‘I want to remain a pencil in God’s hands, helping to shape lives’
Culture Capable Of Solving Africa’s Problems If Harnessed, Says Jahman Anikulapo
Former Editor, The Guardian on Sunday, artist, theatre director, culture curator and enthusiast,
Jahman Oladejo Eniolorunda Anikulapo turns 60 tomorrow. In this no-holds-barred interview with TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA held at the Nelson Mandela Park in Asaba, Delta State, he spoke about his life since turning 50, which also coincided with his retirement from the newsroom and journalism 10 years ago.
How does it feel becoming a sexagenarian in a country where the life expectancy is 55 years?
I don’t feel anything different. I have probably felt like this since I was 40. So, I don’t know what the hoopla is about. Left for me, I just want to sleep, wake up, go somewhere and read a book. I have books to read. We thank God though for the gift of life, but like they say, age is just another number and I believe aging is in the brain. You have people who are 50 or 60 and their brains are not functioning well again. People say I don’t look it. Yes, I may not look it but I feel it. We thank God for life and His mercies, especially once we can continue to do what we are doing and be relevant to humanity. That is what matters most and that is the definition of my name, Eniolorunda, one who is of God and who works for man.
At 50, you went into early retirement. It’s been 10 years since then, how has it been since you left journalism?
Let me say what somebody said that made me go into some reflection. He said, ‘It’s like you left comfort for discomfort.’ The person who said that didn’t know what I envisaged with my early retirement at 50. It is not impossible that I got fed up with the system of where I was working. The Guardian was the only place I ever worked in my life formally, and it was so good to me. But then things were changing around me and I knew there was no way my spirit could cope, because wherever I have been and whatever I have done, I just work, I don’t play politics. I have a goal and once I can attain that goal, that is all for me. But I have come to realise that in trying to attain your goal, you have to be conscious of your environment. I was not conscious of my environment, so much so that when the environment started changing, I started losing orientation and becoming frustrated. I started screaming and shouting at people but that was not me.
Something happened, which was very fortuitous. When I wrote my resignation letter it was not accepted because as I understood, I was a senior executive management member at The Guardian and I can’t just walk off like that because one is an embodiment of certain secrets and strategies of the organisation and one can be accused of taking something like trade secrets from the organisation to the next place. This was why I didn’t want to work in any formal newsroom again. I remember I wrote that letter around July in 2012 because we just finished Wole Soyinka’s birthday. So, when they said they wouldn’t take my resignation letter, after a while, I spoke to someone in the legal department who said the management is right not to allow me to resign, but I have the option of retirement. I now put in a letter of retirement. Somehow, I put in the letter and by the time I calculated the three months in lieu of notice, it ended exactly January 15, a day before my 50th birthday anniversary. I am not the church or mosque going person, but I am highly spiritual and I think God was speaking to me that it was about time to go.
Before then, I had become so frustrated. In fact, when I go back and see those pictures of me, I looked so fat. Sometime around the period, I went for my medical checkup, the first in a long time in the U.S., the doctor told me I have been depressed for a certain number of years. When I checked and calculated it back, it went back to like 2007. I became Editor of Sunday Guardian in 2003, I started feeling despondent about the job around 2007 and that was around the period we had the industrial strike at The Guardian. The company was shut down and we were paid off. I looked at what was paid to me and I asked myself if that is what I am worth, meaning that you can be dispensed off at any time. I was living in depression and denying it. So, when the person said I was moving from comfort to discomfort, in a way he was right but in my own context, he was wrong.
Journalism was not something I wanted to do for such a long time. I have always wanted to be an artist and that was how I saw my job, as an artist. The theatre director does not jump on stage, he aggregates resources – the costume, make-up, artistes, dancers and musicians – puts them together and that is your play. What we see on stage is the director’s Point Of View (POV). That was why I refused to write a column. My boss then, the Managing Director, Emeka Izeze, God bless him, was always insisting. But I told him, anything I want to say, if my associates, reporters and assistant editors cannot say it, if the paper cannot aggregate everything they are saying and it becomes my point of view, I believe that I have failed. If I now had to boost my paper with my own column, it means the paper has failed. So, my approach to my job as the Sunday Editor was like a theatre director; I was actually directing a symphony. I didn’t want to spend more than five years in The Guardian.
I remember an episode now, Ben Tomoloju joined The Guardian in 1984; that was the man who made me as an artist and brought me to Rutam House, as The Guardian is also called. He too got to this point of frustration and was going to leave, I told him I was leaving too, that I came to work here because of him, what am I doing here when he is leaving. He said no, what we are doing here is an evangelism for culture and if you leave, the arts pages will suffer. So, I decided to stay and work another two to three years before leaving because I had options to go abroad, maybe I would have become a professor. I targeted that I was going to leave in 1993 and I actually went to Germany to study. I had done my first three months, I was in my second three-month semester when the MKO Abiola thing happened. The Features Editor then was on leave and I remember Mr Femi Kusa saying I must come back to head the desk as Acting Features Editor. If the Abiola thing had not happened, I would have remained abroad. It’s incredible I spent over 25 years in The Guardian. Cumulatively, I must have spent 29 years because I started writing for The Guardian since 1984.
And when you dropped the pen, what did you veer into?
There is a way the elements intervene in our lives that we don’t know. As at the time I was leaving in 2013, I had three jobs. There was the ‘Bring Back The Book’ by then President Goodluck Jonathan, which Oronto Douglas had dragged me into. He made me to meet President Jonathan who said this is what he wanted to do and wanted to start his own presidential library and the vision was to translate ‘Bring Back The Book’ to that. He gave the Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA) some funds to organise a book conference where we aggregated peoples’ opinion that was going to be the template for the project.
I know how much they wanted to pay me. If I was earning that money, I would have become a millionaire by now, but I probably would have ended up in EFCC the way they eventually started picking up everybody. While I was on that and we were doing all the plan work and trying to register the organisation, Oronto, who brought me in, had cancer. I remember my last meeting with him, he said don’t worry, whatever happens, we are going to do this; am just going away for treatment. But the way I saw him, something told me this guy may not come back and that was what eventually happened.
The second job was a project dear to the late co-founder of GTBank, the late Tayo Aderinokun. Aderinokun, Bolanle Austen-Peters, Bola Fajemirokun and Myma Bello-Osagie had formed the Arts in Business Foundation, already registered, which the late Aderinokun was pushing for us to make arts and business to meet. It’s an American concept. He wanted us to do that job and make sure that the money they raised from business will be used to finance the arts, and I was going to run it. Tayo died and it truncated his dream. In fact, we still have money in GTBank for the project that has not been claimed.
The third job is from one big man that everybody knows because I do speak for him now. He had been asking me to come and work with him, not as his PA, but somebody to run his programme. I was like, this is a nice opportunity to travel with this man because he is a globetrotter. I told him I wanted to take a break because I knew I would either be working for President Jonathan on the book project or the Arts in Business Foundation. These are two executive jobs that would require full time engagement, but I told him anything you want me to do sir, I will be available and I ended up doing all his programmes, even up till now. Even as I am in Asaba, I am representing him here.
I had all these opportunities, so I was not afraid to leave The Guardian. I remember Muftau Ogunbunmi, Tony Okeregbe and others did a book for me for my 50th. At the launching, they said they did the book because I was likely to die of poverty because I had no money or savings. They thought I will make money from book sales, but me I started dishing out the books free of charge to people. That was not my idea of making money. I couldn’t disclose to them that I had these three fat jobs waiting for me. I also had my love relationship going on in Germany, so I could travel and lockdown there.
What has your experience in the last 10 years taught you?
The last 10 years have been quite revelatory. What it did to me was to discover and rediscover myself. All I ever wanted to be was arts. It has not been easy but I am a child of grace. I have had encounters with people and done one or two things for people, people have also done one or two things for me. I have never really lacked. I am surrounded by great friends. If I have a challenge, all I need to do is just call them. The last 10 years has revealed to me that one could survive by not getting enmeshed in the rat race around us, but simply by just doing what you love. I have no regrets.
You know my relationship with money, which is something I learnt from my dad’s experience, the money comes, I spend it on others because I don’t need it. I don’t need a big house. I just want to be in a little corner surrounded by my books, music and friends. I am active; my brain is active. I have not done badly, but I don’t think my son will share this opinion, he would rather I made money.
I am overwhelmed by the love of people around me. They say I am going to be 60, and two weeks before, they are already celebrating me. Few days into the new year, I have been apologising to people that I am not 60 yet ooo. It is just some coupists led by Toyin Akinosho, Femi Odugbemi, Kayode Aderinokun, who went and organised a party two weeks before. Who does that? When people were sending happy New Year messages, I was busy sending apology messages to people.
You are now living your dream as an arts man, would you say culture has been given its deserved place in Nigeria after all these years?
I believe that if anything was going to solve the problem of Africa, it is culture. At the time people are losing jobs, the culture sector has been generating employment. The creative industry has been churning out millionaires consistently, the likes of musicians, designers and movie makers. Yet, they have no government support. Arts is one sure way you can galvanise the energy of the youths. Any thinking government should know that, but of course, we are ruled by Philistines.
I still believe that up till today, if I am privileged to have political power, that is what I will go for. It is not about money, it is about generating ideas. Artistes are already philosophers; they are thinkers. All you need to do is harness their ideas. Even the most useless song, for example, a Naira Marley song that we all condemn, there are some ideas there, it depends on the way you shape it. That is why the guy has followers. How many of these political leaders have the followership of a Naira Marley that we all deride, not to talk of Burna Boy, Wizkid or Davido and co, or the big names in Nollywood.
We can never beat the world in technology. What the West does not have that we have is our culture. There is a reason God made it our strong forte, but because we like to undermine ourselves, we are actually wasting it. Just check the money in the hands of the people who are into entertainment and culture and the power they wield, not even talking of visual artists like Bruce Onobrakpeya or Chimamanda Adichie or their father Wole Soyinka, who are hotly in demand. The man is 88 and is all over the world. If we just harness these resources, I believe Nigeria can gloriously step up in the comity of nations.
You know how many content creators, skit makers and artistes are cashing out through Youtube and other social media sites. They don’t need government to thrive; all the youths want is an enabling platform. I am sitting in a garden, Nelson Mandela Park in Asaba, Delta State. It is the vision of one man, Newton Jibunoh, who crossed the Sahara desert at the age of 26. He created a whole park named after Mandela on a wasteland and turned it into a tourist destination. I don’t feel like leaving here. That’s the vision of one man. It is visionary leadership that we need and I think it is through culture we can get there and get it right. I wasn’t surprised when someone said this is the century of the Africans, that’s when the world will start picking from our resources; and it is happening again, the scramble for Africa.
What do you hope to achieve in the next 10 years?
My two parents died before they were 70, but if I am going to live up to that, I just want to continue doing what I am doing. I see what I do in the same way that a pastor, genuine or fake, sees what they are doing. I just want to be a culture evangelist. I see myself as a planter. I want to plant ideas about what we could achieve. I will like to be a bit more businesslike, though I don’t like the term, but I will like to be a bit more deliberate about the choices I will make in the course of propagating culture. I am rededicating myself to what I have been doing, cultural advocacy, evangelism and curating culture, because I believe that is the strength Africa has.
What’s the connection or relationship between you and Soyinka?
The connection between us is that Soyinka is our father, my father in the arts. He is my mentor and teacher. He is an embodiment of so many things to me. He’s not my biological father, but you know there are fathers you wish you had, which you then have as mentors. He is some kind of ‘god’ to me. I don’t really worship him but he is some kind of ‘god’ to me and I believe there is a reason why Olodumare planted this man in Nigeria. Whether we are listening to him or not, is another problem. But there is a reason he was planted here to be one of us. He could have been born elsewhere. I don’t want to tell you about other connection that we have. He is the only one that can wake me up from my sleep and send for me and I will rush down to meet him.
I take you back to journalism. Like you listed the embrace of culture as a panacea to the nation’s ills, what’s your diagnosis of the profession and what do you proffer as a way forward?
I joined the newsroom formally when I was 23 and left when I was 50. I did not miss journalism. You worked with me for close to 10 years; I don’t think I would have coped in the newsroom today from what I see now. This understanding didn’t come to me until when I stepped out of the newsroom. That was why the first thing I wanted to do was to start a training programme for journalists, which never materialised. Apart from the harassment I was giving you guys and shouting at you, I now saw that you were even like angels because I started doing programmes around Lagos Black Heritage Festival, African Drum Festival, Lagos at 50 Festival, and I saw the nakedness of journalism. The things I was always screaming at you guys for – you, Fisayo Soyombo, Armsfree Ajanaku, Jumobi Adegbite, Chuks Nwanne, Samson Adeoye, Gbenga Salau – I now saw that you guys were saints and you were bringing stuff that I could work with.
But from what I know now and what I see, I am scared. Am not sure I would have survived any newsroom. That was why I never picked up any media engagement, there were offers, even to be managing director of some newspapers, but I told them I can’t cope. When I became the Editor of Sunday Guardian, I made a vow not to meet any politician or politically appointed persons. My managing director then, Emeka Izeze, God bless him, he gave me all the latitude. I was the most travelling editor, travelling to do theatre and the paper never failed for once. I edited most of the Sunday Guardian on my Blackberry if you remember. So, when people ask me to take up any media role, I always tell them there is no newsroom that would have indulged me to do all of those things I was doing and there is no medium that would have given me that kind of platform that The Guardian gave me. Even the meeting of Editors with governors, I refused to go.
I remember a meeting with one governor who was banging the table angrily at me. You were the editor of that section, Cityfile on page two and three where we spotlighted bad roads and un-cleared refuse and drainage and I was being threatened, even compelled by the management to take it easy. I met him at a function and he began hitting the table, saying they say you are stubborn. I looked at him in the face and told him it was disrespectful. His security men didn’t like it but I spoke my piece of mind to him. I came back to the office and told my MD I do not want to meet any of these people again, you know I don’t have the temperament to engage these people. In 2011, my MD compelled me to go and interview a presidential candidate and I was somewhat irritated by the kind of things he was saying, including that it is only the Southerners that are corrupt, that the people from his side of the country are not corrupt and if he wins he will throw them in jail. I was like, does this man know we are in a democracy.
Who is Jahman beyond the culture evangelist, what do you do aside from arts and culture?
I am essentially a culture curatist. Curating is about generating ideas and seeing it to fruition. When I am curating, it doesn’t mean I am the one producing the content; I take what others are doing in various forms and genres of arts and put it together to form a whole. I have done Lagos Black Heritage Festival, among others. I have been doing Lagos Art and Book Festival (LABAF) for 25 years. So I have been bringing the ideas of everybody into a wholesome programme. Everyday of my life, that is what I keep on contemplating, thinking of what others are doing and how I can help to harness them and turn them into a product that will benefit the community. I have not been doing much of writing but I have been doing editorial consultancy for people to edit their books. I have ghost-written for someone.
I have also been traveling and trying to be the proper father I should have been to my children. I am not sure I have succeeded in that. I have tried to be a father but I just discovered it’s not my court. I have not been a proper husband to anybody. I am a freelance father, freelance husband and freelance lover. I am not the regular father or husband who will take kids out to drink ice cream, wear aso ebi and go to church or parties, stay home in the evening to watch television, but I have tried to be the best I can.
There is a joke I shared with my son. I talk about him a lot because we are just beginning to build relationship. We were talking about my books and I told him, ‘do you know those books were my original children.’ I brought one out and asked him, ‘Are you as old as this book,’ he said no. ‘That is to tell you those are my old children; you are just a young man.’
Half of my bed are lined with books. Someone came one time and was flinging them away, I said easy, those are my bedmates. I only sleep on a half of the bed. You can never displace my books; they are like my children. It is a queer way to live but it is the only way I would have escaped the mischief of this world.
I tell people I could have been mischievous. Books rescued me from a certain destiny that could have been mine. When I think back of the people I grew up with in Agege, I am just grateful for the person who rescued me from a certain doom. My father was relatively rich by all standards. If your father at the time already had two cars and houses all over the place and buying land here and there, you will say he was a rich man. But a certain encounter that I had with a certain person called Ben Tomoloju in my secondary school was what changed my life right at that moment where I went to disrupt the rehearsals of a drama club. If I had not gone to disrupt the session and if Ben T had not grabbed me by the door and said since you came to disrupt what we were doing, now go and play the role, only God knows how I would have turned out. I did it well and he said you have the talent. That push and encouragement has kept me going till today.
If I had not encountered Ben Tomoloju, I probably would have ended up like people I grew up with where we learnt boxing, how to use knife and bottles to attack other people and how to disarm an opponent having a weapon in Agege. We used to go from one part of town to another, just to go and do area boy fight and use weapons. There are certain parts of Ikeja I see some of those old folks, and I just pretend I am on my phone because I don’t want to be reminded of all of that. I could have ended that way. That is why when I am working with young people, I am so passionate about what the Segun Adefilas are doing, Seun Awobajos, Joshua Alabi, Qudus Onikeku, bringing young people together and giving them hope for the future and mentoring them. And this answers your question about Soyinka. That is what Soyinka has as edge above his contemporaries, mentoring and motivating people around the world.
That is what I have been spending my life doing. I wish I had the resources to help to finance what these guys are doing, in particular, a character called Segun Adefila, who has used his art to transform Bariga… what the Daga Tollars are doing in Ajegunle. These are people who are using their resources to mobilise the community; that is what I want to do. If I ever ended up stealing money, that is where the money would go. I just want to be useful to humanity by nurturing young talents. I am just a pencil in the hand of God; it is my name, Eniolorunda. I just want to be a pencil to help in shaping the lives of others. It is only arts that allowed me to do that. Maybe I did a bit of it in journalism, because all of you are always trying to make me feel important. That, to me, is the essence of living.