By Bola Bolawole
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Last June when Mr. Sam Amuka Pemu aka Uncle Sam (pen name, Sad Sam) celebrated his 85th birthday, Mr. Ray Ekpu wrote a tribute titled “Sam Amuka: Journalism’s Generalissimo” (sunnewsonline.com; 23rd June 2020). Uncle Sam has had an illustrious career as a journalist before teaming up with the late Chief Olu Aboderin to start PUNCH newspapers. When both friends parted ways, Uncle Sam started the Vanguard newspapers. He has been a towering figure in the journalism world ever since. So, a salutation to him on his birthday was appropriate and the title of Ekpu’s tribute, apt.
In The Guardian newspaper of 28th July, 2020, however, Ekpu penned another tribute, this time to Mallam Ismaila Isa Funtua who had just transited, and titled it “Ismaila Isa: Warrior for press freedom” in defence of the controversial re-naming of the NIJ House after Funtua. Amuka cannot be journalism’s “Generalissimo”; yet, it was Funtua who carted away journalism’s ultimate prize! What are we left with to honour the “Generalissimo” when the time comes or is it Amuka’s fault that he did not transit before Funtua?
In the first tribute, Mr. Ekpu extolled Amuka “…for all the battles he has fought for our industry and our country over the years. To fail to acknowledge his exertions would be an act of ingratitude, an unpardonable transgression and an unforgivable dereliction of duty. That is the only way to encourage people like him to continue to work for a country which had so much promise at independence but which has now gone into a holding period, the future of which is very, very uncertain”
I agree but now that the same “unforgivable dereliction of duty” and “unimaginable transgression” has happened in “gifting” Funtua a prize fittingly due to the likes of Amuka, what do we do?
Mr. Ekpu then told the story (which we had earlier recounted in these series) of how, at the 1995 Kaduna NPAN conference, Funtua was elected NPAN president and Ekpu himself the General Secretary after a rumpus over the correctness of replacing MKO Abiola, the subsisting NPAN president, while he was still in incarceration fighting to reclaim his annulled June 12, 1993 presidential mandate. The hawks had their way and Funtua (as president) and Ekpu (as General Secretary) took over the affairs of the NPAN.
Ekpu praised Funtua, Amuka and Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, the publisher of the Champion newspapers, for the role they played in keeping the NPAN together; and for opposing Gen. Sani Abacha’s National Mass Media Commission and the Press Court which, to quote him, “would be a major hindrance to the practice of journalism” They did well but Ekpu failed to mention that they were not the only people who fought the battle. The decision to challenge in court the anti-press decree was collectively taken by the NPO and the then chairman of the PUNCH, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, was one of those named as plaintiff in the suit.
Ekpu then narrated how himself, Funtua, Uncle Sam “and a few other NPAN members” risked life and limbs to intercede on behalf of the PUNCH when it was closed by the military dictatorship. Upon all their efforts and despite that they got Abacha’s nod for PUNCH to re-open, PUNCH executives appeared ungrateful! Hear him: “…Some PUNCH executives were saying that they did not send anyone to go and beg the government on their behalf as a matter of principle. I was furious…”
I was the editor of PUNCH newspaper during this period and can say categorically that the management was not averse to discussions with the Abacha junta for the purpose of re-opening the newspaper. In the first of these series, I recounted my visit to Abuja at the dinner hosted by the Abacha junta for media executives and how I challenged the junta to explain why the PUNCH was closed. Funtua promised to lead me to the then SGF to discuss the matter after dinner but never did.
On another occasion, Mr. Joshua Agbeniga, a PUNCH management staff, and yours truly met the then Number Two man, General Oladipo Diya, to discuss the same issue. Commodore Olabode George, the then Principal Staff Officer to Gen. Diya, led us to Diya’s office. There were other discussions but the stumbling block was our refusal, bluntly, to compromise and abandon principles, which Mr. Ekpu referred to in an off-handed manner.
We could have compromised and gained short-term respite but thereafter, we would have lost our reputation and integrity forever. We, too, could have compromised our stand on June 12; but, see, decades after, the same stone which the builders rejected became the chief cornerstone. Today, June 12 is Nigeria’s Democracy Day, for whatever it is worth. For those who did not understand – and still cannot understand – why some people would suffer simply because of principles, we can understand! Mr. Ekpu did not say whether they consulted with the PUNCH management before going to Abuja to negotiate on its behalf. MKO Abiola said you do not shave a man’s head in his absence!
Kindly understand me – these leaders of the profession deserve praises for their efforts; as recounted by Mr. Ekpu, the same fire-fighting effort by them led to the re-opening of The Guardian newspapers when that medium, too, was closed down but this time with the active collaboration of The Guardian publisher, Mr. Alex Ibru. Both The Guardian, then widely respected as “the flagship of the Nigeria media”, and The PUNCH stand today!
Now, listen to how Mr. Ekpu became NPAN president by his own account: “When Isa (Funtua) was going to complete his term as NPAN president in 2002, Amuka asked me whether I wanted to contest for the presidency of the association. I told him I was not interested. There were two other publishers who were ready to contest for the office, both of them insurance experts; Chief Ajibola Ogunshola of the PUNCH and Chief Sonny Odogwu of The Post Express. Amuka decided to support Ogunshola. Considering the bitter battle that Amuka had with Chief Olu Aboderin with whom he co-founded the PUNCH, some people were surprised that he pitched his tent with Ogunshola, instead of his fellow Deltan, Odogwu. I wasn’t surprised because I knew he believed that Ogunshola would do a better job for the association than Odogwu…Then some people approached me to join the race…I yielded. When I sought Amuka’s support, he told me he was in Ogunshola’s corner…But amazingly, he did not stop his staff from voting for me. I won the election and then we experienced the bawling winds of discontent in the aftermath of the election”
Common on! Mr. Ekpu should accord some level of common sense to his readers! Amuka was in Ogunshola’s corner; yet, he did not restrain his staff and they helped Ekpu to win the election! NPAN election is usually a coronation; the in-coming president is known before the D-Day. Odogwu dropped out of the race long before the election and did not even show up, leaving only Ogunshola. So, in the election that Ekpu won, possibly PUNCH footed the bill but Ekpu came in at the 11th hour to cart away the prize. From reports, Ogunshola did not get to know that Ekpu would be contesting until eight days to the D-Day!
Ekpu revealed those who made him change his mind in his tribute to Isa Funtua: “At the end of Isa’s tenure as NPAN president in 2002, Amuka asked me if I wanted the job. I replied in the negative but Isa and a few other publishers thought I would be in a better position to wage the war for the sustenance of press freedom…Isa said he would campaign for me in the North while I would pay attention to the Southern regions. We campaigned vigorously and I won”
So, the same back-stabbing; and the same chameleonic traits characteristic of our politics are also to be found in the top echelon of the media! It is obvious that some people have come a long way together and have established a system of “rub my back, I rub your back”. My grudge, and grouse, is that it should not have been with our common patrimony. Cabals are to be found not only in the Presidency. It seems they are also to be found in the NPO!
To conclude: Funtua did not deserve the honour of the NIJ House because he did not do enough to deserve it. And there are many more Generals of the profession deserving of the honour better than him. Two: The process of the award was tragically flawed. Three: The role of Funtua as a self-styled cabal in the under-performing Muhammadu Buhari administration and the odium that followed him to the grave vitiated whatever stake he might have had to the so-called honour.
I am surprised that anyone takes Ray Ekpu seriously. I was the first editor of The Democrat Weekly in 1983. Philip Asiodu was the chairman; directors were Shehu Malami, Babatunde Jose, and one other person. It is arrant nonsense (to say) that Isa Funtua founded the paper but (the role he played in) destroying our currency with the corruption-propelled multiple exchange rate system is well known. Maynard Keynes said “he who controls the currency controls the country”. That says it all! Funtua is undeserving of recognition; let alone honour – Kanmi Ademiluyi.
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