OYELADE: JOGGING IN THE JUNGLE: THE NEWSWATCH EXPERIENCE
APART from everything else, it was a day of Musketeers and as Musketeers are wont to doing, they muscled their way into our consciousness. The Newswatch Four Musketeers, reduced to three through the infamous letter bomb and the Ibadan Musketeers reduced to two about a year ago. Of course, I refer to Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed and their older colleagues, Segun Osoba, Felix Adenaike and Peter Ajayi. Dead or alive, the seven of them share a gritty verve and faith in their chosen profession.
On this day, Newswatch, Nigeria's pioneer weekly newsmagazine was celebrating its 25th anniversary with the presentation of a book 'Jogging In The Jungle' and expectedly, senior journalists swarmed the place. Chief Tony Momoh, the Yerima of Auchi Kingdom and easily one of the most outstanding editors of the Daily Times was there, even though Master of Ceremony, Patrick Doyle, would remind us of his ministerial days as the letter writer. Chief Segun Osoba who in spite of his gubernatorial sojourn feels more fulfilled being referred to as a reporter (ala Tafawa Balewa & Okotie Eboh). Ace broadcaster Kevin Ejiofor, Emeka Izeze, Managing Director, The Guardian Newspapers, Business Tycoon, Jimoh Ibrahim, the Political Scientist Professor Ebere Onwudiwe, Mike Awoyinfa, Dimgba Igwe and Funke Egbemode, Editor, Sunday Sun. The book presenter was represented by former Unilag VC, Professor Oye Ibidapo-Obe.
The alliterative title of the book 'Jogging In The Jungle' was a befitting title of the magazine's editorial of September 14, 1987, steeped in justifiable anger. The Babangida Administration had just proscribed the magazine for six months through a retroactive decree for leaking the content of the recommendations of the Political Bureau on the return to civil rule. That seminal editorial said inter alia 'If a law cannot be applied to more than one person and one circumstance, it is a bad law - restrictive, discriminatory, unjust, ill-tempered…….. In journalism, as in all areas of life, there ought to be a reasonably clear boundary between right and wrong. If there is no such clear boundary, then the practice of journalism will at best be akin to Jogging in the Jungle'.
Piqued and scandalized by the audacious language of these young Turks, the Babangida regime was locked in hostility with the Nigerian media and the harder the press complained, the harder the hammer from the military politicians. The Newswatch emerged on the scene in January 1985 exactly a year after Buhari / Idiagbon seized power, and was still cutting its teeth when an ambitious Babangida took over the reins. Thus, the road was paved for a clash between the idealistic young reporters and the jackboot usurpers.
The editors had their company and personal accounts frozen, were always in and out of courtrooms, tribunals and prisons and the late Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) was always there for them, more as an embarrassment to the government than a savior to his clients. The icing to the cake came on October 19, 1986 when Dele Giwa was assassinated. It was Sunday, and as the news frittered from the TV, my hand hung mid-air as I made to swallow my lunch. I was one of the first set of journalists outside Lagos to get to Talabi Street at Ikeja, his residence and I saw the hung short sleeve shirt he was to wear that fateful afternoon.
Apart from his engaging cock-suredness, there were premonitions before his death. He had dreamt two days before that he had an accident with his car. His mum, Elekia had a similar dream, while Yakubu Mohammed dreamt of a coffin being hauled into a Newswatch Van. Even Dele himself said a few weeks before his death, while joking with nurses at the hospital where he finally died; 'The day I am admitted in this place, I will give you real trouble.' Twenty five years after its birth and 24 years after the swashbuckling Dele Giwa exited, Ray Ekpu lives with the swagger of an ageing athlete, Dan Agbese retained his cherubic demeanour but not without the telling wrinkles while Yakubu Mohammed, still inscrutable, but having his bout with keeping young nonetheless. He it was perhaps, who emboldened the Musketeers to quit Concord Newspapers for Newswatch.
The Newswatch foursome was made in heaven. While Dele Giwa was brash, almost haughty, handsome and outgoing, Yakubu is reticent and studious. Ray Ekpu settles in comfortably among the intelligentsias and Dan Agbese, the oldest of them all typifies the quintessential gifted writer whose life depends on writing. Alluding to the enormous powers wielded by Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji during the Babangida heady days, Agbese, with a stroke of the pen unraveled the man 'When a man has two Alhajis in his name, what else can he be but God.' He asked wily, in a 1987 article.
History in its twists and turns has a way of procuring its indelibility and so it is that not withstanding his relatively short period of eleven years in the profession, four of which he practiced in the United States, Dele Giwa's impact on the Nigerian media is enormous and he is synonymous with Newswatch despite spending only 39 years alive. Quite a number of News Magazines have emerged since Newswatch hit the newsstand on January 28, 1985 with the headline 'COCAINE TRAFFICKING', which sold out in a matter of hours, kudos must go to the triumvirate for keeping the flag flying and charting a successful course in a business that leaves little room for material profit.
• Oyelade is Special Adviser to the Governor of Oyo State on Public Communications.