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Stanley Macebuh: The Brightest and the Best

Image removed.Every Nigerian journalist has a little Stanley Macebuh in him or her.  All you have to do is scratch a little.  I have had mine for 27 years.  In 1982, one year after we met, he and I agreed to a simultaneous interview.  He would interview me for a position at a paper to be called “The Guardian,” and I would interview him for a forthcoming feature page in The Punch to be called “Prime.” 
I was not really interested in “The Guardian” at all; I was trying to demonstrate a certain kind of regular news feature, no longer than half a page, to my editor.  [My first filed feature was an investigation of Nigeria Television Authority’s “Network News; it had required nearly 30 hours.]

Stanley, as everyone called him, was my first choice for a personality segment that was called “Prime People.”

And now, I confess: our joint interview was convened in front of a bottle of cognac, which was opened at the scene.  In front of my visiting friend, Femi Dada, Stanley and I began our session at 10 a.m. in his Ilupeju home.  For about eight hours, as we annexed nearly an entire bottle of Remy Martin—I was 27, and felt no pain—I talked to him about the world and his place in it.

Years later, at The Guardian, the point came up, and he joked that he had offered me the job because he figured that a man that could insist on a bottle of cognac at his own job interview couldn’t be all that bad. 

That was 27 years ago.  It is difficult to be humble in describing the quality of the team that Stanley assembled to give birth to his dream, and of which I became a humble part.  The truth is that he was not a man who thought in small terms or who dreamt small dreams. 

His mission was of a serious, influential newspaper that would become one of the world’s top publications, and he had no room for failure.  He was convinced that Nigeria needed a newspaper that was capable of lighting the way by the flawlessness of its reporting and the depth of its advocacy. 

That was why, himself a man of tremendous intellectual guile, he seemed to associate only with people he deeply respected, or could respect.  Resenting and rejecting the negative practices he had observed in the profession, he decided he would develop his own reporting corps, and limit hiring established reporters.  He said he was looking for “the brightest and the best.”  As the entire nation came to know, he did find his diamonds—older or younger—and he polished them himself. 

He evidently felt strongly about the merits of republican democracy, and knew that a liberal paper such as The Guardian could help to nourish it.  That was also why the newspaper developed the “Simply Mr.” policy.  Although it would soon be abandoned, owing partly to problems in the management of it, “Simply Mr.” was very favorably received.  Nearly 30 years later, in a society in which publishers and editors are falling over each other to present “awards” to perverted politicians and bogus businessmen, it is not surprising nobody else has had the courage to attempt it.  

Stanley was particular about character.  Reporters at The Guardian were trained not just to report, but also to represent the newspaper, and their profession, with dignity.  Every reporter knew, on Day One, that the mere suspicion that he may have been involved with “brown envelope” reporting was sufficient to have him fired.  “You will be given a fair trial,” Editorial Page Editor Onwuchekwa Jemie joked, “and then hanged!”

Stanley did not take chances.  A rigorous house style was developed long before the newspaper took off.  When it went daily, he eliminated “next morning” newsstand regret by deploying members of the Editorial Board into the production dungeons in the middle of the night.  Later on, he also appointed an Ombudsman charged with monitoring the paper and publishing a weekly quality-control critique. 

It did not take long to understand that although Stanley seemed focused on Nigeria, his vision was much broader.  And although his platform was journalism, his target was society.   And it was actually the offer of such an opportunity to the many excellent people he hired that enabled him to sell The Guardian to them.  

In only a few weeks on the market, beginning in February 1983, the newspaper had demonstrated that it truly meant to be the “flagship of the Nigerian press.”  It was refreshing to meet government officials and be treated with respect, and not just as a “press boy.”   It was rewarding when you found out how much one of the paper’s detailed investigations or an editorial commentary was helping to change things. 

By the time Stanley left The Guardian, he had changed the journalist’s sense of self as well as the public’s perception of the profession.  I believe that his vision is validated by the fact that not only did he re-define what the journalist was; he was also able to reach back and reinvigorate even those professionals who were older than he.  The arrival of The Guardian re-energized the press.

In my view, that is why every journalist alive today is a professional relative of Stanley’s: you are either someone that he has inspired, or you are standing next to someone with a direct bloodline.  For the past generation, journalism has been Stanley’s trade. 

President Olusegun Obasanjo got this point in his tributes to Stanley.  “For many years after his retirement from active journalism, the pinnacles of the profession in our country remained dominated by those who had been positively influenced, directly or indirectly, by his great professional sagacity and integrity,” he said.  He further stated that as far back as when he was our military Head of State, he enjoyed the “brilliance, quality and style of [Macebuh’s] writing.”

To be sure, Stanley was not always a success, even in journalism, and certainly not by his standards. Following The Guardian, he is known to have tried his hands on other projects, but none of them came close to his accomplishments at Rutam House.  I think I know why, but that is another story.

Obasanjo also wrote of Stanley: "Later through his distinguished public service, as my Senior Special Assistant at the helm of affairs as the civilian President of Nigeria between 1999 and 2007, Stanley earned the recognition and admiration of many of his compatriots across the length and breadth of Nigeria. He was a dutiful and hardworking fellow and gave his very best to the end in the service of his fatherland. Ever resourceful, trustworthy and conducting himself with humility, Stanley has left an indelible mark in his national assignment at the Federal level."

It is tragic to consider that in two tours of duty as leader of Nigeria spanning 31 years—including 20 years in which to think about everything—Obasanjo did not once find Stanley worthy of a spot in any of his annual National Honours list.  If someone with the public profile of Stanley could not once in 11 years be honoured by a double-talking leader, how do ordinary “ever-resourceful, trustworthy and humble” Nigerians accomplish such a feat?

But last week, it was not only Obasanjo’s tribute that attracted my attention.  Announcing his death, The Nation said Stanley died “a pauper.”
He was not, but The Nation was measuring in Naira and kobo, a currency Stanley did not respect.  However, if Stanley died a poor man after serving a government in which petty criminals routinely became billionaires, it means he stayed true to principle. 

Had he wished it, he could have been immensely wealthy.  But he had no such ambition; he was neither a crowd-follower nor a thief.  He was a humanist and think who dreamt of retiring by age 50 to write books.  It is a peculiarly Nigerian irony that such a remarkable and gracious transformer can be so casually dismissed.
Pauper?  No.  Prophet? Yes.  Hopefully, this prophet will be honoured by his own. 
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