Tribune at 70: Even Babatunde Idiagbon was here

Perhaps one day, an ex-Tribune person will become the president of Nigeria. When that day breaks, the cycle will be perfect in its completeness. A political newspaper manifesting its name in real practical terms will be an experience to feel. From about midnight of 1949 to date, the Nigerian Tribune has seen it all. Its story has been an example in how to make the years count.

A child’s head may swell with the size of his very rich wardrobe, but can he have as many old, priceless wears as the elderly? I am taking my eyes off the dirt in sweet-smelling places from Abuja to everywhere. I want to speak here about the human and value contents of the 70 years of existence of the Nigerian Tribune. Nigeria’s oldest newspaper has produced leaders in virtually all spheres of the Nigerian life – except having a Nigerian president in its kitty. And I look forward to that happening.

Before you ask what difference such a president would make in a challenged environment, take a look at this list: In the second republic, the Tribune celebrated its 40th anniversary with the production of a governor in Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande who was editor of the Nigerian Tribune in 1953 and, later, editor-in-chief till he left for the Lagos House in 1979. The following year, it produced an Ooni of Ife. The late Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olubuse II worked in the commercial department of the Tribune in his formative years. Now, this should interest you. I know you can’t forget the no-nonsense Major General Babatunde Idiagbon. He was General Muhammadu Buhari’s deputy when he was our military head of state. Idiagbon was in Tribune as a journalist on the streets of Ilorin. Imagine stoic General Idiagbon as an ace court and crime reporter. That is what he was for the Tribune in Ilorin before he joined the army. If you doubt my claims, go and read the records of the grand old journalist and once-upon-a-time president of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Chief Michael Bolorunduro Asaju, who recruited and supervised Idiagbon’s reportorial works for the Tribune.

On November 16, 2019, the Nigerian Tribune turned 70. In the long years from 1949 to date is packed history in its most intriguing details. When an Iroko’s luck and toughness make it escape wanton woodmen and their murderous chain saws, its roots will firmly intermarry with those of others in the forest. Tribune’s vital fluid flows in veins across key newsrooms in Nigeria. The current managing director of The Punch, Mr Ademola Osinubi, started his career as a Tribune reporter/sub-editor. He left in September 1974 because he needed to go back to school. Until a few months ago, two out of the three editors of The Punch were ex-Tribune journalists. Elsewhere, it gets even more interesting. Intellectual journalist, master prosaist and columnist with The Nation newspaper, Professor Adebayo Williams, was also here in Tribune as a reporter. I move from him to count one, two, three, four, five other professors who were here as reporters and writers. Chief Ebenezer Babatope was the very first university graduate to work in the Nigerian Tribune as a journalist. Since his coming about 50 years ago, there has been no looking back in knowledge acquisition. Today, 95 per cent of Tribune journalists have at least a Master’s degree. The list is long and lengthening moving forward. There are currently four Ph.Ds inside that newspaper house with a promise of at least two more in the next 12 months.

It is not everyone who wants to live long and well who has his prayer answered. The long years of the Tribune endure with unusual memories. A commissioner of police was posted to Oyo State a few years ago. He came visiting the Tribune House and searched the depth of the library there for his news stories and cartoons. He was there thirty-something years ago as a reporter. There are many more in high places with stories to tell in varying tastes and textures. The cemetery is a huge container of dreams and destinies buried in seasons of bloom and youth.

Tribune’s founder celebrated it as Apamaku (survivor of murderous schemes); its old enemies called it Tetebuyan (quick to abuse people). You remember what Buhari said last week about Awo’s newspaper and its role in Nigeria, past and present? Buhari said it was a key decolonization agent. He added for effects that it has remained an activist newspaper “holding leaders to account” and empowering citizens “to demand accountability in all spheres of national life.” You also read the verdicts of Generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida. President Goodluck Jonathan added his voice too. They all spoke of the courage, the resilience and the pro-people stance and content of the 70-year-old newspaper. Each of them knew the full meaning and import of what they said. He who feels it knows it. When fortune smiles on a man and he escapes dying young, his mortal enemies of a million years will become his friends. That is the story of the Nigerian Tribune.

The Tribune ran an editorial on its 70th birthday promising “to stay with the people.” This is a dangerous time to live in Nigeria and make a solemn promise of courage. There is a government here that dishes hateful actions to whomever it fancies. The same government hints the hurt not to dare flinch or he becomes guilty of hate speech punishable by death. Visceral intolerance and insults rule our public space and they say we must live with them. You saw how fourteen Assistant Inspectors-General of Police were appointed last month, and 13 of them came from the North. The gasps and murmurs of disbelief at such audacity have since been swept away by this season’s unceasing rains of disaster. We run a government of three masquerades managing six bean cakes for the nation. One takes two, the other two masquerades have shared the remaining four cakes between themselves. The people’s plate is empty. And there is peace. The nation can sleep empty and hungry. It is the luck of the multitude to thirst endlessly for justice. Around the power in our country is the aura and mantle of the Third Reich. The copyright of today’s eerily dense don’t-talk rhetoric belongs to Benito Mussolini. His descendants must sue the copycats in Nigeria for plagiarism on behalf of their long-gone fascist patriarch. The Abuja orchestra plays for a dance of darkness – and it cannot end in what is not disastrous.

Someone looked at the struggling media in Nigeria and quipped that you can choose to stay with the people and their aspirations but what if they do not stand with you? There are duties which may or may not have benefits. Fighting evil on behalf of a people is one of such duties. Never trust the people with your freedom. They worship their tormentors – to your shock and misfortune. That is true. But do your part and leave the rest to fate is a cliche that comforts the unsure navigator. Seven years ago in this column, I wrote what I thought a newspaper should be in the hands of its minder. I said an editor should know that a newspaper is a rare combination of the fine qualities of a civilian aircraft and the rugged determination of a fighter plane. He should know that he pilots the plane for God and humanity. And in doing that, the plane should not just be for dropping humanitarian aids on the hapless below. It should also be used to interrogate the environment that creates the privileged and the helpless, the bloated and the haggard, the overfed and the starving. It must competently do air-to-air combat and attack ground targets who are almost always potent enemies of public good.

Yet, the editor holds the promise to maximise the strength of the plane in its speed and manoeuvrability for maximum impact. While there should be no indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets, he should, at all times, watch out for enemy fires. And in the 70 years of Nigerian Tribune journalism, those fires came repeatedly from men of power and means, scarring man and machine in its newsroom. From its editor being accused of and summoned for sedition by the colonial government just a month after its debut in 1949 over its shrill condemnation of the killing of coal miners in Enugu, to its newsroom and editor being searched for Indian hemp in one of the very bad, mad days of the first republic, to one of its editors being jailed by Abacha for publishing the ‘Genesis of Ibadan bloodbath’ on May 3, 1998, this newspaper has had more than a million years of experience in state harassment. Yet, it is soldiering on because it is its lot (and destiny) to plough the difficult field of Nigeria. That is the path it chose when it got christened ‘Tribune.’ A child’s name rules his stars is key in the belief system of the black man. And he is right most of the time. The Tribunes of Ancient Rome fought principalities for the people, paying the price many times. They existed to protect the plebs (commoners) from magisterial abuses. But that duty of care was not one-way; it was reciprocal. Historian Mark Cartwright says the plebs, in return, also “swore an oath (lex sacrata) which gave the Tribunes a sacred inviolability (sacrosanctitas) and a guarantee that the plebs would protect them with their own lives.” The experiences were not always pleasant.

When a wise man clocks 70, he starts packing and preparing for the inevitable departure. The years ahead are fewer than the ones behind him. But for an institution such as a newspaper, every addition in years is an opportunity for rebirth and reinvention, an additional plate in its armour. Today’s newspaper fights very many wars at the same time. There is the digital onslaught that mutates against every counter-measure. There is the sly, evil state ever scheming to ruin the media and rule people’s mind unchallenged. There is the future, ever creepy, unknown, unsteady and untrustworthy. With plagiarized bills of hate speech and fake news seeking to mute critical voices in the land; with the judiciary sinking in incestuous sleaze with money and position, and the legislature signing blank, postdated cheques for the presidency, the future can only be difficult and dangerous for the media and its operators. But for the tested, the approaching minefields of power should be conquerable familiar terrains. Wise, trained eyes do not get lost in the woods where dusk met them – no matter how treacherous the night is. The mouth that will tell the story of our ongoing (and oncoming) wars won’t be on its casualty list. History has no record of the palace outliving the people.

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