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Osoba, life and the times

By Abdu Rafiu
09 August 2019   |   2:59 am
As I was saying… The Chairman/ Managing Director of the Daily Times, Alhaji Babatunde Jose was an apostle of a free-market economy. Flowing from this principle was the conviction that a newspaper is a business...

Chief Olusegun Osoba, Former governor of Ogun State

As I was saying… The Chairman/ Managing Director of the Daily Times, Alhaji Babatunde Jose was an apostle of a free-market economy.

Flowing from this principle was the conviction that a newspaper is a business. The newspaper model Olusegun Osoba picked from Alhaji Jose is, therefore, one that recognises a newspaper as a business. He learned this very early in his journalism career, helped by his closeness with Jose, the incomparable newspaper wizard, who saw in him a bright star in the firmament, a promising young man on the horizon who would go very far.

If the newspaper is a business, then it must have content and it must look good to sell. If it sells, it then has the potential to develop the financial muscle to shield it, in the words of Stafford Somerfield, editor of The News of The World, from “vulnerable and undesirable influences.”

Somerfield had said, “A newspaper must print the news without fear. If it is financially sound it has a great safeguard.” The message that percolated down the line, to everyone in the newsroom, therefore, was it is the paper that chases profit that is independent. And this rang loud and clear in the Daily Times masthead: The Independent Newspaper. The strength of the independence of a newspaper is derived from the strength of the community of its teeming readers. The community is cultivated when the newspaper recognises the reader as the boss and accords him due respect.

The features that make for an independent newspaper should then necessarily be what a reporter of the Daily Times carries and nourishes in his heart: a clear mirror that reflects life, events, environment, and society faithfully manifested inaccurate reporting. This is followed by authoritative editorials and opinions. It is all of this that makes meaning to the reader. He hungers for the newspaper; he is prepared to invest his hard-earned money in a daily acquisition of a copy for himself. All of this in form of assurance and commitment to the reader is encapsulated in the Daily Times editorial policy which states in part that it is an independent newspaper, but it will not be neutral in all matters that affect the destiny of Nigeria. It was an avowed task to promote and protect the overall interest of the nation.

The editorial principle may have worked well for the editors of the Daily Times, but it was Osoba’s undoing when he moved to the Kwara State-owned Herald newspaper, and if I may mention in passing, Henry Odukomaiya’s conflict as well both as chief executive at Concord and the Champion.

For reasons not clearly stated by General Gowon’s Administration in 1969, it got Osoba, Alhaji Jose, Laban Namme and Odukomaiya locked up, in police station cells at South-West Ikoyi. Jose, chairman/managing director, and Namme, deputy managing director were locked up in one cell, stripped to their singlets and pants.

The desk sergeant was embarrassed and wanted to spare Jose, but Jose declined to say to him that since it was the instruction he had from his superiors, he would not want any preferential treatment ; he would not mind removing his dress as well; explaining gratefully that he would not want to do anything that might cost the sergeant his job. The sergeant said he would not mind taking the risk.

The ordeal was a follow-up to the siege to the company. After a spurious search at Kakawa and simultaneous ransacking at Times Press, Apapa, a subsidiary of the company as well as NigerPak, the Daily Times was shut down for five days on 05 November 1969.

All these had been foreshadowed by an invitation Jose had received from General Gowon at Dodan Barracks. At the meeting, the head of State expressed displeasure over the anti-corruption crusade of the Daily Times. He said he could not be fighting the civil war on the one hand and fighting corruption on the other even when Jose reminded him that it was a cardinal point on his programme he announced to the nation.

The Daily Times may have been bloodied; however, it would not bow. The hearts of the editors were steeled. The roaring editorials written subsequently months after the harrowing experiences demonstrated this resolve. These included the famous “Darkness Visible” and the biting “The Unanswered Questions.”

It was in this spirit that Osoba went to Ilorin. Before then there was a destructive internal crisis at the Daily Times in the wake of the coup that ousted Gowon and brought General Murtala Mohammed to the saddle. It was a bitter and fierce struggle for the soul of the Daily Times and the editorial chair. Jose and Osoba won but the Daily Times empire was lost. The loss was all the greater to the nation.

In the story of The New York Times titled “The Kingdom and The Power” one reads in the words of Gay Talese about the uniqueness of that great newspaper.

According to him, “the promotional marketing slogan of The New York Times was ‘Without It, You’re Not with It.’ This aptly defined Jose’s Daily Times. Talese says The Times’ uniqueness was not from being “’ with it” in the ultramodern superficial sense, but rather by remaining always a bit above it”’ Time was when every vendor swore by the Daily Times. It was synonymous with the Nigerian Press. Other newspapers basked under its radiance. The Daily Times set the agenda and mounted crusades for a healthy, harmonious country.

There were 15 thriving publications in the stable—The Daily Times; Sunday Times; Lagos Weekend; Evening Times; Headlines; Business Times; Times International; Spear Magazine; Home Studies and Woman’s World. Other publications were Nigeria Year Book that sold as many copies as 35,000; Management in Nigeria; Africa Handbook, and Times Trade and Industrial Directory. It is hardly remembered that the Stock Exchange House is sitting in the transport yard of the Daily Times, a collaborative effort between the Stock Exchange and Naira Properties Limited, a subsidiary of the Daily Times conceived by Jose. Such was the grand vision.

The booming organisation began its inexorable slide down the hill some years after the Murtala Mohammed/Obasanjo Administration took over the newspaper octopus. There were bright moments, of course, the first was created by Dr. Dele Cole who became the Managing Director after the government takeover. He raised the tone and tenor of the paper with his editor Tony Momoh who was not just an editor but had been the trainer of journalists at Times Training School. He introduced the editorial board which has become a feature of every newspaper house in Nigeria today. There was also the Grapevine column, an elevated gossip column prying into activities in high places. It was a must-read every week. Mindful of his name and reputation, Cole protected the independence of the newspaper with scholarship and thoughtfulness, standing between the editors and the government and taking all the blows as it were! He also sustained the business fortune of the newspaper. However, the company began to go down after he left and his editor was reassigned by the politicians who became the new owners of the Daily Times. After his working tour of Herald and The Sketch, Osoba returned to the Daily Times and stemmed from the rapid decline. He returned Not surprisingly; he is a great negotiator. He knows how to cushion pangs and maneuver his ways through pressure.

On the day of the coup that brought Murtala Mohammed to power, he demonstrated courage and what Jose called enterprise. In crisis, the moment was when Osoba’s admirable journalistic instincts got awakened and stretched to a high pitch. By 6:30 a.m. as the coup broadcast by Joseph Garba was going Alhaji Jose had arrived in the office. Osoba came minutes after him. He left as quickly as he came to touch base with his contacts in the military. Henry Odukomaiya, as of that time Divisional Deputy Chief Executive, came about 7:00 a.m., followed by a senior newsroom hand deputising for the news editor, Chief Theo Ola, who had gone with Gowon to Kampala to cover the meeting of the OAU meeting. I got in at 7:11 a.m. together with Mr. Nwosisi, the personnel manager.

Alhaji Jose came down to the newsroom and shared out assignments. As chief sub-editor on a morning shift, I was to face the front and back pages supervised by Odukomaiya who was also to supervise the news desk. Alhaji Jose mounted the typewriter in the newsroom to personally produce the Evening Times. He also came to the classroom to collect the galley proof of what I had done. He was to come back and he began to read from the galley both the first edition of the paper and the Evening Times from the forme.

Osoba’s exemplary courage was shown when he braved the dusk to dawn (6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.) no-movement order by the soldiers to come to the office to collect copies of the ++ second edition already being printed to buy his way through the curfew to Ikoyi. He already had information from his impeccable source that Brigadier-Gen. Murtala Muhammed had been made Head of State by the military high command. He had gone to the Ikoyi residence of Jose to seek approval to change the paper with the development of a new helmsman. He and Jose drove down to Kakawa immediately also giving soldiers copies of the Daily Times to identify themselves. It was bravery borne out of his commitment. If a new edition had not been printed reflecting the development it would have spelt the instant death knell of the Daily Times. What was going to be the excuse if other papers carried the report the following morning and the Daily Times did not?

Some months back, the relationship between General Mohammed and the Daily Times had become severely strained. It was so combustible that it required only a cigarette to bring about a conflagration. The Times had written a series of editorials criticising the government, particularly Gen. Mohammed over a disagreement between him and his permanent secretary, Theo Akindele and the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Economic Development, Imeh Ebong. Gowon ruled in his favour to give peace a chance following which Mohammed sent his permanent secretary on indefinite leave.

In the view of the Daily Times, the permanent secretary was right and both Gowon and Mohammed were wrong. The Daily Times took up the battle from there, insisting that Mohammed must step down as minister (at the time Federal Commissioner). It was under this atmosphere that Mohammed came to the saddle. The Daily Times could therefore not afford not carrying the story of Mohammed assuming the office of the Head of State. It would have been regarded as open hostility. Alas, the cigarette end sparked into a conflagration.

The executive board of the company met and garlanded Osoba for his bravery, professionalism, loyalty, and commitment. He was promoted editor of the flagship, the Daily Times, the coveted crown every enterprising reporter aspired to wear someday. The promotion led to a big crisis. Taking advantage of the division within the Daily Times family following the appointment of Osoba as an editor, Mohammed in a seeming rage of rampaging vengefulness took over the Daily Times.

Osoba was a lover of banners and wrap-around headlines that tell the story. He had no patience for narrative, turgid intro (introduction). What gave him joy particularly when the story was big was bullet intro. In calm weather, he would settle for a breezy, sweet intro. In crisis time he could display a knack for an apt headline. For example, when Chief Theo Ola filed his copy on the reaction of Gowon to the coup back home, Osoba came over to my desk and suggested that the headline read: “Gowon’s swan song.”

The crisis had hardly died down when the Kwara State Government led by his friend, Col. Ibrahim Taiwo, invited him to come over and run the Nigerian Herald. I knew fear for him, wondering how a journalist who had not been raised in a culture of partisan journalism was going to cope which was also the reason I declined his invitation to me to come with him.

In a jiffy, however, he brought out an oxygen bag, and putting all his skills and energy into the business, he turned around an almost lifeless newspaper into a vibrant, exciting and compelling newspaper that was generating its own resources. After Gen. George Innih took over following the death of Ibrahim Taiwo in the Dimka coup on 13 February 1976, the same putsch in which Mohammed was assassinated, he soon began to have difficulties. Innih sought to control the newspaper, Osoba resisted. Finding the interference incompatible with his training and professional principles, he returned to Lagos in 1978.

When the office of the chief executive officer of The Sketch fell vacant, he showed interest, but the federal authorities sought to block his chances. Oyo State governorship candidate, Bola Ige, confident that he had a bright prospect of victory at the polls, urged Osoba to keep calm and wait for him to assume office at Agodi Government House, Ibadan.

No sooner Ige became governor than he invited Osoba to assume the headship of the Daily Sketch as general manager and later the Managing Director, supported by Peter Ajayi with whom he had worked at the Herald. Indeed, Peter Ajayi was the pioneer editor of the Herald. Again, he transformed the Sketch, made it not only self-sustaining but ran it to record surplus and have reserved. It was the profit he used largely to build imposing structures to house executive offices. He also modernised the machines.

From February 1982 when The Guardian was launched until July of that year when it installed its own machine it was printing at Ibadan using the Sketch facilities. Origination, that is pre-press, was done at Punch in Ikeja. The troika of Osoba, Felix Adenaike, editor-in-chief of the Nigerian Tribune and Peter Ajayi formed the newspaper power base in Ibadan. They held the Ibadan end of the proverbial Lagos- Ibadan axis of the Nigerian Press, feared by every repressive or inept government in Nigeria. Between them, they introduced joint newspaper distribution for efficiency and to cut costs.

Osoba returned once more to Lagos to perform his magic, this time to his primary base and a home he could call his own and a high priest therein—the Daily Times of Nigeria. He promptly returned the Daily Times account to green. The paper regained its old glory and returned to profitability. He proved his mettle as the prophesied image of Jose, his mentor who had said he saw himself in Segun Osoba as Cecil King saw himself in Jose. I cannot but be personally indebted to Osoba. He had always quietly seen me as his dream editor, hence his invitation to me to follow him to The Herald. Unknown to the world, he appointed me as editor of the proposed The Guardian as far back as 1978 after leaving the Herald and he was to be closely connected with it. He and Mr. Alex Ibru went to America to buy machines. But there was a recession in the U.S. at the time and they returned home without any machines. They also tried to acquire the Daily Express machine, but there was tussle among the family owners which scuttled their efforts. They simply stayed clear of the furore.

The idea was revived in 1980 and he re-nominated me to Mr. Alex Ibru, and this time also endorsed by Dr. Dele Cole. Three of us then set to work meeting at Adetona Street, Ilupeju’s home of Dr. Stanley Macebuh as a leader. I was made to take charge of editorial, advertisement and administration and Chief Nick Iduwe all aspects of production. Before then, Osoba had recommended me to the BBC Focus on Africa. I took over from him and gave it up only after The Guardian workload was getting heavier.

It could not have come as a surprise that he made a huge success of his assignment given by the people of Ogun State when they elected him as their governor. He had no choice anyway but to be a good ambassador of the journalism profession he loves so dearly. He was not only a reporter of renown; he also wrote commentaries on foreign affairs. He was president of the Newspaper Proprietors Association and he is active in media affairs to this day, keeping awake far into the night monitoring events and keeping in touch with his contacts. I should know!