Just before 5:00am on Sunday April 28, 2013, I came off bed to read one of Nigeria’s greatest minds tell us that “If you are a regular reader of this column, you might like to know that this is the final time I will be writing it in this form. I have been here for a while, beginning with a contribution to this page 30 years ago in the maiden issue of The Guardian on Sunday.”
What?! Mr. Sonala Olumhense is giving up his column, or giving up writing? I wasn’t too sure. In less than 48-hours, I sent him a private mail. He responded. We exchanged a few missives after thereafter.
In September 2005, when I wanted an essay of mine published on the pages of The Guardian, I sought him out. The essay was published. A few years after that, he took time off of his busy schedule to meet with me and treat me to lunch at a restaurant in Manhattan, New York. He didn’t know it, but I was nervous for the first three minutes or so. After all, he is Sonala Olumhense – a man whose three decades of lucidity and coherence has had a great impact on our country, especially on the reading public and on governance.
There is something about excellent journalism and fine writing that makes me happy, hopeful, and joyful. Even though I spent ages 7-21 within close proximity of member of the Nigerian Armed Forces, none of its branches fascinated me enough. And while some of my childhood friends wanted to be Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, JP Clark, Gabriel Okara, Chinua Achebe, or the fellow who wrote “The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born,” (Ayi Kwei Armah), I wanted to be a Babatunde Jose or a Dele Giwa -- or any of the firebrands who poked and jabbed the military.
As far as I was concerned, journalists, as with other members of the intelligentsia, were the people who made society better. I knew then, as I know now, that journalists – especially the well-trained, the inquisitive, the principled, and the activist-types – are, to a very large extend, more useful and serves a better purpose than very many politicians. The Fourth Estate, as Edmund Burke calls them, are indispensable to good governance, to the democratic process, and to the overall wellbeing of a civilized society.
Without journalists and the intellectual class, society may stagnate, or even regress. It needs men of conscience. It needs men and women of courage and who are forthright in their thinking and in whatever advice or suggestions they may proffer. Great journalists fight for the common man and for the common good. They fight for the people. They stand for and with the truth. Hence, every society needs men like Sonala Olumhense.
Mr. Olumhense is an author and a writer. He is also a journalist. But he is not your run of the mill type of journalist. He is also not the brown-envelope type, either. He is a very fine journalist. He is one of the very best that has ever come out of Nigeria.
As a man of the written-word, he has a style that is not very common: he is never angry, grouchy, or pretentious. And he is neither condescending nor arrogant. He is smooth and deep and always educative. He is what those in the know call “the genuine article.” He is an original! Whatever Sonala is writing about – people, places, events or ideas – he brings with him clarity and profundity. He explains things in ways and manner that is simple, yet engaging. And there has never been a complex subject he cannot make simple and easy to understand.
We know of journalists who deliberately make themselves the focus of the news. Not him. Some three decades into his professional life, he rarely brings attention to himself. It is never about him; but about the ideas and phenomena he chooses to examine. If you’ve never read him, you should. If you don’t know him, then, you probably don’t know many decent human beings.
Mr. Olumhense holds a Bachelor of Science degree in political science (University of Ibadan, 1978). He was a MSC-Mass Communication student at the University of Lagos. He completed the program but the demands of life made it impossible for him to submit a dissertation. Since 2003, he has been a researcher at the Permanent Mission of Indonesia to the United Nations, New York.
What follows is a brief Q/A between us:
Why did you go into journalism, and was it your first choice in terms of profession. In your formative years, who were your heroes/heroines and why?
I discovered journalism when I was in elementary school. I knew, immediately and indubitably, that it was what I wanted to do. It was not my first choice; it was the only one. My early professional hero was Peter Enahoro, who was 22 when he became editor at the Daily Times. I loved the wonder of his wit; the width of his wisdom; and the confidence of his conviction.
Looking back, in what ways has journalism changed – assuming it has changed for good and or for bad?
I think it has changed for the worse. On account of the technologies available today, journalism is a much easier trade in which to excel, and to make a profit. At my first job at The Sunday Punch in 1979, for instance, we did not even have a phone. The most significant concern for me is that Nigerian journalism now sometimes sounds like a bulletin of the Ministry of Information. Stories are not about what is being done or not done—or who is responsible for them—but quotations of government officials and smirking spokesmen. There are few, if any, investigations; where there is one, there is no follow-up. Journalism is not institutionally hunting down the big stories. In the tradition in which I was raised, government officials feared journalists; today, journalists fear government officials. Ask yourself why.
What was so great about The Guardian; and are there basis for comparison between “then and now”?
The Guardian was extremely ambitious. The idea was not merely to be a good newspaper; Nigeria already had those. We were motivated by the highest professional standards of the mainstream media, aiming to report thoroughly, authoritatively and fearlessly. If a reporter did not ask all the questions going into his copy, he knew he would be asked those questions—perhaps loudly—in the newsroom, a reputation-crusher he could not afford. Beyond him, news editors and rewrite people would rigorously cross-check facts, background, and parallel stories.
Today, most Nigerian newspapers merely pretend to be reporting society, careful to avoid all the big stories that invariably lead back, or forward, to the privileged and the powerful. Sometimes, this has to do with the ownership structure of our media houses, but its effect is that Nigeria is grossly under-reported.
There are more than a dozen public intellectuals and commentators who, on a daily basis, criticize and bemoan what Nigeria has become. Are they correct in their assessment of the country?
This question suggests that these people have a uniform view of our conundrum. I am not sure that is true, but I am sure when they lament the decay of our society, they are correct. We are a fallen people, and we have fallen far more scandalously than most people care to admit. It is important to bemoan this tragedy as a historical record, so as to document its nature in a permanent way.
Many journalists have gone on to accept political appointment. Have you ever sought or been offered political appointment – or ever been offered appointment as Press Secretary or Spokesperson at the state or national level.
I have never sought a political appointment but have indeed been made an offer I could not accept. While in principle I will always be available to serve my country, I am neither a bounty hunter nor can I serve people for whom I have no respect or take a job in order to help rob the people. I have great faults, but I am neither a charlatan nor an interloper; I do not know how to praise in public people I loathe in private.
Why do you live and work – and continue to live and work in the United States -- as opposed to Nigeria or the West African sub-region?
Time and circumstance, my friend. Once you are displaced in Nigeria, whether by travel, the Ikeja cantonment explosions, violence in your area, or flooding, you can become permanently displaced. I live abroad principally because of my family, but I would be delighted to work in Nigeria, and I am working towards that direction.
Your most recent essay seems to indicate that you are leaving The Guardian (which has been your primary home for the last three decades). Are you, and why?
Yes and No. I am working on something a little different from what I have done in the past, but there is no reason I cannot still publish in The Guardian if there is agreement by both sides.
My hope is that Mr. Olumhense continues to be associated with the journalism profession. And I also think that whatever the areas of contention are with The Guardian, they can and should be resolved. As perhaps the busiest, the largest and most enterprising media market in Africa, Nigeria cannot afford to lose minds and talents such as his.