obituary tributes on this page in a matter of several months and can only pray that this trend would stop forthwith. While it is true that the departed icons we eulogised were generally old, they were too dear to us and we would have wished to have them around much longer.
I was particularly touched by the news out of Ikenne last week that our very dear Mama Awo, Chief Mrs Hannah Idowu Diideolu Awolowo, had passed on. We were just preparing for her centenary celebration on November 25, 2015, but sadly she is now going to be buried on that very day. All glory to God always as no one can challenge our Father in Heaven. Mama lived a good life and she was blessed beyond imagination. I do not know of any woman in her league today. It would be difficult to find such a woman who at 99 had packed several lifetime experiences into one.
Today, I’m left with no choice than to pen this special tribute to a woman I was privileged to know personally. Growing up in the ancient town of Ile-Ife, I read many books by and on the illustrious Awolowo family. I also listened to endless tales, myths and fables about the man we all knew and called the political sage; a philosopher king whose apotheosis was definitely assured. I do not know of any other figure in Africa who attained the status of a deity like Chief Obafemi Awolowo did in life and in death. He was that awesome and legendary.
My earliest recollection of Papa and Mama Awolowo in my teenage years was being mesmerised with stories of the extraordinary couple being sighted on the moon. Whether true or false, I actually believed I saw what looked like their silhouettes anytime I looked skywards at the full moon. What I’m not sure of was whether I was a victim of hypnotism or optical illusion. And I knew many members of my generation who shared that somnambulist existence.
Papa and Mama Awo were almost inseparable. Whenever and wherever you saw one, you were likely to see the other. They made wedlock look so alluring and appealing that they rendered the Indian love movies so pedestrian. I still don’t know how they managed their love-life but it was enchanting to observe. If ever there were challenges, like in all marriages, they were able to keep it under wraps without allowing the vultures to feed fat on their gossip. We all prayed hard to be like the Awolowo couple but not many of us quite succeeded.
The secret of the Awolowo union was not too hidden. They had incredible love for each other, the uncommon discipline to nurture it and the faith to maintain their wholesome relationship. They went through thick and thin together. They were tried and tested but they never got tired of withstanding the vicissitudes of life. Just imagine that while Papa Awo was languishing in prison, the couple lost their first son, Segun , in a ghastly motor accident. Their faith in God must have been fully stretched but they stood united and marched on unto glory. Indeed, they changed the landscape of the then Western Region and the African continent.
Chief Awolowo scored too many firsts as Premier of the Western Region. The tallest building, first stadium, first radio station, first television, first university, free education, and so on, were on his score-sheet. The Awolowos did all that and still lived modestly, decently and selflessly. They were ahead of their time. The Awolowos raised the bar of politics in Nigeria. Their Ikenne home became like Mecca. Visitors thronged the place from far and near. Awolowo became our own Mahatma Ghandi.
Instead of being appreciated and emulated, they were callously maligned. Those who could not attain the same height as theirs mischievously cast aspersions on their good deeds and intentions. Our minds were polluted against them. No human is ever perfect, they must have had their foibles but they lived above average and made us proud. All attempts to replicate the successes of Western Region at the national level was rebuffed and frustrated. Baba Awo contested several times and failed to win the Presidential elections. Perhaps, it was not meant to be. But ironically when he died in 1987, the scales fell from our eyes. The critics suddenly realised a good man was gone. Someone described him as the best President Nigeria never had. He was right and wrong. Chief Awolowo did not govern the whole of Nigeria but he reigned in our hearts. He was our President eternally, the one we can never forget.
Chief Awolowo’s passage was the stuff of thrillers. Historians would record his funeral as being second to none. The government of President Ibrahim Babangida spared nothing in celebrating a good and worthy son of Nigeria. The burial was Stately. His mausoleum remains second to none. His personal effects were gathered and assembled into a museum. His expansive library was preserved and handed over to the Ogun State University. A distinguished medical establishment which he conceived was completed and launched in his honour, supervised by Mama Awo and her children.
Mama Awo took charge and did so effectively. She demonstrated her trading and managerial skills as Chairman of The Nigerian Tribune, one of Nigeria’s oldest and very influential newspapers. Many predicted Mama would not live long after Papa’s demise. But Mama defied all odds and challenges and lived nearly three decades thereafter.
I came in contact with her just before Papa’s departure. My great friend, Prince Adedamola Aderemi had befriended the Awolowos’ beautiful grand-daughter, Olukemi Oyediran (daughter of Professor Kayode and Omotola Oyediran). I saw a striking resemblance between her and Mama Awo. Their wedding in December 1986, in Ibadan was like a fairy-tale. T saw the Awolowos at close proximity and was deeply touched by their elegant simplicity despite such towering accomplishments and fame. Papa passed on barely months after. I visited Ikenne several times with the genteel Ile-Ife Prince and passed the night on different occasions. Mama got to know of me and graciously treated me like a member of the family.
Mama was kind and prayerful. Several times I was told she had asked after me. We had occasions to panic about the state of her health and Prince Adedamola and I would rush down to Ikenne to see Mama, but she soldiered on and survived every scare. We thoroughly enjoyed her company and culinary choices. She paid attention to detail and would ask what food I wanted ahead of our arrival. On one occasion she made sure my favourite Ijebu delicacy, Ikokore, was ready, accompanied by assorted meat and snails.
I will forever treasure the last moment we spent with her about two months ago. Prince Adedamola and I had travelled to Ikenne to join his family and attend a photo-shoot with Mama in preparation for her centenary birthday festivities. Unfortunately, we ran into bad traffic and Mama had retired to her room by the time we arrived. But Mama left word that she would still take the pictures anytime the Prince came. The Prince went into the bedroom first and later came to take me in. Mama looked obviously tired and was oblivious of my presence. To the greatest surprise of everyone present, Mama put on a smile as soon as my name was mentioned to her. Her eldest daughter, Mrs Oyediran said jocularly that I should not leave Ikenne since I knew how to make Mama smile. I was deeply touched that despite her delicate health, she could still appreciate and acknowledge my visit with that beautiful smile. We took several pictures and left her in peace. I did not know that would be the last time I would ever see her.
I was at the Eurostar lounge in Brussels when I received a call from Senator Tokunbo Afikuyomi, who broke the big news to me. I instantly called Prince Adedamola Aderemi who was already on his way to Ikenne. I called my wife in London and broke the news to her. I called Princess Olukemi Aderemi to commiserate with her and the family. She narrated Mama’s dramatic exit and I was convinced God truly loved her.
Everything looked pre-ordained and Mama was in charge to the very end. At 99, closer to 100, death did not catch Mama unawares. She went on her own terms, after showering prayers on her family and having a meal of her choice. She went to bed to rest and kissed the world goodbye as if she knew the time, if not the hour had come.
May her soul Rest in perfect Peace. Amin.
This best outside opinion was written by Dele Momodu/Thisday