Wednesday, October 26, 2016 3:58 pm
By Kunle Ajibade
Since Dele Giwa was killed by a letter bomb on 19 October 1986, every anniversary of his death has remained for me a moment of sobering reflection on the precarious nature and power of journalism. It has also remained for me a time to re-read Giwa’s essays, remembering the indebtedness of many members of my generation to his own inspiring spirit of journalistic enterprise. Frequently, old writings in journalism fade or lose their effect. But Giwa’s wonderful writings, after several seasons of rereading, have not lost their shine, their wit, punches and astonishment. They still repay attention. As one of the pioneers of modern Nigerian journalism and one of its exemplary practitioners, Giwa raised the bar of investigative journalism as the features editor of Daily Times, as the editor of Sunday Concord and as the editor-in-chief of Newswatch magazine. He died a hero’s death and his legacies of a good name and enchanting words will not be obliterated.
The lesson of his honour and glory must not be lost on many of our journalists and public commentators who behave like desperate and hungry scavengers rummaging through the heaps of our national vices. Among our country’s media owners and newspapers editors, rank greed has set in. How do you hope to call robbers in powers to proper accounting if you are a beneficiary of their loot? Many of our watchdogs that used to bark at the wounds of the country now lap up the pus of its open sore. It is diminishing, to say the least, that the public that used to venerate many hard-working journalists simply dismisses the majority of them today as frauds, unprincipled self-servers and double-dippers. Do we, or do we not, pass over in silence what we should rail against? Has the press freedom guaranteed by our constitution and Freedom of Information Law not become, to some journalists, licence to scandalize and blackmail the innocent? Yet, to quote what Harold Evans, former Sunday Times of London editor and author of Good Times, Hard Times and, recently, My Paper Chase, said in India on 15 November 2007: “We cannot justify freedom of the press by assertion but only by day-to-day demonstration of integrity. It is our principal defence in sustaining public support.” In other words, journalism will die when the public no longer trusts it— when it lacks integrity.
Dele Giwa, who was initially very uncritical and naïve in the way he related to Presidents Shehu Shagari and Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, later became committed to making sure that they and others who were in positions of authority were challenged to account for their deeds. He never liked to be the errand boy of some powerful elements: he enjoyed it when he dominated his environment as a journalist. He once wrote in one of his rejoinders: “I have said at every available opportunity that NOBODY tells me what to write in my column. It is my property, and I guard it jealously, for it is my freedom to think and write as I see. Nobody higher than me in the Concord Group has ever demanded my column for editing before publication. Any reaction to any of my columns has come after publication” Giwa wrote two columns for the Daily Times between April and November 1979; a column in the Sunday Concord between 1980 and 1985; and wrote for Newswatch between 1985 and 1986. He did all that in addition to his job as an editor and his obligations as a manager. It is formidably instructive that many years after his tragic demise we are still grappling with many of the problems he wrote about.
What did journalism mean to him? How should a journalist interpret his world? What should a journalist’s camera see? To put the question another way: what did he consider as the responsibility of the journalist? He explained in a piece in his Press Snaps column titled “The Problem of living by the Pen” on 23 May 1979: “All a journalist is supposed to do is to go out to collect materials for stories that he must write in clean, clear and simple prose.” He wrote further in another piece, using Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two wonderful Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal, that the reporter should go out and get information that other papers don’t have. “That’s what journalism should be. Information is not simply public relations garbage, but it is something new and newsworthy.” Giwa was after deep answers. In the hot exchanges between him and Areoye Oyebola and Andy Akporugo, he later added courage and decency as virtues that a good journalist should posses. Writing in Sunday Concord of 22 November 1981 under the caption, “Mr. Oyebola’s blah and other blahs,” he observed that “courage is the one crucial element lacking in the Nigerian press. And just as Nigerians like to knock Nigeria for everything wrong with them, as though they don’t constitute Nigeria, those Nigerians who call themselves journalists like to knock the press for lack of courage, as though they don’t constitute the press”
It was a response to Alade Odunewu, Magaji Dambatta, Lateef Jakande, then Governor of Lagos, and Oyebola, who had criticized the press that November, for lack of courage. Giwa felt that while Jakande had the moral right to accuse some journalists of cowardice, Oyebola did not have that right because he was not at his post as courageous editor ought to be the day General Yakubu Gowon was overthrown. Giwa believed that Oyebola was removed as editor of the Daily Times by Babatunde Jose because of that. He then wrote that “Journalists are not 9-5 men and women. A journalist is perpetually on call. A good one wherever he is when an important story breaks, he will head for his desk and his typewriter. An editor, if he’s abroad when something as big as a coup breaks must fly back home to take charge.” This was not a personal beef with Oyebola. Of course, Oyebola, the brilliant author of Black Man’s Dilemma, replied him in equal measure, saying that he had demonstrated courage in the past in his Frank Talk with Omo Oye column and that his removal as the editor was as a result of some pettiness.
Giwa did not agree. He was determined to hold on to his point as he wrote back tersely in a footnote: “The point really is that Mr. Oyebola failed in his rejoinder to address himself to the crux of my column on him. Where was he on the day that Gowon was overthrown? Why did he stay home on the one day that he had the chance to show that he was a man of courage in all its ramifications? Where was he? Let him tell us, for it was the one point that he failed to mention in his well-written and well-annotated rejoinder.” He felt that Chris Okolie, the publisher of New Breed magazine, was courageous and he celebrated him: he also felt that the young Peter Enahoro was brave, and wrote a three-part series in Daily Times of December 1979 in praise of him. To all journalists, then, his urgent appeals were: You should have a passion for the job. Be brave but don’t be reckless. Don’t allow them to beat you into silence. Cry out questioningly. Try and rise above trivial pursuits. Give your country quality journalism.
Dele Giwa regarded himself as a modern journalist. He did not have any patience with the half literate, foul smelling old journalist who could not get his sentences right, wore shabby clothes and dirty shoes, and went from court room to court room to pick up the proverbial ‘brown envelopes’ to augment his sorry income. He could not stand the old journalist who felt threatened by the brash, headstrong, exuberant and confident new one who had just arrived on the scene. He saw himself as representing the younger, urbane and extremely well-educated journalists, “able to hold their own against the most arrogant newsmakers who regarded journalists as boys who never grew up” Arguably, Giwa’s arrival on the terrain, along with other journalists like him, announced the emergence of a news style, a paradigm shift, a change in the journalist’s perception and presentation of reality. Irrefutably, as a modern journalist in a developing world, he believed it was his duty to satisfy all those who asked for more information, not just information in the sense of the man biting the dog, but more explication of the information being handed out.
He called for people better trained, people with the sort of minds to shift information, to pick the useful and discard the useless and find the lie carefully tucked into masses of details. “The modern journalist”, he wrote, “is required to know a little about many things, more than a little. In fact, enough to make sense of most issue such that he doesn’t appear stupid. He is invariably a university graduate, a good thinker and a man with a way with words. But he is not a philanthropist. He does whatever he does to make money, for he has chosen a career in which he wants to spend his life, in which he wants newsmakers to respect him. He wants to dress well and he wants to live in a good house and drive a nice car. This calls for money. And so, increasingly, he asks for more money and more perquisites. He also wants a good office and he likes to read his articles well printed on good papers from a good rotary machine. Money. Money. So when a newspaper says it wants to increase its cover price and increase its advertisement charges, it is doing so to be able to make journalism a worthwhile endeavour, to make it possible for journalism to provide adequate coverage of the many intricate issues of today”
In June 1979, Dele Giwa noticed that journalists were not covering political campaigns well, and wrote a piece in his Press Snaps column telling them what to do. He opened by reminding journalists of the beautiful things that Esbee and Cee Kay, sports columnists for Daily Times, did in those good old days when they were reporting sports. Now his points on unbiased political reporting:
Apart from providing excellent literary entertainment, the stories of the two columnists provided for their readers the best analyses of the game plans of the opposing teams. In journalism what Esbee and Cee Kay did is called analysis of strategy in a game of chance. And if that can be done in sports writing, most certainly it can be done in political reporting. Indeed it is called for because politics is the biggest game of chance. Of course, in writing political analysis for the newspaper the reporter will not have the licence to take sides with any of the contestants. He will be expected to be an impartial as humanly possible in analyzing, say, the political and campaign strategies of the candidates in a political race. In other words, a reporter covering a particular candidate should be able to give readers details of the candidate’s plan and method for winning the voters to his side.
He will write for his understanding of the candidate, having spent time following him on the hustings and having digested every one of his speeches and position papers of his party. The reporter will be expected to understand the candidate’s issue and see whether they are pertinent to the needs of the nation. And then, he must watch carefully how the candidate presents his issues to different segments of the electorate. Are the candidate’s promises outlandish? Does the country have the resources to fulfil the promises? The reporter must ask these questions in his stories and find answers to them by talking to experts in fields concerning each issues and promises and then probe the electorate’s reaction to them… The truth is that Nigerian newspapers have failed to ask these pertinent questions. And without asking them and finding answers from all the segments of the nation, the political correspondents cannot claim to have given their readers complete pictures of the political scenes. Journalism has gone past the stage in which all a reporter does is to report what a man says. Yes, doing that is basic to his calling, but he must then take what the candidates are saying to critical and objective analysis. It’s not too late to start talking about the drive behind the candidates, that they have not been debating issues and that they are talking over each other’s heads down to the electorate. Voters in this country would still like to know the weaknesses and strengths of candidates, their resilience and temperament and the character of their advisers. We have heard all the promises but are the candidates disingenuous in making some of them? The political reports must tell us.
That was Giwa, the interpreter of journalism rules. As an editor, he enforced some of the rules. By the time Giwa turned 34, he had become one of the country’s most colourful and most literate journalists. Kole Omotoso, the novelist, was on his way to the Goethe Institute in Lagos to give a reading from his books, and visited Giwa in his office. And as he was leaving, Omotoso joked that he was a writer but Giwa was not. In pursuit of knowledge, driven by curiosity, and a spirited urge to prove his worth, Giwa did not take it as a joke. He went out and bought all the books that Omotoso had put out. “I read them all,” he later wrote, “and at the end, I couldn’t grasp Kole’s meaning of seeing himself as a writer and saying that I wasn’t.” He argued persuasively, quoting Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism as his authority, that “the most important literature being written today is in nonfiction, in the form that has been tagged, however ungracefully, the New Journalism…” He loved every excellent novelised news report.
To him the question for a serious minded journalist should be: How much of a journalist am I? He proved that he was a damn good one: his reporting was powerful. His editing was skillful and his prose was eloquent. He practised the profession in a way that made people fall in love with it, in a way that made people respect it, in a way that made literate readers appreciate its tone and significance. He embodied the ideals of the editor as mentor, the manager as humanist and the journalist as opinion-moulder. He argued passionately for journalistic principles and suffered for them. Indeed, in 1982, the then Inspector General of Police, Sunday Adewusi, ordered the arrest and detention of Dele Giwa in one of the cells at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Alagbon Close, for publishing in the Sunday Concord the government white paper on the report of a commission of inquiry that investigated the fire outbreak that destroyed the Republic Building in Lagos. His friend Ray Ekpu was also detained for predicting in an opinion piece that the arsonists who torched the Republic Building might choose the headquarters of the Nigerian External Telecommunication in Lagos as their next target, which they actually did the following day! Ekpu was promptly charged with murder, arson and conspiracy. The case, expectedly, increased Giwa’s popularity rating and enhanced his glamour appeal: it was one of Dele Giwa’s Camelot moments. The other was when he left Sunday Concord to co-found Newswatch with Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed and Ray Ekpu.