Austine Agbonsuremi: I Had the Privilege of Learning Journalism Under the Best of Minds

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Austine Okhiria Agbonsuremi has kept many wondering why he had to quit his early morning programme on Ray Power -political Platform. Some thought he had pitched his tent with another organisation only to emerge with a new venture. The ace broadcaster and activist shares his life story with Stanley Nkwazema 

You recently quit broadcasting after several years. Why?
It gets to a point in your life where you have to assess what you have done for a long time and you ask yourself, really, where you take a look at what you have done over the years and you ask yourself whether you should not take a curve. I started journalism in 1986, when I joined The Guardian newspapers, where I had the very rare privilege of being groomed under the best professional hands you can possibly get in Nigeria at that time. The Guardian was the flagship. It was a place where journalists were recruited from convocation centres in order for the Guardian to get First Class materials. I can name so many people   who were groomed and they became the best hands you can ever find across all the divide- theatre Arts, Mass communication, Languages, Business.

The Guardian made deliberate effort to get them. But I was not in that category of possibly the best of people recruited from convocation grounds. I went into the Guardian as an Industrial Attaché from Auchi Polytechnic. So I was not one of those that were headhunted to be groomed. But I had the privilege of learning under the best of minds, most intelligent of people and an atmosphere where journalism was pure and provided me with an advantage to learn fast and I never went back for my HND full time. I took my HND while in practice and my Master’s Degree. I never went back to the classroom full time to complete my studies as it were as most people graduate and go for NYSC. I did not have that kind of advantage. I had the privilege of starting in a good place and I capitalised on it, learned fast, groomed under the best hands.

What was the experience like when The Guardian was shut by the military? How did you forge ahead?
Something happened along the line in 1994 when The Guardian was shut down abruptly along with other media organisations in Nigeria. I was on the beat at the High Court in Lagos when we got the information that the Military had taken over The Guardian overnight. We rushed back to Rutam House in Isolo and discovered that the place was actually barricaded and we did not have access to our tables. That was the turning points; a very ugly incident. We were pained, we protested and the entire country joined us in the protest but the adamant Abacha regime did not bulge. That in itself was one point that I couldn’t have realised that I would be a broadcaster. A friend invited me to RayPower which just came out that same year and I said radio. He said yes advising that I should not expect the regime is going to open the media houses that have been closed down any soon, that it will be a long holiday. Of course, The Guardian placed all of us on leave without pay. I went to the Raypower newsroom. I did not just walk in there and got the job. There was a plan then. You would recall that the late Ladi Lawal was the President of the NUJ. There was a brokered agreement, the NUJ sought to locate all the remaining newspapers that were still up and running.  The union went under the cover of what they called succour for distressed journalists, to place some journalists who were really distressed. DAAR Communications, a new organisation then, apparently looking for  people who can assist it in getting some of the good stories, magnanimously granted  six of us from the  Concord newspapers, Punch and from The Guardian the privilege  to work in a radio house , under the NUJ arrangement. That was how I found myself in a radio house as a stringer for one year during the course of closure of The Guardian. I soon fell in love with the microphone; I never expected or anticipated that I was going to work in radio. I was okay with the image of the flagship of The Guardian, doing all the stories, going around and doing interviews. The glamour of the radio took over me that one year and subsequently when The Guardian was reopened, I was to ask for a job and the company graciously gave me one. I must have been assessed that I also performed during that one year and I didn’t disappoint. That was how a 24 year career in broadcasting started.

What was it like growing up?
I am from a very humble background. I had parents who were not educated but who had a desire to have their children acquire better education. I recall that in our primary school days in Ogwa, Edo state, where I grew up and did not go out of that community in my first 12 years. You have been to my community; you know why I am a home boy. I can also make deep parables in Ishan, a language I can speak very well. I went through primary school, but going into secondary school was so difficult then. After my primary school, my elder sister who lived in Lagos then asked that I come over. That was in 1974, where there was an understanding that it was too difficult to get into secondary school but that I should go into a secretarial school. I went to SWAN Commercial School in Surulere where I was learning Typing, Shorthand and English language. It was at that time that what you see now as the Oshodi -Apapa Expressway was being constructed. I remember that we used to follow the bulldozers behind, chase the rabbits and walk across the canal.

At some point after about a year, I insisted that I wanted to go to secondary school and my elder sister granted my request and I had to go back to Edo state where I had the privilege of gaining admission into Edaiken Ahmadiya Grammar school, founded in 1965 by the Ahmadiya Movement, but when the government took over, the Ahmadiya was removed. I had many contemporaries; we have a platform, one Friday Imaghodon called me from London the other day, the kind of secondary school we had, there was a lot of bonding, we had a swimming pool, almost of international standard and that I can swim today was as a result of that, The Bendel state Sports Council used to practice in our school then, we had a lot of warm people..  My current lawyer today, Ayo Ogundele was my junior in secondary school. Incidentally we also worked together in AIIT, but his legal practice is now flourishing.
Interestingly, after my secondary school, in 1981 my results were too poor. I had two Credits in subjects that you cannot say oh it can take me somewhere. I think Literature in English and Religious studies. I had the result that could not take me to anywhere. It was same time that the Bendel State University was established, I thought I was going to be there that year but it was not possible. I relocated to Lagos and decided to write GCE. In the course of that I had to look for work; what kind of work were you going to get with two credits? I got a job with SCOATRAC. I was not actually a staff of SCOATRAC in Isolo, but a staff of one security company called George Hunters who posted me to the company on a salary of N100. It was 6 to 6 every day. But it gave me the opportunity to study, I read and wrote the GCE for about two years  and got all my combinations before  I got admission to Ogwashi Ukwu Polytechnic, not this current polytechnic, it is now defunct. There were three polytechnics then in Ozoro- Ogwashi Ukwu and Auchi, the school was shut down by the Military Government when General Jeremiah Useni was the Governor of Bendel state, before I could complete my studies. He said military cannot maintain the three schools. We were merged into one school- Auchi Polytechnic where I found myself. I did one year and obtained my Diploma and sought to do Industrial attachment with The Guardian newspapers.

You once hawked goods on the streets of Lagos
Yes. Immediately after primary school, I went to Lagos and I was asked to take the option of going to a secretarial school in Itire, Lagos, and it was open by 4: o’clock in the evening, it was like a three hours programme; the whole of the morning I was available to assist my sister who was a very busy trader selling anything under the sun- egg, bread, groundnut/palm oil, vegetables, plantain etc. We needed to assist her raise money; we were all crammed into one room with the husband and children. Before I could go for my studies in the evening, on a daily basis, I was carrying eggs, plantain, and oil on my head to sell all over the place. The whole of Ijesha was a slum covered in swamp, no houses. The closest you could get to that Ijesha was Itire. We were staying in Mutairu Ongbanjo Street. We moved from Itire to Lawanson and all the area bordering National Stadium. It was not the beginning of my hawking story. I actually hawked; my mother also sold Akamu, akara and others when we were very young. It was something we did to assist the family in our early life. So what I did in Lagos was what I was familiar with. I got past through all that.

Have you retired from journalism?
You cannot completely retire from Journalism. I don’t think that retiring from DAAR Communications will mean retiring completely from journalism. I got to a point in DAAR communication where circumstances permitted me to go. I had planned to leave last year, haven gotten a permanent residency of Canada, with my family, as part of the long term plan, I had, I thought that my children should get the best education available. Yes I went to school here, did my HND in Oko and my Masters in one of the Universities’ here, I didn’t think it was fair for me to take my children through that same route I took. We planned for a very small family and decided that we were going to give our children the best and we prayed and worked towards it and eventually got the boys to the very best of schools in Canada. Subsequently, my wife joined and I also applied and was given Permanent Residency. Journalism practice, I am going to take it to an international level. We have done the kind of journalism we have here for over 34 years , radio, television , satellite and I think that it is time to do some international comparative analysis on development , analysis of Nigeria, Africa, the black race, the world economy and politics of it. I think I have the residency of one of the best countries of the world and I want to take advantage of that. My partners are very excited and I want to take advantage of that and we have started to work on that so that I can indeed shuttle between Nigeria and Canada. I still have my roots here and I have started a ‘give back’ NGO that I want work and get Nigerians mobilised.

Why NGO when you still want to be involved in active Journalism?
You can actually give back through an NGO. The NGO is not a profit making organisation. You have this experience, reach, contacts, you have probably gotten to the peak of your profession and what do you have to give back to the society.  The mobilisation that I was doing using the radio, tv and newspapers and the social media can be galvanised and put together so that we begin to look at how to formally take the mobilisation to the people in town hall meetings, market places, trainings, telling the people the appropriate thing to do. I have discovered that our democracy is being side-lined. There is a lot of apathy. People don’t want to be part of the democratic process, they don’t want to participate, they want to leave the politics to the people they call the bad people. If you leave politics to bad people, invariably, you are asking they rule over you. Our job in Progressive Impact organisation for Community Development (PRIMORG) is to help in mobilising Nigerians to taking actions and decisions that would assist in promoting popular participation and letting the people. We are going to cut across various sections of the society; women, youth, students, politicians, political parties while assisting the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) doing radio and television programmes in mobilisation. We are setting up a crack team that can deliver. We are already getting support from a lot of people who want to partner with us, who want to mobilise us do things. I am going to capitalise on the goodwill that I have garnered over time. These are people who feel, this person can be trusted, he is believable, he is not APC, PDP or APGA; He is not asking you to join PDP or APC but join any party and don’t stay apart or say leave the party for them, don’t carry your voter’s card and keep it. Imagine 66 million registered voters in the 2015 records of INEC and fewer than 30 million people went out to vote, it is not something that is cheery for anybody.  For now we have 78 million on the voter’s register, you will be surprised that if we do not work hard to mobilise the people, less than 30 per cent of this population of  voters will come out to vote. By the last UN estimate we have about 193 million people, if you take an aggregate of those who are 18 and above who can vote, you will be surprised that the so called 78 million is still low if viewed against the background of how many of them who come out to vote.

There is a lot of job to be done. We need to mobilise both locally and internationally to seize this pace and begin to take active part in politics. I have reported politics for a very long time and I have just discovered that unless we all begin to mobilise people and tell them to vote, participate, go to political parties meetings and don’t wait for them to take decisions, if you don’t, then we will not be able to hold them accountable. The more the people are participating, the better for the society, the more difficult it will be for the rigging processes. If everybody goes out to vote, they will not have money to give everybody. Imagine if you have 50 million coming out to vote, how much you are going to give to them. It will be a decision that will be taken by the best of the people, the most people who will want to participate. That is the task we have and we are going to use every method that is possible, allowed within the law and do not leave the so called ‘bad people’ to continue with the affairs of Nigeria while the good people stay behind. I have been tilting my journalism towards this end, telling the church, the mosques, Muslims and Christians to mobilise their people to do their part to go and vote. That is the job that I want to do as my own give back to society. At the end of the day, our children will say okay some persons passed through here.

Journalism should be a passion, it is not just a profession, we were together in the newsroom before and you know that those of us who survived it were those who had the passion. The best of hands that should stay in journalism did not have the passion, they ended up in Public Relations which is just an aspect of communication, ending up in the corporate world. Either they did not have a choice or they had no passion for it. Again the first point to ponder is, when you have a passion for something, practicing it, does it pay your bills? Can it really give you the economic power to take care of yourself, get a good car, build your own house, and train your children?  As at today, journalism as it is cannot fulfil this aspect of human want and desires. Journalists in Nigerian have had to do things on the side. It is also good to do things on the side. If you are earning and you are not investing, you probably will end up retiring without anything to fall back on. May be some of us were very lucky, blessed to know that a day will come when you will be retiring. We started to think of what to do with journalism that will not necessarily affect the quality of job we are doing, not to be seen to be compromising your job as a journalist.

You must find ways as a journalist to leverage the opportunities that are available in the society and keep your head high, you are not a beggar and people will respect you without being looked at as a failure. I think the time that journalists were seen as failures are actually past. Some of us made up our mind that we were not going to be failures. If the lawyers, accountants and other professions can do it, why won’t journalists be able to send their children to the best schools in the world, leave in the best of cities, build the best of houses to stay. If journalism cannot provide that, the journalist should be intelligent enough to know that. I studied Mass Communication, there is Advertising, Public Relations and Journalism (the press)If you are intelligent enough, you should be able to harness all without compromising your goal, profession, career as a journalist to be able to inform the people accurately with an unbiased manner and without sounding as if you have been paid to do your job.