Life, career trajectory of Septugenarian Lekan Alabi
A veteran journalist, author and public relations guru, Oloye ‘Lekan Alabi was born on October 27, 1950 in Ibadan, the capital of the old Western Region (now, Oyo State) to the late Pa AbdulRaheem Oladosu Alabi and Mrs. Mopelola. Pa AbdulRaheem Alabi (alias Right Time) was from the Oyetunji Olundegun family from Isale Ijebu and Ekerin Ajengbe family in Ibadan. The Ekefa Olubadan of Ibadanland, who was also a Press Secretary to four governors of the old Oyo State from 1983 to 1989, also holds forth as the first Cultural Ambassador of the National Museum and Monuments, Ile-Ife, Osun State. Oloye Alabi, who clocks 70 on Tuesday, October 27,2020, spoke on his childhood, ancestry and career trajectory in this interview with ROTIMI AGBOLUAJE.
You are joining the septuagenarian club this Tuesday, how was your growing up like?
It was a typical Ibadan, Yoruba upbringing that is deep in the tradition and culture of my people. I was born and bred in what we could call the Yoruba compound system, where anybody who was of your parents’ age was your parent. Anybody who was older than you was either your brother or aunty and they could discipline you if you misbehaved.
I was born in Ile Ekerin, Ajengbe SWI/131, Ibadan, which is my paternal grandmother family. We own the Iponriku Masquerade but my paternal ancestry is Ile Oye Oyetunji, Olundegun Compound. My ancestors were from Onigambari and Onibeji villages in Oluyole Council of Ibadan. My paternal grandfather was the famous cocoa merchant/financier, Pa AbdulSalam Adegbola Alabi, alias Alabi Owoniwon (Alabi, whose hand measures of cocoa beans tally with those of his weighing machines). In my mother side, our village is Otiko, Akinyele Council.
It is on record that you wrote a letter to Wole Soyinka while in prison, what motivated that courageous undertaking?
That was in 1967, when I was a 17-year-old form three student of African Church Grammar School, Apata Ganga, Ibadan. Wole Soyinka was my hero, because I applied to read English Language at the then University of Ife. That’s another story. But this is more of what you can call justice. Remember that my paternal grandmother, Mama Asma’u Odunola Alabi was Women Leader of NCNC (National Council of Nigeria Citizens) under Adegoke Adelabu. So, I grew up in the midst of activism. My association with the Daily Times and the transistor radio set that my father bought for me in 1963 when I became the Senior Prefect of my primary school. All these added to what you can call my emancipation and enlightenment.
So, there was this issue of the Daily Times one day, front-page headline which read: “Wole Soyinka Will Remain In Prison As Long As War Lasts – Gowon”. The second day I went to pick the copy again and I read it. I asked myself was it the way to send people to prison without trial? What was his offence? They said he went to Enugu at the risk of his life to meet with the then embattled Military Governor of the Eastern Region, Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. I thought it was most unfair. I, therefore, wrote three letters — One to the Head of State, Yakubu Gowon. I wrote: ‘Your Excellency, I am Lekan Alabi, student of so so school. I read yesterday’s copy of the Daily Times where you were quoted as saying that Mr. Wole Soyinka will remain in prison as long as war lasts’. In paragraph three, I wrote: ‘I don’t think this is fair. So, I am asking for two favours sir, please, release Mr. Soyinka or take him to court’. I signed and posted it at our area post office, the Mapo Post Office, Oja’ba, Ibadan. The second letter was written to Mr. Wole Soyinka. In the second paragraph, I wrote:’ I have appealed on your behalf to the Head of State since I read yesterday that you would remain in prison as long as the war last and I have told him that this is not fair. Please, remain steadfast in your cause which we follow and believe that you will not die in prison’. I signed. The third letter was written to the Editor, Daily Times, Kakawa Street, Lagos. In its second paragraph, I wrote: ‘I read your newspaper report of yesterday where the Head of State said Mr. Wole Soyinka will remain in prison as long as the war lasts.
Please note, I have written to the Head of State on behalf of Mr. Soyinka and I have also written to Mr. Soyinka and given him my solidarity’. I signed and posted it. Nigeria used to run on standard. The office of the Head of State acknowledged my letter. Two years after, that is, in 1969 after his release, Prof. Wole Soyinka now wrote me formally, thanking me for my support. Let me quote his first paragraph: ‘The letter, among others, was handed over to me on my release’. The second paragraph read: ‘Kindly see me in my office, School of Drama’. They now call it Theatre Arts Department in University of Ibadan and I went to visit him.
When we celebrated my 50 years of activism in 2017, the late Dr. Areoye Oyebola, former Editor and former Commissioner in the old Western State was the Chairman. While he was reading his address, twice he stopped and asked what gave me the audacity to write a letter on behalf of somebody whom we were not related and far older than me to a military Head of State? It is my background, the enlightenment created by my radio set, newspapers I read, the standard of education and the society. The Nigerian society, then, was run on merit, justice, law and order.
Looking at your career trajectory, one can rightly say that you’re a success story in the media profession. Did you set out to study journalism or it’s just by a coincidence that you got into the profession?
My father was working with a British company called Rowntree Nigeria Limited, which was making chocolate. From there, he joined the Daily Times as a junior staff in the Marketing Department, distributing the newspaper and products of the Daily Times of Nigeria. His boss in Ibadan was the doyen of journalism in Africa, Alhaji Ismael Babatunde Jose, who was succeeded by Chief Laban Omowale Namme. He was a Cameroonian but when Nigeria was about to get independence, there was plebiscite where Southern Cameroun said they would not join Nigeria. My father would bring a copy of Daily Times home everyday. When we had important functions, his bosses would honour him by coming to our house — The first car that my father bought as a start of his transport business was sold to him by the Daily Times.
So, I grew up reading copies of the Daily Times. The thing that appealed to me most as I started to understand English was the byline of the great reporter and columnist, Alhaji Alade Odunewu ‘just back’ from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, S. T. Ola ‘just back’ from London, the UK. I thought what a great job that would take me to the world. Later, as I was reading, I loved their prose, the language.
Some practitioners in the field didn’t study media-related courses. Looking at your education background, did you study journalism and where did you study?
I studied journalism at the famous College of Journalism, ‘Fleet Street’ London, the UK. Then, we were given Diploma but immediately after my graduation, maybe 10 years thereabouts, they merged the college with University of London.
Before going to that college, I had started working. My first pay in life was as a teacher at Saint John’s Anglican Primary School, Akinajo, near Arulogun. But I always had the ambition of becoming a journalist because I started taking correspondence courses in form three at Anglican Church Grammar School, Apata Ganga, Ibadan.
From Akinajo, I joined Onibonoje Press Limited, Felele, Ibadan as the first editorial assistant. It was just what we could call destiny, because the press advertised for Accounts Clerks but I was very poor in Mathematics in school. But I said, since I wanted to work in the media and this was a printing press. Even if it didn’t publish newspapers or magazines, going into where they published books, at least, I would have an inclination to what they called press and printing. Onibonoje was the most famous educational printing company in West Africa. So, we went for the examination and the interview as Account Clerks. But the Chairman of the company, Baba Gabriel Onibonoje, at about 4.35 p.m. called us out and announced the result. He said anyone whose name was called should stand at one side. He called the last one and faced the rest of us and thanked us for our interest in the company. He told those who didn’t succeed but still interested in working with the company to apply when next the company advertised for vacancies.
As we were about to leave he said: ‘Wait, who among you is Mr. Lekan Alabi?’ I raised up my hand and he asked me to stand apart. He told me that I came first in the overall test, written and oral, but my Mathematics was very poor. He added that since they were looking for account clerks, they didn’t see how I could fit. He however said they had decided to appoint me as the first Editorial Assistant to the company as a result of my proficiency in English Language. So, that was how I got the job.
From Onibonoje, the Sketch Publishing Company Limited now advertised for readers/writers/ reporters Grade 11. I applied formally and the examination and the interview was conducted by the Western State Ministry of Establishment in conjunction with the Management of the Sketch and only two us were selected. My humble self and Baba Ojo. But he changed his name to Morounkeji Goke. I worked there from 1974 to 1978. It was in between that I sponsored myself to London for my training. After the training, I returned to Sketch.
I left when they played politics about car loan, which was N3,600 for Beetle. Mr. Yemi Farounbi (now Dr. Farounbi) who was then the General Manager of NTV, Ibadan, read a report I wrote on the post office and its slackness. He, therefore, sent for me. He asked the question – ‘what are you doing in Sketch with your background and freshness from the UK? You’re supposed to be here’. Lo and behold, I applied. I was interviewed and taken. Even though, in 1972, I had applied to the same WNTV/WNBS (Western Nigeria Television / Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service) as it was then, and the process then was that they would shortlist and send to the WAEC Office, Yaba, Lagos. The Test Development and Research Organisation of WAEC conducted the examination. If you passed the examination, they would send your name back to the Television House, Ibadan, for auditioning. I came first but they didn’t take me. They said they needed two female programme assistants at that time. But eventually, I joined what they call now NTA (Nigerian Television Authority), Ibadan in 1978. I spent four years there.
Why did you leave NTA?
About 80 per cent of us left NTA Ibadan for the newly founded Television Service of Oyo State (TSOS), now call BCOS TV (Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State, Television arm). Let me tell you the reason we left. We were covering the N2.8 billion missing oil money when our incumbent President was then Federal Commissioner for Petroleum (Resources). So, when the civilians came to power in 1979, they set up a probe headed by the then Senate Leader, Dr. Olusola Saraki. But the National Party of Nigeria (NPN)-led Federal Government and NTA authority were not comfortable with our report. Our report was hot, direct and unbiased. They wrote a report to the then GM (Farounbi) that our reportorial crew should stop covering the probe. So, they passed it down to our Manager, News and Current Affairs, Fabio Lanipekun (the first TV sports reporter in Africa). He passed it to us. Then, we held an editorial meeting of the department and we decided that nobody could stop us from covering the probe. The second day, all of us brought our letters of employment. In the letter of appointments there was a clause that: ‘By this appointment, the Television House can send you on any assignments in and outside Nigeria’. So, we replied NTA Ibadan management to see what it gave us in our employment letter. We said nobody could restrict us. So, we went again.
They now jumped on Mr. Farounbi that he was the one who probably was pushing us. They saw him as pro-Awolowo, pro-Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), pro-Bola Ige. He was transferred to Akure. The youngest GM of Africa’s television station, they said he was to establish NTA, Akure. Some people in Lagos told us that all of us were in for trouble. As they transferred our Oga, all of us would be flung outside. So, we went to cover but they didn’t know because we didn’t take a branded vehicle. They now issued a strong letter. We now took NTA Headquarters, Lagos, together with NTA Ibadan to court. We said nobody could stop us.
In our case, the late Honourable Justice Emmanuel Fakayode, on the day of the judgment, said he loved journalism, he loved us, and all that, but now he must do his duty. He compared us to the driver of the rich man when the rich man woke up in the morning, he told the driver to bring that particular car out. The driver washed it and they went out. He said when they got to a roundabout, the rich man at the owner’s corner told the driver to turn right, he said the driver did not turn right. Then the owner asked if he didn’t hear him. He asked him to turn back but the driver said he would not turn anywhere. Then the owner now said something was wrong with this man. He therefore ordered him to park his car.
The justice said that was our situation. But he said that he loved us for our principles rather than being violent we had come to seek justice. According to him, he gave us lenient fine. Immediately they threw Mr. Farounbi out, Chief Bola Ige, the then Governor, made him his Special Adviser on Information and Chairman of the newly proposed television service. That was how we were interviewed at TSOS.
With your background, family and closeness to political leaders and activists like Bola Ige, many have thought that it was a matter of time that you would go into politics. But you proved them wrong. Why did you not venture into politics?
In 1992, without telling me or asking, Chief Ige went to the then Governor of Oyo State, Chief Kolapo Ishola and gave him my name for commissionership. Chief lge later called me after all these, saying I should come with my wife. We went to his Bodija house that day and he said he submitted my name for commissioner and nobody could fault my nomination. But told me that they said I wasn’t a politician and not a member of the party. I didn’t contribute any money neither did I attend any rally. He said he wanted me now to resign from Odu’a Investment Company Limited and join politics. He said: ‘Yes, because when you got this appointment, you came to me for my blessings. I asked you how long did you want to stay in Odu’a you said five years. Your time is up’. I thanked him but I started dodging him.
In 1998, when preparations were being made for the 1999 elections, without telling me or asking him, Chief Bola Ige went and submitted my name for the House of Representatives on the platform of Alliance for Democracy (AD). I was still at the Odu’a Investment Company Limited. I asked him if he was sure that the military would go. I told him to let’s watch the first four years. He was looking at me. The people that heard about it and came to appeal to me not take the interest Chief Ige had for me for granted. They said it wouldn’t be good if I took the chance for granted in order not to become worthless before Ige. They implored me to tell him that I was ready for 2003. So, I went and told him that sir, I was ready for 2003. He was extremely happy for it. He now announced it publicly when we were launching Ibadan Mesiogo, a book, which is a compilation of articles of people who benefited from Ibadan, at the Premier Hotel. He told everybody that Lekan was now coming out to join politics.
Until that morning, earlier morning that they called our land line that they had killed my boss. Naturally, my mind went to Odu’a Investment. I asked, which one? The person said they had killed Bola Ige. By 6.15 a.m., my wife and I were at his Bodija Estate house. Until they assassinated him on Sunday December 23, 2001, people were always asking me if I was related to Bola Ige.
The killing of Bola Ige was the most dangerous knock. It totally scared me from being a politician. Why must you kill each other? See the way they are treating themselves now – abuses, insolence and all that. I can’t tolerate that. Then they would say there would be a caucus within a caucus. After they have agreed on an issue, some people will change what it has agreed on. No, I’m not part of that.
Having served four governors, are you impressed with how media advisers and press secretaries are doing their jobs these days?
I’m not an angel but my generation, our seniors and in the schools and training institutions that I attended, they told us that we must be partisan in the execution of our duties. Two, we must not be subservient. Now, it is like he who pays the piper, calls the tune they are going to sing for him or her. I’m sorry, this is where the professional policy-making bodies such as, Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Nigeria Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) as it concerns me, must wake up and discipline any erring practitioner or owners. This is because the fault usually is not generally with the practitioners or the staff but with the owners. When the chairman tells you this must be published or transmitted or broadcast, people with conscience will walk out. Walk out, if you are being forced to compromise. You won’t die.
What is your advice to media advisers?
They should take note that their tenure will end. Their bosses will leave and they will go too. There is always tomorrow. Where do they want to put their face? They should remember what is called the Omoluabi culture in Yoruba land. You don’t abuse someone who is of your parent age or older than you. They should not be intoxicated with power. Power is very sweat. Power can be intoxicating.