I miss Nigeria being a paradise on earth, says Akintobi, Independence Child
In October 1970, in one of the events organised to commemorate Nigeria’s 10th independence anniversary, Dayo Akintobi, publisher and president, Association of Practitioners of Community Media in Nigeria (APCOM), won a competition organised to select the country’s Independence Child from among Nigerian kids born in October 1960. In this interview with TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA, he spoke about his emergence as the independence baby, Nigeria’s first 60 years and his dreams for the country for the next 60.
You were once Nigeria’s Independence Child, tell us all about the competition?
A few months to my 10th birthday, sometime in mid-1970, my mother was flipping through the newspaper one day when an advert caught her eye. The announcement called for Nigerian children born in October of 1960 to participate in a contest to commemorate the 10th independence anniversary of our great country’s independence from the British. Contestants were asked to send in essays on two out of four topics provided.
The rules of the contest enjoined eligible candidates to send the essays into the Daily Times newspaper office (the sponsor of the contest) within a two-week deadline. There was no email then, but the country did have a functional and efficient postal system.
And so that was how I set about writing the two essays I submitted as my entries. The topics I chose to address were (1): If you went into the bush on an excursion with other boys/girls and you lost your way, what would you do to keep alive? (2): Describe the school in which you are a pupil.
Daily Times Newspaper empanelled a team of judges drawn from both the civil service and the private sector to evaluate the submissions. Their mandate was to shortlist the best 100 contestants out of the thousands of entries submitted, who would then be invited for personal interviews. The winner and the runners-up would be selected after the interviews.
The shortlisted 100 were invited to a weekend boot camp at Daily Times Lagos headquarters from September 25, 1970. Their first task was to write a new set of essays on a different set of topics from those originally written. The idea was that those who were helped at home by parents with the initial essays would be easily identified and weeded out at this stage.
At the conclusion of this exercise, the field indeed narrowed significantly. The remaining contestants were then subjected to a battery of tests, quizzes, personal interviews, debates, and other intellectual exercises designed to separate the superior from the ‘merely excellent.’ At each stage, more and more contestants fell by the wayside and the field continued to narrow.
By the time it remained just 10 contestants, the competition had become tense and intense. All 10 finalists were each guaranteed a prize, but everyone had his/her eye on first place, not just for the plum prize of a full secondary school scholarship, but for national pride and the bragging rights of being adjudged Nigeria’s ‘best’ 10-year-old child – born when Nigeria was born, and turning 10 as Nigeria was turning 10.
When all was said and done, I was the last kid standing, the ‘best’ Nigerian kid born in October 1960, Nigeria’s 10th Independence Anniversary Child. As the 1st place winner, I was awarded the promised First Prize, which was a full scholarship to the secondary school of my choice in Nigeria.
50 years after that occasion, have your dreams for Nigeria been fulfilled?
Nigeria is a work in progress at 60, as indeed I also am and will continue to be. Without a doubt, our country has not fully exploited its potential and should be much further ahead on all the developmental indices. There is a growing dissatisfaction with our present lot in life. For example, if that Independence Anniversary competition were held today, there is a good chance I would not win.
My parents didn’t know anybody. I won purely on merit in spite of the rigour of the process. Chances are, it would be a different ballgame in Nigeria of today, where who you know or the son of who you are counts for everything. I also remember that at the time I won that contest, my best friend in my primary school class was an Igbo, and we had Hausa, Tiv, Ijaw, and pupils from almost every corner of Nigeria in the class. Yet we knew nothing about ethnicity. We were all Nigerians, brothers and sisters united as one irrespective of tribe, religion, or even social status.
Today is different; it is all about North and South, Christian and Muslim, and every other artificial label. The division is so marked that various groups are now agitating for self-determination, wanting to go their own way. Then there is the security problem, Boko Haram, bandits, marauding herdsmen, kidnappers, and so on. In 1970, the notion of rape simply was alien to us in this society. Today it is the watchword on every female’s lips. We need to ramp up on security across the country. Citizens no longer feel safe in their homes.
What were your childhood memories of Independence Day anniversary?
During my childhood days, Nigeria was a paradise on earth, a place we were proud to live in and call home. As a 10-year old student going to boarding school, I remember visits to Bar Beach, Easter picnics at Takwa Bay, romantic but decent films we watched at Metro Cinema in Onipanu or Roxy Cinema at Apapa; the shopping trips to Kingsway, Leventis, UTC. Lagos then was indeed an Eldorado. It was referred to as “the city that never sleeps.”
Activities went on throughout the day and night without fear. People went about their businesses in peace. There were sanitary inspectors who made sure the homes and streets were clean, the gutters regularly cleaned and fumigated so that mosquito larvae could be destroyed. People slept on the pavement in front of their houses so they could enjoy the coolness of the night. There were no fences or wires round houses. Doors were wide open during the day to let in air and sun. Doors were only closed at night. There were no such things as street gates. Nigeria was a lovely place to live indeed. When the war ended in 1970, with General Gowon’s “No victor, no vanquished” mantra, the wounds were healed quickly and neighbours reconciled very quickly and forgave all that was past.
What are the milestones you have achieved in the last 60 years?
There are many, but the one I am proudest of is being a part of midwifing the community media sector into relevance and prominence in Nigeria. Although more by accident than by design, I ended up a community journalist reporting on my local community of Ilupeju Estate. Over time, I expanded into establishing newspapers in other communities around Lagos State, including Ikeja and Lekki.
This sojourn into the wilderness of community reporting brought me in contact with other community publishers, and to our amazement, we realized we all faced the same challenges and were battling the same issues of funding, relevance, recognition, patronage, influence, access to the information dissemination machinery of the three tiers of government.
In short, we didn’t command the kind of respect that our brethren publications in mainstream media did. Yet community publications are closest to the masses, we are the ones that deliver pertinent news and information about what is happening in your backyard. While local newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, London Times, and Leicester Mercury are all revered in their communities, Oriwu Sun, Surulere Watch, Agege Pulse, Inside Gbagada, Ilupeju Today, Oshodi Post, Isolo Voice, Alimosho Mail, Kosofe Inside Out, and others, barely get a second glance.
To combat this, we banded together and formed an industry group – the Association of Practitioners of Community Media in Nigeria (APCOM), which has been striving to improve the lot of community media in Nigeria.
Now at 60, what are your dreams for Nigeria?
I would like to see a Nigeria where we each approach life with a sense of purpose, a sense of opportunity, a sense of community, a strong family ethic, a strong work ethic, and high self-esteem. Humor should also be a key ingredient to our outlook on life; we should always try to see the lighter side of things. We should try to make every day matter. We should live each day as if it is our last.
We should live each day as the master of our emotions. We should try to multiply our value a hundredfold each day. If we each accumulate enough of those days, we will feel fulfilled. We would go to bed at night knowing that we worked to the best of our abilities, did our best to mend bridges, didn’t hurt anybody, and tried to be open and responsive to family, friends, colleagues, and employees. To me, the really important thing in life is to be somebody and do something worthwhile. This doesn’t mean making the headlines or the most money.