Remembering Sardauna Keremi, a Decade After By Sufuyan Ojeifo

“To die completely is to be forgotten.  He who dies and is not forgotten lives forever.”  Samuel Butler.

November 28, 2017 marks a decade of the death of Chief Sunday Bolorunduro Awoniyi, the Aro of Mopa and Sardauna Keremi (little Sardauna), which happened in a London hospital from injuries he sustained in an auto crash on the Abuja-Kaduna road.

Our path crossed in 1996 in the course of my journalism practice.  I was then with the Vanguard newspapers as Deputy Bureau Chief; and, later Bureau Chief in Abuja.  He was a director of the newspaper and I had to take copies of the newspaper to him every day.

I loved to do it because it afforded me the opportunity of daily engagements with him.  He was profoundly intelligent.  Like a father, he would tell me stories about one remarkable event or the other while he was in the public service; and on each occasion, I always drew huge lessons from such narratives.

He was a man of integrity and stickler for proper conducts in and out of public office.  He was a careful writer, a prose stylist.  Our relationship was more than the kind that is wont to exist between politicians and reporters. By his own admission, he was not really a politician, but a public administrator sucked into politics.  This, perhaps, explained why he was meticulous throughout his political engagements and later life assignment as Chairman of Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), the socio-cultural umbrella organisation of the north.

We both did not abuse the privileges of our relationship.  Despite his prime position in Vanguard newspaper, he did not notoriously appropriate the platform to project or defend his positions.  He was always reluctant to grant interviews.  I would occasionally pile pressure on him to offer perspectives on some national issues.

There were times when he would suggest to me that he would like to speak on some issues, which he would itemise; and, he would, in his quick-witted manner, ensure that his responses to questions and follow-ups were tied up with the issues on his mind.  He was fastidious when it had to do with publishing his interview and, therefore, he would always be pleased if I allowed him to go through the transcribed interview before going to press.  He would cross the “ts”, dot the “is” and make lucid, sentences that appeared tedious.

He was a simple man.  He showed me fatherly affection.  He was at home with my family.  I remember when I travelled to Indonesia in 2000 to cover the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Conference, leaving my wife who was due to put to bed at home; he took it upon himself to visit her in the hospital while I was away.  He was giving me updates on mother and child.

He was a terrific motivator, who was always on hand to provide some forms of succor in times of distress.  His interventions were great.  Above all, I cherish his respect.  In spite of the wide age gap, he never talked down on me.  He actually spoke with me and not to me.  He was always ready to receive me into his home, even at odd hours.

I was always writing to celebrate him on his birthday.  There was a particular year I did a tribute, as usual, on him.  He called to appreciate my effort.  “Oj”, he said, as he was wont to address me, “you have done what Napoleon could not do; you have surpassed yourself.”

He would always call to let me know that he was travelling and when he would return, just like he did on his ill-fated journey to Kaduna.  On getting to his destination, he would call to let me know how he was doing; and, by the way, the last journey to Kaduna shattered all that ritual.

Today, ten years after his death, I remember a man whose trajectory and track record of integrity in life have continued to interrogate the antics of a vast majority of duplicitous political actors who bestride the nation’s political landscape, spurning the base metal of the electorate by which they ascended to power.   I remember his exploits in the murky waters of Nigerian politics where his temperamental impatience with the political shenanigans and chicanery had marked him out as a rare breed.

In his life and times, he demonstrated integrity and accountability in public and private life in the tradition of the late Premier of the northern region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, under whose tutelage he (Awoniyi) honed his leadership skills.

His involvement in politics began in the ill-fated Third Republic when he represented his people of Kogi West in the Senate on the platform of the defunct National Republican Convention (NRC).  When the political transition failed and there was another attempt at transiting from military to democratic governance, he got involved in the process by first participating in the Constitution Conference organised by the regime of the late General Sani Abacha.

In the political process that followed the conference, Awoniyi partnered the like of Malam Adamu Ciroma and Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, among others, to form the defunct All Nigeria Congress (ANC).  He was then the Protem National Chairman and one of the intellectual bulwarks of the most organised association that sought the defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) registration.

But with the formation of the PDP in 1998, he played a prominent role in the election of the presidential candidate, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. He also wanted to lead the party as its National Chairman.  But the powers-that-be conspired against him at the national convention and ensured that he lost the intra-party election through the “transparent rigging” that took place at the Eagle Square.

And for leading a protest against the chicanery of Obasanjo and the PDP leadership, the same powers also plotted his ouster from the party. Awoniyi celebrated his expulsion in the following words: “This is my own democracy dividend.  In the words of the Negro Spiritual: I am free at last, free at last.  From now on, I am blessed in that I do not need to sit in the assembly of the ungodly nor walk in the path of the unrighteous, political infidels and duplicitous electoral manipulators.”

From then on, Awoniyi recoiled into his shells from where he defined a trajectory to the ACF.  He became chairman of the ACF Board of Trustees in 2000 and Chairman of the Forum’s Central Working Committee (CWC) in December 2004.  He played a fatherly role in the Forum, stepping in at some critical times with wise counsels that helped in defusing tension.

Awoniyi was zealous about the late Sardauna of Sokoto, on whom, in 2000, he delivered the spellbinding 5th Arewa Lecture.  It was touching as Danladi (Sunday), as he was always addressed by the detribalised Sardauna, declassified his late mentor to the audience; it was therefore understandable why many people in the north found it easy to refer to him as Sardauna Keremi (little Sardauna).

On this tenth anniversary of his demise, I am inclined to say a final good bye to a profoundly good man through the medium of the written tribute.  Even if I do not write this kind of tribute any more, he will live “forever” in my thought and the thoughts of those who interacted with him.  But I make an appeal here that those who crave the culture of decency in politics should continue to recall S.B. Awoniyi’s peculiar genre.