Chief Olusegun Osoba rose from being a trainee journalist to becoming the editor and managing director of the Daily Times before he left journalism to become a politician. The former governor of Ogun State, who is still active in politics despite his age, spoke on his experiences as a journalist, governor and important national issues.
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You actually started as a building inspector, but you are a proud journalist, how did that happen?
In my days, when you left secondary school, a job would be waiting for you. In my time, there were not more than 10 secondary schools for boys in Lagos, and maybe four for girls – Queens College, Methodist Girls’ High School, Holy Child College, New Era and Ekan Secondary School.
What happened was that my Sunday School teacher, Mr Sunday Ogunniya, was an assistant city engineer in Lagos City Council, and after the school certificate results he invited me to join the engineering department of the Lagos State City Council as a building inspector. I had no knowledge of building structure, but I was trained on the job. That was the system in our days. At that time too, when you came out of the university, a job and car were waiting for graduates. That was how I started as a building inspector.
I was just from Methodist Boys’ High School, Lagos.
What drew you to journalism? Was it something you always wanted to do, even as a student?
In my days at the Methodist Boys’ High School, I was involved in producing the school magazine, called Mandate. And I was active in contributing. I think that influenced my interest in journalism, to an extent that in-between the period I was the building inspector, rather than go for a higher school certificate — a two-year post secondary school education, I decided to take the then General Certificate in Education (GCE), advanced level and I passed.
Alhaji Jose was a close friend of my guardian, Makanju, a lawyer, so he invited me to write for Daily Times. From there, he decided to ask me to be a trainee reporter. For the training, one expatriate called Mr Wood was our teacher.
It was a practical training of a kind as you would go for an assignment with a senior reporter who would submit his report to the newsroom. The trainees would submit theirs too. The trainees were three: Sonaike, Dipo Ajayi and myself; we would submit our report to Mr Wood.
In between, Mr Wood noticed that my report was more detailed and encompassing than those of my seniors I followed to assignments. But I was interested in reading Law, so I applied to the University of Lagos (UniLag) for admission, but Alakija was faster. He just decided to send me to the same UniLag for a training in journalism, sponsored by the International Press Institute, in collaboration with the university. So he aborted my attempt to read Law.
As a reporter you were associated with discovering the body of the prime minister who was killed in the 1966 coup. Was it just a reporter’s luck that you stumbled on his corpse on Abeokuta highway?
I must say that I had a rather rapid exposure; I won’t call it promotion. As a trainee reporter we were covering magistrates’ courts or what we called the police overnight report. Usually, the police would do an overnight report of incidents that happened and you would make a story out of it, then go to a magistrate court. That was the beginning; and suddenly, Alhaji Jose pulled me out and made me to cover the parliament. That was where I became close to the then prime minister, Sir Tafawa Balewa and his ministers as a young reporter.
In fact, my closest friend then was the late Alhaji Maitama Sule. He and I and Sam Amuka used to run round to nightclubs. Alhaji Maitama used to make fun of me not to refer to those days, that he had forgotten about his nightclubbing days and became deeply religious in Islamic religion.
But I had pictures of myself and him as young men in the 1960s. I gave him a copy years after and he said, “Stop reminding me of those days.” I became close to many of the ministers.
It was in the process of covering the parliament that I became close to Sule. In fact, at a point I became a reporter at large, Alhaji Jose just took interest in the fact that I became very enterprising.
I was the first reporter in Nigeria, of our days, to have a telephone in my house; and I was mobile. I started with mobilet and graduated to Vespa, which was like having a car. So I was very mobile, restless and active. I also covered the airport.
The last debate at the parliament at that time was a new press law that Chief Okotie Eboh was pushing, and the likes of Adero Okunsoya under the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) were resistant and we were fighting it.
Simultaneously, there was a Commonwealth conference in Lagos over Southern Rhodesia. The British government had lost control of Southern Rhodesia and Sir Tafawa Balewa was the only prime minister that most Commonwealth countries respected, so for the first time, the conference was moved away from London to Nigeria.
As a reporter at large, on the night of January 13, 1966, two days before the coup, I was at the airport with Tafawa Balewa, who was seeing off Harold Wilson, the prime minister of UK. At that time it was British Airways. We joked, and after the take-off he said, “You are still here.” That was the last time I saw him.
The following day was 14th and by the morning of 15th the coup had happened and he was abducted. So, it was not by chance because I had developed an investigative attitude. For example, before then, there was a case of an expatriate who abused and slapped a lady in the then Kings Way Store in Nigeria. While the story was killed by other papers, I investigated and it became a headline in the Daily Times.
I developed the habit, and throughout the period that I was a reporter at large, I used to cover the courts, the police Criminal Investigation Department. And I had developed reasonable contacts – sources of information.
So, on the day of the coup, I ran to Maitama Sule and he said, “You have to get a lady to go and see what is happening in the residence of the prime minister with the wives because we men couldn’t enter the house.”
It was opposite the Island Club. And it hurts me that today, rather than keep that house, we turned it into the zone 2 headquarters of the police.
So I got a distant cousin of mine, Miss Dupe Samuel, myself and Sule in his car to go and investigate what was happening in the prime minister’s house. She went in, saw the wives, came back to give us the report and she gave the story of how the prime minister was abducted. It was from there that I started following up.
At that time, there was nothing like National Security Organisation (NSO), which became the State Security Service (SSS) and now, Department of State Services (DSS). The security section was between the Nigeria Police Force and the E-branch; that was where people like Shinkafi, MD Yusuf and co were operating.
The military didn’t even have the signal department. They depended on the police signal. And because I had been covering crime, court, police investigation, I had a strong influence and contact. Through my contact, the E-branch was giving me information on some of what they were gathering. There was high professionalism in those days.
I got a hint from the team in search of the prime minister. I just got a call from one of them that they were on their way from the location in Otta. The team was coming back from Otta and they got back to the office and phoned me and hinted that they found the body. Being mobile, that was how I just took my scooter with my co-tenant, Titus Osukolu because it was around 5:30 or 6pm and I knew that if I didn’t move fast it would get dark. I had to race on my motorcycle to Iyana Ologbo, a little bit after Otta.
The body was still there?
The body was still there, fresh.
Can you recall what state the body was?
Tafawa Balewa was still intact. I am convinced that either he was strangled or perhaps he had cardiac arrest, but there was no gunshot on his body at all. He was still in his white; and they placed the body by a tree. So, my information came from the E-branch team.
From your interactions, how would you describe Tafawa Balewa?
He was a first class gentleman, highly humble, with a very deep baritone voice. He was a man of simple approach to his own means and life. My impression of him was that he was a man who valued fellow human beings. Although I was a very young reporter, he knew all of us by first name.
Balewa was a father figure and easygoing. He had the air of leadership, but he was not one that would throw his weight. He was a rare leader. It is a pity that he died like that.
But there was a lot of bad press against him in the newspapers; was he accepted?
No, he didn’t have bad press. You see, the Nigerian problem was caused by intrigues and politics, particularly in the Western Region. I am not sure I can put part of the blame on the British.
The British were not willing to cede government to any leader; they had reservations about their leadership approach. For example, they were not too trusting of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. And they were not too sure of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s philosophy of egalitarianism.
It was an era of the Cold War, the USSR and other communist countries as against the Western World, America, UK and others. So, the British were manipulating the system. They were suspicious of ever letting the combination of any government that Awolowo and Azikiwe would play a leading role to emerge. That was the beginning of our problem.
Unfortunately, the crisis within the Action Group was naturally seized upon by the Northern People Congress (NPC) and they threw their weight behind Chief Samuel Akintola, who was fighting his leader and his party and created the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), in alliance with the NPC. That created instability.
The Yoruba were not too much in tune with Akintola, who the NPC was backing. In-between, a phantom coup charge was made against Chief Awolowo – the treasonable felony trial. His sentence to jail created upheaval and total instability, to a point that the Agbekoyas, these were farmers who created resistance, and the ordinary people who were against the Akintola party that the NPC was backing from the North, started sacking local governments, towns and cities, to the point that the police were not able to operate openly in the then Western Region, and the movement was coming to encircle Lagos.
It was now in the combination of the jailing of Awolowo, the 1964 election, which was not the fault of the NNDP but the Action Group to have boycotted, which means the Yoruba didn’t have representation.
To top it up, their hope to seize back the Western Region was dashed with the 1965 election. That was what created the atmosphere, particularly when a coup had been staged against Nkrumah in Ghana and it became a domino effect of a kind. That was what led to the January 1966 coup, which again, unfortunately, was mishandled by some of the officers who were supposed to carry out part of it, like Ifeajuna. It became sectional, in the sense that those who were killed were mostly northerners, Not only northerners, many Yoruba officers were also killed. Those who were supposed to abduct Gen Aguiyi Ironsi and take Michael Opara didn’t do it.
But Ironsi was not in the country, was he?
Ironsi was in the country. It was Azikiwe that was not in the country.
Do you think it was a coincidence that he was not in the country?
I don’t think he was hinted at because Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was not the kind of person that would go into any arrangement with Azikiwe; he detested all of them. The only thing that saved Awolowo was that he was in jail. Nzeogwu carried out his own execution of a kind in the North. Those who were supposed to do it in the East and in West reneged.
You also played a role as a journalist in the 1975 coup, which led to your becoming the editor of the Daily Times in a fairly controversial circumstance; can you relate what happened?
Again, I started having relationships with the military right from my school days. In Methodist Boys’ High School, I was sent to a Man-O-War training. The training was in Cameroon, not the kind of training they are doing now in the local area. We travelled all the way from Lagos to Cameroon, and you would climb the Cameroon mountain as part of the training. I met some military guys there who came for training.
Secondly, as a reporter, I was one of those who covered part of the civil war. There, I came to know a lot of officers. General Danjuma was a major. Shehu Yar’adua was in the Midwest section of the operation. I remember that the first casualty was one of our colleagues, Kalu Onigbogu, a reporter, I think for Radio Nigeria. He was killed by an accidental discharge.
Being in the field, I interacted and developed relationships with a lot of military officers. Not only that, there was a strong military presence in Abeokuta. One of my close friends, Adejo, also had a relationship with the military. Through him (I used to stay with him in Abeokuta) I came to know a lot of military men. I used to make fun of them that as they were growing, I was also growing.
As a reporter right from my school days, I developed the habit of socialisation. I used to go to a lot of parties. My school won the School Cup in 1961 and I organised a very successful party. So as a reporter, my house was a clearing house for so many people.
General Babangida and co, Murtala Mohammed, Air Marshall Bello, Air Marshall Abbas, were people I socialised with. I used to go to nightclubs with them. Many of them were people I came to know from being second lieutenants, lieutenants to when they became captain, major. So I knew them as young officers. That was the situation in 1975.
One of my close friends in the military then was General Emmanuel Abisoye, a very fine officer. I think he came first amongst his course mates in some of the courses he had.
On the day of the coup, because of my relationship with some of the officers, one of them phoned. I had a telephone, which was a very important tool. I don’t know why people should blame me for having a strong means of communication. He hinted me and said I should turn on my radio. As I turned on the radio, someone came on air to announce the coup against Gowon, who was in East Africa for the Organisation of African Union (OAU).
I was living in Eric Moore. I can’t remember whether I even brushed my teeth and I just took my car and raced down to the office. I was the first to arrive at the Daily Times office; soon after, Alhaji Jose came in.
I was monitoring the radio and writing the story while Alhaji Jose, who was the chairman and managing director but was still practising was taking the copies. In those days, the setting was metal. He was sitting in the production room editing my report and quickly laying out the Evening Times. That was how we announced the coup against Gowon. Only two of us produced the Evening Times; other editors didn’t come until about 10 or 11 because a lot of them were afraid. They didn’t want to go out when there was an announcement of curfew. But it didn’t bother me; I just took off to the office and we produced the paper. After production I went back home, got something to eat and freshened up.
The coup makers had demobilised the telephone on the Island, but that of the rest of the country, including the Mainland of Lagos, were working. I called Abisoye’s house and he said he was just coming from a meeting of the Supreme Military Council at Dodan Barracks. I asked if I could see him and he said yes. He was living at Yaba barracks, near the Queen’s College.
Abisoye could be very blunt. He said, “I invited you Segun because you people are in trouble.” General Murtala Mohammed was the minister of communication under Gowon, General Abisoye was minister of health. Obasanjo was also a minister.
General Murtala, being a no-nonsense officer who wanted action and performance, decided to award the contract for the Nigerian communication to ITT, but the permanent secretary, Akindele, objected. Gone are the days when top civil servants were true to their duties. He said, “Mr Minister, you cannot award this contract without going to the Council.” So there was disagreement between the permanent secretary and the minister. The Daily Times got wind of the information that Murtala decided to sack the permanent secretary. We got the story and threw our weight behind Akindele against Murtala Mohammed.
That was what Abisoye referred to when he said, “You people are in trouble.” I asked what kind of trouble and he said Murtala was now head of state. He was making jest of it. He said, “Daily Times, oya, your pen is mightier than the sword, this is the man you didn’t want to win, the man you have been running a campaign against.” At that time, the late Dolapo Ogunsuwo and co were part of the team doing a thorough investigative journalism, very first class; we thought we were doing a good job.
Murtala Mohammed was the new head of state and some top officers were retired, like chief of staff, Supreme Headquarters. I think Hassan Katsina was chief of army staff and he was retired. All the service chiefs were retired.
He was telling me some of the things they arrived at and I became confused. I asked, “General, how far can I go with all the information you have given me?” and he said, “Well, you are a seasoned reporter, so go and use your discretion, but I can assure you that if you run into trouble, I will not back you.” That was what I took out of General Abisoye.
I can disclose that because over the years, nobody knew my source of information, until years later when General Abisoye himself said I could tell Alhaji Jose that he was the one who gave me the story. I had that clearance from him before I disclosed it at my book launch, where he was present in 2011.
Again, in the morning I was the first to be in the office and produced the story with Alhaji Jose. It was getting past 6 o’clock and they had been in a meeting all day. I was pondering on whether Murtala would accept to be head of state, based on the condition he was giving them. I mean there were stories flying around.
I drove back to the office, and to my shock, the whole place was totally empty on the day of a coup. Of course, the production department was on because they normally slept in the office to produce the final copy of the paper, and there had been no news all day.
When I told Alhaji Jose about Murtala, you can imagine what would be his reaction, having presided over a serious investigative journalism on issue of principle and the limitation of the power of a minister, only for that minister to become the new head of state.
With this robust career in journalism, why did you switch to politics; were you not making a lot of money as you would have wanted?
My going into politics was purely for service. Alhaji Jose had warned me that my tenure as managing director must not last more than a term, and that if I stayed too long, I would become a victim like him. So I left in 1989 to go into politics. In my time, politics had not been monetised. Babangida created and funded two political parties—National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). He built their headquarters and officers were paid, so it was not about money.
I had been close to Baba Obafemi Awolowo since 1967 when he came out of jail. I was close to him when he was a federal minister of finance. I interacted with him closely. While I was in Sketch, Peter, myself and Felix used to have dinner with him every fortnight; we were that close. We were part of his kitchen cabinet; and he made us to be members of all the organs of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN).
He was not an interventionist publisher. He would talk with you to know the direction of his opinion on issues, then leave you to go and use your sense of judgement.
So I had a tutelage under Chief Awolowo and that was why I decided to go into politics. But I met serious resistance from the immediate lieutenants of Baba Awolowo. The then Afenifere leader, Baba Adesanya, was opposed to me on what he called his principle. He said they had zoned the next governorship of Ogun State to the people of Egbadiwa and it was not the turn of those of us from the central Egba, after Onabanjo. Ayo Adebanjo and Chief Olanihun Ajayi were also opposed to me. They all said they were not going to support my candidature; they would rather support Professor Afolabi Olabitan.
At that time, it was an open ballot system of election, where you would queue behind the picture of your candidate. As a reporter, I was mobile, so I went to every village and town in Ogun State and canvassed for my candidature. At the end of the day, through an open ballot, I won the primary election convincingly. That is why each time Chief Adebanjo said they made governors of the Alliance for Democracy (AD), I told him I was not one of them.
Did your military friends help you to win the election?
In what way could they help? It was an open ballot, so there was no way anybody could help because you would queue to vote.
During the general elections, did they help you to become the governor of Ogun State?
No. At that time there was no issue of vote buying. That was the time when wife would queue behind one person and the husband and the children would queue somewhere else. And you didn’t need much money. I didn’t need the military people to win. I knew all these generals as second lieutenants, so I could not be obliged to them, I mean there was mutual respect because in my days I was one of those who campaigned against corruption in journalism (brown envelops).
You would not believe it, but I didn’t have a grain of sand as land anywhere in Nigeria until I became the managing director of Daily Times. That was because of the principle that we would not be obliged to government. And the first military governor of Lagos State, General Mobolaji Johnson, was my class captain in Methodist Boys’ High School, and one of my classmates, Rashid Gbadamosi was one of the youngest commissioners in his cabinet. If I wanted a land in Victoria Island, it was there for me, but on principle, we journalists must not take things from the government.
Gbolaho Mudashir was shocked to hear that I didn’t have a land in Lagos. The only house I had in Eric Moore was the one purchased from the NSCPC. That’s why I always told Chief Adebanjo to pick his words as I am not one of those he made governors when he claimed to be making governors. I was governor against all the opposition from the leaders of Afenifere. But when I became governor, I set up a consultative forum in which I put all of them to advise me.
Is it true that Obasanjo stopped you from becoming governor after your first term? All of you did not return, except Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
I had a nasty experience with Obasanjo in the military era. I did not apply for a post, but as chief of staff, he said they should announce my name on the radio. When I was to go to Sketch, he stopped it as head of state, saying I was too close to Awolowo. Unfortunately for him, the UPN won Yoruba states and they revisited my issue. I know him very well.
The mood at that time was that the country was looking forward to his second term; the Yoruba and South West were looking to him to come back. Like him, I am from Ogun State, so if I lost my job as governor, so be it. I have no regrets.
But do you believe he double-crossed you while you helped him?
Yes, it is all in my book.
Muhammadu Buhari went to court over the result in Ogun State. You know, in Ogun we produce kolanut in large number, so a lot of northerners have settled there and integrated. Some of them speak better Egba than me. They speak Remo and Ijebu more than those of us who are indigenes of Ogun State.
In all the polling booths in many parts, Buhari was able to collect authentic figures. Justice Tobi said the result of Ogun State was criminal in nature and threw it out. Obasanjo said he scored 1.2 million votes, more than 100 per cent, as the total figure for the governorship election was 600,000. If I had gone to court I would have won, but I said I came to serve, if they didn’t want me to serve a second term, let me go home. These things are all in my book, and neither Obasanjo nor anybody else has countered it.
We are now in another transition and you are a very key figure in the APC. Why has the ruling party not been able to deliver on its campaign promises? I remember you complained about the inability of the party to implement the report of the El-Rufai committee, which was discussed by your NEC, but up till now, one year to the end of this administration, nothing has been done about it; what is happening?
I believe some people within the presidency don’t want the implementation of the report. That is my suspicion. Those of us from the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) went into the merger with a mandate that there would be true federalism. It is in the manifesto of the APC.
I must say that those who became powerful in government were not involved in the merger process. That’s one of the problems.
Secondly, they don’t follow the constitution of the party to the letter. There was supposed to be a national caucus and state caucuses made up of eminent members of the party who should be acting as a buffer. We used to have regular caucus meetings in the Villa with the president as a means of feedback. But again, at some point, some people found it not too convenient to have these caucuses. The Board of Trustees is supposed to be in charge of assets and things, but what we have are trustees that manage issues and crises. Till today, we have not set up a Board of Trustees.
Under the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Obasanjo, the Board of Trustees became a one-man show. That was why we said in our constitution, which I was chairman, that the chairmanship of the board would be rotated every two years between the six geopolitical zones so that we would not create a monster chairman. These are some of the problems that did not help the APC, most unfortunately.
Those of us who were strong members of the merger didn’t have the chance to see to the implementation of the constitution.
Do you think your party has failed the people in bringing the needed change in the country?
How can I say that my party has failed? Do you want me to tell you that I am a failure? I do not agree to that.
It appears your party would zone the presidency to the South since the national chairman has gone to the North Central. Which part of the South do you think should get it?
If you look into the 2015 and 2019 elections, the APC did not make any effective impact whatsoever in the South South and South East; those regions voted massively for the PDP. By my training under Awolowo, you are somebody at all the levels of the party based on the votes delivered. If Kabiru’s constituency is able to deliver 10,000 votes to the UPN, for example, your constituency will bring in 10 delegates, and if Segun Osoba’s constituency delivers 1,000, I will bring one delegate. It is whoever scores the highest goals in the World Cup that carries the cup. In politics it is votes. Now, going by the votes, whether by spread or total delivery, South West delivered 2015 and 2019. I agree that everybody in the South should have a say and throw up candidates.
My theory is that based on votes, the South West should have a big stake, and based on zoning, the whole of the South should slug it out.
When MKO Abiola wanted to be president, I was the governor of Ogun State; we went round the whole of Igbo land to lobby them. I keep asking my Igbo friends if they are asking for presidency by right or as an entitlement. Till today, nobody from the South East has come to tell me that he wants to be president. I am shocked. By now, I expect that they would be moving round the South West where they know that the APC is strong. Even if an Igbo man or a South South man is the candidate of the party, he must count on the South West, but till today, nobody has made such effort. That is my disappointment.
Your analysis shows that this zoning favours the South West; do you think there would be a kind of consensus to choose a candidate from the region?
I can assure you that the Yoruba are very democratic; they will not stop anybody. I can also assure you that the elders will rally round whoever emerges in the South West. As usual, we will talk to ourselves and get everybody on line.
Given your antecedence, everybody will assume that you already have a candidate in this contest; am I right?
I am one of those who will go round to appeal to all the contending forces and groups to rally round whoever emerges from the South West as our presidential candidate, no matter who that person is. I should not come out openly and start canvassing for anybody.
You are now 82; are you thinking of retiring from politics?
There are two jobs I will never retire from. One is reporting. I keep making fun that even when they are throwing me into the grave I will be sending a reportorial signal. And like Akinfeleye used to say, in heaven there will be reporters even where you don’t have other professions. This is because nobody will be sick and there will be no doctor, but there will be information dissemination, so I will still be a reporter, even in heaven. The second one is politics. I will remain a politician until I die. I will not be overtly partisan but I will remain a father. In Ogun State, for example, I relate with all the former governors and the current one. So I will continue to play a father figure in politics. I will never resign.
What other interest do you have in life beside this public pursuit?
I have had my time, I used to enjoy partying. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I have never tasted wine in my life, but now, the energy is not there anymore. I have seen it all. Now, what I value most is what I don’t get—sleep. In old age you don’t sleep more than 3 hours in one go and I wish I could take a 6-hour long sleep, but as a journalist, the body clock is still working late. Now, what I enjoy most is when I am with my grandchildren; I enjoy their company. Unfortunately, the internet now makes them sit on the computer most of the time, but they are my teachers. My first grandson is a guru in information technology and he is the one teaching me everything.