He is fondly called Allah De, a nickname traceable to his highly influential column in the Daily Times, which he started in the late 1950s.
Alhaji Alade Odunewu, an England-trained distinguished journalist, had paid his dues in helping to make the Fourth Estate of the Realm what it has today become.
The President of the Nigerian Press Council spoke to BASHIR ADEFAKA at his residence in Lagos, recently. Excerpts:
Let me take you from the last point: The Nigerian problems,of all solutions that you have proffered, why has there been any change?
It is worrisome the way things have turned. But I also believe that you gentlemen of the press would have something to offer by way of solution to the Nigerian problems because, they are getting fat. Let’s face it: Where is the governance? There is no governance! Where is the leadership, which should effect the change you talked about? There is no leadership! You mount the rostrum to appeal to vote for you so that you can minister into their needs, which you never do; which Nigerians never do; which legislators never do.
On the contrary, everybody is his own keeper. You are your own security agent, you are your own scavenger, hunger ravaging the polity and what we call sinews of welfare are not there because the leadership is busy; the law makers are busy cooking up the books. Everything is about what do I gain?
Something tells me that the resolve to push that desired leadership in place is reason for these agitations about whether or not presidency should be zoned. Do you agree?
I don’t share that belief. It was zoning yesterday, it is zoning today and zoning means sharing of booties; little or no regard for the man in the street! It is hunger, hunger everywhere and so what is the solution? See the parade of people who want to contest elections. Do we have any Obama phenomenon there? But there is none! It is the recycle of the same old stuff.
When I had the opportunity to share the rostrum about three years ago at an NUJ get_together, I talked about zoning and there I said zoning, to me, was a lazy man’s option for electoral contest. It is a celebration of mediocrity.
You see it has been said that sovereignty belongs to the people. That is why you talk about the sanctity and the superiority of the ballot box, which is no more honoured in Nigeria. Everybody is talking about 2011 election whereas, the wherewithal is not there; the basic infrastructure is not there. Where are the voters and where is the register of voters? Everybody is talking about 2011 and 2011 is now around the corner. By the time you know it, rigging will have taken the stage and somebody is declared winner and that is it. Then it will result to court. Is that how democracy is structured?
This is an area the media has worked hard to influence improvement.
And that is why I say as far as you people in the media are concerned, you should do more of monitoring; you should monitor the government and you must try to win the battle for public trust. That is very important and that is why I refer to …. as fatigue because, who is listening to you.
You know it has been said, and I don’t know how much of it you share, that politics in developing countries is connected with sharing of national cake. Public office means the livelihood for the politician, because the political leadership in the eye of the ordinary Nigerian has become synonymous with looting and high profile theft.
How would rate security situation in Nigeria now?
You know I said casually that you are your own security and so to say. Charity begins at home. Bayo Awoshika, the banker, was my in-law, the husband of my daughter. He is lying in his grave now, not because of old age because of the activity of assassins. Next month, October will be his death anniversary. He was shot dead, at a place near where you now have Shoprite, at the prime age of 40! Up till now, nothing has happened about it and that is why I said charity begins at home.
Where is the Chief Law Officer of the Federation of Nigeria, Bola Ige? Killed, no body has been effectively constituted till today. Where is Alfred Rewane? Killed, no positive investigation, no positive prosecution till today! Where is Dipo Dina? Where is Onipede of Badagry, who was said to have been tied with rope and dumped to death? Where is Funsho Williams? What prosecution has occurred since he was killed?
You see I want to say, and I have said this before, that the police should stop fooling us. Immediately any assassination occurs, there is a police reaction. They should stop reacting, because they start investigation with zero and end it with zero!
So, my suggestion is that, as soon as somebody is assassinated, the police should just go to the cashier in their barracks, collect salaries and await the next murder. Yes! It is as simple as that. Tell me one single thing they have ever done about the few people I mentioned as killed. And there are others. There are people I call the ‘Nigerian citizens anonymous’. Those I mentioned earlier are people we can identify, people with high profiles; there are others unknown at all, killed!
There is this, my compilation of Allah De column. If you go through that publication and read what is contained therein, you will discover that nothing has changed between then and now. And truly nothing! That is the feedback I get anyway. This thing was in the 60s. We haven’t seen any change. It is still the same thing that we have. Look at the electoral contest: I say tell me, where is the Obama face in it? Nigeria is so verse, full of human resources, intellects: Where are they? Is there nobody as daring as Obama in it? See the way he dared, see the result he got: Harvard Law professor at Iowa in Chicago is the President and they call America’s President the President of the world.
Is the system liberal enough to allow the type of Obama daring approaching to political pursuit in the electoral system in Nigeria at the moment?
No. When I say Obama face, I’m not talking about gangsterism and I’m not talking about violence. I’m talking about positive way of getting to the top. Obama didn’t kill anybody, he didn’t hire tugs; he used his brain to organise in a way that Americans had never known with new ideas.
Intellectual revolution of a sort?
Revolution has so many faces. The type of revolution I’m talking about is the Obama one. He took his time; it took an organisation to do and achieve desired result. The revolution I’m talking about is using your intellect to achieve what you want.
The problem still lies with the electorates: Poverty has blocked their eyes from cooperating with good partakers, who should do this thing once and for all to change their lives for better. Do I make any sense?
That’s where the challenge lies. That is the challenge! And the challenge has to be faced; otherwise, we can’t make any headway. The type of revolution I’m talking about is everything but violence and the use of tugs. But mind you, I’m not pre-empting, even the so-called common man in the street, who has not got the wherewithal to fight, it may take sometimes; one day they will be pushed against the wall. It can happen.
What is your view about the anti-corruption crusade here?
Let me tell you, there cannot be a successful fight against corruption without stipulated sanctions. Did you see the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN)?
Yes. Only the Action Group I did not see because I wasn’t born at that time.
Now what I was going to say is that, some of their governors; Bisi Onabanjo, Bola Ige, Lateef Jakande and Adekunle Ajasin were given what I can call gargantuan sentences. They were sentenced for 25 years, 35 years or so. What did they do? The main charge was that they enriched their party. They did not say at any place that those governors enriched themselves. No, but their party.
(cuts in) Which, in that case, was the party that was generally seen as actually delivering the goods.
Absolutely! Have you seen today’s governors, who use their loots to purchase jets for themselves? And when I use the word ‘governor’, I mean people in leadership who rule us; our rulers. They purchase jets and choice apartments. I don’t know whether you have ever heard the type of properties that are ascribed to some of these people.
Sure, I have: One of them was said to have singularly possessed about 177 houses scattered within his state alone.
You have not gone abroad: You have not gone to Dubai. You have not gone to choice areas in London or in New York. Alright?
The point I’m trying to make is that, they … the punishment that belongs to the Stone Age when the rule governing transparency and accountability in public life was something of a tit-for-tat. This is public officer who deepened his hands into public treasury and made away with public funds. The tax payer who is the lawful owner of the money is supposed to be assuaged by asking the thief to make a report and tell him go home and sin no more. That settles it. But what he (the thief) gets is what I call ‘soft landing.’ That is what all this quarrelling is all about. Money, money; grab, grab.
That I took the excuse not to start this talk with myself but with how I started out in life and the rest of it because, I am more concerned about what is happening today. Nobody bothers about the welfare of the man in the street: grab, grab, grab! That is the situation. And that is why I say that are we not wary? Those that have ideas have sold the ideas several times over, yet nothing is made of it.
Do we say Nigeria is a failed state going by all these inadequacies?
People are grumbling. There is no happiness in the land. Let me tell you, Nigeria is sliding towards a failed state. Everybody is concerned with his pocket toying with people’s money. These things are affecting many people, not only me here, it affects your office there too. Only God knows the amount you spend on diesel in your office there; all of you, not only Vanguard but also This Day, Punch, Guardian burning money on getting means of power supply while you have to be supplied and you are just paying your dues.
At 80 you still look so fit. What is the secret perhaps I can learn from it?
Just put it down as contentment. No envy and don’t overuse yourself. There is no magic to it because, easy does it. Don’t bite more than you can chew. Don’t start struggling for mundane things of the world.
How was your growing up like?
It was cool and I have put some of it in a book titled, “How to be good Lagosian”, a work by Lagos State Government where I was honoured to make contribution. If you have access to it, you can see what you are looking for about me there.
What particular character do you remember about your father and how did that influence your upbringing?
Well you see unfortunately, daddy didn’t live long. I think he must have died at fifty something years old and so we didn’t have much knowledge of his character, particularly. And you know the type of life men like him lived; many wives and so having little time for their children.
How many wives did he have?
I knew of my mother and two others but there were more. We, the children, were so many that all of us tried hard to get his attention before we could see him. That’s where the role of mother becomes more visible in Yorubaland because the father would not be there for the children, in a situation like ours. Yes.
It was the mother, who would be selling petty, petty things outside the house to take care of her children under such situation.
Are you saying your mother sold things like leaves or firewood to bring you up?
You know, our mother sold wool and, in fact, people used to call us Omo Iya oni wuulu (children of wool seller). Because at times she would pick one of us to follow her from one customer to another during her trading outing. I would like to say here that the influence of our mother on us was far more than the influence of our father on us.
Meaning that you didn’t have or enjoy the growing up of a child born with silver spoon in his mouth?
My growing up was at Oko Awo, my daddy was across the road near Agarawu axis. Talking about the standard of that time, my father was a rich person. He had a storey building and he was one of those that had cars in Lagos at that time and that was the standard for determining a wealthy person.
He was getting involved with many women but, as I said, mother was closer. We were five from my mother; the eldest being Mobolaji Odunewu, he was one of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s original journalists. In fact, I got the inspiration of what I wanted to become in life, as a journalist, from him because I moved with to Port Harcourt. You know, Dr. Azikiwe had a chain of newspapers; he had the Eastern Nigerian Guardian in Port Harcourt and my brother, Mobolaji Odunewu was the editor. I lived with him and I was attending my school there: I attended St. Cyprian’s School there in Port Harcourt at that time before I moved to New Bethel College in Onitsha. That was it.
Of my father, we were over twenty children scattered (laughs). Then it was left for each mother to carry her own children on the way to be. It’s as simple as that. We hovered around mother.
Before you became journalist, considering the kind of background you had, was there any particular struggle you did to climb up to success you now live with?
No, no, no. But I appreciate that question. No. The way it went was that immediately Mobolaji Odunewu was transferred to Port Harcourt by Zik as Editor of the Eastern Nigerian Guardian, I followed to live with him and that was where I got the idea of column writing because, all the Zik’s newspapers were coming to Port Harcourt by Rail Way: Spokesman in Onitsha, Nigerian Defender and I was reading them and became interest. I was reading a columnist of the Mirror and I was also reading local writers (Anthony) Enahoro and some few others.
So there was no difficulty for me growing up. I was living with somebody well endowed; editor of a newspaper. I was going to school which was a stone throw from our house there in Port Harcourt and he was taking good care of me and my upbringing by him was superb.
When I finished my school in Port Harcourt, I went to New Bethel College in Onitsha. In Onitsha I lived with Dr. Akinola Akerele, who was for me what you call guardian. He was my brother’s close friend. So from there I worked my way back to Lagos after my school and in Lagos I worked as a reporter with the Daily Times until I got a scholarship to go for study abroad.
Who gave you the scholarship?
It was scholarship a Federal Government scholarship distributed among Commonwealth countries by the British Government at that time. I was fortunate to be part of it and I went. I went to School of Modern Languages at the Regent Street Polytechnic, London – now University of Westminster – as a Federal Government scholar where I read journalism. That was where I started to grow in the journalism profession.
I did well that I won the Commonwealth New Statesman Prize for the Best all-round student at that time and, as a matter of fact, a friend of mine, Kesington Momoh, brother of Tony (former Nigeria’s Minister of Information) tried to persuade me to stay behind in London after the journalism course. Kesington was already based in London at that time and so I worked with a number of British newspapers before coming back home.
How many newspapers precisely did you ever work for?
I was with Daily Times between 1950-56 as Reporter and Sub-Editor and left to become Editor and later Managing Editor of the African Press Limited, Ibadan, publishers of The Nigerian Tribune Newspaper. That was between 1956 and 1957.
By 1960 I was made Editor-in-Chief, Allied Newspapers of Nigeria Limited and was there till I left in 1964 to become Editor of Sunday Times. As Allah would have it, I rose between that 1964 through 1968 to become Editor of the Daily Times and in 1968 – 69 I was made the Editor-in-Chief of the same Daily Times. I eventually became Chief Executive, Magazine Division of the Daily Times of Nigeria Limited in 1970 and was there till 1973.
Let me quickly add here that I was Councillor, Lagos City Council and later Commissioner for Information, Tourism and Culture in Lagos State between August 1973 and July 1975. I served also as Head of the North African Zone, Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), Lagos.
I later became Editor-in-Chief/General Manager, Newspaper Division, The Daily Times of Nigeria Limited, that was after my commissionership in August 1975 till October 1976. I was appointed on secondment as Member of the Transition Federal Electoral Commission, where I was between October 1976 and September 1979 and returned to The Daily Times of Nigeria Limited as Group Publications Controller in October same year, 1979.
Between October 1984 and October 1990, I was appointed and served as Commissioner (Ombudsman), Public Complaints Commission, Lagos. I also served as Sole Administrator, Lagos Horizon (Eko Today) Publishing Company between October 1997 and May 1999.