By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, I started what would easily pass for my mini-biography last week in this column. The response from readers has been truly humbling. It is not easy starting a career with a bang and maintaining the ovation consistently for 30 years, and still counting. My story reassures us that our youths can still achieve a lot if they work very hard and tenaciously on their dreams. I was certainly not born with spoons, be it bronze, silver or gold, but education opened my eyes to uncommon possibilities. Rather than bemoan my humble background or begrudge successful people or government officials, as architects of my poor economic condition, I arrived Lagos in 1988 with a vengeance. I promised myself something; I will work as if work was going out of vogue, and I would leave the rest to God to sort out. And God answered my prayers beyond my asking. Things happened so fast and till this day, I’m still in a daze, some kind of wondrous haze.
I stopped last week at the point I became the pioneer Editor of Leaders & Company, the parent of Thisday newspapers. There are lessons to be learnt from my uncommon trajectory. Please, let me rewind a bit. When I was leaving Ile-Ife to seek greener pastures in Lagos, my dream was to work for only one newspaper, The Guardian, owned by the great Publisher, Mr Alex Ibru. I was equally attracted by the powerful assemblage of superstar writers in The Guardian: Olatunji Dare, Stanley Macebuh, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Onwuchekwa Jemie, Chinweizu, Sully Abu, Andy Akporugo, Odia Ofeimun, Edwin Madunagu, Patrick Dele Cole, Femi Osofisan, Sonala Olumhense, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, Amma Ogan, Greg Obong-Oshotse, and others, who worked there. They were first and world class. For any budding writer at the time, your dream was to work or write, every now and then, for The Guardian. Though the Concord Press of Nigeria, owned by Chief Moshood Abiola, was a much bigger media empire, with different publications, in English, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo languages, every person of intellectual bent queued up patiently to appear in The Guardian. It was the Holy Grail of Nigerian Press.
Many of us had our biases against Chief MKO Abiola, who had acquired many unprintable sobriquets and nomenclature. Some of the more palatable ones included Islamic fundamentalist, friend of the military, American agent, and all sorts. I therefore joined the Concord most reluctantly, and mainly out of desperation. Little did I know, that it was working within this organisation that would be the springboard to my successful career in journalism and public relations. Prior to that, I was writing on the opinion page of The Guardian to keep my body and soul together. On joining the Concord, I realised Abiola had been a veritable victim of the most malicious campaign of calumny. Though he was not a saint, he definitely was not the demon he had been painted to be, particularly by legendary musician, social critic and kinsman, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. I learnt many lessons for working for Chief Abiola from 1988-90, two years that now seemed like eternity.
I discovered the real Abiola. He was totally detribalised. He never practised quota system. No one asked about our State of origin or religion. It was immaterial that you were male or female. Christians held some of the most important positions in his organisation, at different times. We had and heard of non-Yoruba names like MCK Ajuluchukwu, Tom Borha, Stanley Egbochukwu, Nsikak Essien, Rose Umoren, Chike Akabogu (of blessed memory), Sam Omatseye, Lewis Obi, Ben Okezie, Yakubu Mohammed, Ray Ekpu, Dele Giwa, Nosa Igiebor, Nnamdi Obasi, May Ellen Ezekiel, Richard Mofe-Damijo, Dimgba Igwe, Ohi Alegbe, Betty Irabor… I can go on and on. All that qualified you for a job with Concord was that you had intellect or flair, or both. Journalists enjoyed substantial freedom, except on several and specific occasions when the military governments vehemently protested against certain stories and threatened hell fire and brimstone. We had a bush canteen where we committed sins of gluttony and alcoholism. Most journalists smoked like chimneys and were never discriminated or recriminated against by our amazing Chairman. He gave everyone his due and was probably the most generous employer of his time.
No one ever missed an opportunity to visit Chairman’s house in Ikeja. A visit would always guarantee some hefty gift, mostly cash. I remember an occasion when Babafemi Ojudu and I went to interview him. He made sure he arranged some substantial taxi fare for us, despite being the one paying our salaries. Our colleagues at work were endlessly jealous of our good fortune. On another occasion, our Managing Director, Dr Doyinsola Abiola had sent me on errand to secure the music star, Sir Shina Peters, for a performance at Chairman’s house where he was hosting the Super Eagles national team. Job done, I went to Chairman’s house to give a positive feedback and he was very elated. Abiola was a Master of appreciation. He must have noticed the rubbish wristwatch I adorned so proudly on my wrist and he entered his bedroom and came back with a solid gold watch which he gifted to me.
On several occasions, I had the privilege of listening to our Chairman as he explained his many battles and how he won most of them. He was a naturally affable personality (I liked to call him the spellbinder in many of my reports on him) and so it was not surprising that he had friends in high and low places. Did he take advantage of his extensive global connections and networks? Who wouldn’t? But he didn’t do business for the benefit of himself and family alone. He was the modern-day Santa Claus who spent lavishly on virtually all those who came in contact with him. His generosity was legendary. He represented one of Africa’s biggest business interests, ITT, in Africa and the Middle East, and so the accusation of him being an American agent was not surprising even if far-fetched. The lesson I learnt was not to judge anyone without cast-iron evidence. This attitude would help me and my business of journalism in years to come. As a matter of policy, I learnt not to attack viciously but to present my story in a fair and balanced manner and let the readers be the judge and interpreter.
Another lesson was in the art of dedication. I loved my job with a passion and it was palpable. No one would have believed that I worked at Concord for only, and exactly, two years, but our relationships didn’t just end there. I did not tell the famous generalissimo I was teleporting to Classique magazine but told our MD, Dr Doyinsola Abiola (nee Aboaba). I later ran into Chief Abiola at Sheraton Hotel & Towers, a few months after, where he was hosting Mallam Sani Zorro, a staff of Concord, who had just been elected President of the Nigerian Union of Journalists. Chief Abiola, who flew in that evening from Tokyo, if my memory is intact, gave May Ellen Ezekiel (God rest her soul) and I a pleasant surprise. As he made his speech, extemporaneously, he acknowledged both of us and asked, rhetorically, why I left without informing him.
I walked up to the boss of all bosses after the event and apologised to him. He was just too kind. He said my leaving Concord did not mean I could no longer visit his home and he requested for my business card but I had none on me. He then took one from my friend, Bimbo Ashiru, who was present, and signed behind it with written instructions to his security to give me unfettered access to his house. He then asked me to paste my own card on Ashiru’s own and laminate. “That is your multiple visa to my house,” he said jocularly. And indeed, that simple note opened doors from then to the end. I practically became Abiola’s official biographer. If he sneezed or coughed, I turned it into big exciting stories. Our bond grew in leaps and bounds. We became almost inseparable. He never considered anyone too junior or too young and I experienced to advise him and he listened and consented to superior argument and logic. He taught us to convince ourselves about anything before we can hope to convince others. We got to a point that he publicly announced to the media world that I was his adopted son, and I felt truly honoured. Interestingly, after I resigned from my job at Classique, and decided to start a public relations outfit, my first account came from Kola Abiola, who signed me as a consultant to their Summit Oil International company. My adult life has always intertwined media and public relations. I’m certain, I was brought to this world for the two.
I added other accounts later and consulted for the Spirit of Africa, an extremely hardworking and irrepressible business Guru, Dr Mike Adenuga Jnr, as well as Mr Hakeem Belo Osagie, fondly called the whiz-kid, who had just acquired United Bank for Africa, and worked with him on the Moneygram project, in Belgravia, London, when he brought the money transfer company to Nigeria. I also handled an aspect of Chief Abiola’s media campaign when he launched his Presidential bid. I was fortunate to meet and work closely with them at a young age. I was 28 when I joined Concord, 31 when I met Dr Adenuga and I was 33 when Chief Abiola contested in 1993, and I had been working for or meeting with the rich and famous, high and mighty in Nigeria since the age of about 20. This would adequately prepare me for the task of establishing and sustaining an elaborate publication as Ovation International in the future.
Chief Abiola entrusted me with great responsibilities. For example, he had sent me to Vienna, Austria, to represent him at the Bruno Kreisky awards, where Chief Gani Fawehinmi, was a proud recipient. As important as June 12, 1993, was to all of us, I left Nigeria on June 9, 1993, and joined Chief Fawehinmi in Vienna, on June 10. The event was on June 11. Chief Fawehinmi was shocked to see me in person. “Dele is this you or your apparition?” he exclaimed in his famous loud voice. I told him Chief Abiola had sent me with a special letter of congratulations and he was deeply touched. The ceremony went well on June 11.
I left Vienna for London on June 12, but there was no way to return to Nigeria faster. I called Nigeria on June 13 and was told by sources at Concord that Chairman was coasting home to victory. I called Nduka Obaigbena on June 14 but the news he gave me was as if I had received a sucker punch to my solar plexus. “Dele, where have you been? Try and reach your man Abiola and tell him to call his friend IBB (Babangida) urgently. It looks like he would win the election but they won’t hand over to him…” I promptly told him to stop the joke. How was it possible for a man to work feverishly and sleeplessly, as Abiola had done, and yet fail to get his mandate, I wondered aloud. I couldn’t reach Chief Abiola in the midst of this hullabaloo. Chief Fawehinmi arrived London that Monday of June 14, 1993, and I broke the news of what Nduka had told me to him. He too dismissed the report as unfounded. He said if there was any atom of truth in it, he was ready to fight to finish.
We boarded our flight from London Gatwick, North Terminal, two days later, on June 16, 1993, when the news came stealthily, like a thief in the night, that the military government in Nigeria had asked that the counting of votes be stopped by the electoral commission. Our worst nightmare was actually turning into unfortunate reality. By the time we landed, Nigeria was almost reaching a boiling point. Dr Beekololari Randsome-Kuti and Lawyer Femi Falana were already on standby and waiting for Fawehinmi’s arrival. That was it. What started stupidly as a wicked joke had suddenly spiralled out of control. The chickens had come home to roost and Nigeria, its leaders and its people would not be at peace for a long time to come.
I soon became an early victim of this unnecessary, ill-advised and ill-fated provocation. I was picked up one early morning in July 1993, by security agents on orders from God-knows-who! I was kept in a putrefied, rancid cell at Alagbon Close, in Ikoyi, Lagos. Thus, began my baptism of fire and a cat and mouse game between me and the then military government. The farce eventually reached a climax under the Abacha government and I was forced into exile on July 25, 1995. My dramatic escape from Nigeria is another story to be retold some other day …