By Owei Lakemfa
I cannot believe I am writing this. The events are a nightmare that will not go away. Pa Joseph Oritseretsolokumi Ayonmike, an 83-year-old man of culture and immense intellect, and his wife, Dr. Chinyere ‘Chichi’ Shirley Ayonmike, opera soloist/duetist, Technical Vocational Education and Training, TVET, expert, and a senior lecturer at the Delta State University, were on Monday, June 28, 2021 found murdered in their home in Warri. They had been shot, stabbed and cut with machetes.
Pa Ayonmike who took me like a son, would call to critique my columns. Many times he scored them high and sometimes would query the conclusion or consider it weak. We discussed almost everything under the sun; from his ancestral beginnings, including why he spells his surname with an ‘n’ while his famous elder brother, Johnson Oritsegbubemi Sunday ‘JOS’ Ayomike did not, to his studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE and his love for classical which led him and his wife to establish and run the Warri Choral Society, WCS.
Our last discussion on June 4, lasted about 39 minutes. Essentially, it was to finalise plans for my visit to his home in Warri in the new month. He wanted me to write his story, especially his experiences in Abuja, a beloved city he watched grow from forests, bushes and footpaths.
He had in 1986, completed and ran the first five star hotel in the city. His dreams of maintaining the hotel had begun to crumble when the Babangida regime by fiat, devalued the Naira which badly impacted on the off-shore loan he had obtained from the ABN Bank of Netherlands. The continuous devaluation became so bad that a loan he planned to repay within a few years became like an albatross round his neck.
He also dreamt of being the founding Mayor of Abuja and thought that being the front runner amongst fourteen aspirants, meant coasting home to victory. However, the military regime did not want him as Mayor and so was told by his party chairman to step down.
He refused and continued campaigning, believing that matters would be settled at the ballot box. But when his home was riddled with bullets when luckily he was on the campaign trail, he not only withdrew from the race, but also fled Abuja for his beloved Warri.
He told me in this our last conversation that he had prepared a special room for me in his home which was as good as many hotel rooms. I laughed and said I believed his assessment of the room since he had once ran a five star hotel.
He did not fail to remind me that his home was a black gate just after Nana College, Warri. I had missed an opportunity to visit in 2020. That was when his daughter, Toritse, was getting married. But the COVID-19 lockdown forced a postponement. When it was rescheduled, he called not just to give me the new date, but also the room number of the hotel he had booked.
I tried to book a flight to Warri, but could not. I was to learn that while other airports were reopened, that of Warri remained close. At that time, bandits ruled the road from Asaba to Warri carting away victims in busloads while the Benin-Warri road was almost impassable. I apologised and we agreed I should visit this year.
I met his wife, Dr. Chichi, on September 22, 2018 at the MUSON Centre, Lagos. It was during the 61st concert of the couple’s Warri Choral Society. She had been introduced to classical music by her father who enlisted her in the choir at eight.
She explained why she had spent her life singing: “Music is the language of God which is then translated into sound. The sound is then brought into this world as music at three different levels, with classical music at the highest level.
The sound, apart from having healing effects on the hearer, is a wonderful communicator, transcending human barriers of race, culture, etc. etc. The only thing that matters is that you should have the gift of being able to hear and understand the sound.”
The theme at the MUSON Centre performance was “Handel Is An African”. Pa Ayonmike had made the Handel-African connection after performing 18 of Handel’s 28 oratorios.
This performance was part of his praxis to empirically reaffirm his theory on the famous musician, and Dr. Chichi that memorable evening, put up a superlative performance while also being the conductor of the 60-member orchestra.
In my October 1, 2018 column in the VANGUARD Newspapers, titled: “Ayonmike, Handel and the African”, I had written about that performance: “The women were beautifully attired in colourful Nigerian attire, and the men, in traditional top and black trousers. All wore black shoes.
There were three traditional dancers, including a lady who in slow, sometimes fast, dance steps of the Niger-Delta, accompanied by twists and turns in the air, and acrobatic displays, held the audience spell bound as the Agip Recital Hall exploded in angelic voices.”
In August, 2020 a seemingly well-established non-governmental organisation, NGO, had invited the cerebral Dr. Chichi to join its Board. Pa Ayonmike sent a copy of the invitation and other materials to me asking me to make enquiries about the NGO and advise whether Dr. Chichi should accept the invitation or decline it.
Going beyond its internet claims, I made enquiries about the organisation amongst NGOs and civil society organisations in the country but drew a blank. This was strange because these bodies tend to collaborate and exchange information.
I called him to say the NGO does not seem genuine but that I will visit its offices in Maitama, Abuja, discuss with its officials and make a general assessment.
On September 3, 2020, I sent him photographs of the claimed address of the NGO premises with a one paragraph report: “Sir, this is the claimed premises of the …NGO that wants Madam on its board. The organisation does not exist on the premises of …., Maitama. On that premises, are a law firm in one wing and a private company on the other. The staff and the security never heard of the NGO before.”
At 83, Pa Ayonmike, a global citizen with rich international business experience and one of the patriots who could help us back on the path of progress, and his intellectually endowed and gifted wife, are callously wasted.
But let us save our tears for a country that wastes its best, allows banditry and criminality to fester and submits itself to the rule of the worst elites in Africa. I wonder how Pa Ayonmike would have reacted to this tribute.