by Olutayo Irantiola
Today started on a grim note for me when I was told of the departure of Baba Dr Razaq Afolabi Olopoenia, my mind raced back to my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) years circa 2007 in Maiduguri, Borno State, which was the beginning of my relationship with him.
When I was given my deployment letter from the University of Ilorin, the first thing on my mind was to inform all the family members- nuclear and extended. When I informed my Grandfather, Revd John Adegoke Okesiji, JP, he met with Baba Alhaji Lekan Salami later that day. When their discussion got to the point of my deployment, Grandpa was informed that Dr Razaq Olopoenia was the Chairman of the Federal Government Board to Lake Chad Research Institute, Maiduguri, Borno State. This brought a sigh of relief to my heart. All it cost him, was to give me the contact of Dr. Gbenga Olabanji, the Deputy Director of the institute.
I picked up my bag and journeyed to Maiduguri, Borno State. Having experienced the various journeys to the South-South of the country with either of my parents, I was not too scared of the distance but like a sealed mind aiming for a very deadly adventure, I proceeded to Ilorin from where I boarded the bus to Kaduna with other intending corps members from other locations. I assumed that we would get to Kaduna in good time, nay, we got to Kaduna around midnight. I jettisoned the plan to call Revd Dr. B.U Enyioha and we had fun in the vehicle till dawn. We dispersed into various buses as we were headed for different parts of Northern Nigeria. My first sets of associates in the orientation camp were those that we journeyed together.
From the confines of the Orientation camp, I called Dr. Olabanji and made him know that I am from the Chairman, I can sense the air of respect for him and the importance attached to my request. I have also got the contact of another young relative resident in Maiduguri, Johnson Omoniyi. The first assignment for Johnson was to buy me some CDs of King Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey, he brought it to the camp and passed it to me over the fence. This gave life through the Orientation Broadcasting Service (OBS) to all Yorubas on camp.
On the day when we will be posted to various locations for Primary Assignments, I was not good at the parade so I was playing with my new friends, after the Governor Alli Modu Sheriff’s speech, I was called from the podium that someone from Lake Chad Research Institute (LCRI) was looking for me. With the expectation that the Institute had written to the NYSC for my Primary Assignment, I was awestruck when I saw that I was posted to Biu, another journey of about 186 kilometres, in my mind, this was not negotiable.
I was chauffeur driven to the Institute, straight to Dr. Olabanji’s office. The entire institute was at alert; it’s the Chairman’s boy. Before other Corps members who were legitimately posted to LCRI could find their way to the institute, I had been given a room to lodge. Few days after our posting, I was still floating when, Mr Agbor, a Representative, of the NYSC came to the institute and he was told that if I am not posted to Maiduguri Municipal Council (MMC), no Corps member will be accepted that year. Immediately, he wrote a letter to the Zonal Inspector of Bama requesting that I should be rejected. Eventually, I got to Bama, the ZI grumbled that there was a need for graduates of English in the town.
I started living large as a Corps Member, I knew I was untouchable and had multiple allegiances. I was posted to support Mr. Bulus in his Primary 3 class; I was the Digital Assistant to Dr Olabanji; I was the lesson teacher of Dr D.A Anogie’s children; I was the creative companion and co-news analyst to Dr Lazarus Musa Samdi, who was on crouches then, the Church boy at First Baptist Church, Post Office and ultimately, the host to other Corps Members when they visit the state capital.
The visit of the Chairman was the beginning of a loving father-son relationship with Baba Dr Olopoenia. One of the most beautiful things that happened during my service year was when the Chairman came in Maiduguri for board meeting; the entire institute will be on the look out for me. Everyone who saw me would be yelling, ’The Chairman is here’. I would proudly walk to the administrative block and I would be there till the meeting is over, be his Personal Assistant and subsequently follow him to the hotel where we would have some chat before I return to the institute and this was my routine for about three days. A quick aside, Alhaji Ibrahim Mai-Sule, one of the board members would say that I looked like the Kanuris with my nose. He promised me immediate employment if I married a Kanuri lady; the proposal died a natural death.
One of his daughters got married while I was serving; I was the official representative of the Institute alongside a chauffeur. This meant a lot to me, I was given per diem to come to Lagos. Unfortunately, the Peugeot mini-van that we travelled in developed fault around Lokoja, I joined a bus to Lagos while the driver repaired the vehicle and came to Lagos. I resumed my Personal Assistant role for the wedding. The beautiful ceremony saw Baba Dr Olopoenia really annoyed, many of his colleagues from the University of Ibadan that embarked on the journey could not get to Lagos because of the Holy Ghost service of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. Many of them returned disappointed.
This was when I had the opportunity of speaking to Baba, Alhaji Shittu Olopoenia. He told me of his relationships across the country amongst others. These two Babas made me appreciate the need to understand another language, as we were seated, if they want to converse and they do not want us to comprehend, they will switch to a Ghanaian language.
With or without this disturbance, Baba Razaq Olopoenia returned to his base, Ibadan, and he hosted his friends at the University of Ibadan Senior Staff Club. I tagged along; I sat with pride beside my Chairman and Baba. I was listening with rapt attention and I enjoyed my PA role which has become transnational in nature. It was a wet but pleasant evening wherein various topic of discussion ensued. I can remember Baba made a comment about one of the economic policies of the Central Bank of Nigeria’s Governor, at that time, Professor Charles Chukwuma Soludo in strong terms and he noted that their paths had crossed. Then, I knew that there are some Doctors who are seniors to Professors maybe as a result of the Publish or Perish phenomenon or otherwise.
I frequently visited the Amina Way residence of Baba Dr Olopoenia and this was when I knew the huge repository of knowledge that he was. He was usually alone on his couch in the living room but I usually got amazed at the volume of books lying everywhere in the house- from Economics to History, Statistics to Mathematics, Political Science to Anthropology amongst others. I learnt within the short time. I was able to connect the dots that exist between Mayowa Salawu and Ridwan Salawu that I had known separately to be brothers amongst others. Up till our last meeting in 2018 at Rev Okesiji’s 90th birthday, his first question remained, what are you doing! Looking back at these days, I felt I was a bit far from tapping much more from him.
Baba Dr Razaq Olopoenia represented different things to different people- to some, he was the Professor that was never announced; to some, he was the difficult man that must be avoided; to some, he was the hermit, who was married to his books; to some, he was the first person to complete his Doctorate degree in Okeho; to some, he was a great benefactor; to some, he was a stern man that detest isolence; to some, he was the Chairman; to some, he was a politician; to some, he was a doting father and to some, he was the Patriarch of the family. Whoever, he was to you, he remained a great man in life and in death.
I celebrate you, my Chairman, Sir. Your PA and boy cherishes you. Adieu Dr AbdulRazaq Afolabi Olopoenia.