I was some way through the conclusion of the series on eye problems when Mr George Akintobi informed me of breaking news… Alex Ibru was gone!
A few minutes later, the editor of a newspaper telephoned me for comments. I was numb, and apologised that I wasn’t in the mood for comments. He apologised and called off. My mind had been set on the breaking news on Dr. Contreras, the central figure in a book on how he had been healing HIV and cancer patients with coconut oil, yes coconut oil. This is the same doctor the American Medical Association hounded out of the United States to Mexico for healing cancer with laterile. I planned to quickly break this news, especially as Dr. Contreras is now the toast of American media, the same medical stone once rejected, and then wrap it up with possible healing for eye problems in homeopathic cell salts. Well, all of that will now have to come next week. What breaking news could be bigger than Alex Uruemu Ibru, I reasoned. As the numbness disappeared, I remembered the man who told me he made all the money he needed in his life at 27. I remembered the young man who told his big brother, Olorogun Michael Ibru, he wanted to buy a Rolls Royce. I remembered he told me Olorogun thought he was too young to own a Royce. How would his brothers take it, having no Rolls? Alex said he asked Olorogun if it was alright if he bought his and theirs. Olorogun thought that was impossible, and gave his blessing. Alex bought five Rolls in one day, one for each of his brothers, himself and Olorogun!. At his home in Chelsea, England, he showed me his custom-made car which was much bigger than a Rolls Royce, and I told him he would be stoned on the roads of Lagos if he drove it there. He said, even in England, policemen saluted him in it.
That was the Alex Ibru I worked with, not worked for, between 1983 and 1999. There’s a huge difference between working with and working for. When you work for, you are a slave, you may be owned. By 1977, I had known no one owned anything, not even his or her life, children, wife or husband, even property. Working with, you work for yourself, working as if the company belongs to you, one day expecting the reward not from the employer, but from the application for personal ends of the inner heat you have generated working in love, and not out of the enslaving compulsion of duty.
Alexander Uruene Ibru founded The Guardian newspaper in 1983 at a time many journalists of conscience were fed up with manipulations of the The Daily Times, then the leading newspaper, by the National Party of Nigeria (NPN).
Umaru Dikko was leading our editor, Martin Iroabuchi, by the nose. One of the directors could take your secretary on a trip abroad without any notice and you dared not raise a finger against her. Martin often demanded that headlines be submitted to complete strangers to the organisation for vetting. The News Editor, Felix Odiari, had links to Moshood Kasimawo Abiola (MKO). Bamanga Tukur had his own insiders. If you didn’t belong to any NPN clique, you were thought to belong to Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria, diminished in status and castrated as it were. Lade Bonuola was put down, and sent to work under a former subordinate. So, the coming of The Guardian was a professionally rejuvenating experience. This is not the time to tell the story of The Guardian. I am even one of the least competent to tell it, although I gave to it 17 years of my most creative and adventurous years.
Until a few years before my departure from The Guardian, I deliberately avoided direct dealings with Mr. Ibru. I was at various times Assistant Editor, Editor, Executive Director/Editor and Director of Publications/ Editor-in-chief. I was, and still is, a systems man. I’d rather report to the Publisher/Chairman, Alex Ibru, through my boss, Lade Bonuola. My job was to generate editorial and business ideas which would make The Guardian first choice newspaper in the market, and I think I did that to the best of my abilities. But Mr. Ibru always sought to work past the bosses, and the difficulties he had with me in that regard would make him conclude Bonuola and Kusa were two inseperable sides of a hardy coin, contrary to the reality of both of us being diametrically apposite people in many respects.
Many people saw Mr. Ibru as shrewd and unfeeling when he would be expected to lavish his money on his workers. Such people had no business instincts. Alex Ibru would spend working capital on nothing but the business. I didn’t see his riches, let alone think of them or desire his crumbs. To me, he was just a human spirit privileged in this earth life to be entrusted with resources of Creation for the welfare of creatures of the Most High God. If he didn’t use them the way he was meant to, that was a matter between him and his Maker. This concept of wealth, which he and I often discussed, led him to coin the slogan, "God’s Money", which many staff of The Guardian often heard from him any time he had to square up against rippers of the company, sometimes ruthlessly. In this regard, he meant they were stealing from the Creator and it was his duty, as custodian, to stop them. I remember him dispatching Kingsley Osadolor to Zimbabwe in pursuit of a circulation clerk who fled from Warri or Ughelli when he was found out. His connections in the government of Zimbabwe paid off. I had no problem with "God’s Money". I was brought up to be content with the little I had and to loathe subsistence on the crumbs from another man’s table, whether freely given or stolen. Thus, I had to sell ice block, vegetable, chewing stick, palm oil, coconut and egg and raise pigs to keep my family going during General Sanni Abacha’s proscription of The Guardian for one year. Alex had thought suffering would break our spirit to the point that we would beg Abacha for our lives.
So shrewd was Mr. Ibru as a businessman at the time I became editor of The Guardian that my salary was not topped to reflect the new office and extra workload until one year after when the company grudgingly made a token addition with only about three months arrears. The company simply said it had no money. I was not alone. Eluem Emeka Izeze, now Managing Director, was appointed editor of the Sunday title and Mitchell Obi was appointed editor of the afternoon title, Guardian Express. I earned Mr. Ibru’s respect because I did not seek to make the company spend on me money it said was not available for spending. I asked Mr. Ibru if he would let me have a say in the budget of the newsroom if income in the following year exceeded his target, and he agreed, believing it was impossible, given the trends. He had just had a rumpus with Dr. Stanley Macebuh over the company’s commercial viability. Many people thought we should bury our pride and accept obituary advertisements to earn four pages of advertisements every day to make us viable. I raised no objection, but looked beyond this scenario I had been tutored spiritually that competition and covetousness were the major causes of crises in man’s affairs. Trying to take the obituary market from either The Daily Times or the burgeoning National Concord would exhaust us, we would not hit the target and Mr. Ibru would be impatient, if not angrier than he was with Dr. Macebuh. The sky was broad enough for all birds to fly in and not collide. Why not discover and nurture your own market? I had been studying the Columbia University Journalism Review and the Washington Journalism Review for trends in American and European newspapering which helped them survive the onslaught on radio and television. I saw that these newspapers were abandoning age old aloofness and connecting to society and the business class to create editorial/business niches for themselves which made every day of the week brandable as a product such as, say, Maggi or Milo. That was not being done in Nigerian newspapers. They all pursed, like a herd, public news, creating no variety or niches. I cannot detail here the many tortuous steps and sleepness nights it took to brand Monday as a PROPERTY day in The Guardian. My respect and grateful thanks for its success, like that of many other days of the week, Tuesday in particular, go to Mrs. Harriet Lawrence, Architect Paul Okunlola, Mr. Raheem Adedoyin, Mr. Jide Ogundele, Mr. Dele Babatunde and the likes of them who stoutly withstood acrimonious personal attacks from the rigid advertising department. Emeka Izeze was to replicate this idea with a Section for computers and information technology on the Sunday title which he edited. We made good money by the standards of those days. Mr. Ibru permitted three pay rises in one year. We bought 42 plots of land at Isheri from OPIC for staff who had spent five years with the company, and five hectares for the GNL to build a Guardian staff village. Had The Guardian flame been permitted to burn on, perhaps we would have had a more buoyant paper than The Guardian is today. Ethnic and religious jingoists detrailed the train after taking Alex Ibru hostage. Gen. Abacha also made a mince meat of it.
Mr. Ibru in my view exposed The Guardian to Abacha’s danger. Perhaps unknown to Alex Ibru, Abacha wanted a formidable newspaper such as The Guardian to back his venture to sweep away Gen. Ibrahim Babangida contrived Interim National Government (ING) of Ernest Shonekan. I remember vividly an emergency meeting of the caucus of the Editorial Board to which Mr. Ibru summoned four of us… Lade Bonuola. Femi Kusa, Dr. Tunji Dare and Andy Akporugo. Akporugo was a "yes" man any day, and employed fear for top editorial people to keep Alex Ibru tightly under his armpit. He always asked in the newsroom if anyone had seen a Yoruba company in which an Urhobo man was managing director. One day, he and Bonuola almost came to blows at an editorial board meeting. Akporugo once told Tunji Dare Mr. Ibru had sent him to ask Tunji to resign one of his two powerful appointments… Chairman, Editorial Board, and Executive Director of Guardian Newspaper Ltd (GNL). Dr. Dare was lucky he discussed the matter with Lade Bonuola, then, I believe, GNL MD. Mr. Bonuola asked Dr. Dare two simple questions: Are your appointments not Board appointments, and has the Board met over such a question? Dr. Dare thanked Bonuola and went his way. Had Alex Ibru always played on level field, would such a confusionist have arisen in our ranks? Lest I derail, at that said emergency meeting, Alex Ibru said he had learned Abacha wanted to take over government the following day, and asked for an editorial opinion to be published hours before the general struck, telling him not to dare it. The editorial was published in the morning as requested, and in the 4.0’clock news Alex Ibru’s name was mentioned on national radio as having been appointed Minister of Internal Affairs! Dr. Dare was to say afterwards that, from the manner Mr. Ibru spoke to him at a diplomatic party one or two days before that emergency meeting, it was clear the publisher was privy to his appointment, and may have accepted it!
My next shocking experience with Alex Ibru was to come – He freely went into politics. I recall suggesting to him at the Editorial Board meeting he attended to say he was going, that he should resign from GNL Board so as not to drag The Guardian along. He humbly did. But he would love us to come to Abuja to "brainstorm" with him. I do not know if anyone agreed. Without my knowledge, he got my deputy, Kingsley Osadolor, to go to Abuja. And the resultant copy, INSIDE ASO ROCK, which Mr Osadolar did not clear with me before publication, perhaps because the matter was beyond me anyway, led to Abacha’s proscription of The Guardian.
Mr Ibru failed to take personal responsibility for this event. He would rather see the proscription as caused by the pro-democracy stance of the newspaper. It was even speculated that he was toying with the idea of neutralising Yoruba elements in senior positions to re-assure Abacha he had ridden the paper of his enemies. Before then, he called a meeting to demand the directors and editors go to Abuja to beg Abacha to re-open The Guardian. Abacha had been under international pressure to let go. But he was seeking a local explanation for the reopening. The Punch, too was under lock and key. The journalists at The Punch voted not to go, and they didn’t. Alex Ibru scooped the editors of The Guardian to his side. At a Board meeting to resolve the disagreement of Lade Bonuola, Mr Ibru asked him rather roughly and crudely to resign his office as Managing Director if he would not go. The question was: does one bow one’s spirit before evil for the sake of bread and butter!. Lade Bonuola looked Alex Ibru straight in the eyes, and resigned his appointment as Managing Director of The Guardian.
Alex Ibru didn’t expect it. Silence fell. The fighter that he was, Alex Ibru turned to me and appointed me Managing Director of The Guardian. It took me by surprise. I had expected he would find a way to mend fences with Bonuola. Alex Ibru should have known I am not a man who, for a pot of porridge, hacks down the man above to inherit his estate. It was one of those occasions in my life when my brimming spirit gave no room to the intellect. I rejected the offer and said, having rejected it, it was only honourable for me to resign my appointment as Director of Publications/Editor-in-Chief. It is that man whose faith in God has not become conviction in Him who fears the morrow and goes for the crumbs. My resignation generated uproar. Mr Ibru was shouting and sweating. He called me an ingrate, said he made me editor against the wishes of Macebuh and others. I replied that I didn’t beg to be editor, or know of any intrigues he swept away for me. In any case, didn’t I justify my appointment? Didn’t the company become profitable in the first year of my editorship of the newspaper? Dr. Tuji Dare, Sully Abu and Eddy Madunagu did not attend the meeting, wishing to be identified as having even contemplated the idea, and having resigned their Board appointments hitherto. Mr Ososami, a director and childhood friend of Alex Ibru, brokered peace, advising we went for lunch during which rioting emotions would have calmed. We did. During lunch time, Alex Ibru was saved by Nicholas Iduwe, the director who managed printing aspects, from taking a rash decision that may have drowned The Guardian. Ibru told Iduwe he would call the bluff and make Andy Akporugo Managing Director. Iduwe screamed, and told Alex many reasons why he should not. He suggested instead that he mend fences with Bonuola. Alex Ibru saw reason through his anger, and agreed. But he made a bad unmanagerial mistake in telling Akporugo what Iduwe had said of him. Akporugo was angry, and waited for an opportunity to punish Iduwe. Iduwe and Alex Ibru soon had a disagreement. Ibru wanted directors of The Guardian to adjudicate. Bonuola declined on the grounds that the matter was private, not corporate enough to warrant our attention. Alex Ibru angrily transferred the inquisition to the directors of Federal Palace Hotel, a sister company of which he, also, was chairman. Those directors nailed Iduwe, calling for his retirement. Alex Ibru brought the "judgment" back to Bonuola, asking him to implement it. Bonuola declined again. Alex Ibru then got Mr Oritshani, Admin Controller to do the dirty job. The man did! Alex was determined to break this intransigence. But he didn’t have the opportunity before his shooting. It was nevertheless on his mind, and, using Akporugo, it was one of his first acts on returning from exile in England. He dissolved the Board which had faithfully held the fort for him, turned directors into Consultants who were to only advise their juniors who were immediately upgraded as new helmsmen of the company. It was a way of telling the old guard that if they had any sense of shame, it was time to go. Some of us did.
There was jubilation in The Guardian. But I do not think it took long before the new helmsmen experience Mr Ibru. It is not my place to try to know what went on after my departure. I haven’t set foot on the grounds of The Guardian since my exit about 13 years ago. A dog doesn’t return to its vomit, it is said. But suffice it to say Mr Alex Ibru’s departure would have as much profound effects on the company as his presence. The challenge before the new managers should be to turn it into a real institution, one with checks and balances, not the one that looks like one on the outside but is not within the perimeter fencing.
The best bet may be for the family to make it a PUBLIC TRUST as Alex Ibru so often dreamed. Maiden, the widow, should learn to be wary of all the do-gooder sympathisers. I send her and the Ibru brothers and sisters heart-felt wishes for inner strength to go through this season.