Last Friday, top industry leaders and tourism practitioners gathered at the Kano hall of Transcorp Hotel, Abuja, to pay tribute to the late Alhaji Rabo Saleh, president, Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria (FTAN).
I was among the whole lot and was in deep thought about death, which the Bible described as the end of all men. I also looked around to see if the living were concerned that one day many people shall also gather to bid them farewell. Sobering!
Death certainly deminishes humanity and remains unexplainable. No one wants to die but, come off it, death is like the hated tax man, it must come one day and we must pay real good. But the sad end of it is where and men think they are gods and, therefore, untouchable.
While the tribute programme for the late amiable tourism influencer continued in earnest, one simply went down memory lane, trying to recap moments with Rabo while he was here with us. It was a deep process, it was a mirror kind of encounter, a very touching moment, the reality that Rabo was no more.
Like a trance, his trademark smiling face resurfaced, faded, then his gentile voice clamouring for peace and forgiveness came up, clipped off and his humility, simplicity overshadowed pride, prejudice and arrogance. Shame to death, Rabo Saleh still lives on our hearts, in my heart.
Usually, I do have delayed reaction when those close to me were called back home. My late mum died in my arms and until I deposited her body at the morgue, the tears didn’t come. It rained tears when I got back home. Ditto, my father, who told me that the time had come. No fear, no anxiety, just pure connection to the heavenlies and to God be the glory.
So? The divine recall of Rabo Saleh met me a little bit unprepared. There were no indications that death was at the door, we never discussed it nor were we led to know. He was young and positive.
Nkerewuem Onung, acting president of FTAN, was the first to put me on prayer alert for the late FTAN chieftain. I recalled asking what was wrong. Nkerewuem and I share strong faith in God and the power of prayers. Nkerewuem is not simplistic. So, while in Calabar two months ago, I went to bed, praying to God to let me know what was wrong.
Next day, Susan Akporiaye, president of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), called for a different thing entirely and I took advantage to know how Rabo fared.
She was very cheerful and disclosed that Rabo was fine and out of harm’s way. I later called Otunba Segun Runsewe and he told me he was not aware that Rabo was sick then but he would do the needful. Rabo loved Runsewe so much and their love and respect for each other was mutual.
Interestingly, the love which bonds us, I mean some of us who had come a long way in the business of advancing the tourism industry as the real economic stimulus, cannot be overemphasized. True, like all humans, and particularly among true friends, we had off moments. In Jos, Plateau State capital, four years ago, Rabo jumped into my world. We had been friends from “far”, meeting at conferences and meetings, sometimes lamenting together the sad state of tourism in Nigeria.
Disagree with anything that Rabo held to heart but you cannot question his dedication and passion for tourism. It was the love of his life. Jos, as capital of tourism in Nigeria, still holds the attraction as the industry Camp David, where history is usually made and progressive templates for the sector marshalled. I was involved in many of such historic meetings and so was the late Rabo.
So Rabo happened in Jos and here we were, Kabiru Malan, Ganiyu Tarzan Balogun, Nkerewuem Onung, Bankole Bernard, Andrew Ehanire, John Best Likite, and Ikechi Uko. Rabo had a dream and knew that we could help advance it.
He was very strategic, deploying his trademark humility and angelic deposition. There was no pretense about his intentions to run as FTAN president and till today I didn’t know who hinted him about our Jos secret meeting.
FTAN then was heading to Mogadishu and we felt the association must rescued from clueless leadership. Rabo again knew that we wanted change in FTAN without any us willing to lead. All we were interested in was to kick out the noisemakers and maybe, on the floor, elect any willing practitioner.
Bernard Bankole, then NANTA president and my man Friday, took it upon himself to stand in the gap for Rabo, particularly as we were all fed up with hoteliers dominating FTAN leadership, making other sectorial leaders look like slaves and mere joiners and not owners.
As much as Bankole Bernard tried, I stuck to my guns not to support Rabo. Others agreed that NANTA should provide a possible presidency. When it dawned on us that we can’t make impactful changes by merely removing the then FTAN leadership, Rabo as the only option could not be wished away. Bankole Bernard forced my hands, only after I had extracted a promise from Rabo to make far-reaching changes to refocus FTAN and give the industry something to be proud of.
The rest is history and after his first tenure, I broke ranks and moved to take over the FTAN leadership. Bankole Bernard took to my side, not because we had any issues with Rabo but because FTAN was again drifting.
Before that move, I would call Rabo to remind him about his promises and he would assure of changes. Apparently, the hawks within the corridors of FTAN, who were given a soft landing during the elections, tied his hands, and, not known to be forceful and also a peaceful man, it was very difficult for Rabo.
Nkerewuem stood up in the gap for the late Rabo and at that time the process to remove Rabo through the ballot box pitted Nkerewuem against me. As friends, we sadly squared up and Nkerewuem knew I meant business.
While this was going on, the progressive team nearly broke to pieces. I made it known that the process was not about inordinate ambition as people perceived but as a way of demanding accountability and in clear focal attention to the oath we swore in Jos to bring effective changes to FTAN.
Apparently, we goofed by allowing Rabo to run FTAN alone. He told me this much as we met to find acceptable and amicable settlement to those failings. He was very peaceful in making this effort and it was touching, particularly his request for help. We felt there was not point to suffocate him with our presence. I recalled Rabo went to Otunba Segun Runsewe and the matter died, though not after a reconciliation with the other members of the team. Bankole Bernard and Gani Tarzan Balogun stood with me and even though Nkerewuem is my friend any day, he gave Rabo all the support, not because all was well with FTAN but to avoid a divided house.