Mike Awoyinfa is a study in determination and tenacity of purpose. He is not just a hard-core journalist but also famous for his unique writing style and genius for casting breath-taking headlines. Still, the remarkable thing about this journalist, writer and editor who turns 70 today is that, right from the outset, he was determined to rise to the top of his profession, which he achieved, becoming the pioneer editor of the then bestselling Weekend Concord and pioneer Managing Director, The Sun Nigeria. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH, he speaks about how he became a journalist, his career and his journey to the top.
Congratulations on your 70th birthday? How do you feel as you turn 70?
I don’t know what to say other than to say I have come a very long way. When I look back at my childhood days, and my years in Ghana (I was born in Ghana the same year the Queen of England ascended the throne), I have every cause to thank God. God is good. God has been faithful. God has shepherded me along a path. And when I look back and see the many people that have died, that did not reach 40, 50, or 60, I count myself blessed. I count myself fortunate to be alive to see this great event in my life. I keep thanking God. He has been faithful. He has been very faithful.
No doubt you have had a very successful career as a journalist. Would you have chosen any other career than journalism?
I don’t think I would have chosen any other career than journalism. The influence to be a journalist started in my childhood, when I lived with a senior brother of mine who was a teacher, I feared him so much. I used to be a troublesome young man until my father pushed me to go and live with him. Because he gave me a terrible beating one day. I hadn’t even gone to stay with him then. So I had permanently gotten afraid of him. So each time I saw him I would say, “Ah this man that gave me a thorough beating.” He was a school teacher in a town called Aboso in Ghana. He was not yet married then. I was the one doing everything, even cooking for him. And I lived a quiet life, a life of solitude. So that allowed me to be reading. He had a vast library. Rather than just keep quiet I invaded his library and started reading every literature book, from King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table to Tell Freedom by Peter Abraham as well as all the African Writers Series. I had read everything. The thing about reading is that it is infectious. Once you read, it’s like a hurdle. You keep on jumping and jumping. I became a reading addict. It started impacting me in my primary up to middle school so that when I wrote essays I made sure whatever the essay they gave me I wrote it towards some of the things I had read. I would get high marks. Then a teacher would ask me to come and read my essay before the whole class and they would be clapping for me. It wasn’t only English I was reading. I was reading the Fanti language. I knew all their folktales, even to the point where I was winning prizes in a Ghanaian language. The teacher would be mocking them. “Look at you. Are you people not ashamed?” They forgot I was born and bred in Ghana. By God’s grace, I was doing well at school. But Mathematics was my enemy. I wasn’t good at Mathematics. I wasn’t very good at the sciences.
When did you develop an interest in journalism?
That same brother used to send me to go buy newspapers. There was a paper printed in Ghana called The Weekly Spectator. Every Saturday I would go buy it and make sure I read, read and read. That was when I developed the interest. There were also other papers like Daily Graphics, Ghanaian Times etc. That was when I started imagining myself as a journalist. I just said to myself that if I grew up I would become a journalist. So a time came in Ghana, after my O’ Levels when the Busia Government said all aliens should leave. So instead of doing my A’ Levels in Ghana, I came to Ijebu-Ijesha, my hometown, to do it. And I read English Literature, Government and Christian Religious Knowledge. I aimed to study Mass Communication at the University of Lagos. And as God would have it, I was admitted to read Mass Communication. And the funny thing is that I didn’t even major in print. I majored in Broadcasting. I thought I was going to be a disc jockey. That was my fixation.
Why the love for disc jockeying?
I love music. All my children play the guitar. I taught them how to play the Guitar. I love rock music, and jazz. Give me any music. So when I was on campus I was a disc jockey on Radio UNILAG. I thought I was going to be a disc jockey. But one thing I learnt from broadcasting is you are taught to write for the ears. You are not allowed to use bombastic words. You write as if you are talking. So that has influenced my style of writing. And the fact that I read literature in my A ’Levels, poets like William Wordsworth, Alexander Pope and so many others were the foundation that helped me and empowered me to have the power of expression, the power of description, the power of observation. And I wrote very often. I love poetry. Sometimes if I am writing my column, I just imagine myself writing a poem. You know in poetry you are not allowed to beat about the bush. You are not allowed to waste words. You economize words. Everything is compact. So that also helped me. If you see my columns now, whatever I want to say I don’t say it in more than 1200 words. I’m a very impatient person. When I am reading anything I want to be entertained. I want to be impressed. I want to be excited. I want to be happy reading. Don’t bore me. So anything I read that bores me, that gives me too much boredom, I push it aside. So whatever I am writing might look simple, but it takes me time. I might spend a whole week thinking of what to write. I put everything into it. I enjoy it when people read my column and enjoy it.
Who are the people that inspired you?
I have people that inspired me, people like Dele Giwa when I was in Sunday Concord. Yes, he was a very breezy stylistic writer. Well, I would come to Dele Giwa later. When I left the University of Lagos in 1977, I was moved to Jos for my National Youth Service. After the service, I worked with the News Agency of Nigeria. I was to go join the army. But luckily for me, the invitation for the interview came late. This is how God works. By now I would have been a retired army officer. I don’t think I even have the temperament of a soldier. But during my service year, I worked with the police. So I said rather than working with the police let me join the army. So that’s how I went t work with the News Agency of Nigeria. That was the place I started working as a reporter in Jos. I was one of their Reporter 1 in Jos.
When and how did your journey with National Concord start?
While I was in the News Agency of Nigeria, I wasn’t enjoying the anonymity of news agency journalism. You write but you are not given a by-line. And I wanted to be a features writer. I wanted to express myself. News Agency of Nigeria didn’t offer that kind of platform at that time. So luckily for me, the National Concord people came out with a bang. They came out with the names of all the famous columnists that I admired, Dele Giwa, Sam Oni, Innocent Oparadike etc. I said this is the place to go. Even before that time, I had even gotten a Level-9 job with the Daily Sketch, with Segun Osoba as the Manager Director. He gave me a job. But instead of going to Sketch, I joined Concord. They made me their Chief Correspondent in Kaduna. As Chief Correspondent I started getting too ambitious very early. I had already set a target for myself that, Look I must be great in this profession. I must be an editor. I must rise to the top. So I must work hard. On Sundays, I would go to Durbar Hotel in Kaduna. I would buy all those foreign newspapers – The Sun, The Mirror. They were cheap then. I would be investing in all those foreign papers, buying, reading, learning, and teaching myself how to write feature stories. I was not taught feature stories at the university because I didn’t do print. I started teaching myself how to write a feature story. So I didn’t limit myself to what Lagbaja has said, this has added, this contributed. Because that was what my colleagues from all the other newspapers were doing. Once we finished any story, they would say, Alhaji Balarabe Musa has said that …. He added that …. I then said for how long will I be doing this kind of journalism?
One day I went to an Aminu Kano press conference at Hamdala Hotel in Kaduna. We were all there. Everybody was asking questions. I was taking notes. Then this raggedly looking old woman just stood up. She raised her hand. She started asking questions in Hausa, putting questions as if she were Christiane Amanpour throwing questions to Aminu Kano. I was impressed by her aggression, boldness and everything. She was not holding a pen. She was not holding a paper. She was just asking questions. So after the press conference, I targeted the woman. “Who are you? Which newspaper do you work for?” I asked. She said it was a Hausa sister newspaper of the New Nigerian. So at the end of the day, to cut a long story short, I wrote an impressionistic human-angle story, not too long, not too short, about the woman. Then I sent it to the editor of Sunday Concord. That was Dele Giwa. I had not even spoken with him. We never knew each other. To my surprise, that following Sunday I saw my column. They had created a column for me – Reporters Notebook By Mike Awoyinfa. I said Alleluiah. I said, Well, a whole me, a Chief Correspondent as a columnist in Sunday Concord? That’s something else. Then I made a vow, saying, this column I am going to sustain it. That I would be bombarding them with stories that I would not allow to be a general Reporter’s Notebook. Let it be Mike Awoyinfa’s Notebook. So I kept on pushing human angle features to him, descriptive stories based on my style. I didn’t limit myself to even local issues. Sometimes I write about international issues. Like when that lady, Janet Cooke plagiarized. Janet Cooke went and wrote an imaginary story of a nine-year-old boy who was being given drugs by his relatives or his parents. Janet Cooke cooked up a story and she won a Pulitzer Prize. The girl was so creative that in her bid to win a Pulitzer, she created a fictional story. And the editor of the Washington Post was deceived. He thought it was a real story. He kept on believing the reporter was telling the truth. After the story won a Pulitzer, police wanted to know who the boy was so that they could even rescue him and arrest the parents. That’s where it was discovered she was lying. The Janet Cooke scandal became a very big global story. So I wrote on that too: how Janet Cooke cooked a story to win a Pulitzer. They used it. Dele Giwa then said, “Look you are doing well in your Notebook. Now we have a Sunday Concord Magazine, which is a pull-out. I want you to be writing for the Sunday Concord Magazine. Then there was a big fire accident that consumed a whole market in Kaduna, with people rushing. At that time I had my camera. A reporter must always be ready. I had my camera, I had my portable Brother typewriter. So I went there, interviewed people and took photographs and the story hit the Sunday Concord Magazine. The Sunday Concord Magazine was like a cover story of the paper that is inside. It’s a pull-out. To be able to write a Sunday Concord Magazine you must be able to write a magazine cover. So that’s what when I started contributing to the magazine. I didn’t know I was building myself for something great. So when Lewis Obi was moved to become the Features Editor of National Concord there was this vacuum which was going to be filled. Like a coach looking for a footballer, a striker, Dele Giwa came to Kaduna on his own to come and convince me to come over to Lagos. I went and received him at the airport. That day the Celica car I was driving broke down. Dele Giwa helped me to push it. We pushed and pushed until the battery started and he entered. I took him to Durbar Hotel, where he lodged. So Dele Giwa convinced me. I had then gotten a job with the New Nigerian. I was getting fed up. I was getting too ambitious. I wanted to move very fast. But Dele Giwa said, “No no, no. Don’t go to New Nigerian. Come over to Sunday Concord. So I went to Sunday Concord. I worked directly under Dele Giwa. He became my master.
What kind of person was Dele Giwa?
He was editor of editors. He was someone you would be proud to be mentored by. When we talk of Dele Giwa I get so emotional. You know his story. He worked with The New York Times. He was brought to Nigeria by Dele Cole. He worked with Daily Times. Right from his days in Daily Times, I had been reading his column, The Parallax Snaps, trying to imitate him. At times I imagine myself as Dele Giwa so much so that even after his death I used to wonder if Dele Giwa were to be alive what he will be writing on. What will he be saying? There was a time I even created a column called Press Clips. He used to have Press Snaps. So I learnt a whole lot from Dele Giwa. He brought me down to Lagos. It was like a whole university of journalism. I learnt a whole lot from him, everything, from reporting to news analysis. We travelled all over Nigeria. There was a time I travelled from Lagos to Maiduguri by rail, with all these beggars on the train. I had to write my own experience, as a magazine with the title Lagos to Maiduguri by Rail. Make it descriptive, make it like a documentary, carry the reader along, and make it more colourful. Look, a column is like cooking food. Cook food that people would eat, lick everything and find it very, very delicious. I think Dele Giwa deserves a whole book.
What was Dele Giwa’s social life like? Was he someone who loved going to parties? And how did he impact you?
Dele Giwa was a man about town. He loved jazz a lot. Because of him, I used to bring my radio and cassette, knowing that Earl Klugh was his favourite guitarist. I would play it loud let him be hearing. He and I had a lot in common: the ability to write while music is playing, and using music as a source of inspiration. He was a man to whom you aspire to give a masterpiece. When you gave him, he would celebrate you right there in the whole of Concord. He would be shouting, “Hey Mehn, this man has given me a masterpiece.” He would be shouting on your neck. Not only that. He would put you on a corner of the front page: Mike Awoyinfa has outdone himself with a piece on this. See page this, see page that. He was the guy who was not afraid to compete with his reporters. And he was not afraid to be beaten by a reporter in terms of writing or anything. He surrounded himself with people he thought were better than him. And he knew how to manage everybody. He was not threatened by anybody at all. And many times when he hit the wall and didn’t know how to get a headline, he would say, “Where is Mike Awoyinfa? Oya, give me a front-page headline.” That was the kind of training he gave me. I would give him a headline, and he would say, “Yes, Yes. That’s it. You got it.” That is one of the origins of my ability to write good headlines.
When Dele Giwa left for Newswatch, we had another editor known as Sina Adedipe. He was a hard man, a newsroom tyrant. He was like an Abacha in the newsroom. You came for an editorial meeting and you didn’t have an idea, of what you would use for the week, you were in trouble. He didn’t give a damn about what features story you had. “Give me news,” he would say. “What’s the name of this newspaper? How do you call a paper a newspaper? News.” So he forced us to think news. He forced us to dream news. He forced us to sleep news. He forced us to wake up thinking news. Because how would you attend an editorial meeting, how would you face Adedipe if you don’t have ideas? You were in trouble. So I learnt a whole lot from him. After that period, I was sent abroad for a fellowship. That was around 1965. I just had my first son, Babajide Awoyinfa. The second day after he was named I flew abroad. A week after he was born I flew abroad for my Harry Britton Fellowship. The fellowship is a gathering of Commonwealth journalists all over the world. They kept us for three months. They sent us on attachment to newspaper houses all over Britain. So I was lucky to be posted to a paper in Newcastle upon Tyne. So I worked with the paper there called Sunday Sun. There I learned more. I sharpened my nose for tabloid journalism. You can’t beat these British when it comes to tabloids. Tabloid journalism is a creative way of making people read a newspaper. You hype it. You sensationalize it. Still, you make it truthful.
Was that where you got those ideas you used in Weekend Concord and The Sun?
That’s it. Even I am still learning how to write headlines. I believe the British are still the leaders in the art of headline casting Tabloid has its language, and the ability to be able to be creative. That’s what sells paper. If you have a good headline caster in your organization, you are made. So when I came back I was moved to take over from Lewis Obi as Features Editor. So I went to the features department.
How did you meet your bosom friend Dimgba Igwe and how did your friendship start?
Dimgba and I met at Sunday Concord. He came in as a freelance writer. We didn’t even know him. He just wrote a story. Nobody sent him. He gave himself an assignment. He did a story on school children in Lagos. How they struggle to wake up to go to school every morning, enter the bus, molue. So he had to wake up himself, entered a molue, was observing these school kids, talking to them. And he wrote a very captivating story, which Dele Giwa used in our Sunday Concord Magazine. Everybody was asking who this Dimgba Igwe was. We didn’t even know how to trace him. But luckily one day he walked into our office and said, “I am Dimgba Igwe.” Immediately we dragged him to Dele Giwa, who shook his hand. “What are you doing? Do you want to work for me?” Dele Giwa asked him. Immediately he gave him a job. That was how the two of us started sitting in the same newsroom. I had my cubicle and he used to come around. So we bonded. We became friends. I didn’t know he had also been reading me and I was also like his fan. We covered assignments together. For instance, when M.K.O Abiola was 50, two of us went to Abeokuta to do a Sunday Concord Magazine, capturing the whole atmosphere, the drummers, everything. We interviewed Abiola. And the very good thing was that the two of us blended. We were like two doubles players in lawn tennis.
But two of you came from different ethnic backgrounds and were also different in terms of disposition, way of life and worldview. What is the secret to that blend?
I think it was God that brought us together and our love for writing as well as our ability to accommodate each other and a sense of humility.
Still, both of you were complete opposites.
Yes, we were opposites. But we decided to put our destinies in our own hands (laughs). We were like two pilots flying a plane. It is either we fly together or we sink together. So we better behave ourselves. We used to have our fights. But we don’t fight to the point where we won’t settle. We only fought about once or twice. When I say fight I don’t mean a physical fight, just keeping cold to each other.
What kind of person was Dimgba?
Dimgba was a very honest man. He was a very God-fearing man. Ah, he feared God. And he elevated me. He improved my spiritual side. He was always preaching heaven to me, saying. Look Mike draw closer to God. Draw closer to God.
In an article Femi Adesina wrote recently, celebrating your birthday, he said Dimgba used to call you Iniquity Man. How did you become Iniquity Man? Could you speak about that?
(Laughs) In those days a fine boy would always be a fine boy. I was good-looking in those days. So people used to look at me. Me too I used to look at people. That was it. I think Dimgba and I blended a lot. Where I was weak, he was strong. Where he was weak I was strong. So everybody brought something to the table. It was the same way we wrote a book, The Art of Feature Writing, which became a standard feature text for most journalism schools in Nigeria. It was after we wrote that book that I was moved to the features department in National Concord. And when I got there, I realized that what they were doing wasn’t features. They were just writing essays, and analyses and just planting it, for instance, the role of this in that. I said no. Let’s bring flesh and blood into this. Let’s humanize features. Features are about human-angle stories and emotional stories. So I had to re-educate them on features. And I created columns like Man in the Street, Phrases and Places. I told them features are like news, features and news are the same thing. It is the only one that features a softer approach to writing news. It is not the formal hard news. You soften it. You humanize it, you dramatize it, and you elaborate on it. So we went there and changed the orientation in the features department. It was a great revolution. People started buying National Concord from Monday to Friday because of our features.
My Editor-in-Chief, Dr Doyin Abiola, after coming from holiday one day around late 1988, called me into her office and said, “Look Mike now I notice your talent. There is something I want to do. I want to start a Saturday newspaper that would compete with Sunday. Go and do exactly what you are doing on this features desk, turn it into a paper. Let’s call it Saturday Concord.” Then I said, “Let’s call it Weekend Concord.” She said, “Anything. Just go and do a dummy.” I was so happy. That was my happiest day – to be called and told to go and start a paper from the scratch. So I went about recruiting a team. The team was a secret. I brought in Dele Momodu, who was in African Concord then. Initially, he didn’t want to come. He said, “No, no, no. I cannot just leave African Concord and go and do Lagos Weekend kind of thing.” I told him it was not about Lagos Weekend and that we were going to change journalism in Nigeria. “Come, we are going to cause a paradigm shift in journalism,” I said. So I brought in Dele Momodu. Then brought in some of my core members in the features department. We had a brilliant team, people like Omololu Kassim, and Femi Adesina came later, a whole of them. Eventually, Dimgba came to join me as my deputy from Sunday Concord. We formed a formidable team like Barcelona. We had to change. We went for human-angle stories. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, anybody could make our front page. You don’t have to be a big man. You don’t have to be an important man. You don’t have to be Babangida, who was the President then.
In our first edition, we were going to make a mad man our cover story. It was getting towards Easter. This mad man used to wake up ringing, Repent the kingdom of God is at hand. Omololu Kassim brought the idea. I asked him to track the man down. So he tracked down the man at dawn. He followed him at the end of the day to his den, where he was living. He did a very good story. We were to use that one as our cover. But Dele Momdu came up with a very brilliant idea, a story of Professor Wole Soyinka’s love life. We led with that story. Dele Momodu had to go and meet Soyinka’s ex-wife who was a Librarian. Dele Momodu is a born reporter. He is just a good reporter and writer. Journalism is just like football. Your team determines whether you will succeed or not. Dele Momodu brought this story to the love life of Soyinka. It became a bestseller. Nobody had ever done that kind of journalism before. And Soyinka was mad. He was very angry. And he even threatened to deal with Dele Momodu then. He threatened to report him to his uncle or something like that. You know they lived in Ife together. So they knew each other. But I was very happy. Why was I happy? Because in journalism, the news is what the other person doesn’t want you to report, the rest is advertising. And in the following week, Momodu went to meet Soyinka’s son in Ife. The son gave another angle: Why Daddy and Mummy are not on Good Terms. You know, Soyinka doesn’t like anyone invading his privacy. So that was it. We created a new brand of journalism. Young men, very creative, any interesting thing could make the cover. It wasn’t like others who believed if President has not coughed or spoken, they will not get a cover story. For us, we could make a cover out of anything. African Concord was our neighbour. We had journalists like Bayo Onanuga and Kunle Ajibade there. We were helping each other. We were borrowing from each other. Sam Omatseye would write for us. At times when the African Concord people were looking for headlines, they would call, Oga Mike, oya give us a headline. It was one of the things I enjoyed. When your colleagues respect you enough to say you can give them a headline. We were helping each other. It was one of the best years of our journalism. I don’t think that era can come again for me. Those were my best years as a journalist. We came up with so many creative things. Everybody remembers when Alaafin was arrested in the United Kingdom in connection with drugs. The story came on on Friday and we were wondering how we could give it a headline. So I said, Okay. Somebody go to the library. Bring me all the pictures of Alaafin that you have. Because I believe pictures too are parts of headlines. So I was looking at all the Alaafin’s pictures. Then I saw one place where he was laughing. I said, “Wow, that’s it.” I wrote, Not Alaafin Matter. Then I put him laughing there. The paper sold.
We were the rulers of Saturday in those days. Nobody could beat us in journalism. Nobody could dare near us. The Circulation Department used to torture vendors with Weekend Concord. That is, if you don’t do this, we won’t give you a certain amount of Weekend Concord. It became a supplier’s market. I remember when Diya was also arrested and in handcuffs. We put a whole picture of him in handcuffs on the front page. I said. Oh Dear, playing on his name.
How did you get the gift of casting headlines?
I learnt it by myself. I taught myself. Just as I taught myself how to write features, I taught myself the art of casting headlines. I did. For me, it was just like a game. At times a story would not break, but I would think of an imaginary story. If this happens, I would be asking myself while I am sleeping, which headline will I give? It is about just thinking. The more thinking you do, the more God also helps you and gives you ideas to be more creative.
Do you have any regrets about being a journalist?
There is no money in this profession, but I don’t have any regrets. If I have to come to the world to start all over again, I would still be the same journalist. I would still be putting words together. There is nothing like journalism. Journalism puts you by the ringside of history. It puts you by the ringside watching. Journalism opens doors for you, doors that ordinary people cannot enter. When there is a crisis and people are running away, with your identity card, police would give you unhindered access. It is the best job, though there is no money in it. Still, I like the adventure. I like the idea of telling stories. I like the idea of writing columns. I like the idea of putting government officials on their toes, making them unable to sleep, and making them wonder what they would write about them tomorrow. What have they gotten about me? I like the role we play in the engine of democracy. Without the press, democratic institutions cannot function effectively. What you will get is totalitarianism.
Could you tell me some of the bitter and unforgettable experiences you had as a journalist?
I was beaten by soldiers before, even as an editor. I was going home one day and saw a soldier with a horsewhip and a man who might have stolen a car. So I packed my car to go and investigate what was happening. The soldier then said, “Yes who are you?” I said, “I am a journalist.” “Journalist, journalist. Is that why you are here? Today, you don …” Such a dwarfish soldier started flogging me. I was in Sunday Concord then. He flogged me thoroughly. “Next time you will find another work to do,” he said. I cannot forget that day.
The story of The Sun Newspapers is not complete without reference to your contributions. How did your journey from Weekend Concord to The Sun start?
You know you cannot be an editor forever, after editing a paper for almost a decade. There was a story we carried. Man of the Century: Gani Fawehinmi. It went. Our management got angry. They said, “How can you say Gani is the man of the century? How can you?” That was our kind of journalism. That was the man we have been using to sell our paper. That was the man who had been fighting the poor man’s battle. That had been the advocate of the common man, the man who sacrificed his life for justice, for equality, for everything. So to us as a newspaper, we believed he deserved to be called the man of the century. We carried the story and the management got angry and decided I should become Editor-at-large, to be writing for all the publications. Then Dimgba should go to Editorial Board. You know, I am not the fighting type. But Dimgba just came. He said, “Look we are resigning. We are not going to allow these people to mess us up.” So I said, “Ok. What shall we do now?” “Let’s go and resign,” Dimgba replied. So that very day we went and resigned. But luckily for us, we had been writing a book called 50 Nigeria’s Corporate Strategists, in which we interviewed 50 CEOs all over Nigeria, sharing their experiences on how they ran their businesses in Nigeria. This is a book that took us all over Nigeria. We interviewed Gamaliel Onosode, Michael Omolayole, Felix Ohiwerei, and Olusegun Osunkeye, then MD/CEO of Nestle Foods. We interviewed Bassey Idiokho, the Executive Chairman of UACN, and Christopher Kolade, who was the Chairman of Cadbury. Faysal el Kalil, Chairman, Seven-Up Bottling Company. Ogala Osoka, then MD/CEO of Nigerian Reinsurance Corporation. So many of them. That was where we learnt the art of management. What it takes to manage a business. You know, nobody teaches us, journalists, how to manage. Nobody teaches us anything about marketing. Nobody teaches us anything about branding. All we know is just to attack, attack and write. So we decided while writing this book that we wanted to go and learn, to have an experiential knowledge of all these things. That’s the beauty of journalism. You are trained to ask questions. What you don’t know, you go there and ask. Life is about just six questions, which journalism answers: Who, what, when, where, why, and how. That’s it. With that one now you can apply it to any situation. Who are you? Where are you coming from? What did you achieve? How did you achieve it? Those are the basic questions. The book sold for N10, 000 naira in 1999. That was the year we printed it. And that was the year we were fired from Weekend Concord. This book sold enough that we were able to build our houses out of the proceeds. This house was built out of the proceeds from the sale of this book. The next house over there is Dimgba Igwe’s. He built these houses. He was the one whose feet were on the ground. I was always in the sky. I was about town looking for news. I was always the one generating crazy ideas which he would refine.
There are so many conspiracy theories about Dimgba’s death. For instance, there is a conspiracy theory that his death wasn’t accidental, as it was made to seem.
No, no, no. I don’t think Dimgba was such a person that would incur the wrath or anger of anybody to the extent of wanting to kill him. No, no, no. He was such a pacifist. A man of God. What was he going to write that would warrant his being killed? I think within that period my son had graduated with an MBA from his university in the United Kingdom. So I didn’t even want to go, as if I knew Dimgba was going to die. I said no let the mummy go. Dimgba was my friend, but he was still my boss, morally and everything. When he said, “Do something,” I must do it. He said, “No, no, no, Mike you can’t use all your money to pay for the school fees of this boy and now that he is graduating you won’t be there.” I went there. Thank God I went. Only for us, after the whole event, we were just enjoying our holiday, when somebody called me on a Saturday. He said, “Have you heard what has happened?” I asked, “What has happened?” He said, “Phone your house. Ask them what has happened.” I said, “Is my house on fire?” He said, “No, your house is not on fire.” I said, “So what is it?” He said, “Call your house. They would tell you what has happened.” Even if my house was on fire, would it not have been better than for my friend to just die? At least I would go and join him or we would start all over again. But the person just mustered courage and said, “Well, your friend is dead.” The person dropped the phone. Ah! Everybody was rolling on the floor. We were in a town called Ipswich. That is the worst experience I have ever had in my life. Not even when my parents died did I feel the impact of death. It was just like as if a part of me was dead. So we had to cut our holiday short and fly down home to be receiving visitors. As I am sitting here, they would just tell me, that Tinubu is coming. I would rush there. I would make a speech. Even Buhari came. It was touching to see Buhari mopping his eyes with a handkerchief when I was talking. I cannot forget that. It was a very touching experience.
Dimgba was a righteous man. He was a very sincere man. He was a very honest man. So I was asking myself what book I will write. Before his passing, we had written a book on Fashola. After we retire from Weekend Concord, we thought we would spend the rest of our lives writing all these books. But our friend Orji Kalu came and talked us into coming to work on the paper he is starting. Dimgba is from Orji Kalu’s town. They are both from Igbere. So on that basis, we became friends. He bought a lot of copies of this book from us. He bought up to about one million naira, which was big money then. So we agreed to work for him. The paper was to be called The New Republic. He had already invited some other colleagues. Then we said, “Well, if we are to come in, then we are the ones going to be in charge. He said, “Definitely yes. You will be in charge.” “And we are going to call the paper The Sun, not the New Republic.” He said, “Anything.” When we agreed to work for him, Kalu was so happy that Anumudu his friend told us, “Whatever it is you have done for this man to be this happy, please continue making him happy. I beg you.” That was Willy Anumudu, the owner of Globe Motors. He is dead now. That was what we called the paper The Sun. So we recruited a team. We brought in all the people in Concord that we knew, as well as others from other papers. Steve Nwosu and Eric Osagie were from Concord too. Femi Adesina was the pioneer editor. We called it The King of the Tabloids.
The Sun is known for its screaming headlines. Why those screaming headlines? Does it have anything to do with your days at Weekend Concord?
Yeah. From our pedigree, our Weekend Concord background. Our background determined where we were going. The Weekend Concord mentality was still ingrained in us. But eventually, Kalu came and said he didn’t want King of Tabloids again, that we had passed the tabloid era and should call it another name. So we should go and think of another name. Dimgba and I started brainstorming. We came out with The Voice of the Nation. He said yes he liked it. So what we did is this: The sun is a blend of Weekend Concord and politics. We tried to marry politics and entertainment. Because the owner is a politician. He had his reason for starting a paper. And so far it has worked. We were there for a considerable number of years.
Could you speak about you and Dimgba’s exit from The Sun? What happened?
When you are not the owner, there can always be a change. When the owner says “Go”, what would you do? Will you say, “It is my editorial might that brought this paper into being? Things don’t work like that in Nigeria. It is your money that talks, not your ideas or skills. We had to surrender and move on with our lives. He continued to put us on the board of paper. We sat down there, did what the board has to do, and gave advice based on our experiences. We thank God. The Sun is still shining. And it’s a success story. Because it is not easy for a newspaper to be sustained in Nigeria. Money is not enough. You can have all the money, but if you don’t get your strategies right, if you don’t get the products right, the paper won’t last. It won’t be sustainable.
What is the secret to the success of The Sun?
The success secret of the sun is knowing what people want to read and apply our business and entrepreneurial acumen. Those are the things that contributed to the success of the paper. We groomed followers too, people that could take over from us. Otherwise, our exit would have led to the crumbling of the paper. That’s leadership for you. Leadership is about grooming people that would succeed you. Thank God the paper is doing well. At least, there is no how they would mention The Sun now that they won’t mention our names – Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe. Even if we don’t receive kobo from the organization, at least the records show that we pioneered it editorially. We created a product with our ideas, with our know-how, with our God-given talents. And that for me is what is most important – that I created a paper that made waves and is still making waves.
What is your major niche as a journalist? What makes you stand out?
Abiola used to say “Mike knows what people want to read.” As for me, that’s all. He has said it all. That’s it. And once you know what people want to read, it means a lot. You have a nose for news. You have the skills for news. You can report. And I was complimented by Dimgba Igwe who was a good manager. He was also a good editorial man. He had the managerial acumen. So I delegated most of everything managerial to him. He was virtually the Managing Director, let’s call it that way. I was the Managing Director but he was a friend I trusted so well that I could even give my life to him. I had so much trust in him.
You met your wife at Ijebu-Ijesha Grammar School, in your hometown. Could you speak about how you met her?
I didn’t talk to her even at school. She was a junior. If I knew she was the one I would marry, I would have started eating my fruit long ago. We were from the same town, the same Ijesha. And we attended the same church, St Matthew Anglican Church, Ijebu-Ijesha. I once went home for Christmas, and it was the time I was being pressurized by my parents to marry. They were even imposing a woman on me. My father took me to one nearby village and brought a village girl. She was uneducated. My father then said, “Come and look at this girl, whether you will marry her.” I went there and said, “This one that I would start educating and grooming all over again.” So I didn’t go back.
I went to church one day and as I was coming out, I saw my wife. Having known her at school. I greeted her and she responded, calling me, My Senior. I held her hand. “Are you married?” I asked her. She said not yet. I said, “Oya let’s go to meet my parents. I have married you.” That’s all. Like joke, like a joke, as they say in Pidgin (laughs). Today she has three boys for me, the last ones being twins. Taiwo is in the United Kingdom. He works with Amazon. He is a big man in Amazon. Taiwo is also an entrepreneur. He is the MD/CEO of Triangle, that’s the name of their company, a partnership of three friends. They designed the Michael Adenuga Centre, Alliance Francaise in Ikoyi, Lagos – the acoustics, the visual, the cinema, everything. You can’t beat the young boys these days. Entrepreneurship is the thing. I always pray people should learn from us and start their projects. You shouldn’t work for people forever. You will work for people with the view that you will stand on your own in future. There are opportunities even in journalism. I pray that every journalist should write books. Because there is money to be made from books. This book is $100 on Amazon. This is a hardcover. For this one, we started with N40, 000. But as the naira started falling, it is now about N60, 000. The way Nigeria is going is frightening. May God come and bail us out of the mess we are in, with all these cinematic dramas happening. Criminals would ride on a motorcycle, go to a prison yard in Abuja and set prisoners free.
Growing up, did you ever envisage that something like this would happen in Nigeria? And what do you think is the cause of this seeming total collapse of the system?
We have never experienced anything like this before. It’s very frightening.
Is there any hope for the future?
We live on hope. Hope springs eternally, as Alexander Pope said. We should not give up hope. As long as we are alive as human beings we should have hope. A prison where you have high-profile terrorists and you just go and put them in a mud house. No, no, no. It’s weird. They should go to the US and see how they build fortified prisons, how they built Guantanamo Bay. Wired everywhere. You go and build a mud house as a prison. They go behind, break the wall, make holes, and use dynamite.
What’s the way out?
We need a conference of security experts, just like we had a constituent assembly. Let them organise a constituent assembly of all security gurus. Let them come up with regulations on the way forward. Because, for me, I am not a security expert. What I say might not be authoritative.
What is the secret to your success as a journalist?
It is what I have been telling you: the God factor. God has been good to me. And what Abiola said, that “Mike has a nose for news. He knows what people want to read.” Having a nose for news and the ability to cast headlines I think is my strongest point. If there is any competition in headline casting I am ready to compete with the person (laughs). It’s true. I enjoy this game called journalism. I enjoy this game called casting headlines. I enjoy everything about journalism. I enjoy the travels. As I said, it has taken me around the world. I have met editors. There is a book I wrote, 50 World Editors. I have interviewed editors of the New York Times, El Mundo in Spain, The Guardian, Sunday Express, The Times of London, Financial Times, Hindustan Times, Daily Mirror and even CNN.
Any piece of advice for journalists who want to be successful like you?
One, from the beginning you should love reading. And you should love writing. You should also be trained in a journalism institution. For me, that is very important. And when you come out, you should pay your dues as a reporter. That is critical. Any assignment they give you, go out for it. See it as an opportunity to learn. Learn, learn and learn. To be a reporter makes a lot of difference. Because if you suddenly become an editor and you don’t have a reporter’s background, they would pull a wool over your eyes. When you are an editor with a reporter’s background. you are filled with ideas. A story breaks and you tell your reporter, “You pursue this angle, you pursue that angle, you look at this angle, you look at that angle. “ That’s what I used to do in Weekend Concord in those days. And there is no harm in being ambitious. A reporter should be ambitious. It is not a crime to be ambitious. My ambition was to be an editor and an editor-in-chief. I worked towards it and God answered my prayer. And in everything, we should factor in God before and after. Without God, I won’t be who I am and where I am today. And I give God all the glory.