One hero and a me­dia in win­ter

The Guardian (Nigeria) - - THE GRAND MASTERS - Dare Babarinsa

DAPO Olorun­y­omi, who turn 60 last week, is a gi­ant who be­strides two worlds. He was one of the he­roes who led the troops in the war against dic­ta­tor­ship of Gen­eral Sani Abacha. He is still in the thick of things to­day when the me­dia is in poor, if not fail­ing health, as the har­bin­ger of the brave New World. Olorun­y­omi was the Deputy Ed­i­tor-in-chief of The­news,the icon­o­clas­tic news mag­a­zine that came out in the fi­nal years of the Gen­eral Ibrahim Ba­bangida dic­ta­tor­ship. It was a heady pe­riod when we be­lieved the pos­si­bil­i­ties of our coun­try were end­less. Now in this sober times, Olorun­y­omi is lead­ing the charge as the Ed­i­tor-in-chief of Premi­um­times, the on­line in­ves­tiga­tive news­pa­pers that is mak­ing waves, ruf­fling feath­ers and per­haps show­ing us the fu­ture of jour­nal­ism. Olorun­y­omi’s genre of jour­nal­ism was forged in tur­bu­lence. He was one of the top jour­nal­ists of the African­con­cord­where the ir­re­press­ible Bayo Onanuga was Ed­i­tor, now the Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of the News Agency of Nige­ria, NAN. Onanuga and I were school mates at the De­part­ment of Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Univer­sity of La­gos, where he grad­u­ated in 1980, the same set with the late Remi Oyo, who also once served as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the NAN and was no­tably the Chief Press Sec­re­tar y of Pres­i­dent Oluse­gun Obasanjo. UNILAG Mass Comm was (and still is) the cor­nu­copia for the pro­duc­tion of me­dia men and women. Olorun­y­omi was not in Mass Comm but he ac­quired his moral met­tle from the Obafemi Awolowo Univer­sity, Ile-ife, an in­sti­tu­tion I was also priv­i­leged to at­tend.

It was his re­li­gious ad­her­ence to jour­nal­ism as an in­stru­ment of na­tional moral­ity that put Olorun­y­omi and his col­leagues in trou­ble. There­fore, he was never afraid to hunt in the for­est of a thou­sand demons. Ife of the late 1970s and 1980s was a ci­tadel of moral cer­tainty and cru­sad­ing fer­vor. The fac­ul­ties were full of rad­i­cals and gi­ant in­tel­lec­tu­als. It was at the new Oduduwa Hall in Ife that Pro­fes­sor Wole Soyinka pre­miered his Oper­a­wonyosi, a satir­i­cal look at African dic­ta­tor­ship in an era that pa­raded mon­sters likes Field Mar­shal Idi Amin of Uganda and Em­peror Jean Bedel Bokassa of the Cen­tral African Em­pire. Ife was the home of Soyinka, of Pro­fes­sor Sam Aluko, the un­for­get­table econ­o­mist, Pro­fes­sors Banji Ak­in­toye, Adeagbo Ak­in­jog­bin, Ishola Olo­mola, David Oke and many other stars. Even our Vice-chan­cel­lor, Pro­fes­sor Oje­tunji Aboy­ade, use to teach year two stu­dents eco­nom­ics. He would come to class, dressed in im­pec­ca­ble short-sleeve shirt and bow tie and pro­claim: “Eco­nom­ics!” When Gen­eral Oluse­gun Obasanjo, the then mil­i­tary ruler, of­fered him a sec­ond term, he de­clined. He pre­ferred to teach.

Com­ing from the back­ground of se­ri­ous moral so­cial and po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ments, it was not dif­fi­cult for Olorun­y­omi to fit into the dy­namic newsroom of Onanuga’s African­con­cord. The mag­a­zine was one of the nu­mer­ous pub­li­ca­tions on the sta­ble of the Con­cord Group of News­pa­pers, which in­cluded the Na­tion­al­con­cord,sun­day Con­cord,week­end­con­cord,isokan and Amana, founded by that larger-than-life en­tre­pre­neur, Chief Mos­hood Abi­ola, the Ba­sorun of Ibadan and the Aare Ona Kakanfo. Abi­ola be­lieved that the in­stru­ment of pri­vate en­ter­prises can be used to change Nige­ria if the right po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship was in place. He was a brave man who had un­der­gone a mirac­u­lous meta­mor­pho­sis from poverty to pros­per­ity and who be­lieved that this was pos­si­ble for the next per­son.

Abi­ola was also the friend of the big men and women of power. When Abi­ola’s friend, Gen­eral Ibrahim Ba­bangida came to power in 1985, it was clear to many peo­ple that it was a good time for the Con­cord chair­man. The de­posed regime of Gen­eral Muham­madu Buhari had been hos­tile to the news­pa­per group and Duro Onab­ule, the Ed­i­tor of the Na­tion­al­con­cord was de­tained for many weeks. Onab­ule had writ­ten an ar­ti­cle, crit­i­ciz­ing the Buhari regime, and pro­claim­ing that “what­ever has a be­gin­ning must have an end.”

When the end came for the Buhari dic­ta­tor­ship, we thought it was the be­gin­ning of some­thing more en­dur­ing, friend­lier and bet­ter. But on the day Gen­eral Ibrahim Ba­bangida seized power, some­thing sig­nif­i­cant hap­pened. The new men of power led by the likes of Joshua Don­go­yaro and Halilu Ak­ilu had drafted a speech for the new Head of State. The draft was given to Ba­bangida as he drove from the Flagstaff House, Ma­rina, to the head­quar­ters of the Nige­rian Tele­vi­sion Au­thor­ity, NTA, Victoria Is­land, to make his first broad­cast. The draft had car­ried the ti­tle: Speech­bythe­head­of­s­tate­and Com­man­der-in-chiefofthenige­ri­an­armed Forces. Ba­bangida took out his red pen and crossed out Head of State and wrote in its place, Thep­res­i­dent.

It was a ti­tle he was ready to de­fend at all cost and he would not let go will­ingly. The crit­i­cal press was skep­ti­cal about Ba­bangida un­end­ing Tran­si­tion Pro­gramme and had be­come alert to the dan­ger of what Dr Bala Us­man called the Hid­den Agenda. Un­ex­pect­edly, the African­con­cord where Lewis Obi was the Ed­i­tor-in-chief and Onanuga was the Ed­i­tor, also joined in writ­ing crit­i­cal sto­ries about the Ba­bangida regime. In its April 13, 1992 edi­tion, the mag­a­zine car­ried a damn­ing story against the regime. In re­tal­i­a­tion, Ba­bangida or­dered that the en­tire news­pa­pers, em­ploy­ing more than 3000 peo­ple, be closed down. Aghast at the sever­ity of the pun­ish­ment, Abi­ola met his friend to beg for a re­prieve, but the dic­ta­tor would not budge un­less the Ed­i­tor, Bayo Onanuga, tenders an un­re­served apol­ogy.

The Con­cord chair­man then held a meet­ing with Onanuga and di­rected him to bring a let­ter of apol­ogy which would be de­liv­ered per­son­ally to Brigadier Halilu Ak­ilu, the Di­rec­tor of Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence. Onanuga re­fused. In­stead he fired a let­ter of res­ig­na­tion to Abi­ola where he stated: “For the past 72 hours, I have re­flected on the sug­ges­tion and my con­clu­sion was I shouldn’t com­mit such a heinous crime against my­self. I am not there­fore go­ing to write any apol­ogy to any­one.”

It was this de­fi­ance that gave birth to The­news. The Onanuga team in­cluded Olorun­y­omi, Kunle Ajibade, Femi Ojudu and Seye Ke­hinde. They were to prove them­selves as brave pa­tri­ots at a time when this coun­try needed them. Apart from pub­lish­ing The­news, they also gave our coun­try Tempo and Pm­news. All the pub­li­ca­tions were crit­i­cal of mil­i­tary rule. It was not sur­pris­ing that they were all vis­ited with heavy hands es­pe­cially dur­ing the dark days of Gen­eral Sani Abacha. All of them had taste of prison expe- ri­ence and for Olorun­y­omi, the win­ter of bit­ter ex­ile.

The win­ter thawed in 1998 when Abacha died sud­denly. Shortly af­ter that I vis­ited the United States where the op­po­si­tion Na­tional Demo­cratic Coali­tion, NADECO, was the nu­cleus of Nige­rian émi­gré com­mu­nity of which Olorun­y­omi was a prom­i­nent mem­ber. I was hosted by Gen­eral Alani Ak­in­ri­nade in his Mary­land home, nes­tled in the mid­dle of an ex­clu­sive es­tate. Among the men and women who came for the re­cep­tion were the likes of Pro­fes­sor Ay­o­dele Mobolurin of Howard Univer­sity and Dr Kay­ode Oladimeji, one of Amer­ica’s most prom­i­nent sci­en­tists. It was a joy­ous oc­ca­sion for me and Olorun­y­omi, who fled into ex­ile in 1995, and we rem­i­nisced about old times, our late boss, Chief Abi­ola, the prob­lem of ex­ile and the ex­cit­ing but per­ilous en­ter­prise of guer­ril­la­jour­nal­ism.

Since Olorun­y­omi re­turned from ex­ile, print jour­nal­ism it­self seems to have gone into a grad­ual ex­ile. All the front line me­dia houses that helped Nige­ria to fight the mil­i­tary are in par­lous state if not con­signed now into the grave. Olorun­y­omi had tried to move on. He worked for some years with the Eco­nomic and Fi­nan­cial Crimes Com­mis­sion, EFCC, in the hey­days of Nuhu Ribadu, its first Chair­man. He is the founder and Ed­i­tor-in-chief of Premi­um­times, a first class on­line news­pa­per spe­cial­iz­ing in in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism. What Olorun­y­omi and the me­dia elite have to live with since the ad­vent of civil­ian rule in 1999 is the dede­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of the news­pa­per in­dus­try and its seizure by some­thing close to panic.

Now that Olorun­y­omi has at­tained the age of 60, he must be won­der­ing whether the press in Nige­ria has now en­tered the win­ter age and whether there is no re­treat from dis­as­ter. One of the prob­lems has to do with the po­lit­i­cal elite that are wean­ing our youths on the milk of ig­no­rance. There are very few pub­lic sec­ondary schools in Nige­ria to­day that has a func­tion­ing li­brary where the stu­dents have ac­cess to daily news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. We would soon be pro­duc­ing univer­sity grad­u­ates who have never seen a news­pa­per ex­cept with the ground­nut sell­ers.

How would a gen­er­a­tion that does not read news­pa­pers or mag­a­zines have the courage to de­fend their fa­ther­land and their free­dom in a world that is in­creas­ingly gov­erned by knowl­edge and ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion? How would they know about Olorun­y­omi and those yeomen and women who freed our coun­try from mil­i­tary rule? Olorun­y­omi should know that his as­sign­ment is not done un­til we can find a way to bring the read­ers back and free our coun­try from the win­ter of ig­no­rance.


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