When you come in contact with Nyaknno Osso, be prepared to learn. Not because he is a professional teacher, much less an overbearing one. Rather, it is because the man has voracious appetite for learning and articulation himself. To his credit as a serial pioneer of incredible credentials, he adds the temperament of an unapologetically meticulous editor. His ideas and projects are veritable excursions in progressive thinking and creativity.
Nothing tells that story better than the successes registered by his pioneering efforts in information research, documentation and storage. He holds, almost exclusively, bragging rights to many such projects that have affected the lives and professional advancements and enhancements of so many. When you speak with him or pick through the exhaustive amount of time and energy it must take to successfully undertake the projects he has been involved in over the years, you wonder if he has enough time to slow down for his birthday.
Osso’s sense of purpose and clarity of mind about his latest project, the Biographical Legacy and Research Foundation (BLERF) is a bewitching insight into the man and his vision. “The aim is to create an unrivalled, authentic, comprehensive and authoritative source of biographical data which would be automatically updated on a daily basis”, he says. Even as we celebrate his birthday, the event is hardly about him. Rather, it is about what he stands for and where he wants to take Nigeria, indeed Africa, a compelling drive that has lasted him an entire lifetime.
But then, you read this: “The Foundation has already collated, verified and documented in multiple formats, the biographical information of over one million Nigerians spanning over a century of Nigeria’s existence both at home and abroad”. It becomes clear that we must celebrate one of our own. Even clearer and more compelling, is the fact that it is practically impossible to celebrate the sterling projects with which he has come to enrich our national psyche.
The concept of biography, as research and documentation medium, bestrides the intersection where the lives of people and the events that stir, propel and direct ideas in society, engage one another, to provide unique insights into the soul of that society. That intersection is resonant with inspiration and plenty of work and that is where you find Osso. In the vision, mission and insights encapsulated by BLERF, Osso demonstrates, at a rare level of eclecticism, the fact that a society must properly articulate and utilise that opportunity to drive development. There is next to nothing a nation can achieve if it fails to document itself accurately and adequately in organised ways and on a continual basis. That is why, Osso says, the idea of BLERF is designed to secure an enduring institutional legacy that fosters that role.
The project is as enormous as it is unprecedented in scope and it is very ambitious. In April 2022 alone, over 50,000 people sourced information from its website. The demand is escalating. Yet through its 10 years of existence, BLERF has offered these services free. It is a critical juncture: To serve as “Nigeria’s most reliable authority on biographical information on Nigerians worldwide,” and offer its services free. The role and tasks thereof, automatically justify the call for financial and material assistance in an undeniably authentic way.
Yet Osso is as humble as he has always been known to strangers and friends: “We’re aiming at 1,000,000 entries by 2023/2024. That’s why we need your urgent support”, he offers with a firm tone of commitment. This need and the call constitute a gift of rebirth. It is Osso’s gift to Nigeria and Africa, to witness the birth of its renewal and future development. With over 50 years of his life spent developing this field, his own birthday this week, provides a worthy and reflective anchor to remind everyone how strategically fecund the project is to Africa. BLERF’s appeal is a cry for Africa to fully understand how its future development will be determined, if indeed, it desires to go there. Even better, it is an invitation for Africa to midwife its own rebirth. As he sees it, it is time for Nigeria and Africa to accept that information and documentation is the fulcrum of all development efforts, planning and stability.
In the information business, Osso is a leader in prescient organising and harmonising of ideas, projects and processes in the delivery of results. On a regular Nigerian day, an Osso should sit back and be very comfortable to exercise a right to exhilaration and contentedness over his achievements. Not this one. On the contrary, he is often more evasive about his achievements and more animated when he points his listeners to what work and possibilities lie ahead.
His 51 years in the business notwithstanding, you cannot miss his intense capacity to listen, accuracy of recall or the clarity of his vision and then, of course, his infectious sense of purpose and optimism. Multiply those by his ability to downplay his achievements and his humility of approach and you begin to understand why he is able to kindle the enthusiasm that his projects have continued to generate.
As part of BLERF, he has already produced another first. Osso has fired an incredible rocket into the professional and leadership space. Women: Who’s Who in Nigeria is in high demand. Amidst Nigeria’s still largely patriarchal temperament, women have continued to rise steadily into positions of leadership in various professions. Osso didn’t just notice the trend. He has meticulously monitored and recorded the heartbeat of this trend for years. Now through the efforts of BLERF, Nigerian women have served notice to Africa and the world. The entries speak in an unmistakably strident tone to Africa and the world: Nigerian women are capable of world class leadership and can compete against anyone in the world. On Osso’s watch, it was time. They have arrived.
BLERF’s appeal for assistance resonates with the clarity of the personality behind it. It reads: “The population of the country is increasing, and every day, Nigerians are excelling in many fields and breaking records. There is therefore much ground to cover, research into, not to talk of capacity building, and the purchase of new computer systems, ideal for storage of vast information”.
Osso shot into national fame after he agreed to serve as librarian to the old Newswatch magazine. He successfully built what became the best news media library in the country. He has since served up many enviable and inspiring firsts in projects such as Who’s Who in Nigeria, which has received worldwide acclaim, the President Obasanjo library, which he initiated and established, is a monumental first in Africa.
These days, many of us are more willing to talk about the staggering achievements he has registered in other such projects as Women’s Who’s Who in Nigeria than he is willing to comment on them.
I first met Osso long before he arrived at Newswatch. This was not in person, and it wasn’t by phone either. It was at a time when many publishers didn’t have phones in their newsrooms. To interpret his career efforts and sense of purpose accurately, his arrival at Newswatch does not mark the birth of his vision. His drive for and pursuit of organised information and its delivery as the road to development dates further than that. Before Newswatch, he was already the undeniable library wizard behind the success of the Chronicle newspaper in Cross River State in the 1980s.
One day in 1983, my older brother, Sonala, returned from the annual meeting of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) in Calabar and was on fire about a certain guy who worked for the Chronicle, someone he couldn’t wait to bring to Lagos. He wanted Osso at The Guardian newspaper where he worked as Editorial Page Editor. The Guardian was in its ascendancy and Sonala, who doubled as Ombudsman and the role to define and own the house style was on his shoulders. He wanted the best.
Sonala figured very clearly that Osso’s unparalled grasp of documentation, level of organisation, professional accuracy, his meticulous appetite for translating information to usable news, would launch the paper into a class of quality news delivery never before seen in these parts. It would be a hat trick in Nigerian journalism. He spoke relentlessly about what a great move this would be.
His own eye-witness experience in Calabar was all he needed. Then he missed his target. But even as a miss, it authenticated his conclusions about Osso’s research and documentation skills, and professional ruggedness. Dele Giwa, late founding editor of the old Newswatch, got there first. He beat The Guardian to the prize. For many months after, my brother could hardly forgive himself.
Osso’s first impression on the professionally demanding Giwa came as a rather rude but pleasant shock to the late journalist. He too had been attending the annual meeting of the NGE when both first met. It was in Osso’s file that Giwa found his two important missing write-ups: Golden Fleece? (Sunday Times, 8 April 1979), and First Day Back Home (Daily Times, 2 January 1980). When Giwa found them, he screamed: “Nyak, you’re the best in this business”.
But Osso has been a blessing of the news media industry and beyond, a conclusion no one can deny. He has since become the doyen and gold standard of the information collection and documentation in Nigeria’s information and knowledge industry. Yet and always, he sounds like he has only just begun.
Before long, Osso had put Newswatch on the map. You did not need to tell reporters where their bread was buttered, as far as information sourcing, following up, authentication and usage were concerned. Beyond the expectations of most, he handed everyone bread buttered on both sides. It was clear to all that they had living and breathing library in their company. The man himself was relentless. And he made himself readily available.
Osso recalls: “I saw it as my duty to help any editor and correspondent who was in need”. Journalists are always in need. Many times, a reporter would knock on his door in the dead of night because they knew he would help, and he would oblige them. “I’d follow them to the library, provide them what information they needed and give them further leads and trails”, he says. The success stories thereof are legend.
The Nigerian news media were still savouring the futuristic offerings of the Newswatch library project when the mind behind it decided it was time to extend his horizon and claw further afield, to begin the journey of fulfilling his desire to take the nation on this incredible journey. So began his research activities into the powerhouse publication of Nigeria’s Who’s Who, which has since become an undeniably remarkable marker on Nigerians. The idea took over the man and Osso’s life would never be the same.
He faced all manners and descriptions of what we know in in simplified parlance as obstacles, spending personal money and expending so much personal time and energy without relenting on his working obligations to Newswatch. He eventually published it under the magazine’s label. Its first edition was released in 1990. The result was a delight. It remains a delightful and enduring source of verified and reliable information about the individuals that inhabit it, as the book continues to tell the Nigerian story.
Even before he had successfully published Nigeria’s Who’s Who, this dogged pioneer had begun to nurse the idea for another project, a presidential library, to be the first in Africa. He says he just saw the need to keep pointing the way. And this kind of drive, he explains, does not derive from an imagination that he can do it all by himself. Rather it arose out of the urgent need to get started because “the world was moving ahead and would do so with or without us”. He is a team player who plays for history, for the present and the future.
So, on his birthday on 27 August 1988, he approached General Olusegun Obasanjo, then retired military head of state, to table the idea. Obasanjo welcomed the idea. Yet the speed of development on the project was slow, the workload was heavy. Even more, funding was low and slow. Even so, the project almost came to a dead end, unfortunately, after Obasanjo went to prison on the orders of General Sani Abacha, late head of state. But Osso kept faith with his idea. He spent time and personal funds to do what he could while the General was away. It was revived after Obasanjo was released.
For those close to him, it was not a surprise when he was one of the first few people to be named to the presidency as presidential assistant on information where he served through the two terms of the Obasanjo presidency. On the whole, it took 27 years of tireless work to put the Obasanjo Presidential Library on the footing it is today.
Osso is glad and thankful to friends, family and co-workers he has made this incredible journey with. It runs a list too long to include here. On the presidential library, he continues to thank President Obasanjo for the opportunity. He has great confidence in his reflexes and, above all, an unflappable faith in God as his guide and protector in all he does.
Since his early days at the old Newswatch, Osso has had the opportunity to visit some of the most fascinating, most modern and inspiring libraries in the world where his inspiration had been further fired and his skills burnished with the latest information sourcing, documentation and archiving methods and technology. In each of these opportunities, the scholar in him would bury himself in learning the processes, and details of setting up and the mechanism that drive their high-capacity functionality. They include the President Clinton library, the Library of Congress, and libraries of the New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Chicago Times, BBC libraries, among others.
“It can be done here,” he says. The smile that lights up his face and the tone of conviction that rings in his voice speaks to the intensity of his determination. “It’s not about me, its not even about BLERF”, he adds. “It’s about the development of this society”.
He laid the solid foundation for his career when he obtained a degree in library studies at the University of Ibadan in 1975. He occasionally expresses disappointment that governments – state and federal – and other agencies have not shown enough interests in BLERF’s projects, saying they need to give far greater priority to research and documentation as a pivotal factor in every aspect of planning and management of public policy. He invites them to take advantage of what BLERF has already assembled as an eye opener them to begin to appreciate the role of research and documentation in growth and development.
The team at BLERF is undeniably high quality and Osso extends unfettered gratitude to them. That team is willing, able and ready. And waiting: For the necessary assistance to drive their goals forward with them, Nigeria as a formidable and proudly functional nation and, of course, the continent of Africa. The invitation is big but it is open.