Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi reading an excerpt from his memoirs
By Nehru Odeh It was William Carlyle, the English historian and essayist who once said “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” This famous saying came to the fore when Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi, journalist and former Managing Director, Daily Times, read excerpts from his newly published memoirs, The Road Never Forgets. The event tagged An Evening with Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi held on Saturday, 21 May at Roving Heights Bookstore, Victoria Island Lagos.
It was indeed an evening of memories, nostalgia and laughter. It was also an evening of strong intellectual debate. The book generated such an exciting discourse as not only does it chronicle the life of the author but also that of the nation as well.
The debate did not come as a surprise, as Vice President Yemi Osinbajo had earlier hinted at the historical relevance of the book during its presentation at Harbour Point, Victoria Island, Lagos. He had said: “Ogunbiyi’s story is at once the life story of a truly remarkable individual and at the same time, the story of a country. And who better to tell the story of Nigeria, the magical possibilities of our ethnic blending, than one born in Kano of a Yoruba father and an Igbo mother and whose first language was Hausa.”
Toyin Akinosho, writer, journalist and publisher, Africa Oil and Gas Report, set the ball rolling when he described the memoirs as an encyclopedic work. “It’s a very encyclopedic work. It’s a magisterial material, that doesn’t ramble. It’s a kind of work that you could easily see the history of Nigeria say from a certain period to a certain period. I pick say the period 1939 to 2016. You can actually get that kind of sense in the book.
“This is a very unusual autobiography. In this book he turns up as a cameo character. He shows up in virtually every place and as Niyi Idowu, who is my co-interrogator this evening, explains, he is a back-end guy for most of the time.
Ogunbiyi, while responding to Idowu’s question: When did Nigeria get it wrong? exonerated his generation from blame, saying that the issue was more than generational, as there was no clear distinctions between generations at the time. He however said Nigeria started getting it wrong when the military seized power in 1966
“We made the best of it. It is more than just generational. I think what happened was that if you look at the history of our country it is the way the military came into our lives- 1966. That was a major turning point,” he maintained.
Ogunbiyi believes if the military had stayed out of power, like what happened in India during Indira Gandhi’s regime, things would have been different, adding that he was 19 in 1966 when the first coup de tat was staged and that was the first time he heard the word ‘coup detat’
“When the 1966 coup took place I was 19. In fact the first day I heard there was a coup, I asked myself, ‘What’s the meaning of a coup?’” he said.
Professor Femi Otubanjo, distinguished political scientist and the author’s classmate, also said their generation is not to blame for the woes that have befallen Nigeria. He said members of their generation were very well trained. According to him, their generation was hijacked by people who were not educated.
“I would say that things started degenerating with our generation. We didn’t deliberately cause it. We need to understand that our generation was very well trained. But we were hijacked by the people who were not educated,” Otubanjo said.
Sam Omatseye, Chairman Editorial Board, The Nation, said there can be no end to the debate about whose generation kick-stated Nigeria’s free fall, as the definition of generation is not just about age but consciousness.
“This definition of generation is very difficult. Soyinka said sometime that his generation was a wasted generation. But the question of generation definition is about consciousness. It is usually a generation of consciousness. Who are you at a particular time is what really brings you together,” Omatseye said.
When Mr. Kunle Ajibade, journalist, writer and Executive Editor TheNEWS/PMNEWS asked Ogunbiyi whether he was still a socialist as he was among the Marxist group of scholars at the then University of Ife, he said he remains a left-wing person and that has defined his relationships with people.
“I have always said that there is need to redistribute a lot of things. To this day when I relate to people, I don’t judge them from the point of view of the kind of money they have. That has defined my relationship with people. Yes I am not a Marxist but my thinking, my perception, my assessment of people and situation was conditioned by a lot of left-wing thoughts. And it is still there with me. Those ideas are still there. In terms of my thoughts and thought processes, I remain a left-wing person.
Mrs Aderonke Fetuga, who was Ogunbiyi’s contemporary at the University of Ibadan, was full of praise for the author for telling a compelling story, adding that fate has been kind to him.
“I want to commend him. I am not going to roast him. We have to be kind to him, for having put together a very, very good story despite all the events that happened to him. Whatever we might say, he has had a good sense of recall. He has recalled some incidents we cannot even imagine how he remembered.
“And one thing I want Yemi to know is that fate has been very, very kind to him. How you were expelled virtually from the University of Ife and you went back to become Pro-Chancellor. I had goose pimples when I read that part of the book. Fate has been kind to you. And so we must join fate to be kind to you. So please, Yemi, you have done very, very well. And you have been kind to many people too. We read through your stories. Well done, Yemi,” Fetuga said.
Asked to name three compelling interviews he conducted while he was at The Guardian, Ogunbiyi said the most compelling was the one he had with Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Narrating his experience, Ogunbiyi gave a rare insight into Awolowo’s humility, his quest for knowledge, his fecund mind and rare knowledge of the Classics Studies.
Ogunbiyi also said his interviews with late President Thomas Sankara of Bourkina Faso and late Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi were his second and third best respectively. “Some of the things he (Sankara) said in 1985 are still very much with us today. He was analytical and very sharp. He was brilliant and bright,” Ogunbiyi noted.
The distinguished journalist however said the youngest interviewee he had was then Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, who he described as “a nasty piece of cake.” “Rajiv Gandhi was a pilot. But he transitioned from being a pilot to being a statesman. I interviewed him twice. I give you an example. I asked him now that you are here are you going to work with Pakistan? He gave me an answer that a statesman would give. And he said he was going to work with her.
“I put the same question to Benazir Bhutto. She said things that were unprintable about Mr Gandhi. She was a nasty piece of work. She was the only head of State that said to us: ‘This is going to be your last question. After this go away.’ Heads of State don’t do that. Their press secretaries would normally remind you that.
“Ama Ogan asked her: ‘How do you combine motherhood with being Prime Minister?’ She said to her, ‘It’s none of your business,’” Ogunbiyi recalled, and the hall erupted with laughter
Ogunbiyi also spoke about his interview with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, contrary to expectations, treated them with respect. “When we went to interview Margaret Thatcher, we were warned she was a tough cookie. And she was in fact to the contrary one of the most pleasant we met.
“When it was time to leave, and I still have two more questions, her press secretary said to me it was time to go. She said to her, ‘No I don’t get to see Nigerian journalists every day. I will take more questions. And then she gave us more time,” Ogunbiyi said.
It was a full house that evening. Ogunbiyi spoke extensively about the unfortunate incidents that led to his resignation from the University of Ife and The Guardian and his emergence as Managing Director of The Guardian. He said those unforgettable experiences and others which shaped his life are well told in the memoirs.
Still, aligning his thoughts with those of Fetuga’s, he said, in spite of the disappointments, he has been very lucky.
“There is a place in the book where I said I have been very lucky. As I pointed out I referred to four aspects of my life: Loving parents, loving family, my brother and the lovely lady who keeps me in check. Even when my head was turning, she kept me in check. It is not possible to convey that in writing because it is very deep. And I was lucky. Everything I have said in this book, she was part of that story. To have someone like that by my side has made a lot of difference in my life,” Ogunbiyi said, referring to his wife, Sade who has been his pillar of support.