By Ikeddy ISIGUZO
WHATEVER you think of Uncle Bisi Lawrence – he passed Wednesday 11 November 2020 at 87 – there were no doubts that he was passionate about Lagos, a passion rooted in his youthful days in a dream Lagos. One proof – when the Voice of America offered him a permanent place in Washington, along with citizenship, he was affronted.
Washington was nowhere near Lagos, he told #MyLagosStory in an April 2017 documentary series that marked 50 years of the creation of Lagos. “I left after four years. No place in America had anything to offer that Lagos didn’t have something better,” his voice modulating to stress the import of his choice. He was talking of Lagos, almost 50 years ago.
“I attended CMS Grammar, Lagos, not the one in Bariga,” he continued in the #MyLagosStory documentary. He grew up in the Campos area of Lagos, “when it was one of the friendliest spots on earth”. It was a Lagos of dance and song, with the best people in sports, entertaining, politics, and the professions gravitating to Lagos for the opportunities it held, he said.
Lagos then, he said was crime free. “It was like paradise,” he recounted, noting that they danced from Campos Square, on Easter Sundays, to Yaba, and danced back in the night without any incidents. “People walked a lot. There were no danfo, only one public transport service that an Italian ran.”
Uncle Bisi Lawrence was more things than his love of Lagos and his legendary white attire. He was a man of garb, grit, and guts who lived a fulfilled life that flowed to others – I was one of them.
BizLaw, as many called him, after one of the most enduring of the numerous columns he wrote for Vanguard, was a man of many parts, not in the sense of all of us having many components. He knew something about almost everything. These reflected in his Vanguard columns which in the earlier days ranged from radio, television and newspaper reviews to the weather, sports, and the famous interview column Conversations which were for those 70 years and above.
Conversations took BizLaw round Nigeria, by road. He drove himself, a comment on the state of our roads then, and safety across Nigeria. The depth of the discussions in Conversations showed the divergent tangents from a Nigeria that was. They also displayed in huge hues the grit of BizLaw who excelled in broadcasting and the print media, exiting from broadcasting as the General Manager/Chief Executive Officer of Radio Lagos in the early 80s.
While at Radio Lagos (Alhaji Lateef Jakande was Governor of Lagos State), he midwifed Lagos Television, which pioneered 24-hour television in Nigeria, though it was initially on weekends. Lagos Television’s duel with the Nigerian Television Authority for audiences improved broadcast content until the military intervention on 31 December 1983 blunted the opportunities the competition presented.
His voice on Nigeria Broadcasting Service, later Service, the forebear of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, was a delight. “We were taught to pronounce words correctly. We spent hours getting the correct pronouncement of words, even names, no matter in which language, before going on air” he once told me. “No excuses were acceptable,” said BizLaw who read English at the University of Ibadan.
The first time I met BizLaw was on the pages of The Punch. He was writing a must-read, authoritative sports column. I was concerned that a broadcast journalist was taking the place of print journalists. When I finally met him at Vanguard in 1984, I took an instant liking to him. He wrote so much weekly that I held him in wonderous contemplation.
I found out he liked me too. He called me Ikeee, with a drawl that turned the name into a song in my ears. He was the chairman at my wedding in 1989 and saved me professionally when I wanted to depart Vanguard in April 1986 to join a soft sell magazine. He would not hear of it. Chris Okojie, my boss, and brother, reported “the madness”, as they both deemed it, to him.
We debated the matter until well past midnight when he won. He had threatened to cut relations with the magazine founder, who he had known for decades. We downed a bottle of Seagram to seal the deal, I was staying.
BizLaw’s feet were where to sit if one wanted to learn writing, speech, and loads of history of Nigeria, particularly, Lagos where he seemed to know everyone in each of the prominent, and not so prominent households. He knew who had Portuguese, Sierra Leonean, or nearby Lagos origins.
In the same way, he would dissect the ancient Benin Kingdom, where he had some roots, as if he was ever prepared to be asked those questions. It could be a casual discussion, a mention of a name or place, something about a date. He would correct kindly, educate thoroughly on the issues, with his avuncular simper moderating the settings.
BizLaw would recount events with the same punctiliousness he attached to his writings. It did not matter if they took place decades ago or someone told him. He covered the 1998 World Cup in France with younger colleagues Onochie Anibeze and Tony Ubani and was often seen in the company of Chuka Momoh and Dele Adetiba with whom he shared interests in sports and broadcasting, among other things.
The easiest way to get into his wrong side was to correct his script wrongly. He was usually unforgiving of that. His script would arrive with all the indications of the nuances they bore. Those tonalities expressed in an italicised word, a comma, a quote, or a seemingly meaningless capitalised line, could be ruined by an Editor who aligned them to house rules.
He meant what he wrote. He wrote what he meant, choosing his words without waste but weight. His anger over a ruined script was often lost on those who thought he was too fussy about his scripts. When I gained his confidence to manage his scripts, I also made demands from him, among them that the script would get to Vanguard much earlier, for him to read the edited copy before press.
Without telephones then, it was the only way to get back to him with concerns. He was in the diminishing tribe of those with persistence about things being done well, properly, correctly. He had enough reminiscences about life to bring people to knowledge, if not conviction.
“I had achieved all my set goals in broadcasting. I had received expert training at the BBC, worked for years at the VOA in Washington, headed a radio station, and even founded another in Nigeria, got bored and retired. I was not even 50 years old yet and looked forward to years of delightful indolence ahead. I started a beer parlour – where I was my own best customer,” he wrote in a June 2015 column in Vanguard, a birthday message to Uncle Sam, Vanguard founder, who turned 80 then. Uncle Sam kept visiting BizLaw’s Ibi T’o Tutu (The Cool Place), his beer parlour, where he claimed he was the only patron, until BizLaw agreed to work for Vanguard.
A couple of us visited the beer-hole until he shut it down. I am not sure if we paid for the quaffs.
When he marked his 80th birthday in October 2016 (pictures courtesy of Onochie Anibeze), it was a simple ceremony of friends, families, surrounding him and sharing banters that transcended generations. The venue was beside Gasikiya College, Ijora Badia, Lagos, a school his elder brother Jonathan Olatunde Lawrence, the first African to graduate from Oxford University in Nuclear Physics, founded originally in Yaba 57 years ago.
BizLaw’s contributions to sports, outside his writings and committees he headed, were mainly in the Nigeria Football Association, where at various times he was Team Manager, Publicity Secretary, and Vice Chairman.
He had impactful presence at Vanguard and beyond, in words, indeed and in deeds. His wordsmithery was inimitable. His columns milked moments without being momentary. We have lost one of the best raconteurs with delivery doused in sobering timbres.
Farewell, Uncle BizLaw, for whom the written and spoken words were art, act, and artistry rolled into cascading columns of communication without cant. You will be missed but you left so much that when we turn, we feel lives you touched.
May the Almighty grant you rest.