Exactly 30 years ago, I began a career in journalism. It is fascinating to think that some of the people born during that year, 1979, run today’s newsrooms. I had always wanted to be a journalist. In 1979, I considered myself to be luckier than any newcomer in any field: I had the job I wanted at the address of my desire. Thirty years ago, The Punch was the nation’s journal of choice. It was the newspaper with the swagger, the swashbuckling destination for the new age journalist. Some of today’s biggest doers in the press had something to do with The Punch at that time.
Personally, I attribute my early progress to the fact that The Punch was a nurturing environment, and I found many willing teachers. I give credit to Mr. Sam Amuka, now publisher of Vanguard newspapers. As the Managing Editor of The Punch, he was a natural nurse.
In addition to his eager sub-editor’s pen, he was the “3, 5 & 7 Kakawa Street” icon who quickly transformed himself into a manager and publisher. If you were willing to learn, Mr. Amuka was willing to nourish. Among others, I found his London Box, the stash of foreign publications he imported every week, to be an easy classroom from which to learn from some of the best in my trade.
But at Onipetesi, my job was not to write the news or edit it. I had not been brought in to plan pages or proof-read them. Although I hungered to learn all those things, my contract was to write features. And then I became a columnist. For most of the past 30 years, I have written a column somewhere or another.
Writing a newspaper column is a remarkable opportunity, and some people have cashed the cheque. It can also be a painful window through which to observe the world, especially if that world were Nigeria.
What have I learned? That the two most powerful forces in a democratic society are the government, and journalism. It took me only months to realize that being an independent journalist or columnist is almost a contradiction in terms, as there are always forces willing to possess your soul.
I have learned that Nigeria is the easiest country in the world for a journalist to grow rich, because all you have to do is determine whether you are selling, or for sale. Journalism thrives on truth and a sense of responsibility to the public. A great part of the collapse of Nigeria’s public life—and our looming collapse as a nation—is attributable to the crumbling of the journalist’s sense of self.
At 24, my motivation was to grow as a journalist. I had no other plan, no other dream, and no other desire. To me, it was the most important profession in the world, and the most important thing I would ever do. Today, a 24-year old Nigerian who is taking up journalism has a short lifespan. He is coming into a siege with no crisis-management training. His country runs an American-style constitution, but it only bears the same relationship with the American system as Pidgin English bears to English: a converted, convoluted version. It is the same in framework and in name, but not in principle. In the absence of accountability, democracy is comedy – without any laughter.
In 1979, President Shehu Shagari, was to be found in the presidential palace, surrounded by his government. When we wrote columns and editorials, they concerned public policy. Thirty years later, Umaru Yar’Adua is lying on a hospital bed in Saudi Arabia, under anaesthesia, in the hands of an army of foreign doctors. Journalists have no nation to talk about because he is lying on it.
At home, nobody is in charge. We have no government. And we have no government even when Yar’Adua claims to be in the neighborhood. The most powerful forces in the country are discredited former state and federal officials who should be in jail. But they are so rich and connected—and have so much time on their hands—that they often determine federal policy. They obtain choice government contracts.
What have I learned? In 1979, we thought the likes of Joseph Wayas and Edwin Ume- Ezeoke were pompous, ponderous heads at the Senate and the House of Representatives. Today, the legislature is run by the crooks of the party who specialize in the unwritten rules.
The economy, like the government, is in the hands of speculators and manipulators who know the private cell-phone numbers of bank chief executives and where their expensive private jets will land next. No graft is too large to be negotiated into silence within the PDP and their government, or buried in their brotherhood.
In 30 years, I have been amazed at how often governments identified corruption as the menace that is tying our nation down. The NPN spoke darkly of an “ethical revolution.” Buhari’s government launched a “War Against Indiscipline.” Babangida launched Mass Mobilization for Self Reliance, Social Justice, and Economic Recovery (MAMSER). Obasanjo claimed an offensive against corruption; a ruse Yar’Adua is continuing.
Having observed them closely through the years, it is not difficult to see how contradictory, empty and hypocritical each of them has been. Nigeria’s ethical barrenness is reflected in how easy our crooks advance. When Aesop said, “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office,” he must have been talking about Nigeria.
WAI was on its way to doing well, but Buhari had other selfish interests: he established Decree 2 to detain anyone he defined as a threat; and Decree 4 by which, in his own words, he intended to “tamper” with press freedom.
Babangida’s final coup, the annulment of the 1992 elections, was not his biggest. To that honour went his MAMSER, which, he said, would “re-orientate Nigerians to shun waste and vanity and to shed all pretenses of affluence in their lifestyle, to propagate the need to eschew all vices in public life, including corruption, dishonesty, electoral and census malpractices, ethnic and religious bigotry.”
I have marveled at how deeply IBB was guilty of each of those: including dragging a non-Islamic nation into the Organization of the Islamic Conference, throwing the nation into confusion it has never recovered from, and re-emerging in 2007 with tomato fruits big enough between his legs to claim he would run for the presidency.
What have I learned? Obasanjo did not come to save Nigeria: he came to take from Nigeria what he regretted he left behind in 1979. And to ensure that nobody can productively follow his trail, he installed what, in my 30th year, ranks as perhaps the most bewildering pretend-government since independence: Yar’Adua’s circus.
Through these years, it is obvious that journalism has not kept faith. Journalists are better-paid, when they are paid, but journalism is not as authoritative as it used to be. A part of the problem is that there are far too many crooks per journalist in Nigeria. This means that for employment, the conscientious journalist is often having to make a choice between those that live to kill, and those that just kill. Many publishers have no interest in journalism; they just want a tool for self-propagation. Today, those publishers—who are often discredited former public officials— employ two categories of journalists: those they put to work on their journals, and those errand-boys they call “media aides.”
And then there is the element of greed and opportunism: those Nigerians who, having identified journalism as the shortest route to public influence and private substance, come in to devalue its assets. They accept gifts of cash, chieftaincy titles, hotel rooms, land, flight tickets, and women.
But the saddest moment, for me, is when I reflect on all remarkable and gifted journalists I have known in the past 30 who simply disappeared into Nigeria, and never came back. Some of them make far more money elsewhere, and some have become the crooks they loathed, but they know they are forever denied the joy that only journalism, and a newsroom, can inspire.
Journalism can be frustrating in Nigeria, but I knew that fact, 30 years ago. For that reason, I also knew it would impose sacrifice, and could not be for everybody.
Most of all, I knew then, as I know now, that no matter how far I travel, and in what direction, I will never stray from journalism. I know that this profession can assist the rebirth of Nigeria, but first, journalists must stand strong, and stand by Nigeria. And so, to Nigeria, my family, friends, and four children, I, Sonala Olumhense, swear never to sell: whatever price they may bid, and in whatever currency.