OJ Abuah Didn’t Wait To Take My Phone Call

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Paul Okolo

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By Paul Okolo  |

ON Friday, Aug. 12, I met with a friend, a journalist covering the Presidential Villa. “How’s OJ,” I asked. “He’s fine,” she said. “I heard he was sick.” “Ah, I didn’t know that,” I replied. “I’ll try and call him,” I added. Two days later, before I could make the call, Justin Abuah, Director of Information in the Office of the President, was dead.

Among the youngest and most precocious editors working in the Lagos newsroom of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in the early 1980s, one man stood out. In those days before the advent of computers, their job was to improve type-written stories written by reporters before being sent to more experienced senior editors for a final look.  OJ Abuah quickly excelled, earning the confidence of his bosses. Usually, when senior colleagues entrust important responsibilities to a surrogate, it’s because the subordinate knows their onions. OJ, as he came to be known, fitted that mode. He had eagle eyes to see every spelling or grammatical errors in a copy. To his credit, once he pronounced a copy to be ok, it meant there was nothing more to add.

There was a catchword that caught on in the newsroom during that period: “All errors regretted.” To the journalists involved, it meant the editor had done their best on a story and any fault spotted thereafter must be because it’s human to err. If he didn’t create the phrase, OJ so fondly shouted it that he could easily have claimed the copyright. He never failed to do what every editor is primarily paid to do – make the reporter’s story better. This is not to be taken for granted as many reporters would tell you. Some editors do the exact opposite, making you ask how they got the job in the first place. Because birds of the same feather flock together, OJ and other brilliant sub-editors referred to as “Young Turks” by senior colleagues, bonded easily with other resourceful editors and reporters, making our time together very exciting. But OJ and I predated those NAN days.

We first met in 1978 as fresh undergraduates or Jambites at the University of Lagos. He came from CMS Grammar School, Bariga, also in Lagos. He was admitted to study Mass Communication, then a highly sought-after course for students with the best Higher School Certificate (HSC) or General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level results. Our first meeting was at Marierie Hall, one of the male hostels in the main campus. Friends and classmates gathered there from morning until very late. Over drinks and snacks, we would discuss national politics, international affairs, sports, and campus matters. OJ, while not a loud debater, was never shy to make his point. His interjection would be followed by his trademark vigorous laughter.

As we settled into our jobs, he moved into a flat in the Lagos suburb of Ijesha with his friend Muyiwa Adefope. After work, his first love was reading. He would read until driven by hunger to the kitchen or when I showed up at the door. After eating and watching the news on television, he would return to his novel, usually one of those voluminous types that intimidated some of us. He was the one who introduced me to Foyles Bookshop in London. We also spent time listening to music by the likes of Grover Washington Jnr., Bob James, George Benson, Fela, Bob Marley and many others whose works captivated our generation.

OJ left NAN for Dodan Barracks, the former seat of the federal government in Lagos, to work with Chief Duro Onabule, who was the Chief Press Secretary to President Ibrahim Babangida. Not long after, he moved from Ijesha to Victoria Island, ostensibly to be closer to the office. His new home was no less welcoming even after marrying his loving and faithful wife, Loretta. Some other newly-wed wives would have made it their first assignment to drive away their husband’s friends once they’ve tied the knot. Not Loretta. With her, I could have lively discussions even when OJ was in no mood to chat. Following the move of the seat of government from Lagos to Abuja, OJ hosted me in his apartment on my first visit to the new capital. With Loretta yet to join him, we ate whatever he prepared with joy and reminisced about life, mutual friends and their latest exploits.

OJ’s mind-your-business philosophy at the Villa served him well.  Although we never discussed the matter, I feared for him when one former military strongman descended on some predominantly Yoruba-speaking officials at the Villa under the pretext that they participated in a conspiracy to unseat him. OJ, being a Lagos boy who spoke fluent Yoruba, could easily have been implicated. Looking back, I can say that his discretion, decorum, and professionalism probably saved his skin. No wonder he was able to work successfully with seven heads of state from Babangida to Muhammdu Buhari.

In the course of his career, OJ met not a few dignitaries — from the Pope to presidents. Yet he never wore this as a badge of honour. For someone long accustomed to walking in the corridors of power, his simple mien was uncommon. In his trademark batik or “ankara” wear, you could easily mistake him for a minion holding an inconsequential position in the place. Yet OJ sat at meetings with heads of state, politicians, and dignitaries, quietly taking note of proceedings. Inside of him must be volumes of books on Nigeria and international affairs that may never be written. This makes his passing a truly great loss for his family, friends and the nation.

—  Sep 12, 2016 @ 15:55 GMT

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