FAME’s Untold Stories: Chiselling A Partnership

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By FEMI AKINTUNDE-JOHNSON :fajalive1@gmail.com 08182223348 - (SMS Only)

femi Akintunde-Johnson

As I was saying…

“Few weeks later, Mayor, Kunle and I assembled again at Ijeshatedo to review the proposal. We skinned it, revised it, and reaffirmed our united optimism that though we didn’t know where the money to kickstart the dream would come from, we were ready to rule the world of the Nigerian media. That was early in 1990.

Mayor was initially upbeat that it would not be difficult to convince some of his Silver-spoon friends, and their patriarchs, who dotted his highly popular society party pages. We truly believed he could make it happen…while we handled the hard, painstaking stuff – it seemed quite fair, and workable.

Flamboyant and innately meticulous in nurturing a ‘loud-for-a-purpose’ mystique, we naturally believed that Mayor, being the oldest and most socially exposed amongst us, would most likely be the one to bring the money bags we needed to drive our dream. Thus, it was perfectly understandable that he considered himself as the leader of the group. Of course, he was a year (and five months) older than I was, and I was almost three years older than the ‘baby’ of the team; but no one was interested in dragging ‘headship’, and none of us was imposing, nor throwing his weight around… we just wanted to do a damn good paper.

Most of 1990 was an elaborate plan to get in the same grooves with my friends who had solid magazine production experience. It became a daily challenge for me to learn many aspects of publishing, not just newspapering. Punch was an excellent workshop for ambitious journalists who wanted to learn the ropes, and put in the hard hours. I traversed all the departments in the Punch manned by great men and women whose loyalty and pragmatism to make the newspaper not only survive the austere and ravaging 90s, but to soar and succeed.

The salary was not much, but the passion to share and work was extraordinary. I started with something like N450 per month about three months after I was asked if I could start work without pay (but only paid weekly allowances for transportation). It was no problem for me. I just wanted to work, and work, and excel. To what purpose? I had no inkling, beyond expressing my ambition to get to wherever the top was in my career. Two months after starting, and with my frenetic zeal to take up any assignments five times a week, and spend the weekend working on proofreading tasks and helping with the graphics, the library spadework, and the cartoonists, the company decided I was earning more than I should if they had kept me as an ordinary staff. They were forced to fast track the regularisation of my employment late in 1988.

About a year later, I received what seemed like a grudging appreciation and confirmation of my status as a staff writer, and a salary increase. The letter dated December 22, 1989, stated as follows: “Management has followed your performance as a staff writer on the entertainment beat with interest. I am happy to say it has been judged quite satisfactory and acceptable. To this end a decision has been made to encourage you. As a staff writer on this beat your new salary will be ₦6,660 per annum (Salary Scale PN Grade VI Step 1). This is a clear testimony that The Punch is ever willing to reward hard work and excellence. It is my belief that you will continue to justify the confidence the company has in you. Congratulations.” In my estimation, that should round off as ₦555 per month – a hefty ₦100 jump on my old salary. I was excited!

Being aggressively gluttonous in learning all there was needed to learn, and blessed with an insatiable capacity to work and hold firm, it was easy for the line editors to ask for my input in stray assignments, choice interviews, even with stints on the editorial board. Then Ibrahim Babangida struck, and shattered everything. Typically. After the Gideon Orkar coup of April, 1990 that almost yanked IBB off his perch, the military president became incensed against civil rights and press freedom. He was stunned by the near success of that coup, and was violently resentful of any opposition. Punch was adamant in its editorial independence, and unyielding in its reportorial even-handedness. That was a dangerous combination to a fat-cat, unprincipled dictatorship. The newspapers were shut down on April 29, 1990.

That was my first experience with joblessness. Without easy access to communication tools, which is prevalent today, the management of the Punch did a shoddy job of harnessing and mobilising the staff during the forced ‘layoff’. We became headless chickens without an understanding of why we were being punished, and the company, under the yeoman leadership of the founder’s nephew, Chief Ajibola Ogunsola, was barely meeting its contractual and managerial obligations. Newspapering business was gasping for life, as a business, even without the overarching threat of jackboot intimidation and official harassment.

Another painful aspect was the company’s plans which were aborted by the wicked dikta of the military government when they shut the Punch premises. In discussions with the dapper and hardworking then editor of the Punch, Mr. Demola Osinubi (now the longest-serving Group Managing Director), I was being groomed to be part of a team, or to spearhead the origination and potential production of what would have been the first weekend newspaper, essentially devoted to entertainment and other soft news stories. By the way, Weekend Concord beat us to it, hands down, when it launched sometime in March, 1989. Well, all that ‘second-hand’ dream and tinkering vanished when the soldiers paid us a ‘permanent’ visit.

By the time we returned from the ‘lockout’, a month afterwards, the situation had changed – my head, as they say in football business, had been turned. My ambition had splintered from the pre-lock-down Punch era. I was merely waiting for the newspaper to return, so I could effect a responsible and effective disengagement process with my colleagues, friends, bosses and my teeming readers.

What I can take from this, before unfolding what transpired between April and June of 1990 is to underscore the need for anyone desirous of success in any field to dispassionately review your life-changing decisions with your happiness and personal targets as the keynotes in arriving at your destination. It is admirable to be loyal, and be reliable. It is more important to be happy and hopeful in the position or choice you have decided to take, or not to take. Do not allow yourself to be guided by the expectations of others on what is the best option for your life – be clear headed and certain that your actions are honest, progressive, and of great satisfaction to you. When others benefit from what works for you, give thanks. If that does not happen, don’t sweat on regrets; just pray, and hope for a better scenario. Life is too short to be spent counting regrets and moments of indecision.”

(Third and final strip of excerpts from chapter 1 of my latest memoir, ‘FAME: Untold Stories of its Rise & Fall’ – November, 2021 – Amazon/Kindle/Lulu – 354 pages).