Please close your eyes and try conjuring an image of Gamaliel Onosode. Now open them and flesh out what you just saw. Most likely, here’s the vision that comes to mind when Onosode, who died last week at the age of 82, darts across the mind. The neat, exquisite parting in the center of his crew cut. The mingy moustache. The thin lips. The glinting eyes from behind those plain prescription glasses. And then that mellifluous voice along which came those sweet-sounding words like an ever-flowing stream.
Onosode was a conscientious grammarian and a man of great learning. At the University College, Ibadan, where he studied classics, he topped his class in Latin and Greek. But it was economics, not classical learning, that drew Onosode deep into its domain. And there he remained and wrought wonders, leaving his footprints on the sands of time as he took his bow and exited the stage.
Perhaps, the most remarkable description of Onosode I ever heard while he was still alive, came almost thirty years ago from none other than the Rev. P.E. Ofuoku, my uncle and one of the greatest orators and thinkers that ever walked the earth and who would later give his daughter to Onosode’s nephew in marriage. Of Onosode, my late uncle said: “A company in death throes suddenly springs to its feet, dusts itself, and thrives with life again almost as soon as Onosode arrives.”
The deluge of condolences and tributes that greeted Onosode’s death echoed those telling words. Reading the newspapers, you saw reporters and sympathizers repeatedly applying such words as “technocratic guru”, “boardroom wizard”, “corporate czar”, et cetera, et cetera. From President Muhammadu Buhari, the current Nigerian president, to Goodluck Jonathan, his predecessor, to just about every member of the Nigerian political and corporate elite, the sense of loss was heart-felt and deep. “An Iroko in the corporate world has fallen,” said Chief Emeka Anyaoku, former Commonwealth secretary-general. Akinwunmi Ambode, the Lagos State governor, said Onosode was “a quintessential businessman, a master in his field. He will be remembered for the dexterity he brought to bear when he served as chairman and board member of several multinational companies.”
Now all of that was fitting and necessary, and Onosode would have been humbled by it all. However, I am also very certain that he would have been infinitely more gratified to learn, were it possible for the dead to know what’s happening after they have departed from among us, of what the world is now saying about his virtuous character and his enduring moral imagination. In truth, I have been impressed by the glowing homage which sympathizers have paid to his rare sense of probity and integrity.
Onosode’s vision of life which was deeply rooted in his impeccably great character was what actually defined his life’s goals and created his astonishing achievements for which we mourn him almost inconsolably today. The next question we ought to ask is, how did Onosode manage to be such a unique figure in our society? If we shine a light into his upbringing, we probably might find an answer to that question. The son of a Baptist minister, the young Onosode was raised by parents who were strict disciplinarians. “My father was tough, my mother was tough. We were brought up to render service cheerfully as part of our contribution to the well-being of the family,” he told The Guardian newspaper in 2003. But that was not all. “Discipline and the fear of God, as expressed through faith in Christ”, he said, laid the foundation for, and sustained, his work. “When I professed the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior, I did it on my prompting. My father did not say to me, now you have grown up and next Sunday you have to go forward and profess, neither did my mum,” Onosode further said.
Despite his gifts and his great learning, and despite everything else for which he became such a huge object of national admiration while alive, Onosode was the very incarnation of humility. He was doubtless a man of great wealth but he maintained a modest lifestyle and lived all his life in the same home in Adelabu Street, Surulere, a middle-class community in Lagos. And although he had been awarded many honorary doctorate degrees by reputable universities, he insisted on the simple title of “Mr” coming before his name. Blessed with so much wealth still, Onosode could have acquired all the chieftaincy titles in the world had he so desired, yet he disdained such garish titular appurtenances.
Growing up, some of us back in Eku wanted badly to be Onosode, in style especially. Big Onos, a childhood friend, and I had each a parting in the center of our low haircuts we called “Onosode Report.” Onosode hailed from Ekiugbo, Ughelli, in Delta State. But he had maternal roots in Eku in the same state. His late father was the first chaplain of Eku Baptist Hospital, and Onosode said so to a large gathering of guests sometime in 1983 at a Development Funds event held at the hospital. That was the first time I saw him after reading so much about him in the newspapers. On that occasion, Onosode demonstrated his gift of the garb and had almost everyone fawning on him with adulation afterwards. A couple of days later, my father called me and said he just wanted to inform me that Onosode was once a stammerer. He knew why he had to tell me that. I stared at him wordlessly for minutes on end. My father never lied and he resented lies from his children, so I believed him.
The story of Onosode is a parable, a metaphor for Nigeria to learn abundantly from. He overcame whatever obstacles fate and the world threw his way to become not only one of the most gifted public speakers we ever knew, but also one of the most successful public figures in all of Nigerian history. If there was ever one thing he did not succeed in accomplishing, it was becoming the president of the country. He tried twice, and vainly so.
It is permissible to say that the story of the life and times of Gamaliel Oforitsenere Onosode, in so far as it relates to Nigeria, is both an honor to, and an indictment of, the country. An honor because rarely, if ever, do countries get blessed with such exemplary men of honor and character as this man. Onosode was a beacon of celestial light that shone brilliantly to banish the pall of darkness enveloping our nation. An indictment because how many Onosodes do we have in our midst today? How does it happen that men like him can’t even successfully aspire to lead this nation? The simple and candid answer is that they cannot because the system is rigged in favor of charlatans and knaves. It is a sad day. Yet, we thank God for bringing Onosode our way. And much as we’re grief-stricken by his departure, we celebrate him still. Onosode deserves nothing less. I suspect that as he lay dying, he harbored this obstinate, healthy belief that Nigeria will one day overcome its problems the same way he overcame his own speech impediment and rose to become such an enigmatically eloquent public speaker of whom we must remain inordinately proud.