Last week, Dr Christopher Kolade, the Pro Chancellor of Pan African University, turned 80. About a month ago, I had asked him what his birthday plans were. I really was not surprised when he said he wanted to make it as low key as possible.
His reason for wanting a low key celebration had nothing to do with security or the economy. Even if the economy was buoyant and security up to scratch, it still would not be in his character to do anything that would focus on his person. This is a conviction that he has consistently maintained since he graduated top of his class at Fourah Bay College,Sierra Leone over 55 years ago when he promised himself that nothing about his person or mien should change because of personal achievements.
And this is the very reason I am in a bit of a dilemma. I am aware of his desire for privacy and that he probably would not thank me for writing this article. Yet, I have learnt so much from him in the past 15 or so years, it seems selfish not to share. So my resolve, or compromise if you like, is to limit this article to issues only as they relate to me
Dr Kolade's role in my writing again, is indirect but important. He had just returned from the UK where he had served as the High Commissioner for about five years, and I was having my first meeting with him at the Lagos Business School in Victoria Island.
When he was about 15 minutes late, I was -as anybody who knows him will be - a bit worried. Had he forgotten? Again, that would be out of character. He walked in briskly soon after and apologised profusely blaming the traffic at Ajah where the University is. So I took him up on it.
He had just returned from a hectic tour of duty and plunged himself straight into teaching. Shouldn't he take a rest? Hadn't he earned the rest? (The right to put his feet on the coffee table was how I put it.) He looked at me for a full minute before saying 'you have earned nothing. The good Lord who keeps you alive has his plans for you. And who are you to decide what that plan is?'
His answer threw me. Here was I about 20 years younger, thinking I had paid my dues to journalism not knowing that I was just 'burying' a talent. I resolved there and then, to 'unearth' whatever had been 'interred'
I first met Dr Kolade over 30 years ago when I interviewed him as the Director General of NBC (now FRCN) for my column at the Punch. He was the second Nigerian to occupy that post. It was a memorable encounter for me because I met a man who thought so quickly on his feet, that he parried my questions easily and almost made them look routine. I was better prepared when I interviewed him the second time.
This time, he was the CEO of Cadbury and I, as the Vanguard Editor, had invited him to be interviewed by the line editors. We met again about six years after this when he became the first President of the Ikeja Business Club ( to really understand why he ends up heading whatever organisation or association he gets involved in, is to know him --but that is a subject for another day) and I was one of the early members.
It was there I saw a consummate administrator at work. It was there I saw the quantum of respect he commanded among his peers and juniors in the business circle. It was there that I got closer to him. It was there that I invited him to be the chairman of the board of the media company I was putting together.
I learnt a lot from him as my chairman. Actually, it was like going back to school. Only the case studies were not far away. They were his life experiences - in human management, board management and financial management.
Always accessible, and not only to me,( 'if a young man can walk up to me to discuss a problem, then the least I can do is listen to him' he says ) Dr Kolade would not pontificate. He would skilfully guide you towards an answer by helping to eliminate some options but leaves the final decision to you. And once he has assessed you to be trustworthy, he tends to be implicit in his trust.
Another thing is loyalty - to his protégées and few friends. One of them, Professor Akinkugbe, is so like him you are not surprised they have been close friends for more than 60 years. The other, retired General Obasanjo, is so unlike him that you wonder. I sometimes ask him about this friend. But the truth is, they go back a long way and the respect - as well the loyalty - is mutual. In any case, Dr Kolade will never criticise his friends and protégées in public, even if they let him down as one or two have done.
The glasses would have been clinking these last two weeks with many toasts and words of advice being offered. But one piece of advice I am sure he will not accept is to slow down. In fact, I will not be surprised to learn he is back to the circuit - teaching, giving speeches and chairing seminars.
One tribute described him as one of the 'genteel generation'. I agree; but will also add that in opening himself early to God, he has been rewarded with a life of 'grace'. He has provided an oasis of sanity and integrity to an otherwise chaotic and corrupt environment. An exemplary life.