By Dare Odufowokan
Chief Duro Onabule, fondly referred to as ‘Double Chief’ by friends and colleagues, is one Nigerian who has a lot to say when the happenings of the nine years of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida as military president is up for discussion. Onabule, who served as IBB’s Chief Press Secretary (CPS) witnessed many events, including the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election results and the crisis that followed, leading to Babangida’s exit from government.
In this interview with ‘Dare Odufowokan, Assistant Editor, the former Editor of late Chief M.K.O Abiola-owned National Concord newspaper, went down memory lane to revisit some of the most topical issues of the military era in the country. The respected media giant also bared his mind on the practice of journalism today compared to what obtained during his active days in the newsroom. Excerpt.
YOU are a renowned journalist who has seen what it is to practice then and now. How will you compare journalism in your days and what we have today?
I will say it is positive and negative. At our own time, there were so many handicaps which are no longer the case today. Your era is free from many of the difficulties we had to grapple with in those days. Of course, as we use to say then, those were hazards of the job and we saw them as part of the job. First, there were not as many newspapers, radio stations and televisions as we have today. So, the competition was so high. To get a job and retain the job; and of course, to compete with your colleagues, it was not as easy as it is today. This was because not many job opportunities were available in the sector because there were not many newspapers and televisions. Radio stations too were not this much. Also, the salary structure in those days was nothing to write home about. Yet we sustained our reputations so much that nobody could question our integrity as professionals.
It is a different situation today, there are so many opportunities. So many newspapers, more radio and many television stations are all over the place now. I am not sure about magazines. I think we still don’t have many magazines. In fact, in those days I think we had more magazines than now. However, the standard these days, I must confess, is far, far, below what we had in those days. Professionally, there is no discipline in our sector anymore and nobody seems to be interested in maintaining discipline. When you pick up a newspaper today, you see poor headlines, grammatical errors, poor production and chaotic layout. Very disheartening I must say. But it is not all negatives. The feature pages surprisingly are now more innovative. Those planning the feature pages are doing very well. They are innovative.
Of course, the facilities these days should make innovation easy. With the facilities at your disposal these days, the sky is the limit for you guys. That the production is now poorer as I mentioned before is an irony. Not just the better facilities, better working conditions too. The salary structure is far better than it was. There are more incentives that should serve as encouragement but yet, sadly there is not much to say in terms of discipline. The desire to maintain highest standard is surprisingly just not there anymore.
You left the newsroom and joined the government as the first Editor of a prominent national newspaper to take up the role of a Chief Press Secretary (CPS). What influenced you to accept a job on the other side of the divide sir?
The very good soul of Chief M.K.O Abiola should continue to rest in peace. He was the main motivation for me when I accepted to work with General Ibrahim Babangida who was then the military Head of State. I never met IBB before then. I was just writing my column and doing my work. Then in 1985, M.K.O, who was my boss then, came to my house and left message for me that I should see him. I had gone to Ijebu because when IBB took over government, it was a weekend. When I came back and was told, all I had in mind was that my job was over. It was unusual for him to tell me to see him. But when I got to him, he said, ‘Duro, congratulations.’ I asked him congratulations for what sir. And he answered that I am the Chief Press Secretary to Mr. President. I was surprised.
I told him I am not interested as I preferred my job as Editor. He said ‘No, no. You have to take it. It is a prestige to you and it is a prestige to the company.’ I complained that I have never met IBB and he said yes but the new President is a good person and that I will like him when I meet him. He told me IBB told him to release me for him and he has assured him. All my reluctance was brushed aside by M.K.O as he insisted that I must take the job as he has promised IBB to get me to accept. I had no choice than to accept. But sincerely, at that moment, I preferred my job as an Editor and so much wanted to reject the offer and stay on as Editor. For about three or four weeks, IBB was still settling down in office so I couldn’t meet him. I eventually met him on September 9, 1985.
We met in his office. He received me warmly and expressed his happiness that I agreed to take the job. I promptly told him it will be on certain conditions. He asked me to name them and I said one; the freedom to tell you my mind anytime on any issue; two; unlimited access to you. I can’t remember the third. But he granted me all my requests there and then. That was when I said, yes, I am ready to work for you. Those three conditions were applied all through my stay with him. They became very useful in influencing government policy; in changing government policy and setting agenda for government. I told him my mind always on all issues. Naturally, my decision to take the job generated a lot of controversies. Some people felt I should have taken the job. Others feel I was too big for the job. One of them even foolishly called me ‘errand boy.’ But many others were supportive of my decision. There was someone in Abuja who even told me ‘Duro don’t bother yourself, they are envying you.’
But I was flattered one day in Abuja I was going when I ran into Alhaji Babatunde Jose. I greeted him and was on my way when he said ‘Duro, come here. I must apologise to you. I am one of those who criticized you for taking this job. But since you took over the office, I have seen a major change in the handling of government and media relations.’ I was pleasantly surprised. He was humble and honest in admitting that he was wrong to criticize me. And indeed, I initiated a lot of major shifts in the ways things were done. One was insisting that presidential broadcasts must be reported immediately. I went to IBB and told him that once he is speaking today, it must be in the papers tomorrow. He asked me how that will be done and I told him to leave that for me. He embargoed it and I set out to work.
So, the first broadcast he made after that, that was on October 1, 1985, I release the text in advance and that same morning, it was in the papers, which is the standard all over the world. It was a novel idea then and it created a clash between me and the ministry of information. They were opposed to my releasing the text in advance. In any case, I was in charge and I took responsibility for it being released in advance. So when we came in from the parade, IBB said ‘how did you do this.’ Then I briefed him how it was done. I added that the ministry of information is not pleased with my style. He said ‘don’t worry yourself. I am pleased. Continue.’ That was the first paradigm shift I initiated. Also, same day, I was asked to announce a major appointment in the News Agency. If I had gone ahead, the appointee would have superseded his boss. So, I took it upon myself to explain the situation to the President. I told him and he asked what we can do. I said the appointment is in order but fortunately, there is an opening somewhere in the same organization. The Managing Director had just retired. So, I suggest me move the boss to become Managing Director while the appointee keeps the Editorship. And the issue was resolved.
You used that position to influence the policies and actions of the government. But it is not the same way today sir.
No, you can’t be too sure. Don’t blame them. You don’t know the efforts they are putting into making the government listen to them. I didn’t win every time I tried too. There were times I lost and I was not listened to. You need to be inside there to know what goes on. You can’t blame them. You may never get to know what they did to correct the situations you find wrong or what they do to make those in power listen to them about one issue or the other. It was because I was involved that I was able to do all that I did and know all that I know. In fact, every journalist needs such appointment to be able to appraise the processes of government policies and actions and compare with what goes on outside government. It is then you will understand that some decisions may be unpopular but they are necessary, while some are popular but unnecessary. Usually, it is a tough situation. When some people just sit down and they start lambasting the boys, I just keep my cool. That is why since I left office, I have been supporting all my successors.
Let us talk about IBB and his government. So many sides of him are unknown out there. Who is IBB?
IBB is largely a misunderstood person. And he has a mate in history former American President Lyndon Johnson; largely discredited by the Vietnam War. That is all the average American remembers him for. Otherwise, he was the initiator of most civil rights reforms carried out in the country. But like IBB, everything about him is clouded by just one aspect of his rule, same with IBB. But for June 12, nobody has matched IBB’s record in office in terms of reforms. Take the third Mainland Bridge alone. Take that road out of Nigeria’s economy and you will understand its impact. Then look at Abuja the federal capital territory. Even SAP which was one major thing Nigerians detest IBB for, is one reform that saved the nation. The other name for SAP is deregulation of the economy.
Without SAP I don’t know where Nigeria will be today. Look at the financial sector, in those days if you go to a bank to withdraw your money, you’ll spend four to five hours. Confirmation of your signature alone takes hours. Today, you just walk into the bank and few minutes you are out. That was deregulation by IBB. He did same in the aviation sector. In those days, to travel, you have to rely on Nigerian Airways only. You also book in advance. And when you get to the tarmac, come and see people running because it is most likely the aircraft is overbooked. IBB allowed the private sector to participate and the sectors became deregulated. We journalists also benefited immensely from SAP. It was the deregulation that brought about private televisions and radio stations. Before IBB, there was only NTA Lagos, Kaduna, Ibadan. He deregulated the industry and more journalists are now employed. He even deregulated the law profession. Because before then, you must apprentice with a senior colleague before you can set up your own chamber. Even the medical sector got deregulated.
But the irony is that IBB is not remembered or appreciated for all these things. All we remember is June 12. As much as those who took over from him criticized SAP, they got into office, they could not reverse SAP. If it was unnecessary, they should have scrapped it. But the truth is that, though it was unpopular, it was necessary. Deregulation requires courage and IBB was courageous enough to do all these. But like I said, he is greatly misunderstood. The media especially didn’t help matters.
What were the immediate challenges of your switch from the newsroom to government house back then as a media practitioner?
Like I said, I got my blank cheque from IBB right from the outset on September 9, 1985. So, with the freedom and access I had to operate, it was easy for me to pre-empt possible harsh comments or backlashes. It made my job easy. It is either he agrees or disagrees. When he agrees, it helps to soften the ground in most cases. And when he disagrees, when events eventually happen, I tell him ‘sir, I warned you.’ And he would say ‘yes you warned me but we had to do what we did. And as the President, he would deal with the rest. That ensured that there was no pressure on me really. Then I made good use of my friends in the media. There was communication. I call ahead to explain government actions even before they start calling for government reactions. The approach helped a great deal.
It is not as if today’s government media handlers are not trying. It is just that some publics are not easy to convince. But the change of government has destabilized some people and they just cannot come to terms with the reality of the change. So, there is greater need to explain government actions and policies more to the people. Imagine people who were complaining that Buhari had no economic team all the while. Then he constituted an Economic Advisory Council and the same people are still complaining. It is unimaginable. To many of these people, it is bad because it is Buhari that did it. What do they want the man to do? I am not saying the man has not made mistakes but some people will just not see anything good about Buhari.
You left the newsroom many years ago. But according to you, you never stop missing the newsroom. What are those things that make you always miss the newsroom?
First of all, our life as a journalist is sustained by instant knowledge of happenings around the world. When we were in the newsroom, we were getting it regularly. It is like the lifeline of a journalist. But once you are out of the newsroom, you have to wait till the next day to read the papers or listen to news before you get the same information you used to get instantly. So, that is a major reason for someone like me to miss the newsroom. Of course, I still write my column regularly. That is the same column I was writing in those days and I was accused of being used by the late (Chief Obafemi) Awolowo against the then military government. The DSS wrote a security report alleging that just because I am a Yoruba man from Ijebuland like Awolowo. Back then, it was like, ‘oh! It is Buhari that is harassing me.’ But my experience in government has shown that sometimes, the headman may not even know about many things being done in the government. This type of experience is very important for us all to have.
I still sleep late even now. Moving from CNN to Aljazeera to Skynews ets is still a routine for me. So I don’t sleep till 6am or 7 am in the morning. And all is still in search of current hot news. I still desire to get the news before the newspapers are out in the morning. News is the oxygen of the average journalist. I still cannot do without it. If you are not careful, you will develop dementia if you fail to keep your brain working. Don’t overwork it, but it must be doing those things it is used to. That is the situation with me. It has become a part of me. I hate second hand news. I want it hottest Breaking news! If I want to write my column I start at about 11pm, 12pm and I write late into the night. I learnt from Awolowo that the older you get, the less sleep you need. I sleep as soon as I feel sleepy. If I get sleepy where I am sitting now, I just allow myself to sleep. Nothing rigid about it anymore, and in the morning just have my pap and get about reading newspapers and listening to music. I love music a lot. There is this lady, Sola Allyson. She is deep and I enjoy her music a great deal. Frank Sinatra is another musician I listen to a lot. Tunji Oyelana too. I listen to these people and you will learn a lot about the vanities of life, don’t just play music. Listen to the lyrics. That is when you will appreciate the content of such music. But sadly, the current generation lacks the ability to listen. They just dance to the beats and that is all.
Looking back, do you have regrets both in your media and government experiences?
I won’t say I have regrets. Rather, I’ll say the only thing I wish had been different was the matter of M.K.O Abiola not accepting the bail conditions given him while in detention. I firmly believed that he won the election and as such should not accept any condition that will make him give up his mandate. It never occurred to me that the man could die in the process. With all our education, we didn’t see that coming but the man we all saw as an illiterate, (Chief Lamidi) Adedibu in Ibadan then was warning about such possibility, urging M.K.O to accept the condition and come out first before claiming his mandate. That was one thing I regretted. I had the chance to talk to him then. But I just believed that he won the election and as such, let us fight it out. It never crossed my mind that he could die
in detention because we were not used to such. How he died, what killed him, I wouldn’t know. But the fact remains that he died in detention because he rejected that conditional bail on our prompting. Another thing that worries me till today is ‘why should it be M.K.O to suffer that fate. For five years I worked with him. He is an exceptional human being. He was liberal and too nice. Why should such a man suffer such a fate?
Also, I also regretted that while I was the CPS, I never knew NTA was in such a bad shape. They operate from porter cabins. No proper studio building. Abuja is the main one, go there and see for yourself. You will be shocked. Then the salary structure is nothing to write home about. If you know what the boys and girls put up with, you’ll be shocked. That is why they can’t give their best. They are not motivated to work at their best. They cannot retain their good hands due to this. And it is not the fault of NTA management. There are constraints. Without money, there is nothing you can do. You put up your budget estimate and it would just be slashed. We have to make up our mind whether we want governance or not. If we want governance, we must know it costs money. The idea of IMF or World Bank coming to tell us what we can spend and what we cannot spend is something I don’t agree with. They did it in France and the people took to the streets. President Macron was forced to abandon the austerity measures. Why didn’t IMF force him the way they forced us here. These are some of the constraints I talk about as regards NTA.
There are those who feel he (Chief Abiola) shouldn’t have contested the presidency. What is your take on this?
We always learn after the event. After M.K.O’s death, I’ve learnt so many things. For me now, there is nothing so rigid about life. When you encounter an obstacle, take it. After that, move on again. It is not a cowardly act to retrace your steps. Some will abuse you. Tell such people to assume your position and let us see how they will do it. So, many people who didn’t take part in politics died too. So, he may not have died the way he died, but we can’t say if he didn’t contest he would not have died.
All through the June 12 crisis, what was it really like between M.K.O and his friend, IBB? You were close to them both at that time. Tell us what was going on between them.
I can tell you that even at that time I was still taking messages from M.K.O to IBB and from IBB to MKO. Note that I had left office then. When M.K.O was underground, he was sending messages to me.
So, they were not fighting?
My friend that was what assisted me during the crisis. Here were two friends who at one time or the other, were my bosses. There was this stupid resolution from the then Ogun State House of Assembly calling on me to resign after the annulment. I told them I was not given the job because I am from Ogun State or because I am an Ijebu man. I was given because I am a Nigerian journalist. Secondly, none of them can claim to love MKO Abiola more than myself. So, I stayed put knowing fully well that even M.K.O himself would not want me to leave the job at such a time. He would say you don’t abandon your boss in difficult times. I know him that much. I won’t resign. He was that liberal. He would even say if he was the one in IBB’s shoes that is how I will abandon him. Naïve people are the ones criticizing me then for staying put back then. They don’t know MKO. In any case, if during the same crisis he was still sending messages to IBB through me, then they should know I knew what they didn’t know.
You still look pretty healthy at 80. What will you say are the secrets of your good health in old age?
I will say it is contentment. Some may see it as complacency. They may say after serving in government at such level you are living in this cubicle. They expect that I should be living in Lekki or Banana estate or is it island? It is all vanity. So, it is my contentment that gave me long life. I know people who also lived similar lives and they are alive too. We all love good things but it must be minimal. Enjoyment can lead to quick death unless you are moderate. Being moderate ensured that I never worried myself sick running after the vanities of life.
And why didn’t you go into politics?
At least in Africa, the best hands in politics are journalists and lawyers. I saw government at the highest level. I served at the presidency. So what else do I want? It is a thankless job. Forget those critics. Put them there and they will perform worse. All of them talking about corruption today, put them in charge of a project, half of the allocated fund will go to their pockets. And it is their voices that are loudest when it is criticism. Many critics grandstand in public during the day criticizing the government. At night, they are in government house to lobby for their dogs. If you get the appointment purely on merit like I did, you will be bold to face up and talk where needed. But when your appointment is given to you based on some cunny criticism, you will not be able to speak up afterwards.
What is your opinion on the controversies surrounding the ongoing anti-corruption war?
At least, two former governors are in prison as we speak. Number two, you need to know how much government has recovered from those who tampered with our money in the past. So much has been recovered. Just that the government is not spending the recovered money. They are worried about legal implications. Let these people go to court if they can. There are outstanding projects we can spend such monies on in the interest of Nigerians. We were just talking about NTA now. Let such money be spent on projects. But I disagree with the aspect of abandoning prosecution of politicians once they join the ruling party. That is not good for the crusade. That on its own is corruption.
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