Fellow Nigerians, it is another sad story. Barely five weeks after we lost our dear beloved royal elephant, The Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olubuse II, another monumental tragedy occurred. The Lion of the diplomatic fraternity has fallen. He is no other than the African icon, Ambassador Chief Antonio Oladeinde Fernandez. It is not that he was too young to die but Chief had traversed this world so much that he appeared larger than life and, as such, not likely to be bullied by any ailment that could take him away so cheekily. But as usual death remains the unbeatable world heavyweight champion and nothing could prevent our own Chief, The Ajinijini Ogun being given a technical knockout.
My only consolation is that I had my last conversation with Chief Fernandez exactly one week ago by sheer providence. I had accompanied The Prince of Ile-Ife, Barrister Adedamola Aderemi to Iga Iduganran, The Palace of The Oba of Lagos, Olowo Eko Oba Rilwan Akiolu, on Friday, August 28, 2015. As we approached the palace, we saw the influential monarch heading out and we quickly made a call to him. He then told us to join him at a function he was attending at Onikan. After the ceremony, we then fixed an appointment for the following evening at the palace. Unknown to us fate was playing its game as usual.
At the appointed time, we landed at the palace and spent quality time chatting with Olowo Eko. We were soon joined by my great mentor, Dr Bode Olajumoke and his darling wife, Princess Remi (nee Oyekan). The discussions were as animated just as they were varied. Somewhere along the line the name of Chief Fernandez came up. I mentioned that I had called him a couple of days before but he did not answer the phone. For the sake of those who may not know the relationship between The Oba of Lagos and Chief Fernandez, they are cousins.
We knew at 86, Chief Fernandez was in a Belgian hospital awaiting whatever miracle could fully restore his health to normalcy. The King decided to call Belgium to check on Chief. Fortunately, he answered the call despite the excruciating pain he must have been going through. Oba Akiolu then announced my presence and handed his phone to me.
The voice at the other end was not the strong booming baritone I was accustomed to. Chief could barely pronounce my name. Wow, I exclaimed silently and I had an instant premonition as to what to expect soon. Immediately I dropped the phone, I told everyone my sad but truthful observation. Three days later, my worst fears were confirmed.
As soon as I received a call that Tuesday evening, on September 1, 2015, from one of Chief’s aides, I knew the worst must have happened. “Chief died about one hour ago”¦” the voice said calmly but matter-of-factly. This was not funny at all. I was dazed and confused. So that was it. It is over, just like that. So it is true that all good and bad things shall end. Memories of Chief flooded back to me. How we met and bonded endlessly. The few times we shared together in Lagos, Kano and Edinburgh. The lengthy telephone chats, the political lectures, the wisdom of the ancients, the gifts, the father-son relationship, all gone”¦
I knew I would have to write another tribute this Saturday. No journalist worth his salt would ever ignore the biggest news of the week and possibly the year.
Naturally my phones rang off the hook. The next 24 hours would be nightmarish, answering questions, or simply being consoled by friends. I spoke to a few personalities who knew Chief very well. Chief Harry Akande called. Pastor Tunde Bakare, who shared some of the last moments with Chief, called. Dr Olajumoke called to confirm my earlier observation in the palace during our last meeting.
I called Chief’s widow, Halima, The Baroness of Dudley, in Belgium but was not so lucky to get her. I could picture her sorrowful state from afar knowing how much she had laboured tirelessly to make Chief as comfortable as possible. I called our dear Sister, Erelu Abiola Dosunmu, who had enjoyed a celebrated marriage and whirlwind romance with Chief before their love turned sour. She was in London just as her daughter, Antoinette, was arriving Brussels by train. I spoke to Chief’s eldest child, Mrs Teju Phillips in Lagos and later paid her a visit. I also spoke with another daughter of his, Abimbola, who was in New York, having just returned from Belgium where she had gone to pay last respects to her departed father.
It is very difficult to imagine how big an achiever Chief Fernandez was. Perhaps the stature of the man is best exemplified by the fact that in its almost 20 years of existence, OVATION has not done another cover as iconic as that of Chief Fernandez, a story that was written in English, French and Portuguese.
As he exits this sinful world, Chief Fernandez deserves a standing OVATION from all Black people around the globe for doing us proud, not just as a billionaire jet-setter, but as a proud son of Africa, who has not forgotten his roots, despite his towering personality and achievement. A modified tribute as captured by our Issue 26 now follows:
The story of Ambassador Fernadez is like a fairy tale. I first heard of him in the 1970s as I grew up in the ancient city of Ile-Ife. We were all regaled with stories of this literal and figurative giant of a businessman who had just donated Cadillac Limousines to some of the most powerful Yoruba Monarchs.
When I entered the University of Ife in 1978 we also learnt about how this Business King was assisting in making life tolerable for University students by manufacturing a very small refrigerator, Gorenje, in Nigeria, and selling it to them at very affordable prices.
Much later I heard of the magnificent Tower Fernandez in the heart of Lagos Island. Having heard a lot about this International Icon of Nigerian origin and I was dying to meet him.
I was eager to meet this man who stands six feet and six inches tall, a man of stupendous wealth, a diplomat extraordinaire, a charming African King, a man of sartorial taste and style, a quintessential philanthropist who spreads his wealth to his African brothers and sisters like manure, a man of culture, a man of tradition.
For more than 10 years, I searched everywhere for any lead to this rarefied being. Everytime I got close, it seemed something would go wrong and my elusive target would disappear into thin air. Once I was convinced I had struck gold as someone gave me a multitude of telephone numbers for him in America, France and Switzerland. However, I was to be gravely disappointed as all the lines rang but not a soul bothered to answer any of those stridently consistent calls. I continued to search for this ultimate story, the sort that gives a writer his magnus opus. No matter the amount of disappointments I had to endure, I was determined never to give up and so my quest continued.
One fine day, one of my erstwhile staff suddenly told me he had met someone who claimed that he could link me to Fernandez. I did not really believe him. However, as a reporter you are trained to follow every lead even if as you predicted it ends nowhere. I decided to meet this contact to request that he put in a good word on my behalf to the enigma.
I duly met the contact who told me that “Nigeria has been most unfair to Fernandez. He wanted to do a lot of things for our country and Nigerians but he was discouraged and maligned.” Taking no chances, I left all my telephone numbers worldwide with the contact and hoped that Chief Fernandez would call me one day as the contact earnestly promised.
One evening whilst having a drink with some friends at the Abuja Hilton Hotel my phone rang. I asked one of my reporters in Ovation to answer the call. He beckoned to me to take the phone from him without uttering a word. I did, and the biggest shock of my life up to that day occurred. “Is that Dele? This is Fernandez” a baritone voice boomed into my ears. I had spoken to the high and mighty, but none had been as elusive as this “King”, a self-made man who earned the respect of great people in foreign lands. “Your Excellency, this is a great surprise, Sir,” I said somehow nervously. That was the kind of effect my first contact with Chief Fernandez had on me. I knew in later years that I was not alone in this experience. Even when close to death, his nurses and doctors were intimidated by his avuncular presence as he would order them about and direct commands at them as to what medication he had deemed fit to take or not.
He was the last person I expected to speak with that night. He said he had got my message and he was aware of all the efforts I had made to contact him. He told me that he doesn’t seek publicity but he wanted to thank me for my efforts. “I am told that your magazine is very good and that you are very responsible”, he said. My head was beginning to swell. I told him that I had seen photographs of his private jet, yacht and New York Island in the Nigerian magazine, National Encomium, and would love to visit his home in New York to have a first-hand experience. He told me that he would invite me to visit him in New York and would give me access to his homes on his Island in New York and his Chateau in France to take photographs but that he would not grant an interview.
I informed him that I wanted to do a story that would inspire men and women of my generation to show them that if you dream big and work hard you would make it big like Fernandez. He was quite comfortable with my ideas. He promised to ask one of his personal assistants to discuss modalities with me. True to his word, the following day a call came through from an Algerian guy. The rest is history as Ovation Magazine did a fabulous cover story on Titan.
The arrangements required me to travel to London to secure the services of one of the most accomplished photographers in the world, Colin Ramsay. Ramsay instantly agreed to travel with me to New York for this momentous photo-shoot. Ramsay is one man who knows everything about anything. A former air force pilot, this Scotsman octogenarian has travelled extensively around the world initially with the air force and thereafter following his true love, photography. He has photographed numerous celebrities around the world including the English royal family. Colin was therefore the perfect choice for the job and he did not let me down.
Colin and I travelled together to New York shortly after I contacted him. As soon as we landed at John F Kennedy Airport, we drove straight to the Peninsula, the Premium Point Island outside New York where Chief Fernandez and his then wife, Chief Mrs Aduke Olufunmilayo Fernandez (now of blessed memory) and their two daughters, Abimbola and Atinuke, lived in a paradise on earth.
We went round the Island and the more we looked the more we discovered about the Island and its owner, Chief Fernandez. He was simply an outstanding man living on a magical planet.
Even my photographer, who had photographed many homes of celebrities like Imelda Marcos and Liz Taylor was clearly overwhelmed by the splendour, opulence and sheer luxury of the Fernandez home. It was a beautiful, classy and elegant home and Colin sweetly remarked in open amazement that he could never imagine that anyone, let alone an African, could demonstrate such imagination and creativity in the design of the Island and its appurtenances.
We had been booked to spend five days on the Island but we began to wonder whether we would be able to accomplish as much as we needed to do if we were to properly reflect the grandeur that we had been privileged to experience.
In keeping to form Chief Fernandez had travelled to Beijing and Hong Kong, whilst Colin and I were his guests so there was no chance of us being able to photograph, not to mention interview him. His absence gave us an opportunity to roam the premises freely and do as we liked. Daily, we worked for 12 hours before retiring to our hotel which was just 30 minutes away.
The highly civilised and cerebral Chief granted us access to every room in the house including his bedroom. During our numerous telephone conversations, he maintained that he was a fulfilled man with nothing to hide. He did his business openly and enjoyed his life privately and quietly. He pointed out that he was not a recluse but did not fancy intrusion into his privacy. He expressed delight at the prospect of our story on him inspiring younger people in particular since he was an epitome of the success of dedication, hard work and perseverance. For a man who made his first million US Dollars by seizing an opportunity that opened up for him and working hard at it, Chief Fernandez’s story is the stuff of which dreams are made.
We must note that Nigeria was not kind to Chief Fernandez. As is mostly the case, the country failed to honour this great son of Africa, in his own homeland.