No new friends: Lessons from Steve Ayorinde who clocks 50 today, by Ayeni Adekunle

I was going through a Twitter thread last night, where a couple of young Nigerians talked about comedy skits and character stereotyping. You know, Lasisi Elenu with the Snapchat lip filter, Ogbeni Adan and his father-son shenanigans, Taaooma and her mom’s slap, and so on. Then someone said “I really like what Josh2Funny has done, by introducing different new characters. Juga really cracks me up.”

So, I spent a good part of my Sunday going through Josh’s videos. This rather resourceful gentleman has eight characters – Mama Felicia, Bro Zakius, TTP, Juga and so on.

Let’s take Juga: A neighbourhood lay about who’s been there and done that. He’s now the corner street storyteller, dishing out history notes that are mostly false, often exaggerated, and usually unasked for. He’s upset that everyone seems to leave the area once they make it, never to return. “Why can’t we all still be here living as one?” he asks his friend who wonders loudly what’s wrong with moving up and out of the streets.

We all know a Juga: a ‘friend’ from way back who still plays football at the same field we all gathered 20 years ago; a talkative, braggadocios one who has gin for breakfast, knows everyone’s secrets, and “is just about to make it.”

We also know those friends who to be fair to Juga, can’t wait to change their phone number, their names, even their face once they taste a little success. Once they ‘blow’.

And then we know those who understand the value in straddling the past and the present; in living the streets, even after leaving.

Steve Ayorinde belongs to this last set, and it’s something I find really inspiring.

To be clear: there are many things I like about Steve – his sharp mind, his contrarian views, his love for art and culture, his hard work, and his dedication to supporting his friends and community.

But I’ve known him since the early 2000s when I was a reporter at Encomium, and he a mid-level corresponded at Punch. Feminar Café, inside LTV 8 in Agidingbi was the close-of-business joint for everyone that mattered in media and entertainment, and I stopped by every night to pass time until traffic subsided. Steve was a regular, along with ‘Yinka Oyedeji, Gbenga Adeyinka, ‘Biodun Kupoluyi, Tunmise Adekunle and others.

Many people read my music column in Encomium and encouraged me. Steve was one of them. And he never stopped advising me to find my way to a national newspaper.

When he became editor of Punch, the first arts writer in Nigeria to accomplish that, I was already established at THISDAY where I ran a two-page weekly column in the Sunday newspaper. I ran into him at Visa’s in Opebi, one Sunday night. And he asked whether I was ready to move. I said I’d consider it.

Steve and Olumide Iyanda had tried to get me into Punch after I quit Encomium years earlier. But I failed the Punch English test. Now that my THISDAY column was proving popular, and Steve had become the editor at Punch, perhaps it was time to try again.

Few things come close to the feeling of satisfaction that swept over me when the Punch letter came. A company that refused to hire me because I failed their English test was now writing and requesting for me to be a paid external columnist, writing just two pages every week, with no need to show up at the office, and with a pay that was three times what THISDAY was offering me to become a full time employee. Steve did that. And the day my column e-Punch debuted, he put my photograph on the newspaper’s cover

I know you’ll hear similar stories from many of his friends and colleagues, so I will not bore you with more from my own personal file.

But I wish Juga would have spent time with Steve when he became a commissioner in the Lagos State government and in Nigerian parlance, ‘a big man’. Every time I had cause to see him (at night of course), Steve would pick the same places he hung out while he was a newspaper editor. He would be in the company of the same old friends; he would often drive himself.

Steve Ayorinde was first commissioner for information and strategy, and later commissioner for tourism, art and culture in Lagos State from 2015 to 2019. But if no one told you, you’d think he was still an art editor at The Guardian or Punch.

I know he would have had to join other communities and familiarise with other constituencies. But each time I turned around to look, he was steadfast in his devotion to his first constituency: media, arts and culture. He was unrepentant in his commitment to friends of yore. And he was stubborn about maintaining his simple, stable, even if nocturnal lifestyle.

I don’t believe in the concept of ‘no new friends’. But I also don’t support discarding your old friends just because of a change in your status. And Steve was the first person to really show me that one could have both.

I believe that’s why it was really easy for him to fit back into his old life once it was time to leave government. One of the key reasons why people would kill to remain in public office, apart from the apparent and perceived benefits, is that there’s really nowhere to go back to. They’ve ruined old relationships. Cut everyone off, and built a new life around the corridors of power. How would they confront men like Juga?

For Steve, it wasn’t a problem at all. In fact, Juga would rather die than mention him as one of those who “forget boys for area”.

There’s a lesson there for me, and I hope you find one too, as we all wish this remarkably strange gentleman a very happy 50th birthday.

  • Ayeni is the founder of Black House Media