Segun Osoba, a veteran journalist and former governor of Ogun State in this interview with Juliet Bumah and Adeola Balogun, shares his experience
Why did you choose to have a very quiet birthday this year, what informed that?
I have always had quiet birthdays. I believe that a day like one’s birthday should be celebrated in very sober and reflective mood and one should do intimate thanksgiving to God. Within the Osoba family, we don’t fancy flamboyant birthday celebration; it has become part of our family tradition. This year is even different; I normally travel out of the country. This is one of the few birthdays I have celebrated in Nigeria. It happened that I had an annual general meeting in Abuja which I attended on that day. That was why I came back from the UK a few days to my birthday. Otherwise I usually stay out. It is my philosophy; even when my wife was 60, we had just a family gathering few years ago.
Probably you want to be around too because of the APC.
Not at all. We have filed our registration papers; all what we are waiting for is INEC final decision which I expect will be positive. My being around has nothing to do with the All Progressive Congress registration exercise. If APC that has not been registered has been causing much uproar in the polity, what then happens after it is registered?
Politics is about agitation, intrigues, back biting; when all is quiet, it is not politics. There is nothing wrong in sudden awareness about the APC registration. When you look at the calibre of people and the background of those of us progressives who are in the APC too, we are bound to create very heavy reaction. It should not be too surprising.
But some people have described APC as coming together of strange bedfellows, do you agree with that?
No, not all. If you look at the pattern of election winning in the country, you will find that those of us who have progressive background either in Action Group, PRP, NEPU, NCNC, they are the type people now in APC. A lot of us were involved in Social Democratic Party which Babangida described as a little to the left party. We are trying to reenergise and re-enact the SDP days; we are not strange bedfellows at all. We know ourselves very well.
But there is this talk that the sole aim of people coming together to form the APC is to wrestle power from the Peoples Democratic Party in 2015 and thereafter, go back to the trenches fighting.
Definitely not; we are not out solely to wrestle power. It has nothing to do with 2015 election. If we come together just for only one agenda, I agree with you, that will scatter us. We believe firmly and convincingly that two strong parties that can act as alternative to each other is better for the healthy development of this country. If you look at those developed countries, for example, in Britain, we have two major parties. The idea is to come together to form a viable alternative to government, not necessarily an opposition party. Anybody who says we are there solely to wrestle power is not well informed. We are not just to wrestle power but we want to change the situation in this country. I am sure you know that very many people are not happy. We have had just one party in power for 14 years, is it possible to wear the same dress for 14 years? You would be bored.
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But they have said they will remain in power for about 60 years.
Then let them say so but we want to prove to them that the rest of the country, we are not slaves and we don’t believe in one party system. If there is just one party system in the country, things will just pack up.
But PDP boasts that it is the only party with a national outlook, is that why APC is gathering people from all parts of the country to have a national outlook too?
The PDP is national only to the extent that they want to share the national cake. What is bonding them together is the sharing of the national cake. If you look at those of us in APC, we are people who have been tested in our respective endeavours and in the political terrain of this country. The merger partners, the ANPP, CPC and ACN, they are well tested. And when you say national, what makes you think that ACN is not national? We came second in Adamawa, Akwa Ibom, Kogi, Kwara, Taraba and Benue, how much do you want us to be national? I don’t agree that PDP is the only national party, no.
During your days as a journalist, you were a powerful dresser and had gadgets most of your colleagues could not afford; how were you able to fund that?
You are right. In my days, it was very uncommon; for example I had a special Vespa motorcycle which by then was like having a car. Among my colleagues, I was the only one who had that means of mobility and transportation. Secondly, I was the only reporter who had a telephone. At that time, you could count the number of people who had telephones in their homes in Lagos. Telephone then was very elitist but because I believed in communication and ability to move around as a reporter, that’s why I invested in those things. My colleagues were making jest of me that I was just being elitist but eventually that telephone became a very important tool with which I reached people and people reached me. Major stories came to me via the phone which many of my colleagues didn’t have advantage of. It’s just that I was lucky that God gave me that grace to look at tools that would be of use to me in my reportorial life.
How much were you paid then for you to afford that?
Again, that is important. At that time, I was getting so much funds from my employer. There was what we called ‘swindling sheet’; you made claims about your movement every week. Alhaji Ajose would pay us every Friday and he had a way of approving the transport claims. Transport claim is what it was called officially but we nicknamed it swindling sheet because we were swindling a little bit to get money; you would say if you were leaving Kakawa, you broke the journey into segments and itemise how much each cost. That was one source of funding. I hardly spent my money on drinks or smoking because I have never taken alcohol in my life nor smoked. Secondly, Alhaji Jose had a system, when you did a good story, you were given a bonus and because I was mobile, I was regularly getting more bonuses. In fact, what I got as bonus was more than my salary at times. Those are the systems I used in having advantage over my colleagues. Hard work, mobility and communication, all are very vital for a successful reporter. I have always been a hyper active person, even in my secondary school days. I was so mobile that I could go round the entire Lagos within a short time because I had a bicycle then. Bicycle then for somebody in secondary school was also a luxury. I was always very active socially, coordinating different social activities. I started with a Mobilet soon after I left secondary school before I had the Vespa.
How wealthy were your parents to be able to afford the seemingly luxury lifestyle then?
My parents were not rich; my father was a humble person living in Osogbo. From my own resourcefulness, I could afford those things you call luxury.
Who influenced you into going to journalism?
In my secondary school days at Methodist Boys High School, we had a magazine called Magnet. Even before I left school, I had been writing letters to the editor. I had this unconscious practice of journalism in my blood right from school.
Even with all the gadgets available to modern day reporters, they still grapple with some challenges, how did you handle news break for example?
In our days, we didn’t have Internet, GSM or television channels like CNN, Aljazeera or BBC. What we had then was just the BBC radio and sometimes, you had to go to Marina to have a good reception. I remember the day Nixon resigned as president of the US, Idowu Sobowale and I had to take a radio across the Marina in Kakawa to be able to get a good reception at about 3am which was 9am in America, to record Nixon’s speech over the VOA. But we were dedicated, committed and determined which gave us the push, but most modern day journalists don’t have these attributes.
People still refer to great breaking news when your name is being mentioned but didn’t your editor feel you stabbed him in the back with the coup story which you did in collaboration with Alhaji Jose?
He has just granted an interview last week which I will reply now even though I can not exhaust it here. He was careless; he dismissed the editorial staff on the day of the coup. He called a meeting and told them that there was a curfew and so everybody should close down and go home which was borne out of inexperience of not being a well grounded reporter before being made an editor. I don’t know any newspaper that would close down on the day of a coup. I came to the office and found nobody and I had no choice than to find Alhaji Jose who doubled as chairman, editorial director and editor in chief. He never gave up the editorial control of the newspapers and we all had direct access to him. Every Monday, we had editorial meetings with Alhaji Jose as chairman through which he directed the editorial policy of the papers, so all these stories of backstabbing are nothing. He said I was a lap dog of Alhaji Jose, that I didn’t know my right from my left but I went to Herald to prove myself and from Herald, I moved to Sketch to reinforce my ability and then returned to Daily Times to show that it is inborn in me. I thank Alhaji Jose for giving me the opportunity, the talent was there but some people bury their own talent like the Bible says.
Before Mr Oyebola the editor dismissed the editorial staff, had it ever happened in the history of the paper to close down for a day?
That is part of the inexperience I am talking about. During the civil war, I used to sleep in the office as night reporter and we used to take turns because the federal troops would not announce their advance or capture of anywhere until in the night. Even during the civil war, we kept the office open throughout 24 hours. I just gave you the example of the Dixon story now, Idowu Sobowale and I voluntarily decided to stay back and we were the only newspaper that had the story the following day because the story came about 3 am. The day Dick Tiger fought in the US, the same thing happened, Sobowale and I stayed back on our own because you have to have it in your blood. Apart from the discovery of Tafawa Balewa’s body story that people cite so much, there were greater stories. Take for instance the day Dimka was caught in Enugu, I was there as general manager of the Herald, I threw my jacket away and became a reporter and I reported directly to Ilorin on radio. We are the only paper who had the story of the capture of Dimka and that was the beginning of the success story of the paper. Take the case of Alhaji Abdurrahman Shugaba when he was physically taken and thrown across the border, I was reporting directly even though I was the managing director of the Sketch. I can keep telling you other bigger stories that shook the country. When Dimka was caught, from smuggling myself into the office of the commissioner of police in Enugu, late Alhaji Kafar Tinubu, the story I got from Dimka that day, for the next 10 days, I was writing different aspects of them as lead stories for the Herald. The reporter in me went with me everywhere.
During the curfew, were you not afraid for your life?
Again, during the war, there was curfew everyday and there was no intercity movement but we were breaking the curfew. We used to go to Ibadan for Havana Night and other parties by just taking copies of the first edition and at every checkpoint, you hand over a copy to the soldiers and they allowed you easy passage. Then too, newspaper vehicles were exempted from the curfew. You can not buy experience; you gather it, you mature with it and use it when it should be used. Those experiences of moving about during the civil war freely when there was curfew and the means of going round I had acquired. I covered the war and if you look at General Alabi Isama’s book, you will see my picture in military uniform because then, you were made to wear the uniform for them to identify you as part of them rather than getting shot. Christian Amanpour may not wear it now but we were made to wear it. I was in the warfront and I learnt the culture of the military, that when you get to a point, you must raise your arms and the military men would say who goes there. You then identify yourself and they then say advance to be recognised and you move forward with few steps with your arms up, then you relax. This also is gained from experience and this is what Oyebola didn’t have and you can’t blame me for having it.
But people still link the crisis in Daily Times with the editorial changes Alhaji Jose made as a result of your coup story.
No, nobody blamed him. Don’t you make editorial changes in your organisation? It is a normal thing in any newspaper house.
So, if you were asked to talk about the crisis in Daily Times, what would you say?
Over- ambition. Alhaji Jose pampered us; he gave us official cars, drivers, paid school fees of your children up to four, supplied drinks to our house every two weeks to ensure that you could devote all your energy to the job. Then it got into our heads and we thought we were super humans and the end of it was disastrous to so many.
How did you manage Sketch when the owner states belonged to different political parties?
That was another experience for me. For our political stories, we divided the paper into two and give every member their space or if the story is not political, we turned it into three sections; banner headline to the story of the day and the other sections to contending forces. That is another experience of life; to be able to manage a newspaper under contending and irreconcilable publishers.
Even at Daily Times, how did you manage to resist the military officers who would want to control the editorial policy of the paper as government paper?
Before daily Times, I had had running battle with Brigadier General George Inih in Kwara where he wanted to interfere frontally and actually wanted to edit the Herald. One must admit, no newspaper in the world is totally independent. Even abroad, if a Jew is the publisher of a newspaper, you dare not go against the interest of Israel. We as journalists must live within the editorial policy of the newspapers and the interest of the publishers. In Daily Times, yes, the military was in power but you must also devise a means of mirroring the opinion of the leaders and you must reflect what they want to read. You are not really the one in total control; the ability to gauge the interest of the reader is what makes you a successful editor. What an average reader wants to read, that is the decision you make everyday and you start it on the front page. So under military, we knew what they wanted and we also gave the reader what they wanted and we were able to sell the paper.
What would you look for when you want to pick an editor between someone with 20 years of experience on the field and another with just five years?
I would look for merit in terms of ability, performance and exposure in addition to years of practical experience. Five years is enough for anybody to be editor. In my days, we went through the rudiments. I started as a reporter taking up the police reports. The police was better organised during my time. Every morning, you got the police report and writing stories out of it. Then it was petty stories not armed robbery. Then following that, you graduated to covering courts and by the time you went through this, you went to the parliament and political stories. All this gives you experience. As a good editor or a journalist, you must know something about everything and everything about something. That means you must specialise in something and have a broad base education. Sam Amuka is one good example; he is still practising at 78 because it is in his blood. To be an editor, minimum of five years with wide exposure in different departments and sections of journalistic career but most important, it is good to have been a good reporter. You must be somebody who has nose for news.
You always describe yourself as a reporter, why did you then leave for politics?
Because one must know when to call it quits. Within my few months in Daily Times, Peter Enahoro wrote a commendation letter which I still keep that if I continued the way I was working in the first three months, he predicted that I would get to the top which happened so rapidly. The paper I first edited was Lagos Weekend, then Sunday Times and then Daily Times and then I moved to management in Herald, in Sketch and then back to Daily Times where I started from. The day it was 25 years that I joined Daily Times was the day I decided to quit because you can’t be all knowing. There was nothing else for me to prove again and that was why I went into politics. God gave me to see it all, to be a success in all the papers I handled. I am the only Nigerian who had the rare opportunity of managing three major newspapers successfully. But essentially, I am a reporter even till date. What I enjoy most is reporting. The day I was taken out of reporting and made editor of Lagos Weekend, I wept. I had been a reporter all my life and I didn’t know anything about production. It was the late Victor Dorgu who was a sub editor, that taught me how to plan a page. I was so mobile and too restless to be put on a desk. I adjusted and I thank God I made a success of it. Today, without being a publisher, I am still as influential as any publisher in the media. If I see a good story, I still call somebody like Gbenga Adefaye and say Gbenga, I have a story for you. Till tomorrow, my hand luggage is loaded with newspapers and magazines whenever I travel. I still deliver foreign newspapers and magazines to Sam Amuka for example. It is in my blood and I will die a journalist. I am sure if I go to heaven I will be a reporter. Akinfeleye said in heaven, there will be no other profession except information dissemination.
People still say you lost your second term as governor simply because you took it for granted that they would vote for you.
People are not practical. I was governor 1992-93 and after a six-year interregnum, I became governor again. So I am not a neophyte in politics. I didn’t lose election; you knew what happened and that is another story. Obasanjo just decided to do what he wanted to do, that is all. If I was that careless, how would I be able to get back the same office six years after? I am the only one who achieved that. Go back to Ogun State, the roads that I did are still there and many of my performances. My performance between 1999 and 2003 is still a reference point as governor. In one day in Ijebu North East, I commissioned electricity projects in 17 towns. If I had lost election, how come I was able to reclaim Ogun State with a team that I led in 2011? That was eight years after I was governor. Obasanjo and Daniel lost their polling booths, what else do I want to prove?
Have you and Obasanjo made up now?
I am a Christian, I can forgive but I can never forget. Obasanjo himself knows; he and I had got a chance to talk, I told him you got us out, those you brought, what did you get? He admitted; he said he got insult upon insult. I told him he had never been so abused in his life. He said we had better upbringing and I asked him whether he just realised that. The day we had eighth day prayer for Lam Adesina, he came there and that was the first time we had time to talk about it in the presence of Arisekola, Ajimobi, the wives of Lagos and Ekiti state governors. I told him that you rigged us out, what did you gain? He said we had better training and culture than those he put there.
When Gbenga Daniel was governor after you, you stayed away from Ogun State, was it a self- imposed exile?
Self -imposed because both Obasanjo and Daniel were out to blame all their mistakes on me. You would recall that Daniel in 2003 claimed that I wanted to kill him and his wife. I faced the police who exonerated me, they wanted to make another Mbadinuju out of me. Obasanjo called me soon after that Daniel complained that I was monitoring his movement through the radio network that I stole from the Government House. And I told Obasanjo that since Daniel claimed to be an engineer, if he came to the office and discovered that someone had made away with a radio network, why didn’t he change its frequency? I said I was using radio when Daniel was still in primary school, he said he remembered. I said during Dimka’s coup when you were head of state, you were wondering how I was able to get the story from Enugu to Ilorin. I said the two of you, I don’t know the kind of engineers you claim you are. So, they were roping all kinds of things and criminal allegations against me.
Even in Ogun State, there is this talk of Osoba camp and Amosun camp, why?
I never had egoistic philosophy; I never had Osoba Vanguard, or Mandate or Group, never, and I have been telling those who are saying Osoba Group that there is a party. There is nothing like Osoba Group in Ogun State. People ask me why didn’t I throw my hat into Ogun State politics, I tell them that an elder must have self respect. People don’t learn from other people’s experience. I don’t want to end up like Obasanjo who didn’t know when to stay back and be consulted. You can see how all kinds of people are bashing him all about. When you get to certain level, you must learn how to restrain yourself. An elder must learn how to control his outburst. A man who has been president for an unprecedented three times should be heard sparingly. Mandela had just one term in South Africa and left, have you ever heard him making outbursts all over the place.
With your experience in both journalism and politics, how do you see 2015 election?
Nothing will happen other than major political war which is normal; I don’t know why people are apprehensive. There will be major political verbal war, brickbats, scandals and mudslinging. What is wrong with that? All I know is that nobody would dare tamper or rig election in 2015; that will be disastrous for this country. But I know Professor Jega, who was an activist in ASUU and a member of NADECO, would know how to do right.
You had a very busy time, how were you able to have a stable home? Who made it happen?
I would give the credit to my wife. The in-thing during my first time as governor was Better Life for Rural Women and my wife said she would prefer a better home. She was in Lagos taking care of the children and I don’t think they slept in Abeokuta for more than three or four times when I was first governor. While I was a journalist; she was with the children in Lagos. On my own part, I had self discipline and in spite of the glamour and advantages that I had, I tried to be a responsible husband, not that I am a saint but I thank God.