Urhobo Historical Society

A Tribute

By Dele Olowu

/logo_min.gif - 1122 Bytes The Guradian On-Line - http://ngrguardinannews.com
Tuesday, February 12, 2002.

FROM very early on, I always had a superstition that my future life would have something to do with writing. How this was to unravel, I had not the slightest idea. Ultimately, my first expression of public writing was the product of a minor adversity. Neville Ukoli, or Uncle Neville, as many of us called him, was in this matter, the hand of God. He passed on the other week. In a few months, he would have been 62. In 1968, I had been serving as a teacher in a Secondary School in Benin. Shortly before I was to move up into the University of Ibadan, I was sacked. A minor palaver in the staff room had induced a remark from me, which the principal found insufferable from a 19-year old. I thought the punishment harsh and unwarranted. This was in the midst of the Civil War. The owner of the school, an Ibo, had fled to the East. The School was therefore being managed by the Midwest Region. I protested to the Ministry of Education, which then had Mr. E.K. Clark as its commissioner. After a few weeks, it was determined that in the matter of my sack, the principal had acted in excess of his powers.

I was therefore asked to report back to the school. Of course, this decision rankled the principal. Even though I was back in the staff room, no classes were allocated to me. I got paid, but the boredom was murderous. With nothing to do, each day in school, seemed like an eternity. The need to kill time seemed then to provide the impetus for putting my thoughts into writing. I produced a short story, ominously titled "Strong-Eye, the Iron Man." Whether this was intended to put some alarm in the hearts of my opponents, I can not say. But it was into the awesome presence of Neville M. Ukoli, that I ushered myself and my untyped script. He was then editor of the Sunday Observer, and it was through his kind consideration that I made my debut as a writer of any description. But I was not meeting Uncle Neville for the first time.

In the early sixties, while I was a student at Hussey College, Warri, Neville Ukoli, was himself teaching at A. S. B., a modest institution, opposite our grounds on Erejuwa road. Even at that time, he seemed quite Herculean. Now some six or so years later, he was huge and massive and gave a corpulent distinction to the Observer Newspapers for which he worked. For those of us raised in the Midwest at that time, journalism was an exotic calling, the stuff which flourished only in places such as Lagos and Enugu. It is of course true, that Benin City produced the Midwest Champion. But this in truth, was a fringe initiative. Even though frequently courageous and sometimes blasphemous, The Champion would in no way be compared with the robust efforts of the Post, the Times and The Nigerian Outlook. In referential terms therefore, journalism as a phenomenon, was a stranger to the Midwest.

But when the Observer broke into the newsstands, it created a sea change in our perception, and brought the profession of journalism home to us, in its vivid romantic colours. Neville Ukoli, was part and parcel of this dramatic unfolding. He was named the Editor of The Observer, at its founding. The Observer was not just a newspaper; it was a life style; a party and a perception. Neville Ukoli in his famous shorts, loose shirts, slippers, and the inevitable smouldering cigarette, was one of the leaders of this glamour pack. Others included Mr. Sam Eguavoen, Mr. Austin Momodu, Mr. Pius Agun, Mr. Andrew Akporugo and so on and so forth. For the most part they were young, talented, unmarried, and seemed to come from worlds, that were removed from our own local experience. Neville Ukoli had himself worked briefly both with the Oxford University Press and the NBC before joining The Observer.

Though designated as the pioneering Editor, that distinction eventually devolved on Olusola Ojo. This would have left remote watchers somewhat confused. But it appears that Neville Ukoli's colloquial attitude to most things, may have helped in disenabling him. But he was such a large heart, he had no room for grudges. He embraced The Sunday Observer , to which he was deployed, not as a consolation, but as a prized work of art, and infused it with his own distinctive personality. His column "LM and I", simple and conversational, celebrated the mechanical delinquencies of his Peugeot 404, and managed to laugh both at himself and his social peregrinations.

When after leaving University, I joined The Observer, Neville Ukoli had himself been deployed as Editor, Training, Planning and Promotion. He did not seem to have much to do. Not having a stomach for corporate politics, this highly talented, but much misunderstood man, remained a fringe figure. But even while on the fringes, for us the younger elements he was an icon. His retardation in the corporate world, was compensated by the huge success he enjoyed as a writer of books. His efforts in this area were prodigious. He slept a lot during the day, but he would remain awake most nights, eating, drinking and writing. He has a long list of books to his credit. Some of these are Home to the River, Cadence of Fate, Twins of the Rain Forest and many more.

In many ways, Neville Ukoli was unusual. A lover of children, and writer of several children's books, Neville Ukoli never himself found time to raise a family, bearing a son only at the age of 51. His sense of humour was inelastic, its chief victim ñ Neville Ukoli himself. He once sauntered into a famous night club in Benin. He cautioned the proprietor, a friend of his, that it was unedifying for him to beg for alms. However, since his circumstances were much reduced, he wished to be allowed to do a public dance routine, in return for which he would be compensated. Much laughter greeted the offer. In truth, money never meant much for Neville Ukoli, he never dreamt of raising estates, or floating money -making schemes. He absolutely detested suits, and I never once saw him wearing shoes. He was a great raconteur, and was almost entirely apolitical. A product of two elite families from the two ethnic divides in Warri, Neville was as much at home with Urbobos as he was with Itsekiris. At the height of the crisis, he was himself bedridden at his family home in Okere. Unable to walk, the telephone became his only link with the untrammelled world. I spoke with him twice, and he assured me, that even though his limbs were frail, his voice retained his vitality. He was also clear in his head, and seemed very puzzled by the persistence of the conflict amongst brothers in Warri.

On his 60th Birthday, Mr. Pius Agun, Mr. Justus Esiri, Alhaji Ramonu Omonzuanfo, Mr. Mike Orieso and myself visited him in Warri. The pain in which we found him was great. But he made light of it, assuring us that things would get better. They never did. His passing away is a great loss to all of us, particularly for his aged mother, brothers and sisters. He was close to all of them, particularly Professor Frank Ukoli, after whom he named his only child. Neville's correspondence with his Professor brother often sounded like love letters. Neville retreated to Warri, in the few years before his death. But Benin was his professional turf, and here retains a following that will continue to treasure his memory, his ordinariness, his talent, his dreams and his inspiration for a long time to come. When in 1977 I thought it was time to move on from the Nigerian Observer, I sent in a letter of resignation. Neville Ukoli, had at this time become the Chief Executive of the Newspaper. My mother, an Okere woman herself, anxious to preserve my position, went to the Observer. She assured management I was out of my mind and promptly withdrew my resignation. Faced by the development, I went back to the Observer, delivered another letter of resignation and assured them I was gone for good. It was Neville Ukoli's burden to respond. He replied on behalf of management, that since I had absconded from my duty post, I should regard myself as being on suspension. What Neville sought was professional protection for me. But I never looked back. May his soul rest in peace.

 Olowu, a veteran journalist, lives in Benin City.