Untold stories of trials and triumphs of Tribune through the years
The Nigerian Tribune, which clocks 70 today, has a very rich history of struggle against evil regimes in Nigeria — suffering all manner of deprivations in the process. A former senior editor with the Tribune, Dr. Festus Adedayo, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Nigerian Tribune, in this piece, traces that 70-year journey of Nigeria’s oldest surviving newspaper.
From the moment of its birth, the paper faced many difficulties. Its life was threatened both by competitors and the powers that be. The climax of persecution was reached in the four years before 1966, when all the known weapons in the armoury of tyrannical power were employed against the paper. But it survived them all.”
The above, written 49 years ago by the founder of the Nigerian Tribune, Chief Obafemi Awolowo sums up the confounding life of continuous struggle of the Tribune, making it, today, the oldest surviving newspaper in Nigeria.
The maiden edition
On November 16, 1949, the Nigerian Tribune appeared on the newsstand. An eight-paged tabloid, it came smoking-hot from the beginning, from both ends of its canons. For example, the first edition of the newspaper carried a lead story entitled, “Chemists Protest”, which identified with the protest of the Association of Pharmaceutical Students of Nigeria of the Pharmaceutical School, Yaba, Lagos. These students were demanding a reply to a memorandum which set out claims that they alleged they had sent to their Director of Medical Sciences. According to the publication, the students were protesting the payment of the sum of £5. 5s per month subsistence allowance to them and demanding its increase to £7 per month.
The publication of this agitative story as the lead story of the Tribune in its maiden edition was supposed to send signals of the identification of the newspaper with the affairs of the downtrodden in the country, and even beyond, to its reading public.
The fact that the newspaper chose as its lead story this particular story, as against another story on the front page of the paper, entitled, Mystery tree near Oyo, a human angle story that was capable of eliciting the attention of the reading public, as well as the story of the hanging of the murderers of the Indian Prime Minister and nationalist leader, Mahatma Gandhi, which it placed on its back page and entitled, Gandhi’s murderers hanged, were symptomatic of the path the newspaper seemed to have chosen to tread.
The maiden edition also spotlighted the plight of the downtrodden in Akure, through a story it entitled, Worst Police Station. In it, the newspaper reported that, “The Akure Native Authority Police Station has been described by our correspondent as the worst he has ever seen and fit to be named Black hole of Akure. The two-roomed station… is situated in a dark corner of the town and neither room has what can be properly termed a window…”
Also inside the maiden edition was a serialization of the autobiography of Pandit Jawarhalal Nehru, foremost Indian leader whose approach to politics was like a book to be read by most of the nationalists and upcoming leaders of the time. Another report in the newspaper was one on a talk given by a Mr. P. Paget in Ibadan entitled Literature and life, where the speaker lectured on the eternal values of books, as well as another advocative story on the seeming collapse of aesthetics in Ibadan. The story was entitled, Dirt overfills streets.
Aside the contribution of Awolowo as a person to the anti-colonial struggle of the time, the Tribune also contributed to the struggle to get mild policy considerations for Nigeria from the colonial government. But, at the establishment of the Tribune, the focus of the struggle shifted from pure anti-colonial advocacy to the call for self-rule. As such, the newspaper was at the core of this effort at ensuring that the country attained self-rule from the hands of the colonial government.
The Tribune also collaborated in the efforts of the nationalists at ensuring that Africans got a relatively better treatment in the hands of the colonial administration. For example, in one of its pre-colonial government editorial comments published on January 13, 1956, the Tribune had fought what it regarded as injustice meted out to an African policeman. It had written in the editorial: “The report, published in this paper on Wednesday, of the decision of the Deputy Commissioner of Police to eject an African ASP from his quarters must shock all people with conscience. An expatriate neighbour of the ASP complained to the Deputy Commissioner that the ASP made noise in his house during the naming ceremony of his child. And the Deputy Commissioner ordered his ASP to quit his quarters. We think this order is both high handed and unreasonable.”
Enugu coal miners crisis
The Enugu Colliery incident of December 1949, in which the police shot and killed some coalminers, gave the newspaper its desired nationalistic underpinning and recognition as a fighter for the oppressed, no matter where the oppressed was domiciled. The miners were said to have protested against the oppressive conduct of their bosses, low wages and poor conditions of service.
The brutal quelling of the demonstration by the police led to the death of about 21 miners which provoked very fierce editorial and features from the Tribune. The newspaper’s fearless and thorough editorial denouncing this action decried the “beastly, outrageous and dastardly conduct of the police” with the Tribune declaring that “the great sacrifice paid by the unfortunate miners shall be a monument of man’s struggle for unfettered and just living and shall spur us on in our fight for freedom.” In a story the newspaper subsequently wrote about the killing in December 1949, the Tribune described how the coal miners, having been killed, “were left to bleed” and how their “bodies (were) mutilated by bullets.”
Because of this publication, which fell into about five weeks of the beginning of its operations, the editor of the Tribune was summoned by the colonial authorities before the Fitzgeral Commission probing the Enugu coal mine killings for what was considered a seditious publication. Thereafter, however, due to the Tribune publications and the concerned voices of the people, the Western part of the country was co-opted into the drastic steps taken to get to the roots of the crisis and give succour to the families of the victims. A coalition was organized by Nigerian political leaders as a response to the police shooting which had Dr. Akinola Maja as Chairman and Mbonu Ojike, the Deputy Chairman.
A mission to fight injustice
Even though there was no formal Mission Statement on the direction that the Tribune newspaper would follow at its inception, what could be held as the geography of its advocacy was, one, a piece written by the founder of the newspaper in the maiden edition of the publication and the second, a proper editorial policy of the newspaper articulated by Alhaji Lateef Jakande, the newspaper’s managing director and editor-in-chief (Editorial comment, May 23, 1977 with the title, A leap forward.). This was reproduced by the newspaper on March 4, 1984 under the title, ‘Why we are that way.’
Prefaced by a recalcitrant poetry from one C. E. Henley which says “my head is bloody but unbowed,” among other things, Jakande espoused the J. S. Mill utilitarian ideology of the greatest good as the force that fires the newspaper’s zeal and it “owes a tremendous responsibility to the public it serves.” The editorial policy, he said, focused on, “the expression of public opinion”, rather than in the service of any hegemonic quest. It itemized a five-point media agenda for itself, one of which is that, the Nigerian Tribune has, a definite and recognizable stand-point on how the affairs of this nation should be managed. It believes in parliamentary democracy, the supremacy of the will of the people as freely expressed, an economy organized on socialist principles, the highest possible standards of public morality, a truly federal system of government for Nigeria, the rule of law and social justice.
In a piece written by Chief Awolowo, founder of the newspaper, in the maiden edition of the publication, he also helped to clearly identify the texture of the Tribune’s advocacy, especially during the colonial era. Entitled, ‘A paradox of freedom’, Awolowo had encapsulated the goal of the newspaper and its major focus as regards the anti-colonial struggle and Nigerian nationalism in the Tribune of November 16, 1949. It bears an extensive quotation:
“It is paradoxical but true that though liberty is an inalienable right of men, it is being treated in Nigeria and in the other British Colonial Territories for that matter, as a manufactured commodity of which Britain has the monopoly and which must be doled out to us according to our deserts and at the pleasure of the British benefactors… To my mind, fortified as we are by the justness of our cause, we are sufficiently equipped for the fight ahead if we cultivate, keep and develop in the skilful of these two most potent weapons: a frank tongue and a pungent pen. A tongue and a pen that will be careless of what the opponents might say or how they might feel, and will have enough courage to call hypocrisy, humbug and tyranny by their true names. Such a tongue, such a pen will mortify the proud and provoke Despotism to repent its ways.
This particular piece was like a frontal attack on the colonial authority and colonialism, which the piece referred to as an “unnatural situation,” asking all Nigerians to “organize themselves to break off the yoke of British imperialism which restrains them in the exercise of their God given liberty”.
Trials and Tribulations
Having performed this role creditably well, however, the years between 1962 and 1966 could unarguably be said to be the most politically tumultuous for the Tribune, as well as the Western region. Beginning from 1963, the newspaper faced an endless regime of violence visited on it at the whim of the runners of government, as well as persecution, discrimination, intimidation, and many litigations designed to cripple it economically and wind up its overall operations. During the period of the Emergency Rule, the Majekodunmi administration brought several sedition charges against both the Tribune and other newspapers allied to it, especially those in its chain of merger called Amalgamated Press Ltd., like the Daily Service and the Daily Express.
The Western Regional Government in 1965 banned the circulation of the Pilot, Outlook and the Tribune from the Western region. The law under which it was banned was however repealed through the Circulation of Newspapers Decree 1966, Decree No 2.
Prior to this, from March 16 to May 19, 1963, the Tribune newspaper was completely off the newsstands as the Akintola government used a court order to cripple its operations. The newspaper was to make a come-back to the newsstand on May 20, 1965 and it did with a recalcitrant, unbendable editorial on the same day where it wrote thus:
“More than ever before, in our renewed debut, we shall continue to be the watchdog of the people. We shall praise or criticize at the appropriate time without minding whose ox is gored. At the expense of personal liberty, we shall continue to defend the Rule of Law as known in true democracies. As a matter of fact, we shall refuse to be muzzled in the face of the titanic forces that essay to curtail the freedom of the Fourth Estate of the Realm.”
On February 5, 1964, a Tribune reporter, Mr. Adetunji Adeoye, was arrested by the police and was immediately charged for wandering at the Premier’s Lodge at Iyaganku, Ibadan. He had in fact gone to the Lodge to cover the special meeting of the Egbe Omo Olofin, the cultural counter-poise to the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, formed by Chief S. L. Akintola, Premier, Western region, to finally sound the knell on the Awolowo political brand. The Tribune had visited very scathing diatribes on the founding of the rival organization and it was thus predictable that the Premier would view any impending report on the budding organization by the Tribune as an adversarial report. The charge could however not stand as the police eventually withdrew it from the court.
Also on April 16, 1964, the newspaper’s editorial courted the ire of the Premier who ordered the police to swoop on the premises of the newspaper. In the editorial, the newspaper had quoted a Minister who said that the NNDP-led government had upped awareness among the Yoruba people. In its interpretation of this, the editorial reasoned that the
Akintola government was trying to incite the Yoruba against other ethnic groups.
The edition had also carried a news item which was to the effect that Akintola had shown interest in the ethnic group of the policemen who were to be attached to him. As such, the newspaper’s major functionaries, that is, editors and reporters, were thoroughly grilled by the police who were searching for the manuscript of the day’s editorial comment so as to ascertain its particular writer. The editorial had equally discussed and scurrilously apportioned blame on the government over an opposition-sponsored parliamentary motion against it on April 14. At the end of the raid of the paper’s premises, several documents were carted away by the police, including a copy of the newspaper’s editorial comment for the second day, April 17, 1964. This later became the subject of a one-count sedition charge slammed on the newspaper by the government.
The government was still not done with visiting its wrath on the newspaper. For publishing a story entitled “COP sacked for querying NNDPer” in its August 31, 1964 edition, the government ordered that a team of men from the Nigeria Police raid the newspaper. They arrived on September 2, 1964. They were ostensibly searching for the manuscript of the said story. At the end of the raid, the police took along with them the newspaper’s acting editor, Mr. Ayo Ojewumi and a reporter, Mr. Bola Aragbaye, who were grilled and eventually, they, alongside the Tribune, were charged to court for ‘false’ publication.
On January 4, 1965, for writing an editorial which was a mordant critique and criticism of the 1964 Federal Elections, where it took the government of Balewa to the cleaners for what it perceived were shoddy elections targeted at promoting the NPC and its NNDP ally into office, police again, for over an hour, swooped on the premises of the newspaper at Adeoyo, Ibadan, ferreting for documents. At the end of the day, the newspaper’s acting editor, Mr. Folarin Adeeko, was arrested and quizzed by the police and was later released on bail.
Again, on April 21, 1965, a team of policemen arrived the premises of the Tribune alleging that it was looking for the Newsroom’s Assignment Book and Desk Diary, an itinerary of reporters on duty and their operations. The team could however not retrieve anything from the premises. On June 5, 1965, a sedition charge was slammed on the newspaper for a leader in the April 16 edition entitled, “Where do we go from here?” The notice of the sedition charge was published on the front page of the paper of June 6, 1964. Also, for writing a story the previous day on its front page on a supposed arms cache linked to the NNDP, a detachment of police men, on June 27, 1965, stormed the Tribune. They searched the offices of the newspaper, as well as the home of its editor, Mr. Ojewumi, for the manuscript of the story, in vain.
Six days after, precisely on July 3, 1965, Ojewumi was again questioned by the police in connection with a story in the newspaper to the effect that the Western Regional Minister of Information had boasted that 60 prospective NNDP men would be returned unopposed at the rescheduled Regional Elections. Again, on August 25, 1965, the newspaper’s offices were thoroughly ransacked and its editor interrogated over a story in its August 17 edition. The government didn’t end at this. It, on the basis of this story, instituted a sedition suit against the newspaper.
Exactly twelve days after, on October 6, the police again swooped on the premises of the newspaper at Adeoyo, alleging that it had come to investigate an anti-NNDP story it had written in the edition of the day. When it could not lay its hands on the manuscript, the police went with two members of staff of the newspaper, to wit the editor, Mr. Ojewumi and Mr. Kanye Eleko. The story of this swoop was published on the front page of the newspaper’s October 7 edition. The paper alleged that the raid was dictated by a story it carried on September 7, 1965 entitled “Ogundina asked to stop threat” and thus, the “the CID men dashed to the Red Lion House of the editor, Mr. Ayo Ojewumi,” only for them to reappear at about 4pm of the same day looking for the manuscript of the previous day’s editorial comment.
Again, on October 13, 1965, at two hourly intervals, the police raided the premises of the Tribune four times. Two days before, the re-arranged Regional Elections had taken place and the two alliances, viz NNA and UPGA, had declared themselves winner. Expectedly, the Tribune had trumpeted the win of UPGA and Adegbenro, urging the Acting Leader of the Action Group — Adegbenro — to form his cabinet immediately. It backed this call with features and editorial comments.
Miffed by this, the police carted away heaps and heaps of the day’s edition of the newspaper and manuscripts of the stories that proclaimed Adegbenro’s victory. This raid was followed by a threat from the NNDP Secretary, Richard Akinjide, to thenceforth clampdown on “irresponsible journalism and publication of false news.”
A detached team of Nigerian and local government policemen, on November 14, again swooped on the Tribune. Numbering about 150, they were at the newspaper’s premises before sunrise, ostensibly searching for thugs and arms allegedly kept in the premises. Some arrests were made, including four night guards that the newspaper hired to keep watch over the premises after the NNDP thugs’ arson of November 7 and they were subsequently charged for wandering and remanded in detention.
The editor, Mr. Ojewumi, who was to face greater wrath of government later, was on December 1, 1965 accosted by the police who said they had information that he was in possession of Indian hemp. A team of men of the police, led by Chief Superintendent Kofo Lasekan, had swooped on the Tribune and accosted Ojewumi that the team was looking for “Indian hemp in your possession.” The story was written in the newspaper of December 2, 1965, with Ojewumi warning, in the Editor’s note corner, all “UPGA leaders and supporters (against) receiving any strangers (sic) they do not know very well.” He had earlier been assaulted by men who were said to be NNDP thugs and his car damaged in his Ilobu (now in Osun State) country home. He was subsequently detained for assaulting another person.
Then, from January 6 1966, the Tribune was off the newsstand. Giving reasons for this, the newspaper said it was not published “because the Nigeria Police, in a surprise swoop on the premises of the African Press, succeeded in paralyzing the production of the paper.” It was apparent that the newspaper’s editorial comment of the previous day, denouncing the Premier as a ‘shameless liar’ and in another segment of the edition, reporting that the Deputy Premier, Remi Fani-Kayode might have been mortally wounded in a political fracas in his hometown of Ile-Ife, had led to the raid. The police, led by the Chief Superintendent for Ibadan Division, Mr. Kofo Lasekan, eventually carted 21 persons into detention, including visitors to the premises of the newspaper.
However, one long-drawn strain and intimidation on the newspaper was the trial and imprisonment of its editor, Mr. Ayo Ojewumi.
Charged for seditious publication of the leader entitled “Where do we go from here?” (April 16, 1964), the editor was immediately detained by the police. The editorial comment, contained one of the newspaper’s most mordant strictures ever. It called government actions “awful, stinking, disgraceful and ugly,” and accused it of “reckless squandermania and abuse of office,” alleging in the same mould that ministers in the Akintola government, including the Minister of Agriculture, were deploying government farm equipment “to plough their fields.” Also on the editorial’s allegations was that the ministers, numbering over 50, collected £1000 and £3000 respectively in bonuses during the Republic and Christmas day celebrations. It also accused the Premier of hiring an Apala musician for personal fancy, at the public expense, for £20 a day, during the census celebration.
A new dawn
As it were, on the morning of January 15, 1966, the military took over government via a bloody putsch. That was after Akintola, Balewa, Sardauna and some other government officials had been killed. Doing an epilogue of the Akintola government and the fate of the Tribune in its hands, Ojewumi wrote in an opinion article entitled, ‘The collapse of the First Republic’: “Since 1962, we of this paper cried in vain that the West malady must be cured early enough so that its virus might not engulf the whole federation. Instead of listening to the voice of the unproclaimed soothsayers, we were persecuted (officially prosecuted). We were economically strangulated through many devious ways such as series of litigations and denial of government advertisements. Today, we are happy for the part we played.”
Under Shagari, Buhari, IBB, Abacha
During the civilian government of President Shehu Shagari, the Tribune equally faced economic and political persecution in the hands of the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and its elements.
During the military era that began from 1983 and ended in 1999, the newspaper received ambivalent responses to its publications by the military governments.
General Muhammadu Buhari became Head of State on December 31, 1983 and immediately waged a war on free press in Nigeria. The had its share of the suffering.
Folu Olamiti was editor of Sunday Tribune. He woke up on August 20, 1985 feeling very upbeat about going to the office. His wife ran out of her room to tell him she had a bad dream overnight: She saw very many visitors wearing mournful looks in their home. Folu asked her to pray as he sauntered out of his flat. He got to the office and there was nothing to suggest what was about to happen to him. “Five minutes later, two fierce-looking men in mufti walked into my office and asked for the editor of Sunday Tribune. I told them to sit down while I went to fetch the editor. I sneaked out, called Tunji Lardner (Jnr) to take me home. I informed my wife of my possible arrest and detention and asked her to take good care of the children,” he wrote. Folu went back to his office.
His editor-in-chief told him to “be consistent” in his statement to his new masters. He then surrendered himself to the state and started a dreary, dark journey to the unknown. His offence: he published “a political statement.”
At his detention centre in Lagos, he met “six youngsters, probably in their teens,” wasting away. He was to learn later that they were Nigerian students abroad “who were picked up at different times at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos on flimsy excuses.” Their parents did not even know they were in detention! Folu met some others as cell mates. These were Bukhari Zarmar who was editor, New Nigerian; Femi Falana who was Fela’s lawyer, and Alhaji Sule Katagum. They were his seniors in that detention facility. Olamiti was, however, lucky. He was in detention for only eight days. A change of government on August 27 1985 came and freed him and others from what had promised to be an indefinite detention.
While the Ibrahim Babangida government was cautious of public backlash for rising against the “newspaper of Awolowo,” the Sani Abacha government, though didn’t attack the organization as a corporate entity, showed its displeasure with its adversarial attacks on it by singling individual journalists out for sanction. On May 1, 1998, seven persons were killed in a May Day riots in Ibadan.
A few days after, Editor of the Sunday Tribune, Mr Femi Adeoti, Chief Bola Ige and Alhaji Lam Adesina were hauled into detention as a result of the chaos. They were detained on the order of the Abacha government which described them as “Prisoners of War.” The Sunday Tribune editor, Adeoti was arrested for his paper’s exhaustive May 3, 1998 report of the crisis which was a reflection of the Tribune titles opposition to the self-succession move of General Abacha. Adeoti was to remain in detention in Agodi Prisons, Ibadan till Abacha died in June 1998.
Since 1999 when the civilian government came into being, the Tribune has continued its avant-garde role of communicating the reality of society, jabbing governments in power when necessary and essentially acting out the role of the public ombudsman.