This month of February 2021 has so far yielded on a daily basis, its package of sweet and sour offerings.
Having launched the Ash Wednesday which marked the commencement of the holy 40-day Lenten season for ardent Christians last Monday the 15th, it had also marshaled out a day earlier – specifically on the 14th, those disposed enough to indulge in the fantasies and revelry of the Valentine love fest. This is just as it also returned painful memories – one of which is that of the assassination of Nigeria’s late military leader General Murtala Mohamed in Lagos on February 13, 1976. As if this morbid echo from the past was not enough, the month also recorded the painful demise of two of perhaps the most enduring icons of journalism in the country – namely Prince Tony Momoh who died on the first day of the month, and Alhaji Lateef Jakande whose death occurred on the 11th. Going by the lyrics of the Christian hymn that says “… thus shall we part from this earth and its toiling, only remembered by what we have done, the flood of tributes which greeted their demise testify to the wide spread recall of their memories in glowing light, simply on the basis of the credibility and nobility of what they had done while alive.
Most remarkable is that in the flood of tributes, none has associated any of them with the current fad of political leaders to amass humongous wealth that will be more than enough for as ostentatiously indulgent and extravagant as any of their children as well as successors can be, even to the tenth generation. Neither has there been any mention of them building political dynasties that will guarantee their control of succeeding governments from their retirement and even from their graves.
Ostensibly, Jakande’s story had trended wider that Momoh’s for obvious reasons. Here was a man who was elected to govern Lagos State in 1979, at a time when that state was considered the most savage urban jungle in West Africa if not the entire African continent. Contending with stringent criticism and vigorous opposition, Jakande still launched an ambitious programme of rewriting the story of Lagos by restructuring and reforming its public space in the areas of education, healthcare, infrastructure, housing development, media and industrialization, just to name a few. As a testimonial to his enterprise, life in the state has run for the past three decades on little else other than the legacies he established.
Coming to Tony Momoh, we have the story of another patriot who in all of his public dealings put the nation first. His first manifestation in the nation’s public space was when he dared the Second Republic Senate by refusing to divulge the source of the information for a story, as the institution had ordered him. Rather he went to court to enforce a fundamental ethic of the journalism profession, and thereby established an enduring precedent for journalism practice in the country. Incidentally, of the two of these icons, this author was privileged to enjoy a personal acquaintance with Momoh. Firstly was when I was appointed a member of the Editorial Board of the prestigious Thisday newspapers in 1996, and found my humble self sharing the Thursday parleys with the great Tony Momoh along with other media greats.
My sense of privilege at that occasion remains a tale for another day. However, Needless to state that my inspiration from him came to play when nine years later in 2005, I was privileged to be appointed Director of Information and Publications of the National Assembly and had the task of setting up a public communications policy for the institution. It should not be a wonder that my first, natural choice of a key note speaker was Tony Momoh. And what a revelation he turned out to be, in spite of his already established profile as a consummate commentator on public issues.
At the maiden conference on public communication policy for the National Assembly in 2005 with distinguished Senators Ibrahim Mantu then Deputy President of the Senate as Chairman of the occasion and Jonathan Zwingina then Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media as well as lead discussant respectively, Momoh caused a stir when he bluntly advocated that the Nigerian legislature was merely crying wolf, over its own sin of abdicating its constitutional responsibilities, whenever it tended to blame the executive arm for mis-governance. According to him, the Constitution had given the legislature the irrevocable powers to cage and control the other arms of government. Hence it was tantamount to abdication of duty by the institution not to do the needful when the situation demands so. In his words “If the executive presents a goat for confirmation for public office and you confirm such, who should you blame if not your selves for failure in governance?”
To buttress his advocacy Momoh presented to the parley a submission featuring a masterful dissection of the Nigerian Constitution which he captioned the ‘Constitutional Powers of the Nigerian Legislature’. It took the enterprise of Professor Sylvester Shykil, a man of prodigious intellectual endowment, who was then the Legal Consultant to the Policy and Research Project (PARP) a forerunner to the National Assembly Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies (NILDS) to expand and formalise Momoh’s submission into a standard booklet which has since then been distributed routinely to incoming members of the National Assembly as well as interested members of the general public.
Today, the great Tony Momoh has gone the way of all mortals, leaving behind the ultimate merit or otherwise of his advocacy on the Nigerian legislature. Public take on it will now depend on how the various shades of opinion in Nigeria consider the performance of this arm of government, acting in compliance with the powers granted it by the Constitution. If nothing else, the currently disturbing dalliance between the present Ninth National Assembly and the executive arm under President Muhamadu Buhari, is a test case.