By Tony Eluemunor
Please, pan back to last week Friday, at the Oghara, Ethiope-West Local Government Area of Delta State. The high and the mighty, the rich and the famous, Senators and Representatives, a gaggle of Ministers and Commissioners, past and present, retired military brass hats, etc, had gathered in considerable numbers under a giant canopy.Ibori and Sam Amuka at the funeral
The man they had come to commiserate with, Chief James Onanefe Ibori, whose late elder brother, William, was lying in state there, had been moving from one point to the other playing the perfect host, thanking and welcoming guests.
Then, about 11 AM, there was an unusual stir at the canopy’s entrance – the unmistakable buzz announcing a big masquerade’s arrival. A slight hush descended as people craned their necks to espy who was making that grand entrance. The discussion at my table stopped. I was poised to jot down the name that I expected to be announced soon.
Mr. Sunny Areh, a journalist who was seated at my immediate right hand side, jabbed me excitedly on the ribs, “ah, it is Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam has arrived”! Then the Master of Ceremonies, also bellowed the information, doing a lengthy, theatrically enchanting dramatic monologue. In the end he stated as just an addendum that the man’s real name is Sam Amuka. All the while, those gathered there were clapping their hands in a manner that signified “hail Caesar.”
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“Sorry, I’m going to pay my homage to my boss”, Sunny Areh announced and he ran off towards the chair that had just been made available to…, well, Uncle Sam. Mr. Areh was once a journalist in the Vanguard stable, which Uncle Sam birthed and shepherded into prominence, but he had left that organisation for over ten years now.
Still, he saw Uncle Sam as his boss and respected him as such. Before Mr. Areh left his seat, another journalist, Mr. Ted Iwere, had stood up to receive a hand shake from Uncle Sam, then he positioned a seat for that uncle figure of Nigerian journalism, who now sat a seat or two to Mr. Iwere’s right hand side.
Chief Ibori, whose chair was to Mr. Iwere’s immediate left, which was two or three seats away from Uncle Sam, simply stood up and went to Uncle Sam’s right hand side. He motioned that a seat be brought to him there. Though the seat materialised immediately, he still kept standing for some minutes as he laughed and chatted with the Vanguard publisher.
I understood the message in that non-verbal communication. Ibori, the 1999 to 2007 Governor of Delta state, the strong man of South-South politics, not just of Delta state, and one of the real irokos of Nigerian political affairs was exhibiting his respect for Uncle Sam. And until that day’s event ended and the remains of Chief Williams Boyi Ibori, left the stadium to signify the end of the lying-in-state and the reading of tributes, Ibori never returned to his original seat! He remained close to Uncle Sam.
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“Should I or shouldn’t I?” The debate was fierce and intense deep, deep within me – whether or not to go and pay my own homage to Uncle Sam, who until that day I had never seen but knew intimately by his reputation. I had practiced a hundred times before how I would knock on his office, introduce myself and thank him for the trust he has reposed on me; a total stranger. So, would it not be out of place to introduce myself to him at a public gathering?
Suddenly, I couldn’t help myself any longer. I ambled towards him, bent low and I mentioned my name. A smile lit up his face, his very eyes sparkled, not that he was excited at a nobody like me but just out of his kindliness and genuine warmth towards others, and he exclaimed: “Ah Tony the Ibori man, thank you, thank you, thank you”. I explained that I actually came up to him to thank him for trusting me.
“Forget that Tony let’s talk about another thing. I’ve told you, whenever you want something published, just send it” he replied.
That was the third time he was saying that to me. The other times were on the phone. I had phoned him to ask for special concession, that I had an advert to place for my principal and Uncle Sam cut me short: “Tony how are you? Whenever you have an advert, just send it in and say the date you want it published. Finish. It will be done. Give my regards to Chief Ibori”. When I later phoned to thank him for that concession and to inform him that I had paid for the advert, Uncle Sam again replied: “Oh, cut it out Tony, I trust you”.
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Many journalists visited Oghara for late Chief William Ibori’s lying-in-state. Some came on their own, many accompanied Delta State’s Governor Arthur Ifeanyi Okowa or other top ranking personalities such as Okowa’s immediate predecessor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan or Senator James Manager – two persons who are contesting for the same Senate seat (Delta South) and yet flanked Ibori left and right for a photograph that day. We were all proud that Uncle Sam was the centre of attraction.
I read Uncle Sam for the first time, as a school boy, in 1973 when I was on long vacation in Lagos; he wrote the Sad Sam column then in the Sunday Punch, which he helped co- found with his friend the late Chief James Aboderin. When something went wrong between them, Uncle Sam founded the Vanguard, never saying a word in anger about how he exited PUNCH. Instead of cursing the darkness, he chose to light a candle called the Vanguard. Before then, he had been Editor at the Daily Times.
Vanguard is one newspaper company where editors and reporters find a home for decades at a stretch – shielded from the dislocations and career-truncations prevalent in Nigerian journalism. That day at Oghara, I was telling Uncle Sam that I was so excited about meeting him and that I would write something, but he did not let me actually elucidate my thoughts before he interjected: “fire on Tony, just fire on”.
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I was told that he never allows articles on him published in Vanguard. He is a different publisher. I doubt if he would have agreed if he allowed me complete the message, that the piece I intended to write would be on him. He probably heard “I would like to write” and he cut in, saying ‘fire on Tony.” Here is the article, Sir, and it bears just one message: “Thank you, Uncle Sam”. I hope I have not offended you. My apologies. Thank you, sir
Eluemunor, an Abuja-based journalist, is Chief Ibori’s Media Assistant.Related