Osoba: Journalism’s Avatar
On the morning of May 25 this year I was just lazily trying to switch from sleep mode to wake-up mode when the phone did the job for me with the alacrity of a technological device that we have all come to cuddle like a baby. It was the voice of Mr Waheed Odusile, a former President of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) who is now the Commissioner of Information for the Government of Ogun State. He was sorry for the late invitation but he would appreciate if I could attend the commissioning of a Press Centre in Abeokuta in honour of Chief Segun Osoba, a media avatar who was also the Governor of Ogun State twice.
Despite the impropriety of being invited to an event on the morning of the event I would have been exceedingly happy to honour a man who has been an important factor in my journalism odyssey and who has remained a staunch supporter of press freedom. But I had an engagement already scheduled for that day so I missed the party at a place, Abeokuta, where the first newspaper in Nigeria Iwe Irohin, was born in 1859. Osoba had been the Governor of Ogun State between 1992 and 1993 under the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and from 1999 to 2003 under the Alliance for Democracy. But this column is not about his duty tour in the murky waters of Nigerian politics. It is about his eminence as a practitioner in journalism’s vineyard and how his staying power as a journalist is, or ought to be, a source of inspiration to young journalists. Osoba, a reporter of immense worth worked the phone as vigorously as a paid telephone operator, and had a string of formidable contacts among the high and mighty.
These gave him the scoops for which he became famous. The most prominent scoop was his discovery of the bullet-riddled body of Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa after the January 15, 1966 coup. That discovery, that scoop, catapulted Osoba to the apogee of a legendary reportorial status.
His courage in reporting our country’s various coups and the Biafran war has elevated him to the enviable status of an intrepid reporter who defied danger and defied the fear of death in doing his duty of bringing hidden information to the front page of the nation’s consciousness.
The heart warming aspect of Osoba’s life is that even when he had risen to the enviable throne of Managing Director of the Daily Times, Sketch and Herald and become a big game player he remained simple and humble and retained the easy charm of a steward in a five-star restaurant. In those roof-top offices he displayed two qualities namely, the organisational genius of a field marshal and the nimble brain of an entrepreneur. These two qualities among others contributed to his success in those duty posts. Many people who hold such an awesome conglomerate of power are often tempted to turn themselves into emergency tyrants, barking orders at everyone on their paths. Osoba remained his simple self. His ego didn’t show its ugly face. It didn’t come to the surface. He does not wear his status on his sleeves or on his face. That is why even at 82, he looks 62; he looks well preserved.
Governor Dapo Abiodun of Ogun State earns full marks for proving that a prophet, a journalism prophet, can have honour in his home, his home where print journalism was born, his home where he served as a Governor for six years. Thank you Mr Abiodun for honouring a man on whom honour sits well. That honour sits well on Osoba. When I was tried for “murder with pen” as journalists put it for my column on the Nigerian External Telecommunication (NET) fire incident after my predictive article in 1983 it was Osoba who, as President of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN) rallied journalists in a massive parade to St Anna’s Court in Lagos in solidarity with me. As I arrived at the court premises in an oxygen-starved Black Maria, that ancient relic of savagery and man’s inhumanity to man, my heart leaped for joy as hordes of journalists jammed the court premises.
It was Segun Osoba’s doing for which I am eternally grateful. The activist in him was alive and well. I also saw the activist in him recently when he said in the Punch of June 24, 2021: “Press freedom is never awarded. Over the years we have always fought for the right to practise. We have been fighting the Press Council issue for over 25 years. I remember what led to the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO) and the production of a code of ethics for journalists. It was because attempts were made in the 1970s to set up a regulatory body for the print media. We resisted it and we have to continue resisting it.” That is a battle for journalists and lovers of democracy to fight for the retrieval of our democracy from the jaws of autocracy. Eventhough Osoba is no longer a practitioner he remains a staunch supporter of journalism and its organs especially the NPAN and the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) whose meetings he finds time to attend, and whose welfare he watches like a hawk.
It was in recognition of his abiding interest in Journalism that Sam Amuka, Nduka Obaigbena and I decided to invite him after the death of Ismaila Isa, Chairman of the Governing Council of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ) to chair the NIJ Board. We were happy he accepted the offer. The point to note in Osoba’s exertions in the media today is that he is seeking nothing in the media for himself but he is seeking its progress, its ability to survive the slings and arrows of dictatorship and help the country to grow as a civilised 21st century nation.
We live at a time when our country is out of balance, with people who rode on the ladder of the press to positions of eminence trying to pull down the ladder. These people are attempting to foist on the country the alien ideology of militocracy as an inferior substitute for democracy. That is to say that they are trying to run our affairs in their befuddled image, an image that is bereft of democratic convictions and values. Those who seek to bring more curbs on the press whose practice is already extensively curbed wish to promote their own skewed version of governance and democracy. We who fought for our democracy with our blood, sweat and tears must not let them. We must not let them take away the gains of that epic struggle against the forces of authoritarianism.
They wish to stifle press freedom in a world which, technologically speaking, has left them behind. They rode on the back of that struggle to the juicy positions that they hold today but ironically they now want to roll back the gains of that struggle. We must not let them. Their motives are questionable. And so is their modus operandi. They are seeking to sneak into our consciousness these obnoxious and toxic curbs on the press with no notice, no announcement, no siren, to herald its arrival. I thought they have always been in love with siren. Now no siren is announcing the arrival of this toxic legislation.
The registered auctioneer has a formula for selling goods he is assigned to sell. He says “going, going, and gone.” When he reaches that denouement, that crescendo, and he makes the last call the product is gone to the last and highest bidder. Before our very eyes our democracy is going, going and we should not wait for the auctioneer to pronounce “gone.” If we do not take action now it will be gone because right now it is leaving us inch by inch and trying to go back to where we retrieved it from: the jaws of autocracy.
Our country is under close scrutiny by those who cherish democracy within and outside the country. They crunch the numbers about various aspects of our democracy and we don’t look pretty at all. We look ugly, very ugly.
Democracy is not perfect but we seem to be working hard, very hard, to make it even more imperfect by our unforced errors brought about by greed for limitless power and the desire to cover our ugly tracks. Rita Mae Brown believes that “people are like teabags; you never know how strong they’ll be until they’re in hot water.” The press is in hot water now. The electronic media have been almost wrestled to the ground now with outrageous fines and unwarranted shutdowns. Now the only one standing semi-erect, the print media, are under the threat of a fatal rocket launcher about to be released on its unmerited target. We seem, by our largely tepid reaction to this danger in waiting to be moving unwittingly towards the deification of autocracy.
I ask all lovers of freedom and democracy to wake up now and show that, as teabags in hot water, they are strong. Many people are hungry for the freedom that democracy ought to bring but they do not know how that freedom comes about. It is those who fight for it that bring it about. The press is in the forefront of that fight but other persons must become co-travellers. If you let them kill the press, they will kill our democracy and the freedom you crave. Pluck up courage and join the fight for the freedom that is about to go away. A siddon look posture is useless. In matters that affect press freedom and free speech Segun Osoba is a fighter that we admire. That is why the honour bestowed on him by Governor Abiodun sits very well on him.