By Owei Lakemfa
THERE are people whose lives may read like fiction. In a world built on material considerations and self- interest, it is difficult to come across people who are not engaged in the rat race, live selfless lives and are committed to serving others. Prince Abiodun Afolajimi Opanubi reminds me of such. Our paths although initially far apart, seemed destined to cross.
He passed out of the Methodist Boys’ High School, Lagos some months after I was born in the Niger Delta; an area which in those days was almost inaccessible and was a six-day boat journey from Lagos. I passed out of that same school, seventeen years later.
I did not get to meet him until I was 35. Our old school had a journal; The MAGNETUS which I helped to edit. On a permanent basis at the back, was an advert of Ereke Paints. I had wondered why a company would pay permanently for an advert in a journal with little circulation, which in any case was read primarily by old boys of a school. I was told that the company’s founder, Prince Opanubi merely used the advert to fund the publication. I thought that was a little more than generous.
Then, a special edition of the journal was to be printed, and there was need for extra funds. To my amazement, it was decided that we approach the same person. I objected arguing that it was unfair, but was told that he wouldn’t mind. Reluctantly, I tagged along and was surprised that he did not just give a large sum of money, but insisted we settle down to a sumptuous meal. You can therefore imagine my astonishment when he pressed some money into my hand for transport. I refused and he seemed surprised.
We met a few more times and became friends. But he related to me more like a father. He took me into confidence and began to consult me even on some of his business matters or decisions. I was to learn that assisting people and groups was his nature. For instance, although he was not a member of the church opposite his factory, he was a regular donor.
When I told him people were taking undue advantage of his generosity, he shrugged his shoulders. He said he had little, but that since he returned from the United Kingdom in 1978 where he bagged a degree in Chemistry from the Wolverthampton Polytechnic, was licensed by the Royal Institute of Chemistry and worked at the New Cross Hospital, God had always been faithful.
One day, he invited me to his home town, Ikenne where he said he had a little donation to make. We travelled with his youngest daughter, Gbemi. Nothing prepared me for the shock that awaited me; the ‘little’ donation he talked about was a beautiful block of offices and classrooms he had built for a public school in the town.
In 1999, I decided to make a public presentation of my book on the textile industry and union in Nigeria titled WEAVING INTO HISTORY and approached him to be the Chief Launcher. He declined on the basis that we were one family and that it was better I got an outsider. However, he said he was going to give me in private what he would have donated were he to be the Chief Launcher.
He issued a cheque for a large amount of money which I was reluctant to accept. He pressed it and laughed saying that since I reject his gifts, this was his opportunity for a payback. I then told him to wait until the book presentation which was some two months away, and donate the money there. He said I should go cash the money immediately as I would need it for planning the logistics.
Once, I bought a Mercedes Benz car which at that time, was regarded as exotic, and drove it to his factory for him to pray for an accident-free use. He was so excited as if he had won a jackpot. He took the keys, switched on the ignition and then the air condition, only to find that it was not functional. He asked how I hoped to drive such a beautiful car without a functional air conditioner. He seized the keys, called his driver to take me home and told me to return for the car in forty eight hours. When I did, he had got an effective air condition fitted into my car.
He spent most of his time in his Ojodu, Lagos factory working with his engineer to fabricate machines used in his factory.
A very humble man, he called my wife, who was young enough to be his daughter, Mama! His logic was that a wife who takes care of me, deserves to be so respected. Whenever we had communication breaks, he apologised arguing that he was less busy and therefore should remember to call. He often drove himself mostly in a car that cannot be associated with his status. Most were unaware that he was close to the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his “Jewel of inestimable value” Yeye Oba Hannah Awolowo.
Ikenne had also produced one of the most famous humanists from Nigeria, Dr. Augustus Taiwo (Tai) Solarin, the noted social activist and educationist who in 1956 established the famous Mayflower School, Ikenne. Solarin , relentless anti-corruption crusader, led street battles against military dictatorship until he passed away on June 27, 1994.
I looked forward to seeing Prince Opanubi when I visit Lagos. I was therefore completely unprepared for the news I got that he died suddenly on July 14. His eldest child, Mrs. Funmilayo Opanubi-Alasholuyi, sent me a message “Uncle, Daddy ti fi mi si le lo (Daddy has left me). It’s so heart breaking” I lost a friend and a father, a man who was an inspiration to many, and, Nigeria lost a fine patriot.