Sunday, December 4, 2022 2:03 pm
By Nengi Owei Ilagha
DAN AGBESE was unapproachable at the time I got to Newswatch. I had been reading him over the years, from the time I was an undergraduate. Along with his colleagues, Dele Giwa and Ray Ekpu, he epitomized the highest standards of journalism practice in Nigeria, if not in all of Africa. I was particularly enamoured of his colourful yet ironic twist of thought, his delicate phrasing, and that smug disposition to the topic of the day, as if he had the answer to the problem at hand, and all government needed to do was read his page, and thank him later. Very much like the bespectacled monk, the adorable egghead, in the picture frame of his column.
I simply wanted to write like him, in that smooth, easy, effortless way that leaves the script well conceived from beginning to end. I looked forward, dreamily, to the day I would be a guest of his column, like Niyi Osundare who began his appearance on the pages of Newswatch in like manner. And that day may never come. Here was I at Newswatch as a staff writer on the distinguished stable, and yet I couldn’t set eyes on this iconic model, Dan Agbese, as often as I would like to. He was as scarce as fuel in a distressed economy, and I had to bide my time to behold him again.
I felt a sense of good fortune the day I bumped into him along the corridor leading to the newsroom, and that happened only once. I took a good look at his face, and could not but marvel. My adoration for the man, my adulation for his style as a distinctive, individual example of how to write, was total. I could tell his trademark sentences apart from any other copy. If I picked up an isolated scrap of Newswatch along the streets, a page discarded by one who was done with his share of suya in an old wrapping, I would recognize the handiwork of Dan Agbese at first glance. He wrote with a limpid elegance that carries with it a hint of lofty, delectable poetry.
And he has a good memory too. It takes one with a good memory to see a face in print, and recognize it in real life. My face had appeared in the celebrated maiden edition of Eko, among the editorial crew of the city magazine, the soft-sell general interest magazine set up by the management of Newswatch to report Lagos only, under the guidance of Louisa Ayonote, as she was then known, daughter of the former military Head of State, Major General Thompson Aguiyi-Ironsi.
Just the first appearance, my trademark smile in place, on the first page of the first edition of the famous city magazine, and Agbese recognised me along that corridor. He did not walk past me at once. He called me by name. You must be Nengi? It was a question, yes. I nodded, and what he told me next left me bemused. I read your column, Street Smart. It’s one of the strong points of the magazine. Keep it up. I found that hard to believe, but if Dan Agbese said so, he may jolly well be right. I felt sudden springs under my feet, just to think that Agbese of all people read my pieces and could relate with them.
A noble son of Benue State, Dan Agbese remains an idol in the journalism profession. To many a journalist, he is like a demi-god. I feel privileged to have worked under the supervision of an editor of Agbese’s stature and pedigree. Our first real meeting goes back to that day of my interview at 62 Oregun Road, Ikeja, Lagos, in 1991. It came as a great credential for me, the very fact that Dan Agbese sat on that panel and cursorily read my scripts, my humble file of published articles ranging from pieces in The Nigerian Tide, The Guardian, Concord, Punch, and the Benue State newspaper, The Voice.
I watched him skim through my file with repeated nods of satisfaction, and promptly endorse me as a staff of the new magazine, in spite of the fact that my name was at the very bottom of the page, written in the legible blue ink of Louisa’s handwriting, while thirty other names above mine were typed. I was visiting my good friend, James Uloko at Newswatch that morning. He told me an interview was going on right then, and had introduced me to Louisa in the canteen.
It so happened that I was holding photocopies of my published scripts in hand. Without hesitation, Louisa flipped through the first three scripts in my wallet, scribbled down my name, and began to address me as if I was already one of her crew. That was how I got to face the panel made up of Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed, and Soji Akinrinade. One seat at the head of the table was vacant, and I assumed it was for Ray Ekpu who might have been coping with administrative matters at the moment.
Till date, Agbese’s sway over the popular opinions of the day is well known. His viewpoint was always served on the golden platter of a columnist whose meal gave off an alluring aroma suggestive of many spices and condiments. To read him is to partake of a feast that leaves a flavour which remains with the senses for all of seven days. That is, till the next feast is called one week later. Not surprisingly, Agbese commanded a country-wide following that saw readers flocking to the news stands at the start of every week to enjoy fresh grains of wisdom.
When I left Newswatch at the Billingsway office, one of the precautions I took was to bind together all the complimentary copies of Newswatch I had received as a staff writer. I did so because I felt I still had a lot to learn about writing, and the column of a master like Dan Agbese could teach me more, so long as I took the trouble to flip through that fat volume and glean the content of its pages. Happily, the Newswatch company took it upon itself a few years later, to select and publish some of the most outstanding pieces written by Ray Ekpu, Yakubu Mohammed and Dan Agbese. I still have my copy of the book, and I dip into it from time to time.
Many years later, fresh from London, I was wearing a long mournful grey beard in the aftermath of my mother’s death, when I met Agbese again, this time in Yenagoa. Given the extra camouflage of my royal sartorial outlook, he could not recognise me at first sight. When he did, the inimitable Dan Agbese gave me a handshake and a friendly hug. I had the singular pleasure of posing for a photograph beside him outside the Gabriel Okara Cultural Center, and signing for him a personal copy of my book, Epistles To The President, volume two, sporting on the cover the famous photo of the first oil well in Oloibiri.
What’s more, Izontimi Otuogha, an enterprising young Bayelsa journalist, had earned the respect of his fellow journalists when he pulled Dan Agbese, editor in chief of Newswatch, Africa’s first news magazine, to give the keynote address at the tenth anniversary celebration of Gesi Publications in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State. The public lecture, suitably branded with the name of the respectable media pundit, attracted the cream of journalists from all over the Niger Delta. I waited patiently for Agbese to finish courtesies with the journalists who thronged him, and then I stepped forward in my red top-hat and bushy beard.
He said he had since taken note of the princely, all-red gear, and was wondering who this could be. How fantastic to know that this was the same good old Nengi. I couldn’t stop laughing. I don’t get to meet celebrities every day, I said in reply. I don’t get to meet pundits every day, so I promptly requested to pose for that photograph beside him, and Dan Agbese obliged me. In the very next edition of my newspaper, Coastline News Network, our local CNN, I gave ample space to that historic photograph, and sent copies to Agbese in Lagos. I hope he received them.