AS I write, the imaginary church bell of my broken heart tolls. It tolls 60 times. It tolls for you my friend and my departed brother who would have been 60 next Monday, on May 16, 2016.
The bell tolls and it tolls for our bond of friendship and brotherhood that defy the differences of tongue, tribe and religion that divide and disunite us as a nation. Our friendship and brotherhood go back to the Bible—your favourite book—to the story of David and Jonathan whose father Saul turned out an enemy who wanted David killed, yet their friendship was unalloyed. They were inseparable. Theirs was a friendship that “sticks closer than a brother.” (Book of Proverbs)
I cannot forget one morning when we were together at the burial of your mother-in-law and you said to me: “Mike you are my real brother.” I was so touched. In the Scriptures, Jesus was similarly preaching to a crowd when He was told that his mother and brothers were looking for Him. And He replied: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? Pointing to His disciples, He said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”
I was your brother and you were my Bible teacher and spiritual mentor from whom I learnt a lot. I can never forget the prophetic speech you made on my 60th birthday, saying that if you go to sleep and did not wake up, you will be rest assured that “Mike will be there for me and my family.”
When I was 60, you rolled out the drums for me. You pulled every string to make it a grand occasion. For a start, I didn’t want any loud celebration. But you overruled, asking me: “Do you know what it means to be 60? And do you know your worth in this Nigeria?”
You gathered the whole world to celebrate with me at Sheraton where encomiums were poured on my poor head. Next there was a “Mike Awoyinfa Colloquium on Tabloid Journalism” organised by City People’s publisher Seye Kehinde where my contributions to Nigerian journalism were acknowledged and discussed by journalism experts. And the thing is that whenever and wherever my name was mentioned, so was your name. Nothing I achieved in journalism was achieved individually. We achieved it together in our rare professional and business partnership that became a reference point and a benchmark.
When it comes to organising an event, you were the chief organizer and a master planner. Thanks to you, the 60th birthday celebration turned out memorable. I was hoping and looking forward to the time you would turn 60, when I would pay you back with a bigger celebration of your life packed with so much achievements— how you seamlessly combined life as a journalist and as a true man of God. Now, May 16 is here. And you are nowhere to be found. Like Jonathan said to David in 1 Samuel 20:18, “Tomorrow is the new moon, you will be missed, because your seat will be empty.”
No one can fill your vacant seat. No one can fill your big shoes. You may be small in stature, but you were a giant who bestrode the world like a colossus. You were the wise one, the one who knew everything in all fields. And you were a great teacher who poured everything out for others to drink deep from your Pierian spring. Everybody learnt from you—including me. Be it in the newsroom or the church. You were such a hard act to follow. Your happiest moment was when you were on the pulpit, dishing out erudite sermons straight from the throne of grace. As a writer and as a speaker, you delivered the goods in equal measure. It’s so sad that such a prodigious talent should end so quickly in the graveyard.
Life indeed is a mystery. Death is even a greater mystery. Why do good people die so early? And why do bad people continue to live on and enjoy life, wallowing in the vain glory of our looted, empty treasury? The British Prime Minister has just said Nigeria is “fantastically corrupt.” I wish he had used a bigger, ignominious word to describe our country mired in the morass of corruption and stolen wealth—even though his country is also culprit in receiving stolen wealth. Wish you were still around to comment on the affairs of our beloved nation.
I miss you my friend. Every minute, every second, I miss you. Your family miss you most. Just this week, the papers were looking for a story to mark your 60th birthday. Some journalists wanted to interview your wife, but she declined, saying she was not strong enough to reflect on life without you. I had to plead that they respect her feelings.
They say time heals. But time simply has refused to heal the wound, the pain, the agony of your sudden exit. Try as we want to relegate it to the background and move on with life, the tragic event of September 6, 2014 looms large every time, haunting us all, like a horror movie that scares an innocent child. It was the day that will forever live in infamy. We only take solace in the belief that as a good servant of God, you have gone to God to be rewarded with a place of honour where all good people go.
Ours was a friendship made in heaven and consummated on earth. We met for the first time in the ’80s under the editorship of the legendary Dele Giwa, the pioneer editor of Sunday Concord who mentored us all. Giwa was one editor we could die for to get a good story. You and I became friends because we discovered we have a lot in common: the passion for books and good writing skills honed under literary guru Dele Giwa himself. As the Bible says, “Iron sharpeneth iron, so man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” (Proverbs 27:17) We collaborated in many assignments which drew us closer and strengthened our friendship. In a moment of frustration, we decided to write a book. And that gave birth to the classic Art of Features Writing which is a compulsory text in journalism schools. From there, more books evolved from our partnership: 50 Nigeria’s Corporate Strategists, Nigerian Marketing Memoirs, Segun Osoba, The Newspaper Years, 50 World Editors and a wide repertoire of books and biographies soon to be published.
Currently, we are writing a book on Nigeria’s boardroom gurus sharing their thoughts and experiences on “Boardroom Leadership and Corporate Governance”—a book whose idea came after your death. For me, whether you are here or not does not matter. You are my co-author forever. From now till eternity, all the books I write will still carry your name because from the grave you still contribute your own quota. In the spirit world where you are, I can hear you cheering, inspiring and interceding for me. And God has been so faithful and merciful, helping me and giving me the strength and wisdom to carry on without you my friend. Even death, with all its ironclad power, cannot break our friendship.
So on Monday, May 16, as we quietly celebrate your 60th birthday, the host of heaven will also celebrate with you in triumph for a life of service on earth to God and humanity. May there be rejoicing in heaven for your sake. May there be a big birthday cake for you in heaven with your favourite biblical hero Apostle Paul supervising the cutting. May the host of heaven surround you as you cut your 60th birthday cake. And may God bless and abide with the family you left behind in Jesus name.
Let me end this piece with the bell metaphor which I started with. Of course you know the idea of a bell tolling was first written by John Donne and made even more famous by Ernest Hemingway in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, just like Chinua Achebe got his No Longer at Ease title from T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi.
This is from John Donne, to you and to me: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Happy posthumous 60th birthday to my friend and mentor Pastor Dimgba Igwe!