Lanre Arogundade celebrates Nsikak Essien, a veteran journalist, at age 70

It was a near tussle. Tunji Bello, National Concord’s Political Editor and strong insider in Publisher M.K.O Abiola’s presidential campaign had wanted me to be part of the mobilization for MKO across the country. As a fellow students’ union activist during our campus activism days and a good friend he had not hesitated to nominate me to be part of the pre-campaign mobilisation across the country telling the caucus that I would be a useful asset in the area of youths, having been NANS president. On the basis of his recommendation, I was to lead a team to the North West part of the country.

I told my Editor, Nsikak Essien and his mien suggested disapproval. Apparently, he didn’t want some of his key line editors (I was Features Editor) to have divided attention between politics and journalism. With the trip to the North West looming, he cleverly offered me an assignment to travel to Port Harcourt for an investigative report on a brewing crisis over the appointment of an Acting Chief Judge for Rivers State under Governor Ada George. He asked me to let Tunji know.

Invariably the decision was mine and I opted for the Port Harcourt trip. Editor Nsikak was excited. “You know Amakiri now. The journalist that they shaved his head, he would be your contact”. Amakiri was at the airport to welcome me and I was highly excited to meet the journalist whose name we had severally cited as evidence of military brutality during campus agitations. Lateef Jakande’s contribution to journalism as documented by Lade Bonuola, included mobilising Gani Fawehinmi and Olu Onagoruwa to take up the case of Amakiri, then the Rivers Correspondent of The Observer, after Military Governor Diete-Spiff ordered his head shaved with a broken bottle for writing a critical story about him on his birthday!

Amakiri shrugged off my excitement with a smile, provided contacts and loomed in the shadows as I conducted interviews. One early morning he took me to observe developments around the government house and my ears were assaulted by strange shrieks. They were the voices of civil servants who regularly held morning devotions since Ada Gorge was a reverend. “That is the joke and nonsense that happen here on work days”, he lamented. It was another evidence for me that so-called Nigerian leaders know that religion remains the opium of the masses, which they regularly serve while they engage in abuse of office through ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’ or through ‘Mohammed our Lord’ as Fela sang.

I returned from Port Harcourt boasting of good stories and was glad Nsikak made the journey possible. But his stance only reflected an inner journalistic belief that though the political interests and influence of publishers cannot be wished away, news media and journalism can earn credibility if they stick to professionalism.

As I wrote before, National Concord under Nsikak Essien did not become a rabid megaphone of MKO or his political party – the Social Democratic Party (SDP). For every MKO or SDP story on the front page, he insisted that there must be a story on or about the opposition National Republican Convention (NRC). The front page of National Concord under him was actually a study in diversity and journalism of social relevance as the four or five stories would usually include politics or governance, science, business, foreign news and sports. There were human angle reports too to which I contributed by way of news features – a kind of storified news analysis that made the front pages livelier.

He embraced the idea of twice daily editorial conference. At the morning session, the news editor would hint about the lead story while the line editors reported on what they had from their desks. Never the one to hold back his feelings, the meeting would end abruptly in quarrel if he felt there were no good stories and the quarrel might continue during the evening session if he still felt unsatisfied. On such occasions he would say: “my friend, we are here to work, we are here for serious business”. But whenever the stories flowed satisfactorily, there would be gist and laughter although such occasions were not many. The editorial conferences were truly serious business. We would discuss and agree on the headlines. Meanwhile, in between quarrels and banters, he would talk about the qualities that would make one a better person and leader especially planning your day or schedule ahead, as he always did, with his pens (what a collection he used to parade) and diary serving as permanent companions. Actually, I rank Nsikak as high as T.A. Arogundade (my father), Gani Fawehinmi, Beko Kuti, Owei Lakemfa, Ayo Arogundade (my brother), etc., in terms of being highly organised. I remain an aspirer.

Niskak worked hardest and drove others to work harder. “Hard work does not kill otherwise my boss (referring to MKO) would have died”, he once said. He extended that philosophy to the business arena by encouraging reporters and line editors to generate adverts so that the newspaper can survive while the concerned journalists earn extra income through ten to twenty percent discounts.

Nsikak’s focus however was good journalism and he encouraged it. I recall how he exclaimed when I first published freelancer Louis Odion’s article on the Features page: “He’s such a damn good writer”. Louis of course became a staff and star at National Concord. That focus also reflected in the house style of National Concord, which shunned verboseness and required that a sentence must not be more than 32 words. News came out in short free flowing paragraphs.

The university of journalism that National Concord under him constituted was shut down by Abacha’s bloody regime in 1994 thus terminating an exciting journey in journalism for me. But I’m glad that Nsikak has continued to feature in the University of Media Development of which the International Press Centre (IPC), has been a faculty for about two decades by serving as impactful resource person at few of our training programmes.

I join in celebrating a great journalist and Nigerian.

Arogundade is Director, International Press Centre, Lagos