Stream of consciousness [SoC]: In our last conversation, I inadvertently stopped you from telling us about a great number of historical characters? I know you loathe the label “name-dropper”, but aren’t you taking it too far? Your work as a journalist has enabled you to meet some of the world’s more famous – or even notorious – people. So why can’t you feel free to tell others about them?
ME: If you fully understood that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. You see, some of us were reared to be modest. We are not like something called “Stream of Consciousness” which was groomed in the stable of “Let it all hang out!”
SoC: Ouch! That was below the belt. Let’s move on quickly, shall we, before we get trapped into total recall about your first pair of school shorts and the plastic belt that was so fragile that it couldn’t hold the shorts up and forced you to pull them up after every five or six steps – ha ha! Oh school days in the bush! How delicious! Were they not, ha? But do tell me – did you actually meet General Sani Abacha, “A-butcher of Abuja”?
ME: No. But I did breathe the same air as him once. I was in Lagos doing a story for the London Sunday Times Magazine and was taken to a birthday party given by General Theophilus Danjuma, a former top military man. Haroun Adamu, Political Editor of the Lagos Daily Times, took me to the General’s house in Lagos...
SoC: Very interesting chap in his own right, no?
ME: Danjuma? Yes... He was a member of the Murtala Muhammed group...
SoC: No, I meant Haroun Adamu!
ME: Oh? Well okay. Yes. Haroun was one of the most erudite political writers of the Daily Times at the time (1974). Although Nigeria was still under military rule, Haroun Adamu and other members of a band of amazingly irrepressible Daily Times journalists – Femi Ogunsanwo, Effiong Essien and Segun Osoba among them – refused to recognise that Nigeria had become a military dictatorship like say, neighbouring Ghana and they wrote as if they were living in the vibrant democracy that Nigeria had been before the January 1966 military coup.
Going there from Ghana – where the media were so docile that even the arrest – or dismissal – of their own journalists by the military government of the time, the National Liberation Council (NLC) could be suppressed by the very newspaper or organ on which they worked (because reporting the arrest would be deemed “embarrassing” to the government that had victimised them!) I felt as if I had been liberated into journalistic heaven.
Apparently, most of the Nigerian military officers respected good journalists. Nigeria is such a huge country – and political interests there are of such a multifarious nature – that it was dangerous for journalists to become sycophantic to any political “faction” they adopted. Journalists could not tell with exactitude whether a government measure had been opposed in the ruling Supreme Military Council or not, and by whom, and how powerful those dissidents were. So if they presumed to play a guessing game and blindly supported any measure, they might find that they had rather offended some very powerful people who had opposed that very measure in council and lost out. So the best thing for everyone was for the journalists to write precisely what they thought about everything.
SoC: And you couldn’t do that in Ghana?
ME: Do me a favour! Of course, not every powerful soldier in Nigeria could agree with everything written by every journalist all the time, and indeed, some journalists were jailed. One was even whipped brutally by the order of a military governor. But such aberrant acts were publicised and condemned by the rest of the media.
Now, the biggest newspaper, the Daily Times, was lucky then to have as its Chairman and Managing Director, Alhaji Babatunde Jose. I met him in 1993, in the London home of Chief M K O Abiola…
SoC: Here we go! If you start on Jose, then move on to Abiola, we shall be here for six days, right? Very big colourful man with loads of stories about him, Abiola, no? But could we just return to ...
ME: Ok, ok! Now, Alhaji Babatunde Jose had been with the paper almost since it was founded by the Daily Mirror group in London in the late 1940s and regarded it as his personal baby, which he tried to nourish with the unadulterated milk of pure intellect. (It was the same company that, following its undoubted success in Nigeria, moved over to Ghana and founded the Daily Graphic there. But the Graphic was not blessed with anyone as visionary or courageous as Alhaji Jose, and was always a soft sop to press freedom, though it did have some excellent columnists like Moses Danquah, Bankole Timothy and Carl Mutt (Henry Ofori).
Alhaji Jose’s trick was to recruit young university graduates who had a good turn of phrase, train them at the paper’s own journalists’ training school (which he’d set up with the help of staff seconded from the London Daily Mirror), and then set them loose on Nigerian society. Their idols were Daily Mirror writers like Cassandra and Peter Wilson, who alone were reason for someone to buy the paper. Jose also paid the young journalists very well, so that they carried no inferiority complex whatsoever with them when they met the ogas [chieftains] of Nigerian politics and business. Indeed, some of his “boys” were later to become prominent in Nigerian politics themselves. For instance, the former Governor of Ogun State, Segun Osoba, was the paper’s “Social Affairs” Editor when I first met him in 1974; Effiong Essien was Economics Editor but later worked in a high capacity as Economic Adviser to the Government of Cross River State. And Femi Ogunsanwo was a political correspondent who knew everybody in Lagos (it was through his friendship with Chief Awolowo’s secretary, Odia Ofeimun, that I met the Chief one day, flanked by his famous lieutenants, Bola Ige and Lateef Jakande).
It was Femi who also took me to witness how elections were rigged in Nigeria. In a local council poll at Ekpe, a town on Lagos mainland, I saw people voting for a rich Otunba (traditional “Chief”) the night BEFORE voting was due to take place officially! They each pocketed a sum of money after casting their votes. Election officials in the Chief’s pocket were to stuff the ballots into ballot boxes and smuggle them into the polling centres the next day, when official voting took place.
Because the Otunba had bought all the election officials and the police, as well as the polling agents of his rivals, only the opposing candidate complained – without getting any support whatsoever – and the Otunba won the election hands down.
SoC: Wasn’t Bola Ige, whom you say you met with Awolowo, the man who became Federal Attorney-General and was murdered by unknown assailants on 23 December 2001 at his home in Ibadan? How could a very powerful Federal Minister have such a weak system of personal security that he could be murdered like any commoner?
ME: Aha! That’s Nigeria for you! Now you’re beginning to understand that big but puzzling country. The Bola Ige murder case was never resolved satisfactorily.
SoC: Lateef Jakande became a relatively successful Governor of Lagos, didn’t he?
ME: Yes, he was known for building a lot of schools in Lagos. Many of his teachers were imported from Ghana. Femi once – but I’d better not go there!
SoC: Hey, cut it out!
ME: Well, I…
SoC: No ifs and buts, my friend. You were saying that you met Awolowo, Jakande and Ige at one sitting, and you want to gloss over it?
ME: Yes – I greeted them and was surprised to find that they all knew my name. One thing you must know is that Nigerian politicians, unlike some others, do read. Chief Awolowo complimented me warmly on an article on Nigeria I had published in Africa Magazine, which quoted his long-time political acolyte, Sam Ikoku, and emboldened, I asked him what he thought of General Gowon’s decision, announced on 1 October 1974, that he was postponing “indefinitely”, the programme by which he had promised to hand over power to a civilian government.
Awolowo was quite intransigent: he wouldn’t comment publicly on the issue. In fact he rather sharply recalled that: “I told you on the phone that I would not comment on it. And yet you are asking me again?” I shot back, “But the situation has changed, Sir. And I thought you might have reconsidered your position.” He would still not be moved, however. He certainly gave me an insight into what made him seem “inflexible” to many in Nigerian politics.
I should have known better than to press him. For serious conspiracy was afoot in the land, and no politician worth his salt would show his hand publicly – that is, to a journalist. On 29 July 1975, just over six months after my interview with Chief Awolowo, General Gowon was overthrown by a junta headed by General Murtala Muhammed.
Gowon’s charge? They were many, but the main one was that he had dishonoured the Nigerian army by pledging publicly to hand over power and then peremptorily gone back on his word. Gowon was attending an OAU Conference in Lomé when he was booted out, and I saw him at Accra airport, when he arrived there to catch a plane to London. But…alas – it’s time to end. But God willing…!