Last week, in the ancient city of Ibadan, Oyo State, two bedfellows – journalism and history – became objects of attraction. The duo have always existed in Siamese matrimony. As a way of emphasizing this liaison, some scholars have defined journalism as history in a hurry. So, this day, Thursday, 30th November to be exact, inside one of the halls of the University of Ibadan, everyone gathered waited for the arrival of Chief Olusegun Osoba, former governor of Ogun State. It was akin to waiting for history and journalism entrapped in the personage of a single individual. Osoba worked with the Daily Times as trainee reporter covering crime bits. In 1966, he was made the newspaper’s diplomatic correspondent and by August 1975, became the editor of the then foremost newspaper in Nigeria. He later became the General Manager of Ilorin, Kwara State-based Nigerian Herald and Ibadan-based Sketch. There is thus no denying the fact that Osoba is a living legend, an undying testament to the glory of journalism and reason to query its fading star today.
Each time some Nigerians, probably out of an upswing in emotional adrenaline or pent-up tribal animosity, attempt to politicize memory by problematizing the unfortunate January 1966 coup, Osoba, like a matador, always jumps on the scene to perform the ritual of bridging leaking memories. Osoba, you will recall, was the reporter who saw the corpses of two Nigerian leaders, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and Chief Okotie Eboh, the Finance Minister. While Okotie-Eboh was renowned for his flamboyance, Balewa was highly respected, within and outside government, nationally and internationally. Recall his official state visit to the United States in July, 1961, at the invitation of President John Kennedy. After the welcome remarks delivered by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Balewa’s response speech has been an evergreen storage in the archive, especially the standing ovation given him at the Capitol, leading to his subsequent stops at other sites in Washington, D.C., stops in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Illinois, Knoxville, Tennessee, and New York City. Till date, America and the UK are being fingered for either complicity, condonation or connivance with the coup of 1966.
A commonwealth conference was held in Nigeria, despite the political upheaval in the country from January 7 to 12 1966. It was a Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference and the 15th meeting of the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth of Nations. Nigeria hosted the first of such meeting to be held outside of the United Kingdom, in Lagos, Nigeria, with Balewa hosting it. it was an emergency meeting held to discuss the Rhodesian crisis. Heads of government of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and other countries from all over the Commonwealth were in Nigeria. Thus, it was a huge surprise that the British intelligence wasn’t abreast of the coup that took place three days after. Harold Wilson, famous British PM, was in Nigeria until a day before the coup, with Balewa seeing him off few hours to his killing. Then Cyprus Head of government, on a tour of Nigeria, was also in Enugu as guest of Chief Michael Okpara, Premier of the eastern region.
The bodies of both Balewa and Okotie-Eboh were dumped at a spot called Iyana Ilogbo, on the Abeokuta-Lagos road, in today’s Ogun State. In a report he did in the 23rd January 1966 edition of Daily Times, Osoba provided an account of what he saw, detailing how Okotie-Eboh’s body had begun to decompose, his head mangled, probably out of maltreatment and manhandling of his body. Balewa, reported Osoba in the Times, had no sign of gunshots on him. He was however left seated on the bare floor, his back leaning to a tree. Later when M. T. Mbu claimed that rather than having been killed by the Chukwuma Nzeogwu coup plotters, Balewa died of asthma and some revanchists attempted to retell, from ethnic and emotional prisms, the story of his death, Osoba’s journalism emerged as saving grace to retell the story of these killings that have proven to be the foundation of the ethnic disaffection that Nigeria found itself today. “The body (of Okotie Eboh) I saw close by was already being infested by maggots and ants such that you had to be careful so that the ants would not get into your body… It was not an environment that you could ever carry out autopsy,” he recounted that encounter, some years ago.
Grim as it may sound, Osoba’s reportorial intervention at a moment of grave historical challenge situates the place of the press in Nigeria’s history. So when the audience waited for him in Ibadan last Thursday, they awaited a historical masterpiece and the correct situation of the press’ place in Nigeria’s yesterday, today and tomorrow. It was at the launch of another media mogul, Folu Olamiti’s book.
Of all Osoba said as Chairman of the book launch, the one I found most instructive was his fabulous rendering of the importance of the journalist. Paraphrasing a thesis he said was propounded by Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye, Osoba said that in heaven, there will be no security man, no road safety, no policeman because there will no crime and no offence, but there will be journalists. Osoba extrapolated this to say that when he dies, he would continue his job as a reporter, he would report events in heaven and send to earth for humanity’s entertainment and education. Looking at the man beside him, Osoba said he was sure Olamiti would go to heaven, being one of the few journalists of his time who harboured none of the infamous journalists’ fleshly tripodal baggage of women, cigarette and alcohol. The 84-year Osoba said he would report the beauty of his own mansion in heaven, as well as Olamiti’s, for the world to see. Of all Osoba’s earthly acquisitions, topmost of which was being governor of his Ogun home state, he relishes the affix and prefix of a journalist.
Whether out of immodesty, reality or the historical pride of place they once occupied in Nigerian history, journalists believe that, though they may be poor competing with rats of the Cathedral, no profession compares to theirs in might and mirth. The truth is, history abets that seeming immodesty. History, for instance, tells us that, what is today known as the Nigerian press is older than and predates the Nigerian state, especially with the installation of the first printing press in 1846 by the Presbyterian Church in Calabar and the founding, eight years after, precisely in 1854, of the Iwe Irohin (Iwe Irohin fun awon ara Egba ati Yoruba) by the Reverend Henry Townsend of the Church Missionary Society, who inaugurated a printing school in Abeokuta. Placed side by side a Nigeria that came out of the 1914 amalgamation, this contraption called Nigeria is far younger than the Nigerian press.
The press may have been a formidable influence in the growth of Nigeria but its work casts it as an enemy of wielders of power. Writers and scholars on the Nigerian press have written copiously about the critical role played by the Nigerian press, especially the early press, in crusading, nationalism advocacies, awakening racial consciousness and generally, as an important factor in colonial society and politics of the time. In fact, the press of this period became an alternate government, so to speak, offering the public political awareness and involvement in the polity and providing a platform for the criticism of official government policies and providing alternatives to them. Nationalists who got Nigeria her independence were also fiery journalists. People like Herbert Macaulay, Horatius Jackson, Adeyemo Alakija, Azikiwe, S. L. Akintola, Obafemi Awolowo etc got their renown through the instrumentality of the Nigerian press.
But the journalist next door is no one’s friend, especially if there is a work to do. To the journalist, good news is no news; bad news is good news. And it is not because he is a sadist; it is the nature of the job. He is not his own friend too. In his reportage of the January 2001 plane crash which involved editors of the THISDAY, ex-presidential spokesman and columnist, Segun Adeniyi, in his offering entitled Face to face with death, chronicled the life of a typical journalist. Waziri Adio, our friend, who Adeniyi reputed with “a sense of humour that sometimes borders on the morbid,” had, a little before the ill-fated flight departed Lagos on a tour the newspaper tagged ‘THISDAY Meets the Nation’, reportedly said: “If this aircraft crashes, THISDAY would be re-enacting the Zambia national soccer team tragedy scenario”. On the near-tragic leg of this journey, about 80 minutes after their flight took off, with the crème-de-la-crème of Nigerian editors on board, the aircraft was suddenly subsumed by a deadly turbulence which made the pilot lose control. This tragic drama led to the aircraft being tossed around in the air, with a big bang erupting which ripped it apart, submerging the passengers in sand dunes of a forest at about 11pm. As eerie as the event was, as they flew back home, the journalists cracked jokes, composing what headlines Nigerian newspapers would have given their deaths and stories of what would have been their ‘last moments’. As they headed home, Segun was still at his reportorial best as he interviewed the ill-fated aircraft pilot, Captain Shina, on what actually transpired; a human error or human risk of flying in the night? The journalists, according to Adeniyi, “as reporters… also spoke to one of the men at the Control Towers. We asked the Airforce Commandant a few questions too”. Dying they report; even in death, they will write stories. That is the undying spirit of the journalist, as propounded by Osoba.
Military president, Ibrahim Babangida had an eerie coinage for the Nigerian journalist. He called us “celebrators of personal tragedies”. And he was right. The truth is, there is no journalist worth his onions who, at a one time or the other, would not have cast the headline of their own death, their obituary and how the press would report the passage. Our friend and brother, activist and columnist, Yinka Odumakin, I was told, on his death bed, pleaded with his doctors to allow him write his Sunday Tribune back page column before he was attended to, his computer by his side. Many times, after writing my column, I imagine if death comes suddenly whether what I last wrote would not be lost in the mire. I often comfort myself that two colleagues I send it to for proof-reading would release it to the world if the end prevented me from sending it.
Reckoning with our tag by Babangida as “celebrators of personal tragedies,” when they are appointed into government, ex-journalists’ colleagues scarcely trust journalists. They believe that they would have leaked “exclusive” stories of happenings in government before they realized that they were part and parcel of the government themselves. I have been in governmental meetings where attendees reminded the principal that journalists were in attendance and such, the need for caution. If the news ever leaked, even if he did not author the leakage, the journalist was the first suspect.
Still as celebrators of tragedies, I always remember the day I walked into the Owo, Ondo State home of Chief Michael Ajasin, Second Republic governor of old Ondo State. It was 1997 or so. The old Action Group politician had been ailing for a while but played active role in the then Abacha government-resented National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). My editors at Omega Weekly, Segun Olatunji, Adeolu Akande, Wale Adebanwi and Bode Opeseitan felt an interview with Ajasin would be a hot sell. So I got to the old man’s house. Before proceeding to enter the old house, I had to double-check with a neighbor. Was I indeed in the famous Ajasin home? This was because the house had no trapping of power or ostentation. The gate was ajar, there was no guard, no gate or gateman. So I walked in, unaccosted, walked up the stairs and was face to face with the legend, Ajasin who sat on a wheelchair. I introduced myself and, in spite of himself, the former governor was on the verge of granting me an interview when his wife walked in and literally bundled me out. “Young man, what are you trying to do?” Didn’t I see that he was ill! I got up, a failure. When I arrived Ibadan, downcast and narrated my disappointment, Adebanwi shouted that Ajasin being on wheelchair was the story! He sounded so elated. Curried with scenetic description of Ajasin’s living room and his house, my one-page feature became a celebrated story in the newspaper’s edition. In place of the old man’s photograph, our cartoonist helped etch the picture of an Ajasin on wheelchair.
At a time like this however, the media has to do a quick rethink. As it is today, Gone are the days when the newspaper press played the pervasive role it used to play in the pre-colonial, immediate post-colony and even up to the early 1990s Nigeria. The truth is that, by the late 1990s, the newspaper press had lost its mass appeal due to the downturn in the economy which affected the purchasing power of the people. It is so bad today that you can count on your fingertips Nigerians who sight, not to talk of who read a hard copy of a newspaper. While the print in Nigeria (newspapers, magazines, etc.) recorded over a century of pervasive influence, respect and contributions to communication, there is no doubting the fact that the influence of newspapers has waned considerably. Some extremist views even submit that newspaper press is nearing its extinction.
The radio is the only medium, the most formidable of the media of mass communication, not only in Nigeria but the world over, that still plays that role. Indeed, when reference is made to the mass media, the only medium that bears that appellation and ascription of communicating en-“mass” is the radio. This is because information disseminated on the radio is available to a multiplicity of audience in multiple locales and instantaneously.
Due to this awesome power of the radio, runners of the Nigerian state have tended to put much pressure into squeezing the jugular of the Nigerian radio broadcasting. The Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation is the official weapon government uses today to put the radio inside its pockets. Punitive sanctions that range from audacious fines and withdrawal of licences are wielded by the Federal Ministry of Information, through the NBC against “offending” radio stations.
However, not minding the above, the role that the Nigerian media, being the fourth estate of the realm, should play at this crucial time in the life of Nigeria and the democratic continuity in Nigeria, is by that very fact, the role that the radio should perform. From time immemorial, the press has been saddled with the onerous responsibility of acting as the watchdog between the legislature, executive and the judiciary. The media can only act as watchdog to these other three estates if it guides the truth as sacrosanct. Thus, the media owes the generality of the people the responsibility of responsibly interrogating the truth that can move society forward.
Due to its awesome reach and capacity to influence a large number of people across locales, the press is sought after by all and sundry, especially politicians. Its power in a moment of crises like the one being faced by Nigeria now is incontestable. Though reference is often made to Rwanda about the radio’s negative contribution to the escalation of violent conflict that resulted in about one million deaths in a few months, there is no doubt that a fair and accurate journalism reports are vital for the democratic development of any nation and in the de-escalation of violence.
In the midst of the Nigerian crises and democratic challenges, the role of the Nigerian media must never change. There is no doubt that the media has a very critical yet delicate role to play in resolving Nigeria’s teething problems and tottering walks on the democratic aisle. In playing this role, journalism must seek a practical and functional form of truth. Journalists need to be armed with the value of transparency as a major weapon of reporting the Nigerian crises.
Yes, there are pressures to subjugate journalism to several publics because of the nature of the world today, chief among which is global economic realities. However, the media, the radio, has a very critical yet delicate role to play. Due to vanishing funds, the advertiser has become a major public in the media. Government is another major public because it has a huge war chest from which media houses can benefit. So also are the politicians as a public. However, our ultimate allegiance must be to the people of Nigeria. We must strive to ensure that we place the public interest – and the truth – above all these publics, no matter our individual or organizational self-interests. No matter the push, the media must be committed to the people and do its job without fear or favour.
Published by the Sunday Tribune, 3rd December 2023