Neville Ukoli (2)

Urhobo Historical Society

Remembering Neville Ukoli

By Ramanu Omozuanfo

Omozuanfo was a former Chief Press Photographer of The Observer.

The Guardian On-Line – Wednesday, February 20, 2002.

NEVILLE Mene Ukoli, a veteran journalist, dramatist and playwright is no more. He died the other week at the age of 62. Uncle Nev, as he was called by numerous admirers was the most simple man I have ever met in my life. He was so simple that he referred to his subordinates as “old boy”. So quick was he to greet you that you had no chance of being the first to acknowledge his presence.

I met him in 1968 while seeking a job at the yet to be established Nigerian Observer. He was one of the pioneering Editors. He gave me an idea of what press photography was all about. I was coming from the street, raw, with no idea of photo-journalism.

When I showed up for interview, I was given an assignment to produce 12 full plate prints of activities in town. The job was a forgone conclusion for me as I had had some lessons from Uncle Nev.

When I showed up with the prints, I arranged them in the best of action series. When the Editor, Mr. Olusola Ojo saw the first print, he picked up the phone and called the General Manager Mr. Abiodun Aloba to say “At last, I have gotten a photographer.”

Mr. Ojo looked at me to say “boy, you will hear from us.” When I didn’t hear from them, I was just passing by The Observer one day when the Chief Photographer saw me and said “We have been looking for you to start work”. That was on May 28, 1968. So I started that day without a letter of appointment. That day was also the night of the launching of The Observer by the Military Governor, Lt. Col. S.O. Ogbemudia, as he then was. I was detailed to cover the event. In my heart I was so frightened, I just said to myself “take photographs.” When Governor Ogbemudia was to pick the first copy from the Rotary machine, I didn’t know that was News. Mr. A. Ojohomon pushed me here and there to take News photographs.

The next day, Uncle Nev called me to his office to say “you will have to go to the British library at Mission Road to get books on press photography to study.” He said that he didn’t like what happened the previous night. I did as he advised, spending some time at the British library, poring over books on press photography. Journalism had just begun for me with all its intricacies. Uncle Nev made this possible.

Later, on one occasion, he called me aside and said “can’t we stay together?” I didn’t see anything wrong in this, so Uncle Nev Ukoli gave me his boys quarters with all the conveniences. I stayed there along with Peter Agbebaku. After a while we separated, when I wanted to raise a family. Somehow the headship of the newspaper continued to elude him until Mr. Andy Akporugo became Special Adviser on Information to Dr. S.O. Ogbemudia during his second coming as Governor. Akporugo appointed Mr. Neville M. Ukoli Chief Executive of the Bendel Newspapers Company. It was during this period that some overzealous staff hijacked Uncle Nev. I was loyal all through even though I was not a member of the caucus. They branded some of us disloyal officers. Promotion came and eluded me and others.

When he was retired in 1983, the same old caucus were busy doing what they knew best with the new Chief Executive. They abandoned Uncle Nev.

I wish to reproduce a letter written by Uncle Nev to me on September 3, 1990 to buttress this.

It reads:

Dear Ramanu,

Welcome back from Lagos, you were definitely annoyed that night when you left my place and with good reason.

However, I maintained the stand that your having to come all the way at that time of the night to deliver a message to me (waking me up from sleep was unnecessary risk and uncalled for), especially when you didn’t keep your appointment in the day and you could have phoned and you could have come with the people you were with who were also my friends.

However, I have no right to direct your movement or times. You can go wherever you wish to go, my reaction and words to you may as it now seems, have been due to what I can only now describe as a misguided affection for you and your family and well being. I apologise from the bottom of my heart but while you are thinking whether to accept or not, think also whether it was really worth the trouble and risk for you to have been out all alone at that time merely to tell me why we could not travel the next day.

Remember the next day you could have called, sent someone or drop a note. Also, as you consider my apology remember that I too have a right to decide when I should be awake or asleep without the problems that worry me during the day, any person who disturbs this prized rest (mark you in the day) runs the risk of receiving bad reception from me, unless it is absolutely serious).

So after all this, I still apologise because of the old crew you are still the closest. Hope you shall find it possible to accept me as you know we relate to each other as before, nothing really changed.

Regards, Neville.

When through 1997-98/99, I didn’t hear from or see Uncle Nev, I took a trip to Warri and we met him on his sick bed, he complained that he could have reached me on phone and that the phone belonged to his mother and as a result of bills not paid, his mother had refused him using the phone. I approached Mama and begged her that Nev needed to reach out, otherwise he would be too bored. Mama said that “na the whole Warri nai dey use the phone.” She agreed, ever since we kept on talking to each other until his voice faded away gradually.

Uncle Nev was the author of many books including an award-winning play Twins of the Rain forest, Out from the River, Home to the River, Softly Softly, Blood on the tide, and The Antelope that hurried.

Yet to be published are Soulfire (a novel) Curse of the wild boar (drama) Arrested love, Cadence of fate and Hector will bell the cat (for children).

Uncle Nev is no more. Before death came calling, he would call me to say, “I would soon die. So when you are coming again buy some bush meat for me to eat before I die.” He was full of humour. When I visited his house and some children in the neighbourhood gathered at his bed side gazing at us, Uncle Nev shouted at them “na so children de enter una papa bedroom?” and one of the children replied “my papa no get bedroom.” He was very fond of children. When he had his son nine years ago he wrote me, “Tell everybody in Benin that I now have a son, he is called Paul Franklin Ukoli.” I’m glad Uncle Nev will not have to die a thousand times again. For five good years, he laid bedridden. If there was telephone in Heaven he would have telephoned me to say “how una for yonder, here fine o! no more worries I don tell one angel to look for Tombee for me I never see your father yet salute them.”


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