By Dare Babarinsa
It is interesting that three media houses have something to celebrate in recent times. The Guardian, the authoritative flagship of the Nigerian Press, has just released a compendium to memorialise its first decade on the news stand. The Guardian was founded in 1983 and its first decade on the newsstand was a truly turbulent era when we moved from democratic governance to military rule and a failed attempt to return to democratic governance.
The Guardian is the newspaper of the Nigerian elite and its great prose and captivating cadence is a tribute to excellent journalism. While The Guardian is a daily, the City People is a weekly tabloid, noted for its sensationalism and appeal to the common man. It is marking its 25th anniversary on the newsstand. The third one is Ovation, the inimitable monthly that is Dele Momodu’s offering to the world of journalism. Ovation is about the rich and famous and it is about Dele himself.
The Guardian defines itself. Many of the foundation staff, including the great triumvirate of Stanley Macebuh, Lade Bonuola and Femi Kusa, came from the old Daily Times, the grand institution that sired many other publications. Therefore, in the beginning, there was the temptation to produce a paper like the Daily Times. Then the debate among the founding members whether the newspaper should be like the Daily Times. In the end, there was something close to a stalemate and it was left to Alex Ibru and Maiden, his wife, to decide. In the end, the Ibrus voted for The Guardian that was, and still is, like no other Nigerian newspaper before it.
Nigeria is lucky that Alex Ibru decided to set up The Guardian. It was an audacious gamble for a man who had no experience of either gambling or newspapering. He was ready to learn. It must have been something of an ordeal for him travelling to odd places with Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi, the university teacher and self-made newspaper man, to interview the powerful and the mighty. I look forward to reading again the compilation of the Ibru and Ogunbiyi interviews so that we can relive the vibrancy and colour of those days. Where else are we going to get the likes of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Colonel Muamar Gadhafi firing from all cylinders on newspaper or magazine pages?
For Ibru, The Guardian was not just an institution to make money. It was meant to raise a standard for freedom. During the ordeal of TELL under the military, especially during the terror-reign of General Sani Abacha, The Guardian was always in support of our cause for freedom of the press. In the end, the newspaper paid dearly for it. While Ibru was serving as a Minister in the cabinet of General Sani Abacha, the newspaper was sealed off. After he was forced to leave the cabinet, the evil ones were not satisfied. They tried to kill him. Those were the days when the killer squad was abroad and no one was safe.
What The Guardian has done by its recent publication is to assert the right to institutional memory. The newspaper was the cornucopia for the brightest and the best in journalism. It was here that Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor found their way to prison and their entrance into the history book of Nigerian journalism.
The newspaper was unique in its daring presentation and beautiful prose. Who could forget Alhaji Alade Odunewu, the columnist, in the early days or the daring reportage for which the medium became known. It was here that many of our colleagues, especially old students of the University of Lagos Mass Communication Department, made their marks. We have the likes of Niyi Obaremi, Tunde Olofintila, Emeka Izeze, Bayo Oguntimehin, Juliet Ukpabialla. They were joined by the likes of Sunny Ojeagbese, Debo Adesina, Reuben Abati, Folake Soyinka. Our teacher, Professor Olatunji Dare joined the intellectual train pioneered by the class of Ogunbiyi, Kole Omotoso and many others. The list as they say is endless. Amman Ogan, the editor of The Guardian on Sunday, was in a class of her own.
After the assassination of Dele Giwa in 1986, many Nigerian media houses were carrying the banner advert: Who Killed Dele Giwa? It was a jarring challenge to the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida because many Nigerians believed then that some elements within the junta might have been involved in that crime. All the newspapers were persuaded to discontinue the campaign. The Guardian insisted and it was the last to stop it.
Ironically, it must have been that uncertain era that spurred Seye Kehinde to start his influential City People. Kehinde was a staff member of the old Newswatch where he worked in the library with Nyaknno Osso, the grand librarian of Newswatch and keeper of the magazine treasure house of information. Kehinde later became member of the pioneering team of TheNews, the radical newspaper house that came out of rebellion to Chief Moshood Abiola, the publisher of the Concord Group of Newspapers. Most of them were staff of African Concord, then edited by Bayo Onanuga, founding CEO of The News.
Kehinde has since carved a niche for himself. I don’t know of anyone who is a member of the high society who has not appeared in the City People. Its breezy interviews and racy stories make it compulsory reading to titillate the mind. Simply put, it is an entertainment magazine. That Kehinde has done this for the past 25 years is a tribute to his resilience and intellectual vigour. It also shows his team’s capacity to adapt and innovate in an era when the print media is facing relentless challenge from the onslaught of citizen journalism. After all, who else could carry more rumours, more salacious stories than those blokes populating cyberspace? Who can rein them in when they decide to assail us with fake news and blatant mendacity?
But Momodu’s Ovation is in a class of its own. It tells the fairytale truth about the rich, the very rich and the fabulously rich. If you are rich, but you have not appeared in Ovation, then you are not rich enough. Momodu has created for our country and the black race something that we can be proud of. His incursion into the secret places of the Nigerian plutocracies is a marvel. In 25 years of chronicling the rich and the famous, Momodu has become like one of them.
Momodu came to Concord few years after my own set left to join our bosses to start the pioneering Newswatch magazine. I met him briefly at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, where I had gone to report a story for Newswatch. He later joined the team of Mike Awoyinfa in the trailblazing Weekend Concord. He became one of the young people in the circle of Chief Abiola and when the June 12 debacle happened on Nigeria, Momodu was on the firing line. He escaped with the cloth on his back, surfaced in London and tried to take advantage of adversity. That was when he was inspired to start Ovation.
It is 25 years since then and he has been everywhere. He is today one of the best known Nigerian in the world, as much a celebrity as the musicians and sportsmen who court him. His resilience and staying power show the possibility of Nigeria and its vast resources and limitless opportunities. Momodu is a living inspiration to younger Nigerians.
It is indeed good that these three media houses have found time to celebrate. Media houses are often shy to pause and celebrate themselves even when there are many reasons to celebrate. It is also necessary to record institutional memories because the media is not just the chronicler of history. The media is also part of the history it chronicles. Media houses blow the trumpets for others. It is not wrong for us to enjoy some blaring of the trumpets too. Chinua Achebe said the lizard that falls from the iroko tree without breaking any limbs, can at least salute itself, if no one would do so.
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