Saturday, November 11, 2017 9:33 am
A special panel at the ongoing Lagos Book and Arts Festival is dedicated to the quintessential journalist and humanist, who clocked 60 on Wednesday, 8 November
It was unending accolades for quintessential journalist, humanist, altruist and mentor, Dapo Olorunyomi on Thursday, November 9 at Freedom Park, Lagos Island.
Olorunyomi, one of the founding editors of TheNEWS/PM News and Tempo Magazine, had clocked 60 the previous day but Thursday was when the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), organisers of the ongoing Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) chose to honour him.
At a very well attended panel by friends, associates and mentees, the inimitable Olorunyomi, founder of investigative online newspaper, Premium Times, was loudly celebrated.
Though a celebration, the session tagged ‘Courage Under Fire: A Life of/in Professional Journalism’ was a platform to critically appraise journalism in Nigeria today and see if the Fourth Estate of the realm is still as diligent, hardnosed and activist like their illustrious forbears.
The keynoter, poet, journalist and activist, Odia Ofeimun, gave the perfect backdrop to the discussion that followed his presentation with a thorough analysis of Olorunyomi’s roots, activism and achievements. He highlighted the guerrilla brand of journalism that Olorunyomi and his ‘brothers’ – Bayo Onanuga, Idowu Obasa, Kunle Ajibade, Seye Kehinde, Sani Kabir and Babafemi Ojudu (all founders of TheNEWS) – popularised in the dark days of the military and how it reshaped Nigeria’s media landscape. Ofeimun didn’t fail to salute the courage of the founder of the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism, his colleagues and their intrepid reporters/writer, including Olorunyomi’s “creative capacity as an innovator.”
Ayo Obe, chair of the panel that had Professor Ropo Sekoni and Lanre Arogundade, Director of the International Press Centre (IPC) as discussants, hailed the keynote for its rich historical context and inquired if Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed’s assertion at a UNESCO conference in Paris, France that Nigeria’s press is the freest in the world is true.
Her question, she further explained, is against the backdrop that Nigeria’s media is not just complaining about the actions and inactions of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, it’s coming out with facts and figures to back its claims. What is the fire that journalism is facing right now, she posed.
Lai lied, Nigeria’s press not free
Responding first, Professor Sekoni said Mohammed’s claim is false. Nigeria’s press, the professor of comparative literature asserted, is not as free as the Minister would have the world believe. He explained that “there are two ways to make a person or organization un-free; through brutalisation/repression and starving the institution of communication, facts.” He cited the cases of the recently sacked Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal and Ambassador Ayo Oke of the NIA, noting that government shrouded the investigation in secrecy when there was no need for such. The same, Professor Sekoni said, played out with ex-chair of the Presidential Pension Reform Task Team, Abdulrasheed Maina.
Arogundade disagreed with the Professor’s submission that Nigerians are not reading. “Nigerians want information about issues that affect their lives and you see people at newspaper stands,” he countered. The issue, according to the former NANS president, is that the media is not reflecting worries of Nigerians. “The papers report what they think is the issue; issues of public interest rarely make the headlines. Are we mirroring the the society; people’s interests?”
He also just stopped short of calling Alhaji Mohammed a liar over his claim about press freedom. Not only has Premium Times been invaded twice, according to Arogundade, Olorunyomi and one of his reporters was detained on the orders of the Nigerian Army early this year. “Fifteen incidents of attacks on journalists, organisations have occurred. In fact, two journalists have been killed. This government mouths fighting corruption but it is also curtailing information,” said Arogundade who further cited the administration’s intolerance to criticisms by labelling its critics ‘wailers’ as example.
The way forward, according to him, is a return to “journalism for social relevance where critical questions are asked from government. The media would be doing a lot if we return to journalism of social relevance; focussing on communities, not neglecting them. If we the media don’t fight for a just society, it will come back to haunt us.”
Government of gossips
On Obe’s question of how should the media ensure that government doesn’t deflect attention from issues, Prof Sekoni said the Buhari administration has mastered the art of titillating Nigerians with gossip but that the press must not tire of exposing the real issues. “This government is efficient in throwing distractions; we are being made to live with gossip. Government generates gossip but the media must not be tired; issues must be exhausted and reporters should not be distracted.”
Arogundade ominously warned that: “We are going to have more of such gossips as 2019 approaches. We need to do follow up to stories but there are challenges including media ownership. The way the media reports corruption does not galvanise the people that we have a stake in it. Report within social context; break it down for people so that they can know how many people would have been employed and paid with stolen money.”
Appropriately, the panellists were not the only speakers at the forum. In her intervention, Kadaria Ahmed held that “the media is almost as corrupt as the institution we are trying to hold accountable.” To her, there’s a fundamental crisis in Nigerian journalism and it includes training and funding.
Broadcast journalist, Bola Brown, on his part wondered why the media courage under fire being discussed seems to end with political appointments or as official spokesperson.
Professor Dele Layiwola of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, said there is a need to re-invent journalism in Nigeria. “Let’s use this forum to convoke a bigger event to discuss issues in Nigerian journalism.
Chair, Editorial Board of The Nation, Sam Omatseye, disputed Ms Ahmed’s claim on funding being an issue for the media but Olorunyomi, in his comments as the event wound up, agreed with her position.
Toasts to courage
The third part of the panel session saw associates of the celebrator paying tributes to him. Poet and academic, Professor Niyi Osundare, who is also guest of honour at this year’s LABAF, led the way. “Dapo, wa dagba, wa da rugbo (meaning you will live to a ripe old age),” he prayed in Yoruba. He commended Ofeimun’s keynote as “extremely instructive”, and referencing Olorunyomi’s courage, noted that “we need courage to look at issues. Our institutions don’t know what courage is. The pretentious contraptions that we call universities, courage is no longer there. Courage is imbibed. This is a country that discourages you from being a courageous person; it is not easy to be a courageous person in our country today but courageous people are coming.”
Co-founder of TheNEWS, Idowu Obasa, said “Dapo has gotten a lot of people into trouble. I trained as an accountant but he brought me into journalism. He is selfless almost to an annoying level and he sees good in everybody. Those qualities make him a human being.”
Ex-Editor of the defunct Tempo, Gbile Oshadipe, also began his tribute by praying in Yoruba before identifying the celebrator’s wife, Mrs Ladi Olorunyomi and Obasa as very important persons in his life. He didn’t fail to touch on Olorunyomi’s generosity and care free attitude.
Mr Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor of TheNEWS/PM News, read a prepared text entitled ‘He makes a meaningful difference’. The author of ‘Jailed for Life’, who highlighted many of his friend’s qualities, harped on his love for mentoring young journalists. “He has the uncommon gift to see talent in young reporters and writers, and he always knows how to patiently bring out the best in them. All those who have had the good fortune of being trained by him have blossomed to become top professionals today,” he said.
Ajibade also touched on Olorunyomi’s journalism skills, noting that “In Dapo’s head, in his hands, as a writer, editor and publisher, stories become so lucid, so informed and immensely entertaining. For him, reporting is artistry itself. He believes that his job is to expose and explain both simple and complex things. And what a wonderful job he has made of it all these turbulent years of outrage and despair and struggles. Dapo could pass for one of the editors that J.D. Salinger, the novelist, once described as “the most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors,” for he tirelessly plays the role of editor as artist with infinite compassion and amazing graciousness.”
Dr. Sola Olorunyomi, Dapo’s younger brother and an activist like him, had interesting things to say about him. The lecturer at the University of Ibadan acknowledged Mama Obasa’s influence on his brother’s life and wondered why despite being the older brother, Dapo never for once cautioned him to take things easy while they were growing up. “There was never any word of caution. Take it easy! I will never bring up my younger ones like that in Jesus name,” he said to laughter from the audience.
Arogundade touched on the carefree attitude Ajibade had earlier mentioned about Olorunyomi. He recalled their student days at the University of Ife and how the founder of Premium Times made him take a sabbatical from his studies to become the NANS president in the 80s.
US-based scholar, Professor Akin Adesokan and one of Olorunyomi’s mentees, in a tribute entitled ‘Moments with Dapsy’, recalled his impact on his and other’s lives. “I’ve not known anyone as well as I’ve known Dapsy who’s primarily not interested in his “own.” All the good qualities of a human being—generosity, tolerance, care, patience, courage, forbearance, honesty, loyalty, and more—are so unusually definitive of his person that they might have become his flaws. But then, he is gifted with something equally or perhaps even more compelling—a sense of humor,” he said.
Responding to all that had been said about him before the happy birthday song and ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow’ were sung to close the event, Olorunyomi expressed gratitude to everyone present. They include publisher of the Vanguard, Uncle Sam Amuka-Pemu, Provost, Nigeria Institute of Journalism, Gbemiga Ogunleye, human rights lawyer, Jiti Ogunye, founder of the Journalism Clinic, Taiwo Obe and Azu Ishiekwene.
He had his say on some of the issues that had been raised on journalism praxis in Nigeria, beginning with accountability. “How do you hold power accountable? That’s the basic role of journalism. That’s why we do investigative journalism. We need critical conversation about the current state and future of journalism. The corruption in journalism is worse than that in the police, in the National Assembly. The level of intolerance is too much. Access to information is critical to the work journalists do, so the conversation about journalism in Nigeria is important.”