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 such surprise party is like a coup. It must be sealed in topmost secrecy. 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. It’s like you are in a dreamland!
This was what happened to Mike Awoyinfa, one of Nigeria’s finest journalists, who turned 70 last Saturday. His children – with the active connivance of their mother, Olubukola – organised a surprise party at the Maradiva, Lekki, Lagos, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Babajide, Taiwo and Kehinde hatched the plan for the surprise party with their mother and Eric Osagie –publisher of This Nigeria newspaper – who worked with Mike at Weekend Concord and Sun. 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, he pleaded that it should be kept secret from Dad. Guests were to be seated by 3pm just before the birthday “boy” 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 – was right beside him as the lift opened to a barrage of photographers. They were ushered into the expansive hall and welcomed with a birthday song by the excited audience. Mike was 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 showcased on the wall to welcome guests as they arrived.
There was also a giant photograph of Mike and his three boys, spotting white shirts over blue jeans. 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 an 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 Assistant Editor, Sunday Concord, 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 to package “human interest” stories and turned them into an attraction for readers of National Concord. This was why he was promoted as the pioneer editor of Weekend Concord which 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 party to respond to Femi Adesina, presidential spokesperson and former colleague at Concord and The Sun who had written a piece titled ‘Awoyinfa, The Iniquity Man at 70’ where Osagie was mentioned as an accomplice. “Mike and I are not ‘iniquity’ men,” he declared, firing back jokingly at Adesina.
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 and later on The Sun which Mike also pioneered became “King of The Tabloids.”
Mike is a bibliophile. Once you give him a book as gift, you have made his day. A few years back, I bought him a book at Schiphol Amsterdam Airport titled ‘Burn the Business Plan’ written by Carl Schramm, a professor in Syracuse University, New York and a leading author in expeditionary economics. Mike was so excited and grateful.
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. Mike’s prose is always elegant and flowery. 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 the late Dimgba Igwe – two inseparable ‘twin’ brothers separated eight years ago by death. 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. 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.
Babajide, the chief planner, describes his dad as “a quiet, easy-going gentleman and he’s the best Daddy in the world. 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.”
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.
As Babajide explained, the surprise party was to appreciate and celebrate their father whom they adore. Next to books, Mike and I share a love for football. In a pre-season friendly after the birthday bash, my team Arsenal thrashed Mike’s Chelsea 4 – 0. This was not the kind of birthday gift Mike was hoping for.
At 70, Mike Awoyinfa is a distinguished Nigerian journalist, biographer and writer of corporate books who deserves to be garlanded with national honours for his extraordinary achievements in creating two successful newspapers: Weekend Concord and Sun. As a journalist, he constantly writes and advocates for a better Nigeria. He is a leader and mentor to journalists and to his numerous fans and admirers around the world. Congratulations and best wishes always, sir.
*Ehi Braimah is a public relations strategist and publisher/editor-in-chief of Naija Times (https://ntm.ng)