This feature will be updated as soon as new pictures arrive*
By Adagbo Onoja
Earlier today, the body of Chief Sylvanus Yunus Elagbaje left Abuja on a final journey back home. Home is Udabi, Adoka in Benue State. Unlike Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, he did not commit suicide but what the elderly one there said about Okonkwo is absolutely applicable to Elagbaje: He was one of our greatest men. Greatness did not lie in wealth as financially well off as he was. It lay in cultural authenticity. In that regard, there were two of them in Idomaland among those that one was opportuned to have met and interacted with very closely, all of them late now. One is Ambassador Akatu Ella, the other one is Chief Elagbaje. There might be others that one hasn’t met.
As a Ministerial aide, one was to be seen, not to be heard. The protocol between an Ambassador and his Foreign Minister is too clear to allow for infraction. As the Acting High Commissioner in London in 1999, Akatu Ella would violate this protocol and get hailed for that by Alhaji Sule Lamido who emerged Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister then and whom I served as a media aide. In spite of his health challenge even then, Akatu would make it to the airport every time the minister was arriving. Considering the number of times a Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs arrives or leaves London on transit, it was unbelievable he coped. Even when the minister would ask him not to bother, he would still come, not minding the awkward arrival time in London, whether one was coming in from Africa, Asia, North America or Latin America.
I wished he excused himself from coming but, secretly, I longed for him because, if he came, I was sure of listening to Idoma language spoken or delivered in the accent that one doesn’t even get to hear in the villages nowadays. His mastery of Idoma vocabulary is unmatchable. This never changed. From the first to the last trip, Akatu remained Akatu – a top diplomat, trained negotiator and multilateralist who had served in Moscow, Tel Aviv, Washington and was then in London but whose cultural sensibility was unaffected. Once, the British High Commission asked him why he wanted to take a particular house help from Otukpo to London. He said he had to because she was needed to prepare ‘home’ cuisines for him, particularly the one called ‘Okoho’. I am using exactly his language. Lost, his interviewers quickly gave up and granted the visa request.
I was shocked to be greeted in Idoma right there on arrival during first official trip there in July 1999. I naturally asked how he identified me out linguistically. He said he knew everyone else on the list of the Honourable Minister’s entourage and concluded that I must be the one bearing Onoja whom he never met before. From that moment, we hit it off as if we had always known each other. He would do this without offending the protocol even though, once a while, Lamido would catch us out and jokingly bemoan how trapped he was by Idoma people on the job, whether in London, Stockholm or Berne, missions headed by ambassadors of Idoma origin then. And when he was back in Abuja, he had the Director in the Minister’s office, another Idoma. And these were beside Onoja of an aide. The minister was thoroughly surrounded by people of Idoma ancestry but it was a chance happening.
Of course, Onoja arrived the foreign ministry along with Lamido as a political appointee. All the rest were career diplomats whose appointment was the prerogative of the president. One claim is that Atiku Abubakar, the Vice-President in 1999 told then President Obasanjo that since governorship of Benue State and the ministerial slot for the state had been taken by appointees of Tiv nationality, it was important to make the ambassadorial appointees exclusively Idoma. Obasanjo’s reported endorsement of this produced the situation whereby all two non-career ambassadors as well as the one careerist were all of Idoma identity.
Now, when you left Akatu Ella in diplomacy, you met Elagbaje in business and politics. There is a way in which Akatu Ella and Sylvester Elagbaje refracted each other in sociability or that capacity to live expressively in spite of his aristocratic background, in the case of Akatu and in spite of his wealth, in the case of Elagbaje. Akatu’s father was an Action Group tough man in Idomaland in the First Republic. Akatu himself went on to become president of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria Student Union, going to meet General Yakubu Gowon at Dodan Barracks at some point on invitation before graduating in Political Science and becoming a diplomat.
It is a long time now and I cannot find business cards of those days anymore but it must be No. 34, Unity Road in Kano. There then and perhaps till today, an edifice testifying to his business acumen stood, a shining, majestic architectural delight. It signposted a ‘can do’ spirit that was uncommon. It belonged to Chief Elagbaje, a success story in hospital equipment and pharmaceuticals, a realm he had broken grounds in the complex Kano business circle and established himself conclusively. The greatest evidence for this was who asked me to see him: Professor Dandatti Abdulkadir, the Vice-Chancellor of Bayero University, Kano at the time. It is the all time testimony for Elagbaje as everyone knows Professor Dandatti to be an epitome of the clean individual.
I could not fathom the meeting point between the two for a long time, Elagbaje not being an academic. I forgot that as a businessman dealing with pharmaceuticals and based in Kano, he must have something to do with the only university in Kano then. Thereafter, it did not prove difficult to establish that both of them hated corruption but from different standpoints. While that of Dandatti is typical NEPU political morality, (being one of the three philosophers around Aminu Kano, the other two being the late Prof Ahmadu Jalingo and MT Liman, Minister of Education under Abacha), that of Elagbaje has a touch of the kind of arrogance that is admirable. He would say he could not bribe anyone again after taking personal interest in selecting his products and ensuring that they satisfied his own standards. As such, the two were bound to get along. In any case, Chief Elagbaje spoke Hausa language better than anybody at all.
On the whole, it was not possible to meet Elagbaje and not draw inspirations from his cultural authenticity and expressiveness. To say that he was generous is an underrstatement. Like everything else he did in life, his generosity too was on a scale uniquely his. As a student when I met him, it meant he turned out absolutely helpful. But that still takes a second position compared to his great welcome, his capacity to spare time to converse and to stress the moral imperatives in living life. You always left him with one lesson or the other. Yet, he had, by any standard, been a success story in business.
His business assumed the boom and burst character of the Nigerian economy and he suffered economic crisis but the great thing about this man who struggled to attain the social status he attained is that he remained true to the spirit of man, (no gender chauvinism intended) till death. He was invested with all the features by which members of the power elite identify themselves such as a traditional title, (he was the Ochagwuba ka’Idoma), chaired the board of several federal and state institutions and held the Member of the Order of Niger, (MON), it is this remaining true to that spirit that is underlining the tributes to him so far. We cannot thank God less for his life.