Even his contemporaries regard Jahman Anikulapo as one of the best in a dying breed of journalists in Nigeria. A seasoned and very principled professional, especially in a climate where poor remuneration is an alibi to engage in unethical practices, Jahman is a beacon of light. When he clocked 50 in January – which coincided with his retirement as Editor of the Guardian On Sunday – many people saw it as a veritable opportunity to celebrate him. Actor, Activist, Arts Aficionado, Cultural Advocate and Journalist per excellence, Jahman is indeed a rare breed in a society grappling with many issues. In this exclusive interview with Sam Umukoro in Lagos, Nigeria; Jahman, for the first time, opens up like never before. He is not just an interviewer’s delight, but surely a reader’s delight as well. Enjoy!
Sam Umukoro Interview: When you clocked 50, it almost seemed as if everyone was falling over themselves to celebrate you with different events. Being publicity shy and avoiding any kind of unnecessary celebration that does not promote the arts, how did you feel?
Jahman Anikulapo: It was really very humbling that you clock 50 and everybody seemed to be interested in celebrating you one way or the other. I have always avoided having any sort of celebration, but when it came, I had actually planned something else for my 50th birthday and one of them was that I would have left the Guardian Newspapers by then.
Also, I thought about escaping somewhere to an island. I also planned organising an arts event, where I was going to put all my books, music and experiences, then invite a few friends for drinks and everybody disappears into their works.
But, like they say in table tennis, I was short served, because we started the celebration like two weeks before my actual birthday, so there was no way I could have run away. It was very humbling, for everything that people claimed I had done for anybody, I think I was born to do them.
I don’t see it as taking any extra effort to work with and mentor people, always organize and put them in some kind of framework that helps our collective humanity. It was very special for people to come out during that time for my 50th birthday. But as they say the voice of the people is the voice of God… I could just say that I felt really humbled, honoured, favored and I think there was the mighty hand of God in everything that happened.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You are also a very good actor and have been involved in stage productions. How then did you become a journalist?
Jahman Anikulapo: I studied theatre arts and excelled as an actor, but then I also did dramatic theory and literary criticisms. I featured in three television drama, as well as in Tade Ogidan’s series, one of which became the film, Hostages. I could have taken acting as a career but during the Ajo festival, where we performed all these plays and kept struggling, sleeping in mosquito infested areas just to produce these plays, people didn’t even believe in what we were doing at that time and nobody was really writing about what we were doing.
People like Toyin Akinosho, who later also became a journalist, was my contemporary, as we were both actors in the Ajo series of plays. So we thought we should also be writing about ourselves. We wrote and pasted on the walls or sent to newspaper houses and sometimes it got published. That was where journalism came in.
Before then, I used to write for the dramatic society and debating society in my secondary school. When I got to the university, I had the option of dramatic theory and literary criticisms and went for it. I was also fortunate to meet Dapo Adelugba, who is the best professor of dramatic theory and literary criticism. He urged us to write, and review a play or movie everyday. Over time, my writing was shaped by all these experiences, I think that’s why I ended up in journalism..
By the time I graduated, Ben Tomoloju, whom I had a very close relationship with and who used to work with the PUNCH, had moved to the Guardian. Ben was the very first person to start up an arts desk. He also trained and recruited people to report the arts, not because it was simply a job, but also for the love of it. And at that time, I was being paid to write for radio, in a production called ‘Literature and Society’. When I moved to the Guardian, he told me to harness my talents on the arts desk, and it was the only arts desk at the time, anyway. That was how I went into arts journalism in the Guardian.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Some journalists who have risen to the zenith of their profession usually make the transition to public relations. Why didn’t you?
Jahman Anikulapo: My entry into journalism was more like a spiritual move for me. I also thought that the artists were under reported and under-appreciated. One of the things I decided to do was find a way we, as journalists, could properly position the artists as people who were making major contributions to the society, just as well as the politicians, parliamentarians, bankers and so on. So I thought that, just as I learned from my masters, my intervention will probably help to position the artists. It’s a continuous struggle, I’m not sure we have realized their worth yet, but I know that someday this society will rise up and begin to understand and appreciate them. They are like visionaries and leaders of thought in the society.
I think one of the basic problems of Nigeria is that we are spiritually undernourished. I don’t mean spiritualism in terms of religion, but in terms of what nurtures our beings, what can drag people out of depression and lift them up to some levels of happiness and elevate humanity. This society cannot grow until they begin to accord creativity and artists their due.
Sam Umukoro Interview: From a renowned arts editor, you became the Sunday editor of one of the most powerful newspapers in Nigeria. Would you say you also made money as an editor; did you get these much talked about ‘brown envelopes’?
Jahman Anikulapo: I will say that I am rich in terms of ideas and probably the sum total of what came out to be as a result of my determination. But if we talk in monetary terms, I’d say I’m lucky and maybe also because I come from a relatively stable background and didn’t really have to struggle for money. However, my own personal philosophy was not to be too attached to wealth. I once rejected a house my father gave me when I graduated from the university.
As for brown envelopes, there were temptations. I could see it happening around me, but I tried to insulate myself. I spent 10 years as an editor and made it a policy that I was not going to meet any serving political officer, but at the end of every year, they would bring gifts and all those kinds of things. Sometimes there was no way you could even reject them; and before you know it, other people working with you have appropriated it, even though it came in your name… I told myself that I just wanted to be a reporter and build a career, but I was being idealistic. Then if I didn’t leave that post, the Guardian will not have another arts editor. So I had to leave and became the Sunday Editor. Being an editor exposes to you to a lot, and you had to meet with politicians.
All the same, I think I was systematically lucky that I just kept myself glued to my desk and was busy with so many other things. I was also producing arts events, organising for CORA, my own organisation C.A.C, I had so many distractions. So when some people say every Sunday they meet in one former governor’s office, I never had to go there. I was always at the beer parlour where artistes will be performing, that was a positive distraction because I didn’t have any reason to be so connected to any politician.
You won’t believe that I never toured any state in Nigeria since I became an editor, until recently. It’s only now that I am out of the newsroom I am beginning to discover these places. I have gathered wealth in terms of the relationship I have built. People, including artistes, come to me and claim that I have touched them in some way, through my writings or works.
I have good friends who are not necessarily politicians, but whenever I tell them about a problem, they will help me solve it. Maybe if I had some stack of money stored up somewhere in the bank, I will probably misbehave, not be sitting here talking to you, marry wives, build houses and start running after tenants. Today, I don’t have to bother about that; rather I will run after people who took my books (laughing).
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