By O’seun Ogunseitan
It is not everyday that some 400 former employees of any organisation any where in the world, will get together to appreciate and honour their founding proprietor. But, that is what some 400 founding staff of a Lagos-based Nigerian newspaper are doing, some of them, after as many as 35 years of leaving the newspaper organisation. It is what the staff of The Guardian newspaper in its first 10 years between 1983 and 1993, are doing next week Thursday, at the Balmoral Hall of the Federal Palace Hotel in Lagos.
We will be celebrating a glorious era we are happy to have been part of. It is with a view to letting our younger ones know the height we once attained here in this same Nigeria, as a minimum they can aspire to. We are also appreciating the one unique billionaire businessman who single-handedly funded the establishment of probably the most powerful, but definitely the most impactful Nigerian newspaper in the last 50 years, but still left the control of the newspaper totally in the hands of professionals.
Even we reporters, yabbed our publisher on the pages of his newspaper and there was never any repercussion. For example, there was a time three Roll Royce luxury cars belonging to the Ibrus, were packed without care in the open Sun at the backyard of our Printing Press, and we yabbed them with almost a sixth of a newspaper page, in one Sunday edition of The Guardian. Of course nobody got a query, or as much as even a questioning, because it was the truth. It should therefore be understandable, why till today, the average journalist of The Guardian hue, will not shy away from telling anybody what he or she believes is the truth about anything.
Most of the founding staff of The Guardian, believe their founding proprietor, Mr Alex Ibru, is under-celebrated in Nigeria. Not even once in 10 years and even 10 years after that, was any salary ever delayed by even a day at The Guardian. Nobody ever went on an Annual Leave without collecting their Allowances before going on Leave. At some point in time, everybody and anybody in the office, PhD holder and messenger, could use any toilet, yet, no matter the time of the day, the toilets were clean most of the time.
The love we all mostly shared at The Guardian was almost palpable. Personal cars of some staff, were like official staff vehicles. At The Guardian, new reporters, fresh from the Universities, mingled ever so regularly with almost a dozen world class PhD holders who mostly went by their first names and refused to be called Doctors. One extremely brilliant one among the lot, bears the name Chinweizu. He even published several globally acclaimed books, with only that his first name. At The Guardian, we had more Professors than an average University Department and definitely more PhD holders than many University faculties. Our fresh reporters bumped into globally renowned authors of multiple books every now and then, sometime including Prof Wole Soyinka, the Lion himself, who was to later win the Nobel in Literature.
The Guardian newsroom was like a room for open Viva, where Beat reporters were supposed to provide answers to virtually every question without searching books. Mind you there was no Google, yet, ahead of CNN’s Christianne Ammanpour, The Guardian’s and Africa’s first female defence correspondent, Ms Jullyette Ukabiala, will tell you the number, types and the rough distribution of all armoured tankers and bombers owned by the Nigerian Army, while she is standing. She will give you details of the Airforce Arsenals or Navy’s armoury status within minutes. No wonder today, she is still a top head in defence matters at the United Nations. The Guardian’s Education Correspondent, Goddy Nnadi will almost certainly be able to tell you how long the Principal of a Federal Government College in Warri or wherever, has been in office, and where he or she, had previously worked. Goddy could do this, without opening more than a few personal notes. Don’t ask him for student population figures. He will tell you and break the numbers down, to not just their genders, but even age groupings across schools and across the country.
It can safely be said that The Guardian pioneered the beat reporting system in the Nigerian newspaper industry. That gift to the Nigerian media industry was the deliberate and detailed creation of the pioneer Assistant Editor, Mr Femi Kusa and the free reign he had on the newsroom from his boss Mr Lade Bonuola and the foundation Executive Editor, Dr Stanley Macebuh, who was to become the newspaper’s first Managing Director, but not until two years after the newspaper had berthed. The open newsroom interogation at The Guardian, essentially turned every beat reporter into an expert in his or her field of reporting responsibility. As Agriculture and Science Correspondent, yours truly will tell anybody, details of all Nigeria’s fertiliser imports, year by year, over the previous 10 years, without more than a glance on to a notepad. No wonder it did not demand much of me to recognise bags of Toxic Waste as they were being loaded into a ship in the Liverpool Port, enroute West Africa, or recognise the Water hyacinth as it made its noxious landing in Nigeria from the Republic of Benin, for the first time ever, in 1984. Onojomo Orere could tell you when every Chief Medical Director in any Federal government Hospital was due for retirement. Aaron Ukodie will tell you the details and distribution of all available phone lines across the country and the maintenance contractor responsibje for which, without missing or mixing up any fact.
Nigerian Banks would not rest until they saw what The Guardian published daily between 1983 and 1993. Many Nigerians today will not remember that The Guardian boldly and tenaciously argued in editorials, until the on-shore/offshore dichotomy matter was settled in favour of some littoral states. The newspaper brought alternative medicine to the fore of discussions, just as it elevated environmental awareness and drug abuse awareness. Reports in The Guardian directly influenced the creation of many statutory bodies like FEPA and NAFDAC.
Top secret military postings did not escape The Guardian reporters – for which on one occasion, our irrepressible news editor Mr Nduka Irabor and then Foreign Affairs correspondent Mr Tunde Thompson, were jailed under the obnoxious Decree 4 of 1984, not for publishing any falsehood, but for not waiting until the military government officially announced some military postings. The Guardian also led even in Sports reporting. Virtially all The Guardian’s pioneer reporters ended up pioneering one thing or the other in their fields of reporting expertise, from Sunny Ojeabgese, to Mitchell Obi, to Mayor Akinpelu, to Seye Kehinde, to Dapo Olorunyomi (Premium Times), to Bayo Onanuga (The News) among others
Our late colleague Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, whose death in an accident four years ago, actually triggered the coming of this book, wrote a 16 paragraph front page story on Gen Obasanjo without the taciturn General uttering a word to him, on an arrival from Zimbabwe. So stunned was the General, that he asked the then young man to see him the following day and a life-long friendship between him and the General who publicly says he hates journalists began. Onukaba was to become Gen Obasanjo’s biographer. He actually died, on his way back to his Abuja base, after attending the General’s 80th birthday, almost 32 years after he met and first reported on Gen Obasanjo.
At The Guardian, the salaries were good, even though not fantastic. But they were regular. Once, sometime in 1984, staff agreed to a temporary pay cut when the crisis in the Nigerian economy threatened the very existence of any business that needed imports, such as the Newsprint upon which the newspaper industry relies. The crisis led to the company’s first industrial crisis. The salary cut however, did not last six months and all that was cut, was fully paid within the same year.
We are recognising Mr Alex Ibru, an unassuming billionaire whose exemplary newspaper proprietorship and entrepreneuship, helped The Guardian to attain and maintain the standard it attained so quickly and for its first 10 years, before the newspaper too, became a victim of Gen Sanni Abacha’s institution-destructive streak. The recognition of this unusual Nigerian, weighs far more in our hearts than the sole award of the epochal event and the commemorative plaque. The book itself details how he and others got it all woven together, and what they did, that may have sustained the nostalgic era for the newspaper’s first 10 years.
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