One hero and a media in winter

Dapo Olorunyomi


Dapo Olorunyomi, who turn 60 last week, is a giant who bestrides two worlds. He was one of the heroes who led the troops in the war against dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. He is still in the thick of things today when the media is in poor, if not failing health, as the harbinger of the brave New World. Olorunyomi was the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of TheNews, the iconoclastic news magazine that came out in the final years of the General Ibrahim Babangida dictatorship. It was a heady period when we believed the possibilities of our country were endless. Now in this sober times, Olorunyomi is leading the charge as the Editor-in-Chief of Premium Times, the online investigative newspapers that is making waves, ruffling feathers and perhaps showing us the future of journalism.

Olorunyomi’s genre of journalism was forged in turbulence. He was one of the top journalists of the African Concord where the irrepressible Bayo Onanuga was Editor, now the Managing Director of the News Agency of Nigeria, NAN. Onanuga and I were school mates at the Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, where he graduated in 1980, the same set with the late Remi Oyo, who also once served as managing director of the NAN and was notably the Chief Press Secretary of President Olusegun Obasanjo. UNILAG Mass Comm was (and still is) the cornucopia for the production of media men and women. Olorunyomi was not in Mass Comm but he acquired his moral mettle from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, an institution I was also privileged to attend.

It was his religious adherence to journalism as an instrument of national morality that put Olorunyomi and his colleagues in trouble. Therefore, he was never afraid to hunt in the forest of a thousand demons. Ife of the late 1970s and 1980s was a citadel of moral certainty and crusading fervor. The faculties were full of radicals and giant intellectuals. It was at the new Oduduwa Hall in Ife that Professor Wole Soyinka premiered his Opera Wonyosi, a satirical look at African dictatorship in an era that paraded monsters likes Field Marshal Idi Amin of Uganda and Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Empire. Ife was the home of Soyinka, of Professor Sam Aluko, the unforgettable economist, Professors Banji Akintoye, Adeagbo Akinjogbin, Ishola Olomola, David Oke and many other stars. Even our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ojetunji Aboyade, use to teach year two students economics. He would come to class, dressed in impeccable short-sleeve shirt and bow tie and proclaim: “Economics!” When General Olusegun Obasanjo, the then military ruler, offered him a second term, he declined. He preferred to teach.

Coming from the background of serious moral social and political engagements, it was not difficult for Olorunyomi to fit into the dynamic newsroom of Onanuga’s African Concord. The magazine was one of the numerous publications on the stable of the Concord Group of Newspapers, which included the National Concord, Sunday Concord, Weekend Concord, Isokan and Amana, founded by that larger-than-life entrepreneur, Chief Moshood Abiola, the Basorun of Ibadan and the Aare Ona Kakanfo. Abiola believed that the instrument of private enterprises can be used to change Nigeria if the right political leadership was in place. He was a brave man who had undergone a miraculous metamorphosis from poverty to prosperity and who believed that this was possible for the next person.

Abiola was also the friend of the big men and women of power. When Abiola’s friend, General Ibrahim Babangida came to power in 1985, it was clear to many people that it was a good time for the Concord chairman. The deposed regime of General Muhammadu Buhari had been hostile to the newspaper group and Duro Onabule, the Editor of the National Concord was detained for many weeks. Onabule had written an article, criticizing the Buhari regime, and proclaiming that “whatever has a beginning must have an end.”

When the end came for the Buhari dictatorship, we thought it was the beginning of something more enduring, friendlier and better. But on the day General Ibrahim Babangida seized power, something significant happened. The new men of power led by the likes of Joshua Dongoyaro and Halilu Akilu had drafted a speech for the new Head of State. The draft was given to Babangida as he drove from the Flagstaff House, Marina, to the headquarters of the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA, Victoria Island, to make his first broadcast. The draft had carried the title: Speech by the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces. Babangida took out his red pen and crossed out Head of State and wrote in its place, The President.

It was a title he was ready to defend at all cost and he would not let go willingly. The critical press was skeptical about Babangida unending Transition Programme and had become alert to the danger of what Dr Bala Usman called the Hidden Agenda. Unexpectedly, the African Concord where Lewis Obi was the Editor-in-Chief and Onanuga was the Editor, also joined in writing critical stories about the Babangida regime. In its April 13, 1992 edition, the magazine carried a damning story against the regime. In retaliation, Babangida ordered that the entire newspapers, employing more than 3000 people, be closed down. Aghast at the severity of the punishment, Abiola met his friend to beg for a reprieve, but the dictator would not budge unless the Editor, Bayo Onanuga, tenders an unreserved apology.

The Concord chairman then held a meeting with Onanuga and directed him to bring a letter of apology which would be delivered personally to Brigadier Halilu Akilu, the Director of Military Intelligence. Onanuga refused. Instead he fired a letter of resignation to Abiola where he stated: “For the past 72 hours, I have reflected on the suggestion and my conclusion was I shouldn’t commit such a heinous crime against myself. I am not therefore going to write any apology to anyone.”

It was this defiance that gave birth to TheNews. The Onanuga team included Olorunyomi, Kunle Ajibade, Femi Ojudu and Seye Kehinde. They were to prove themselves as brave patriots at a time when this country needed them. Apart from publishing TheNews, they also gave our country Tempo and PM News. All the publications were critical of military rule. It was not surprising that they were all visited with heavy hands especially during the dark days of General Sani Abacha. All of them had taste of prison experience and for Olorunyomi, the winter of bitter exile.

The winter thawed in 1998 when Abacha died suddenly. Shortly after that I visited the United States where the opposition National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, was the nucleus of Nigerian émigré community of which Olorunyomi was a prominent member. I was hosted by General Alani Akinrinade in his Maryland home, nestled in the middle of an exclusive estate. Among the men and women who came for the reception were the likes of Professor Ayodele Mobolurin of Howard University and Dr Kayode Oladimeji, one of America’s most prominent scientists. It was a joyous occasion for me and Olorunyomi, who fled into exile in 1995, and we reminisced about old times, our late boss, Chief Abiola, the problem of exile and the exciting but perilous enterprise of guerrilla journalism.

Since Olorunyomi returned from exile, print journalism itself seems to have gone into a gradual exile. All the front line media houses that helped Nigeria to fight the military are in parlous state if not consigned now into the grave. Olorunyomi had tried to move on. He worked for some years with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, in the heydays of Nuhu Ribadu, its first Chairman. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Premium Times, a first class online newspaper specializing in investigative journalism. What Olorunyomi and the media elite have to live with since the advent of civilian rule in 1999 is the de-democratization of the newspaper industry and its seizure by something close to panic.

Now that Olorunyomi has attained the age of 60, he must be wondering whether the press in Nigeria has now entered the winter age and whether there is no retreat from disaster. One of the problems has to do with the political elite that are weaning our youths on the milk of ignorance. There are very few public secondary schools in Nigeria today that has a functioning library where the students have access to daily newspapers and magazines. We would soon be producing university graduates who have never seen a newspaper except with the groundnut sellers.

How would a generation that does not read newspapers or magazines have the courage to defend their fatherland and their freedom in a world that is increasingly governed by knowledge and access to information? How would they know about Olorunyomi and those yeomen and women who freed our country from military rule? Olorunyomi should know that his assignment is not done until we can find a way to bring the readers back and free our country from the winter of ignorance.

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Dapo Olorunyomi


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