Two Journalism giants
Two journalism giants have been receiving pats on their backs for the past few weeks for what they have done for the thankless profession of journalism. There is a dividing line of 20 years between them; Segun Osoba is 80 while Nduka Obaigbena is 60. They have both run a good race epitomized by doggedness, tenacity and unflinching loyalty to the pen profession. Both of them have also tested the bitter pill of Nigerian politics taking home some valuable lessons in the process. But I will leave their politics alone and pay attention in this piece only to their journalism. At birth eight decades ago, Osoba’s parents proposed two names for him. Because they had earlier lost two children to the cruel hands of death they thought Tanimowo might be an appropriate name for their baby. Tanimowo means “who can watch over him?” They also thought that with God on their side victory was assured. So they also chose the name Oluwasegun (God is victorious). It was Apostle Joseph Ayo Babalola, Segun’s maternal uncle and founding father of the Christ Apostolic Church who advised his parents to call him Oluwasegun. That is one of the persons to whom Oluwasegun Osoba has dedicated his autobiography, Battlelines: Adventures in Journalism and Politics. The other person to whom the book is dedicated is Alhaji Ismail Babatunde Jose who was his journalism mentor and guardian angel. It was Jose who swayed him from wanting to belong to the wig and gown profession to the noble art of reporting. Since he chose to toil in journalism’s vineyard we have all come to know him simply as Segun Osoba. Journalism abhors long names because long names pose a problem for headline casters. . To report is to be the eyes and ears, the nose and voice of a news organisation. It is to bear witness.” Journalism has two compartments, namely news and views. Osoba is an eminent reporter, a man who was obsessed with digging out information from the hole no matter how deep the hole was. There are enormous risks in reporting anything of significance: a war, a demonstration, a campaign, an election or a coup. Segun was in the thick of battle each time a major event occurred. His most famous scoop was his location of Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s corpse after the January 15, 1966 coup that took the life of Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister.
Osoba was not just a reporter, he was also a great fighter for press freedom. As Secretary General of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria in 1983, he mobilised journalists on a solidarity protest march in Lagos. They walked from Lagos High Court at Tafawa Balewa Square where Dele Giwa was being tried to St Anna’s Magistrate Court where I was also being tried on trumped up charges of murder in connection with the burning of the Nigerian External Telecommunications building. I was discharged and acquitted. Journalists dubbed the trial “murder by pen.”
In 1988, Osoba, Managing Director of Daily Times, was a member of the Constituent Assembly. He sniffed the anti-media sensitivity and hostility of the members on the media’s quest for press freedom. He got in touch with the Nigerian Press Organisation, made up of the three media arms namely; NUJ, NGE and NPAN and asked for it to send a powerful delegation that would make a pitch for press freedom to a committee of the Constituent Assembly. Mr. George Izobo represented the NUJ while Dr. Stanley Macebuh and I represented the Nigerian Guild of Editors and the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN). At the forum we made a passionate appeal for the Constituent Assembly members to suspend their prejudice based on some personal hurt inflicted on some of them by a few mischievous journalists and to look at the larger picture of enhanced benefits that an unfettered press could confer on Nigeria and its democracy when we would return to civil governance. Osoba came again to the rescue of our industry in 2002 when it appeared that the battle for the presidency of the NPAN was threathening to tear the media industry into shreds. Three men were in the contest, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, Chairman of Punch, Chief Sonny Odogwu, Chairman of Post Express and Ray Ekpu, Chief Executive Officer of Newswatch. The tension was thick. You could cut it with a knife and that was because the officials of the NUJ and the NGE had come to campaign for a candidate of their choice and injected a huge dose of ethnicity into the campaign. At the opening ceremony, Osoba advised the three of us to lock ourselves up in one room and choose one of us instead of having an election that had all the seeds of acrimony in its belly. Nduka Obaigbena lent us his suite at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel where the conference was held. The three of us tried for seven hours to choose one person but no luck. Chief Sonny Odogwu eventually agreed to step down for me and asked Chief Ogunsola to do so. Ogunsola said he would not because he was older than me. I told him I was older than him in the NPAN eventhough he was older than me in age. With that deadlock, the two of us went into an election the next day which I won. Ogunsola graciously congratulated me. However, even after the election, there was still a lot of hostility against my administration by ethnic jingoists. Ethnicity, rabid ethnicity, is pure poison. That is one of the poisonous pills that has kept Nigeria down, on the ground floor.
Apart from his activism for press freedom, Osoba was able to prove that a journalist could be a great manager of men and materials. His managerial prowess was evident during his headship of the Herald, Sketch and the Daily Times papers that he worked for at critical stages of their existence and he was able to give them a large dose of oxygen which transformed their lives tremendously. Prince Nduka Obaigbena, we call him The Duke, shares two qualities with Osoba (a) belief in the art of the scoop and (b) tenacity. When we started Newswatch in 1985 and the magazine was warmly embraced by the reading public we thought the entire magazine market was in our pocket. At that time, there was a vacuum in the weekend publishing market because most newspapers did not give special attention to readers’ reading habits at weekends. We sought to fill that gap by bringing out well investigated stories or scoops on Sunday/Mondays. The second quality of Newswatch was to emphasise that good, graceful, lyrical writing matters. So we tried to have a magazine that combined substance with style. Then before we could settle down properly to enjoy the luxury of our dominance a twenty something year old man emerged on the scene with a magazine called ThisWeek. Even the name of the magazine was very creative, emphasising the now-ness, the immediacy and the oven-freshness of the meal it was offering. That is how this twenty something year old Nduka Obaigbena, who was not even a known name in media circles at the time gave us a run for our money. We saw his paper as a major competitor that wanted to punch above its weight. But the competition, though fierce, was healthy and offered the reading public something to look forward to from week to week. Then ThisWeek died possibly through boardroom politics of its competing directors. Nduka went back to the drawing board and came out with ThisDay which is almost entirely owned by him. As Chairman of the company he is the final approving authority on the business. As Editor in Chief he is the final approving authority on the company’s journalism. So he has enormous powers in both hands which makes it easy for him to wheel the company and the newspapers in the direction he wishes. His newspapers hit us with scoops regularly and people accuse him of cheque book journalism. Cheque-book journalism to me means you can buy stories and interviews. It is not evil. We did it in Newswatch and newspapers all over the world pay for stories they want badly.
Nduka is deeply involved with the innovativeness that his newspaper exhibits. As a creative artist and cartoonist, his newspapers benefit from the artistic flourish of an aesthetician. One other thing he has done is elevating column writing to a place of prominence by putting columns on the back page. Columns used to be consigned to the backwaters of the inside pages. Most newspapers used to reserve their back pages for sports but today most, if not all of them, have reserved their back pages for the magisterial pronouncements of the oracles called columnists. That is Nduka Obaigbena’s doing. He has made column writing popular again by giving a place of prominence to columnists at the table. Now we even have a League of Nigerian columnists who are working on publishing some of the seminal columns written by these oracles as a book. In all of these Nduka has shown tenacity, expanding his business in various directions including music promotion, fashion and television programming. He was able to bring to Nigeria the iconic American musician, Beyonce, the incomparable and ageless model, Naomi Campbell and America’s former President Mr. Bill Clinton. That is the length of his antennae. Both Osoba, former Governor of Ogun State and Obaigbena billionaire publisher, have brought, by their exertions and their achievements a new perception of journalists and journalism. The insulting notion that journalists are simply “press boys” is in retreat, because these two men among others have given journalism a place of honour at the Nigerian table. Congrats to them.