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Guild of editors election, leadership and lingering credibility crisis

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Chief Onyema Ugochukwu (left); Chairman of the Convention and Executive Director, Mayfive Media Limited, Mr. Dan Agbese; Representative of the Vice President and SSA on Media to the VP, Mr. Laolu Akande; Representative of Lagos State Governor and Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr. Kehinde Bamigbetan; President, Nigerian Guild of Editors, Mrs. Funke Egbemode and Representative of Minister of Information and Culture Mr. Sunday Baba during the Nigerian Guild of Editors Biennial Convention 2019 at the Lagos Airport Hotel, Ikeja.

• Osuji flays electoral process as Egbemode emerges president
When the organising committee of this year’s Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) set May 3 to 5, 2019, as the body’s convention date, it was not oblivious of the disaffection that would characterise the convention.

Almost two weekends after, the guild has become the laughing stock of the Nigerian media community.

The NGE, birthed as a result of media union’s crisis in 1962, when the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) made laws that excluded editors – those who occupied editorial seats and have the power to fire and hire from holding offices of the president, chairman, secretary, treasurer and so on. Over the years, the guild has become a voice for media managers and administrators.

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Its first president, Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande, had stated that the guild, then known as Nigeria Guild of Newspaper Editors (NGNE), would create an espirit de corp among the senior journalists.

The guild was set up to preserve the traditions and standards of practice of journalism in Nigeria by canvassing in cooperation with other journalistic bodies, a strict adherence to the code of ethics of the profession.

Like other professional bodies, the NGE is guided by a constitution to ensure members hold themselves to a higher ethical standard as members of the fourth estate of governance in Nigeria.

To bring about closer ties among editors of various media, it created the ambience for mobilisation, towards the common good of the profession, irrespective of their opposing political views.

Membership was reserved for title editors, who, in the words of a fellow of the NGE, “aspire to have a guild, which would be like the American Guild of Newspaper Editors, of high standard, producing journals, conducting training programmes, as well as carrying out research that would move newspapering business forward.”

Osuji

According to him, “the intention was not to have a guild that would be dependent on government and its agencies to operate.”

This standard was sustained till the 2000s.
However, the leadership crisis of the guild started way back, when an attempt was hatched to review the criteria for membership. Certain people wanted to hijack the leadership after the tenure of Baba Dantiye.

The criteria for membership were bastardised and the body was no longer reserved for title editors. Every Tom, Dick and Harry was registered as a member of NGE, making it very crowded. Suddenly, the professional body lost its essence.

Tony Akhiotu, who was the deputy to Dantiye, wanted to succeed his principal but eventually lost to Gbenga Adefaye.

Though Adefaye couldn’t do much about this, he had stated in his acceptance speech as president of the guild, “we have secured back our guild.”

When Adefaye finished his tenure, Femi Adeshina came onboard, and launched NGE secretariat in Abuja. There had been an ordered sequence, even though the manner of ascension of many to the primus position in the apex body of journalists had been queried, the 2019 election was considered as an opportunity to flush out racketeers. But lo and behold, when the election came, it left many in a state of shock.

The Election Committee of NGE had on April 23 screened candidates for election into the Executive Council and the Standing Committee, which held during the Biennial Convention on May 3.

The committee cleared 23 candidates to vie for elective positions into the Guild’s Executive Council and Standing Committee.

Those cleared include: Funke Egbemode as Presidential candidate, while Messrs Umar Saidu Tudunwada and Chooks Ogbonnaya Oko were cleared to contest for the office of Deputy President.

For the office of Vice President (North), Hajia Sani and Mr Sanusi Jibrin were cleared as contestants.

Also, for the office of Vice President (East), Mr Samuel Egbala and Mr Dom Isute, emerged as cleared contestants, while for the office of Vice President (West), Mr Mustapha Isa was cleared.

Mary Atolagbe emerged as a successful candidate to contest for the post of General Secretary, while Austeen Elewodalu and Juliet Njiowhor were cleared as contestants for the post of Assistant General Secretary.

Mr. Steve Osuji, a presidential candidate, was disqualified under the controversial provision in Article 3 of the NGE Constitution.

For those who have followed the NGE crisis when it first erupted, the question has been why did the election committee disqualify Osuji in the dying minutes?

Many felt the disqualification of Osuji was in bad taste and he should have been allowed to contest.

According to Goodluck Ilajufi Ebelo, “It’s a guided cage.” This is a position also canvased by Valentie Iwuji. He noted, “people do not believe any longer in good, transparency, honesty and experience cum exposition. This has cut across all areas of governance, federal, state, LGA, town and villages. Even all villages, towns and church meetings and associations are not left out. Best hands are denied leadership by all means. The same affected even our dear union. All we need do is to pray for them and stand some feet behind.”

While saying that they were sorely scandalised, they asked, “where is the moral to criticise government and INEC, when NGE cannot transparently organise its election?”

Mr. Ray Ekpu, who was the Chairman of the election committee, wrote in The Guardian on Tuesday that, “since his (Osuji) disqualification, he has been inconsolable, he has been busy throwing tantrums and tirades, making false, wicked, dubious, and defamatory allegations against members of the Election Committee. He has threatened to go to court, which is his right and to form his own guild, which is also his right.”

Ekpu had lamented Osuji describing the NGE as ‘“guild of idiots,” meaning that all members are idiots. Since he has not resigned from the Guild he is also an idiot. He also described the editors as “so called editors.” So all the editors are not really editors, they are merely “so called.”

“It was a conclave of desperadoes,” according to him. He was apparently speaking about himself because none of the disqualified candidates showed more desperation than him.

“He lied when he said he won election as an Exco member under the same Article of the Constitution. The Constitution was reviewed one year after he won his election. Osuji said, ‘they twisted the Constitution and suborned the election committee and have it speaking in strange tongues’. As you can see, this is defamatory of the members of the election committee. I am a veteran of many battles. I have been detained six times during my 45 years career. When I came out of detention, I sued the government that detained me. If Mr. Steve Osuji wants a fight, Oh my God, we will give him one. He can’t just run his mouth all over the place trying to drag decent people to the gutter where he apparently wants to be,” Ekpu said.

Secretary of the election committee, Gbemiga Ogunleye told The Guardian, “it is not unusual for someone who is aggrieved to be angry. If you disqualify someone from contesting an election, you don’t expect him to be happy. So, I don’t see it as drama as you called it. May I add that Mr. Osuji chaired the committee that put the final draft of the new constitution.”

But a Lagos-based public affairs analyst, Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye, however, asked, “why is no one addressing the main issue Steve has raised in this post, namely, that he just arrived at the venue of this NGE event only to discover that he has suddenly become an ‘associate member’ of an association he has belonged to in the past 17 years and where he is even serving in the Exco? Did this happen because he wanted to run for NGE president? What happened since last year (when he was elected into the Exco) and this year (when he vied for the NGE presidency) to change his membership status? Why are attempts being made to portray him as someone badmouthing an association he belonged to because he lost an election; which election? The one he was barred from contesting? Why is it not possible to find a single comment here trying to explain things to him and to others reading here, especially, the rational behind such a controversial decision? It is after this that we can then look at Steve’s language, which I feel some people are concentrating on to remove our attention from the fundamental issue? And for those ‘consoling’ him and inviting him to run next year with promises and assurances that he could win and that he is a member, what is the guarantee that his ‘associate’ status would change between now and next year? And what is he being advised to do to regain the full membership he has enjoyed for the past 17 years which he appears now to have lost … and why was this ‘associate’ status not able to disqualify him from being elected a member of the Exco in the last election?”

Osuji, said he had had an illustrious career in the best media houses in Nigeria, starting from: The Guardian, Newbreed, Media Review, African Guardian, Thisday, New Age and currently, The Nation, “where I have served for eight years on the Editorial Board.”

On April 25, Osuji wrote to Ekpu, saying, “I hereby reiterate my position that this esteemed election arbiter has erred in disqualifying me. It has meted out to me grave injustice by downgrading my nearly 20 years membership to associate status.

“I think article 11 (Election of Officers) – especially sections 5, 6, 7, – most relevant for determining eligibility of election candidates and I expect it ought to be the point of reference of your committee sir. It is clear and unambiguous.”

Osuji lamented that to declare a member who is already an elected executive ineligible to contest is a travesty that doesn’t stand to reason— it is absurd.

He sent a third appeal to the committee on April 26, “I strongly believe that this honourable body has erred in its interpretation of article 3. Though it is clearly an honest mistake, it is a mistake albeit. All the conditions thereto concern associates or intending one. It has nothing to do with full-fledged membership. Therefore, I believe this body has wrongfully interpreted this article.”

Ogunleye, in his reply to Osuji on April 30, said, “your petitions to the Election committee on your disqualification. I wish to thank you, on behalf of the Election committee, for the mature manner you have pursued your objection to our decision. Let me assure you that all your petitions were placed before the committee for a possible review.

“However, I regret to inform you that the committee was not persuaded to change its earlier decision of disqualifying you from the electoral contest, based on its interpretation of Article 3 of the NGE Constitution.

“However, our duty is to interpret the law as it is, not the law as it should be.
May we say respectfully, that you missed the point when you said that the law was subsisting  ‘when I contested and won election in 2017. The election that brought the present Exco (of which you are a distinguished member) into office was held in April 2017; that election, with due respect, sir, was conducted under the old Constitution.

“The current constitution, which we are using to conduct this year’s election was approved and adopted at the 13th ANEC & Extraordinary Convention held from September 20 to 24 in Port Harcourt.”

He pointed that Osuji was elected based on the provisions of the old Constitution, which was no longer in use.

Baba Dantiye, who became president of the guild in 2003, expressed confidence in the election committee, but said it was normal to have dispute during elections at all levels. “It’s quite unfortunate that those in question are venting on social media where it cannot be remedied. I advise them to go to court. They should think twice before saying anything considering the caliber of the electoral committee.

“It is sad I must say, because people have not taken the right steps that would bring us back as brothers after the election; they are abusing all the editors despite being members. In the end what is said is the reflection of what they truly are.”

The Editor of The Guardian, Mr. Abraham Ogbodo had equally written a petition against one of the Vice President candidates, Chooks Ogbonnaya Oko.

Ogbodo said Oko lacks the character for such a high office. “About four or so years ago, he was everywhere in media houses with a proposal allegedly on behalf of the guild to compile a one-stop compendium on media houses including newspapers in Nigeria. He had submitted the proposal at The Guardian seeking our participation and also advertisement support to finance the publication. He failed to make a headway at first and approached me to assist. I was the Sunday Editor then. I took up his proposal with my COO and got The Guardian to subscribe. We agreed The Guardian corporate ad would appear on the inside front cover of the publication for N250,000 (Two hundred and fifty thousand naira).

‘The deal sealed, Mr. Oko gave so many dates for official presentation of the book even at the guild conferences but failed. Till date, The Guardian has not received a copy of what Mr. Oko purportedly published and he has not felt the compulsion to explain anything,” Ogbodo said.

Oko replied the committee on the petition, saying he is not a fraudster. “Ogbodo’s claim was as a result of our inability to the Yearbook following the change of officers and other key members of the guild.

“We approached the Guild leadership for assistance but couldn’t get any. The book is almost ready and will be ready for purchase at ANEC later this year. The Yearbook is a self-financing project powered by Adverts and sales. The Guardian, The Sun, NAN, FRCN and VON are the Media houses that gave adverts for the publication,” Oko said.

He explained that the company had communicated the delay to the involved organizations. “It is pertinent to point out that since then, there has not been any official communication from any of the companies to us on the delay. That erroneously led us to believe we are on the same page. However, following the new dimension, we have scheduled meetings with the management of the affected organisations. The Guardian is on May 1, 2019,” Oko said.

Ogunleye sent a reply on behalf of the committee, saying due to time constraints, the committee was unable to look into the petition, which would have required witnesses. “We have decided to refer it to the Standing Committee members of the guild… In the light of the above, I regret to inform you that you are not qualified to stand for election as the Deputy President of the Guild.”

However, many have lamented the glossing over of the issue by members of the guild. They noted that a body as NGE should be more focused and serious in the administration of justice rather than language.

They said the election’s outcome was another sour point in the journalism practice in this country.

According to Chinaka Okoro, “there is something terribly wrong with this Fourth Estate of the Realm. When it comes to management of the ‘estate’ some people are said to be unqualified because they are not from the area where the ‘estate’ is located. Those who are grandmasters ensure that they subvert justice by remembering that some do not have right to manage the ‘estate’ because ‘they are not real Nigerians’. Journalists are said to be watchdogs of the society. Unfortunately, the dog has eaten some sour grapes and the society is now watching the dog whose way of doing things has become so crummy than the society it is supposed to watch. We are, seemingly worse in character than those politicians we slate or roast in our news reports.”

Bolu Folayan Stevo said impunity pervades due to the monopoly of the freedom of association entrenched in the constitution. “We need an association of editors that can hold serious conferences, not jeunjeun stuff. We need to discuss agenda setting agenda building, changing faces of the gatekeeping role in the Internet Age.”

However, when The Guardian reached out to Osuji, he forwarded, by mail, his immediate response addressed to the Secretary, Election Committee, Ogunleye, after his disqualification.

He had sent the first response on April 24 stating: “It is with utmost shock that I read in the public domain, a press release purportedly from your office, disqualifying me as a presidential candidate in the forthcoming NGE election.
Though the ground for my disqualification is a mere reference to Article 3 of our constitution, which deals with the membership of the guild; I dare say the reason confuses the situation the more having being a member for 17years.”

Bankole Ebisemiju, a media consultant, who was a correspondent of The Guardian for many years, while reacting to the events following the NGE convention, which held in Lagos recently, said the guild and other professional bodies had disappointed.

“Steve Osuji, your narrative confirmed my strong stand that the Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE) is a shame to the profession,” those were the angry words of Ebisemiju to Osuji.

Many others, who attended the convention, said, “it did not live up to expectation and it appeared like a hatchet man’s job to put some people in the office so as to continue their perceived shoddiness.”

Taiwo Osunsanya also told Osuji: “I was shocked too when I read in the papers that Funke Egbemode was returned, was wondering what happened? But knowing your strong pedigree, I have no doubt you are more than qualified. Anyway, don’t shy away from the post next year, as I am too sure your presidency of the guild will make a huge difference in the life of the association.”

Many stakeholders expected that irrespective of who was wrong or right, as the highest custodians of public interest, the editors would have put their differences aside and work for a common goal.

They have argued that the guild in recent years has become a platform of executives always turning to state governments to host their conventions. They have queried the situation where the conventions of the NGE have become opportunities for current executives to be beggarly.

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They say the guild has totally derailed and those elected are just who can do the bidding of members, many of whom no longer belong to relevant and viable media houses.

“A very sad commentary on a cringing and beggarly press that cannot tell citizens why the president is unable to exercise effective leadership!” said Dominik Umosen.

Bukoladeremi Ladigbolu, while expressing surprise about what is happening in NGE, said, “I am not surprised. … and … stole our dollars and no one is saying anything. There is no peace for the wicked.” Joke Kujenya asked rhetorically, “who will fight for you when they are busy fighting for their own interests?” But he thinks Osuji’s words on NGE are “most unkind”

Meanwhile, Alphonsus Iheanyichukwu Uche has urged the NGE to educate Nigerians on the status of Osuji’s membership of the guild. “Was he qualified at the time of the election to run for the president of the guild? Is Osuji’s complaint in order or is he just whipping up sentiments? Whatever answer the Guild gives us will be very useful. Some institutions are too sacred to be toyed with. A conscience of the nation like the Nigerian Guild of Editors should be such that we can point to their standards in correcting others.”

Egbemode told The Guardian on phone that she could not comment on the issue as only the election committee members are able to do so. However, in an interview she granted pressmen shortly after the convention, on how the constitution’s amendment marred the election processes, she said, “there was not a dissenting voice in Port Harcourt when we adopted this constitution. And we have no other constitution. So, everything we did was according to this constitution. It is not about me. It is not about the 15 people that contested. It is about the constitution and that’s what happened. That’s why the election went the way it did. It is the only way it could have gone.”

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