Yemi Ogunbiyi presented his memoirs, The Road Never Forgets, to the public on Thursday, April 14 at Harbour Point, Victoria Island, Lagos.
In this interview with Kunle Ajibade, Executive Director/Editor of TheNEWS/PM NEWS and Ademola Adegbamigbe, Editor of TheNEWS magazine, Mr Ogunbiyi speaks about the making and meaning of the book, and other burning issues.
Congratulations on the successful presentation of your memoirs, The Road Never Forgets. The book is a major achievement in its substance and form.
Thank you very much.
Your granddaughter’s questions about your pedigree, the story of your life, the history of your family, partly prompted you to start writing the book. Can you speak more about those questions of self-identity in the light of the necessity for history, which you draw on a lot in this book?
Thank you very much, Kunle. Well, Feranmi’s questions were questions that I had asked myself too as a child growing up: Who am I? Where did I come from? If you noticed in the early chapters of the book, when I came to live in Ibadan, I was eleven going on twelve years old, and I didn’t speak Yoruba as a language. At best I spoke Yoruba with a terrible Hausa accent and it drew laughter from people. And that compelled me to say to myself: Yemi, who exactly are you?
Now, living in Ibadan, I was no longer Hausa that I thought I was. I was no longer Igbo. As you know, my mother was Igbo. Here I was in Ibadan, amongst my kith and kin, from my father’s side, and yet I didn’t belong there. So, I said to myself: You must define yourself. So, that search for self-identity began at that stage but continued until I then became Managing Director of The Daily Times and I was offered the title of Balogun of Ipara-Remo. And even then, I remember saying to myself at the beginning, Why Balogun? At that time, I did not have a house in Ipara, but my grandmother lived there. When I met her for the first time, my grandmother was so excited to see me. It was a moving scene that I recall in the book. She was so happy and danced with me as she recited my oriki (oriki are a genre of Yoruba oral poetry, mainly collections of epithets addressed to a subject). She then showed me my grandfather’s church, where he was buried, the house that he built in 1911. I was simply overwhelmed with emotions. And I kept saying: This is it. This is where I come from.
So, when I turned 70 and my granddaughter was asking me questions of self-identity, self-definition, she simply got me thinking that if this grandchild is asking these questions, then maybe I need to sit down someday and tell my story in full: where it all started; where we are now and, hopefully, where my grandchildren will take us to. That was what inspired the book partly.
Feranmi was an inquisitive little girl who kept on asking questions: What does it mean to be Balogun? What does Aremo mean? What’s the difference between Aremo and Balogun? Why didn’t my great-grandfather live in Ipara? Why did he go and live in Kano? So, I had to tell her the story of my life. She would sit on my lap and I would start my story: I was born in Kano, and she would say: Where is Kano? I would say, Kano is in Northern Nigeria. In doing this for her, I became not just the family biographer, but also the transmitter of knowledge, and I saw myself as a bridge between generations. Here was my grandchild asking me questions about where did it all start. And I hope that in the book those questions are answered fully. When the next generations of Ogunbiyi read the book long after I’m gone, I think they will say, we know our origins, we know our roots.
But on a much larger scale, on a national scale – and the VP, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, made that reference in his speech – that when you know stories about how we are all connected, tensions are reduced. If you know that your great-grandfather was born in Kano – which was his home for more than forty years, and implicitly has remained his home since then – then why do we create these divisions amongst ourselves? I was born in Kano, which was home for me. I didn’t want to leave the north. I believed that Kano was my home. So, in looking for a high school to go to, I considered St Paul’s in Wusasa, Zaria. I wanted to go to St John’s in Kaduna. I didn’t think of going elsewhere. It was my mother who insisted that I must go the West. And I lost a year trying to find a school. They couldn’t find me a school. The first school they could get for me was Ibadan Boys’ High School, and I’m glad I went there. All the twists and turns in my life inspired the book and I’m sure I fill out a big gap for the grandchildren and their own children.
How did you feel on that night of 14 April when Feranmi read a part of the book so movingly and confidently in public, as if she was telling the audience: Yes, now I own this history, this is my story too?
It was very moving, Kunle. Very moving. I was deeply touched. It was the last decision we took only the day before to ask her to read that part. She said, Ah, Grandpa, I cannot read this. But she read it so well. And as she read it, Sade, her grandmother, was reading my mind, when she said: Oh, my goodness! She’s reading it as if she was present at the beginning of the story. She did it so well. I felt very good. I felt fulfilled that this book, which is a real labour of love, has turned out to be what I’d hoped it would do and to see it do so before my eyes. Usually, when you write your memoirs, you think that when you are gone it will make an impact, but to see it make an impact before your very eyes was something very touching and moving. Feranmi, as you rightly said, has now taken hold of that history. Somebody told me that to see that little girl read like that, with so much conviction, brought tears to her eyes. It was quite moving for me and I loved it.
A day before the book launch, I was telling my boss here that the venue would be jammed because you are a crowd puller. What lesson did you draw out of the large turn- out?
I have been good to many, many people, even to those who have hurt me. In the book, I’m generous to those who wronged me seriously, people we mentioned at the breakfast table today who did things to me that Professor Wole Soyinka, my teacher and mentor, thought should have pissed me off. I have known malice, envy and arrogance from malign forces, whose curses have been turned into blessings. Tola Adeniyi, who took over from me at The Daily Times, gloated over my sack. He was nasty to me and my family, but, as you would see in the book, I hold no grudges against him. So, Demola, I’m very generous to people. It’s the way I was raised. And Biodun Jeyifo talks about it differently in his foreword to the book. Let me give you one instance that readily comes to mind now about the way I relate to people. I used to have a flat in FESTAC. I bought the flat when I was working at The Guardian. And the late Ibrahim Alfa, a very good friend of mine, had a brother who had accommodation problem. When I became MD of The Daily Times and moved to the company’s house in Ikoyi, I moved out of FESTAC. Alfa then said he needed the flat. I said, take it. Four-bedroom flat. He said: Okay, my brother will live there. I said: Let him live there for as long as he wants. When he is done, I’ll have my flat back. Ibrahim could not believe it. I said to him again: I don’t want to make money from rent, take it. And Alfa’s brother lived there for about four or five years. I didn’t ask for rent because I gave it to Ibrahim Alfa, who was a very good friend of mine. That’s me. That’s the kind of person I am. That’s the way I am. That’s the way I relate to people.
Another instance: My gateman, Bitrus is going to Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, very soon to study Biochemistry. I didn’t know him from Adam; he comes from Taraba State. When he told me that he has good results at his school certificate examinations, I said: What are you doing here as a gateman? I said: No, you must go to university. So, I called the Vice-Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University. Luckily, he made the cut-off point. He is getting ready now to go to school at Ife, to take a degree in Biochemistry. When he’s ready to go, I’ll get someone to replace him.
I do things like these for friends, for family, for colleagues. I think that’s a major reason for the large turn-out. I know no other word that will explain, in part, the crowd you saw yesterday. From Emeka Anyaoku, to the Vice President, through Chief Segun Osoba, down to Generla Ike Nwachukwu and all others. General Nwachukwu called us and said: When I was 50, you were there. When I was 60, you played a key role. When I was 70 you were there for me. When I was 80, you came. Yemi, I will be there. He came to church on Wednesday. He came here for lunch. He came here yesterday and stayed here for a while. It’s like that. So that will explain why the turnout was large yesterday.
Let me give you another instance. Audu Ogbeh and I have been friends since childhood. Fantastic fellow. Audu, when he was Minister, came to see me in Ife where I was teaching. He was Minister of Communications in Shagari’s cabinet. I had an old car and Audu went back to Lagos and sent me a new car the next day. It caused a stir on campus. Audu, when he got into trouble afterwards, went to prison (General Muhammadu Buhari’s prison), and then stayed with me when I was at The Daily Times for one year and a half. He never forgot it. When his mother came to thank me, it brought tears to her eyes. She said: Audu says you are his brother. How can you keep Audu in this house for a year and a half? And I said: Mama, he’s my brother. Mama brought me yams and palm oil. When Audu’s mother died, there was a big party in Otukpo where he comes from. There was a time to pay tribute to Mama and Audu said that I was the person best qualified to speak for his friends. There were other people there, from David Mark to Jonathan, and others. He said he wanted me to be the one to speak for Mama at her funeral. Audu did me that good and I tried to return some of that to others. That’s been my life with all my friends. Some of my friends think I overdo things when it comes to being generous. But that’s who I am. That’s me. Good, warm relationships keep me going very strong. They make my life better. People have been nice to me and I have tried to be nice to people also. People have loved me and I have loved them back.
Chief Emeka Anyaoku testified to that generosity of spirit yesterday. He referenced a section in the book about you being part of the campaign to make him Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.
I told the story in the book. He wanted to see IBB when IBB was in London for the Commonwealth Conference. And at the party in General Gowon’s house, on the way to the airport, after the state visit, Chief Anyaoku came to see the president. The president said: Oh, fine. Do you want to see me in Lagos? Let me get my ADC. And he turned around and couldn’t find the ADC. I was the one he saw. He then said: Look, here is Yemi. Get hold of Yemi, he’ll bring you to see me in Lagos.
So, I gave Chief Anyaoku my phone number. When he arrived in Nigeria, I took him to Dodan Barracks that day because I had access to Dodan Barracks. I didn’t need a pass to go in, in those days. I and a few others could just go in at any time, so I took him there and he saw the president who then made sure he took me on the trip where Chief Emeka Anyaoku was sworn in, in Kuala Lumpur. I was on the Federal Government delegation. IBB put me on two delegations: One, to see Jerry Rawlings and the other one for the conference in Kuala Lumpur.
When we got there, it’s a story that I have also told in the book, Malcolm Fraser was the choice of the British Prime Minister. We knew that was a big problem. Then the day before that, there was a big sex scandal story about Malcolm Fraser, that he was found in a brothel somewhere in Europe. So, we used that to campaign against Fraser; we said anybody with that kind of background couldn’t lead the Commonwealth. He didn’t get the job because, in the end, he stepped down for Chief Emeka Anyaoku. I’m glad that Chief Anyaoku remembered that. There are other stories to be told.
People like IBB have been nice to me. People don’t understand my relationship with IBB. IBB was very kind to me. I make friends easily, but he also makes friends very easily. And we met. I have told the story in the book of how we met in Kano. He was a Colonel then, while I was a PhD student at the New York University. We kept in contact. Then when I had a problem in my domestic life, he stepped in to assist me. I will never forget that. And that’s why, when I was laid off at The Daily Times, I didn’t talk to the press. I thought he was my friend. I still go to see him. I’m going to see him in the next few weeks. The road from Abuja to Niger is so dangerous now, so I’m looking for a way to be airlifted to Minna, so I can go and see him and take a copy of the book to him and thank him again. He is very fond of me. He’s very fond of my wife. He loves Sade to bits.
And I was happy that Professor Wole Soyinka said his bit yesterday, that the book is a book of love. I didn’t think of that. That didn’t occur to me when I was writing it. I didn’t think of that at all. I was just writing what I thought would be something people should read and enjoy. And my publisher, Bankole Olayebi of BookCraft, kept on telling me to tell more stories, as I kept on holding back stories. For instance, there’s a story that I held back, that I didn’t put it in the book till very late: the dinner session we had with Chief Obafemi Awolowo when Chief Bola Ige was released from prison. When he visited with Chief Awolowo, he met some Awoists there and called some them traitors. And then walked out in anger. Now, Chief Bisi Akande mentions that incident in his memoirs, but Akande wasn’t there, he reported what Chief Ige told him. So, Odia Ofeimun called me and said: You should write about this, for that story to be properly told, because only three people are alive that were there that day – yourself, Sade, your wife, and Chief Ayo Adebanjo. You should tell the story of what happened there for the record. I have told the story in the book.
That leads me to this question, part of which you’ve answered. That the book is a huge tribute to family, to friendship and to country. Could you tell us why you were so intentional – that is, if you were intentional – about writing it that way?
Yes, you’re right, Kunle, about the book being a tribute to the family. I’ve been very lucky and very, very blessed. I had loving parents. Hard-working, adventurous parents. I had many photographs with my parents, and I kept on saying to myself: How many photographs have I had with my own children? Not many. My father had a photographer. So, if they had these photographs with me and Lai, my brother, growing up, that meant a lot about what they thought of us. There’s a particular picture I can’t find. I was one. I didn’t wear shoes but I had this nice velvet agbada with a nice cap. I was looking for it, I couldn’t find it. My father and I were alone in the studio. I was one year. So, how did he take me to the studio? That meant a lot. You saw us in a photograph with him when I was six. He made the suit for us, a double-breasted suit. And you saw me with my mother. We enjoyed the benefit of very loving parents. They had their moments of disagreement – my father was a playboy –but he and my mother were very fond of us.
And Sade, my lovely wife. Professor Wole Soyinka was right when he said she kept me in check. People laughed when he said it but it’s true. He was so right about it when he said that I was so blessed to have a wife like her. There are a lot of things people can say for newspaper publications, for magazines. I was being totally honest about what I said when I was quoting the book of Proverbs yesterday that she’s a virtuous woman. I know what some of my friends go through – the domestic challenges that they face. I was/I am free of those challenges, absolutely free of them, in a way that I wake up in the morning and say to myself: Good Lord, thank you for this woman!
When I pray in the morning, I no longer ask for anything from the Almighty, I just thank Him for the things he has done for me. Every morning when I wake up, I just thank Him for my children, my family, and my wife. She is a remarkable woman. And my life would not have been the way it is now without Sade. So, I do not only dedicate the book to her, but I recall things about our relationship that I hope will also inspire and help other people. For instance, when I was doing my PhD, to type things was expensive in the U.S. She went to learn how to type so that she could type the thesis for me. And she became very fast. She would be typing and she would make mistakes and I would quarrel with her that, why did you make these mistakes? She was pregnant with Tokunbo. At 1 or 2 a.m., she would be awake typing.
Meanwhile, you couldn’t type.
I couldn’t type! But she learnt how to do it because she wanted me to get my PhD. I got my PhD in record time – three years; from NYU. As I say in the book, she made writing easy for me. The atmosphere was calm, was peaceful because she made it easy. She’s a remarkable woman and I meant what I said. She’s an amazing lady, an amazing housewife and a fantastic friend. Remember, I had another lady who had two lovely kids for me, and the reason why Tokunbo, my first son by Sade, and Ore and Anu from Wunmi are very close is because of Sade. She created the atmosphere. Nobody would have thought that Tokunbo and Anu and Ore are from two different mothers. You heard Ore saying all those nice things yesterday. Ore was living with Tokunbo in Abuja. Ore lives in Tokunbo and Damilola’s flat in London now, where she works. I’m just very lucky.
Now, I’ve also had friends who’ve been very loving, very close to me. They are like my siblings. There are many of them and I have mentioned them in the book. Growing up in Sabon Gari in Kano, there was Salihu, a likeable Muslim. On Muslim holidays we would go with him to friends and they would give us money. During Christmas and Easter holidays, he would go with us. So, we grew up like that in Kano. He was at the party yesterday. And there are friends I made in Ibadan Boys’ High School and King’s College. You heard about what Yemi Adefulu said yesterday. He just called me this morning. He was almost in tears when he said he forgot what he should have said, when he was asked to give testimony. The most important thing he should have said, according to him, was that when he was in prison, all his friends abandoned him, but I came to see him in prison twice. General Oladipo Diya permitted me. Diya was then governor of Ogun State. Diya allowed me to see him. He said some of the friends who abandoned him were at the party yesterday. He wanted to mention the story and I said: But you said all the good things. He said: No, but that in telling the jokes, I left out the most important thing. He was feeling very bad about himself and I said: Come on. You did your best. I went to see him in prison when a lot of our friends stayed away.
But that’s me. And he and I have been very close. BJ talks about this in his Foreword to my book that of all of us, when we were younger, I tended to have friends in persons who were older than I was. We got on so well. The story that is very touching in the book is the one with the principal at King’s College. I spent only two years at King’s College for my A-Levels, but Dr Akpofure, our principal, and I, a little boy, a student, became so close that I became a member of his household in subsequent years. If he needed anything, he called me. I would sometimes jokingly get between himself and Aunty Anne, his wife. And then when he passed away, I was the only one in my class, from my group, that was at his funeral. I read his funeral oration because I was asked by the president of the King’s College Old Boys’ Association to. And yet I was in the school for only two years. We became so close. Before Akpofure died, if you asked him, he would have said: Of all my students at King’s College, Yemi stands out. I pay tribute to friends who were – and are still – close to me. My relationship with Mr Akintunde Olaseinde, my principal at Ibadan Boys’ High School, was also very cordial.
The country I grew up in, in Kano, as a child, was one that I loved; one that I hope, as I say in the book, can come back without the rancour and the bitterness that we now encounter. That we could live in Kano and did not feel that we did not belong there. It’s gone, sadly. So, Kunle, it is a tribute to the country that I knew. A country that we used to have. I want us to remain together as one country. And I’m hoping that people in my generation or even after, can write their memoirs also and tell their own stories that will compel us to rethink our strategies. I grew up in an environment where I was welcome as a member of that community. Hausa became natural because my mother was Igbo. But their environment was rancour-free. Of course, there were problems. The 1953 Kano riot was something that traumatised me as a child and I talk about it in the book. But we still felt that Kano was home. This country is good if we can make it work. And that’s the challenge that I hope I have posed with The Road Never Forgets for people like the vice president, who are vying for office. Our leaders have to make that kind of past work again. Whether it would happen, I don’t know. But in writing this book, it’s my hope that that would be the case.
You just talked about luck now. You play up that force of destiny, of fate, in the book, and there are instances that you use to justify that. Do you want to speak about the role of fate in your life? I would rather think that it’s less of fate but more of your character, your nature. As William Shakespeare would say, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves. I don’t know how you want to reconcile both.
You’re right about both of them, Kunle, because of many incidents in the book. But the fact that Kole Omotoso, then head of my department in Ife, did not allow me to extend my sabbatical and insisted that I had to come back to the University of Ife, even though all our mutual friends appealed to, in fact, begged him, helped me to work at The Daily Times. Because he denied me that, I resigned and joined The Guardian. I became a full-time staff of The Guardian, from where I went to become MD of The Daily Times. It’s just the way things happen in my life. Well, you may be right that it’s a force of nature. But I call it some kind of subjective force. There’s something about the force of the Almighty that’s there on time. The elemental force of nature, because there are many instances where I could have taken different roads. Remember that famous poem by Robert Frost, ‘’The Road Not Taken’’? The first time I learnt of the idea of the road as a metaphor for life was from my mother, and then from Robert Frost’s famous poem, ‘’The Road Not Taken’’. There were many roads I did not take, not because I knew that those roads not taken would lead nowhere, and I took the right roads, but they were decisions, which didn’t come from me, but came from some force beyond me. So, I ended up at The Guardian when I did, became MD at The Daily Times the way I did. Look at the way I met my wife? I wasn’t going to go out that evening. It was Mr Sam Amuka’s brother who said: Why don’t you come and join us? We met at Kuti Hall Night and we became friends, and we got married. There are other things like that in the book. I think it’s a combination of both. By the time I became Managing Director of The Daily Times, I’d spent only six years in the media. I had just come from the university. You had people who had spent many years before me at that time and then suddenly IBB said that it was me that they wanted as MD. Six years. My entire career in the media – a full-time career – was 10 years.
Ten years. That’s all. In ten years, I was one of the founding members of The Guardian. I went on to head The Daily Times. By the ninth and a half -years, my career was over in the media. So, those two chapters in the book on my years in the media cover only ten years. And that period was so filled with activities. I said it about Dele Giwa in one of the comments that I made, that Dele was in such a hurry as if he knew he was going to die early. He was in a hurry to do many things quickly. Same with me. I was restless at The Guardian. I was restless. I wanted to start The Guardian Literary Series, which I did. I wanted to interview world leaders, which I did. We started something called Property Pages. Our returns doubled.
Stanley would call me up and say: Yemi, look, there’s this story about five suitcases. Go and find out for me, is it true? I would go to the airport. I would see Atiku Abubakar, who said it was true. For that reason, Atiku was transferred from Lagos. I would rush back. They would be calling me to say that the editorial you were writing on someone who just died, it’s late, come and do your editorial. So, I would come and write the editorial for them, go and submit it. Then the next day, Lad Bone (Lade Bonuola) would say: Where’s the page for Literary Series? I need it now. So, I was restless. I would come back home every day, and I would be tired. I would be exhausted because I was doing like five things at the same time. I had meetings every morning with the Advert Manager, the Returns Manager and the Circulation Manager. At 8 o’clock in the morning, I would meet with them; they would give me reports. Marketing Manager, how many papers did you sell? Transport Manager, how many distribution vans travelled? How many of them were attacked by armed robbers?
I did all that. Then when I was finished with them, Alex Ibru would come to work. I would give him the report of the sales of the day. We would discuss it. Alex would say why did you miss the advert on inauguration? Why did The PUNCH get 10 and you have got only five? We would discuss it and then I would go back to the meeting with the Advert Manager.
Then in the afternoon, Stanley Macebuh would say: Yemi, where is the editorial you promised me? And then I would worry about the Literary Series. In the interim, I started interviewing world leaders. Alex Ibru said: Look, these interviews you are doing, Yemi, I don’t know anything about them. I said: Mr Publisher, I will brief you on what to do. Read this. This is a two-page brief on Robert Mugabe, I have written it for you. Mugabe’s life, his history. So, when you are addressing him, you know what to do. No day without some work to do. It was hectic.
Then I went to The Daily Times, which was just like hell! My God, it was hell! During the first few months at The Daily Times, I lost my voice completely. I couldn’t talk. So, I went to see Dr Kunle Okupe. He’s dead now. He had an office in Surulere. He did all the tests and said: There’s nothing wrong with you, you just need to rest. He said: You have overworked yourself. I was 42. He said: Your vocal chord is getting affected. There’s nothing wrong with you, you just need bed rest for a week. Too much work. The Daily Times was hell. I would go home and at about midnight they would send me the advance edition. We would sit down with the paper and look at the advance edition because I wanted to be sure that it was a top job. All these security boys who didn’t understand the way a paper worked wanted us to be doing PR for the government and I said: No. It’s a newspaper. It’s owned by the Nigerian public in part, so we have to be critical of you. We did it. We did. We went after the government over the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). Oh yeah, we did. But sometimes, my guys overdid things a little bit, so I needed to put them in check. One night – and this story is in the book – I was going home very late at night and Onyema Ugochukwu sent for me and said: MD, you must come back to the office. I was in Ikoyi, Ikeja was where The Daily Times printing press was. I said: Onyema, it’s 9 o’clock. He said: MD, you have to come back sir. If you don’t come back, we are going to run this story tomorrow. He said Benin was on fire over SAP riots. The prison had been destroyed. I got there and saw the photographs. They had burnt down the palace, and the market, and released prisoners. Tunde Ogbeha was governor. I said, all this happened in Benin? He said, Today. So, I said: Here’s what we should do: hide photographs inside the pages of the newspaper but lead with the story. When I got home, I told my wife: This Daily Times job, we shall not be here for long. I remember what I said, that this job would be short-lived.
The next morning, my phone rang. It was Augustus Aikhomu. The guy was on fire. He was abusing me on the phone. He said: Yemi, what is the matter with you? You must come and see me now. I went from Kakawa to Dodan Barracks. When I got there, he was mad at me. He said: What’s the matter with you? See what you did? This is happening? Are you alright? Let The PUNCH, National Concord, The Nigerian Tribune, and others write it. You are a government paper. I said: Sir, can I say something? He said: Yes. What do you want to say? I said: Sir, you know you have in your cabinet all these young colonels, who just don’t understand the problems out there. So, if I put these stories out like this, it will allow you say if The Daily Times can publish it, then we have to rejig this SAP thing. It gives you a weapon to speak to them in the cabinet. When they are shouting at you and saying no, you say we have to take this thing easy, this is what The Daily Times said. So, I’m merely helping you, to arm you to face them.
He then said: Ehn-ehn. And I said, That’s it, sir. Finally, he said: Yemi, but be careful, these security boys don’t like what you are doing. I said: But sir, you should speak for me when I’m not there. Let them know that I’m helping the government, to let the government understand the pain on the streets. Then that way they can begin to think and strategise on SAP. So, he calmed down a little bit and said: Okay, I understand what you are doing, but be careful. I said: Okay, thank you, sir.
In the end, they just got tired of me. They wanted to extend their stay in office. And they knew I would not support that. I’ve never said this anywhere. The reason why I was sacked was that the intelligence boys believed that The Daily Times would not play along with them in extending their tenure. I’ve never said it anywhere. I didn’t even say it in the book. That was why I was sacked. And they did it behind the president. The president, for some strange reason, could not stop it. That’s why I was sacked from The Daily Times.
But you ran The Daily Times at a huge profit.
The paper, in my second year, made the largest profit in its history: N10.6 million. At that time, it was the highest profit ever recorded in the history of The Daily Times. Nobody got to N10 million before me. We made the largest profit. After that, there was a collapse of the system. We made the highest profit. It was huge. It was big at that time. We paid dividends to shareholders. They were jubilant. The year before that, we made a profit of N4 million. They carried me high at the National Theatre, where we held the AGM. They carried me high because, before that, Chief Segun Osoba had just tried to clear the debts. Chief Osoba did his bit. But by the time he left, I then built on what he had done. And my chairman then, Malam Turi Muhammadu was elated. He was so happy. We later held our AGM in Abuja at the NICON Hilton Hotel and we were the toast of everybody. The government, the minister of the FCT wanted to see us. They had given us land to build an headquarters in Abuja. We saw the place. We didn’t ask for it, the minister said you must build here, look at the profit you made.
You also invested in property.
We were going to start the new Daily Times Towers. I left the architectural drawings out of the book, but I’m going to put the drawings in the paperback edition. We did a lot at that time. We had signed with Bouygues, which was to build our headquarters in Kakawa. That was a period in our lives that was amazing. But then it was a few months after that that I was laid off. The tempo was so high and we had already signed a contract then. Alpha Merchant Bank was going to fund it. Everything had been signed. We signed on the 14th, they sacked me at the end of December. There is part of the book where I mention my meeting with IBB after I was sacked. He was very sad. He didn’t like the way I was removed, but it was something beyond him. IBB was a tough general, but he was also weak in some areas. I say so in the book. He was a nice human being but he was weak in some areas. That’s the point I make in the book about June 12 presidential election that MKO Abiola won, but which was unfortunately annulled by the IBB regime.
But Alex Akinyele, the then Minister of Information, had a hand in your sack. And Tony Momoh too initially did not support your appointment. Could you talk a bit about the roles the two of them played in getting you out of The Daily Times?
Well, as I mention in the book, Tony Momoh didn’t tell me why he opposed my appointment. But I later found out from somebody close to him, that he did not support my appointment because I had a lifestyle that was too lavish. He said I liked to take champagne and brandy. But I didn’t ask him. And I don’t castigate him for that in the book. If anything at all, I say he was a good person.
And then, Alex Akinyele, who wasn’t a good minister, didn’t understand his role. He came from a PR background and so thought that the role must just be PR. And I said: No, that’s not the role of a newspaper. Newspapers have different kinds of roles. He didn’t understand that. Therefore, he was used so easily. Colonel Halilu Akilu told him what to do. He didn’t know jack. He was told what to do by those security people. Something happened that I didn’t mention in the book. When Akinyele’s father died, Colonel Akilu called me and said: Yemi, you have to attend this funeral. You know he complains a lot about you, try and attend his father’s funeral. I said: I’m going to attend. He said, I just want to let you know. Make sure you go. I said: I’m going to go there. So, you see, I was under that kind of pressure. I could tell that they were in touch, every time. And I went there and he said, Yemi, you are here. I said: Yes. The MD of The Daily Times was a very big position at that time. It was a prestigious position to be head of The Daily Times. I headed five companies. Not like now. It was big. And when Akinyele saw me at his father’s funeral, he said: Yemi, this is good, thank you very much. He was a pawn. He didn’t understand what was going on. Aikhomu asked him: Why did you remove Yemi? Why did you allow yourself to be used to remove Yemi? He did not know what to say. He was obviously used.
How did you manage your chummy relationship in private life with General Babangida and the critical public role that your job as MD of The Daily Times imposed on you?
It was the toughest part of my career in the media; how to balance my private relationship with President Babangida, with whom I was friendly. He was my good friend. To play a watchdog role of that same government as MD of The Daily Times was the toughest part of my job. It was tough. And I don’t know if I discharged it properly, but I tried. I tried by making sure that I was very honest with the president. If I felt something was not working right, I sat down with him privately and said to him: Mr President, this thing is not working right, you cannot do this.
And many years after I left office, we met – I mention this in the book; he was grateful for the way I said things to him frankly. And he understood also my effort to play the role of MD of The Daily Times. The SAP example was the best. What did we do with SAP? We brought all the proponents of SAP within the government to explain SAP at what we called The Times Forum. From Professor Ojetunji Aboyade, to Chief Olu Falae, all the ministers came. They came there to explain how SAP was being carried out by their ministries. But we also took time to see what SAP was doing to the Nigerian public. How the middle class was being ravaged, how the poor were suffering. SAP, in and of itself, was a good policy. But then, its implementation was very bad. The thing was corrupted by very corrupt officials. What Professor Aboyade was trying to do was perfect. It was an IMF programme, but it was home-grown as it were. Look at what we pay legislators today. It’s outrageous. What do they do to earn that kind of money? Why should we have permanent members of the National Assembly? We don’t need them. They should be part-time members. Go there, serve, and be paid for that.
Now, SAP was taking a look at each of the sectors in our economy, and then adjusting them. That’s why it’s called Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). But the thing was done badly, so the effect was that rather than do what it was meant to do, the opposite was, in fact, the case. The middle class was being ravaged; the poor were suffering. Only a few people who had access to a few things were making all the money and The Daily Times kept on telling the stories. We showed how people lived, how the poor were just dying from poverty. We would show it – we would not mention SAP, we were just telling stories. But they knew what we were saying and so they came after us, the intelligence guys came after us.
They insulted us. We published one of their letters of abuse. It was a letter signed by a friend of mine. He was a Brigadier-General and I was playing golf with him. They were fighting us. All the heads of the intelligence services knew that I was close to the president and that the president used to come to my house to see me. They didn’t like it. They would say, look at Ogunbiyi now with the president, but he would still use The Daily Times tomorrow morning to say stupid things about SAP. They hated my guts; they hated it. Why was I removed finally? In the last story we ran, Professor Soyinka said that the election of December was a sham. That was the excuse. That was the pretext. That was what triggered what they had always wanted to do.
The position I strongly held then was informed by what Mohamed Heikal, the illustrious editor of Al-Ahram, the Egyptian newspaper based in Cairo, did under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. As Heikal shows in his own memoirs, The Road to Ramadan, it is possible to do good journalism under a military regime. Heikal’s experience was an inspiration. Mohamed Heikal was very close to Nasser. But Al-Ahram was hitting hard at the government of Egypt. When he was asked: How did you handle that? He said that he was close enough to Nasser to know what was going on in government, but far away for him to be able to hit hard at the same government. Mohamed Heikal was a good example, a source of inspiration. It was a tough job. Those were the toughest moments of my career. IBB and I were very close. He was very fond of me. He would come to the house with gifts. But I needed to do the job.
What gave you the boldness at that time even though you were MD of a government company?
What gave me the courage? I think I felt that I could persuade them to let us do what we were doing and get away with it. I say in the book that I kept hoping that what we were doing would make them see that it was in their best interest to do it the way we were doing it. But I wasn’t naïve. As I say in the book, for military people, loyalty is total; so I understood their problem. With military guys, you are either with us or not with us. There were no grey areas. I knew that. But even with that knowledge, I kept hoping that I would push, and my relationship with the president helped me a lot. But that’s why I didn’t stay there for a long time. If I played the kind of game that those who took over from me as MD did, I would have survived, but I wasn’t going to do that.
I refused articles. I said I wasn’t going to run the Tofa article. I refused. Haliru Akilu and the intelligence guys brought it to me, I didn’t run it. I travelled out. Onyema didn’t turn it down; he ran the article because he did not know that I had refused it. Aikhomu was mad. He said: Why are you carrying this article? I said: I didn’t write the article, sir. Your boys in intelligence brought a letter with the article to us. Then he said: If that is the case, something is going on. I said: Sir, maybe you should ask your people. They were preparing the ground to extend their stay in office.
When I went to see the president about it, I said: Mr President, don’t extend your stay in office. You will get killed. He said: Yemi, I didn’t write the article, my friend Tofa did. I said: Don’t do it, Mr President. Don’t condone this. I used to sit down with him. I don’t think many people did that with him. IBB wanted to run for office after Obasanjo and I said he shouldn’t do it – it was a waste of time. Then he said to me: You haven’t changed, Yemi. You’re still the old person. At The Daily Times you used to tell me some hard truths. He said, you are the first person to say that I should not attempt to run again. I said: Sir, you don’t need it, you’ve been there for eight years. He said: Okay, Yemi. Thank you. So, he appreciated that role, but there was always a lot of pressure from the intelligence boys. They were a problem. They were a problem for the military, those intelligence boys. They were naive, they were greedy, they wanted to extend their stay in office, and they didn’t believe in democracy. They didn’t even think of it. They were a powerful force within the military at the time. I don’t want to get into a long story about them.
You show in the book that you were not friendly with General Sani Abacha at all
Not at all. I had to go and visit Abacha, then Chief of Army Staff. We ran a story about him; he wasn’t smiling in the picture that we used. He was angry with me. He was mad. You would think that we used Photoshop to make him frown but the man wasn’t normally smiling. He fought me on this and said: Yomi, what’s the matter with you? I called Onyema Ugochukwu, told him the story and said: Look for any photograph of a smiling Abacha to illustrate a re-run of the story. Onyema was so angry with me. You know, editors are very egotistical. Onyema said: Why must we do that, sir? I said: Please, Onyema, we don’t want this man’s trouble. I beg you, look for a photograph where the man is smiling and use it with the story in the paper tomorrow. So, the following morning, Abacha called me back and said: Yomi, you are doing a very good job. Before I said anything, he’d dropped the phone and he was gone.
He called you Yomi, not Yemi?
For some reason, he called me Yomi.
You render a very intimate and moving portrait of MKO Abiola in the memoir. You met MKO Abiola for the last time in prison and what a wonderful reporting of that you have done. There’s also your illuminating portrait of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and your portraits of some of those leaders you met for your interview series in The Guardian. Can you sum up the lessons on leadership and life generally that you learnt from them?
Abiola was a remarkable person. In the book on him that Dr Chidi Amuta and I edited, his collection of speeches titled Legend of Our Time: The Thoughts of MKO Abiola, there is an essay there about Abiola which I wrote. The essay, ‘’Behind the Legend’’, takes care of a lot of things about Abiola. People didn’t know him. They saw him as a money bag. That’s all. But he was also somebody who was very bright and had a lot of ideas in his head on how to solve many problems. He was so kind to me. So generous to me. In the book, I thought I should tell the story of Abiola intimately; portray him differently because I knew him so well. He was a very courageous man. As I show in the book, when I saw him last in prison, a high Egba traditional chief visited him just to persuade him to renounce his June 12-mandate feely given by the Nigerian people. Abiola was so angry with the man. So angry. When I was offered £100,000 to go abroad and campaign against him, to say on CNN and other international media that annulment of June 12 was the best thing to do, I simply couldn’t do it. I rejected the offer. Of course, a top Nigerian publisher took the money and did the bidding of the military regime.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo was a great person. I didn’t know so much about him until that first interview. Once I met him, he kept asking me: But how come I didn’t get to know about you earlier? We then struck a relationship and I became a regular visitor to his house at dinner times. We had about 10 to 12 dinners together. And each dinner was an experience in itself. And the interview I did with him, I could have made that section a bit longer, but it would make the book too big. I should have, maybe, done two volumes of this book. My interviews with him were interesting experiences. And he taught me lessons about the classics and about life, which I record in the book. Sometimes he said some things off record; his views about his Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) governors and the lengthy last answer to my question: Do you regret anything? If you had to do things all over again, would you do them differently? And that was something that took him a few minutes to think through before he answered. He put the question back to me, do I regret anything? Would I do things differently? Remarkable man. Very deep. I said, if he had had around him people who were intellectually at par with him, would his choices have been different? Would his options have been different? Some of the things he did, would he have done them differently? Many of the people around him did not debate with him – they were intellectual midgets. They were not at the same level as Awolowo. Odia Ofeimun told me that the only person who engaged him rigorously was Chief Alfred Rewane. That Rewane was the person who disagreed with him sometimes. He would make a case and Awolowo listened to him a lot. And he said, apart from him, Professors Sam Aluko and Ayodele Awojobi. But they were not party people. They were just arguing. They would be there until 2:00 a.m., arguing with him and he enjoyed the exchanges with them. Chief Bola Ige did that sometimes with Awolowo. He read the classics, which they discussed. They also talked about the law.
I was very impressed by Thomas Sankara and Julius Nyerere in my interactions with them because of their passion and sincerity. As I write in the memoirs, both of them, incidentally, respected one another.
You kept intimate relationships with Dele Giwa, Stanley Macebuh and Ken Saro-Wiwa. Were there connections between the ways they lived and how they died?
Dele Giwa, Stanley Macebuh and Ken Saro- Wiwa were my friends. In the case of Dele and Stanley, I believe I wrote extensively in the book about how I met them. Obviously, I was closer to Dele and Stanley than I was to Ken. But these were great individuals, fantastic human beings. And as I say somewhere in the book, something died in me when Dele was murdered. As to whether there was a relationship between how they lived and died, it should never be forgotten that Dele and Ken were killed for what they believed in. Stanley Macebuh was inadvertently killed by a system that didn’t take care of its own. Stanley never really recovered from the pain of his abrupt exit from The Guardian newspapers. But somehow, it would be fair to say that all three of them lived their lives to the fullest. In the case of Dele, he seemed to have done everything in a hurry as if he knew he would not be with us for long.
Reading the book, I could see that you were very careful about getting your dates, and sequences of events right before you made them permanent. What kind of research did you do to aid your memory? And how many years did it take you to write the book?
The book took about two years to write and I spent about six weeks in The Guardian library in Lagos. Fortunately, I had copies of my files from The Daily Times; some of them. Then I went back to visit Kano. I went from where I was born. I used to go to Kano, but this time when I was writing, I wanted to experience what it felt like. I went back to Ibadan Boys’ High School, sixty years to the day I left the school. I just went around to see for myself. I looked at Awo’s house nearby and said: Yes, this is what I was saying. It is correct. I did all that by myself.
And then I was going to go to The Nigerian Tribune, but then I found two books: One by Professor Akinjide Osuntokun and the other book by Professor Michael Omolewa. Those books gave me some useful facts on King’s College and Ibadan Boys’ High School. In terms of the dates, I had to check books to cross-check that what I was saying in terms of timing was correct. It took about two years. I didn’t use any research assistant. I did it myself. That’s why I said it was a tedious work for me to do. Titi Oba, the Chief Librarian of The Guardian, would give me files and I would go page by page, read through to build up the story of my period at The Guardian. But it was a tough time for me. It took a toll on my health. As I sat by my computer, I would get carried away for three hours. But you can’t sit down for that long if you are 70 years old. The doctor said: You can’t do this; you have to walk around. So, I would time myself and at the end of two hours, I would take a break. I would take a walk and come back. I would work until late hours. I was not in a hurry. There were things I wanted to check. If it took me days I would wait. I didn’t do things in a hurry. I had to cross-check things. Sometimes I would get stuck, but I persevered.
Most of your major stories have back-stories to them. History and memory intersect a lot in the memoirs. You simply relish history without overwhelming the reader with it. It does not obstruct the flow of the narrative. What is your response to that?
Biodun Jeyifo’s favourite chapter in the book is the first chapter. He fell in love with the chapter about growing up as a child. He loves it maybe because of the way I use history in it. He kept on telling me: How could you write this? This is BJ, who is normally hard on me. Yes, I decided at the beginning that I would tell my stories differently, that I would connect them. I wasn’t doing so at the beginning, but then as I wrote on, I thought, well, this is what I should do with the entire book itself, just find links between memory and history. When Sade too read the earlier drafts, she was amazed at my gift of recall.
You used the title of the poem that Niyi Osundare dedicates to you as the title of your memoirs. How did this creative collaboration between the poet and memoirist come about?
The title of my memoirs came from a combination of sources. As I say in the epilogue, I first encountered the metaphor of life as road in my childhood from Igbo masquerade songs, from an Ulaga masquerade. It’s about life being a journey of sorts; Enuwa bu olile. Then, later, my mum, again as I say in the epilogue, kept reminding us in her native Delta Igbo that life was like a bumpy ride on a tortuous road. I never forgot that. Then, as an undergraduate at the university of Ibadan, I read Robert Fost’s famous poem, ‘’The Road Not Taken’’, for the first time. That metaphor of the road has always stuck with me, it has always fascinated me.
Then, some two years ago, my friend and Poet Laureate of my generation, Niyi Osundare, sent me a copy of his latest collection of poems entitled If the Road Could Talk. His preface to that collection was entitled ‘’The Road Never Forgets’’. When I started writing my memoirs, I went back to Niyi’s collection of poems again, and suddenly everything came back, from my childhood years, from my first reading of Robert Frost’s poem, and I called Niyi in faraway New Orleans, America, that I wanted to borrow the title of his preface to his collection as the title of my memoirs. Niyi was very excited, and surprisingly pleased! But rather than have me use that title, he promised to send me a little birthday present by mail the next week. To my surprise, that gift was the poem which he specifically crafted to mark my 75th birthday. Next, perhaps, to the birth of my daughter, Ore, which coincided with my 50th birthday, this lovely poem from Niyi Osundare would go down as the finest birthday gift I ever received in my 75 years.
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