In Africa and particularly Nigeria, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find men or women of character, integrity, uprightness and transparency to occupy leadership positions that will take us out of underdevelopment and darkness.
To the Presidency and some state governments serving a second and last term, it pays to remember that four or three and a half years do not last forever. For this reason, I have decided to use today’s column to fondly remember a Nigerian who had the qualities that I earlier referred to and left a lasting legacy. People like him carried their nations on their shoulders and departed without a Swiss bank balance that cannot be traced or remembered by anybody.
My custom may not allow me to refer to Sunday Awoniyi as my friend because he was older than me, even if only by a few years. He was one of the most upright Nigerians, very resolute, not minding who may be offended by his uprightness. He loved humour and dished out a good dose of it. He was full of joy and never allowed anything stop him from speaking his mind.
Our relationship began in the middle 1960s, first as colleagues and later on as the best of friends. At that time, Sunday was the private secretary to Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, who was then the Premier of Northern Nigeria. Through Ado Bayero and Alhaji El-Yakubu, he got to know some things about me and was fascinated by the fact that I had driven my car alone from London to Nigeria and that I was a rising star to have become executive director of an international organisation.
Now, those who have good memories will recall that Sunday Awoniyi was a personal secretary to the late Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto. He later became a super permanent secretary in the federal civil service. I was made to understand that despite such high-profile contacts and service, Sunday Awoniyi did not crave any further limelight and was contented to be rewarded with the position of the chairman of the board of Impresit-Bakalori Dam Commission, a private-public partnership between the Federal Government of Nigeria and Impresit SRI, Italy, in which the FGN had 40 per cent holding and Impresit held the remaining 60 per cent.
As time went by, the board realised that they needed someone with construction industry experience to lend support to the Nigerian board members. They, therefore, sought the advice of the then Minister of Water Resources, Alhaji El-Yakubu, who recommended that I be selected to take a seat on the board. That was how I met Chief Sunday Awoniyi.
I recall our first board meeting in Milan, which lasted four days. On the last day, the group’s financial director of Impresit gave me an envelope with money, which I didn’t check as I wanted to return to my hotel in time to prepare for my return trip. Few hours later, I still hadn’t looked at it when Sunday came into my room and asked if I had been given some sitting allowance. I affirmed this and he wanted to know how much I was given. I then reached for my envelope, opened it and counted the money in it. It amounted to $5,000. Immediately, Sunday picked up my room telephone and called someone. I overheard him asking whoever it was on the line why I was given $5,000 when he (Sunday) got $10,000. He added that, since I did all the work, I deserved to be paid equally. He even joked (or maybe he was serious) about sharing his allowance with me if the situation wasn’t rectified.
Later that day, the group financial director, Mr. Camerini brought me an envelope with $5,000. Sunday and I became such close friends that a few years, later when my wife was studying at the University of Ilorin, she would stay with the Awoniyis from time to time. This became more frequent as my wife became heavy with our twin boys. Eventually, and most appropriately, she delivered our twin boys in Sunday’s house, and he proceeded to give them their names of Taiwo and Kehinde, which they still bear till today. Sunday was also their godfather.
Interestingly, Sunday Awoniyi cheated death twice. First was during the inauguration of the first phase of the Bakalori Dam and Irrigation Project. It had been arranged for the inauguration to be carried out by the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. At that time, the scheduled flights to Sokoto were intermittent and neither get us there in good time for the ceremony, nor brought us back to Lagos within a day of the event.
Consequently, a charter flight was arranged with Nigerian Airways for the trip and we departed the Lagos Airport around 7am that fateful day. The flight was beautiful, and we were served breakfast on board. The breakfast consisted of fried eggs, bacon, tomatoes, baked beans, and toast. I took one bite of my food and I did not like the taste. I took a second bite from another portion, it still felt the same. I pushed my plate aside, and had only tea. But my colleagues devoured their meals.
We arrived Sokoto at about 8.40am and then made the short trip down to Bakalori, where we checked into our various chalets to get refreshed. We had a bit of time to rest because we were not required to be seated at the venue until 11.00am and since Sunday and I had one car to ourselves, he promised to pick me up by 10.45am.
Between checking into my chalet and waiting for Sunday to pick me up, I had used the toilet twice. By 10.45am, Sunday Awoniyi was nowhere near my place. Sometime between 11.30 and 12 noon, Sunday showed up at my chalet and, ignoring my quizzical stares, ran past me and made straight for the toilet. He remained there for the next 15 minutes and by the time he emerged, he announced that there was no way he could go for the event because in the last two and a half hours, he had used the toilet over 12 times.
We quickly notified the officials of the company. Their medical team arrived shortly and checked out all six directors on the flight. Sunday Awoniyi and the financial director of Impresit, Dr. Gio Camerini, were so bad that an air ambulance was requested to fly them to Milan, Italy, that same day. They both had to undergo surgery. Sunday was in hospital for a month while Camerini for two months.
Many years later, at the dawn of the new millennium, Sunday Awoniyi came close to death again. He had developed a reputation as a solid citizen, one who could not be bought or compromised. This did not endear him to the political class and those in authority. At one point, during the second coming of General Olusegun Obasanjo, as the President of Nigeria, Sunday was approached in 2005 to head the Nigerian Commonwealth Games Bid Committee. He turned it down, stating that Nigeria was in no shape or form to host such an event. General Yakubu Gowon was then made the chairman of the bid committee. When the bid failed, Sunday called Gowon to congratulate him for saving Nigeria from an impending catastrophe. The margin of defeat more than likely confirmed Chief Awoniyi’s fears.
Not too long after the bid fiasco, he was attacked by what some thought were armed hoodlums. He was shot several times but lived to be flown to the United Kingdom for life-saving treatment. Sunday claimed the attack was the handiwork of government-sponsored bandits. I visited him in hospital several times and though he returned to Nigeria having regained his health, I still believe that he never recovered fully from the combination of food poisoning and the armed attack on his life.
Sunday Awoniyi, my friend, died on November 28, 2007. I was at his funeral in Mokpa, where I stayed with General Jemibewon, who was his friend also. We need more men and women like Sunday Awoniyi. We must look out for his kind who will not allow the gridlock in Apapa to continue drastically slowing down the economy so as to please a few special interests. We must look for men and women that are capable of removing the curse that has been placed on the power sector by those importing generators and diesel thereby laughing to the bank without lifting a finger. We must have a good and deep look into Nigeria and beyond and find Nigerians that will look beyond themselves and begin the process of rediscovering the nation.