Toyin Akinosho @ 60: The Boss. The Maestro. The Connoisseur -Ken Egbas

“A great man does not seek applause or place; he seeks for truth;

 he seeks the road to happiness, and what he ascertains,

he gives to others.”Robert Green Ingersoll

I met Toyin Akinosho sometime in 1991.

I cannot exactly recall what led to our first meeting. However, I vividly recall the exact reason our first meeting happened, and the exact location where it did — Festac News office, which was then located on one of those 3-floor barrack-like buildings on 2nd Avenue , in Festac Town.

”My friend, what are you doing here?”

“Sir, I was just around the area, and just thought to rest under the tree… do you live around here, sir?”

“Why would you be asking me that?”

“It’s not cool to just come and be sleeping in front of someone’s house”

…Festac Town of the ‘90s

THE 1990s signaled the renaissance of organised art across the various ghetto suburbs around Lagos, on the Orile-Okokomaiko stretch of Lagos. Perhaps, this was borne of the residual spirit of the Festival of Black Art and Civilisations, otherwise called FESTAC, which Nigeria hosted in 1977; coupled with the frequency of closure of tertiary institutions across Nigeria at that period owing to the never ending squabbles between government and university teachers over unfulfilled all-what-not!

The restive, stuck-at-home youths had to find other ways to express themselves, a way to kill boredom, and also an antidote to the alternative — venturing into a life of petty crime. This was the same period Ajegunle gave the world the likes of Daddy Showkey, Daddy Fresh, Baba Fryo, Father U-Turn, Marvelous Benjy and a host of others, and the mock Nations Cup produced several soccer stars who went on to feature in the Super Eagles and in major soccer leagues in Europe.

Festac Town could not be left out, especially being the city born out of the adventure that was FESTAC ‘77. Made up largely of middle-class families who won apartments from lottery draws, a city of strangers grew into a community of close neighbours and neighbourhoods, and subsequently, a generation of youths who wanted to live life different from the sort their parents had known; a new lifestyle.

In the ‘90s, Festac Town was a boiler plate, steaming talents from stage acting to music and other genres of entertainment. This was an era that produced the Plantashun Boiz made up of present day superstars, TuFace Idibia, Blackface, and Face. I was also part of a group, called The Black Cougars. Other members of the 10-man group I can immediately remember are: John Njamah, Haky Dee, Gbolahan Babayeju. We used to walk from 7th Avenue to 2nd Avenue most cool evenings dishing out acapella recaps of the hottest and latest American R&B songs at the time, and people would gather round to listen and applaud us. Within the same group, a few of us tried our hands at acting. Around this period, Antar Laniyan, the famed stage and screen director,  began an acting group at 7th Avenue Primary school called Monidites. This provided outlets for folks like John Njamah and his siblings, Aquila and Nnenna (now known as Empress) to venture into stage drama at the National Theater, Iganmu, and would later launch them into television drama series, and then, Nollywood.

The Black Cougars failed at getting our music off the concrete floors of Festac Town. Unlike, the Plantashun Boiz, and many others of that era, we were all students in various universities across Nigeria. We were most productive during the long strikes, and every time we returned to school, the group lost steam, and so did our music dreams. After a while, we didn’t want to make music anymore, we wanted to make a difference.

Toyin Akinosho, Nigerian Publisher, Flees Nigeria After Escaping Assassination

…It’s not cool to just hang in front of someone’s house…”

Festac Town, Nigeria’s own answer to Queens in New York, was growing exponentially, with a huge restive youth population, who were quickly taking to street vices with destructive tendencies. As a group, we brainstormed on what we could do, and we came up with the idea to build a library for the youths in the estate. We had to identify stakeholders who could help us bring our dream to reality. That was my first encounter with the name- Toyin Akinosho.

I GOT to know of Festac News through a guy named Sam O’Femi Fasetire. He was a reporter on the stable of Festac News, the newspaper founded by Akinosho to drive development, promote the arts, and cultural cohesion of Festac Town and environs. He was always around my neighborhood in 7th Avenue snooping for news. He helped us set up a meeting with Toyin, who on hearing of our yearnings and plans for a public library, committed his resources and time to ensuring the realization of same, with us in the vanguard of the project.

Fast forward to two years later. I had gone to visit a friend at 1st Avenue, E Close, who wasn’t home. It was a cool evening. So, being hungry and tired, I pitched “my tent” under this tree in front of a chocolate brown two-wing duplex with the inscription — MAR’S House. The cool breeze fanning the embers of the hunger I felt must have been responsible for my falling asleep. Only to be woken up with a gentle shove after a long lull in my crouched position…

”My friend, what are you doing here?”

I raised my head to behold an already familiar face, the same man who helped us with our library dream. Wiping my eyes, and rising to my feet in one motion, I greeted him with a smile. “Sir, I was just around the area, and just thought to rest under the tree…do you live around here, sir?” I asked.

“Why would you be asking me that?”he thundered back, as he walked away.

“It’s not cool to just come and be sleeping in front of someone’s house”, he said without looking back at me.

I was momentarily confused. Had I done something wrong? Anyway, I had better get going. As I made to depart the scene, he called me back.

“How long have you been here?”

“For a while, I guess… I didn’t look at the time,” I answered back.

Toyin ran his eyes over me as though searching for an evidence or some sort of clue. I stood , still very confused, and then made to leave. 

“Wait… young man… a lot of things are happening these days… did you hear about the robbery that took place about an hour ago at 1st Avenue, A Close?”

Now I was worried for myself. Was he insinuating I could be a robber?… I thought to myself.

“No, sir!”

“Ok, do you mind if I send you on a little errand? My reporters are off today. A robbery has just happened. Can you go to the location and help me find out what happened and how it happened?”

“Yes, I can sir.” I answered more out of confusion than actual desire to do his bidding.

Thirty minutes later, I was back and confirmed there had indeed been a robbery, and narrated how it had happened, and a man gunned down. Toyin ushered me into his compound and into a small office, a car garage converted into an office space with several desks and chairs.

“Are you able to write down what you have just told me now?”, he asked.

“Yes sir, I can.”

He then reached out for plain paper and a pen and handed both to me. By the time I was done, he read through with a look of surprise on his face.

“When we first met with your Cougars guys, were you not the one who mentioned to me you were a medical student at the University of Calabar. Is that correct?”

“Yes, sir! I am done and waiting for my results. But I have always had a thing for writing. Back in secondary school at Federal Government College, Kaduna, I was the editor-in-chief of the press club.” I responded, not sure what was to follow.

Toyin, shook his head, while still poring over the piece I had just written, saw me to the door and handed me some money as a gift. I cannot recollect the amount. But I do remember that for a young boy who had come to visit his friend around lunch hour so he could accidentally chance on their family meal time, the amount bought me a king’s dinner, and left me with enough to take my friends out for a generous rounds of drinks, and still see me through the rest of the week.

THAT was the beginning of my story not just with Festac News, but Toyin himself. Two weeks later, he invited me over and offered me a job, my first real job, doing what I loved doing — writing. For the first time in my life, I had access to all the top international best-selling magazines from Europe and America- GQ, Condé Nast Traveller, Time, and a host of others that helped reshape my world view. He helped hone my skills and exposed me at that time to a community of very influential and notable friends he surrounded himself with. Not only that, over a seven months period, he promoted me thrice, and gave me the license to become a respected member of the society when he made me Acting Editor of Festac News. For a young, adventurous lad, it was akin to giving me a role to play James Bond in a 007 movie, more like making the world my oyster. When late General Sani Abacha shut down The Guardian newspaper in 1994, Jahman Anikulapo, a very close friend of Toyin, would join us to help out, until The Guardian was reopened. During this period, he helped me hone my writing and editing skills.

…”Kilo n tie se eyin boys yi na? Gbogbo yin… oya gerrout!”

During this period, Toyin offered me accommodation in his home. He didn’t know me from Adam, didn’t know any member of my family. He just saw a young man with potential. My salary was never delayed. Yet, he would insist I come with him to some of the top restaurants he frequented and would insist I helped myself to whatever I wanted at his cost.

But he would not hesitate to give me and the rest of the team, whenever he was in one of his legendary foul moods of his a curt, ”Kilo n tie se eyin boys yi na? Gbogbo yin…oya gerrout!” Those outbursts made us all scurry into our corners, as we waited for the anger tides to ebb. Ebb, they did, most times, minutes after they arose. Hails of “Poblisha… Baba Poblisha…” got him to break into his wry smile while sometimes tugging at his wiry moustache.

…King of the ‘layabouts’

I never saw Toyin look down on anyone. As a matter of fact, the lowlier you were, the more Toyin wanted to know more about you, and what he could do to help. The only snag being if you had nothing to offer. He couldn’t stand laziness or loafers — as he called them. His characterization would be likened to Robin Hood, but  without the loot. He spent large portions of his income on people, friends, causes with the slightest promise of the edification of mankind. His poor old mother would have wanted her only son to have a home, a real home… with a wife and several tiny tots running around and knocking things over. But here he was setting up a house that was more like a bird-nest and hide-out for all comers who shared Toyin’s beliefs in communal living, and a lifetime dedicated to unending sacrifice and investment in others who had less than himself. Others in his position and on the job he was on at that time at Chevron as a geologist were taking huge bites into real estate, and hedge funds. Yet there he was pouring all his means into a newspaper he wasn’t making a profit from, and people he had met on the road of the journey that was his life, turning strangers into family…yes, the people he jokingly always referred to as ‘layabouts’.

“…Builder of Dreamers”

Toyin was my first boss, real mentor, and a father figure in my life. Without our paths crossing, I doubt very much that I would be the respectable member of society that I am deemed to be today.

In 2014, when I sat in his house and told him of my intentions to run for a seat in the Federal House of Representatives to represent the people of Obubra-Etung federal constituency in Cross River State, he grilled me for nearly three hours, trying to uncover my motive for venturing into politics. At the end of our conversations, as he saw me off to my car, I could sense the glint of pride in his eyes… the little boy he picked up on the streets of Lagos had finally grown into a man. Even though, I lost the elections and ended up serving as a commissioner in the government of Liyel Imoke for a short period, he never stopped encouraging me to never give up on my dreams. Everything I am or doing today or use to put food on the table for my family, Toyin taught me or laid the foundation for.

I could write a whole book about Toyin Akinosho and the positive impact he has had on me as an individual. I know too well there are loads of other individuals like myself whose candles Toyin lent his light to and whose dreams and aspirations he helped ignite. Today, I consider it a privilege to count myself as a son of his. Fatherhood is not entirely about the man whose loins provided the cell that fertilized the egg, it is rather about exemplary and rare human beings, who pick us up at the most vulnerable moments of our lives, give us physical and emotional shelter, align our noses in the direction of the northern star, point us to the real and difference-making values of loyalty, hard work, dedication, passion, principled living, excellence, love for humanity, and putting others before self, sacrifice, continuous self-improvement, and the dogged pursuit of happiness.

As he turns 60 years, my prayer for him is that God will continue to keep him in good health and surround him with love. And that all the good he spent his whole life sowing in others would return to him a trillion-fold. And perhaps finally, God would send a wife to him that he wouldn’t need to propose to… and would accept him the way he is… warts and all (laughs).

No great man lives in vain because the history of the world is but a biography of great men.

Toyin Akinosho is one of the greatest men I have known in my lifetime. What he did with my life and those of countless others bears testimony to this.

Happy birthday, Uncle T.

-Dr. Ken Egbas is CEO, TruCSR, Founder, WhitehousePR

  Founder, The SERAS CSR Awards Africa

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