Tunji Bello: In the flight of youth


Tunji Bello

By Owei Lakemfa.

The early 1980s were the furnace in which the activism that gave birth to radical student unionism, anti-military rule and the pro-democracy movement were forged. In 1978, the military regime had smashed central student unionism, expelled principled student leaders and lecturers across the country.

In December 1980, the remnants of the student leadership established the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) But within three months, its founding leadership at the Bayero University in Kano, led by Tanimu Kurfi was expelled.

There were frantic efforts to reunite the NANS which in 1981 had splintered into five factions. I was the Secretary General of the umbrella organisation of all the radical student groups on the campuses called the Patriotic Youth Movement of Nigeria (PYMN) which set out to retake the campuses. That year, we succeeded in taking over the leadership of a reunited NANS with Chris Mammah as President and Eddie Igaro as Secretary General.

The University of Ibadan, UI Students Union was led by a charismatic ‘Lagos Boy’ Bayo Olowo-Ake who though supported NANS, was a hard nut to crack as we had to convince him on every step the organization had to take. We looked forward to a more radical leadership in UI. Then, a UI student, Lucas Oladele, also known as Femy Falana came to us in Ife seeking support to run as UI President. He was a friend of our former Public Relations Officer, Femi Falana, now a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. We were uncomfortable as we thought him politically unstable. In the race for the UI Student Union Vice Presidency, was a little known 21-year old student, Tunji Bello. Both won the elections through unique ways of campaigning. While Femy in place of any serious programme, simply told the UI students “You know me, I know you” Tunji sent the student populace dancing. That 1982 was when the funk band, Kool and the Gang hit the airwaves with the song “Let’s Go Dancin” The chorus was

“Oohh, Yeah,
Ooh la la la, let’s go dancin’
Ooh la la la, reggae dancin’
Ooh la la la, let’s go dancin’
Ooh la la la, reggae dancin’
Tunji adopted it and substituted some of the lyrics with his name. So, his campaign singsong became:
“Oohh, Yeah,
Ooh la la la, Tunji Bello
Ooh la la la, Tunji Bello
Ooh la la la, Tunji Bello
Ooh la la la, Tunji Bello!

The politics of Lucas Oladele ‘Femy’ Falana pushed the UI student union down the hill with Tunji as the stabilizing force trying to stop it upturning. Eventually, that leadership was removed.

I went into journalism as did Chris Mammah who joined the Concord Newspapers. One day, he brought one of his colleagues who was working on a labour story to me. He introduced him as Tunji Bello. I made the connection with the former UI Student Leader. We became friends visiting each other with the quiet Tunji introducing us to some ‘point-and-kill’ pepper soup joints around Mushin.

When Chris got married to the African swimming champion, the then Miss Ngozi Enuwuzo, Tunji was the Best Man while I proposed the Toast.

Our circle of radical journalists widened to include colleagues like Lanre Arogundade, Kayode Komolafe, Ladi Lawal, Femi Ojudu, the unforgettable Joel Gure and the dedicated female trio of Funmi Jolaosho Komolafe, Funke Fadugba and Agatha Edo Aina.
We founded the New Trend Movement in the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) with the objective of moving the union and journalism towards a radical path. We evolved a guiding philosophy of ‘Journalism With Social Relevance.’
As part of our objectives, we worked to take over the leadership of the powerful Lagos State Council of the NUJ and the union’s national leadership. We succeed in both. We took full control of the Lagos NUJ and Tunji became the Treasurer. Later, our New Trend candidate for the NUJ National Presidency, Sani Zorro won and after two terms, he was succeeded by another ‘New Trender’ Ladi Lawal.

In the Lagos NUJ, we faced lots of challenges including journalists welfare, insurance, media closures and detention of journalists. But one of the most serious challenges, was lack of professionalism by some media organisations and journalists which led to the publication of false reports and plagiarism. This was at a time the Nigeria Press Council was non-functional and the National NUJ was a toothless bulldog. So the Lagos Council Executive established an Ethics Committee with its Vice Chairman, Richard Akinnola as Chair and the Treasurer, Tunji Bello as member. Five other members were appointed from the Chapels; Ben Etaghene, Chris Ngwu, Francis Komolafe, Frank Igwebueze and Femi Ojudu. A legal practioner, Chief Mike Ozekome, was appointed as the Judge Advocate.
Even when some challenged the powers of the Lagos NUJ to put media organisations and erring journalists on trial, that Committee courageously went ahead to do so. In one case, it found a leading soft sell magazine ‘Akapa Top’ magazine and its publisher, Lawrence Akapa guilty of publishing false stories, and suspended the latter from the NUJ for six months. Although it was a moral sanction, the decision carried so much weight that it drowned the magazine as vendors refused to sell it and the public was warned that what was being published by the magazine were fabrications.

In another case, the Committee tackled a publisher-journalist and one of the leading columnists in the country and found him liable of plagiarism.

In the June 1993 Presidential elections, some members of the New Trend including Tunji and Kayode Komolafe, joined the campaign team of Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola while many of us stayed away on the basis that though we were politically active, we should not be politically partisan. However, when that election was annulled, we reunited to fight the annulment and continued military regime.

We stepped out of the newsrooms to the streets where we fought with distinction. Some of our members like Dapo Olorunyomi were forced into exile, a number like Ojudu, detained, and tragically, we lost Bagauda Kaltho who was abducted in Kaduna and was never seen again.

After military rule came to a disgraceful end in 1999, one of the politicians we fought the pro-democracy wars with, Senator Bola Tinubu became the Governor of Lagos State and Tunji joined his government as Commissioner for Environment. He was retained in that post by successor Governor Raji Fashola, and became Secretary to the State Government under Governor Akinwunmi Ambode. Today, he is the Commissioner for Environment and Water Resources in the Governor Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu administration. Lagos State appears reluctant to let go a quiet, experienced, reflective and resourceful person like Tunji. This Thursday, July 1, 2021, Tunji Bello, that restless youth of the 1980s, will turn sixty.