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Gbolabo Ogunsanwo: Passage of an idealist

By Adeyemi Adefulu
01 January 2021   |   3:26 am
All through my Presidency, I enjoyed Gbolabo’s support and we fought many battles together. But there was an interesting side to Gbolabo’s professional life which I should mention.

Continued from yesterday’s back page

All through my Presidency, I enjoyed Gbolabo’s support and we fought many battles together. But there was an interesting side to Gbolabo’s professional life which I should mention. As a pressman, he had the attitude of a secret service undercover agent. He simply won’t talk in some situations. If you asked a direct question on such a matter, he would laugh hilariously and move on. Though we suspected it he never owned up to being the writer of a weekly column in the Lagos Weekend under the pen name of Macaulay, which zeroed in on the happenings on the campus. It was Gbolabo’s edge to take students before the court of public opinion under the cover of anonymity. He enjoyed the power and mischief but never gave the secret away, close as we were supposed to be!

Gbolabo was a journalist with an evangelical zeal. His classic, “If you Takar me I will Daboh you” shook the Gowon government and played a significant part in the unseating of a powerful Minister, Joseph Takar, and his former accomplice turned informant and storyteller. When all Takar’s entreaties, including the offer of a huge gratification to Gbolabo failed, the powerful minister, reportedly bought up the entire western edition of Sunday Times production at the distribution centre and was said to have made a bonfire of the lot rather than let it get into the hands of the reading public. It took the production directive of Alhaji Jose, at Gbolabo’s situation room report, for production of the western edition to continue to run till 9:00 am which was unheard of.

With the benefit of hindsight, this period, supposed to be the beginning, turned out to be the peak of Gbolabo’s career. The end came too soon. At one point he is looked like a prince waiting to be crowned. At a stage, he was the first person to be Editor of Sunday Times and acting Editor of the Daily Times at the same time. It had never happened before and Gbolabo could do no wrong. This was a mark of the passionate love and confidence that the late Alhaji Babatunde Jose, the Murdoch of Nigerian journalism, had for Gbolabo. I had been best man at Gbolabo’s wedding in 1972 where Alhaji Babatunde Jose was the Chairman at the reception. The love between them was contagious and palpable and was the envy of many people.

At Alhaji Babatunde Jose’s 50th birthday in 1975, in a speech from the throne, he announced that Gbolabo would become the Editor of the Daily Times by 1976. It was like the enthronement of the Prince of Wales, the future King of England. To all intents, Gbolabo was the king in waiting. This was Gbolabo’s finest hour.

But by a sudden twist of fate, that event was not to happen. Following the Murtala Mohammed coup in 1975, a number of events occurred which led to a dramatic fall from grace and a fall from which Gbolabo did not recover. It led to the sudden change of the promised appointment of Gbolabo as Editor of Daily Times, which was given to Mr. Segun Osoba, hitherto Editor of Lagos Weekend. By a sudden visit of misfortune, as often happens in the corporate world, Gbolabo was surpassed!

For all I know, this was a crushing blow and the turning point from which Gbolabo never recovered. Thereafter his relationship with Alhaji Jose went downhill. But it also, tragically, signaled the precipitous fall of the greatest media house that Nigeria or Africa ever knew. The careers of a number of giants of the press I do not have space for in this short historical account also perished in the ensuing melee. There was a massive spilling of blood on Kakawa Street, which housed the Daily Times Group.

Suffice it to say that when the Daily Times crisis started Gbolabo found himself among the “Jose Must Go” group. The Daily Times was embroiled in a vicious intestinal broil, which led to the fall of the empire that powerful politicians and administrators once feared. Typically, in an era of meddlesomeness in which the military buoyed by petro dollar acquired anything in sight- universities, hospitals, stadia etc.- the military government led by General Murtala Mohammed and General Olusegun Obasanjo acquired the shares of Daily Times through the fully owned government insurance company, the Nicon Insurance.

As usual in such circumstances in the buildup to the acquisition, the rumour mill was agog with all manner of allegations leveled against Alhaji Babatunde Jose. He was supposed to have surreptitiously acquired the shares of the Daily Times during indigenization and to have appropriated a lot of the assets of the company for his personal use. The government set up a judicial commission of inquiry headed by Justice Gbegbaje, to investigate all the allegations while Alhaji Jose took a leave of absence pending the investigation. The Commission of inquiry found that all the allegations were baseless and absolved Alhaji Babatunde Jose. As it were, the government had acquired the company before investigation.

After the inquiry, Alhaji Jose was asked to return as Managing Director and was to report to a new Chairman in the person of Alhaji Aliko Mohammed the Chairman of Nicon Insurance. It was the humiliating castration and the de-clawing of powerful Babatunde Jose, which he declined. He explained later that a snake does not return to the skin it has left behind. He also said that he had struggled hard to build a united company that was then divided and that returning to Daily Times would have been to a divided house. The lion of Kakawa went into voluntary retirement and maintained his dignity.

Until the last minute, the mischievous top military brass kept Gbolabo’s hope alive and expectant that he was going to get the editorship of the Daily Times, the prime jewel he wanted so badly. One day he was called in by top military brass and told to get ready to assume the top position. The day after that meeting, Gbolabo was peremptorily retired in 1976. This was the backbreaker. The Daily Times, the giant of the Nigerian newspaper industry, was crippled forever and it never quite recovered from the decimation.

There are many people who go from one failure or bankruptcy or one career to the other but ultimately succeed. But our dear Gbolabo was not so lucky. Journalism was right at the center of his life. It was inconceivable that he should ever be out of it. He founded a glossy weekly magazine called The Nation which was printed in England. For someone used to working in a structured media house, the logistical issues of a one-man operation were too much- exchange rate, airfreight, clearing at the port, distribution, finance, etc. It was just too much and the troubles crippled the intellectual edge, which really was Gbolabo’s main capital. The promise a weekly became two and three weeks. The journal floundered and died.

Some of us, including Gbolabo, had been active in the Awolowo political school after the military lifted the ban on political activities from 1978. The Ogun State government under the leadership of late Chief Olabisi Onabanjo in which I served as a Commissioner appointed Gbolabo as the foundation Chairman of the Ogun State Television a post he held until the military struck again in 1983.

Gbolabo gave his life to Christ and became very involved in church activities under the Redeemed Christian Church of God. At a stage he headed the outreach group the CRFU- The Christ Redeemed Universal which reached out to the high and mighty in society to take Christ to them. He was ordained as a Pastor in the RCCG.

Gbolabo was a fighter and a general of many wars. But it was difficult for him to put a closure to Daily Times. His life typified the saying that the race of life is not to the swift. Like many of us the members of his generation, he realized only a fraction of his potentials. We were left wondering what happened to all the talent and all the promise of our youth In the Nigerian extravaganza of the last 50 years. We have been left holding the wrong end of the stick. The constant military incursion froze and de-froze the polity too many times. The society stagnated and floundered. Fortunes and destinies were altered and opportunism held sway. Like the rest of us, Gbolabo was only able to utilize a tiny little part of his abundant promise. And what a waste and what a loss that was for Nigeria and his generation!

Adefulu MFR, businessman, chairman of companies, chairman of Nigeria British Chamber of Commerce.

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