Isi Obebe: Farewell to a gifted friend



VERY recently, I called my friend Charles Omonaide to ask after Isi Omoifo, with whom I had not been in touch in a number of years. Charles reaffirmed the fact that Isi had moved to his private residence in Ogheghe community in Benin City. The only problem was that he had not been able to visit with him. I was taken aback, because I expected that Charles would be a part of the house-warming involved in this movement. But then I realised that formalities are things that neither Isi nor Charles is sold to – I admit that I share this trait with them! Indeed, self-effacement, as opposed to self-aggrandizement, is this common trait. “What’s the big deal in moving to one’s own abode?” we are wont to retort in self defence if accused of not holding a grand party to commemorate what is generally celebrated as an epochal juncture. We will even advance the argument that the resources for such self indulgence might as well be channeled to more humanitarian ends. And we would laugh – always at ourselves – very loudly and heartily. I then proposed to Charles that, on my next visit to Benin, “we must go and see him.” But three days later, Charles called me to break the news that Isi Omoifo had passed on.

When I joined the News and Current Affairs Department of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Benin in the summer of 1981, there was already a team of brilliant minds waiting to welcome me into their fold, largely because I was already making contributions to the output of the station, admittedly mostly through the programmes department, with encouragement from my friend and fellow University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) Ile-Ife alumnus Last Eguaevoen; Lai Arasanmi, Jonathan Ihonde and Sam Ihegie.

But it was also because I really did frequent the newsroom to see friends – Andrew Igene who was my senior at Ika Grammar School and later at the then University of Ife; Charles Omonaide, whom I had met through townsfolk Clement Iyamu and Osaretin (Retin) Akemien; Tony Ikeakannam, a fellow Great Ife alumnus; Akhere Ugbesia; Victor Eweka, an elder brother of Festus, my classmate at the then Eghosa Anglican Grammar School, Benin; Godwin Agbroko (late); Abbey Jarikre (late); Mary-Jane Osamor; Helen Eibueku; Donald Ovberedjo; etc.

Led by Tonnie Iredia, who was manager, news and current affairs (MNCA), the department buzzed with intellect and professionalism. There was no question, whatsoever, about who provided the intellectual leadership – it was the very quiet Isi Omoifo. Looking back, I wonder how Tonnie was able to manage such a pool of brilliant and self-confident young men.

Although I had heard about him regularly when the newscaster gave the closing credits at the end of bulletins, it was after a few editorial meetings and one-on-one encounters that I was bought over by his quiet erudition. The man had a deep knowledge of practically any subject under the sun. He was very copiously and unapologetically opinionated. He was also very restless, like me – and indeed quite a number of the group – always in search of a new professional experience. It was no wonder that several of us from NTA, Benin went for a recruitment interview at News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in 1981. He turned to be the only one who got hired. At the same time, Tony Ikekannam left to join the editorial board of the Kaduna-based New Nigerian newspaper. Akhere went into politics, elected into the Bendel State House of Assembly. Early in 1983 I would leave for The Guardian, then newly established. Igene (as editor) and Ikekannam (as general manager) later reunited at the Benin-based Observer newspaper group.

Isi and I kept in touch in Lagos at his official residence on Ekololu Street, Off Falolu Street in Surulere. When he quit NAN in 1988, even as I myself was exiting Rutam House, I was instrumental to his joining the African Guardian magazine. This was after the collapse of my dream to edit The Mail, a struggling newspaper published by the late Clarkson de Majomi, a public relations practitioner who dreamed of publishing a newspaper in the mould of The Daily Mail of London. Nduka Obaigbena, publisher of ThisDay newspapers, who was then publishing ThisWeek, had linked me up with Mr. Majomi. As part of the strategy to breathe life into the newspaper, I had also talked the late Prof. Festus Iyayi into joining the team that I erroneously believed there were the resources to assemble. Isi lived with me briefly at Ajao Estate, where Eluem Emeka Izeze and I lived at this period.

The most appropriate descriptions of Isi are that he was a thinker and literary journalist. Being the contemplative type, his style was never to traverse familiar perspectives, but to explore fresh angles to unfolding issues. His writing was suffused with poetry. Despite my background in English and literary studies, I always discovered a new word or expression in Isi’s articles.

The thing about the propensity of this unique circle of friends for self-effacement is that, despite what we have contributed to the journalism profession and literary expression, we remain unsung by the current generation. I am rather luckier. Any search engine will yield information about some of my recent work and engagements. For the purpose of paying this tribute, I have tried to search for material on Isi Omoifo. But the only mention of him that I can find is as author of Got Steam and Other Poems published by Jodah Nigeria Limited in 1993.

For their academic achievements – two of them made a First Class and Second Upper in electronic and electrical engineering respectively – Isi’s children have done enough credit to their father in addition to the material care they took of him.

This is one wish for my children – why can’t I share it with my friend, for whom I have had so much in common over the years!

Isi Obebe, fare thee well – we’ll meet again someday and continue the friendship.

The service of songs for Isi Omifo will hold on Thursday, December 17, 2015, while his interment will take place on Friday, December 18, 2015 at his residence, 6 Presidential Way, Oghege, by the flyover, off Sapele Road, Benin City, Edo State.

• Odemwingie is a former Sports Editor at NTA Benin and former Features Editor of The Guardian.

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