In Memoriam – Daniel Jonah, My Trusted Driver and Colleague
I wrote this blog a few months ago and never posted it. I wrote it after traveling to Nigeria in August 2022. https://fredayinafrica.com/2022/09/24/my-return-to-nigeria/. I was excited to return to Nigeria, two and half years after we departed for South Africa. But I am not sure what I expected when I landed in Abuja. Reading newspaper articles outside of Nigeria painted a picture of a country where passengers on trains were being kidnapped (which is true) and people “snatched up” just walking along the road. While certain areas in the country have faced new security threats or rising insecurity because of kidnapping, cattle raiding, or banditry, Abuja still had the same feeling when I was there in 2019. However, once the plane touched down, I was quickly aware that it was not the same Abuja I left in November 2019. First, a consistent face that always met me at the airport in the many years of departing and arriving in Abuja was not waiting for me on arrival. Daniel Jonah was IRI’s driver for many years and by being IRI’s driver, he became the director’s right hand. He was the first staff person I saw every morning and the last staff person I saw in the evening. He took me all over Nigeria before it became too unsafe to travel by automobile. I met his family, got to know his children, and spent many days providing counsel for issues he was experiencing (and created). He was the office gossip and never missed an opportunity to use the information to gain power in the office. I learned quickly in my tenure that Daniel would share any and all information he had to get a favor. When I was new to Nigeria, I had an incident where I utter something in front of Daniel and was amazed when someone challenged me on what I said.
Most times as the director, I found myself serving as a referee in the office as someone would accuse Daniel of an offense and I would have to intervene. But Daniel was a stable force in my life in Nigeria. Even with his hot-headedness, Daniel was loyal and a very good driver. I can think of numerous occasions where Daniel’s quick thinking saved us from potential harm or removed us from a situation that quickly deteriorated. One occasion that sticks out to me was a day road trip we took to the neighboring state of Kogi. Some political party members had advised us that we could meet their Vice-Presidential candidate if we attended a rally in the state. We drove two hours to Lokoja, the state capital of Kogi to attend the rally. It was a long day and while I was within feet of the Vice-Presidential candidate, we never officially met during that trip. It would be another two years before I met the candidate, who became the Vice President of Nigeria. I just wanted to get back to Abuja. Typically, we didn’t drive between states in the dark. But since we were only two hours away from the capital city, I approved the drive back to Abuja. We encountered an overturned tanker (a fuel truck) along the way. The tanker was blocking both sides of the road and drivers were using a dirt path on the side of the road to clear the wreckage. We didn’t think much about it as we approached the truck and noticed a glowing flame. However, that flame quickly became an explosion that lit up the night sky. The explosion rattled the car’s windows and sent pedestrians walking along the dirt path into a panic looking for shelter. Daniel quickly put the vehicle in reverse, turned around, and headed back down the dirt path. We headed back towards Lokoja until we found ourselves in the Vice President’s motorcade. Our car was a black SUV, so it fit right into the motorcade. Thanks to Daniel’s quick thinking and driving tactics we found ourselves back in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in no time.
After I left Nigeria, we continued to catch up and stay in touch. The office reduced in size and then COVID-19 brought additional changes. Eventually, Daniel’s position as a driver was no longer needed and he left IRI. One random Friday in July, as I was working remotely from a makeshift desk in my brother-in-law’s apartment, I received a message from a friend in Nigeria informing me he had terrible news. I’m not sure what I expected from this message, but the rest of the message completely ruined my day. He said that he was just informed that Daniel has passed away! I was utterly not prepared for this news! Again, Daniel was such a consistent part of my time in Nigeria that everyone who knew me in Nigeria or had ever visited me in Nigeria knew Daniel! Even to this day, people ask me about Daniel! As I arrived in Nigeria, there was no Daniel to excitedly meet me at the airport and ask me about “Madam.” Instead, a young enterprising man named Prince met me at the airport and whisked me off to the Transcorp Hilton. Now, the Transcorp Hilton is a very interesting place and if you have ever traveled to Abuja, you already know what I am talking about. However, I will save that discussion for a later blog.