Nigeria Columns By Dele Momodu 8th September, 2018: Fellow Nigerians, let me start on a personal note today by repeating a story you are probably familiar with. Anyone who has followed my trajectory a bit would have heard this story for the umpteenth time.
I moved to Lagos from the ancient city of Ile-Ife in 1988 at the age of 28. I had spent most of my adult life in the historic township but suddenly reached a dead end when I could not even find a job of a teacher, with a Master’s degree in Literature-in-English. All my friends had something to do except me.
It wasn’t that I was dull or lazy, but there was embargo on appointments and promotions in higher institutions at the time.
Let’s now fast forward. I started writing articles at the behest of my best friend, Prince Adedamola Aderemi, who was teaching Law at the Obafemi Awolowo University and my pieces soon ignited fire in the Sunday Tribune and The Guardian and I became known here and there. Due to joblessness, I was advised to try my luck elsewhere in Ibadan or Lagos.
My preference was to work at The Guardian newspapers, but I couldn’t secure a job at Rutam House. I was then introduced by my late friend, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo to the Editor of African Concord magazine, Lewis Obi, who agreed to employ me instantly.
But this is not the main story. The meat of it is that I was reluctant to work at Concord Group, which was owned by Chief Moshood Abiola. And my grouse was based totally on unsubstantiated stereotyping and false stories that ignited raw sentiment and foolish emotion in me.
Chief Abiola had been demonised by several powerful forces. His major offence was his opposition to Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Presidential ambition in 1979, and the role played by the Concord media conglomerate in not supporting a man who was practically deified in Yorubaland. Abiola was thus seen to have committed heresy and had to be nailed to the cross.
But by far the most potent and lethal attack came from the one and only irrepressible Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who produced and released a monster hit, International Thief Thief, in which he called Chief Abiola all manner of unprintable names.
I still don’t have details of what led to their skirmishes. Of course, as a Fela devotee, we never saw anything good in Abiola thereafter, and we blocked our minds to ever liking a man who we were told was an oppressor, a religious fanatic and a looter of Nigeria’s wealth. We never bothered to crosscheck the facts or fiction but we believed everything hook, line and sinker.
Truth was I secretly admired the man and wished I could be like him but hearsay made us dislike him. It was hunger that saved me from hating a man I did not know.
The first lesson I learnt was that hunger does not discriminate. There is a Yoruba saying that “when you are hungry enough, you will accept food from your enemy.”
I was too hungry for a job to have a choice, so I accepted the Concord offer most reluctantly but with automatic alacrity. The second lesson came after I resumed work at Concord. Contrary to the rumour that Chief Abiola was a religious bigot, I discovered that he was too liberal to force his faith on anyone or group.
He was totally detribalised and gave everyone his due. The closer I got to him, the more I gained insight into one of the greatest Nigerians that ever lived. I became a fan, and later his adopted son.
I decided to join hands with others to rescue his battered reputation which were actually firmly rooted on the altar of politics and personal squabbles.
It was such an uphill task because negative perception is often most difficult to change. But I thank God for the uncommon opportunity to come close to Chief Abiola, a rare privilege that made it possible for me to purge my mind and soul of acquired and accumulated bile.
Since then, I have remained on the side of caution and tolerance. Journalism has also taught me to mellow down my temperament in dealing with people.
I have imbibed the legal aphorisms that you must always listen to the other side and that a man is innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, I have been able to differentiate between my routine job and my personal opinion.
I realised that many journalists have failed, and still failing spectacularly, because they could not distinguish between the business of journalism and their personal sentiments.
For example, journalists are seen and expected to be the lamb of God who take away the sins of the world while all other professions and careers are at liberty to do business with everyone, including saints and sinners.
The fact that Thisday or Punch newspapers report government activities daily or transact business with different governments does not mean they can’t write opinions and editorials against the same government they had promoted or projected, if and when the government is misbehaving.
It is the height of illiteracy, and hypocrisy, to treat the people you criticise as enemies and vice versa. The very essence of freedom of speech and democracy is to speak to power as a corrective measure and not as vendetta. Thereafter, you must let the music play on.