For very many years, Richard Akinnola was a practising print journalist who covered the judicial beat. He rose to the very top to head that beat at VANGUARD newspapers.
He is also a Lawyer who has now gone into book publishing and research. The big news is that, he is 60. But he does not look that age. He looks refreshingly young. In this birthday interview below with City People Magazine Publisher, SEYE KEHINDE, he talks about his new life at 60.
How do you feel turning 60? What’s on your mind at a time like this?
Hmmmmm, turning 60. Whao! First of all, one has to give God the glory. It is amazing how we human beings easily take things for granted . We are all alive today by the special grace of God. And l have every reason to thank God for what he has done in my life, too numerous to begin to count.
When we talk of thanking God, we are wont to take our mind momentarily to money and material acquisitions. But we all know that as good as money is, it can give you happiness but it can’t give you joy; it can give you a mansion but can’t give you sleep; so, I am thinking beyond the realm of material things, but thanking God for various things He had done in my life these past 60 years, particularly in a country where life expectancy is 48 years! If it were not for God’s mercy, I would not be alive today.
When I remember in my Year One in Acquinas College, Akure, how a big stone meant for my eyes miraculously hit my forehead, in a riot when our school defeated Oyemekun Grammar School, Akure in a football encounter; how I was almost crippled in a football match, while I was a player for Christ School, Ado -Ekiti in my HSC in 1977; how in my days in my palm wine drinkerdsklub, we would travel all night for ‘Gyration’ to another “Il ya” with all the attendant risks, with the ‘songitos’ among us propelling the drunken driver to “fire on” because “mosquitoes are biting tyres”. How we were almost killed by soldiers at midnight around Ilupeju area of Lagos during the curfew of the Buhari coup of December 1983, just because we needed beer in the Guardian newsroom, while reporting the coup and thus we defied the curfew. How bullets were flying all over my head on April 22, 1990 during the Gideon Okar’s coup when loyal forces were trying to dislodge the coupists. When I remember that the ADC aircraft that crashed at Ikorodu, Lagos in 1996, killing all its passengers, was the same plane l flew from Port-Harcourt to Lagos five days earlier; when I remember how I was abducted at gun point by the General Sani Abacha’s goons without anybody seeing us that Sunday evening in October 1996.
As a matter of fact, after three days in detention and l had struck a rapport with my captors, l asked them why they didn’t just invite or arrest me as they had done in my previous encounters with them, instead of this abduction. One of the operatives confided in me that their plan was to shoot me. According to him, they had anticipated that l would attempt to escape and they would have shot me and driven away.
And that was exactly what l had wanted to do. Immediately they accosted me, l wanted to dash across the road. They had apparently laid an ambush for me near the gate of Concord. As l stepped out of the gate of Concord, a milk-colour Peugeot 504 stopped in front of me and simultaneously, three of the men came out, pointing guns at me. One of them said “you are Richard Akinnola”. Momentarily, l wanted to dash across the road, but before l could gather my thoughts together, they had pushed me inside the car and zoomed off in a very swift operation. We give God the glory.
Do you feel like you are getting old and leaving the boys behind? Quite frankly, l don’t feel 60. Age is a thing of the mind. I am like 30 right now. If you see how l relate with much younger folks, you would think we are within the same age bracket. I am a very free person. I don’t feel old at all. So, l am still with the boys.
How did it all start? Where were you born? Where was your growing up? And which schools did you attend?
I attended St Thomas Primary School, Akure; Acquinas College, Akure, Christ School, Ado Ekiti; School of Journalism, Berkshire, Uk, Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, University of Leicester UK, International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg, France.
I was born in Akure, though, we are from Ondo town, but our dad settled in Akure. He was a civil servant and later went into business. We had a somewhat aristocratic upbringing I learnt how to use fork and knife from primary school. You were not allowed to walk in the house without putting on your slippers. And when going out, you must wear white socks and shoe, with your shirt well tucked in. At home, you must observe siesta. We had a coterie of servants – cooks, gardeners, laundry men. But despite the “aje butter” upbringing, discipline was never compromised.
In our growing up, we were very free with our parents. Would sometimes sit on my dad’s laps and play drum with his bald head. Incidentally, l was the only one who has open tooth like him. Because of the “Britico” nature of our dad, we were not to fight in school. But l remember one incident. There was this bully in our primary school when l was in primary two. He would harass and beat other students and l would go and fight on behalf of other bullied students, but when it came to my turn, l would not defend myself because we had been told not to fight in school. Each time the boy beats me, l would go home complaining. Then my mum, who was a no-nonsense person, told me that l should fight back when next time that bully came to harass me. Buoyed with such confidence, l went back to school next day and when the boy came as usual, l resisted him and beat him silly till he fainted. The school authorities reported me to my dad and he told my mum that if l killed another person’s child, she would be held responsible. Since then, that boy stopped bullying fellow students.
How did you end up in Journalism? Was it straight from school?
Since when l was in secondary school, l had always been in love with writing and journalism. I started buying Time magazine in 1975 while in my final year in secondary school. So, in 1982, l joined Sunday Stamp, owned by Chief Tola Adeniyi. From there, became a pioneer member of The Guardian in 1983. While in the secondary school, l was always fascinated with court stories. I used to read proceedings of London’s Old Bailey court in Sunday Times. It was therefore, natural for me to be at the Judicial beat of The Guardian where l made my mark, which culminated in my extensive coverage of Decree 4 trial of The Guardian and Messrs Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson. The Guardian then had an editorial policy of extensive and detailed reportage of stories. I became a household name with my stories, which made Vanguard to poach me. The Vanguard coup was executed by Jimi Disu. He was then Business Editor who was sent by Muyiwa Adetiba, Editor of Vanguard with an instruction that Jimi must get me at all cost. Mr Sunmi Smart-Cole and Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi of the Guardian begged me not to leave, but it was too late. That was how l became a pioneer staff of Vanguard in 1984 and started my weekly Law column in 1985. I want to save lots of details of my career for my memoir, which would be out in a couple of months. I like the element of surprise, hence , l am not giving out certain information till my memoir is released.
Tell us about your journey into Journalism and how did you develop a bias for judicial reporting?
As l stated earlier, judicial reporting is my forte and from there, my books started coming on. Gani Fawehinmi played a major role here. I had written a two-part article in my law column in respect of the travails of Justice Yaya Jinadu, who was forced out of the Bench in 1984 after his several court orders were disdainfully disobeyed by Mr John Oyegun, then a permanent Secretary of ministry of internal affairs, who later became the Chairman of APC. And the government asked the judge to apologise to the executive. He refused and resigned. When Gani saw my column, he was so impressed and he said the matter was too serious to be treated in a two-part column, that l needed to develop it into a book. So, his Nigerian Law publication then commissioned me to write the book. He gave me four months to complete the book, but he was shocked when l completed the book in two months. That was in 1988. The book was published in February 1989. Till date, l have 22 books straddling Media, Law, Hunan Rights and politics.
At the time you left active Journalism, why did you leave?
I had got to a saturation point, though l have not totally left. I still publish Courtroom Magazine and Media Law Journal. However, because my hands were too full with other engagements, like human rights activism, l had to devote some attention to it. On October 15, 1987, five of us came together to establish Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), the first human rights body. Subsequently, a number of Human Rights NGOs came out of CLO, dealing with various thematic areas and l happened to be the driving force behind some of these bodies. Hence , l needed time to nurture them. But at the same time, l have been so involved in my books business and media law training for journalists.
Richard Akinola has always been known to be highly principled man. How did that side of you evolve?
Somehow, right from my childhood, l have always been different. While growing up, if every of my siblings were going one way, l always said l would do my own things separately. I always go by personal convictions, irrespective of what the majority says. And over the years, my values were shaped by personal convictions. Because of the somewhat aristocratic upbringing l had, pecuniary or material things don’t move me. I have seen comfort. So, and because l am not moved by material things, l stay with my convictions. Of course, this has come with a price, but it doesn’t really matter. I go by my beliefs even if l am standing alone or in the minority.
For someone who has been involved in the struggle for the enthronement of Human Rights, Democracy and the rule of Law, do you feel sad that Nigeria is still where she is today?
Feeling sad is an understatement. And l feel more angry when some otherwise respected people, including those who suffered and fought for this democracy begin to rationalise what we condemned under the military. Take for example, the flagrant disobedience to court orders as if we are in a military government. Its really unfortunate. When one looks back and remembers the roles we played in the Campaign for Democracy (CD), United Action for Democracy (UAD) and JACON under the leadership of Gani Fawehinmi and what is happening today, one feels sad. But we cannot relent. We have to continually hold the government accountable.
What will you say is the major problem facing Nigeria?
The major problem of Nigeria is the followership and not the leadership. People get the type of leaders they have through their acquiescence and complicity. We are like slaves in love with our chains.