By Paul Ibe
Mr. Paul Ibe was a former Abuja Bureau Chief of THISDAY newspaper. Following what he considered as gross injustice that he suffered in the hands of his former employer, Ibe approached the Industrial Court for redress. After four years, justice finally came his way when the court awarded N1 million damages in his favour in February. He shared his experience with The Intellectual.
What informed your decision to take your former employer to court?
Thank you. I owe the victory to the God of justice who presides over the affairs of men and women.
It all started on that fateful Tuesday of July 13, 2010, when I got a phone call as I was about rounding up for the day from the head of human resources that he had been directed to issue me with a letter terminating my employment with Leaders & Company Limited, publishers of THISDAY Newspapers. I called my wife who had been privy to the entire subterranean plot to oust me from an organization I had served diligently for 12 years, without ever getting a query or an indictment for the quality of my work or even of my character.
The plot to oust me was predicated on the Abuja office of the newspaper which I then headed, having missed out on a story on the 6th of July, when erstwhile National Chairman of PDP, Okwesilieze Nwodo declared that zoning in the PDP was dead.
On the day in question, I had delegated responsibility to my deputy in Abuja where I was holding fort for the newspaper as Editor, Nation’s Capital and was making advance plans to lead a delegation to Iseyin, Oyo State to pay our respects to our demised colleague and Judicial Editor (Abuja), Barrister Funso Muraina.
I was only informed by Eniola Bello (aka Eni B), the Managing Director of the newspaper that we had missed the said story when we had commenced our trip on the 7th of July to Oyo. I had apologised for the miss and taken responsibility for it. I thought the matter was over until Eniola Bello called to inform me that Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, the publisher had instructed him to direct me to resign, while we were about passing the night in Ilorin since we could not make it to Iseyin on the same day.
I told him that he (Eni B) and Obaigbena were callous, since they were aware that I was away on a very important mission for the company and worse still, had not even gotten to our destination. I informed him that what he was requesting of me was not a priority at that point in time, and that he should await my return to Abuja.
On return, I was advised not to resign until that fateful day when they served me a letter scrapping my office.
I moved on with my life and to other things. After a while and with no prospects in sight for them to pay me my terminal benefits and other monies owed to me, I got in touch with some of the top management staff including Eni B pleading that they pay me, so that there can be a foreclosure of the matter. But when I did not hear from them, I asked my lawyers to write to them on the subject.
After the first letter and two reminders with the last one serving notice to go to court, I was compelled to go to court to enforce my rights.
You told the court in 2013 that THISDAY owed you 114,000 Rands and $19,000, being the cost of expenditure incurred while you served as the newspaper’s Correspondent in South Africa. How did you manage to survive without any accommodation and salary in a foreign country for the period you spent there?
Make no mistake about it, I did not go to court because of the US Dollars, South African Rands and Naira components of this case, but because of the principle which I had spent the greater part of my journalism career fighting on behalf of others: justice. The age long principle that a labourer is deserving of his wages.
Yes, we had to file an amended statement claim to itemise my reliefs to include the $1,500 Leaders and Company Ltd had agreed to pay me per month as salary. The $19,000 was for accommodation, office and incidental expenses, which they failed to provide.
I survived only by the grace of God, who sent an “angel” in the person of Dr Kenneth Madiebo my way. Ken, a childhood friend and school mate at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, was living in Johannesburg at that time and by an act of fate, I had ran into his brother, Peter in Lagos the day before departing for South Africa.
I had collected Ken’s number but unfortunately missed out one of the numbers. When I was running out of money (having been forced to take up residence in a hotel) because the keys given to me ostensibly for my accommodation and office, had been changed to my consternation upon arrival, because the rents of the property were never renewed. So, Ken came to pick me one Sunday afternoon and took me to his place but only after he had gone with me to the property in Morningside, Sandton to confirm that indeed the locks had been changed.
I later mailed the keys to the agent managing the property. When I look back at that experience, it is nothing but high wire 419 scam that I landed in Johannesburg to resume work as the Bureau Chief of THISDAY Newspaper with no accommodation and office from day one.
Were you given any fair hearing by THISDAY?
The hearing could only have been adjudged fair or not fair if there was one. There was no hearing just a preoccupation to oust me.
What effort did the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) make to ensure that you get justice?
None, but to be honest, I did not bring the matter before the NUJ even though they may have been privy to the matter following news reports of the court proceedings.
Did any of your colleagues at THISDAY or anywhere for that matter, stand up for your cause?
Yes. Sowore Omoyele of Sahara Reporters, Musikilu Mojeed, Managing Editor of Premium Times, Dotun Oladipo of Eagle Online, Danlami Nmodu of Newsdiary Online, Stanley Azuakolam of The Scoop, Pointblanknews, News Agency of Nigeria and several bloggers followed the court proceedings and reported on it.
Dr Ken Madiebo flew into Abuja to testify in the case, while my family, friends and some colleagues at the Atiku Media Office made good their support by attending the court hearings. Some of my colleagues at THISDAY could not come out openly to support me, though I got phone calls of support urging me never to give up the struggle since their own destiny was intrinsically tied to its success.
Did you, at any time during the trial, come under pressure from your former employer for an out-of-court settlement?
When we filed an amended statement of claims, Mr. Obaigbena realised how serious I was and called me from London requesting that we meet to amicably resolve the issues out of court. Of course, he was never committed to any settlement because he only did it because he was angling for a United Kingdom satellite broadcast for Arise News and did not want any bad press to jeopardise the initiative.
He also had cause to call me for out of court settlement on two other occasions but they all came to naught because he was not sincere about the settlement but was requesting that I withdraw the case from court first to pave way for settlement.
With the outcome of your case, what message do you want to send to other publishers who maltreat journalists?
Publishers of newspapers and founders of broadcast stations ought to know that the integrity and credibility of both individual media practitioners and the institutions they represent is better enhanced when the Journalists are paid and on time, too. They should know that the matter of wages is upheld by the two great religions – Christianity and Islam – which admonish employers to pay staff their wages even before the sweat dries on their forehead.
If they cannot pay them (journalists), then they should not hire them. They should know that every day may be for a wicked and heartless publisher (Yes, any employer who refuses to pay their employees their wages are wishing them death), but one day is for the courageous Journalist who will drag them before the court.
Why do you think that many journalists who experienced the same injustice as you are afraid to pursue the same line of action as you did?
I guess it is largely attributable to our culture to “leave everything in the hands of God,” without realising that the same God, by His very nature, abhors injustice and would relish us to engage the system in order to right the injustice that has been visited on us.
Second, is the snail-like movement of the train of justice in our country and affordability of the financial cost of a long-drawn litigation. My case lasted for nearly four years.