By Ehi Braimah
Birthdays are special moments in our lives, and depending on our respective circumstances, we mark them in different ways. But when your children plan and execute a surprise party for you to celebrate a unique milestone, you could easily betray your emotions.
Every surprise party is a disguise and the organisers are required to keep sealed lips. It may come across as a dream initially but surprise parties are “coups”, planned by family, friends or colleagues – or a combination of the three groups. I have also been part of a few surprise parties.
Once you are ushered into the venue of the party and see the extent of preparation and the people who knew about the party but were not “careless” enough to drop any hint, a sense of shock suddenly envelopes you. The element of surprise gradually unravels in the mind of the celebrant.
This was what happened to Mike Awoyinfa, one of Nigeria’s finest journalists, who turned 70 years old last Saturday. He witnessed the unveiling of his surprise party with 70 “gbosas”. Awoyinfa does not look any inch near 70 years (Baba 70) with his boyish looks; he could pass as a 55 years old and he’s as fit as a fiddle. Not many people know that our celebrant is a fitness freak; he does not miss his daily exercise routine.
Awoyinfa – popularly called Mike by his colleagues – is a gifted prose master, prolific writer, brilliant author and consummate biographer. His children – with the active connivance and support of their mother, Olubukola – organised a surprise birthday party for him in Lekki, Lagos.
Although born in Ghana, Mike is a very private person from Ijebu-Ijesa in Osun state. He is gentle, soft-spoken and generally likes to mind his business, except the news business. Mike has three children who are now big boys. They are Babajide, the eldest, followed by a set of twins – Taiwo and Kehinde. They hatched the plan for the surprise party with their mother and Eric Osagie – journalist and publisher of This Nigeria newspaper – who worked with Mike at the Concord Press.
The party was not loud but all the boxes for an enjoyable soiree were ticked by the organisers and event planner. There was enough to eat and drink. When Babajide sent out the invitation cards electronically, he pleaded that the birthday was a surprise and his Dad was not aware of it. Guests were required to be seated by 3.00 pm just before the celebrant would arrive.
As he took the elevator up to the fourth floor where the party held, Mike was still not sure what the hell was going on. His wife – who knew every detail of the surprise party – was right beside him as they were ushered into the expansive hall and welcomed with a birthday song by the excited audience.
Mike was instantly overwhelmed. He could not believe his eyes. He was thrilled by the demonstration of love and goodwill and awed by the ambience and props used in the welcoming backdrop in the foyer. They included an enlarged family portrait of Mike, his wife, children and grandchildren and a collection of his writings which were neatly arranged to tease guests as they arrived.
There was also a photograph of only Mike and his three boys, spotting white shirts over blue jeans. As editor, a typical tabloid headline for Weekend Concord in his heydays would have been: “Mike and his bodyguards”.
Our celebrant is a journalist’s journalist who can easily be described as one of the most influential journalists of all time in the same class as Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Christiane Amanpour, Edward Murrow, Tim Russert, Hunter Thompson and Walter Cronkite.
At the party, media practitioners which included his colleagues at the defunct National Concord and The Sun flocked together and exchanged the usual cheerful friendliness. Segun Osoba, John Momoh, Dele Momodu, Tunji Bello, Dare Babarinsa, Shola Oshunkeye, Tony Onyima, Louis Odion and Wale Sokunbi graced the occasion chaired by elder statesman and former president of the Nigeria Stock Exchange, Goodie Ibru.
Everyone who spoke described Mike as a good man and accomplished journalist. I can testify that our celebrant is indeed a great mind and wordsmith who is always in front of his computer doing what he knows best: writing.
From being a reporter, national correspondent to becoming Features Editor of National Concord, Mike shone like a million stars in the journalism firmament. When a reporter gives him a good copy, he would scream and dance in the newsroom.
But when Mike, according to Tunji Bello, former colleague at National Concord and Lagos state commissioner for Environment, yawns and says “aah”, just know he will not publish your story. Mike and his colleagues were able package “human interest” stories and turned them into an attraction for readers of National Concord.
This was why Weekend Concord edited by Mike was launched and it became the highest selling title in the Concord stable at the time. Every Saturday, Weekend Concord sold over 500,000 copies, also making it the best-selling newspaper in Nigeria.
Osagie used the opportunity of the surprise party to respond to Femi Adesina, presidential spokesperson and former colleague at the Concord Press and The Sun Publishing Company. He disclaimed Adesina’s charge which was a joke. “Mike and I are not ‘iniquity’ men,” he declared, firing back at Adesina. Again, it was only a joke to make us laugh. However, Osagie confessed that after work on his way home, he used to hop into Mike’s car and they would end up at a bar at Egbeda in Lagos.
The urge to sip a few drinks was always there after a long day at work. The hustle and bustle that Lagos is known for was also a reason to unwind and relax. “Those moments inspired big story ideas for the weekend newspaper,” Osagie told everyone at the party.
It did not matter that the newsroom moved elsewhere, and that the discussions were assisted with beer and pepper soup. What was important was that Mike’s screaming headlines sold Weekend Concord the following Saturday. That was how Weekend Concord became the King of tabloids, an idea which Mike also birthed at The Sun.
Once you give Mike a book as gift, you have made his day because he would thank you and pray for you. A few years back, I browsed through the collection at a bookstore at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. Then I grabbed two copies of ‘Burn the Business Plan’ written by Carl Schramm, a professor in Syracuse University, New York and leading author in expeditionary economics.
I sent Mike a copy of the book as soon as I landed in Lagos. He was excited and grateful when he called to thank me. As a mathematics undergraduate at the University of Benin, I enjoyed the writings of some journalists which included Mike and I wanted to write like them. His prose is always elegant and flowery, and you could literally smell the scent of roses in his articles.
Our paths later crossed when I sent a proposal for an entertainment newspaper to the late Sunny Emmanuel Ojeagbase, my first employer in Lagos and publisher of Complete Sports, whom we fondly called SO. As it turned out, SO invited Mike and Dimgba Igwe (of blessed memory).
Mike and Dimgba were known to everyone as ‘twin’ brothers before his death eight years ago. With three partners and investors on board, we launched Entertainment Express on July 1, 2011 and it was published every Friday. Six months later on Sunday December 4, we added Sunday Express, published every Sunday.
After nearly four years, we rested the papers because digital media had changed the way news was consumed. We decided to cut our losses and move on after investing over N80 million in the project.
Babajide was the chief planner of the party and he is Mike’s first child. “Our Dad is a quiet, easy-going gentleman and he’s the best Daddy in the world,” Babajide said, smiling. He was excited that the secret was kept until the final moment even though he feared his mother could expose their plan mistakenly. Thankfully, it did not happen.
“Our Daddy is kind and he wanted the best for us. He sacrificed everything he had to send us to school. We also wanted to put a smile on his face on his 70th birthday. However, he did not beat us when we younger but when he was angry or not happy, there was a way he would talk to us and we would get his message,” he added.
My father is always in front of his laptop, reading, writing or transcribing materials. He encouraged us to also write when he asked us to keep a daily diary of events. After reviewing what we wrote, he would give a gift to the best writer. Most of the time, Taiwo was always the winner.
“That was how he sharpened our writing skills,” Babajide, a political science and international relations graduate of Covenant University, said. “My Dad has a rich library and he is always buying books.”
According to him, Taiwo, his younger brother, once finished a Harry Porter novel of over 600 pages in three days.
When Mike’s children asked him what he wanted for his 70th birthday including an offer of a car gift, he said he just wanted the family to be together so that he could share the moment with his four grandchildren who are girls – one each from Babajide and Taiwo, and two from Kehinde.
As Babajide explained, the surprise party was to appreciate and celebrate their father whom they adore.
By the way, Mike loves music and boxing and he can also write great copies on these subjects. He is also a Chelsea FC supporter (the blue corner) whereas I’m an Arsenal FC fan (the red corner). In a pre-season friendly after Mike’s birthday bash, Arsenal thrashed Chelsea 4 – 0.
This was not the kind of birthday gift Mike was hoping for from his favourite English premiership team but no points are awarded; that should be enough consolation.
At 70 years old, Mike is not tired and I’m not aware he has retired from writing. May the ink in his pen continue to flow.
Without mincing words, Mike is a distinguished Nigerian who deserves to be garlanded with national honours for his extraordinary achievements. As a journalist, our birthday celebrant constantly writes and advocates for a better Nigeria.
Anyway, just know that you are a leader and mentor to your numerous fans and admirers.
Happy birthday sir! Congratulations and best wishes always.
Braimah is a public relations strategist and publisher/editor-in-chief of Naija Times (https://ntm.ng)