By Dele Momodu
Great things often start like a joke. There is no better way to depict the birth of Ovation International in London. As illustrated last week in the first part of these anniversary notes, I was on the run from the dreaded military regime headed by maximum ruler, General Sani Abacha. My involvement in the struggle for the revalidation of the June 12, 1993 Presidential election mandate which the people of Nigeria freely gave to Chief Moshood Abiola, landed me in big trouble. Unlike former President Ibrahim Babangida, it was impossible for anyone to express his innocence to Abacha. There was no negotiation. I just developed wings and took off pronto.
Specifically, I was accused of being one of the brains behind Radio Freedom (which later metamorphosed into Radio Kudirat) after the cold-blooded murder of Alhaja Kudirat Abiola. But truth is I was not a member of the Radio Freedom crew considered a huge menace to the dictatorial government. At least not at the stage I was initially accused. The story of how I later joined the gang of highly dedicated and committed operatives of that ubiquitous pirate radio would be told subsequently.
Thus, having fled to England without any plans other than for immediate personal safety, I was in grave peril of expiring from human scourge, hunger, as I was jobless. It was this fear of joblessness and its consequences on my family that drove me and my team to take the leap of faith that manifested in the production of what would become one of Africa’s most ambitious media projects. We were under no illusion that the journey would be easy. We knew the road would be rough. We expected funding to be the biggest threat to our existence for a long time to come. We needed £150,000 to start small scale but could barely raise about £20,000. With a shortfall of around £130,000, we would have to crawl slowly but steadily. A man who’s down should fear no fall was our attitude. Our options were few and limited. But we were determined to make the impossible possible. Thanks to my co-travellers Adedamola Aderemi, Olusegun Fatoye, Adeyemi Aderemi, Damilola Abiodun and Bayo Williams (of blessed memories) we were set for an epic journey.
The first and very crucial task was how to assemble a crack Editorial team. We decided to scout for and assemble a star-studded assemblage of writers. We succeeded in attracting the legendary writers and polemicists, Sonala Olumhense and Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, who were both working for the United Nations. We got the highly cerebral Ike Okonta. We found the flowery Alaba Yusuf. A Nigerian lady, Uzoma Umesi, wrote some great pieces. We got the experienced media gurus Richie Dayo Johnson and George Noah, our neighbours in highbrow Docklands where we domiciled our effervescent office. We secured the gist merchant Kunle Bakare to control Nigerian operations. We got my former boss and the Queen of celebrity reporting May Ellen Ezekiel Mofe-Damijo and the king of African movies Richard Mofe-Damijo (RMD).
Everything appeared to be going well until suddenly, my former boss May Ellen had a fatal surgery and died in Lagos. I had spoken to her in the US and tried to straighten our ruptured relationship activated by my controversial removal as Editor of Classique magazine. I was happy we made up. She wasted no time in agreeing to be our Contributing Editor which I considered a great honour. Same with RMD who instantly agreed to support our dream. Little did I know it was going to be my last conversation with May Ellen.
We decided our magazine was going to be a masterpiece crafted like a work of art, and sold as a timeless and ageless piece. Every issue was going to be a collector’s item. We were going to locate the best printers in England and cover as many African stories as possible. The production of the maiden issue was meticulously executed. We wanted to report the lives and lifestyles of rich and famous Africans. We decided that we would expose and promote authentic African stars who would not be given prominence on the covers of Hello, Ok, GQ, Esquire, etc. We chose a plush cover story and placed Mohammed Al-Fayed, the Egyptian luxury store king at Harrods, graciously on the front. We got Ike Okonta, a brilliant poet, to get lost inside Harrods, one of the most expensive departmental stores in the world and pen his dreamlike experience for our readers. His piece was titled JUST DREAM. The man could not buy a pin in Harrods.
The beautiful magazine started with GOOD DAY AFRICA by Sonala Olumhense. Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo sent a comprehensive report from war-torn Somalia and highlighted efforts of the United Nations at bringing peace to the nation. We had a panel of the best gossip poachers including Deun Solarin and Funmi Ayandokun. They compiled our juiciest snippets on the 100 Stormy Women in Nigeria. It was a compendium of who’s who. It was meant to cover a broad spectrum of society ladies and ignite an instant debate in high society. We succeeded.
The magazine was an instant hit. Our friends, Gbenga Olunloyo , Kayode Akinyele, Dayo Olomu and others, were marvellous in spreading the magazine to different parts of London. We lived like communists and worked and ate together. Funmi Akinyele cooked lunch for us regularly. My energetic wife was heavily pregnant and still had to keep company of our fist son. Exile was hellish but we were undaunted. Holding the first copy of Ovation was worth all the diamonds in the world. We were in Cloud 10.
We sent copies to the of Chairman of Harrods and we were surprised to receive a very powerful response from Mr Al-Fayed, titled AN OVATION FOR OVATION, and a basket of goodies including vintage wines and chocolates. The historic letter praised Ovation as a welcome positive development as opposed to the purveyors of negativity. The second issue of the magazine was even more dramatic. We got an exclusive access to the family of famous singer SEAL in Lagos. The foreign media had always seen him as a Brazilian. We got phone calls from the world media as soon as our special report put together by super reporter, Azu Arinze, who was then at Encomium magazine, hit the streets.
It was incredible receiving calls from the National Enquirer, the largest circulating tabloid in America (4 million copies weekly). The publication requested our permission to cull our SEAL story and even offered to pay us. We approved but rejected the offer of payment and settled for the bold acknowledgement of Ovation in their widely circulated paper. We secured the same deal with The Mirror in London and it gave us massive exposure. For a new magazine named Ovation, it was a loud ovation for us from the beginning.
We experienced the miracle of God everywhere we turned because we were able to capture stories that money cannot easily buy. For example, I was having a drink in 1996 with Nduka Obaigbena at The Dorchester, the posh hotel on Park Lane, when the celebrated boxer, Chris Eubank, walked in. Chris was such a flamboyant celebrity and I approached him for an interview request. He told me I needed to approach his media agents which I knew I couldn’t afford. But Nduka came to my rescue. In his usual never-say-die spirit, he lectured Chris on why he should support the laudable business of a Black brother. Chris fell for Nduka’s charms and agreed to a major photo-shoot and interview the following morning at The Dorchester. That was it. We got another scoop.
We soon shifted our focus to the extraordinary Ghanaian fashion designer on Saville Row, Ozwald Boateng, who made no fuzz in agreeing to an Ovation coverage. We moved from Ozwaild to the glamorous football star John Fashanu who was staying in St. John’s Wood and gave us exclusive access. We did so much with so little cash and we soon reached a cul de sac. We simply ran out of gas, perhaps to put it mildly. Several times we thought the end had come but God created ways where there were none. I will never forget three of such. Top on the list as always was Dr Mike Adenuga, my God sent benefactor in the days of tribulations. He never forgot to send his contribution for the three years I spent in exile and I’m eternally grateful.
There is no money-guzzler like the media. I was totally frustrated one terrible evening when Jimi Akinniyi, one of our most committed reporters, walked in and told me what could have been a powerful message from God. He said he had earlier met a friend of his, Gbenga Adesanya, who offered to help us with some money without being close to me. I was delirious. The other and major miracle came when my friend, Dele Balogun, a businessman and educationist in London, invited me to a home in Surrey to interview a prominent Nigerian politician, Dr Bode Olajumoke. I met a very simple and unassuming gentleman who picked his words slowly but assuredly. In the course of our divine interaction, he told me his wife loves Ovation to bits but they could see we were just struggling with it. I told him the whole truth and departed.
A few weeks later, I got a call from Dr Olajumoke and he said his mind has been with me since we met and he has been thinking of my challenges. He then asked what he could do to help and I responded that he should act as God directed him. He said he likes my personality and was ready to grant me an interest free loan. He asked for my account details which I faxed urgently. He redeemed his pledge and I was elated.
The loan improved our status but as usual with the media business, it was like the abiku child, it comes and goes. No matter how much you pumped in, it was bound to evaporate in little time. Not many people understood how this business works, but I like to describe it as the ultimate casino. You have to be a gambler of sorts to make appreciable impact and success in the media industry. There are just too many variables, especially if your operations are as humongous and international like ours. The loan soon evaporated and it became a ding dong affair as we barely scratched the surface. To my greatest surprise, Dr Olajumoke did not only write off the loan, he later gave me more to keep us going. He believed so much in our ability to compete with the best of the world.
Between 1996 and 1998, we worked assiduously to stay afloat. We were hit on the solar plexus several times by blows that would have felled a giant but we had become resilient to the vagaries of the industry and knew how to absorb the rude shocks. The fact that I could not visit Nigeria made matters worse. I had to depend on others for most things. I was lucky that most of the people I turned to were willing to help but another man’s eyes can never be the same as one’s own eyes!
However, in between working on Ovation, I never slowed down on my political activities. I worked feverishly to attack the dictatorial and repressive regime of General Sani Abacha. I joined the Radio Kudirat team and ran the Yoruba segment. I went by the pseudonym Saliu Elenugboro, Eni Olorun o pa! I worked closely with the NADECO chieftains and spent any free moment I had with Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Tokunbo Afikuyomi. We were in the vanguard of the battle for the actualisation of the June 12 which was definitely won by Chief Moshood Abiola.
On June 8, 1998, General Sani Abacha was pronounced dead. It first started like a false rumour, the kind of which social media is now replete with, and I instantly dismissed the story. However, I got a call from Chief Segun Osoba who confirmed the shocking news. I was soon invited over to the CNN studio around Tottenham Court Road for my comments on the late military ruler. I felt a tinge of somnambulism and was in an emotional state, totally confounded by the development. There were rumours that Chief Moshood Abiola would soon be released. And we were naturally expectant.
Then the big bang came on July 7, 1998 and I crashed to earth with a thud, filled with indescribable sadness, nay devastation, as reports that Chief Abiola had died suddenly and mysteriously ruled the airwaves. Ovation had to do a special cover as the authority on Abiola. It was titled GOOD BYE TO A GOOD MAN. The Magazine disappeared from the streets as it sold out as soon as it went out.
I knew it was time to end my life in exile…