A journalist and media consultant, Adegboyega Jacob Amobonye, is the publisher of Festac/Amuwo-Odofin Emporium, a local Lagos news magazine. In this interview, he shares his life story with TUNDE ADELEKE. Excerpts;
As a veteran journalist, can you recall the most troubling experience in your career?
The most harrowing experience I had was on the day General Muhammadu Buhari, the then Head of State, was overthrown in a military coup by General Ibrahim Babangiga in 1985. I normally tune in to BBC and Voice of America from 4:00am to 5:00 am daily. But that morning, all I heard was martial music. On hearing “I, General Sani Abacha…” I knew the day had devised an assignment for me. Like a soldier preparing for war, I got ready for action because a reporter should not be told it would be a busy day. I was living at Alasia Compound, behind NEPA, Oshodi. By 6:30am, against my wife’s advice, I was on my way to Seme Border to monitor activities there.
By the time I got to the Trade Fair Complex along Badagry Expressway, it occurred to me that I might not see more than border closure. I, then, turned back and headed to Obalende to hear from the people about their experience during the night since they were close to Dodan Barracks, the seat of government where the coup had taken place. The road was desolate and free of traffic and I, therefore, had a smooth drive. By 7:30 am, I was at Obalende. I saw residents looking at me, wondering who could have dared the devil at that hour. But I was happy and full of excitement for getting a scoop as the only reporter around. Shortly before the Radio Nigeria building, five combatant soldiers in heavy fatigue with guns barked an order at me.
Before I could stop, they rushed into the car and ordered me to take them to Ikeja Cantonment. Apparently, they were stranded coup plotters as there was no public transport. As we drove through Eko Bridge, Western Avenue and Ikorodu Road to Ikeja, I was asking them questions about what happened during the night. I was told how Buhari was arrested by 1:00am while praying and how his ADC, Major Mustapha Jokolo, was stripped naked; how a General (name withheld) came at 12 midnight to encourage them that “boys, you must not fail.” Instead of entering the cantonment through the gate, they asked me to take them to the back of the fortress, where they scaled the high wall and jumped down.
What news would l be looking for again? My office, Concord Press, was just a stone’s throw away. Like a hunter that had killed a lion triumphantly, I raced to the newsroom where I met the News Editor, the late Ishola Folorunso, who on reading my first page excitedly rushed to brief the Managing Editor, Dr Doyin Abiola. She hurried to the newsroom and after reading the first page was caught between amazement and admiration as she walked away, looking at me in disbelief. The next day, National Concord was the market leader as the only newspaper that reported exclusively, the what, who and how of the coup. I was thrilled when the Newswatch in its analysis commended National Concord as the only newspaper that reported the details. My wife, though scared, was thankful to God that I was alive to tell the story.
What were the motivations that kept you going?
I would say there was no motivation per se, apart from passion. But I must give it to the New Nigerian newspapers where I worked from 1978 to 82. I got a car and a fully-furnished 3-bedroom flat with a tanker bringing water for us. Sadly, barely two months in the flat and as a newlywed about to christen a newborn baby boy, I was transferred to Ondo State as the State Editor. I made the Associate Editor, Clem Baiye, to understand my plight, but he was hell-bent on the transfer. He had just replaced Haruna Mohamed, who had left for Kaduna as the Editor. I had no option but to resign and rush to National Concord for a job. Fortunately, my former Associate Editor, Yakubu Mohammed and the News Editor, in New Nigeria had moved to National Concord. My matter was taken up together with the Deputy Editor, Duro Onabule of blessed memory. That day, I left National Concord with a letter of employment. I begged the management of New Nigeria to allow me in the company’s accommodation till the weekend for my son’s naming ceremony, but my plea was turned down. But the housekeeper used his discretion and allowed me. Before the weekend, God had intervened. I mentioned my plight to the Deputy Governor of Lagos State, Alhaji Rafiu Jafojo, of blessed memory and he said, “Gboyega, you have no problem.” The following day, he gave me a bunch of keys to a better 3-bedroom flat in an exclusive area of Oshodi, Alasia Compound and asked me to regularise my tenancy with his agents. The next day, which was Sunday, I moved in with my wife and a week-old son and first child.
Because National Concord had rescued me in my hour of darkness, I decided to serve the company to the best of my ability. I got a car loan to buy a Peugeot car that I commercialised as a taxi to augment my income. Unfortunately, it was a misadventure and a complete loss. But I was demoralised when I got a flat allocation at FESTAC Town in 1985 and I was denied a loan application of N400.00 being the deposit demanded by the FHA before I could take possession. I eventually resorted to ‘ways and means’ to pay the deposit. Nevertheless, Concord Press was a good corporate environment to work as one was in a happy and friendly ‘home’. From the gateman to the top echelon, the good spirit of the publisher, the late Basorun MKO Abiola, permeated the place. Therefore, what was lost in remuneration, you gained in job satisfaction.
Passion pushes one beyond limits. It was my passion for journalism that made me turn down a CBN offer to become Assistant Editor of Bullion, an in-house magazine in 1980. Or maybe I rejected the offer because fate had destined me to be a journalist before I knew what it was all about, not even when a secondary school classmate advised me to take up journalism as a career because I was good at essay writing. I was a member of the Boys’ Brigade and a band boy in my primary school days, therefore, always in the fore-front to observe dignitaries each time they visited the Olowo of Owo, the late Oba Olateru Olagbegi II. I always admired journalists running after them, even when I did not really know who they were. This memory grew up with me and, no doubt, might have influenced my career, dominated by political reporting. Eventually, the first institution I gained admission into was the Nigerian Institute of Journalism where journalists are really trained and made. Alhaji Lateef Jakande was the Director-General during my time.
Can you describe your growing up years?
My late father, Joseph D. Oloye Amobonye was from Owo and my mother was Princess Lydia Adunola; each lived for 95 years. They met and got married in Ilorin in 1942. My father was working in a trading company while my mother, a trader, was buying goods from the company. He was transferred to Osogbo where I was born. I spent my early infancy with my maternal grandmother in Ekiti. She was very fond of me, apparently because I was the first male grandson. She was known as ‘Iya Alaro’. As early as 8:00 am, we would resume at her aro (Indigo dye) factory where she would be joined by some other women in the same industry. I was nicked-named ‘Oko Iya Alaro’ (husband of dye maker) because as a toddler, I fell inside a large pot of aro. At six years, I was taken to my parents in Owo to start schooling, but I always found my way back to granny every holiday. She would relate with me as if I was an adult. She would tell me that when I grew up, I should build a house for her as she had no son; her three children were female. When eventually God answered her prayer, the first opportunity I had was to build a small bungalow for her, but she died before it was completed. While the project was on, some youths were gossiping that it was a taboo to leave one’s father’s town to build a house in mother’s town without knowing that it was a fulfillment of the covenant I had with my grandmother.
Meanwhile, my father had returned home in the 50s to become a cocoa trader and farmer. Every holiday, my late half-brother and I would be in the farm clearing bushes in the cocoa plantation. December was the peak of the cocoa season when the whole family would be in the farm. Our Christmas was usually celebrated in the farm where incidentally, we normally had better Christmas celebrations as there would be more rice to eat there than at home. Life on the farm was communal. As early as 8:00 am, the exchange of plates of rice among women would have started, thus keeping children happy and busy throughout the day. After Christmas, there would be no other opportunity to eat rice until Easter, mainly because it was not a staple food. Contrary to today’s overstretched propaganda about child labour, children are part of the economic development in Africa and also an opportunity to inculcate a spirit of hard work and social responsibility in them. The imperialists understand this, but because they wanted to keep us poor, so they call it child labour. This is not to say street trading should not be discouraged in urban centres because it is not safe to do so. I was a street trader, as well as a helping hand in the farm like many other children then. We were happy working in the cocoa plantation during holidays as that was where our school fees would come from.
What about schooling?
After my secondary school in Owo, I came to Lagos where I stayed with a brother in-law on Lagos Island, until I could find my feet a year after when I got a job in Apapa through the Labour Office, Ikoyi. I moved into a mini 2-bedroom bungalow at Bamgbose, shared with some friends. I attended extra-mural studies organised by the University of Ibadan for my Advanced Level. I gained admission into the Nigerian Institute of Journalism in 1976. As a self-sponsored candidate, I almost dropped out because of hardship. I was receiving no assistance from anyone while I could not save for the course because I was also training my younger ones in secondary school. I had banked on assistance from two people who were professing free education for the poor. But I could not see them, even less getting help from them. Fortunately, I got an annual student loan of N500.00 to pay my school fees which was the same amount.
Can you take us through your career journey?
My plight got worse when I could not get a job immediately after graduation because I had taken one in Daily Times for granted, having done my vacation job there in 1977. I was offered the ‘Waka About’ column of the Lagos Weekend after the regular contributor had relinquished it.The Editor, John Adolor, had asked me to submit five editions for consideration, all of which he approved before giving me the column which I ran for some years. The Editor of Evening Times, Titus Shoyombo, gave me the centre spread of the paper for pull-outs. By this, I was enjoying some stipends together with published articles in the Daily Times. When I could not get a job in Daily Times, I went to Radio Lagos where I was interviewed and got employed immediately. Three months later, I found myself in the New Nigerian Newspapers for a better pay and greater challenges. New Nigerian was a very good place to practice, especially under editors like Haruna Mohammed and Yakubu Mohammed; Dayo Onabile, the news editor was also a perfect boss and friend.
I remember when I wrote a story that shook President Shehu Shagari in 1982, I was protected by Haruna Mohammed because the story was not denied, just that it embarrassed the powers-that-be. I got a hint that some political party public relations items categorised as contraband which had been imported by the National Party of Nigeria, but seized by the Customs, had been secretly released, following order from above. I went to the Customs PRO at the Customs Street, Tinubu Square, Mr Sylvester Akpeleshi for confirmation, but he said the matter was beyond him and referred me to the Comptroller-General of Customs at the Federal Secretariat, Ikoyi. He too said it was beyond him, but after a phone call, he asked an officer to take me to the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Ahaji Shehu Musa, who confirmed the story. The front page lead of the New Nigerian the next day was ‘NPN smuggled goods released’. By the time I got to the office, Haruna Mohammed was furious. He said that Shehu Musa said he spoke to me in confidence. I brought out my notebook as evidence that I was taking note as he was talking and that he never said ‘off record’. That was the end of the matter. I enjoyed filing exclusive stories and I was unhindered. This might have facilitated my employment in the National Concord. I came to the NNN as a correspondent in 1978 and left as a Chief Correspondent in 1982.
Any other unforgettable experience?
An experience worth mentioning was in 1979 when the then outgoing Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo tore my notebook. It was on the day of the presidential election. As he drove himself in a Peugeot 504 to the Lagos City Hall to monitor the voting process, I jumped in front of him. He pulled my shirt and said in Yoruba, “je ki nwo nkan ti o n ko?,” meaning “let me see what you are writing?” Immediately he saw his name, he tore the sheet and said again in Yoruba “Owo ki fun owo lorun, ma dimi lowo; mi o ni di e lowo”; meaning,“don’t disturb me and I won’t disturb you.” I replied “Your Excellency, you are already disturbing me.” He did not reply me. He simply listened to complaints by frustrated voters, especially women who said “Baba, a kori oruko wa” (we can’t find our names). He said “O tan niyen o.” He returned to his navy blue Peugeot and drove off. The next day, Sunday, his Chief Press Secretary, late Alex Nwokedi, came to the newsroom and chatted over the incident with the news editor, late Fola Ashiru, and ensured nothing was amiss.
My appetite for exclusive stories blossomed at the National Concord to the point that within my first three months, I got a powerful letter of commendation from the editor, Yakubu Mohammed and a cash reward of N100.00. The letter reads: “The management has keenly noted your industriousness and dedication to duty since you joined the crew of the National Concord. Your coverage of FEDECO stands out as clear evidence that you possess the knack for investigative journalism. We are hoping that you will continue to distinguish yourself, especially in the months ahead. This token of one hundred naira (N100.00) is in appreciation of your efforts. Please keep it up.” Thus, the paper that the then Governor of Lagos State, late Alhaji Lateef Jakande, said was ‘not a breakfast newspaper’, became a ‘must’ read.
Meanwhile, one of my cherished exclusive stories was when I got a hint that the presidential candidate of the Nigerian Peoples Party and Owelle of Onitsha, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and the Governor of Anambra State, Chief Jim Nwobdo, would be meeting in the Anambra State Guest House sometimes in 1983. By the time I got there at 10:00am, the meeting had started. I ambushed Dr. Azikiwe as they were coming out of the inner block. Astonished, Nwobodo exclaimed “who told you we were here, who told you we are here.” As he was walking away, Dr. Azikwe stopped to talk to me. Tired of waiting, Nwobodo called him, “Chief let’s go”. But he replied, “Wait a moment, l’m talking to my colleague.” I was the only reporter present. That was the greatest award I could have earned in journalism that I will forever be proud of; that Zik of Africa and father of journalism could call me his colleague. God bless his soul. I was transferred to Abuja in 1996 and eventually became the bureau chief.
On the collapse of Concord in 2001, my good editor, Alhaji Liad Tella, who was consulted to revive The Monitor Newspapers, appointed me as Abuja Bureau Chief and Head of Northern operations. After the demise of the paper also, a friend who had just got a political appointment as Director-General of National Orientation Agency, Alhaji Idi Farouk, from Kaduna, persuaded me in 2003 to join him and to me, as a matter of sympathy, because he made me realise that there was nothing to show for my hard work since he knew me in 1989. He was earlier the National Organising Secretary of the National Republican Convention. Following his cogent argument, I reluctantly left the news magazine that had simultaneously employed me as Abuja Bureau Chief. I thank God that I did, otherwise I would have found it very difficult to train my children. With regular income, I had access to bank and cooperative loans. I preferred exclusive journalism to pack journalism. Exclusive journalism earns one respect. That was why Jafojo was happy to give me a flat in my desperate hour for accommodation. There was hardly any report and white paper I would not get. I pioneered publishing news from the Auditor-General’s Report. Since the first Clerk of the National Assembly, the late Alhaji Gidado Idris, introduced me to the monthly Government Gazette in 1978 as a veritable source of news, I never missed it.
How did you find love?
My finding love was divine. I met my wife in 1981. She was coming from the opposite direction along Mushin Road, Itire, where we were both living. She was with a former co-tenant, who had relocated after marriage. He asked me, “Alhaji, are you married?” I said “no, but this lady by your side is my wife.” She simply smiled and left us to continue with our discussion. I asked for more information about her. Incidentally, she is a sister to a co-tenant in the same house where he too had left after marriage. That was how I was visiting her brother, until I opened up to him that I was interested in his sister. Eventually, according to K. O. Mbadiwe, “the come came to become” in 1982. We are both from Ondo State and have been happily married with children for 40 years. Indeed, God works wonders.
Can you recall some of the pranks you were involved in as a youth?
As a boy, I used to smuggle out my mother’s wrapper to dress for masquerade. Sometimes, I would even carry the masquerade. Politically, NCNC used to enjoy my sympathy in the 60s, mainly because I could not understand why Zik could be so hated and Awo, worshipped. I used to remove Action Group posters from our wall, especially at night. During ceremonies, I would sneak out of the house in the night to carry gas lights for celebrants, dancing round the town for about three pence. Sometimes, I would attend events and clean shoes in exchange for a kobo or two as is customary with children then. These according to Oliver Goldsmith in the poem ‘Deserted Village’, “were thy charms sweet village, but all the charms are fled.”
What attracts people to you and what do you dislike in them?
Shakespeare says “the eye sees not itself, but by reflection.” So, it is difficult to say what attributes that attract me to people. But people say I’m easy-going, gentle, accommodating, humorous and selfless. What I know is that anywhere I have lived or worked, I left a lasting impression. For instance at Oshodi St., Lagos, I was nick-named “Russia” by boys and that became my name, even till today, to those who knew me then. At Bamgbose, I was known as ‘brother Ile keji’, a name given when one of the school girls in the next house became a bashful lover and made it known to her sisters, who did not know my name and therefore, called me ‘brother ile keji’ which neighbours hijacked and turned to my name. At Itire, I was known as Alhaji because of my mode of dressing. I was fond of kaftan and Mecca wears which I used to buy at Central Mosque, Lagos. In the media, I have been known as ‘Governor’ of the media since 1982, a name given to me by a colleague in the National Assembly and Governor has been the name I have come to be known up till now in media circles, both in Abuja and Lagos.
All I know is that I can be very accommodating, tolerant and forgiving; I take no offence. A classmate at NIJ once called me a bastard in class. Spontaneously, I replied, “don’t worry, I knew my father.” The class roared in laughter and he embraced me in apology. That was the end of it. I like people and always want people around me. My house used to be the first port of call, not only for family members but also some boys in my neighborhood before I left home for Lagos. At one point, I counted 14 people in my flat. Fortunately, I have a wife who is equally accommodating for which she is still very much respected today by my siblings and others. But I could be restless, cheeky, meddlesome and witty.
What do people say they admire in you?
Some people would say they admire my honesty. Well they may be correct because I returned an overpayment of N500,000.00 to the First Bank, Abuja Main Office on December 28, 2005. Because of that, I was hosted to a dinner by the National Accounting Students Association of Nigerian Universities at the NICON HILTON Hotel, Abuja in 2006 and awarded a Plaque of Honesty and Transparency. The then Ondo State governor, late Dr.Olusegun Agagu, in a commendation letter, said his attention was drawn to my heroic action and sent me a personally signed letter of commendation that I have done the state proud. The NOA and First Bank also celebrated me with commendation letters. For a week, as I learned, it was a subject of discussion on a radio station in Abuja.
While at the National Orientation Agency, I had presented to the bank a cheque of N500,000.00 plus, being payment for advertisements in some newspapers. After the payment, I discovered that I was still having another bundle of N500,000.00. The next morning, I returned it to the bank. A reporter from The Sun, who was around, filed the story and it became a public matter.
After Chief Olu Falae had filed a petition in court for the annulment of the election of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in the 1999 Presidential Election, being an aggrieved candidate of AD/ANPP alliance, I was approached by Falae’s lawyer, late Chief GOK Ajayi, to testify in his favour that I was one of the journalists that collected the campaign advert that was published on the day of the election from the PDP, the only evidence Chief Falae needed for the election to be cancelled because it was contrary to the Electoral Act. I told GOK that I would tell the truth that PDP did not give me the advert, but lifted it from a newspaper in anticipation that I would be paid. He insulted me as he turned and walked away disappointedly. Those who testified for him, however, never regretted it. But neither PDP nor anybody from Obasanjo’s team even thanked me, how much more of a reward in all their eight years in power. I’m happy, a journalist friend of my brother, Tunji, who was at the court told him how his brother “lost millions of naira in the name of integrity.” I told my brother not to worry because dishonesty was not in our family dictionary. But I was happy I did not sell my conscience. It is, therefore, little wonder that I cannot cope with dishonest people.
What do you do for leisure?
I love staying with my family, especially my children. However late I return home, I still have time to spread a mat on the balcony and teach them Owo folklores, songs and plays. On weekends and public holidays, we would visit Apapa Amusement Parks, Federal Palace Hotel and Eko Hotel. I love photography; I had a camera and bought one for each child. So, all our outings are documented, some of which I still post on family platforms to keep sweet memories alive. In retirement, I enjoy the company of my wife. I engage in some church activities and keep in touch with some old friends, school mates and professional colleagues, especially on social media. I do road walks of about half an hour daily, except on Sundays. I am quite health conscious and take no alcohol, not even if it’s one percent. I never smoked. I have renounced Satan and all its hand work. I still eat occasionally in restaurants together with my wife to keep sweet memories alive also. Like the late Justice Sowemimo, “I find solace in my family.”
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