Buhari, The Guardian Newspapers and The Green Horn reporter
By Femi Kusa
Few things surprise me as the greetings and tribute I received from President Muhammadu Buhari on 23 August 2020, my 70th birthday. For about 15 years, I had been out of choleric media circulation, except for my Thursday Alternative Medicine column in THE NATION newspaper. Since he became President Buhari’s Chief Media Adviser in 2015, I have not met or spoken with Mr. Femi Adesina. It must have been long, long before then that we had any contact. Ditto Mallam Garba Shehu, the President’s Chief Press Secretary. We have been professionally distant since our days in the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) of the 1980’s when I was Secretary- General and he was a member of the national executive.
As for the President, I tangentially met him once… at a cocktail of the government of Lagos State when Commodore Gbolahan Mudashiru was Military Governor. It must have been just after it or before that I was detained by his government for one day, accused of infringing Decree No 4 of 1994. Under that abnoxious Military Law, which prohibited publication of information which was true but embarrassed public officials, two of my colleagues at THE GUARDIAN newspaper, TUNDE THOMPSON and NDUKA IRABOR, were detained for a longer period, prosecuted and jailed for one year. They were released pre-term and granted State pardon by General Ibrahim Babangida who succeeded (Gen) Buhari in a military coup.
I tipped Buhari to win the last two Presidential elections. My friends tease me about these events whenever anything appears to be dangerously going wrong in Nigeria and I do not see the need for the President’s resignation. The President has been humble enough to agree that the buck stops at his desk. We have to always look into the larger picture to prevent ourselves from becoming Shakespare’s Merchant of Venice. Only the future can sit in judgment over today, I always say. In that future picture frame we may appreciate President Buhari as a speed breaker. Nigeria was rolling downhill before he came. Goodness knows where it would have rolled into and how safe that would have been for us all if he hadn’t come. It takes a lot of energy to stop a high velocity downhill motion and perhaps even double or treble that to roll the hustling mass uphill to the plains which are the dream of us all.
With containment of that slide, the seeds of that harvest on the plains are being sown now. Allied to this thinking is one of the lessons I have picked up in my experiences over the years. Do not EXPECT FROM TODAY ONLY WHAT TOMORROW CAN BRING. We all said the years before Buhari were soaked in corruption. We say today that corruption is dripping everywhere in the Buhari years. But isn’t it interesting that while corruption was impregnable in yester years, resident in the protection of government castles or fortresses, the castles and fortresses of today are exposing corruption residing within them? Another plus I often give Buhari’s government is that two Christian Presidents before him failed to wage a war on Islamic jingoism and insurgency, President Bugari, a Muslim, is waging a full- scale war against them. The head of a government should not be the one to always carry the cane if we all stand at our duty posts as watch-dogs of society.
I belong, for example, to 150 or so member GOLDEN CROWN CO- OPERATIVE, a farmers’ group which, along with almost 100 other co-operatives, heeded governments call in the ANCHOR BORROWER’S PROJECT to grow maize in Ogun State. Almost every member has about N200,000 stuck up or lost in the system for about five years now. The matching grants promised and trumpeted by the Central Bank of Nigeria are a mirage. Where it was released to an insignificant number of farmers, it came too late and dare-devil farmers who risked off season farming burnt their fingers. Where were the media to report this and set an agenda for investigative reporting? Who would go to the farms next time? While would maize not be expensive? Why would the nation not go hungry? Why would scarce foreign exchange not be spent on more food imports to avert famine? The farmers themselves are as guilty as anyone else. What did they do to bring their plight to the public agenda?
Pathological critics of the President blamed him for banning importation of nutrient deficient and beriberi-causing rice in order to stimulate production of more nutritious home grown rice and create jobs, while saving foreign exchange. None of them has turned around to praise a vision which saved the nation from hunger during COVID-19 worldwide lock down. With no shipments anywhere in that season, how would Nigeria have coped with the gap in rice supplies if local rice producers had not been busy on the farms before then? We always cry wolf about what is and dont think about “what it would have been.”
I still dream for Nigeria. Permit, please, that I mention some old dreams. In the series of about 13 articles I wrote during the Presidential election campaign titled JONATHAN vs BUHARI, THE RICH vs THE POOR, I restated suggestions for job creation and food revolution, which in the days of Military President, Ibrahim Babangida, I often made during media briefings of Augustus Aikhomu his deputy. They were predicated on Babangida’s IMF agenda to stop petroleum price subsidy. I thought then, as I still do, that the public would not mind if the subsidy went and was wisely invested. It may be shared equally among the six geopolitical zones and invested in projects with multiplier effect that would later be sold on the stock market for the proceeds to be re- invested.
About 10 square kilometers of forest land may be acquired in every zone and turned into farm towns with all social facilities. Each farm town may specialise in one type of agricultural product… tubers (yam, potato, cocoyam, cassava, etc), maize, beans, plantain, banana, rabbit, chicken, duck, goat, ram etc. Individual and household farmers with private holdings are to be encouraged to settle there and run their operations. They would be taxed for the land. The land may be leased from owners’ communities. Co-operatives would bring farm produce to town. I was involved in a similar venture at Oke-Aro, a border area between Lagos and Ogun States when Gen. Sanni Abacha’s Military regime proscribed THE GUARDIAN newspaper for one year. We were at that time about 3,000 farmers in that small settlement. I had no more than a standard plot of land. Yet, in one year, I raised about 300 pigs and piglets. At today’s price of about N80,000 per adult pig, that is more than N12 million on the table. Rabbits can fetch more from what I discovered while working with a gentleman on an NGO farm, which Brigadier Samuel Ogbemudia (rtd) was Chairman and former President Shehu Shagari life patron.
The dream continues… The town farms may be sold off the year after and their proceeds are added to the subsidy account for that year. This would produce two sets of capital for the second year. In the South-West, for example, this could be ploughed into the LAGOS- BADAGRY rail project or the TAR SAND/ BITUMEN PROJECT in Ekiti State. This, too, could be sold off on the stock market to raise more funds for economic interventions in that region. Similar interventions would be carried out in other zones. Within four years, each zone should have enjoyed no fewer than six huge federal projects. Everyone would be busy investing that there would be no justifiable reason for banditry, kidnapping or insurgency. These ideas were thrown up during the campaigns to provide Presidential campaigners for Buhari, ammunition for a work plan, given his credentials from the Presidential Task Force of Gen Sanni Abacha’s regime. But democracy is not like Military government.
No President puts himself in power by his own might alone. On the day an elephant dies, that is when an election is won, all sorts of long knives are unsheathed by all manner of hunters to take all sorts of cuts home. We sow seeds today. The harvest may come in tomorrow. One last point before I give Mr. President the last salute: TUNDE THOMPSON knew nothing about the Gen. Hannania story which landed THE GUARDIAN into Decree No 4 trouble. He was the Diplomatic Correspondent, but not the purveyor of that copy. I was Assistant Editor of THE GUARDIAN then. Nduka Irabor was being assessed for competence in Newsroom management. He turned out to be one of Nigeria’s most terrific News Editors. Nena Uche was a greenhorn reporter. Her aunt, I believe, was the wife of the No 4 man in government, Ebitu Ukiwe, over dinner the previous day, narrated to his wife how his day went in the office. Nena had dinner with them next day in the office, Nena had no story to present her news editor. That was a Newsroom sin in those days. Nduka picked her brain. The story dropped.
The General was dropped as High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. The Army was said to be behind him. I cannot state here why he may have been dropped. It was said the story could ruffle some official feathers. Gen. Tunde Idiagbon, the No 2 man, was enraged. Who among the four top men, who took the decision could have leaked it. Certainly, he and Buhari did not. And that left two others under suspicion and, perhaps, before the guillotine or firing squad! Nena was a woman. Ukiwe was Igbo. Dealing with them could set up another ethnic crisis.
Journalism demands that when a reporter’s source of information is going to be endangered, the reporter should be ready to place his or her life on the line. That was what Tunde Thompson, Nduka Irabor and I did. I do not know how I got off the hook till this day. I understand Nena Uche is no more in the flesh. Idiagbon, too, is gone. The wounds have long healed. We all joke about it now. I hope that, someday, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor will be accorded more professional recognition than has been their gain today.
This is THE FLAGSHIP OF THE NIGERIAN PRESS. The title came about when THE GUARDIAN newspaper came out of the blue in 1983 to immediately become the most sought after newspaper. Two of the staff of those days, Aaron Ukodie and Seun Ogunseitan are close to launching a 500 page book on life in THE GUARDIAN’S newsroom of those days. Simultaneously, Fred Okhwakwa is heading a team which has rallied all old staff to make donations to a Fund from which anyone who helped to build that great newspaper and, meanwhile, has some discomfiture could be given the OIL OF GILEAD. Tears rolled down my checks when Fred and Yemi Gbenga Ashafa visited me at home sometime in July to announce that I was a beneficiary of the FUND. Yemi is the baby of the House! This refers to the last set of cub journalists I trained at THE COMET newspaper before I retired about 1996. She never worked at The Gaurdian. She worked at the Health Desk of The Comet with Adetutu Folashade Koyi, an ex- Guardian. Every year since I was 65 years old, Tutu would send Yemi to me to sniff out what I would need as an “old man”. I always declined the gifts, including a water bed. They were younger and still struggling, why should I add to their bills, I wondered. Gbenga Omotosho, ex- Guardian and at that time Editor of THE NATION newspaper was in league with them. Then at 70, their ranks enlarged to include the full house of THE GUARDIAN FLAGSHIP. This time, I couldn’t resist them. Every-one said I touched his or her life. Among them are University Professors, Senators, top media executives, former and current Commissioners and upward swinging business persons.
They put aside my cherished sitting room furniture of 35 years and sent it to another room in the company of the Chinese dining table of the same age. They went up to the bedroom as well to provide a brand new bed! They also provided bulk money for medicines in respect of my vision! It was during an enlarged meeting with seven of them on another day that I learned the FLAGSHIP FUND had been registered and had intervened substantially in the affairs of two other gentlemen. They reminded me of the SEEDS and the HARVEST. Whatever we do today is a seed we sow. In our days, the Newsroom purchased 42 plots of land for staff who had worked for five years, and provided money also for Certificates of Occupancy. Our budget, which Mr Alex Ibru, the Publisher, permitted, also bought six hectares for THE GUARDIAN from Ogun Property and Investment Company (OPIC), on the rear the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. Before my departure from the Flagship, THE GUARDIAN CARES was proposed. It was meant to be a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) through which the newspaper would give something back to the society. A percentage of its profit was to go into it. It was to have a Fund Manager who would solicit subscriptions.
For a long time, I have believed that IDEAS are like SEEDS. Once you think up an idea and it leaves you, you cannot tell where on the globe, far away or so near, that it would sprout, flower and fruit. This FLAGSHIP FUND is another testimonial that the carefully selected staff of the Guardian of those days where, indeed, a rare breed of journalists. For nowhere in the industry have we seen such a move by a newspaper company or the staff. The Pivots deserve commendation by the Nigerian Union of Journalists ( NUJ), The Nigerian Guild of Editors( NGE) and The Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria ( NPAN). Every-day I walk through the sitting-room, sit at the table or lie in bed, it is not impossible for me to not remember my days in the Guardian’s Newsroom. Thank you all, my friends.
The Cub Reporter
It is a pity I am running short of space. This section is meant to express my gratitude to Mr. Taiwo Obe and Mr. Lanre Idowu, media trainers, and Flagship members who made me spend my birthday in a zoom training discussion with greenhorn journalists. But for want space here, I would have liked to refer to suggestions on how the green horns can make themselves prepared for a successful, respectable and financially rewarding work life in journalism. We cannot separate this from what newspaper management can do to improve media income and pay journalists better.
Education beyond University handout education is crucial. Alhaji Babatunde Jose, Chairman and Managing Director of The DAILY TIMES of old, under whom my generation trained as the last set of Cub Reporters he moulded, told us once at the TIMES NEWSPAPERS TRAINING CENTER: ” The day a Journalist stops reading is the day he dies. Reading and building a library of health books and journals enabled me make a mid-career shift from Mass Communications to Alternative Medicine. I have trained Cub Reporters who have gone ahead to become Lawyers, Professors, Senators and Representatives, among other professions. Moving into the field of Alternative Medicine has made me a multi- faceted editor with interest and ideas about other professions. Thus, I could easily start different sections in THE GUARDIAN newspaper, beginning with HOUSING and ENVIRONMENT, AGRICULTURE, JOBS, NATURAL HEALTH etc. I managed to achieve all these with the right caliber of staff. Among many other professionals in other sections, I remember Architect Paul Okunlola and his successful handling of the HOUSING (PROPERTY SECTION).
I designed a kitchen experiment for Declan Okpalaeke, a brilliant Microbiology graduate from Lagos State University. Europe had just come up with VIAGRA for male sexual virility. I told Declan our elders had a parasitic root which regenerated aging bodies. The kitchen experiment involved about 20 male volunteers who took water extract of the root and recorded vast sperm count increases. I presented the laboratory results to the 70th yearly conference of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria held at the Airport Hotel in Lagos. The presentation was greeted with lukewarm attitude. I took it to HEALTH CRAFT in England whose Marketing Manager at that time was a female English Medical Doctor, with whom I spoke. The idea was for Health crafts and the Guardian to set up a company in Nigeria which would produce and export a Pharmaceutical grade of the product and share profit. For The Guardian, the profit from the venture would trickle down to the staff in respect of their intellectual property.
Health Craft was not forthcoming. So, I encouraged Declan to enter it in an African Journalist of the year Award, which won FIRST PRIZE and a purse of 1.5 Million Pounds sterling( or was it naira?). Declan could have gone on to write a book on this herb. Over at THE COMET newspaper, when the seeds of Natural Medicine at The Guardian were bearing fruit in Nigeria, I tried to make that newspaper become the warehouse for all foreign herbs coming to this country. It was to use its niche energy in this area to do this. The Daily Times under Alhaji Babatunde Jose did a similar thing with TIMES LEISURE SERVICE under Mr. Tunde Savage as Manager. This activity has its roots in the conception of THE NEW USES OF NEWS. Do not forget that one of the functions of the Press is to facilitate economic development, and that whoever works at the altar eats at the altar. Multi- faceted reporters connect their newspapers to society and the economy. Forward looking newspapers recognise talented reporters and, with them, dig gold in the economy. The financial security of one is the security of the other. Once again, apologies for lack of space. Thank you Mr. President. Thank you, The Flagship of the Nigerian Press. Thank you, Taiwo Obe ( T.O.) and Lanre Idowu.