By Rotimi Lawrence Oyekanmi
Having spent 18 years of my life (1996 – 2014) reporting for The Guardian newspaper, I have more than a passing interest in its reputation. The Guardian is an institution. Its motto, Conscience, Nurtured by Truth, boldly inscribed under its masthead, has over the years, inspired all seekers of truth and provided solace for them in its professional and objective handling of public interest issues, especially during those difficult years of military rule.
When I joined The Guardian in 1996, Mr. Lade Bonuola was the Managing Director. Mr. Femi Kusa, one of Nigeria’s most brilliant journalists, was the Director of Publications and Mr. Eluem Emeka Izeze, the Editor, Daily. Mr. Andy Akporogu, of blessed memory, was the Executive Consultant (Editorial).
I still remember, with nostalgia, what I went through to get the job. It was a period when you had to be thoroughly tested before you were given any position. I was in the group of 23 Test Candidates, as we were referred to in 1996, and after several rigorous tests, three of us were eventually selected. Of the three, I was the only one that stayed beyond five years.
The tradition I met at The Guardian rewarded excellence, initiative and hard work. Although, things were not perfect, like the poor salary structure, but if you were hardworking and conscientious, you were assured of the getting to highest level professionally. That was why Debo Adesina could become an Editor at 27 and eventually the longest serving Editor of Daily until 2012, when Martins Oloja replaced him.
There was also freedom of speech and reasonable activism was allowed. At meetings, you could criticize your editor without any fear of victimization. You could spin any story idea around, and if it caught everybody’s fancy, the idea sailed through. And one of things we, The Guardian staffers were so proud of was our late Publisher’s (Mr. Alex Ibru) non-interference with editorial matters.
A particular story I heard over and over again was how Mr. Ibru used to attend editorial board meetings in those early years, but only as a participant. He had no major input and his views were ordinarily not sought. He could, of course, express his concerns on any subject, but the board was not under any obligation to accept them. He allowed the “professionals” to handle the newspaper, got the best hands and trusted them.
It was thus possible for The Guardian to blossom. On the editorial board, we had seasoned columnists like Dr Olatunji Dare, Mr. Edwin Madunagu, G.G Darah and Rueben Abati amongst others. The newsroom was bustling with energy. We had, as the Editor of the Sunday title in 1996, Kingsley Osadolor and Adesina was Editor of the Saturday title.
Mrs. Harriet Lawrence was Features Editor with Felix Abugu as her Deputy and they both managed an unbeatable team comprising Collins Obibi, Chijioke Odom, Ibiba Don Pedro, Ronke Odidi, Nike Sotade, my humble self ( I was later transferred to the Education Desk), Wale Shokunbi and Yinka Aderibigbe.
The Art Desk had the indefatigable Jahman Anikulapo as Editor, with a very formidable team consisting of Sola Balogun, Bankole Ebisemiju, Layiwola Adeniji, Steve Ayorinde, Ozolua Uhakeme and later on Kabir Alabi Garba.
On the Metro Desk, there was Gbenga Omotoso as editor, and the gang of Joe Idika, David Ogah, Steve Ajulo, Lekan Sanni and Ibe Uwaleke churning our fantastic stories. Sanni was later posted to Alausa to cover the Lagos State government’s activities.
And the Political Desk? There was Akpo Esajere, Oma Djebah, Chukwudi Abiandu and later on Fred Okoro (now late). On the Environment Desk, we had Paul Okunola as editor, working with Timeyin Uwejamomere, Chinedu Uwaegbulam and Michael Simire. On the Health Desk, there was Ben Ukwoma (of blessed memory): Science – Akin Jimoh; Transport – Remi Oyelegbin (of blessed memory); Maritime (Pius Mordi); Judiciary – Edetan Ojo, Gbolahan Gbadamosi and Mustapaha Ogunsakin; Energy – Tajudeen Adigun; Business – Jide Ogundele, Ade Ogidan, Sola Oni, Joseph Sesebo; Aviation – Tunji Oketunbi; Communications – Sonny Aragba-Akpore; Labour – Prisca Egede.
Of course, on the Sports desk were Kunle Solaja and his buddies; the foreign desk had Nkechi Nwosu, Moses Ayo Jolayemi, and Francis Obinor.
The story will be complete without the Sub Desk, the engine room, where all the bad copies were turned into finished products. Banji Adisa was in charge here as Chief Sub Editor, assisted by Kayode Idowu, Yinka Oyegbile, Bode Oluwafemi, Adewole Afolabi, Yemi Ogunsola and others. Adisa later became Editor of the Saturday title.
Adesina, as Saturday Editor, was exceptionally lucky to have people like Taiwo Akerele, Abayomi Ogundeji (of blessed memory), Semiu Okanlawon, Declan Okpaleke (who won CNN awards), Remi Edwards-Adebiyi, Bolaji Tunji, Muyiwa Adeyemi, Seyi Odewale and Godwin Ijediegor amongst others. On the Sunday desk, there was Fred Ohwawha, Abraham Ogbodo, Alabi Williams, Chukwuma Nwokoh, Eddy Odivwri, Muftau Ogunbunmi, Dickson Adeyanju, Lekan Fadeyi, Kayode Oyeleye and Kikelola Mutairu among others.
With all these wonderful people and others too numerous to mention, the newsroom was a joyful place to practice professional journalism. Whatever information you needed, you got it from the experts. It was a period when National Youth Corps members and Industrial attachment candidates derived a lot of experience.
There was freedom of association – The Guardian’s chapter of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) was doing very well with Gbolahan Gbadamosi as chairman and later on, Tunji Oketunbi. The real strength of The Guardian, designed by Bonuola and Kusa, was anchored on the beats, where journalists spent many years reporting on critical issues and in the process, garnering invaluable experience and becoming an authority in their respective fields.
If, for instance, you wanted any information about the courts or any case at that time, you called on Ojo or Gbadamosi. On Aviation, Oketunbi was on duty. On Education, I was there, with the facts. On Art and Culture, Adeniji, Ayorinde, Ozolua were there. On Transport, Oyelegbin was always ready. On Maritime, Mordi could never disappoint. So, nobody, no newspaper in this country, could beat The Guardian. And this was when the newspaper’s pagination was just around 48 and 64 maximum.
When the story broke on Friday December 11, that the Publisher of ThisDay newspaper and President of the Newspapers Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Mr. Nduka Obiagbena, collected N120 million from the former National Security Adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuki (Rtd) to distribute among some members of NPAN, whose newspapers were seized by soldiers and intelligence operatives in 2014, I was, at first, confident that The Guardian could not be part of it. But I was shaken when Mr. Obiagbena affirmed that The Guardian was, indeed, involved.
Yet, I was still in doubt. I waited for The Guardian’s official reaction, which didn’t come quite as early as expected. But I was disappointed by Izeze’s initial reaction, published on page 8 of The Punch (December 12), when, in response to an enquiry by a Punch Reporter, he was quoted to have said: “Talk to your MD to tell you what the position is. Forget about The Guardian…” That, to me, sounded out of place and I knew there was going to be a backlash.
It was not surprising, therefore, that on Monday, December 14, The Guardian was finally forced to publish a reaction, in which its Chief Operating Officer, Dr Alex Thomopulous stated: “Even though The Guardian incurred N450, 000 loss as a result of the attack, we did not, however, request or file for any compensation. We state categorically that The Guardian newspaper did not receive any money and did not ask for any.”
But Mr. Obiagbena insisted that The Guardian did request for N2.6 million through a letter to NPAN, and that the said letter, dated July 15, 2014, was allegedly signed by the same Dr Thomopulos!
This was how The Punch reported the issue on page 3 of its December 14 edition: “Obiagbena’s email appears to provide incontrovertible proof that The Guardian sought to be compensated for its seized newspapers, contrary to Thomopulos’ protestations.” Obiagbena not only countered Thomopulos’ submission, he also provided the details of Thomopulos’ email on the issue. Besides, Obiagbena affirmed that Toke Ibru, The Guardian’s Executive Director, represented the newspaper at final meeting where the compensation was discussed and “did not ask for The Guardian’s name to be removed from the list.”
This revelation broke my heart. I know, for sure, that if Mr. Alex Ibru were alive, he would never have asked for any compensation. In fact, one other Mr Alex Ibru’s attribute that we were also so proud of, was his integrity which he maintained throughout his lifetime, by not seeking favours from the government which he knew could compromise the trust Nigerians repose in The Guardian.
And even when he served as Internal Affairs Minister during the Sani Abacha regime, Mr. Ibru never collected any salary, although, some of his newspaper managers disagreed with his decision to serve at all in Abacha’s government.
Now, what we are witnessing appears to be the frittering away of The Guardian’s 32 years of hard earned, untainted good reputation. How could The Guardian, of all newspapers, ask for any government compensation? The most disappointing of all, for me, is the sad revelation that the newspaper’s Chief Operating Officer did ask in “black and white” for that compensation and then, surprisingly, turned around to deny it. This is totally unacceptable. Interestingly, the same Thomopulos has sacked a number of Guardian staffers over issues bordering on integrity. He gives the impression that he hates lies and was always talking about what The Guardian stands for.
It is, therefore, in the light of all these revelations, that I hereby advise Dr Thomopulos to voluntary step down as the newspaper’s Chief Operating Officer. His continued superintending The Guardian after all that we now know, may not augur well for the brand.
And in any case, today’s vibrant newspapers are being managed by young, dynamic individuals and The Punch is a good example, where the newspaper guru, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, who turned 71 recently, voluntarily retired after turning the newspaper’s fortune around and handed it over to the young, energetic Wale Aboderin.
The Guardian is more important than any individual and nobody should be viewed as seemingly imposing himself on the organization. I am sure there are a number of responsible and capable professionals that can better handle The Guardian’s current delicate situation, in the public interest.