One Penny paper: Its fights, travails and triumphs

(Review of the book, 70 Years Of Progressive Journalism: The Story of Nigerian Tribune)

IT is no longer news that the birth of the Nigerian newspaper press predated that of the geographical space called Nigeria. While the contraption called Nigeria was given birth to in 1914 as a result of the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates by British Colonial officer, Lord Lugard, the newspaper press was first conceived from the womb of the printing press of the Presbyterian Church, in Calabar in 1846, with the installation of its first printing machine. Eight years after, precisely in 1854, the Reverend Henry Townsend of the Church Missionary Society (CSM) inaugurated a printing school in Abeokuta and four years later, founded the Iwe Irohin (Iwe Irohin fun awon ara Egba ati Yoruba). Since then, the journey for the Nigerian press has become one of mixed grill, from the grim, the sobering to the nostalgic.

The history of the newspaper press has ever since then been undistinguishable from the history of the Nigerian state. From whatever prism or whichever era you may want to look at it, the Nigerian press has constituted a formidable influence on the growth of Nigeria and can unequivocally be said to have been a significant force in the country’s national development. In the pre-colonial era, the newspaper press was a major influencer in the reawakening of racial and political consciousness. In the post-colonial era, it became an important factor in the politics of the time, offering itself as an alternate government, so to speak and becoming a marketplace for discourses that became the drivers of the levers of Nigerian political power. For the chequered period of military interregnum, the Nigerian press became sucked into the vortex of power play and display of military governments, hated, courted, disdained but largely un-ignorable. Since the beginning of civil rule in 1999 till date, the Nigerian press has oscillated from being the captive, the captivating, to the one with cap in hand seeking survival in the hands of politicians, even as it edges towards its nunc dimitis now when global economy and the social media have conspired to render it effete and powerless.

Through the above eras, the Nigerian Tribune, sold for a penny at the time of his founding, has weathered the storm with Nigeria. From its birth in November, 1949 till date, it is the only surviving national newspaper yet on the newsstand that participated in the onslaught against colonialists of the pre-colonial era, the deadly fight for spatial relevance among politicians of the First Republic, held the spool of its recording tape while the rat-a-tat clatter of guns of military conquistadors flew past, was and is actively involved in the political power play of the civilian era.

The book, 70 Years Of Progressive Journalism: The Story of Nigerian Tribune is a bold attempt at codifying these valiant strides. A 275-page book that quantitatively measures every foot that the newspaper press lifted in the quest to have a Nigeria that is at par with any other in the world, which synchronizes with the dream of its founder – Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s – this book is at best a nostalgic dip into the milestones, the landmarks and the raw historical rendition of the narratives of Nigeria. In other words, the book is the story of Nigeria retold.

Divided into six major compartments, each of these compartments is a full history of its own. Beginning with a thought-provoking message sent by Chief Awolowo to the management of the newspaper on the occasion of its 20th anniversary which detailed the impregnable and seemingly insurmountable hurdles that he and his wife, Hannah Idowu Dideolu, as well as their “trusting friends” encountered before birthing the history-laden commodity that walks majestically to our newsstand every morning, you would pick from the Awo message an imperishable nugget which teaches that big dreams start as tiny particles. This was reflected in the vigil kept by both Mama HID, the man who affectionately labeled her the Jewel of Inestimable Value and their adorable late son, Segun who all waited like an expectant husband at the maternity ward as the child who recently celebrated her 70th on earth, was midwifed from the bosom of time.

Having survived a landmines-laced infancy, a troublous growth and a challenging walk into adulthood, how then has the Tribune survived tribulations and gang-ups of the Nigerian state, to mark its 70 years of existence? Mr. Akin Allen, its pioneer Editor who held forte between 1949 and 1951, provided a clue. In what he entitled The Miracle of the Tribune, Allen provided the source of an indomitable spirit with which the Tribune was sired. The story of the chemists on protest, with which the newspaper flagged off its maiden edition, the tragic Enugu coal miners’ massacre which got the newspaper editors summoned to the Fitzgerald Commission and its being founded with the blood of agitation for the downtrodden provided the newspaper its engaging fighting spirit. So also were the encouraging reminiscences of newspaper’s other past editors like ECB Omole, Professor Akintunde Emiola (1961-1967), Alhaji Alade Odunewu (Allah De) and other staff of the newspaper who weathered the storm when Samuel Ladoke Akintola, as Premier of the Western Region, visited an unprecedented onslaught on the newspaper during his political tango with the rumps of the Action Group party of the First Republic. These constituted the first Section of the book.

The Path We Took, the second part of this book of historical reminiscences, began with the seminal thoughts of one of the journalists who passed through the Tribune, Yinka Adelani. He segmented the road trodden by the newspaper into its genesis, planning and preparation, birth and the first ten years of its establishment. The latter period was the most challenging for the newspaper. Going by the salvoes fired at the Tribune by its haters in government, this period was when the newspaper should have died. Because it was a major theatre, participant and living witness to the horrible and horrifying politics of bitterness of the Western Region, as well as its scapegoating by the Tafawa Balewa-led federal government, the Tribune was out there in the cold winter of the time, hounded and pursued with the aim of being yanked out of existence. How it survived these man-made landmines constitute the narrative of Adelani, told in the unmistakable cadence of a story-teller.

Still following the path of pains and agony that the Tribune treaded to be where it is today at 70, my chapter in the book focused on the trials and triumphs of the newspaper. I reported that the most politically tumultuous period for the newspaper were the years between 1962 and 1966. This was a period when the newspaper witnessed an endless regime of violence, persecution, prosecution, discrimination and economic asphyxiation in the hands of the Akintola government. For instance, during the period of the Emergency Rule, the Majekodunmi administration lashed out several sedition charges against the Tribune. In 1965, Akintola banned the newspaper and others from being circulated in the Western Region. Before that, from March 16 to May 19, 1963, this same government, through the court order it got, ensured that the Tribune was kept off the newsstands. On countless occasions, its journalists were detained and the newspaper became a constant victim of police invasions, spearheaded by policemen who sealed up its premises on flimsy, mundane and laughable excuses. These ranged from claims that the police was either looking for incriminating editorial materials or, locking up the premises on the absurd claim that policemen were seeking corroboration of evidence that Indian hemp was kept in the newspaper’s premises. The newspaper editor at this time, Ayo Ojewumi of the Pen Atalanta fame, was locked up in Agodi on remand many times and eventually jailed in 1964.

There were other reminiscences from firebrands who kept the fire aglow during these troublous times of the Tribune’s existence. Ebenezer Babatope, a man with an acidic pen that scorched the hearts of both the military hegemons and their civilian accomplices in those trying years, walked down the past in a piece he entitled My days at the Tribune. In the piece, Babatope went down this thorn-filled memory lane to articulate the resilience, the commitment and the propelling force behind those fiery days when newspapering was synonymous with walking in the jungle.

In the section aptly entitled Defender of Truth, the Tribune became Chinua Achebe’s lizard that jumped from the towering Iroko tree which not only thumped its chest for the feat it achieved but nodded in self-approval of its commitment to mankind. It is a section packed with definitive editorial comments where the newspaper took very brave, persuasive and valiant positions in defence of the Nigerian state and the less-privileged in the society. From calls for restructuring of Nigeria, even when such call had not become a refrain on the lips of all and sundry, to its mordant criticisms of perceived irresponsible handling of national administration, the newspaper was one of the few friends that stood on the side of Nigeria during her troubling times in the hands of her civilian and military conquistadors.

The section entitled Voices contained the voices of men and women of my creed – columnists. A selection of commentaries on Issues Nigeriana, they ranged from the whimsically persuasive arguments of men I call the forefathers of column-writing in Nigeria like Tai Solarin, the indubitable Omo Ekun (Wumi Adegbonmire), Banji Kuroloja; the irrepressible Bisi Onabanjo who is credited with christening the wily Nigerian military President, Ibrahim Babngida, with his apt epithet of Maradona in his piece entitled IBB: Dribbling all the way, published in the Tribune on October 2, 1987. The list also includes Justice Adewale Thompson’s Megaforce, Omololu Olunloyo’s Monday Think Tank, Bola Ige’s Uncle Bola’s Column, the scorching comments of Aba Saheed (Tola Adeniyi) to latter-day crew of contemporary commentators like Nosa Osaigbovo, Muyiwa Apara, Alade Fawole, Garba Shehu, myself, late Professor Pius Adesanmi, whose last piece for any Nigerian newspaper was published in the Sunday Tribune on the day he was swallowed by mother earth, the irrepressible Farouq Kperogi and not forgetting the darling of newspaper readers those days, Biodun Oduwole’s Cock-a-too.

The second to the last section of the book is one called Interviews. It is a compilation of a few definitive interviews conducted and published by the newspaper. The one I found and which many readers would find very instructively prophetic was the interview granted by Chief Obafemi Awolowo to the newspaper. Entitled If we allow guerilla war to start in the North East, thousands will run down South for safety – Awo, the interview was published on March 6, 1981, 38 years ago. Awolowo was asked to comment on several issues, ranging from the economic to the political. He had a very deep analysis of the tragic transmutation of the Nigerian security agencies of today into lickspittles of their political lords in power, indicating that the rot which has reached today’s embarrassing maturation didn’t just begin yesterday. Its metastasis first became noticeable during the Shehu Shagari era when the National Security Organisation (NSO) under Rafindadi became indistinguishable from the kitchen crew of President Shagari.

The part of the interview I found most prophetic and which I want to excerpt for our attention goes thus:

“I have my suspicion that right now, Ghaddafi may be infiltrating part of the North because people who live in Chad can pass off very easily like people who are Nigerians. Only rivers in some places divide Nigeria form Chad. People on the other side have relatives on the other side and the children meet in the same river and swim and play. It is easy for them to meet. And large areas of land in that part are uninhabited and during the rainy season, these areas are water-logged and so it is possible for him to establish posts in even part of the place and put up to 10,000 people who are trained and, if they launch against us, we may have about half a million soldiers, but soldiers can only fight against pitched soldiers on the other side and not other guerillas who are scattered all over the place, burning houses, killing this, killing that, raping women all over the place. The effect of that will be that hundreds of thousands of people would start running down south and to other places for safety. So I have very poor thought about what we are doing on our nation’s security.”

That interview spoke prophetically about Boko Haram, 38 years ago and how the ragtag contraption we call Nigerian state security was too inept and fascinated by everything other than security to articulate and apprehend the tragedy that lay ahead of the Nigerian state. Almost four decades after Awo predicted that spillover renegades from Ghaddafi Libya would mix up with discontented army of Chadian malcontents to form a deadly invading army which would find passage into Nigeria very easy because of the amity, congruity and even consaguinary relationship they share with our brothers and sisters in the North East, every tissue of that prophecy has come to pass. The “guerillas” which he said “are scattered all over the place, burning houses, killing this, killing that, raping women all over the place” are the Boko Haram insurgents of today who have left tears, sorrow and wailing in their trails. Now, as to the prediction that when this happens, people would start running down south, you all know more than I do about how Fulani insurgents seized the jugular of southern Nigeria a few months ago and how the south seems the only peaceful place of refuge for the fleeing people.

The book ended with a part it called Presidential Testimonies from past and present presidents of Nigeria celebrating with the Tribune its 70 years rich history.

Arranged almost in a chronology, the chapters of the book aptly tell the story of the Tribune which is almost the entire story of the Nigerian newspaper press, beginning from its infancy, its troubled tottering and the humongous challenges it faced in the theatre of the struggle. As I said earlier, the Tribune story is the story of the Nigerian newspaper and as such, no other way could it have been told than as narrated in the book 70 Years Of Progressive Journalism: The Story of Nigerian Tribune.

Tried as it did, the book left out chunks of the narratives of the unpleasant travails faced by the newspaper in the struggle to confront the runners of the Nigerian state who sought to neutralize it. It also left out the need to find answers to the scholarly claim that the newspaper press of the First Republic, of which the Tribune was a major player, was implicated in the collapse of that republic. Other than these however, the book, 70 Years Of Progressive Journalism: The Story of Nigerian Tribune is a commendable addition to the historical narratives of the role of the Nigerian press in the Nigerian Project.

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