By Babatunde Jose
My relationship with late Uncle Tony as I called Tony Suleiman Momoh was at an academic level. He was a man given to intellectual and logical discourse on any given topic or issue and sometimes borders on a lecture. Uncle Tony was a quintessence and personification of legalistic journalism and an epitome of religious syncretism. Chief Segun Osoba captured this aspect of Tony’s life in his epigraph when he said “He was a powerful member of the intellectual wing of the profession. He brought deep thoughts and serious mindedness into the profession. He was nicknamed lawyer-journalist by late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and he lived up to it.”’
An apolitical politician he still rose to become a major player in his chosen political party; Momoh was many things to different people. However, above all, he preferred to be known as a lawyer-journalist: A dogged fighter for press freedom.
Even though Tony Momoh was employed by my late father as a sub-editor in training in 1962, I had no personal interaction with him until 1969 when I was in Upper Six and two of his nephews arrived Muslim College, Ijebu Ode for their HSC. We became friends particularly, Aba-Shehu Kenssington Momoh; sons of Tony’s elder brother, K.S.Y. Momoh, the Action Group member and Minister of Trade and Industry who had his head broken with the mace in the fracas that ensued in the Western House of Assembly on May 24, 1962. A disturbance that snowballed into the declaration of an Emergency in Western Nigeria, the appointment of an Administrator for the region and subsequently, the Coker Commission of Enquiry, Treason Trial, imprisonment of Awolowo and his fellow travelers and ultimately the 1966 Coup and the civil war.
Being a student of social science, I was able to comprehend Tony’s use of trenchant aphorisms. I became attracted to him for his logical thinking and in later life we became close; sharing a smoke, especially the last stick which we called ‘isegbedon’. He thought me how to read two books at the same time.
Tony and I would later spend some memorable time together in the English seaside resort of Plymouth which I visited in 1971 when Tony was sent there by the Daily Times on training, preparatory to his being drafted to Times Journalism Training School – a position which he was naturally cut out for. Before joining the Daily Times, Tony had been a teacher and at another time the principal of a school. In that same year, we both visited Scotland for the annual Edinburgh Military Tattoo: A performance by the British Armed Forces, Commonwealth and International military bands and artistic performance.
Tony was born Sulaimon Momoh at Auchi in 1939; the 165th child of King Momoh I of Auchi, Edo State, who died in 1944. He was reputed to have had the biggest family in the world, such that the British colonial masters gave him a medal to that effect: He had 48 wives and 257 children. And he was called ‘Evergreen Momoh’.
Tony had cause to cross the whole gamut of imported religions, starting from being born a Moslem who never touched the Bible until he fell out with Islam and went to teach in an Anglican school where he was converted.
By 1955, under the free education program of Awolowo, there was a massive recruitment of teachers in Western Region and Tony decided to become a teacher. He went to an Anglican school in Okpe where they offered him to teach (Christian) Religious Knowledge. At that time, he had never touched the Bible not to talk of reading it. But, because he must teach Religious Knowledge, he started reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
He also had to convert before they could employ him which he did. He was employed as a teacher and he started going to church.
The Anglican Church demanded that he be baptized, and he did and choose the Baptismal name of Suleiman which was his Muslim name. ‘Tony’ being his nickname: A name he adopted from his hero Anthony Enahoro.
He went for teacher training, and had Teacher Grade III and Grade II; read for and passed GCE O’Level, and GCE Advanced Level.
In 1962, following a case of perceived injustice by the Church, Tony resigned from teaching and resigned from Christianity. According to him “I judge institutions by those who run them. In 1955, I resigned from Islam because I was asked to give a bribe. In 1962, I resigned from Christianity and the church and I went to Daily Times.”
Sometime in 1971 or 72, Tony listened to a lecture delivered by late Adeyemi Lawson of the Grail Movement and became enamored by the message. At that time the book, ‘In the Light of Truth, Grail Message’ by Abdrushin had become popular among the growing intelligentsia, especially in the universities. I must confess, it is a difficult book to assimilate and demands total devotion and concentration to unravel its ‘Message’. Thus, Tony became a ‘Cross Bearer’ as we call them and rose to become a high official of the movement.
The Grail Message would come to shape Tony’s subsequent attitude to life, his perception of things and relationship to people and events. But, how Tony could tolerate the shenanigans associated with political life in Nigeria, is a question I cannot answer.
In 1975, Tony’s syncretistic religious life assumed a 360 degrees circle and he returned to Islam, though withing the warm embrace of Abdrushin. He started fasting and observing some Islamic tenets. It is important to note that the Grail Message is not averse to the teachings of Islam and it would surprise one that Prophet Muhammad is one of the revered personages of the Grail Movement.
Tony would later become an author of many books but most of them of spiritual nature. But the book many will forever associate with Tony is ‘Letters to My Countrymen’.
My late father loved Tony in a peculiar way and was always glad to engage him in intellectual discourse. They would both serve on the board of the Nigerian Media Merit Award (NMMA).
When Tony served as Minister of Information, my late wife was the Legal Adviser in the ministry and later he went on to serve as the Chairman of Nigeria Airways. All the while Tony lived in a rented apartment and his wife maintained her trade as a fashion designer. Until he died Tony had only his house on Sylvia Road, Anthony Village, Lagos, to his name. Not many of our leaders can boast of such acts of contentment. It was a hallmark of his life of contentment and satisfaction with what he had been given by his maker.
I am sure Tony would have met my father up there now and they would have started exchanging gist about the world below, especially what their beloved country has become. But one thing Tony would dare not reveal to him is the fact that the two of us used to refer to him as ‘the Boy’. It was Tony who started it ooo, not me!
May Allah admit him to Jannatul Firdous and give his amiable wife and children the fortitude to bear the loss.
Barka Juma’at and as happy weekend