Chief Olusegun Osoba, veteran journalist and two-term governor of Ogun State, will formally join the league of octogenarians on July 15, when he’d turn 80 years. His journey through life tells the story of a man, who never succumbed to failure amid the vicissitudes of life. At birth, his parents were not sure he’d survive until Prophet Joseph Ayo Babalola, one of the founders of the Christ Apostolic Church, brought them a message of God’s mercies, a reason the prophet christened him Oluwasegun. Aside, deftness and divine appointment concurrently defined his path to the top both in his career as a journalist, where he originally made his name and in the turf of politics. Osoba, who led the committee that drafted the Constitution of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2013, relived challenging and exciting moments of his life with Gboyega Akinsanmi. Excerpts:
On Monday, July 15, you will join the league of octogenarians. How do you feel celebrating 80?
I feel elated that Almighty God kept my life till now. Few years ago, I had major medical challenges that could have taken my life. Aside, I survived major assassination attempts on my life; it was by the immense grace of God. That is why I take every day as an extra day from God to me. For this reason, I do thanksgiving daily.
Can you mention some assassination attempts on your life?
In his book, Clapping with One Hand, Hon. Olawale Oshun created impression as if I was nobody in the struggle of National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). Likewise, Dr. Femi Okurounmu, who wanted to be governor of Ogun State tagged me late Gen. Sani Abacha’s turncoat.
I have had the occasion to challenge them if any one of them suffered as mush as I did, then they have the right to insult me. Otherwise they should keep their mouth shut forever. I want them to reply in details the way I have documented it my book and the way I have put the names of witnesses.
I was the first to be arrested after the formation of NADECO by the Abacha. I was taken to Kam Salem House. I mentioned Oba Rilwan Akiolu, who was then the Commissioner of Police that gave me his office to use after the closing hour, because I was sleeping in a big hall infested with rats.
I was the first to be charged to court along with Senator Bola Tinubu and Commodore Dan Suleiman before Justice Shonowo. We were to go to jail, but the judge ruled on the matter. When we were not given bail, the late Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Belgore intervened and gave us bail. I went through that.
We were transferred from Kam Salem House to Alagbon Police Station, where we were taking our bath in the open as early as 6 a.m. Among others, Tinubu, Suleiman and myself were there. Subsequently, the attempt on my life started on August 24, 1994, when Chief M.K.O Abiola was arrested. We were to go and celebrate Abiola’s first birthday in detention, when they came to my house on the night of August 23, 1994. They had attempted to bomb Dan Suleiman’s house on August 22, 1994.
Also, they had attempted to set late Chief Gani Fawehinmi’s chamber on fire. When all theses attempts on Fawehinmi and Suleiman had occurred, I went into hiding. I was lucky to have escaped, because they were out to eliminate me, but I was not at home. They gained access into my house without using any key.
Unfortunately, the SSS attached to me as a former governor, Stephen Itokpa did not know that the invaders were security people. He engaged them in a shootout. But after exhausting his ammunitions, he escaped through the fence. That was the first attempt on my life in 1994, the rest I did not know until Sargent Roggers, the hit man of Abacha’s junta, came to give evidence in court.
Also, Tell Magazines did an interview, where he revealed all that transpired. The second attempt was September 1995 when they wanted to set my house on fire in Abeokuta. Like the first attempt, I managed to escape, because I did not sleep early on that day. I just heard a spark and smoke engulfed the entire room. I have all the narrative in my book.
The third attempt was in the evidence given by Roggers in court that they were sent to kill the then leader of Afenifere, Senator Abraham Adesanya, Publisher of The Guardian, late Dr. Alex Ibru, Chief Bola Ige and myself, among others. Another time was when they trailed me on the road to Abeokuta, the military boys at the checkpoint waved me on, but the few minutes that they stooped them gave me the opportunity to escape.
At least, five times, I escaped attempted assassination. So, when Oshun and Okurounmu started talking, I looked at them as small boys in the struggle. If they did not go through the kind of oppression that I went through, they should remain silent.
Why did you choose journalism as a career at a time your contemporaries were going for law and medicine?
In truth, I found myself in journalism by accident. I wanted to study law. It was because my closest teacher, the late Chief Adenola Oshuneye wanted me to study law. He was even furious that I decided to go into journalism, because I had admission into the University of Lagos to study law. But Alhaji Babatunde Jose persuaded me to take up journalism and jettison law. In my school days, however, I was a regular writer in the school magazine called the Magnate at Methodist Boys High School, Abeokuta.
Some of your professional colleagues alleged that you ran away, because of poor earnings. What really attracted you to journalism?
The attraction to journalism is the challenge. A good journalist faces challenge everyday. Journalism is adventurous and educative. Journalism gives exposure. For someone, who is streetwise like me, I found journalism a great profession, because it gave me opportunity to relate with all categories of people in the society – be they armed robbers, prime ministers, parliamentarians and even petty thieves.
For instance, I started my career as a journalist covering little crimes. A journalist must be comfortable with all sectors of the society. It is a great training ground that helped me in my years as a politician. Journalism trains someone to be a leader and to be objective.
The profession trains someone to accept other peoples’ opinion, because most times we publish articles and stories that we disagree totally with. A journalist’s duty is to report issues so that the public would make their judgment.
How did you uncover the remains of former Prime Minister, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa after his assassination?
People keep talking about Alhaji Tafawa Balewa’s assassination as though it was the only major story I did. But there are too many exclusives. For example, Senator Joseph Tarka ordered a Mercedes Benz, which became a controversial thing. Bolaji Ogunsanwo and I covered the exclusive story. I had many exclusives stories during the civil war and even in my later years when I joined Sketch and Herald.
I did detailed reports on the assassination of former Head of State, late Gen. Murtala Mohammed and the capture of Col. Bukasuka Dimka that have held the country to ransom. All of these are in my book. When former Governor of Kwara State, Col. Ibrahim Taiwo was killed, I was with the Secretary to the State Government, who went and discovered the body of Col. Ibrahim Taiwo on the way to Offa.
I also reported in detail the deportation of Shugaba Darman. Shugaba, who was then Majority Leader of the Borno State House of Assembly, was taken physically across the boarder and thrown like a stone. I covered the impeachment of former Governor of Old Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa. I can recall many exclusives stories that I covered. There had been too much emphasis on Alhaji Tafawa Balewa’s assassination story. However, it was the major beginning that threw me into the hall of fame.
Why did former Premier of Western Region, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo describe you and two others as three musketeers?
Three of us were the youngest individuals, who were close to Awolowo. Of the living, those who were close to Pa Awolowo more than me are Alhaji Lateef Jakande and Chief Ayo Adebanjo. Both of them are my elders. The Awolowo family knew that we dined with Awolowo and got tutelage from him. We did our PhD in public life under Pa Awolowo’s mentorship. He made us part of all organs of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN).
There was no organ of the party that the three of us did not belong to. I can challenge them to produce the kind of photographs I took with Pa Awolowo in Yola. I was with Pa Awolowo in Ikenne during the last broadcast he made before the 1983 presidential election.
I still have the action photographs of those events. Can any of them produce such photographs?
I have the record of all the minutes of UPN. I want people to react to my book. I want anyone who is going to react to counter the things I said with documents. If I were to use all the photographs I have in my book, it would become a voluminous book. If I were to use all the documents I have, I would have ended up writing an encyclopedia. But I restrained myself from using much documents.
How will you describe the values your parents and others added to your life?
I give thanks to my father, who was a disciplinarian. We were trained to wake up at 6:00 a.m. Most times, we woke up before 6:00 a.m. and still remained in bed. But when we heard the sound of his footsteps, we would wake up to avoid being flogged.
Specifically, He taught me how to be frugal. When I was in secondary school, for instance, he told me to go to UTC, Bata and Learnads Stores to find out the prices of shoes before making my choice. He chose the cheapest ones. I learned from him that the best material to use is Guinea Brocade and Aso Oke. Also, my mother was a reserved person, who taught me how to respect people.
Another great influence on me was my maternal uncle, Joseph Ayo Babalola. People do not know that I am related to him. He was one of the founders of Christ Apostolic Church (CAC). I spent most of my holidays with him. He was the one who christened me Oluwasegun. Prophet Babalola christened Oluwasegun, because my mother had some children before me who did not survive.
Prophetically, the man of God proclaimed: “Oluwasegun will survive.” I am 80 today. I am grateful to God. I am Prophet Babalola, who God used to make positive pronouncement into my life. The religious aspects of my life were learned from Babalola. I learnt the rascality side of my life in Lagos. I was a member of virtually everything.
I still have a photograph I took in 1964, when I was a member of Alakoro Boys and Girls Club in Ebute Ero. We were trained on how to be streetwise. We were trained on how to serve humanity and how to serve the people. My exposure was not limited to academic as I was virtually involved in many societies including Red Cross, Boys’ Scout, Debating Society and Yoruba Cultural Group among others. I had broad education.
In reality, how did Alhaji Jose influence your rise in journalism?
After my childhood days, I decided to go into journalism. In truth, Alhaji Jose truncated my plan to study law and immediately made me to go to University of Lagos in 1965. Alhaji Jakande brought the International Press Institute Training from Nairobi to Lagos. We were the pioneer students in the University of Lagos. Later, the programme metamorphosed into the Department of Mass Communication.
In 1965, expatriates were sent from the International Press Institute in London to the University of Lagos. At the time I left the University of Lagos in 1965, Alhaji Jose sent me to the UK for another programme under the Commonwealth Press Union. Within two years of joining Daily Times, I had done two major courses in journalism.
In 1970, I went to Indiana University, Bloomington for another Diploma Programme in Journalism. It was as if Alhaji Jose was preparing me early for something big in journalism. When people said I did not go to the university, I wonder if someone who attended these institutions and attended Harvard University for a postgraduate course is not educated in their sight.
What did they do that I have not done. To be qualified as Niemen fellow is one of the greatest honours in America. The fellowship is limited to only 15 people annually. I did a year postgraduate programme in Harvard University.
On different occasions, Chief Areoye Oyebola said Alhaji Jose liked you more than him. How true?
They all claimed I was Alhaji Jose’s lapdog. As a result, I decided to go to Herald after the crisis in Daily Times to prove myself. If I was that lapdog, who did not know the job, how come all newspapers under my management succeeded? Without being immodest, there is no newspaper I managed that I ever collected subventions from the federal government. I made profit in Herald and turned around Sketch, when I started managing it.
In Sketch, I built new office complex and bought new equipment. By the time I came back to Daily Times, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) had destroyed it. But again, I turned it around to the extent that we were paying dividends to shareholders. Would a man, who did not know his left and right, be able to lead Daily Times? I am proud to say I am one journalist in Nigeria, who managed three major newspapers and made them profitable.
I paid salaries as and when due and provided housing and car loans. Apart from managing three successful newspapers, I am involved in the establishment of The Vanguard and The Guardian, which are major newspapers today. When people talk, Alex Ibru and I started The Guardian together. That was why the managing directorship was reserved for me for years.
How did you enter into partisan politics?
In 1988, I was elected a member of the defunct Constituent Assembly? That was the beginning of my foray into partisan politics. I was also a member of the People Solidarity Party (PSP). The PSP, later, metamorphosed into Social Democratic Party (SDP), one of the two political parties the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida administration promoted in the late 1980s. The second party was the National Republican Convention (NRC).
How do you prefer the political system in the failed Third Republic to the current system?
Two-party system is the best for Nigeria. That is why I said the mistake Babangida made on June 12 was destroying the political engineering that was put in place by Dr. Joseph Cookey. The two-party system placed the progressives on the left side and the conservatives on the right side. At that time, nobody defected from the SDP to the NRC or from the NRC to the SDP. Nobody did that no matter the problem in the parties, because the ideological divide was very clear.
For example, Senator Kofo Akerele-Bucknor became a senator with two votes. The primary that was used then was the Open Ballot system where people queued behind the candidates of their choice to vote. What happened was that Wahab Dosumu was in the forefront to win, but there was a disagreement, which made them to boycott the primary. Akerele-Bucknor stubbornly said she was not going to boycott and only two people queued behind her. She won because the SDP said they were boycotting. Her two votes were upheld and she became a senator.
In spite of what happened, neither Dosumu nor the other person left the party. The party still accepted her despite the fact that she was not the first choice. If we had gone with the two-party system, Nigeria would have been a better country today. There was only a little difference between the number of SDP and NRC governors. Also, in the Senate, it was the same. Aside, those that became governors at the time were high-calibre people.
But your return in 1999 was dramatic. How did it happen?
Gen. Sani Abacha kicked us out on November 17, 1993. Six years after, the people of Ogun State asked me to come back. In any of my elections, I was never challenged in court. In 2003, I won the election. But former President Olusegun Obasanjo wrote the figures. The detail is in my book.
You grew up with top military leaders of the old. How do you feel when their names are mentioned anytime Nigeria’s leadership crisis is discussed?
Of course, the military was in control for many years. Two weeks ago, someone said I was a security agent during the military era. What they do not know is that many of these officers were Second Lieutenants when I became famous as a result of my report on Sir Tafawa Balewa’s assassination in 1966. I met some of them in 1961, when I went to Cameroon for Man’O War drills. Anytime we meet, I tell them they are Generals in the military while I am a Field Marshal in my profession.
These are people, whom I grew up with. Babangida was one of them. The greatest “terror” in our days was Air Marshal Abas. That was when we used to visit nightclubs all over Lagos. How can I now be an agent of the people I grew up with? Is it not insulting? For instance, Babangida and I had interesting social life in Lagos as young people. In the warfront, for instance, Gen. Theophilus Danjuma was a Major serving under late Gen Mohammed Shuwa at the First Division, which was the first military formation to start the war.
I met all of them in the warfront. Danjuma was then a field Lt Colonel. Can the man I met in the war front intimidate me? I had hobnobbed with Tafawa Balewa, Adeniran Ogunsanya, Okotie Eboh and others in the Parliament. How could my mates intimidate me?
I covered Sarduana of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello and Pa Obafemi Awolowo. I moved closely with other leaders in the country at different times. Those who called me an agent are limited in scope; they do not have contacts. Indeed, they are envious I had contacts and influence. As at 1964, I had a telephone, which made it possible for me to relate with ministers and other top people.
Are you dismissing claims that you are an agent to former military leaders?
People, who are making such claims, must be stupid. If I were a military apologist, would I have been able to run newspapers under the military regimes and made profits? To attain this feat means what I was giving out was acceptable to the readers. I replied them in my book. For instance, every newspaper has its editorial policy and all staff in the paper must lean in the direction of that policy.
There is no newspaper that is totally free. The freedom of any reporter stops where the editorial policy the paper starts. I think I deserved some respect from those tagging me as a military apologist, because of the achievements I recorded in all the newspapers I managed under the military without collecting subventions from the governments. We walked tightrope under the military governments and still made the newspapers profitable.
In 2003, was there really a pact between the Alliance for Democracy (AD) and former President Olusegun Obasanjo?
That is stating the obvious. It is also in my book. In fact, the last chapter is on the issue of how Obasanjo hoodwinked all of us. He deceived us by promising true federalism, fiscal responsibility and credible census. Our leaders believed him. The pact we had was that he would do major restructuring in his second term. But he failed us. I have no regrets that he did what he did to truncate our second term, because my landmark achievement of projects across Ogun State is still a benchmark of a successful governor.
I have had two governors 16 years after I left office. But if you go to any village in the state, they will still refer you to what I did for them. I thank God that Obasanjo truncated my second term. But that made me relevant even at 80. How many of my contemporaries has God given the grace to be respected till date? How many of them has God given grace to remain relevant to see through all manners of tribulation that I survived in life?
What is the trouble with Afenifere?
Our elders started the breakup of Afenifere with the AD presidential primaries held in D’Rovans Hotel, Ibadan. The election was the beginning of the end of Afenifere. The details are also in my book. But I feel bad. Even in his grave, Chief Bola Ige is still being attacked in writing. I have challenged Afenifere elders. How many young people are with them now? Who will they hand over the leadership of the group to?
I am part of the elders. We are beginning to become a total failure. When we all go, there will not be an Afenifere, because our attitude does not accommodate contrary opinion. I will give you examples. We, the Afenifere, were registered under AD and Chief John Oyegun was part of us. We had a meeting in Kaduna, where Oyegun made a suggestion that AD needed a national spread to enable it win presidential election. He suggested we should collaborate with All Peoples Party (APP) under Mahmoud Waziri? If you see how our elders lambasted Oyegun to the point that he was kicked out of AD.
Yet, Oyegun suffered more than anybody in exile. He was kicked out. At the end of the day, our father did not provide alternative, because they are one-way thinker. But they later returned to what Oyegun had suggested earlier. But by then the elected APP governors were against us. If they had cooperated with us, there was no way Obasanjo could have won the 1999 presidential election. That is why I always hit hard at the elders that they are the one who destroyed AD’s opportunity of winning the 1999 presidential election.
Then, the whole country had conceded the presidency to Yoruba and Chief Olu Falae was in the forefront to win. Our leaders are always one-way route. Once you come up with alternative idea, you become an enemy. They do not read history. When you are fighting for a course, there must be alternative agenda. Take restructuring, for example. We are all for restructuring and true federalism. You keep saying you want it right and now.
Is there any provision in the 1999 Constitution, where the president is empowered to restructure by fiat? I have been telling them that we should engage the National Assembly. But they will go to the pages of the newspaper shouting to the top. When the elders met the Eight National Assembly under Dr. Bukola Saraki and Hon. Yakubu Dogara and discovered how far the lawmakers have gone in the amendment of the 1999 Constitution, they were surprised.
I challenged them to come out and tell me what they came out with after their engagement with the National Assembly. This country, whether the 1999 Constitution is perfect or not, we have to engage the National Assembly to get restructuring. Even if we want referendum, the legislature is the only body that can pass an Act and cede its powers to that referendum. They will shout and shout. When election comes, they cannot produce a single legislator.
Which way are we going to get Nigeria restructured? Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has given us example when he was the Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice in Lagos State. He went to court to change a lot of things. They got the Supreme Court to rule that local government is out of the control of federal government, but for the state.
Then, Tinubu created 37 Local Government Development Council (LCDAs). I also replicated in Ogun State. Also, Osinbajo cited example of how the Supreme Court ruled that all federation money must go into the Federation Accounts. Why is it that our elders do not think? Many of them are lawyers. I am still waiting to see how we can restructure without engaging the National Assembly.