Awolowo, WNTV and the barbarians
It has been said of Obafemi Awolowo, Western Nigeria’s first premier, that like Roman Empire’s first emperor, Augustus Caesar, he was “an efficient organiser” and a “great builder” who struck several feats that have remained unmatched in Nigeria’s record books several decades after his rule. In his severally referenced book, An Outline History of the World, H. A. Davies notes that Augustus appeared to have fulfilled his boast that “he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.” He transformed Rome from a small republic not only into an empire, but also into a civilisation that has influenced world history over the ages.
With Awolowo, there are also parallels that are engraved on marble. As premier from 1954 to 1959, when Nigeria was yet a dependent colonial outpost of Britain, he ran a government that has since been rated the golden era of the South-West, the outer region of the area stretching eastwards to the banks of the Niger also being beneficiaries. Chief Obafemi Awolowo introduced free education, the first in our clime. He then embarked upon a voyage of social reforms that heavily subsidised health to announce to the world the arrival of a socialist, even if of the centrist hue.
There was more to attend to. We had him change the topography of Ibadan, the populous capital of the region. John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, the remarkable poet and dramatist, wrote a short poem describing the city as a place “running splash of rust and gold-flung and scattered among seven hills like a broken china in the sun.” So as Chief Obafemi Awolowo freed the people from illiteracy, ignorance and disease, he thought they could as well do with a superstructure that brought employment and some aesthetics. Enter Cocoa House, in its age reputed to be the tallest edifice in Africa. Then also came the Liberty Stadium, a rare sight in Nigeria.
Still more came to better the lot of the South-West. On October 31, 1959, Ibadan made history to become home to Western Nigeria Television (WNTV). It was the first television station in Africa. It was regarded an uncommon accomplishment because it was only in the mid 1930s that even the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) began transmitting experimental entertainment programmes to about 100 viewers in the London area. Now, what many of us fail to realise is that Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s goal on WNTV wasn’t to catch the attention of history or to get a box to entertain the people. Well, history could so reckon his move. But his aim, from my reading of the legislative debate that preceded the law birthing the station, was to drive the premier’s vision for mass education. His dream to offer education to all went beyond the classroom. This dream took WNTV to the precincts of industrious integrity befitting a first in Africa, as it employed the best in the field. When Anike Agbaje-Williams became Nigeria’s first female announcer at WNTV, she was hitting a road to be followed by equally illustrious professionals: Teju Oyeleye, Ayo Ogunlade, Vincent Maduka, Ayo Vaughan, Tunji Shenjobi, HO Robin, Jide Akinbiyi, Yemi Farounbi, Kunle Adeleke, Fabio Lanipekun, Modupe Akin Olotu, Tunji Marquis, Akin Akinwunmi, among many others.
As these distinguished professionals receded, the management began a seamless recruitment scheme that seemed to bring in quite young replicas of these masters. There were Toye Akiyode, Soji Alakuro, Bode Oyewole, Bukola Famuyiwa, Toyin(I can’t recall her surname), Segun Soroye, Segun Aderiye, Kayode Adedire, Gbadebo Olaitan, Niyi Yusuf, Banji Ojewale and others. These were enterprising young men and women the station was willing to invest in through exposure to further professional courses in and outside the country. They didn’t disappoint the management. They went on to scale the heights right within WNTV or after their stay there, taking after the greats they met at the station in the early 70s.
WNTV developed into a school, a monument of sort, which turned out those who today have swayed the broadcast industry in directions challenging one to greatness and ideological imperatives of service to the society. That’s what broadcasting is all about. From Ibadan, a seed sown at Agodi, has grown beyond its territory to cover the entire expanse of Nigeria. But alas, rather than preserve this monument, the military government of Olusegun Obasanjo took over WNTV in 1976, halting a trajectory pushing that institution into the league of Third World monuments. It was a saddening experience for those who loved unparallel development. As the barbarians rubbished all the totems of civilisation they met when they conquered Rome in 476 AD, the military government’s takeover of WNTV, with its radio wing, WNBS, also moved the industry into its dark ages. The world, after the overthrow of Rome, was plunged into a long period of anarchy. This became characterised by ignorance, turmoil and contempt for the arts, literature and science. The blueprint the station had, to be perpetual partners in development with society as conceived by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the patriarchs and matriarchs he put together, was drowned by the bureaucracy of the forfeiture. There’s also been an official distortion of history: NTA Ibadan, set on the grounds of WNTV-WNBS, is now referred to as NTA Ibadan, First in Africa. That’s history standing on its head! NTA Ibadan isn’t the first TV station in Africa! WNTV is!
History must be put back on its two legs. WNTV should be returned to its original owners. The second step is to reconstruct the premises to reflect its old façade and position it into a tourist complex. WNTV is a monument, the way it is with the Statue of Liberty in New York and Mount Rushmore, in South Dakota, both in the United States. Millions troop there paying good money to stand in the presence of history. WNTV in the ancient city of Ibadan is our own history. Let our people come to WNTV as we rehabilitate her and play back the best of TV we shall be dredging from the past. As the new-look station runs contemporary programmes, it shall also give visitors a peep into its glorious past. The current crusade by Farounbi and others who worked at WNTV to mark the station’s 60th anniversary in October 2019 should soar above a one-off affair. They should go the whole hog of restoring WNTV to its old status as evinced by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his government.
Ojewale lives in Lagos