By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, there is no way I can tell the stories of my life, my adventures and whatever I have achieved in journalism, without devoting substantial space to those who have been my inspiration. Two of them, Chief Olusegun Osoba and Prince Nduka Obaigbena, are in their season of big celebrations as they enjoy landmark birthdays. Chief Osoba turns 80 on July 15 2019 whilst Nduka, or “The Duke” as he is more fondly known by close associates will be 60 on 14 July 2019. Although there is a twenty-year gap between them, and Chief Osoba is a revered grandfather of journalism in Nigeria, both of them share the same attribute of bestriding the journalism sphere like a colossus. Here’s a tribute to the two giants of journalism who have been a significant part of my trajectory and had a great influence on my development and establishment as a media personality.
My interaction with Nduka began almost as soon as my sojourn in Lagos started. I arrived Lagos in May 1988 to resume work as a Staff Writer at the African Concord magazine, owned by Chief Moshood Abiola. I had visited Lagos about a month earlier in search of a job. In those days travelling to Lagos was seemingly like travelling to England or America. We viewed Lagos like an Eldorado, paradise on earth! After a quick interview conducted by the Editor of the magazine, Mr Lewis Obi, I was offered a job on the spot. I requested for some time to go back to Ile-Ife, where I lived, to prepare for the new life.
During that visit to Lagos, I took time off to call on a few media organizations in the city. My four favourite organisations were The Guardian, The Concord, Newswatch and Thisweek magazine, owned by Nduka Obaigbena. At the time we were students at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), we had access to many publications. And we were voracious readers. We had our heroes in the media. They included Segun Osoba, Felix Adenaike, Peter Ajayi, Peter Enahoro, Dele Giwa, Doyin Aboaba (later Mrs Doyin Abiola), Yakubu Mohammed, Dan Agbese, Nduka Obaigbena, Sonala Olumhense, Dele Olojede, Amma Ogan, Stanley Macebuh, Folu Olamiti, Olatunji Dare, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, Tunji Lardner Junior, Greg Obong Oshotse, May Ellen Ezekiel, Dare Babarinsa, Seyi Olu Awofeso, Odia Ofeimun, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Andy Akporugo, Nduka Irabor, Tunde Thompson, Taiwo Obe and others.
I was particularly delighted to visit the Thisweek offices at Ogunlana Drive in Surulere. This was a magazine that was determined to push Newswatch, the leading Nigeria weekly magazine of those days, aside. Thisweek was glossy and colourful. It was published in London and airlifted to Nigeria. I marvelled endlessly at the audacity of its Publisher and was even more surprised when I read somewhere that he was not yet 30 when he chose to take on the Newswatch behemoth by poaching some of the best journalists from the biggest media houses in Lagos. This was a man who was going places and attaining great heights and he was barely a year older than me. I felt truly humbled by his courage, boldness and dare devilry. I knew I had so much to learn from him.
My visit to Thisweek would turn out to be a future gamechanger for me. Lanre Idowu had introduced me to Nduka Obaigbena and described me as one of those troublesome writers from Ile-Ife, referring to my partner, Kunle Ajibade, with whom I had co-authored a controversial article that had gone viral. Nduka immediately warmed up to me. He led me into his office and instantly gave me an article to pen and paid me N100 for it. Let me say, N100 was big money in those good old days. I was elated. That was how we struck our friendship and we have never parted ways since then. Our relationship is truly surreal as we are almost like blood relations sharing a similar passion for excellence in journalism and the company of great men and women. I shall return to this.
I had some challenges when I returned to resume work in Lagos. The major problem was, of course, accommodation. I had to squat with different friends at various locations. Let me pull out the one most relevant to this story. I was staying with Segun and Funke Adegbesan in Adeniran Ajao Estate, by Anthony Village. Segun worked as a Lawyer at Gani Fawehinmi chambers very close to the house. That is another story for another day.
The main gist is that Segun had a music box that played cassettes. My favourite of them all was a release by Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey in which he praised Olusegun Osoba to high heavens:
“Olusegun o, Olusegun o, omo Osoba, Omo Osoba, Akinrogun moba rode…
Abata pa, abata pa Osoba yii daraba Olusegun…
Awo Felix Adenaike, awo Peter Ajayi, awo Funlola Okunowo, awo Bukola Okunowo mi, ati Bade Ojora, omo Apasa mi…”
This song was like an elixir of life for me! I played it as soon as I woke up every morning and also at night before sleeping off. I had already heard fantastic stories about the awesome exploits and derring-do of this esteemed journalist called Segun Osoba and was determined to emulate him. My God, I tapped into the generous grace of this man called Osoba and prayed that God should grant me such as well. It became an obsession for me. You can now imagine what it must have been like meeting this legend in body and soul.
Our paths would cross many times in the future, but at that time I was a fledgling tyro journalist while he was an embodiment of the quintessential Nigerian journalist that we all strove to be. Osoba was a mantra I chanted regularly. I studied him like a book. And, I must say, my respect for him grew in leaps and bounds. Osoba was very close to my Chairman, Chief Moshood Abiola. From our first encounter, we fell in love with each other. Time and space would not allow me to write much. But I became his protege. What I admired most in him was his extensive network of friends and associates and how he found time for almost everyone. I wished to acquire such level of experience and exposure.
His foray into politics was another remarkable aspect of his life. He was the prototype who proved that journalists could aspire to be anything that they wanted. There was style and class in Journalism and both Osboa and Nduka symbolise this. While Osoba took the world of journalism by storm, what he did in politics was even bigger. He went on to become Governor of Ogun State after only a short stint in politics. He was as dynamic in politics as he had been in journalism. I was not very surprised by his conquests and giant strides. His suaveness and impeccability were such that his successes were assured in whatever he touched. His impact on Ogun State was short-lived because of the June 12 debacle.
As if by divine coincidence, I went to visit Chief Osoba in Abeokuta during the June 12 crisis. This must have been on July 21, 1995 because the biggest drama of my life started on July 22, the day after. I therefore have poignant memories of that day. Chief Osoba and I discussed the impasse that June 12 had become, but we were not prepared for what happened next. He was a strong Abiola supporter who stood for justice. When it became necessary, he realised that the fight had become an external one, as well, he left Nigeria and tried to use his friends in the international media to bring our plight to the fore and ask for both. I never envisaged the monumental surprise that awaited me in Lagos when I returned from Abeokuta. I ran into my wife on my way home and she broke the news to me. Some gentlemen had found their way to my flat in Ojodu. Apparently, they had picked up Intelligence that I was going to be arrested and detained as one of the suspected brains behind Radio Freedom which later metamorphosed into Radio Kudirat. So, I was advised to take cover and disappear into thin air. That was it. I never planned to live outside Nigeria.
I managed to escape Nigeria through the Seme bush and meandered my way via Benin Republic, Togo and Ghana until I landed in London. Meanwhile, Chief Osoba was facing his own ordeal back home. He was being harassed by the Abacha government. He eventually found his way to London. For both of us. London was too cold blooded. I visited him regularly and we walked a lot around his neighbourhood in the Swiss Cottage and St. John’s Wood area of London.
On June 8, 1998, some people woke me up with what I considered to be the rumours of General Sani Abacha’s death. I promptly dismissed these stories as untrue and impossible and went back to sleep. Abacha was just literarily larger than life and I could not comprehend news of his death. The call I got from Chief Osoba changed all that. I thought to myself, how on earth can Chief Osoba believe Abacha could ever die, but he insisted his sources were credible and that was it. The rest is history. We remained even closer since then.
I joined so many Nigerians to celebrate Chief Osoba at the launch of his book last Monday and, as always, Chief Osoba sparkled brilliantly like a million stars. The book BATTLELINES was written to commemorate his 80th birthday which comes up in a couple of days. My warm and hearty congratulations to him.
Back to my very dear friend and Brother, Nduka Obaigbena. From 1988 to date, we have come a long way together, through thick and thin. He has really touched my life in many ways. As he clocks 60 years, I’m proud to be associated with him and I raise a toast to one of the most daring, intelligent, hardworking and flamboyant journalists Nigeria has ever produced. It is fitting to celebrate him with Chief Osoba because they are of the same cloth, the same ilk! It is difficult to find a Publisher like this exceptionally gifted man, we call the Duke.
Nduka taught me so many things. In 1991, he cleared the way for me to obtain visas with ease as a journalist of repute. In 1992, he invited me to midwife what is today known as Thisday newspapers and bought me a brand new Peugeot. In 1992, he travelled all the way to Ijebu-Ode for my wedding. In 1993, we supported two different Presidential candidates. I supported Moshood Abiola while he supported Bashir Tofa. On June 14, 1993, after I departed Vienna where I had gone to represent Chief Abiola at the Bruno Kreisky Awards won by Chief Gani Fawehinmi, I made a call to Nduka from London, to let him know that I had arrived and discuss the turbulent, suspensory political situation in Nigeria. I received the rudest shock of my life when he gave me an inkling of the annulment to come. I told him it was impossible, but it turned out that Nduka was right as usual. He has such incredible sources!
Nduka and I found ourselves at some point in exile in London. We had our offices on Kilburn High Road. We were together in his apartment in West London with Tokunbo Afikuyomi two days before Chief Abiola died on July 7, 1998. He returned to Nigeria and turned Thisday into the formidable media empire and conglomerate that it has now become.
Nduka loves his friends dearly. He has been too kind to me, and I have only just mentioned a few instances. He never fails to acknowledge my humble contribution to the birth of one of Africa’s most influential newspapers as a Founding Editor.
He has suffered greatly for his daredevil approach to journalism, but he has remained unbowed and unmoved in the face of massive intimidation. He has always overcome! Nduka has managed to remain a dominant force and recently forayed into electronic media with the Arise News Channel. Within a short time, Arise has become one of the most authoritative news channels in Nigeria, Africa and beyond. Well done Nduka. I applaud you. You deserve all the plaudits.
60 hearty cheers to the Duke himself …