Congratulations on your 80th birthday. We wish you many more returns. Let me start by asking you to assess in summary, Journalism in your days and what obtains now.
Thank you for wishing me many happy returns. It will be 60 years in April that I came into Journalism, and 60 years there are bound to be changes and difference. Technically, there have been a lot of advancements and changes. When I started, I was a sub-editor in charge of foreign news in the Daily Times. What I had to do was to listen to BBC, and from the news at 7 am I took notes and go to the office at 1pm and wrote the news out from the notes I made from the BBC. I had a page to fill every day. That was how we got foreign news. Then, Reuters came and made life easier. But it used to come with telex, and you had reels and reels of telex news which you had to edit and produce a page from. Then came faxes and eventually to get where we are today.
Your poor generation, you are competing with international satellite television. Something happens in Nairobi and you can watch it live happening. We used to wait a minimum of one day, probably two days before we will publish. So the instant news has changed the structure and it has its effects. People make judgements far too quickly. People listen to each other, feed each other. So called experts, they come from Europe, America and wherever, sent by their own news organisations who have their own agenda, their own priorities. They send them to, say Nigeria, and they come with preconceived notions of what they are going to report. When I read or watch TV and listen to their analysis (about North-East Nigeria), it feels like they picked it up from heaven-knows-where.
The pity is that the indigenous newspapers and magazines and televisions do not have the finances to report as we should report our own stories. We still borrow a lot from what we are told about ourselves. And that is because of resources. I must say that up to a point, there has been a bit of recession in that because as a young man (and journalist), I was lucky that I was able to travel widely. I was in the Congo; I didn’t depend on foreign news agents to tell me what was happening. I lived with Nigerian soldiers, so I was able to make judgements for myself. Today, there are so many things happening and a lot of the news reporting that we have for the crises in the world, we take because we are told that is the way it is, because we’re not there.
Another sad thing I observed when I was the administrator of the Daily Times – I was lucky again to have older heads looking over me – we had inherited a tradition of attacking government. The first newspapers in Nigeria were founded to attack the colonial government. So there was a journalistic tradition that you look for something to say against the government.
Even after the colonialists left?
After the colonialist left, we continued that way, always looking for something in government to challenge and criticise. But we were immature in many ways.
You became an editor at the age of 23. How did it feel at that youthful age to be given such a responsibility?
I don’t know if this will sound arrogant, but to be honest, I didn’t think in terms of my age at all. It didn’t come out of the blue as such. My first job was working in the department of information, which became the federal ministry of information. I was playing cricket with the director of information, a white man, and he said that they were thinking of employing young people from secondary schools to train as information officers. It would involve going to England and eventually to the school of journalism. He said I should come and see him on Monday – it was a Saturday.
I went to see him on Monday, and to my surprise, he offered me a job as assistant publicity officer. That was my first job and I was told at that time it was equivalent of first class clerk, whereas my classmates who joined the government were third class clerks. It was a very envied job.
Within one year I learned a few things – subbing, sub-editing in the ministry. I left because I made a blunder. We had a press conference with Dr Azikiwe and as a civil servant you were not supposed to ask questions. He was being teased by Bisi Onabanjo, then editor of the Action Group newspaper. He asked him a question and Zik dodged it by making a funny comment. I wasn’t satisfied and I didn’t think he should get away with it, so I repeated the question. People wiser than me knew he was dodging it. But I wanted an answer. I saw my boss, his face went red because I was a civil servant and I shouldn’t ask a question like that. So when we were going out, Mr Aloba, the Editor of the Sunday Times, who was a friend of my brother, Tony (Anthony) caught up with me and said what are you doing in government? You should be in journalism, come to the Daily Times.
I was miserable because I knew I made a terrible mistake. I said well, who’s going to have me now? He said I should come and see him, and to my surprise about 20 minutes later I got a call from him saying that I should come and see the Managing Director of the Daily Times. I went there and I was made a sub-editor and within two years I was made to act as chief sub-editor, then acting features editor, and then acting editor of the Sunday Times. It was a roller-coaster; I was progressively being selected to do things which gave me confidence.
So by the time I became Editor, I just felt I could do it. I wasn’t frightened. I believe in pre-destiny, what you are going to be, you will be if you follow what your instincts tell you. When you veer away from it, it is then people make mistakes. Everything was just by chance. The day I was offered the job of features editor, all my seniors had left. And the editor of the Daily Times, Alhaji (Babatunde) Jose came in and asked about them and was told they all left. They suspended the features editor. He asked me if I could do the letter page – it had to be done in advance – and I said, “Sure”. He said, “Ok, the features editor is suspended, go to his office and prepare the letters page”. I went there; there was something that I changed. They used to slab one or two letters on the whole page. If you wrote a 10-paragraph letter, they published it. But I had been reading Newsweek and Time Magazine, how they treated letters. I did it like that. I would take a subject and put as many views from different people. I spent the whole night doing it, and they liked it. The features editor was not re-engaged and I was asked to continue.
Then the Editor of Sunday Times was leaving to work for an oil company. His successor was away in Australia, and I was asked to act for the successor until he came back. By the time he got back, they decided I was good enough and said I should continue. Pure chance!
Obviously, there was a system and it was working. Do you see such things happening now with the apparent interference by media owners on who becomes what?
You know the Daily Times was owned by the UK Daily Mirror. You had a chance. There was no ethnic fear. I became what I became despite the fact that my brother was a political person opposed to the federal government. The owners of the papers overruled all these and still appointed me. As an outsider, I didn’t know what goes in the newspapers (in Nigeria) today. But when I was administrator of the Daily Times, my first weekend that I took over the job, a group came to me and said they were Bendelites in the Daily Times. And they were offering to be my “eyes” and “ears.” They said that this ethnic group and that ethnic group would be against me, this and that. I thanked them and said no, I’m not like that. I thank you, let’s have a drink, but let’s forget what you said this. That element was not in the Daily Time in the early days. That was a change I saw.
It must be sad and unfortunately that seems to be replicated in our nation life. Could that be part of the reasons why our country is what it is today?
Yes, it’s true. It is also why I question this business of rotational candidacy. It has led to unfinished and abandoned projects because when office holders start projects in their areas and leave, when the next ones come, they start their own in their areas. That is why people want rotational candidacy. They know that development programmes would be targeted to their areas if the person comes from there. It’s a pity.
How do we start tackling this issue of sacrificing merit for ethnicity or the area one comes from?
To be honest with you, let me answer the question in this way. You arrived at the airport in Lagos or Abuja and somebody recognises you and says “welcome back, sir” and he says, “You know Nigeria is not what it used to be in your time. It’s terrible!” I know at once that he is trying to harass me if I have some foreign exchange to give him. He is telling me about corruption, but all this talk is a build-up. Sometimes they call a porter and say “take oga’s things” and he follows you. He wants you to give him money. If you have brought all kinds of things in your luggage, they go through because he is a big shot and they don’t check it. He talks about corruption but what is he doing? We need leadership, people who are leaders by example. That is what will cure all these things. If I belonged to a political party, I would be looking for who I think is the best person that I would support. But it’s not real.
What I’m saying is that the electorate is as guilty as the leadership. Sometimes I say who should lead the other? I think the leaders should lead but the electorate should do what is right too. They make cash demands on candidates; they are just as guilty as the politicians. They want the governor to come from their area so that he will target development to their areas. They want to have advantage to their areas. They don’t look at the whole picture. So who are we to blame, is it the leaders? Is it someone who believes he can do a good job as governor but the people want to tie him down to give them money? If you don’t “pay” you don’t even get the nomination. You have to be “nice” to your party leaders to get support for nomination. At the end of the day, you want to recoup your investment. People want to be representatives, and when they spend money to get elected, do you think they will live on their salary alone? No! They would start angling for contracts and other things to recoup (what they spent). People believe if you have a public office, you are necessarily making money.
So how do we break it, or have we reached a hopeless situation?
I believe that with time, it will change gradually. May be we – I mean my generation of journalists – that’s the mistake we made. We set a very high standard for our leaders and we thought it could be achieved immediately. It is good to set high standards, but the building of a nation, just like the evolution of a national consciousness and culture, takes time. What we didn’t give ourselves was time. It’s good to see what’s wrong but don’t expect that at the snap of a finger, everything will be cured. It doesn’t work like that. It will come, but Nigerians will have to be more patient and continue to be vigilant. I’m not suggesting that corruption should be condoned at all.
We need people who are leaders who themselves should endeavour to be clean, so that when they talk to people they would listen if they see by example. But what happens in Nigeria right now, people expect you to use your office to enrich yourself and when people do that they praised. People never ask those who spend recklessly where they get their money.
Is it the media or the politicians who should lead in shaping the thoughts and actions of the people for a better country?
I have said that the media should be watchdogs, not attack dogs – two different things. What I was saying earlier about setting out to discredit and attack leadership, that is attack dog. The watchdog is to say this is the time I bark and this is friendly, I don’t have to bite them, let’s treat this calmly. That is the role of the media. Unfortunately, the politicians are marching behind. Maybe it is the way at the moment that our politicians are selected to public office. I don’t get the sense of somebody with morality as an ingredient in his leadership quality, believing that holding office is an end in itself. It will take time.
We need the middle class; you can’t have democracy without the middle class. Unfortunately, the military destroyed the middle class and bastardised what would have been our middle class. For thirty years we had this. We need the middle class to emerge and when that comes, it is then that people with conscience – they come from people who are not hungry and greedy. Because people want to fill their stomach they will do all kinds of things. But when they have satisfaction, then, they can look at government and say “go to hell”. And when that day comes, many more Nigerians can tell the government “you are my servant, I am not your servant”.
Until that day comes we will continue to have this turmoil and that can only come as we allow things to evolve and we build up our society based on justice, based on transparency and enlightenment. These will take time to come.
Still on the media, are the practitioners playing their role of shaping people’s opinions or thoughts towards a better society? If yes, to what extent; if not, is it because of lack of resources or is it part of the societal problems afflicting the country?
Well, believe me, media practitioners cannot be any too distant from the society in which they live. Let me put it this way: when I returned to the Daily Times as the administrator, I was shown around the offices. When I got to the office of the Daily Times Editor, I was shocked. This was in 1996; I left the country in 1966 so that was thirty years. When I was Editor, I had a company car with a chauffeur that I was given, before then I qualified for a company loan to build a house, to be repaid in 10 years without interest. No strings whatsoever. However, I did not take the loan; I didn’t want to be committed to the Daily Times for 10 years. I was still a young man. How would I know that I wanted to spend 10 years with the Daily Times? It was childish.
But four years later when I became the editor of the daily paper, I was asked again why didn’t I take the loan? I said I thought at the time the loan was too small. But my predecessors had built their houses with the money. They asked how much I wanted and I added £500. They said alright you can have it. I’m not lying when I say that I was more or less begged to take the loan for my own sake.
Then I went to the editor of the Daily Times thirty years later and I asked for his salary. I’m telling you it was worse than a joke. All the privileges I had – my entertainment bill for entertaining people – all those things were gone and the worst was the salary he was being paid. I couldn’t believe it. Media practitioners are part of the society, I can’t fault it but I don’t want to pretend either that in my profession, we are holier than thou. My time was many ways different from what I saw when I came back. Maybe there are too many newspapers that can’t make it. People were owed salaries and they hadn’t been on leave for years because they were accumulating their vacation in case they were fired.
The sum total of what I’m saying is that the impoverishment of the institutions, not the big names – I think the big names look after themselves. I was once told that someone, when his staff members were becoming restless, he waved his identity card and said this is your salary. Can you imagine? So it is a sad situation.
Corruption has become a cancerous scourge. Where do we start fighting it?
I’m thinking that development, which is agonisingly slow, will eventually ameliorate it. People have to have food in their stomachs. I’ve calmed down a lot. I am not so judgemental like before. We must continue as best as we can to condemn corruption. But it must be in such a way that is constructive; that we don’t give the impression that anybody who is successful is necessarily corrupt. We should not encourage people to think that the way to success is through corruption. When people are successful we don’t assume also that they are corrupt.
Why don’t people like you get involved in active politics and try to influence change from within power?
Frankly, it has never occurred to me. I have been on the fringe of it and I preferred that role, a back room boy. I’m close enough to be informed, but I don’t want to be in the centre of the arena because there is a role for someone who is a close observer, who has also been privileged to participate at some length, through my relationship with certain people. I did participate and draft certain things but to be in the thick of it, no. I grew up in the shadow of my brother and I know what it involves.
I’m sure you are keeping abreast with the political climate in Nigeria now. Do you think things are going to be any different from what they used to be?
The circumstances, the environment is different. The Sardauna of Sokoto, Awolowo, Azikiwe, that generation when they were coming to town, people would wait for hours in the sun just to see them drive past. You don’t have it today, I haven’t seen it. So honestly, I don’t know. It was not organised, people voluntary waited just to wave and to be shouting “Zik!” Or “Awo!”
I did a tour of the North on the invitation of the Sardauna. He took me to Rabah, his home town and Sokoto. I could see it when people saw him going past they would run into the street and salute at him; it is not so now. So the environment is different, the Americanisation of the constitution has been a major, major reason for the situation we now have. It is politics founded on money. The parliamentary system that we had necessitated that politicians fund the party. But what we have now is funding an individual. If you want to be governor of your state, you have to have financial backing or you have money of your own. You make pledges and promises of people you are going to reward; the whole system encourages it. That is the big difference. The generation of observers and journalists who didn’t live at the time I’m talking about would not see how sharply the difference is. That is why when they all passed away many of them didn’t leave wealth behind.
You said corruption is a vicious cycle, because people are deprived of a decent living, they engaged in all sorts of unwholesome things… (cuts in)
…Our politicians, when they are campaigning for elections, we don’t make policy a major issue. People make promises but it is not based on a consistent policy which can be examined and debated. Like if you say, there should be minimum wage in this country, people would say what would it cost? He would cost it, he would say this is the working population, this is how much it would cost and this is how we would fund it. We don’t have that kind of discussion in Nigeria, but we are having things like rotational candidacy like it is an end in itself. The result is that there is no real planning and costing and debate.
You live here (in London); you see how endlessly discussions go on about finance. Even the Scottish independence referendum, one of the reasons in my opinion, the nationalists failed is because they made a mistake when they allowed the debate to become what currency they would use. That was silly. All the countries that left Britain, like when Nigeria became independent, that wasn’t the issue at all. I thought the Scottish national identity, pride and everything was involved, the currency issue was diversionary. We do not discuss policy (in Nigeria) or demand policy because a lot of it quite frankly is above the heads of our people.
I’m not an Economist myself but I can reasonably follow any arguments they make but it is not required of our politicians and so there is no real serious planning. We don’t know how many schools there are, or how many are falling apart; we don’t know how many people are going to be admitted into university. These people have projection here, they know in advance how many there are. In Nigeria everything is at the top of their head. We start a polytechnic and one man comes and the people say we want it to be a university. Ridiculous!
You’ve written a couple of books. Do you think they have made the desired impact, especially the satirical one, How to be a Nigerian?
How To Be a Nigerian is the widest read of all the books I have written. It wasn’t even completed but after some time I didn’t want to write about the coup anymore so I just decided to serialise the manuscript I had in my column. Then, I left the country. One day I was told in a radio station where I was working that Sam Amuka sent me this bundle and I opened it. It was How to be a Nigerian. The Daily Times, having seen the reaction that people liked it, compiled it into a tiny book and were selling it. I wasn’t even told it had been done, it has continued to this day, it has even been pirated.
If you go on Google, you’ll see people advertising How to be a Nigerian which I know nothing about. We also have pictures of people calling themselves Peter Enahoro. It is on the Internet. But one of my favourites is You Gotta Cry to Laugh, a satire on race. Again, that was published but it wasn’t well circulated. And the recent one Then Goes the Thunder. Have you seen it?
Yes, but I only read a bit about it.
I tried twice to resettle in Nigeria but it didn’t work out. I have visited Nigeria quite a lot, but I still have to confess that I am a bit of an outsider. It is difficult for me to analyse … I am able to analyse what I see wrong or what the difficulties are, that is, what I perceive to be difficulties. But to suggest a cure, the trouble is that we are a developing country. That’s why we have the problems of a developing country. Building a nation takes time. I think we have to begin with accepting that the name Nigeria, as Awolowo said in 1948 in his book, is geographical expression. But many established nations today, their names are geographical expressions, they were put together by military force.
In Great Britain, the English subdued the Scotts, that’s why the Scottish till today continue to rebel against them. The Welsh, who are more planned, that’s why they have the next persons to take over as the King of England named the Prince of Wales to make them feel part of it. That is why the Queen’s husband is also made the Duke of Edinburgh. We have to accept that it would take some time in our mindsets, in our thinking.
Therefore, I strongly suggest that the newspapers, for example, should begin to think like that. When things go wrong it isn’t the end of the world, and it is all very well to describe what is wrong, but it is better if we make a suggestion of how it should be righted. We are not very good at that. We are very good at saying what is wrong. But we are not yet very good at suggesting what can be done to heal it so that we don’t become part of the problem. That is what I am saying.
Sometimes you get into trouble for making a suggestion. Part of my problem in 1966 was making suggestions of what I thought on how we should proceed after the failed coup that brought Ironsi to power. Certain people did not like the suggestions I was making and looking back now, I myself was impatient. I thought things could be done literally overnight, use militarily fiat, do it! But it takes time.
So you are advising that Nigerians should be patient?
Yes, we should be patient, but we should have a focus of how we want to proceed. We need honesty in that regard. When I say honesty, I’m not making a platitude, no. What I mean is we should have ideas of what we want. We want to get to point A, how do we proceed? I was a member of Abacha’s vision 2010, millions of naira was spent. When Obasanjo took over, because it was done by Abacha, he discarded it. It is like throwing the baby with the bath water, just because it was Abacha who did it. We need a blueprint like that with which to examine how we want to go forward. Unfortunately the way we are proceeding at the moment, it is like we are behaving like fire brigade people. You go somewhere, you are trying to put out the fire and then you are told there is a fire elsewhere, then you go there. There’s no continuous coordinated system and programmes you can boast about. We should show maturity now, because the country celebrated its 50th independence anniversary day.
It’s going to be 55 this year?
Yes, it’s time we started to act maturely.