The flagship… 35 years on
It was the worst year in the relatively short stay of the Second Republic. The year was 1983, and life in Nigeria seemed the worst it could be. The rhythm in the country bent viciously on endless grey. The economy was tumbling and parents were spanking their children for a choice of meal. Fire raged everywhere, especially at public institutions riddled with fraud. It’s scars visible everywhere.
The ruling class had the best of life, but was out of touch with the common people. The door of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) was flung open, flooding the party with all shades of character, including a certain Bayo Success, who at best denigrated the omoluabi philosophy of his Yoruba race. There was hunger in the land, but people had not started ‘feeding from the bin’, as the famed 5-5, Umaru Dikko, noted.
But one voice was missing: The Guardian. With a teaser, ‘Sooner or later, you will read The Guardian!’, everybody waited with bated breath for its coming. And the publication kept to its words.
On July 4, 1983, The Guardian started as a national daily. Five months earlier, February 27, 1983, to be precise, the print media company, after over five years painstaking incubation began the journey of “providing the best and most authoritative newspaper” as it pursued its philosophical underpinning as “an independent newspaper, established for the purpose of presenting balanced coverage of events, and of promoting the best interest of Nigeria.”
It was a new and strong voice that changed the standard of journalism in the country. It strove to fulfill that mandate. It gave voice to the voiceless and became the ‘conscience of the nation’.As the ‘flagship of the Nigerian press’, The Guardian directed successive governments and reading public on how best to live. And for the staff, it was all about justice and the public good. For more than three decades-and-a-half, Rutam House has been like the Vatican.
With a team of intellectuals, mostly literary scholars (authors, creative writers, critics and academics in humanities), no doubts, the paper had no alternative than to lean towards intellectualism.
Stanley Macebuh, arguably one of the best columnists in the country, because of his style, language and logic, led the founding editorial staff of the newspaper, which he served as Executive Editor/Managing Director, while the then Associate Editor was Lade Bonuola.
When the paper came, it was one addiction that everybody had considering that Daily Times had sunk in reputation, because of its tilt towards becoming government ‘megaphone’. It was a peculiar taste that many could not wean themselves of.
The Guardian transformed the news business, serving the public with rich content in an enriching way. Temperate news presentation with elaborate backgrounding replaced sensationalist news packaging. Elevated prose found its way into news reporting and the front page was no longer the exclusive preserve of politics and political actors. Other less dramatic subjects found access there. There was noticeable effort to woo the discerning reader who enjoyed news beyond the headlines.
Opinion writing equally enjoyed a renaissance that brought in specialisation. The editorial board attracted eggheads from campuses, thus, enriching the art of informed commentary.
Things were structured at The Guardian in such a way that a lot of professionals and statesmen were contributing regularly so that there was no dull moment when going through the Op-ed pages, besides Olatunji Dare, a lot of seasoned writers like, Prof. Tam David West, the late Prof. Claude Ake, the late Justice Kayode Eso, Rev. Monsignor Hassan Kukah, Prof. Green Nwankwo, the late Chief Tony Enahoro, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, the late Alade Odunewu, the late Alao Aka Bashorun, Ninimo Bassey, the late Prof. Festus Iyayi and a host of others were always sending in their views on diverse issues from time to time.
In fulfilling its mandate, The Guardian established itself with the reading public as a newspaper of record and influence and as one of the major platforms for promoting the interest of the voiceless and the disadvantaged in society.In the early 1980s, The Guardian had a long-running campaign against the use of traditional chieftaincy titles, calling for Nigerians to be addressed simply as “Mr.” or “Mrs.”.
The Guardian Newspaper has consistently acted as a watchdog on matters that boarder on code of conduct for public officials and for private individuals in Nigeria as a whole. The newspaper was a strong force in the struggle against military rule.During the administration of General Muhammadu Buhari, as a military head of state and when The Guardian was just about a year old, its two reporters, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, were both sent to jail in 1984 under Decree No. 4 of 1984, which suppressed journalistic freedom. The paper’s political editor, Krees Imodibie, was killed in the course of duty in Liberia.
Though, The Guardian has gone through some changes due to fresh dynamics in the industry, the format and concept has remained the same. As it was in the beginning, the newspaper is devoid of sensationalism from day one.The courage and professionalism of its staff and the heavy price that they have had to pay for their insistence on truth and justice stand the paper out in the history of Nigerian journalism.
This courage and professionalism have been bountifully rewarded and the harvest include, the Diamond Award for Media Excellence (DAME), the Nigeria Media Merit Award (NMMA), Cable News Network (CNN) African Journalist of the Year and many others. The Guardian was one of the early stars of DAME, winning the Newspaper of the Decade in 2001 and joint winner of the same prize in 2011 with The Punch.
Ogunbiyi and The Guardian
Ogunbiyi, managing director of Tanus Communication, who coordinated the literary serices of The Guardian, which yielded the famous books, Perspectives in Nigerian Literature, Volumes I and II, recalling his days in the paper, said, “we had a very good team.”He continued: “We were all committed to excellence and we had a sense of achievement doing our best.”
According to him, “we had a totally unassailable standard that was not compromised.”Ogunbiyi said, “when I first came to work in The Guardian in 1983, I was told to write an editorial by the late Dr. Stanley Macebuh. I couldn’t write it. I battled with it as if I was battling with a research paper or an essay; and Macebuh said to me, you are writing an editorial, not a term paper.” He said, “I remember going for an editorial meeting one day, and I had all these reference books, and Sonala Olumese looked at me and laughed. He asked me, ‘Where do you think you are going? We have an editorial meeting, not a seminar’.”
Ogunbiyi said he went through the process of learning the rudiments of editorial with keen interest until Lade Bonuola challenged him to write a news story one day, which he did and the man gave him a pass mark that he had done well, “but not exactly well.”
He said, “I went through that process, but what it takes to move from one to the other is a measure of modesty. You must subject yourself to a learning process; coming from the academia or not, you must subject yourself to the rule of journalism because the rules are different, most of their engagements are different and you must be prepared to learn new rules and the same rules you are used to in the academia. You must do the right thing, be straightforward and don’t cut corners.”
Osoba and the dream
Former Governor of Ogun State, Aremo Segun Osoba, pointed out, what sustained the paper even in its difficult times was its attraction of “good professionals with good intention and open and sustainable editorial policy. It was not such a difficult business. Alex was always listening to professional advice and one of such admonition he accepted and also put into practice was none interference in the editorial policy of the paper as publisher.”
He added, “Alex acceptance and practice of none interference until his demise was the greatest success of The Guardian.” Osoba continued, “I told him that if he wanted to go into publishing he must be ready to have a strong editorial policy in which he as a publisher would not be interfering in the day-to-day running of the editorial policy, which he accepted.”
He said, “Alex was an idealistic person. He had an ideal vision of producing a product that is independent, which was key in his thinking. He wanted to create a product that would be different; he also wanted to encourage journalism by giving journalists free hands. I think his motivation was more of an altruistic one and not a question of profit, because he was comfortable enough. In the first instance, newspaper business was not a profitable business. He wasn’t going to depend on The Guardian for his source of living, because he was already made. Alex was an idealistic publisher.”
Though the media industry, over the years, has gone through turbulent times, with so many publications before and after the birth of The Guardian, going down, the publication has continued to be on the newsstand, providing scintillating reports for Nigerians and non-Nigerians. Everyday of the year, it has been on the newsstand, except for the period of closure.
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