Reminiscences: Hazards of Our Job – 2

Femi Akintunde-Johnson

“One incident I would not easily forget about Ken-Caleb Olumese’s Niteshift and its rainbow coalition of patrons was my encounter with perennial ‘World Cruiserweight’ contender, Bash Ali. As it was usual with Niteshift, the quality and diversity of patrons made it a prime catchment area for interesting tidbits about the wealthy, the famous and the shadowy pretenders. In one of my write-ups, I had written something about Bash Ali that was very annoying to him, but hilarious and factual to me. And he had sworn to deal with that “bloody journalist” anywhere he came across him. On that fateful night, I came quietly as usual into the Niteshift, and as it was common with the protocol of the house, the DJ would make a short announcement hailing your presence. But Bash Ali was around in the Gold Card section. He sprang up when he heard my initials, and was looking for me. Since I mostly worked incognito then, he didn’t know me. Seeing him at over six feet, with bulging though greying muscles…I had no doubt that my little boxing skills picked up at Rowe Park ages ago would be greatly out-smashed and pulverised by the enraged ‘professional’. 

  Someone must have told him I had just stepped downstairs, and he charged down, threatening and shouting as he sped down. A number of good Samaritans, God bless their unknown souls, stepped in between us as the hulk of a man came within a foot of my lanky frame. He calmed down somewhat, and threatened to watch for my next edition so as to know his next action – now that he had seen my face. I was quiet, playing with a small smile by the corner of my mouth. Those close to me, who knew that was my sign to mean “we have just started”…then began to beg me to ‘let bygones be bygones’.”

  In general, producing what we called “Nigeria’s number one celebrity journal” in our late 20s, would ordinarily be some kind of catapult capable of flinging you into uncharted waters, needing you to apply wisdom or native intelligence, if you must survive.

  “Big men, under the illusion that they had you in their pockets (as your privileged friends or godfathers), would speak so unguardedly and cavalierly. We fed on their frailties and delusion, chipping gently and carefully around those incredible exposes, while we craftily devised means of screening them from any link or part in some of the “world exclusive” reports we published. 

We also sought earth-shattering interviews, especially those with the edgy spice of highflying relationships gone awry, business masterpieces shattered by greed or some other wrongdoings. One particular story which became perhaps our all-time greatest cover story was as a result of a double-part interview granted me by Remi, the estranged first wife of former head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo (retd).

The woman was wary, and distrustful of journalists. In 1991, she was in a volatile and precarious relationship with Obasanjo. She wanted to tell her story which she believed was toxic, and would be highly disconcerting to the person and stature of the retired general. She was living in a duplex inside Ikeja GRA which she claimed belonged to the couple, and from which Obasanjo had been trying to eject her. 

For a few years, she had been frustrated by antics of some of the journalists she had tried to open up to…she believed the reporters or their editors were intimidated by Obasanjo to abandon the story. By the time I was introduced to her, the prevailing circumstances were even more ominous for her to be afraid of any dealings with the media. It was around the time, late in 1991, when Obasanjo ran a strong campaign to succeed Peruvian diplomat, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, as the next Secretary General of the United Nations.

When we met, I was able to convince her to let down her robust guard, and share her reminiscences with me. The winning argument was that I held the unique privilege of being a reporter like most journalists, but also an editor and a co-publisher of the magazine, which no one else then could match. She was mollified. But we still had a back and forth, jousting like expert fencers, for about two days, before she finally accepted the interview. 

  Really, we just wanted to know more about Obasanjo from the home perspective, beyond the usual. Well, when she started, she assured me she was only going to focus on what he was as a husband, and not provide us with any salacious details. She didn’t want to ‘kill’ him…only to let him know he couldn’t get away with ‘attempted murder’! But by the end of the session – and two more sessions spanning a week – she had overrun her barriers, and provided a chest full of “shattering” info, scenarios and incidents that put Obasanjo squarely in the mud. 

  To remind you of the feel of that powerful edition, let me rehash the preamble I wrote before the main interview in 

October, 1991: “Few minutes after the interview began, somebody called the attention of Mrs. Oluremi Obasanjo to the presence of a visitor at the gate. Within seconds the greying woman in her mid-fifties had been enveloped in another battle. A true picture of her life: constant battles with forces she could not manage nor persuade. At the end of her hands were the rumpled kaftan of a tall dark man identified simply as Charlie. He confirmed that he is “Personal Assistant” to General Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigerian former head of state and front-runner for the coveted post of the United Nations’ Secretary-General. That was Wednesday, this week (October 9, 1991).”

“Just as Remi Obasanjo, who married the General on June 22, 1963 (S.E. West, London) screamed that the tall dark chap was an agent-provocateur who had been sent to inflict injury on her; so did the man quietly protest that he came in good faith. He had no weapon on him except his rumpled kaftan and a cap now resting far away from his head after being flung off during the ‘scuffle’.

  “The estranged couple have been (at) each other’s throats over the rentage of a bungalow situated on high-brow Oduduwa Crescent, GRA, Ikeja (Lagos). The General insisted in a letter to his wife that he has sold the house for ₦2 million, but the wife disagreed; she has also rented it out for an undisclosed sum. Battle storm gathered.

“But the conflict goes far beyond today’s misunderstanding. According to the middle aged woman who first met the General on a Sunday in March, 1956 at Owu, Abeokuta (Ogun State), the incident is one in her multitude of woes which have now made her believe her husband has become a threat.

  “With unhidden frustration, the mother of six children bared her hurt heart to FAME Weekly, and we (have captured) the 

General as you may never have seen before – through the eyes of his very first wife. This is her story.”

  Of course, we splashed the stories across the covers of two editions…to the consternation of friends and loved ones…and to the grief of the general’s supporters and our competitors. The first explosion, on October 12, 1981, was titled “Obasanjo’s Secret Shame Exposed: First wife tears him a-p-a-r-t – He beats me often – I sold my trinkets to pay children’s school fees – His son once told him: ‘I’m mad because you’re mad…’”.

  It completely dominated the cover with the couple’s traditional wedding picture. The follow-up on October 19 was equally the main cover story: “Obasanjo’s Expose Update: First wife cries out – I want Nigerians to save my life”… (with a fairly big picture highlighting her swollen right eye).

 Well, Obasanjo lost the chance, despite his otherwise sterling credentials. His Egyptian counterpart, Boutros Boutros-Ghali became the sixth holder of that prestigious office, from January 1, 1992 to December 31, 1996.”

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