His love for journalism is evidenced by his long service to the profession. He has practised for over 50 years and mentored some of the best hands in the profession. Dr Dan Agbese has been described as a great columnist, prose stylist and wordsmith. He is one of Nigeria’s most respected and influential journalists. In this interview, he speaks on his formative years, how the Newswatch magazine was founded, the changing media landscape, and other interesting issues.
You grew up in Agila, Benue State in the 1940s, how would you describe those years?
We didn’t know anything about Benue State at that time; we knew Benue Province. Actually, what was close to us was the Idoma Native Authority, which was in Benue Province. Benue State came only in 1976.
I grew up in a village called Ikpeba and my parents were farmers, so I grew up going to the farm and facing the joy and difficulties in the village. We didn’t know any better. That was our world, although not a big world.
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Our village was on the border between Benue Province and part of Abakaliki Province and part of Nsukka Province, so we had a lot of contact with Igbo people, in terms of trades and the rest of it.
My siblings and I used to carry yams and meat on our heads to Ehamufu in the Eastern Region to sell. It was a very interesting place. Not only that, it was a village that looked like a small town, so we enjoyed it very much.
There was a man called Seriki Kasuwa, who was the market chief and the one in charge of the village. In case there were strangers, they would take them to his house and he would take note of who they were and who the host was. And if there was any problem, the first place to go was the host to find out if his visitor was a criminal. It was really very good and I enjoyed it.
What were the fondest memories of your early days?
My father was a very big farmer and hunter. Recently, I was telling someone how we were not allowed to eat meat because it was a belief in our tradition that if you let small children eat meat early in life you would spoil them. The only part of the meat given to us was the skull of the animal. I wished we had a different tradition as I could have feasted on the bush meat my father brought home every morning.
We had a stratified system. If you reached a certain age, all the boys within your age bracket would have to eat together from one house to another every night. Sharing that kind of meal was very important to us because it cemented our relationship. And at that stage we were all naked. When it got to a stage for the boys to begin to grow pubic hair, we used the local clothes to tie around our waists. The girls didn’t dress up until they got married. I still wonder, up till tomorrow, why we didn’t have cases of rape despite the very attractive bodies of the girls.
What is the difference between ancient Agila and what you have today?
Everything has broken down. I am sorry to say that this process of training is no longer there. I lamented because it is a tradition that has been bastardised. I am a very strong believer in cultural upbringing. If you don’t train your child on your culture, he/she can never behave well. It is the root of humanity. When that is broken, the root is cut off and you can see the tree cannot grow up well. That is what is happening now. It was a taboo for little girls to get pregnant for little boys or before getting married. At that time, such a girl would be bundled off to an old man so as to save the family from shame. Everybody was aware of the shame of premarital sex, so everybody was very careful about it. It is no longer there. Eating together is also no longer there. They don’t do anything together anymore. Everything is being politicised. I don’t think that is the way to go.
What was your experience at the Native Authority School, Otobi?
The Idoma Native Authority established a senior primary school at Udebe. It started in class 5 and finished in class 7. It was a very unique school because it was the first and only boarding school I ever experienced. We were not allowed to speak Idoma from 6am to 6pm; we spoke only English.
I remember that our furniture were imported from the United Kingdom. Two boys sat on a desk. The teachers were very dedicated and the school produced very important people. I don’t know whether any other province had a similar school. I don’t know what made the Idoma Native Authority to set up that school, but I am grateful to them. You had to take an entrance examination to the school, and if you didn’t pass you won’t get in. There was no situation whereby you would use influence to put your child in the school. It was strictly on the basis of merit, and it was the first time I met other people from Idoma land. It was entirely a boys’ school and it was really very interesting to know them because at that time we had boys who were already married and they were in primary school.
I remember a particular head boy who was very harsh. When they shared food, two things must not happen. There was a prefect going round, and if he saw your teeth, it meant you were either smiling or laughing while eating and they booked you for punishment. Secondly, if you didn’t finish your portion of the meal you would be booked for punishment. So, what we did was to arrange ourselves. I liked eating beans, so boys who couldn’t finish their beans would pile it up for me. Some boys liked eating yam porridge, so we distributed it like that to escape punishment. But a new headmaster came and relaxed the rules.
Discipline was another hallmark. We did a lot of things on our own. Every morning we had to fetch water or firewood, depending on what group you were in, or break the stones in the school football field. We had manual labour and academic training–the combination was very important.
Who were your mates in the Native Authority School, Otobi?
We had Moses Obale, Samuel Otunga, who became the first doctor in Agila; he has passed on, Clement Ojo, Emmanuel Otunga, Silvanus Agbala. Opete Peter was the funniest of the boys because unfortunately he was not really up to anything, so we made a whole lot of fun about him with the way he spoke English, etc. Umoru and I were poor football players and they would put us as two full backs. We had Elumi, who was our head boy, a very harsh grown-up man.
You attended Government Teachers’ Training College, Keffi and taught for some years before going to read Mass Communication; why did you quit teaching?
I didn’t choose to go to the teachers’ training college. What happened was that at that time, the Nigerian government conducted a common entrance examination and the first three boys from every province went to Government College, Keffi while the other boys were distributed to other secondary schools. I was one of the first three boys in the examination. I went for the interview conducted by the principal of the college, Mr AP Walters. After we finished the interview, he said, “Come and stand by the wall.” So I stood by the wall and he took my measurement. I was 5ft, 3inches and he thought I was too old to go to secondary school, so he recommended the teachers’ training college. I always looked at it as a kind of poetic justice.
I came home one day from primary school and my father asked what I would like to be when I grew up. I said I would like to be a teacher and my father was very angry. He asked; “You don’t want to be a lawyer or engineer but a teacher? I said, “Well, that is what I want to be.”
Later on in life, I began to change my mind that I wanted to be a doctor, but fate held me to the promise I made as a child and I found myself as a teacher. My first job was Methodist Primary School, Ikpeba, the very village I was born and brought up. I taught for two years and I enjoyed it very much. Then they transferred me to a place I didn’t like, so I packed my bags and went to Jos. They gave me a job and posted me to a place called Kura Falls; it is about 50km southeast of Jos. That’s where the UNESCO had the major power generating plant that supplied light to both Plateau and Bauchi provinces, so I went to teach there.
I think I was there until 1966 before the crisis started. I don’t know how it happened, but I applied to the President Kennedy Library at the Institute of Administration in the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. That was the point I left teaching. I liked it so much that I didn’t know I would spend such a short time. But part of the reason I left was that in our time you did Grade 3. Our batch turned out to be the last to do Grade 3.After teaching for one year, you were eligible to return to school and do another two years for your Grade 2, so I took the entrance exam for Grade 2 and attended the interview and the rest of it. Before the result came, the Northern Nigerian Government ruled that our batch did not have to return to the school, so I couldn’t have gone beyond Grade 3. After four years, I thought the law of diminishing return was catching up with me and it was time for me to go. I didn’t consciously plan it, but I just followed my heart
You read Mass Communication in the 1960s, what was the attraction?
We never heard of Mass Communication. At the time my father and I had that interview I had never met a doctor, engineer, lawyer; I didn’t know anything about these things, but he knew because he was very friendly with Igbo people and travelled extensively to Igbo land. He never talked to me about these professions because he thought I could choose well. But in his view, I didn’t choose well. Fate held me to a promise.
My crossing over to journalism is almost like a fairytale. I had never met a journalist, editor or reporter in my life. I had never been to a newspaper publishing company or ever been to a radio or television station. When I went to Zaria to work in the library because I liked reading, there was a whole lot of books you could read, so I used to read the British newspapers. The Telegraph, The Times and the rest of it would send back issues to our college and I began to read some of them, but I didn’t pay much attention to them.
What was important to me was that one of my teachers, Mr Hasled, encouraged me to read and every time I read a novel, he encouraged me to summarise it. That came in useful for me when I got into journalism because by the time I got there, I knew how to review a book. It was at the library that I began to read the New Nigerian because it had come out in January, the same day coup took place in 1966.
I was reading letters, columns and the rest of it. So, I felt encouraged to write letters to the editor. I had never touched a typewriter up till that point in my life. There was only one typewriter in the office of the chief librarian, so every time she left the office there was a man called Jiboye, who was our senior. I would go to that office and beg him to use the typewriter. So I taught myself to pick, and I am still picking.
I began to write letters to the editor of the New Nigerian. One day, I came to the office and there was almost an uproar; everybody was waiting for me because the newspaper had published my letter to the editor. Everyone was waiting to congratulate me. I don’t remember the detail of the letter now, but it was a two-paragraph letter that had to do with Ojukwu. So I kept writing the letters. Then one day, I took permission to go to Kaduna on a Friday and I went to a friend’s office in the regional library, where I phoned the editor of the New Nigerian, Mallam Adamu Ciroma, asking if I could go and see him. I had never been to that office before and I did not know anybody. He gave me a 2pm appointment and I went to see him. The first thing he said to me was that he knew the effort I put in writing letters to him and apologised that he could not use them. I asked if he was prepared to make me a journalist because that was what I wanted. He smiled and said; “Fine, I want someone like you with me, go and apply”. I went back to the library, wrote a letter and took to him and returned to Zaria.
He employed me and I began my career in journalism as a lucky man because Adamu put me under his wings. I was a features writer. The editorial department was divided essentially into four parts: the newsroom, the sub, the photography and the features desk. I took my seat among the subeditors and that was where I started.
I discovered that the newsroom had only one typewriter and every reporter would write in longhand and submit to the news editor, who would edit and give to the newsroom typist, who would now type and give to him. After about two months, I went to IBM and bought myself a portable typewriter; and it was very useful to me. I was surprised that the rest of the reporters didn’t bother to have theirs.
Mallam Ciroma challenged me in a way that I had tried challenging my own reporters. By the time I spent six months in that place, he had put me through writing columns. He challenged me to write editorials. And I was writing feature articles for the magazine section. He was guiding me every inch of the way. I remember that the first editorial I drafted for him, when the thing came back to me, I saw that only one sentence survived, the rest were taken away. And I kept learning.
After about a year, I told myself that there was something I was missing: I was not fully part of the editorial team. I didn’t know how to report, so I needed to expose myself to that without taking permission from anybody. I began doing some reporting. The first story I did, the news editor, Suleman Jalo, shouted my name and I ran to him. He said, “You think this is feature writing? This is news writing.” When he calmed down, I said, “Sir, can you tell me what is wrong, I don’t want to repeat the mistake.” He didn’t tell me. He just told me to go and rewrite it. I rewrote it, and about a week later, on my way back from lunch, everybody told me that Rasaq Aremu was looking for me. I went to him and he said, “What do you think you are doing? Look at the story you wrote. Is it a feature article or a story? Take it back and rewrite.” I said, “Can you tell me what is wrong with it?” He said I should go and ask my colleagues. I rewrote the story and took it back to him, but he threw it back at me. Then I wrote another version of it and he said, “Yes! I want you to learn by yourself.”
As he was talking, Mallam Ciroma opened the door and overheard him and said, “Rasaq, make him do it, even if he has to do it 10 times. Let him get it right by himself.” That was the kind of training I received. I remain ever grateful to Mallam Ciroma, not only because he employed me, but he took me under his wings.
By the time I spent two years in the place, the only thing I didn’t know how to do was to subedit stories and plan pages, which came later.
I knew that I also needed a professional qualification, so I applied to the University of Lagos and the Jackson School of Journalism, Nsukka. They admitted me initially in Lagos for a diploma course. Idowu Sobowale and all of us were admitted the same year and time. When we finished the diploma, the school authority decided that we could proceed to the degree course because the department was set up in a hurry when the war broke out. Tony Momoh and few other people in Nsukka had to be withdrawn as the UNESCO funded a radio training programme in the university. When they brought Momoh and the rest of them, they turned it into a Department of Mass Communication. We were the third set in the school. That was how I read Mass Communication. My father didn’t know this and I didn’t explain to him
Between then and now, what has changed in newspapering?
It was really very interesting, but there is a difference between then and now. At that time, strictly, we were told not to make our own stories. There was no analysis of any type because we were not allowed to put ourselves in the story. You reported what someone told you, so we began to refer to it as ‘He said.’ We didn’t ask why he said what he said, we just reported what he said. We didn’t bother about the implications of what he said for other people, we only reported what he said. That’s different today.
I don’t think they have a features department anymore. It is merged with news, and news writing has changed dramatically. A reporter can sit and make analysis, not only of what he has been able to find, but even if he interviews someone, he will be able to put it in context. That is the beauty of it now. When I became the editor of the New Nigerian, the first thing I did when we were recruiting graduate reporters was to put all of them in the newsroom to prove what they could do since it would determine their posting. That was what I did and that is the process I still do.
Can you share the experience that led you to team up with friends–Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu and Yakubu Muhammed–to establish the Newswatch magazine?
Sometimes things tend to happen by accident. When I was the editor of New Nigerian, Yakubu was the editor of Concord, Dele was the editor of the Sunday Concord, while Ray was the chairman of the Editorial Board of the Concord when Buhari came in January. Sometime in April, he granted an interview to Dele, Yakubu and Ray. I think they spent a day or two in a hotel writing it out and also discussed what they had been experiencing. As I understand it, the Yoruba reporters were referring to them as foreigners.
Dele was on leave when he was removed as the editor of the Sunday Concord. Yakubu had a relative living in London, who was into estate business. He invited Yakubu and said he wanted him to start a weekly magazine, believing that the place had become hostile for them.
When Dele returned, he heard about it and they said they wanted them to work together and leave Concord and face this new challenge. Yakubu phoned me and Mohammed Haruna, saying we should come to Lagos. I came to Lagos and they told me what they planned and asked if I was interested. I said yes.
At that time, because I served the Benue State Government as a special adviser on information, I had only an official passport, which the government seized, so I couldn’t travel when the three of them travelled to meet the man who wanted to fund the project.
When they came back, we were meeting in Yakubu’s place when the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) news at 9:00 came up and I found myself removed as the editor of New Nigerian. They said I was being posted. I was the first editor of the paper to be removed on television. That’s how we started.
The other guys all left Concord. We were meeting in Dele’s house in Ikeja to shape up the magazine. It was a very challenging thing but very exhilarating as well. At a stage, we didn’t have money as people who promised us money didn’t keep their word, so in December 1984 we decided that we would publish a preview edition of the magazine. We went to the Academy Press because of the lack of tradition of weekly news in the country. Every news published in the country then was in monthly magazines; there was no facility for weekly magazines.
When we went to the Academy Press to discuss, the schedule they gave us was to submit our materials two weeks in advance. That was not acceptable to us as a weekly news magazine. In the end, we came to an agreement after blackmailing them. We said we had heard stories about them, that they had killed magazines. That touched Chief Animashaun, the chairman of the company and they took us up. That’s how we came around.
What made Newswatch stand out?
It was a homegrown version of Times and The News magazines. At that time, these two magazines had difficulties circulating in the country, so when Newswatch came out, it filled the vacuum created by their absence. Another thing is the recruitment process because we were all involved as professionals. I was actually allocating positions as I was made the managing director. Dele was made the editor-in-chief while Ray was made the deputy editor-in-chief.
One of the things that worked for us was our integrity. For instance, people would come to us with documents and expect us to publish them, but we always investigated the documents, and if they were not worth publishing, we would not publish them. And that cost us a lot when the June 12 crisis happened because people that were hawking all these documents didn’t come to us because they knew that we would not use them. They went to other magazines and publishers.
Because we had integrity, there were people in government that trusted us and gave us information, which we never misused. The fact of the matter is that when you have the truth, it doesn’t matter how bitter it is to someone, they can’t dispute it and nothing can be done to you. If you don’t have integrity to protect yourself, then you have a problem.
We didn’t associate ourselves with political groups because under the military, the easy label is that politicians were disgruntled elites and if you associated with them you were part of the group. We did our job as best as we could.
When the Orka coup took place in 1990, I was a principal reporter covering that field and we established the rule that every piece of information must be confirmed by three sources. So every time I went to Lagos to my friends to get information, when I came back, it was always subjected to that process. I remember that Dele was the one writing the cover story, and anytime I came back with new information he had to change the intro to the story. So my advice is that you should have integrity.
What led to the crisis in Newswatch?
It is a very sad part of our story. We had done a paper and were looking for investors because we also wanted to go into broadcasting. We also wanted to move to a daily newspaper. We commissioned four architects to design our headquarters on Billings Way and they did a very good job. We were preparing for all that and we needed money. For two years we were looking for investors because newspaper business is a very scary thing. And we were under a military regime, so we were very vulnerable; we could be closed down anytime.
Part of our success was that we tried to fortify ourselves against such eventualities because we knew that if we continued to use some printers, the government could lean on that and stop the printing. For instance, twice the security people went to Academy Press. And we were printing quality magazine. There was an interview with Femi Falana and the security people knew, so they went and collected all the copies from the printers. We never saw the copies again. So we tried to have a printing press of our own so that if anything happened we would still be able to come out.
We had gotten our permanent site, thanks to Admiral Akhigbe, who was the military governor of Lagos State. Eventually, one of our managers introduced us to Jimoh Ibrahim, who had bought over a newspaper from Emeka Obasi, so we went to have preliminary talks with him. He showed us some newsprints that were stockpiled. He looked promising, so we opened up to him to come in and to be the majority shareholder of the company with 51 per cent. It was very tragic because young reporters came, and one of the things they said to us was that we ought to have known him. How come we didn’t know him? I never heard his name before then. It looked impressive that he could do all that, but he had a sinister motive.
How do you think we can improve investigative journalism in Nigeria?
From my experience, investigative journalism doesn’t have to do with who has stolen money. The process of confirming your information is part of the investigation.
Interestingly, the public is now more supportive of the media in terms of investigation than in our days. When you confront people with facts they can’t do anything about it. I think it was Dr Christopher Kolade who said the success of Newswatch was that it confronted the people with facts. That’s what investigative journalism is supposed to do. This is because 80 per cent of anybody giving you facts have invested interest in what they are giving to you; and it is easy to fall into the trap of being one-sided. When you want to crosscheck the information he will not talk to you because he wants a one-sided information. So in effect, the atmosphere for investigative journalism is better now than it used to be. But there are still some gaps as things are not being properly digested. Investigative journalism can take a day, two days, a week or two weeks.
What has been your source of satisfaction as a journalist?
The fact that I have remained a journalist for over 50 years. What is important to me is that I have been able to train and mentor a whole lot of young people. My money belongs to me, but if I pass on my knowledge, it belongs to everyone; that’s the source of my satisfaction.
You are still practising at 77; where do you get the strength?
My strength is hunger. If I don’t do it I will go hungry. But it is not a launch-pad, it is a permanent thing I want to stick to. Interestingly, my first child, a daughter, gained admission into the Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, 19 years after I left. So I have been able to pass on the gene to my daughter. She is now a professor of Journalism in an American university. I am very pleased about that.
Let’s talk about your family
We have been married for 46 years. We have six children. Two are lawyers who refused to practise, one works in the National Agency for Food, Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), another one read Architecture in Malaysia. My third daughter read Law in the United Kingdom while the second read Law in Abuja; both of them refused to practise. Whenever I see people of their ages in court, I feel it is a place I should see them.
I come from a very polygamous family. When I was born, my father had six wives; and he added few more along the way. I have a whole lot of brothers and sisters.
What food do you enjoy most?
Amala with ewedu and gbegiri is still my favourite food.
How do you relax?
My hobby is my job.
A fond memory you won’t forget as a journalist
I interviewed each of the six military governors of the northern states, and that was a great learning experience.
From Abiodun Alade, Adebayo Gbenga & Momodu Precious