I was going to write an article titled Nduka Obaigbena at 50 this week, but then while still implicitly (and explicitly) rendering that tribute, I have chosen to explore the more fundamental issue of media ownership in Nigeria, which in any event is what Nduka represents with his several pioneering actions in that regard. I have always been interested in the media. As a secondary school student, I knew I could only study law (which I ended up studying at Ife) or the social sciences-political science and economics. If I didn’t study law I suspect I would have practiced journalism. But I have been a student of the media since childhood. I do not exaggerate when I say I started reading my father’s copies of Daily Times since I was five years old!
Then most of the papers were government-owned (Sketch, New Nigerian, Herald, Observer etc) with the main exception being Chief Awolowo’s Tribune and Daily Times which subsequently went under government control too. Thus ownership of the media like almost everything else (banks, utilities) was taken over by government and media men and bankers were in effect public servants. It was the Times that was most pervasive around 1970 and it was the paper that first caught my attention. At first I focused on the sports pages, but gradually I began to notice stories about Yasser Arafat, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Richard Nixon and other global actors. Of course Generals Gowon, Mobolaji Johnson, Hassan Usman Katsina and the others were also in the papers, but we were taught a lot about them in our current affairs classes, so theirs were not the reports that interested me.
The return to civilian rule and the run-up to the 1979 elections however changed my newspaper habits as Chief Awolowo and his determined run for power made his Tribune the compelling read, at least in Yorubaland. Soon other politicians would try to balance out the newspaper market, most notably MKO Abiola’s Concord newspapers in his ill-fated NPN journey. Other independent newspapers were also present-Chief Aboderin’s Punch and later Sam Amuka-Pemu’s Vanguard. But it was the Guardian that next became my standard fare. The Guardian in the 1980s was an intellectual delight with deep and inspiring op-ed articles by a large pool of brilliant writers. I think my future as a columnist was sealed by the example of many of the writers in that Guardian era. The Ibrus (and Chief Ajibola Ogunsola who has since managed the Punch after Aboderin’s demise, as well as Sam Amuka-Pemu) have maintained a commendable tradition of independent, high-quality journalism driven by the public interest.
And then came Nduka Obaigbena’s THISWEEK around 1986. Dele Giwa had been killed in that parcel bomb. I felt let-down by what I considered as the lame efforts of his Newswatch colleagues to pursue the matter. When THISWEEK came along in glossy, world-class print, and a team arguably of the best journalists in Nigeria, I was sold. I bought (and still have) copies of every edition of that magazine ever published! Okay, may be I missed one or two editions! But then I didn’t just read the magazine, I responded to virtually all their stories posting my letters to the editor first from my NYSC base in Benin and then from whichever post office was nearest to me after I returned to Lagos. I was captivated by the magazine’s freshness and youth, its breezy yet classy style and its generational appeal. Nduka himself had declared THISWEEK a generational statement and I still think THISWEEK remains the best news magazine ever published in Nigeria.
However while THISWEEK was an editorial success, it did not appear to have been an economic success. When the editors of the paper invited me to their offices around 1989 or 1990 and featured me on their personality pages, the signs of distress were already visible and soon the paper would stop operations. It is an enormous tribute to Mr Obaigbena that he bounced back a second time with the contemporary THISDAY and this time he has evidently been a winner, both commercially and editorially. I am not quite sure I share Nduka’s politics. He was a leading member of the NRC during the Babangida transition and he may indeed be somehow influential even in these days of the PDP. There are many who have concerns about his values too, and that of his paper, but whatever you think, you must acknowledge his vision, courage, boldness, tenacity, energy, and risk-taking entrepreneurship. He has exerted an undeniable influence on the evolution of the newspaper industry in Nigeria, and now appears to be seeking a similar impact in the broader terrain of media and entertainment.
In these times, other newspapers have also made a bold impact. This newspaper’s publisher, Frank Aigbogun continues to impress with his calm professionalism and his ethics, and he has successfully built a high quality and credible business-oriented newspaper in Nigeria, a significant achievement in these days of poor newspaper readership, even of mainstream titles. And then there is the new NEXT. The professional credentials of Dele Olojede and his wife Amma Ogan are impeccable. Indeed they were part of the inspiring Guardian team I referred to earlier. But now they have co-investors-Fola Adeola, Hakeem Bello-Osagie, Nasir El-Rufai and others-powerful businessmen and politically-ambitious individuals who will exert their own influence on the paper’s editorial direction. It remains to be seen what impact the ownership of the paper will have on the paper’s editorial judgment.