Remembering Leke Salaudeen

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Olatunji Dare


LATE in the evening of October 5, 2020, well past my usual bedtime, I received a text message from Barakat Salaudeen, informing me that her father Leke had been taken to Gbagada General Hospital, in Lagos.  Her tone was subdued. It betrayed not the slightest indication of panic.  But there was no mistaking the urgency of the situation.

I wrote back immediately to ask for details.

Apparently he had been ill for some time and had been receiving medical treatment for a heart condition until he was diagnosed with kidney disease and rushed to Gbagada General Hospital.  She promised to keep in touch.

When her text message bobbed up early the following day, I sensed that the worst had happened.  It had, indeed.  Leke had died less than 24 hours after his admission to Gbagada General Hospital, reputed to have one of the best dialysis facilities in Nigeria.

I knew in my heart that I would have to enter a tribute to his memory.  But I was conflicted.  It is  not the custom of our people for a much older person (I am 76) to join in the public mourning of a much younger person (Leke was 62).  If the younger person was your student as undergraduate and graduate, he looked up to you as confidant and counselor, the challenge becomes all the more formidable.

But Leke was more; he was a friend; he was a professional colleague, and he was family more or less.

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He entered the BSc programme in mass communication in the late 70s, then and even now among the most competitive in the University of Lagos.  In the year-long Advanced Reporting class I taught, Leke’s diligence and painstaking attention to detail stood him out.  Not for him the shortcuts, the expedients many a student contrive to dodge the hard work of ferreting out the facts and presenting them in a context that gives them meaning – the qualities that separate the perfunctory                  or merely competent from the truly remarkable.

I recall taking the class on a field trip to the old Parliament Buildings in Lagos where the Constituent Assembly was debating the draft of the Constitution for the Second Republic that was to come into force in 1979. Each student was required to interview at least one member of the Assembly for a profile, an update on its deliberations, especially the constraints; prospects for the Second Republic, and matters relating to the on-going debates and discussions on Nigeria’s future.

Leke’s doggedness landed him a great catch:  Shehu Shagari, who went on to become Nigeria’s first elected president the following year.  His submission was one of the most illuminating.

During his National Service year with the New Nigerian in Kaduna and later employment with the Triumph Newspapers, in Kano, and this newspaper, his last stop, where he served as an Assistant Editor on the National Desk, he scored exclusive interviews with many of the leading personalities of the time, among them Lagos State Governor Lateef Jakande, in whose home he was always welcome.

His final year project was a magazine-length feature on traditional healers in Lagos, and how leading medical scientists have sought to incorporate them and their work in mainstream medical practice.  A great deal of legwork went into the project, one of the best-executed by the graduating class.

In this age of cut-and-paste journalism, Leke remained wedded to shoe-leather reporting.  He used online resources and worked the phones.  But he remained at heart a shoe-leather journalist, doing the rounds, tending old sources and cultivating new ones

Leke was unobtrusive, unpretentious, and unthreatening.  You felt as ease with him.  I suspect that these characteristics contributed significantly to his success as a journalist.  Gaining access to news sources came easy to him, and so did gaining their confidence. You had no reason to suspect, much less fear, that he would give you away. And so, he filed story after exclusive story with all the newspapers he worked for.

One particular story that landed him in trouble and in detention during the time of General (as he then was) Muhammadu Buhari bears out his faithfulness.  It centred on the crash of a training flight of a sophisticated jet in the fleet of the Nigeria Air Force.  Leke had reported it exclusively, much to the embarrassment of the authorities who wanted to keep it a secret.

They demanded that he disclose his sources.  He refused and was clamped into jail under Decree Four.

Seeing him pecking his laptop keyboard in his marked-off space in the newsroom at The NATION or in a setting where colleagues talked about their journalistic escapades, you would never suspect that “he has been there, seen this, or done that,” pardon the cliché.  He was self-contained, introspective, almost inscrutable.

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Leke was an embodiment of decency and decorum.  Even when he had ample cause to feel aggrieved or resentful, he just shrugged his shoulders and moved on.  Yu could not engage him in gossip or unseemly talk.  His life was anchored securely on his Muslim faith, which he practiced with his accustomed obtrusiveness.  Until I asked him several years ago, I did not even know that    he had performed the holy pilgrimage.

Not many can recall him raising his voice, or putting down another person.

Whenever he called, he never failed to ask after my younger brother Kolade, who was his colleague at the New Nigerian.  When Kolade died last May, I was sure Leke would call to offer condolences.  When a decent interval had passed and I had still not heard from him, I called him.

“How is Kola?” he asked, prelimaries over.

Kola, as Leke called him, died about a month ago, I told him.

The cell phone he was clutching fell on his table.  For one full minute he said nothing.   Then, he said, ever so plaintively, that he was only just learning of Kolade’s death.  I told him it was reported in The NATION and other media outlets, print and electronic.  He said he had not been attending to the media.  He apologized profusely and said the usual prayers.

I believe him. His illness was probably well advanced at that time.  He offered an explanation.  He did not seek to parlay in into an excuse.

Leke left one unfished business that was dear to his heart.  His youngest daughter who holds a degree in the biological sciences, desires to pursue a doctorate in molecular biology, preferably in the United States.  Could I help find a good school and explore scholarship opportunities?

That was his dream for Barakat.  I hope it will not die with him.

May Leke’s gentle soul rest in peace.  And may Allah abide with his widow, Barakat, and her siblings.