By DAPO ADERINOLA
IT was Remi Olayiwola, a colleague and friend for all seasons, who called me from Nigeria very early in the morning to inform me that Ladi Lawal, my friend of the NUJ, had gone down in silence. William Shakespeare did say that death, as a necessary end, will come when it will. And Dr. Daniel Kolawole Olukoya, the scientist and all-time great teacher, evangelist, prophet and general overseer of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, added that death is death, regardless of the cause.
I first met Ladi Lawal during the run-up to the election of the Lagos State Council of the NUJ early in 1985. Iyabo Andeh, a veteran journalist of Radio Nigeria like Ladi Lawal and her gang, had, literally, dragooned me into running for the post of chairman, soon after my stint as press secretary to the late Chief Bola Ige, former governor of the old Oyo State. As it turned out, I was elected unopposed as chairman before the election, thanks to the powerful lobby from Radio Nigeria.
The election threw up so many people vying for different positions. Among them were Ladi Lawal and Owei Lakemfa for the post of secretary. I had never met Ladi Lawal before then, but I knew Owei Lakemfa who was a comrade by my side during the first industrial crisis at The Guardian in 1984. Naturally, I preferred Owei to Ladi as secretary and I did not hide it.
But something intrigued me about Ladi Lawal during the campaign: rather than antagonize me, he ignored my partiality to Owei and remained a friendly sort. He was always warm and would dignify me with â€œUp Chairâ€, even before the election whenever and wherever we met.
On the eve of the election, a civil coup of sorts took place. Some notable veterans of NUJ politics backing me forced a change of direction and composition of my team. Their reasoning, according to them, was that I, as chairman, and Owei Lakemfa, as secretary, constituted a turbocharged duo most likely to blow the fuse of the Lagos NUJ. Thus the tone and temper of support changed and Ladi Lawal emerged as secretary.
To the glory of God, Owei was untainted by any whiff of bitterness over the outcome of the election. Rather, he cooperated with Ladi and the executive committee to the hilt to move the union forward and, with the passage of time, he emerged as the conscience of the union.
With him around at any union meeting (I doubt if he ever missed any meeting in our two terms of four-years), there was no room for lackadaisical or inefficient way of doing things and woe betide any official caught in fudging issues as he was sure to force a clarification, relying on his careful notes. Ladi, on his part, blazed the trail as a godsend with the tenacity of a limpet and the constitution of a carthorse in the running of the secretariat.
He had a clear vision of the direction the union should be headed and, with the support of an army of friends and colleagues from Radio Nigeria at the head of various committees, worked many times through the night, swigging amid pep-up whiffs from cigarettes to make the council beautiful for the time with progressive ideas like the famous Inter-council Football Tournament.
The Lagos State Council of the NUJ in our time soon became very active in national affairs and justifiably wielded muscle at the national level with its numerical strength and financial power. Although not generally known, NUJ Lighthouse at Adeyemo Alakija Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, the greatest symbol of the foresight and frugality of the pen profession in Nigeria, escaped the auctioneerâ€™s hammer between 1985-89 due to Ladiâ€™s discipline and sense of history in supporting me in the implementation of the redemption plan at a time when some buccaneering tyros in the executive committee spurn a yarn in their desperation for office.
We had come into office without the foggiest idea of the location of the relevant papers of the building; the union had gravely defaulted in the scheduled payment of the N2 million loan and the consortium of six firms that raised it were threatening foreclosure provided for in the agreement with the NUJ.
Faced with the grim reality of carrying the can at the end of the day in the event of foreclosure, regardless of the culpability of the previous leadership, I laid the cards face up to Ladi. He showed understanding and cooperation rather than play to the gallery and abandon me in the lurch. Thus with professional support from Epega & Co, our property managers, we were able to bully the protesting tenants into raising the money that enabled us to stave off foreclosure and save the property for posterity.
But by far the gravest issue that almost destroyed our leadership was the thoroughly politicized burial of Dele Giwa, the slain editor-in-chief of NEWSWATCH Magazine. The council was split down the middle between the vociferous group led by Ladi that wanted him buried right inside the conference room of the NUJ in the Lighthouse. The other group that opposed the idea was unwilling to be publicly identified as such. As the union teetered on the brink, various scenarios emerged.
One of them was the largely ignored position of the law on such a matter. Beneath-the-surface inquiries revealed in all its starkness that burial in that area of Lagos was a taboo. It became clear that ignoring the position of the law would cost us dear as it would provide the government, already burdened by charges of complicity in the cruel killing, with a weapon to bludgeon the union.
Further investigation showed that the geography of the Light house did not support the burial. In front of the building housed the water storage tank; on one side was the plot of land that served as the car park while on the other was the septic tank. At the back was a fence.
The die was cast. The pro-burial and anti-burial groups had consolidated their positions. An emergency general meeting of the council had to be called to take a decision. But before deliberations started, members were invited to undertake a tour of the perimeter to enable them make informed contribution to the impeding debate.
In the end when the vote was called, the large pro-burial group under Ladi went down to a heavy defeat. Ladi, sitting next to me as secretary, broke down and cried like a baby. He flung obscenities in all directions over the outcome of the voting and was barely able to restrain himself from giving me a black eye despite his deep respect for me. Again, the incident brought out the maturity and humility in him. Two days after the crucial decision, he came over to me and apologized for unseemly conduct in triggering rowdysm at a meeting of the union of which he was secretary.
One of the qualities that endeared Ladi most to those who knew him was unstinting loyalty. Five days to election in which he and I sought a second-term of office in 1987, I was held up abroad while our opponents mounted a fierce campaign of lies against our first term. My wife would tell anyone who cares to listen that Ladi led a team of committed colleagues that met every evening at my house to plan the campaign strategy that won us re-election.
It is not surprising, therefore, that at the end our second term in 1989, members of our council had seen through the artifices of mere pretenders to serious office as distinct from the breed imbued with the ability and the spirit of service and literally handed the post of chairman to Ladi on a platter of gold.
The same leadership qualities saw him off to the exalted position of the national president of the Nigerian Union of Journalists and his glorious days as the helmsman at the African Independent Television (AIT). But why should a man like Ladi die at the prime of youth with a whole lot ahead of him to accomplish to the glory of God and the good of man? The Lord himself has settled the question in Deuteronomy 32:39 saying: â€œSee now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me: I kill and I make alive; I wound, and I heal; neither is there any that can deliver out of my handâ€. Goodbye, dear friend. Shalom.
Aderinola is resident in Houston, Texas