We were young, eager youths, mostly teenagers, crossing from secondary schools into the tertiary institutions. In fact some, like me, were leaving home for the first time. It was the tail end of 1978.
We were not just the first set of students to be admitted through the Joint Admission Matriculation Board, JAMB, which made us ‘Jambites’ but also the pioneer students of the Dramatic Arts Department of the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University.
We gathered for our first lecture, excited to learn and feel what a university is like. Then bounced in a charming, smartly dressed man, our lecturer. He introduced himself as Yemi Ogunbiyi; although he looked young, we knew he already had a Ph.D from the United States safely tucked under his belt.
He asked the class who had read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth? None. He asked who had read any book by Fanon. None. He seemed enraged, how can we be undergraduates in a Nigerian university and had not read Fanon? Well, he was not in Ife to teach toddlers. With that, he walked out.
We scrambled out of the class to search for copies of Fanon’s books in the bookshop, the library and begged older students.
By next class with Ogunbiyi, we had not only read, The Wretched of the Earth, but it had opened our eyes to the struggles of oppressed peoples; we were on our way to being big boys.
Ogunbiyi had some resemblance with Richard Roundtree, the central character in the hugely successful Shaft film series. So we nicknamed him ‘Shaft’.
We had fantastic lecturers like Femi Euba, Segun Akinbola; our Mama, Carol Dowes, Dr Kole Omotosho, Olu Akomolafe and the colourful Sunbo Marinho from Ibadan. However, for us, aside our famous Head of Department, Professor Wole Soyinka, Ogunbiyi was the star of the department; he was quite brilliant, articulate, patient and approachable.
He was like an uncle you could confide in. These put him in good stead when in 1981, the university was on the boil following the police murder of six students, including two from outside Ife.
The students were all for a bloody revenge, so the school authorities who were clearly losing control, approached Ogunbiyi to speak at the chaotic students rally, calm them down and if possible, persuade them to allow a peaceful closure of the institution.
We were so fully moulded in the Drama Department that other departments, like Literature, where we took elective courses, started seeing the drama boys and girls as coming to terrorise them as we took on lecturers and turned classes and tutorials into debating centres. When we went to the first Nigeria University Theatre Arts Festival held at the University of Ibadan, the lecturers complained to Professor Soyinka and Dr Ogunbiyi that though we were brilliant, but we were fearless and rude.
But things were not always smooth. In my third year, there were differences between the department and some student journals which attracted a lot of negative publicity for the former One morning Dr Ogunbiyi called me and said: “Owei, Prof wants a truce.” I asked him what that has got to do with me, and that he might be putting me in trouble.
He said he had told Prof Soyinka I could end the crisis. Cornered, I said feebly I was in no position to do so but could assist. “Do you know Dapo Sir?” “Olorunyomi?” “Yes Sir. He is in Room 247, Fajuyi. He can ensure the truce.”
On another occasion, somebody told me in confidence that Dr. Ogunbiyi was upset with me over a matter trending on campus. I had nothing to do with it, but I didn’t know whether he would believe me. So I went to his closest friend on campus, Dr Biodun Jeyifo, fondly called BJ, to say I was in trouble with Dr Ogunbiyi. He said: “If you are sure of what you are telling me, let’s go to Yemi.”
BJ barged into Ogunbiyi’s office and said: “Yemi, what is this thing about you and Owei?” He asked me to repeat what I told him. Ogunbiyi replied he had thought I was behind the controversy, but on second thoughts, concluded I was more intelligent than to engage in such nonsense.
In my final year, Ogunbiyi hinted the class that a new newspaper that would change the face of journalism in the country was in the offing. Since he had some of the brightest students in the country, he would want some of us on graduation to join the publication.
I thought nothing about it. But when in 1983, I completed the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, in Kano, I decided to remain with the Civil Service Technical Workers Union, CSTWUN, now Amalgamated Union which had offered me a job in Lagos.
By this time, the Guardian Newspapers had hit the streets as a weekly. While I waited for the union’s employment letter, I decided to visit Ogunbiyi at the newspapers where he was a director. He asked me if I was averse to working in the newspaper. I said no, and he asked me to return in two days.
When I did, I was asked to see the Managing Director, Dr. Stanley Macebuh. When I told him, I was from Ogunbiyi, he asked: “Are you Owei something?” I nodded and he said: “What hold do you have on Dr Ogunbiyi? He came to me two days ago and said there is somebody we must hire. That you are going to add value to the Guardian. What can you do for us?”
I told him I was a labour expert and well versed in the student movement. Macebuh sent me downstairs to meet Assistant Editor Lade Bonuola to be tested in Labour Reporting. Within months, I was one of the journalists being celebrated by the Guardian as the rising stars in journalism.
Within months I was elected Chairman of the Guardian Newspapers Chapel of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, and heading towards a confrontation with the management. Ogunbiyi, a very wise man who could see far, called to advise me on alternative grievance procedure at the work place. But I was past hearing and was soon sacked with 16 others. Despite this and my stubbornness, Ogunbiyi continued to watch over me like a mother hen.
In April 2019, the graduates of that 1982 UNIFE Dramatic Arts Department held its first reunion in Lagos. Our special guest of honour was Ogunbiyi. We were happy to receive a man who applied fertilizer to our intellectual roots. That I am today a veteran journalist and syndicated columnist is due to the engineering of Ogunbiyi. But I have never thanked him. I do so publicly now as he turned 75 on April 13.