By Tony Ademiluyi
‘Sola check Thisday. Your article is there.’ This was the voice of Lagos Lawyer and former Editorial Board Member of Thisday, Barrister Sonnie Ekwowusi.
The day was Saturday and day, January 6, 2007. My debut article ‘If I were Pat Utomi’ was published in the opinion page. It was an advice from my humble self to the then presidential candidate, Prof. Pat Utomi and heralded my entry into the world of opinion writing. At the time I was still a starry-eyed undergraduate of the University of Lagos and thought I could change the world through my pen. My journalists role models locally at the time included Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe a.k.a the Great Zik of Africa, Dele Giwa who was tragically bombed to his untimely demise by yet to be identified murderers, Peter Enahoro a.k.a Peter Pan, Sam Amuka-Pemu a.k.a Sad Sam, Dr. Reuben Abati, Pini Jason among many others. Across the Atlantic, I greatly admired Larry King, Piers Morgan, and Sean Hannity.
Initially, I wanted my article published in the Guardian as I regarded it rightly or wrongly as the country’s numero uno newspaper. Ekwowusi was initially a columnist with Guardian and he tried his best including taking me to the Guardian to meet with Abati who was the Editorial Board Chairman at the time. Abati wasn’t around on that day and I met his personal secretary, Matthew Ozah now the paper’s Editorial Page Editor whom I struck a lifelong friendship with.
Ekwowusi then convinced me to write for Thisday as he had recently ‘ported’ there and made an Editorial Board Member.
Before his plea, I really didn’t notice Thisday because of my passionate fixation with the Guardian. My curiosity in Thisday was piqued because of Ekwowusi’s persistent appeal and so being a good student of history, I decided to research extensively on the profile of its Publisher, Prince Nduka Obaigbena.
I was awe struck that he commenced his journalism career at the tender age of 19 at an age where many of his contemporaries were still thinking about what to do with their lives. He started as a satirist with the then Bendel State Government owed Observer. His cartoon ‘Leke Leke’ was an instant hit with its teeming readers and for his efforts he was able to buy a car which he cruised with gusto at the University of Benin where he was then a student of creative arts.
It is instructive to note that he turned down an opportunity offered him by his civil servant father to toe the path of his four elder brothers by studying in the United States. Talk about seeing opportunities in a hitherto ‘barren land’ as he preferred at the time to be a King in a pond rather than being a small fry in the ocean. Why face racial discrimination, poverty, alienation from your roots in the name of studying in Uncle Sam rather than being a King with a bevy of beautiful damsels at your beck and call in addition to having access to local celebrities as well as the elite.
His leadership trait manifested very early in his illustrious journalism career when the government of Bendel State fired his then journalism mentor, Chuks Okuwa. The Prince of Owa resigned from the Observer in protest and used his funds to launch The Dawn Magazine which was a monthly and made Okuwa the Editor. It is not for nothing that they say Obaigbena is extremely loyal to his friends. It didn’t start today as he has proven over the decades like old wine to have the back of his friends and loyalists.
After his studies in the early 1980s, he took the unpopular route of relocating to the UK which was not the norm then. At the time the newspapers in the country were the Daily Times, Concord which made its debut in 1980, Punch which was on the newsstands since 1973, Tribune on ground since 1949. Guardian later came on board in 1983 followed by Vanguard in 1984. The magazines on the stands at the time were Lagos Weekend, a pull out of the Daily Times which saturated Nigerian homes on weekends and Newsbreed published by Lawyer and Publisher, Chris Okolie.
Obaigbena, a visionary saw the local media space having played in it albeit at a regional level as aforementioned while in the university saw himself as a global player and decided to take the bull by the horn and like the Biblical Abraham went on a road less travelled.
While in the UK he worked with NAL Advertising, Mike Jarvis and Partners which was a top PR firm, the legendary Newsweek and Time Magazines. He learnt the ropes of international journalism from advertising to public relations to running magazines and on his 27th birthday on July 14th 1986 took the nation by storm with the launching of Thisweek Magazine – an all-glossy magazine with a bias for politics and business.
His greatest competitor was Newswatch founded by the quartet of the late Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed, and Ray Ekpu. The Duke of Journalism as he is fondly called took no prisoners and wasn’t afraid of challenges. He assembled a galaxy of star journalists poached from his larger rivals. The likes of Uzo Maxim Uzoatu, Pini Jason of blessed memory, Sonala Olumhense, came from the Guardian, Tunji Lardner, Azuka Jebose Molokwu came from Punch. Lanre Idowu came in from the United States Information Service. The paper was printed in London and airfreighted back to Nigeria. It was a readers delight which heralded the birth of the Nduka Obaigbena school of journalism where his detribalized nature gave everyone an equal chance to succeed and shine like the Shakesperean northern star.
The IMF inspired Structural Adjustment Program which was put in place by the then Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida led regime killed the economic viability of the grand project. Five years down the line, his critics dismissed the young and flamboyant Duke as a failed publisher and politician as his 1991 senatorial bid where he had a famous duel with the now late Chris Okolie hit the rocks.
Ever a change maker, he initially saw politics as a platform to selflessly serve his people but decided to ditch in favour of the media which was not only his genuine calling but offered a broader platform for service especially as his eyes have always been global.
In 1995, Thisday was launched and the naysayers went to town again opining that the entry of the then new newspaper was rather opportunistic as his competitors – Punch, and Guardian were off the newsstands having been proscribed by the General Sani Abacha regime and Concord was going through distressing times with its publisher, Chief M.K.O Abiola behind bars.
He has proven them wrong as the Thisday brand has come to stay and is now 28 years and counting. I began to pay close attention to the writings of its journalists most notably Olusegun Adeniyi who later served as presidential spokesman to the late Umaru Musa Yar’adua, Bolaji Abdullahi who later became Minister of Youth and Sports and APC National Publicity Secretary, Simon Kolawole, now the publisher of one of the country’s most successful online newspapers – The Cable, Waziri Adio, ex Spokesman to the then Senate President, Adolphus Wabara, former Executive Secretary of NEITI, Louis Odion, ex Commissioner for Information in Edo State and former Technical Adviser on media to Buhari in the office of the Vice President, Tunde Rahman, now Special Adviser on media to President Bola Tinubu, among many others.
Thisday pioneered many firsts – was the first to convert the back page traditionally reserved for sports to columnists, was the first to give daily reportage of the Nigerian Stock Market, was the first to introduce colour printing and the use of computers. He also introduced the concept of printing simultaneously which he did in Lagos and Abuja. Obaigbena is simply a maverick to put it succinctly.
Arise News was launched in 2013 to tell the African Story on a global stage and has given its Methuselah like rivals a run for their viewing time. Brilliant anchors cum analysts like Dr. Reuben Abati, Rufai Oseni, Steve Ayorinde, Rotus Odirri, Charles Aniagolu etc found a home there.
As the Prince of Owa turns 64 today, we wish him many more years in good health and prosperity.
Happy Birthday and long live the Duke of Nigerian Journalism!
Tony Ademiluyi is the Editor of Buzz Times Media and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and +2348167677075