By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, this story you’re about to read is the stuff of fairytales or even science fiction but it is very real and absolutely true. Nothing worries a man of big dreams and voluptuous ambition like me than the fear of failure and the cataclysmic humiliation that goes with it. But that was the condition under which I found myself one mild afternoon in London. We had started Ovation International magazine by then and everything seemed to be going fine until we hit a storm that shook me to my marrows.
Try as we did, this demonic problem just refused to go away. We had arrived at a cul de sac and there was no forward movement. Turning back was also not an option. Trust me, money can be a bastard with no pity or mercy on anyone. I was a veritable victim of the stubborn goat called poverty. According to Chief Moshood Abiola, “there is no animal more stubborn than poverty; never throw away the stick with which you chased it away because it will always come back!”
It was not that I threw the cane away, in my own case. Truth was poverty and I had only been playing hide and seek. Whenever it seemed I had succeeded in chasing the foolish monster away, it would show up again with its ugly face, then the battle between us would start again. Anyway. On this particular day, I could no longer bear the heat in the kitchen and all doors seemed shut against me. I faced imminent disgrace and this ferocious tide was likely to sweep me away completely. I was practically losing my stamina, my stature and my status all at the same time. God knows I had thrown everything into this business. I knew my problem and shortcomings, the first of which was my fastidious obsession with quality. I was not willing to compromise the world class status that we had set and achieved for Ovation International magazine by this time. I was aware of a Yoruba saying that “if we can’t go forward, we should be able to retrace our steps…” This I wasn’t ready to do. It is actually anathema to me.
Another voice was telling me “iku ya jesin” (death is better than disgrace!). I don’t know how the devil planted this particular idea in my fertile brain and imagination. But it became a recurring chorus in my head that just seemed never to go away. I started singing it till it almost turned into reality. So, I woke up and picked my Nissan Estate car, kicked the poor little Japanese toy and drove off to an unknown destination. No one in my house knew where I was going. Only a friend knew of my acute frustration and increased restlessness. I was in exile, on the run from the draconian and bloodthirsty government of General Sani Abacha. I never planned to live outside Nigeria. For me, Nigeria remains the best country on planet earth despite our myriad stories of debilitating and self-immolating crises. But here I was, a refugee, a fugitive in all ramifications, eking out a stodgy living, by fire and by force, with my immediate family and hordes of dependants.
So, I set forth on this voyage and let the heavens fall today, if it must. Yes. Only one soul knew I had reached my wit’s limit. Only one soul knew I was close to hurting myself, terminally! This soul made a move that altered my trip. May be my name would have been on the lips of all newscasters on major networks in the world had this soul not called one man in the nick of time. My phone suddenly rang. I wasn’t picking my calls, but this particular caller was stridently unrelenting. Then, like a robot, I picked the call. I would be eternally grateful for that singular decision. In my delirious state, I could have hit a wall, a car, a human; anything, anyone. My power of concentration had vamoosed, and my determination had evaporated. I could no longer be bothered about life or whatever…
So, I picked this call. Wow. I heard a booming voice. “Dele, Dele, Dele, my son, where are you?” I didn’t know what to say or how to answer. In truth, I didn’t know where I was and where I was headed. I was just driving to somewhere and nowhere, like a somnambulist. I recognised the voice. Although it sounded a bit far, yet it was quite penetrative. I responded, reluctantly, to the very familiarly gentle, soothing and calming voice. Even in my deepest sleep, I would have recognised this prosperous voice as that of Chief Oyekunle Aremu Alex-Duduyemi, The Aro of Ile-Ife, as he then was, and now the Asiwaju of The Source, Ile-Ife, the cradle of civilisation.
“My son, please, wherever you are, turn back and come to me at the office,” the voice commanded matter-of-factly. “OK Sir…” I was too weak to argue with my father figure. The next challenge now was how to navigate my way to Daddy’s office, right in the heart of Knightsbridge, in the lethargic, somnambulistic and noctambulistic state that I was in. Finding a place to park in that rich and luxurious neighbourhood was definitely an impossibility for a man already being flogged and flagellated by poverty. So, I drove some reasonable distance looking for a less posh area, which around the SW1 and W1 postcode of London is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but luckily I found somewhere affordable to park out of the toff zone, the country of the Sloane Rangers! I then took a train back to one of the most expensive addresses in England.
I entered the elevator and soon I was in the top office that Aro Duduyemi stylishly maintained. As always, I was welcomed by a white lady, her name I can’t remember now. She must have worked for Chief almost eternally. “Please, come in, Chief has been expecting you…” she told me calmly and politely. I knew my way into Chief’s office, as I had been there a few times. As soon as I entered, Chief sprang up, as if to carry and lift me up. “Let’s go downstairs to have lunch and then come back up to have our meeting. Sammie Ojikutu is coming to join us…” “Thank you Sir”, I managed to muster. We entered the elevator to the ground floor. Soon we were inside a Chinese restaurant. As soon as we sat down, Chief Ojikutu sauntered in. He was a very lively man and we not only had a sumptuous meal but a superlative company which jointly eased my worries.
Later, Chief and I bundled ourselves up and settled back into his cosy office. “Dele, what happened? Our mutual friend told me you were having some difficulties. That’s not enough to warrant taking a crazy decision. What’s not enough today will soon be overflowing…” Chief sermonised. I just stayed still, probably, or even totally oblivious of my surroundings. I was just nodding, lizard-like. Then, he pulled a drawer and brought out a fat envelope and handed it to me. The envelope was bulky. I was speechless and tongue-tied. I struggled to load it into my left pocket, where I knew I could closely guard it and monitor any intruding principality and fight with every fibre left in me. Money is indeed a spirit.
I couldn’t wait to get back to my car. That for me was a moment of resurrection. I was alive again. I rushed into my car. I couldn’t afford to be mugged by some bad guys. With what I knew I was carrying on me, those folks would celebrate Christmas and Easter, simultaneously. I opened the envelope, gingerly, and some wads of 50 pounds note stared me in the eyes… God! I exclaimed. Yes. The almighty must have sent one of his Guardian Angels to rescue me, and that Angel had entered the frame of the Aro of the Source to do the Lord’s bidding. No one can tell me otherwise. Thereafter, our relationship blossomed. Any time Chief was in London, he called and invited me to join him wherever he was, in his plush Hampstead home or in his effervescent Knightsbridge office. A rejuvenation was always guaranteed. I can never forget such a good father. God has blessed me with many.
Why am I writing this today? Chief Alex-Duduyemi turns 85 tomorrow, August 9, 2020. There is no better way to celebrate him, alongside his family and friends, than tell the story of his almost supernatural love for me. You will agree our relationship is surreal if you know the story behind how we met.
I grew up partly on Ondo Road in Modakeke. In those good old days, there was really no difference between Ile-Ife and Modakeke. We were members of the same family. Chief Duduyemi had a beautiful home on that road very close to Sijuwade Estate. Every time I passed, I tried to peep into what looked like a Paradise on earth. I think it was named Bolapat. There were a few of such buildings built close to one another. I think one of them was owned by Prince Adeyemo Adeyera (aka Currency Controller). I dreamt endlessly of enjoying such a life of harmony, bliss and peace one day. For me, meeting such distinguished personalities belonged in fantasyland, Alice in Wonderland stuff. But God is wonderful. Education is the fastest key that can unlock such doors, if ever. And God provided that pathway for me.
I was very well known in Ile-Ife as a prolific writer and voracious reader. On this auspicious day, I was attending the birthday celebration of Chief Orayemi Orafidiya in Ile-Ife. Practically all Ife elites marked register at the event. A band performed and the musician was happy to see me and he showered praises on me. This attracted the attention of Chief Alex-Duduyemi who sent an emissary to fetch me to his table at once. I already knew of him from one of the most commercially successful albums of Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, titled, Board Members. I knew him to be a Lawyer and serial entrepreneur. I also recognised him as a man of sartorial taste and elegance who was always impeccably turned out. I knew some of his friends, such as Chief Yinka Rhodes (they both married Sisters), Chief Bisi Omidiora, Prince Ademola Ademiluyi, Chief James Odeyemi and others, from afar.
Once I got to his table, I went flat in prostration. I could see he was very impressed. I’m used to giving maximum respect to anyone older than me. He told me he’d been hoping to meet me one day as he enjoyed reading whatever I wrote. I was grateful to God for such honour and privilege. That was how he joined the pantheon of my idols.
Let’s fast forward. I meandered my way into exile in London and life was brutal and brutish. But on that fateful day, Chief heard of my predicament, immediately traced and found me and invited me over. In that way, he gave me a new lease of life. We became father and son. And when I returned from exile, he hosted me warmly in his magnificent home in Apapa. We met every now and then at his Penthouse office in Victoria Island. He opened up his sprawling mansion in Ile-Ife to me where he hosted my family and some of my guests, when my Mum passed on in 2007.
Chief has been extremely kind and gracious. His wife, Yeye Asiwaju Sola Alex-Duduyemi, accepted me into their family. I will forever treasure this love and pray that God will continue to bless them and their descendants. Chief has requested that I propose the toast at his 85th birthday celebration, during a Zoom party tomorrow, and I have gladly accepted.
Here’s a toast to much longer life, more prosperity and good health… Happy birthday Sir.
End note: The amazing story of Chief Bode Akindele, which I started last week, continues next week. I joined his family and inner circle of friends in saying goodbye at his funeral in Ibadan last week. May his soul continue to rest in peace…