He is a quintessential newsman and scholar; an accomplished public relations and advertising guru. He is an indefatigable publisher. Modest as an enigma, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi has always been a man of many parts – restless as a youth and insightful with age. The former Managing Director of Daily Times has aged with grace and sweet memories. A golden boy from childhood, life has brought him accolades and favours. As he walked into his living room (which resembles an art gallery) that Sunday afternoon, Dr. Ogunbiyi betrayed no airs and graces. His gait does not reveal he is 70 years old until he says so. Ogunbiyi’s vocational odyssey is as interesting as the man. Born in Kano on April 13, 1947, to a father from Ogun State, he would grow up to become associates of Prof. Wole Soyinka and former Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. A giant in public relations, advertising and book publishing, Dr. Ogunbiyi takes Funke Olaode through the labyrinth of life’s choices, actions and consequences with no regrets in his beaming eyes
• How I Abandoned Classroom for Newsroom
My Mother’s Struggle with Childbirth
I feel grateful and thankful to Almighty God for sparing my life. I feel I am one of the luckiest men ever to be alive because I wasn’t meant to be born. My mother had tried for 10 years to have a child. It just didn’t click for her. I was told in 1945 a friend of my father in Kano State, Mr. Abdul Walker (now late) from Serra Leone suggested to my father to seek medical help. So my mother went through some tough medical treatment, to rid her of fibroid, which was done crudely. But she went through the process and finally in 1946 she conceived and gave birth to me in April of the following year. He later had my younger brother Olayiwola. Being the first child of the family I was spoilt with so much affection. My mother dotted over me but as I got older she would beat if I misbehaved. She didn’t have a female child; I did all manners of chores. I used to grind pepper on stone, washed plate and cloths.
My father was from Ipara-Remo in Ogun State and my mother was from Delta, in what is called Delta Ibo from Kwale. They both met in Kano and got married. They both played a key role in my life and their influence on me was enormous. My father wasn’t a rich man but he was somebody who was very caring and made friends so quickly. He was well known in Kano up to Kaduna as Victor Aanuoluwapo Ogunbiyi. He was a big-time tailor who made suits for expatriates while my mother was a trader. My mother didn’t have the benefit of Western education but she was a sensible and street-wise woman. They taught me how to treat people nicely no matter who they are. And, today, I have passed the same lesson to my children.
I was an Extrovert
I was not rascally as a child but I was an extrovert. I played all the pranks every child played. I was a known goalie in primary and high schools. So, at every stage in my life I found myself assuming the position of leadership. In primary school, I was Health Prefect; in my high school I was Head Boy and when I got to King’s College where I did my Advanced Level I was also a prefect, at University of Ibadan, I was Hall Chairman. So, at every stage I had a position of responsibility. And this helped me a lot as I always found myself where I would lead.
Growing up in Kano
Sadly, the Kano I grew up knowing was quite different from Kano that we have today. Kano at that time was a home for everyone. I grew up with children from all over the country. I went to a primary school called Ibo Union School in Kano but had classmates who came from all the big cities in the North. My teachers were Yoruba. It was a lovely school and the headmaster, Mr. Okawa, was a fantastic, strict, gentle and meticulous man. We saw him as our demigod because his words were law and we looked up to him. I started school at age five in 1952. I had a female teacher who was an albino; she loved me so much. So I loved to go to school as a child. I would trek from our house in Sabongeri. I remember my father accompanied me the first day and subsequently I went on my own with a group of other children. I wasn’t particularly a bright kid with figures and I knew I was going to end up in liberal arts.
I couldn’t add up things at all and didn’t have teachers who could help me. It was later in life in higher school that I found that Mathematics wasn’t difficult t if you apply the right theory. But I loved reading novels. After my primary education, I proceeded to Ibadan Boys High School and later moved to King’s College for my Higher School Certificate in 1966. It was a privilege to be a student of King’s College in those days. I wrote the exams which involved pupils from the North, South and East. Five of us were picked in the Western Region: Femi Adefulu, Odekunle, Omotosho, and I. When I got to King’s College I became the school prefect and that time you couldn’t come from outside to be a prefect but I became one.
Embracing Liberal Arts
Having noticed my deficiency in mathematics, I decided to pitch my tent with the arts. I had read a lot of books and novels and I thought writing would be a career for me. On another occasion I wanted to be a university teacher and I knew once I completed my university it would be a good idea. I read English Literature at University of Ibadan, graduating in 1971. The following year, I entered New York University in 1972 on Fulbright Fellowship Programme. I also won the Federal Government scholarship but had to drop it. I took a master’s degree in Dramatic Literature and doctoral degree in the same discipline in 1976 at age 29. It was fairly a feat in those days though I knew those who had theirs at 26. I taught for one and half years at Brooklyn College (City University of New York). I was head-hunted by Prof. Wole Soyinka, so I came back home and joined the then University of Ife in 1977. The late Prof. Ojetunde Aboyade was the vice chancellor; one of the finest economists Nigeria ever produced. Dramatic Arts Department was set up by Prof. Wole Soyinka and when I was coming to Ife I thought I was going to teach in the English Department. I got there and found there was a new department and Prof. Soyinka invited me to be part of it. I was a pioneer lecturer in the department: we designed the curriculum and all the programmes took off.
From Classroom to Newsroom
My ambition was to be a scholar and professor in the university but that changed when I went on sabbatical in 1983 and never returned to the institution. I was much younger and restless. When I took my sabbatical I thought it would be nice to try my writing skills in the media. Prior to that decision, I had done a few writings for Daily Times, when Dele Giwa was around in 1978/79. Ambassador Dele Cole was the Managing Director of Daily Times then. Stanley Macebuh who was my teacher briefly at King’s College had joined The Guardian and cajoled me to take some time off and if I liked it I should stay for a while. In those days, sabbatical was spent within the university environment and not in the newsroom. Luckily for me, I got an offer to teach African Studies at Harvard. But I chose the newsroom. Prof. Soyinka encouraged and supported me that I should try my luck in the newsroom.
Then, I was an acting head of Dramatic Arts Department. I thought I would just spend one year and go back. Prof. Aboyade also supported my move but felt I should have waited to be a professor because I was going to be promoted at that time. Prof. Soyinka was like if I don’t like it I should come back. After experimenting, some of my colleagues left the university to work at The Guardian. After a while, some went back to the university. I wanted to go back but Dele Giwa prevailed on me to stay. It is over 34 years now and I never went back to the university. Honestly, I didn’t know that I would go this far because the beginning was rough. Going to the newsroom was an experiment for me. And between 1984 and 1985 I decided to resign my appointment with the university and take on journalism fully.
Few months after I came on board, we had problems with the military and The Guardian was shut down. It was a trying moment having ended my career in the university. Today, I don’t have any regrets because I did my bit in The Guardian. And even as a lecturer I left a legacy. I wrote a textbook that is still relevant till today: ‘Drama and Theatre in Nigeria’. And in the newspaper industry, I made an impact as Managing Director of Daily Times; I built on the legacy of the likes of Chief Segun Osoba.
Becoming my own boss
After I was fired by my friend, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida in 1992, I became jobless. I was about 45 years old and the idea of starting my own business came. So, I founded Tanus Communications using my mother’s property in Ikeja. I started with advertising business but wasn’t comfortable with it and diversified into media relations which later boomed. In 1997, we went into publishing of textbooks for schools on a large scale for states, the Federal Government and the general public. It has been a wonderful experience.
Ogunbiyi as a family man
After the struggle of going to school when I entered the University of Ibadan, I met a young lady, Shade, who showered me with so much affection. This also extended not only to herself but her family, the Osiberu family of Shagamu, who took me like their own son. We courted and got married. Then 27 years ago, I met another young lady, Wunmi, who continued the tradition of showering me with much affection and love. She also brought so much joy into my life. Between Iyalode and Wunmi, we are blessed with four lovely children who have continued the love and affection: my first son, Tokunbo and his wife, Damilola; my second son, Aanuoluwapo and my daughter, Oreoluwa. The icing on the cake of my life is the birth of my two grandchildren.
We have always played our role well over our children as a family. Tokunbo read business as first degree and also did an MBA at Temple University and University of London. Aanuoluwapo also did business as first degree and MBA. He attended University of Newcastle and currently works as a banker in London. Oreoluwa had her secondary education partly in Nigeria before finishing up in London. She is currently studying Law at University of Cambridge.
Looking back, I don’t have any regrets in all the decisions I have made in my life. Maybe I should have stayed back in the university to become a professor before leaving. But it would have changed the way things later worked for me. I have had a very good life free of major crises. I don’t have any major health crisis I am grateful.
I am Ready to Slow Down
Honestly, my career has been rewarding; as tough as life is one is still relevant and alive. One thing I discover about life is not about being bright but the God factor in terms of providence, attitude of mind and other things. I believe in myself. When I started my public relations and even book publishing business it was saturated but by God’s grace I succeeded. Today, we have over 500 books from primary to secondary schools approved by the Federal Government published under Tanus Books. We work very hard that the book is of high standard and we pray to keep the standard and improve on it. But now that I am 70, I think I have to slow down. Prof. Soyinka nicknamed me ‘Activity’ and Gen. Babangida picked that up. I am hyperactive and that has kept me going. As I said, I will slow down; take things lightly and relax with my family on holidays in the Caribbean.
I am fulfilled
No man fulfilled life’s aspirations but this is subjective because one doesn’t start out in life and say I want to be a Nobel Laureate or this or that. It is something that happens along the way. I wanted to be a university lecturer and I became one. In my small way, with modesty, I did my best and God has been kind. The only thing I want to do now is to continue to impact humanity in my community and society, at large Recently, I was appointed as Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in January. We have embarked on programmes that would carry everybody along; the academic and non-academic staff and students. The way I read the situation in Nigeria is that tertiary education is in trouble. My advice to government is to fund education more because education is vital to our development as a people.
Also, university authorities should be given a free hand to generate funds internally and spend that money within the system. University people are reasonable and understand the state of the nation’s economy. But to ask them to bear the brunt isn’t fair; having said that, we have to work hard to carry the workers along. For instance, at Ife, we are trying to utilise what Ife has in terms of land mass. If it can be converted into large-scale farming, involving the workers through private-public partnership, and the money made can be pumped back into the system. I believe with the internally generated revenues, the sky will be the limit. If we get it right at Ife it will serve as model for other universities. Another thing that is dear to my heart is a project in Sagamu. A secondary school was set up by the Anglican Diocese called, Yemi Ogunbiyi Anglican Schools that comprises of a crèche, primary and secondary institutions. I want to raise money for that school to become a major player in the education sector in Ogun State. I pray that God will help me.