By Bamidele Johnson
One Saturday in May 1996, I arrived for a job interview at 26 Ijaiye Road, Ogba, Lagos, then the office of Independent Communications Network Limited, publishers of THE NEWS PM NEWS and the now defunct TEMPO and AM NEWS. There were about 25 of us waiting to take turns to face what I assumed was a large interview panel.
When it was my turn, I got in and met two men, who introduced themselves. The first to speak was the one wearing a pair of glasses and identified himself as Babafemi Ojudu, a name I had some familiarity with, having been an avid reader of the defunct African Concord, where he worked. The other man’s name, given as Rafiu Salau, I had never heard before. This principally was because he was not a journalist.
Ojudu, naturally, was the one that ran the process. My impression of him, when I heard his name, was that of an uncompromising man. I remember reading a story he anchored on the stewardship of Chief Bode George, then a Navy Commodore, as military governor of old Ondo State. The story exposed George as pissing on the people of the state and telling them that it was raining. Taking on a military governor in the way he did and in that era, I felt, was indicative that the man had balls as big as a watermelon.
“You are welcome,” he said. I thanked him. What followed was a short history and vision of the organisation. The organisation, he told me with brutal frankness, places a premium on integrity. No corner-cutting, no compromises, he said. I nodded.
In case, just in case, I did not get his point, he said: “The type of journalism practiced by the organisation does not deliver huge cash rewards like in some other places and occupational fields. It is about service to society, commitment to ensuring that the society gets better.”
I nodded. He added that he had to break things down to digestible bits, so I could better understand what he was saying and what I was getting into.
“Damn it! Let’s get on with the interview and end this sermon,” I thought. I wondered what he was still doing on the job if all he got were dreary dividends of just slaving for the society. But even during the short bout of muted anger that I felt, I could not fail to notice how he gushed with passion and energy, even in the low-pressure interview session.
The session went smoothly and I was asked to resume about two weeks after. It was on resumption that I experienced-very up close-the full range of his passion and boundless. He came across as one that thinks everything is possible. Journalism, to him, is not something you do for the sake of it. It is a tool through which you impact positively on the society, even such as ours with mile-high odds against improvement.
And to impact effectively, he constantly directed and redirected your mind to the needs of the people. He was-and still is-passionate about matters affecting the underclass. He was particularly interested human angle stories, especially those affecting the vulnerable societal classes from which, I later learnt, he had escaped through education.
That passion, especially his insistence on getting things done properly and on time, I have to say, did not make him a hit among some reporters in the newsroom, especially those who treated work as an extension of leisure. His insistence on certain standards cast him as harsh and brusque. He was not particularly helped by his large frame, his rapid-fire way of speaking when agitated and his penchant for saying exactly what he feels in the way he feels it. He is simply not into deodorizing the truth. He once told me to work on a story on indecent dressing for AM NEWS. I completed the story and was seduced into thinking I had done some fantastic job. He was out of town-in Yola, I believe- when the story was published.
Some of my colleagues had told me it was such a well written story and the praises had aroused some good feelings in me. On return, Ojudu came back and demanded that for his copies of complimentary newspapers. He sent for me. I did not know why.
Immediately I got in, he let rip: “What do you think you have done. This wasn’t what I asked you to do. Where is this in the story? Where is that?”
In an instant, all my colleagues’ praises evaporated from my head, which suddenly went into whirl. I must have looked like I was being led to the guillotine. He obviously did not look at my face, as he kept machine-gunning me with questions and instructions. I just stood there like a pillar of salt. His disappointment, I guess, subsided, and in somewhat more temperate tone, started telling me that he thought I had the ability to do better than I had done.
I wondered why he did not avoid the withering comments and just offer the advice. On another occasion, he came up with the idea that I should do a report on the life of mortuary attendants. He told me to visit as many morgues as possible and speak with the attendants on their work and fears, if any. He wanted the story to be very descriptive of the environment and those I was to speak with.
Being necrophobic, I was desperate to have the assignment given to another person. I told him how much of fear of the dead I had and how upsetting the sight of corpses could be for me.
He looked at me like I was drunk and told me to get the story done and very well, too. The firmness with which the instruction was issued in spite of my attempt to wriggle free of the responsibility conveyed a message: Bungle this and your position in this place will become lifeless like the corpses you are scared off.
He wondered what the issue was, saying reporters, even in Nigeria, had covered wars and violent conflicts.
My head thumped. Left with no option, I went ahead. I told my editor that I would like to be accompanied by a colleague, Seyi Oduyela who, admirably, was not as scared as I was. Despite his company, the visit to the first morgue almost scrambled my head. Bodies of two men crushed by a trailer on Apapa/Oshodi Expressway were brought wrapped in mats. They had been shredded by the impact. Pieces of their bodies fell from the mats, as morgue attendants took delivery. The morgue hands simply picked up the pieces like they were marbles. No emotion.
If I had a gun and my Oga was in view, I am not certain I would not have been encouraged to use it on him for making me behold such a grotesque sight. Once the attendants moved what remained of the two men into the building, I started asking questions and got answers. That story, helped me conquer the fear of dead bodies that I acquired from silly stories I was told in my childhood.
PM News had a very good, but cranky crime reporter named Gabriel Orok. Now deceased, Orok’s relationship with Ojudu was like that of a rival spouse. Things were always burning within inches of explosion. Ojudu’s desire to have things done very quickly-and very well-was at odds with Orok. Effective as he was, Orok could be casual. He was famous on the professional circuit for his love of alcohol, which he consumed in near-industrial quantities. No boss would like it if the habit got in the way of the job, especially by slowing down the process. Despite that, Ojudu never failed to praise him every time he got things right, most often after a bust-up.
To save Orok from himself, Ojudu told him he should stop drinking during office hours. He specifically warned that there would be trouble if he picked the smell of alcohol from Orok’s breath again.
Orok, however, believed alcohol was joy and was not ready to joy in moderation. He found a way round Ojudu’s order: Chewing plenty of garlic to suppress the smell of liquor. Ojudu did not like the smell of garlic and backed off when Orok approached. He asked him questions from a distance. Orok probably thought Oga did not know he had not complied with his instruction.
One afternoon, as Orok returned from his beat, Ojudu said: “Gabriel Orok, you are not fooling me. I know you have been drinking and eating garlic so you could keep me at a distance, knowing I don’t like the smell of garlic.”
The newsroom erupted in high-wattage laughter. Ojudu threw up his hands in defeat, saying: “Orok, you have won.”
Sometimes when he commended good efforts, he did so lavishly. Almost too lavishly. He commended me on the morgue story. He also did when I wrote a story on a crocodile kept as a deity by an Ibadan family. I believe I was the first to write on the crocodile. This was in 1998, when the crocodile was said to be 58 years old.
Ojudu gushed with excitement when he saw the story and asked to see me. He praised me so lavishly that I started wondering if I had discovered a cure for AIDS.
For Ojudu, work is work, a fact hardly appreciated by those programmed to cruise. He thinks hard and is, justifiably, irritated by people who do not, especially deeply and quickly. Editors, while they never admitted it to his face, always wished he was present at every editorial meeting. Why? He effortlessly came up with ideas that we would never think of in one month. These usually came from casual discussions, which his fertile mind would process and distill into realizable stories.
Off-work, Ojudu is completely unrecognizable from when he is at work. Reporters knew this and he was about the only director you could take liberties with and see no sign of irritation. You are also certain of stunningly quick and funnier responses to your jokes because he gave as much as he got.
My colleague, Ademola Adegbamigbe, always marveled at Oga’s repartee skill. He would say: “Oga yi sha! Nkan ko le bawon lojiji.” (You can never catch him off-guard). No one, to my knowledge, ever did. Not even me, whose skill in repartee (by common consent), is hardly shabby.
Being the naughty type, I regularly swapped jokes with him. Two days on the bounce, he came to the office in Ankara fabrics. On the second day, when I saw him in Ankara again, I asked: “Oga, do you want to replace Ladoja (former governor of Oyo State) as the doyen of Ankara?” His reply was immediate: “Emi na fe bere amala politics niyen (an allusion to the amala politics of Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu, then Ladoja’s main backer). I once accompanied him on a trip to Ado-Ekiti, where we ran into a primary school mate of his around Ijigbo.
“Moora, Gani,” said the primary school mate, who was a transport operator. I was shocked when Ojudu hugged the man and they started chatting happily and talking about other mates of theirs. Shocked because I never knew he bears Gani. After the primary school mate left, I had asked why he called him Gani. Ojudu then explained to me that Abdulganiy is his Muslim name and it was what his mates in primary school called him, not the Babafemi that we know. Of course, my naughty head told me to start calling him “Oga Gani”.
Remarkably, he could switch from that hilarious mode to one of deadly seriousness-should there be a need, especially when work or the ethics of the profession came under threat. A common joke in the newsroom way back then was that if Ojudu contested an election in the newsroom, he would get only one vote-his own. The joke came about from him being viewed as unbending and his penchant for saying things the way he saw them, qualities that hardly work well in politics where you are required to be fork-tongued.
I was surprised when he told us that he wanted to go into politics, a trade notorious for compromises. I thought he would require a personality transplant to fit into politics. He is bright enough, adequately passionate and committed, but did not come across as one versed in the wiles required for the game.
That view of mine was reinforced by one guy, who was close to us at TheNEWS. The guy, who had returned to Ekiti at the time, told me to warn Oga that politics and journalism are not the same and Oga should learn to be more of a politician. I asked him what he meant.
His reply was befuddling. If Ojudu assigned you to paste posters, said the guy, he would want to be sure that you pasted the same number of posters he handed to you and in places where you had an agreement to paste them. I asked what was wrong with that. His replied that no politician should do that. I asked if he what he meant was that those who seek to lead us should be lax in the enforcement of procedures and ensuring that assignments are carried out as prescribed. He said: “Just tell Oga that it is not done like that in politics. You do not expect the guy pasting the posters not to try to earn more money than he has been paid by doing less work. Egbon, ise die, owo nla lo wa l’oselu,” he said.
The point he was making was that in politics, you should earn big by doing less work.
I wondered how Ojudu was going to deal with this type of conduct, which I know irritates him and which he was certain to experience many times and on a grander scale. I am yet to ask him how he did it. But if he shifted grounds, he must have felt massively conflicted.
-Bamidele Johnson, journalist, public relations consultant and public affairs analyst, writes from Lagos