Osoba’s Adventures and Battlelines

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TUESDAY WITH REUBEN ABATI 

Every profession has its icons. Chief Olusegun Osoba is one of ours in the practice of journalism in Nigeria. In a career spanning more than five decades, he has distinguished himself not just as an icon but as a living legend. It is difficult to work in a newspaper house in Nigeria and not hear about the exploits of Olusegun Osoba as a reporter: the man who discovered the corpses, after the coup of January 1966, of First Republic Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, and Finance Minister Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh. Osoba is known as the master of scoops whose stories constantly made the front pages of the Daily Times at a time that particular newspaper was synonymous with newspapering in Nigeria, the Babatunde Jose favorite who became a “son” on account of his diligence and commitment to work, and who got promoted to the position of the Editor of the Daily Times. Those who worked with Osoba and who knew him closely used to tell us stories about how his promotion to the position of Editor sparked a rebellion at the Daily Times.

His own editor, Areoye Oyebola felt betrayed. Other superstars at the newspaper who thought they were in a line of succession walked out of the Daily Times in anger and took their protest to the military authorities of the time. I have been told by more than one of Osoba’s contemporaries that this led to the gradual politicization of the Daily Times and the eventual “capture” of that newspaper by the military government. The military incursion into the Daily Times subjected the newspaper to the agony of “slow death”. Osoba’s distinction lay in his dexterity as a reporter, his hard nose for news; his love of the job; his vast network of contacts and sources. In 1964, he was the only reporter in the city of Lagos who had a telephone at home. He also had a Vespa scooter. You have to love what you do to be able to excel in it and turn it into a life-long commitment. Osoba loved his job. The story is told about how during the 1975 coup that toppled the Yakubu Gowon military administration, Chief Osoba rushed to the office. Alhaji Babatunde Jose, Managing Director of the newspaper was surprised that he was the only senior editor who showed up and together, the two of them worked on the production of the Evening Times and the next day’s paper. Alhaji Jose, the father of modern Nigerian journalism rewarded Osoba for his tenacity and professionalism.

In the course of his career, Osoba later became known as the arrow head of a triumvirate known as “The Three Musketeers” in Nigerian journalism. The label – “Three Musketeers” – was coined by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and popularized by Chief Bola Ige to refer to Chief Olusegun Osoba, Mr. Felix Adenaike and Mr. Peter Ajayi – the troika who dominated the Nigerian media space, specifically the South West media in the 70s and 80s. They were at various points and at the same time at certain points, managers of the Nigerian Tribune, Daily Times, Daily Sketch and the Nigerian Herald with a combined control of over one million newspapers per day. Each one of them turned out to be a legend in his own right; together, they became a compelling force. At the Nigerian Tribune, Felix Adenaike was regarded by the newsroom as a four-star General. He was the GOC for more than a decade. After his retirement, I was privileged to work with him when he joined us at The Guardian Editorial Board as a consultant. Mr Adenaike came all the way from Ibadan and he was always punctual. He is one of the best editorial writers that I know and one of the most disciplined that I have ever worked with.

His writing was un-editable, with every word in place and sense oozing from every paragraph. Mr Peter Ajayi is the author of one of the most memorable books on Nigerian journalism: his account of his years as the general manager of the Nigerian Herald titled Not His Master’s Voice: How To Kill A Newspaper. Out of the troika, only Mr. Felix Adenaike and Chief Olusegun Osoba are still alive, both old men, with a life of unforgettable achievements behind them. So formidable, influential and impactful were they, individually and together, that their friendship and significance inspired the writing of a book titled “The Three Musketeers” by Agboola Sanni – 192 pages, 20 chapters (2018). Agboola Sanni was a colleague of the troika, and although he talks about other issues in the book, his main submission is the role of Osoba, Adenaike and Ajayi as frontliners in Nigerian journalism. “The Three Musketeers” showed up before the Newswatch team – Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese, and Yakubu Mohammed who launched another robust phase in Nigerian journalism. Osoba and his Musketeer brothers represent the bridge between the old and modern journalism in Nigeria. There are others as well- columnists who were more famous than the newspaper, sub-editors who enjoyed casting headlines that shot up circulation, night editors who made a difference…I am sorry to say, at the risk of self-deprecation that they probably don’t make them like that anymore. Something, at some point, happened in the newsrooms in Nigeria…

Osoba went a top-notch higher in his career when he transited from being a reporter to editor to newspaper manager and finally landed in the arena of politics. Journalists like lawyers have always been involved in the making and unmaking of Nigeria since the first newspaper was established in Olusegun Osoba’s home-town of Abeokuta in 1859. Some of the most prominent persons in Nigeria’s independence struggle, pre-and post independence were journalists. They include Chief Obafemi Awolowo who once worked as a reporter, Sir Nnamdi Azikiwe who once owned a chain of newspapers across Nigeria (Azikiwe tells part of that story in his autobiography, titled My Odyssey), Chief Ernest Ikoli, Samuel Akinsanya (who later became the Odemo of Ishara), Samuel Ladoke Akintola, editor of the Daily Service in 1943, Bisi Onabanjo, the feisty columnist who wrote under the nom de plume, Ayekooto, Lateef Jakande, who turns 90 today, and who was Governor of Lagos State in the Second Republic. Chief Osoba, the subject of this commentary, is a friend of the 90-year-old Jakande. Journalists are like soldiers; they are sworn to an unwritten code of brotherhood, except that these days, the spread of poverty and inordinate ambition in Nigerian newsrooms stands the practice code on its head: dogs now eat dogs and the kind of respect for tradition and achievement that existed in Osoba’s days and shortly after, has vanished. Again I digress. But what I am saying is that beyond his accomplishments as a journalist, Chief Olusegun Osoba in typical Renaissance fashion, has been part of the Nigerian story beyond the newsroom. He is a reporter wbo moved on to become a newsmaker in his own right. He is the reporter who became part of the story.

In 2012, Dimgba Igwe and Mike Awoyinfa, two other icons in Nigerian journalism, belonging to another generation, decided to do a book to celebrate Osoba’s distinction. They titled the book: “Osoba: The Newspaper Years” (2012, 396 pp.). The book is a tribute to Osoba. It is also a commentary on Nigerian journalism. Indeed, over the years, so much has been written about the man, Olusegun Osoba. To some people he is known as a “Musketeer”. In Abeokuta, he is known either as Akinrogun Egba or Oluwo Oba; among the Ijebus where his wife hails from, the “Customs Lady” to whom the intermission in the book is dedicated, he is Aremo. In the progressive movement in Nigerian politics, he is regarded as a NADECO chieftain, or a pro-June twelver in Nigerian politics, that is a pro-democracy activist. In the Alliance for Progressives Congress (APC), the political party that he helped to establish and on which platform he helped Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari to win in 2015 and return to power in 2019, he is regarded as a power broker. In his home state of Ogun state where his anointed candidate, Prince Dapo Abiodun is now in office and in power as Governor of the state, Osoba is the indisputable Godfather, and for him, it is a kind of sweet victory having suffered terribly in the hands of his immediate successors in that state.

Whatever happens however, either on the big or small stage, Osoba is already in a safe place in his chosen profession and the larger canvass of Nigerian politics. And whatever story you may have heard about him – apocryphal, factual or alternative, Chief Olusegun Osoba has now written his own biography telling his own story in his own words. The book titled Battlelines: Adventures in Journalism and Politics (341 pp) was publicly presented recently to mark the celebration of his 80th birthday anniversary. Osoba’s Battlelines is a must read for every student of journalism, history and politics, and the general reader who is interested in autobiography and the making of modern Nigeria. Osoba offers a ring-side and a direct participant view of some of the key developments in Nigerian journalism and politics in the last five decades. He tells the story of his own life in a manner in which only he can. Any other author would have done a little disservice to the subject. This is a book that needed to be written by Osoba himself as part of his legacy. It is dedicated to Apostle Joseph Ayo Babalola, his maternal uncle who taught him “inner spiritualism” and Alhaji Ismail Dr. Ismail Babatunde Jose who ensured he was “well trained as a journalist and media manager.” He says “the book is a tribute to doggedness”. It shows. It is a well-told story, in a classic, reportorial, well-illustrated style.

It is most appropriate that Chief Osoba begins the book with what he loves most and what distinguishes him professionally when he says: “Reporting is my life. For me to be called a reporter is the greatest accolade. Reporting is the soul of journalism. To report is to be the eyes and ears, the nose and voice of a news organization. It is to bear witness…” In the over 300 pages that follow, Osoba reports himself. He bears witness on his own life, and not just himself but also many of the persons whose paths have crossed his in the course of the adventures and the many battles of his life. He admits that he has led “a good life”, and that journalism has been kind to him, but when you consider all the threats to his life, the animosity and the betrayals that he has suffered and endured, you may also be tempted to conclude that this book is the story of a man of divine favour, or what he himself calls “God’s abiding grace.”

Chief Osoba makes a strong case for the writing of biographies, and I think he is absolutely right. The book is in four parts and an intermission in a total of 19 chapters and an epilogue and an addendum. It starts on a dramatic note: “Close encounters with death” – a gripping account of the many cat lives of the author, the risky nature of public service and exposure in Nigeria’s murderous political and social space. Beyond journalism and politics, the book further offers us a window into the heart and character of the author. He is proud of his upbringing, he pays tribute to everyone who has helped him through life and the adventures of his becoming, including the schools that he attended, the teachers who moulded him, and the cities that shaped his journey, particularly Osogbo and Lagos to which an entire chapter is devoted. Young journalists should read this book. I recommend to them in particular Chapters 4 to 6.

The practice of journalism in Nigeria has changed a lot since the days of Osoba and his generation, but it is a remarkable tribute to Osoba’s staying power and relevance that as he turns 80, younger journalists whose mothers were not yet born when he was already riding a Vespa scooter around the city of Lagos are today, writing undergraduate and graduate thesis about his experience and achievements. In defining the adventures and the many battles of his life, Osoba tells his own side of the story, but he also settles scores. He is generous with tributes and acknowledgements to every one who helped him in the course of his adventures but he does not pull punches in dismissing those who may have wronged him, the only exception in that regard being Prince Tony Momoh. He does not spare Chief Areoye Oyebola whom he succeeded as Editor of the Daily Times, Wale Oshun who in his book Open Grave: NADECO and the Struggle for Democracy allegedly “injures” Osoba’s reputation, former Finance Minister Dr. Onaolapo Soleye and Afenifere Chieftain Chief Ayo Adebanjo who is the subject of an attached addendum.

The book tells the story of Osoba’s gradual transformation from reporter to politician, the only one among the “The Three Musketeers” who made that transformation, their relationship with Chief Obafemi Awolowo, his own relationship with Chief MKO Abiola, from war to peace, from adversarial encounters to collaboration in the pursuit of progressive ideas and the defence of democracy (see Chapters 12 – 15). The tone of Osoba’s narrative is generally even-tempered and carefully measured, but he gets slightly emotional and the tempo rises when he writes about those who in his own estimation wronged him. Part Three of the book: Chapters 16 – 19 is devoted to his second coming as the Governor of Ogun State, 1999 – 2003 and the politics of that season, President Olusegun Obasanjo and all. The book ends in Chapter 19, with the story of the emergence of the All Progressives Congress, Nigeria’s current ruling party, and there is an epilogue and an addendum in which he writes a rejoinder to Chief Ayo Adebanjo’s comments on him in an autobiography titled Telling It As It Is.

Osoba’s story doesn’t quite end. You are likely to read the last paragraph feeling that there is still a lot more from where this has been offered. His writing should inspire others to tell their own side of the story. At 80, Chief Olusegun Osoba tells a story that says a lot about him and others and Nigeria. There are many useful lessons to be learnt from his life and example. This is a story that needed to be written and here it is in bold face, well-written, well-delivered.