By NBF News

He is a first rate iconoclast, whose keen intellect, razor-sharp quick wittedness and eloquence have not been blunted, despite years outside the ivory tower. These gifts he still exhibited in his seminal writings for various newspapers and as a columnist with the Nigerian Tribune as well as his vigorous advocacy and defence of former Ogun State Governor, Otunba Gbenga Daniel's administration, particularly in the controversial latter part of the life of the regime.

In fact, it was this trait of fecund mind that got him noticed by ex-Governor Daniel, who subsequently, invited him to join his government as Commissioner for Information and Orientation.

Sina Kawonise, now Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Western Publishing Ltd, publishers of Compass Newspapers and The Westerner magazine, was a young academic lecturing at the Sociology Department of the Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), Ago Iwoye, until 1997, he, disillusioned by the backward state and pace of the Nigerian academic community, decided to call it quits with the classroom. Young Kawonise, who topped his graduating sets at the Olabisi Onabanjo University, where he bagged his first degree and University of Ibadan, where he later took his Master of Science (MSc.) degree was on his doctoral programme and had been recommended for accelerated promotion when he took the drastic decision.

For a time, he went into business and media consultancy, while writing for various newspapers, including The Guardian, Daily Times and The Sun and as a member of the editorial board of the Nigerian Tribune.

He wormed himself into Daniel's heart when he openly challenged and boldly criticized a farming project the former governor was promoting, as unsound in conception at a public forum. From then on, Daniel began to seek his input at brainstorming sessions on state programmes until he eventually joined the government on March 3, 2010.

In this interview, Kawonise told his story.
You read sociology, how did this define the path you eventually took in media business?

Quite incidentally, the issue of media, of journalism is if you studied Mass Communication you become specialised, but only very few people who have made their marks in journalism read Mass Communication. You know, of course, you need to have the disposition towards it, to have love and passion, even if you read Sociology and you have the writing skill, you could be a journalist. I was on the editorial board and reading Sociology exposed me and at that time I was a Marxist, you know a socialist man, very radical and I worked under the tutelage of the late Gani Fawehinmi, Beko Ransome-Kuti, we all formed the Campaign for Democracy together in Jos in 1992. I was a student of the Edwin Madunagu. He remains my very close friend and mentor in terms of radical politics and critical thinking. So, Sociology exposed me to that, but as an undergraduate, I read a lot of books. In fact, I read all the writings of Karl Marx, Fredrick Hegel and all these radical scholars in the last 200 years. I had a very big library of my own because at that time if we had money, we bought books, not shirts, we bought academic materials not blackberry and what we have now, we are not on Facebook; there was nothing like that as at that time. I read a lot and that's what exposed my mind for the work of journalism which is about what goes on around you; having a social conscience; being public spirited; have this passion that things that are happening ought not to be happening and all of that.

When I went for the Editorial Board in 1991, I learnt something; whenever any discussion came up, I was passionate, not very matured, but very hot headed. I could bring down the roof and all of that. That was my own upbringing at that time, but Nigerian Tribune did something for me; it mellowed my radicalism and made me look at the other side of an argument and Biodun Oduwole did something at that time and I remain grateful to him. At that time, if you came and brought a position and your position is A and that position is contrary to B, whenever we discussed and eventually you came in with position A and that was your own position, as the debate went on, by the time we concluded maybe it was position B, Oduwole will say Sina, you are the one that will write it.

I'll tell him, 'Sir, I don't believe in this position.' He'll insist and you must write to reflect that other opinion that you never believed in. So, that opened my mind; it broadened my horizon and broadened my ability to see thing from so many angles and that helped me a lot, because in anything I want to do, I look at the other sides and you know that there are so many sides to so many arguments. You may express your own opinion and your own preference, but you must have that conciseness. You have that multiplicity of opinion and you grew up knowing that this world is a complex place. And that people will not always agree with you and will always have their own view point. So, that helped me a lot.

How well did this help you in your job as Governor Daniel's commissioner for information and orientation considering the controversial nature ascribed to the governor?

Number one, as an academic, I saw in Otunba Gbenga Daniel as a first class intellectual. So, I just flowed very easily with him. He didn't just see me one day and made me a commissioner. My first interaction with him was in a lecture organised by Awo Foundation in November 2007. That was a very close contact I had with him. He came talking about agricultural settlements, that he could do it in the state. And I confronted him, saying that there was no way those things could work, because what I found out in government was that global policies were made without adopting what I call multi-disciplinary effects of those things. They merely looked at the economics of those farm settlements. They looked at the business aspect. They didn't look at the psychology and sociology of the people they wanted to bring in. And I said because they had that neglect, what you meant to work, because you had a very good intention didn't work. So, that was when he noticed me. After that encounter, he started inviting me to some strategy meetings and later, he gave me this offer.

He made me commissioner in Ogun State when I had business and a consulting outfit where we were making good money every year, close to N50 million. I wondered how much this will you give me. A commissioner did not even earn up to N500, 000 in Ogun State. And what all of us knew was that there was no money in Ogun State. When I saw the challenges that he faced and all the lies against him in the media, and I was convinced that he was not the kind of person that he was being portrayed in the media, I decided to take up the challenge. I reckoned that I have some credibility and some track record. I felt that if I spoke in the media, people would listen to me because of my track record. I ran columns. I wrote for The Guardian. I wrote for The Sun, when the newspaper started. I wrote for Daily Times. I have these antecedents. I took up the challenge and I am entirely grateful I did.

In terms of money, I may not have made it. There was no money to be made in Ogun State; that is why I laugh when people talk about fraud and about N30 billion missing in Ogun State. The new man in Ogun State has now discovered what we were facing. He's now crying that there is no money. He has made promises, heaven and earth, and he is now confronted with the reality on ground. Even if we wanted to steal, there was just no money to steal. Even again, my tenure as commissioner really heated my capacity for hard work. To work with Otunba Gbenga Daniel, you must really be someone with a lot of capacity, because he was a man who barely slept for three hours in a day. I also learnt the art of multi-tasking from him. As he sat in a meeting, he's doing his text messages; he's making phone calls and he's not losing attention for a moment. He multi-tasks, doing so many things at the same time in serving Ogun State.

So, being a commissioner, I worked with him closely, because the job required that I sit with him in all meetings. I must know whatever happened. So, that really exposed me to governance and the intrigues in politics. I am not a politician, but I learnt a lot about politics and governing a very complex state, like Ogun State where everybody is an expert, where everybody has an opinion, where everybody is interested in what goes on in government. It was really a capacity building period for me. And, of course, people say you made a success in government for about 15 months as commissioner for information and orientation but what really helped me was my background in the media. I had friends and when I spoke, people knew that I wouldn't lie under any circumstance. And Otunba Gbenga that was grossly misunderstood would never lie under any circumstance and never asked me to say anything that was not correct.

He wouldn't in anyway, because he knows my integrity as a Christian; he knows my antecedents as someone who believes and lives in integrity. And he is also like that.

He was my boss, but we became close friends. I do tell people that 90 per cent of decisions that he took, which they criticised him for, I would have taken the same steps and the same actions, because I saw the logic of these things; how you manage to carry everybody along in spite of conflicting interests. That was the real challenge of managing Ogun State .

What were your challenges as commissioner?
It wasn't really a very big challenge. My strategy was to say the truth at all times. Whatever happened, I provided insights. I didn't need to consult the governor before speaking to the media, because there was more than 95 per cent chance that I was in that meeting or that place where it happened. I became like a walking encyclopedia of the affairs of Ogun State Government. Even if he were going to Abuja, I would be there. I had the privilege of attending his meetings with the president at least seven times. He always required that I was there with him in the meetings with the president. So, I knew exactly what was happening. The challenge that I really had was to cope with the pace of work. I had a very good public service in the ministry of information, a competent public servant, and my permanent secretary was first class. We worked together as a team; so it was really very good. In terms of challenge, maybe if we refer to the time of deliberate lies that was planted in the media by those who we all know in some opposition newspapers and electronic media, who had issues with Otunba Gbenga Daniel. I had some challenge with them. Deliberate falsehood! They would just go out of their way and misrepresent issues.

Like What?
Oh! So many things! Like lies told about killer squad in Ogun State, fetish oath taking and all of those things. Otunba Gbenga Daniel is sound Christian. He just built a church for the Lord, which we commissioned on Sunday, May 22, the last Sunday in government. He's a son of a bishop in Nigeria. So, when people are saying that he was fetish, I just laughed. And I learnt also, to my chagrin, how people will just deliberately go out of their way and malign people just on the basis of politics. Otunba Gbenga Daniel's experience really gave me the impression that public office is actually not for decent people. He is a decent professional, a very successful business man. A deliberate falsehood would just be thrown up and they will take it to the media and it was almost becoming true. That was a very big challenge and it pained me, as a Christian that this is the kind of evil, man's inhumanity to man the Bible talked about. The evil disposition of man, that only if one is in Christ that, that kind of evil can be curtailed. I saw it first hand and it was not a very pleasant experience.

It's almost a source of envy among your colleagues in government that the governor listens to you. How is that? What did you do to earn his trust and confidence?

As I said, he is a very honest straightforward man. If he finds you to be straight-forward and honest, you are his pal any day. He took a special liking for me because I will always tell him the truth. When I met him in 2007, I said, Your Excellency, that programme couldn't have worked because you didn't think through it very well. And he took notice. And that is also one thing that I heard about OGD. He's a man who welcomes criticism. When you challenge him intellectually, he takes notice of you and he wants to court you.

He is looking for talents all over the place. I earned his trust because I was truthful to him. Number two, I was always available. My family suffered some neglect, in terms of my time and I was ready to go with him anywhere, even outside the country. I left all my businesses and he knew where I was coming from. He knew that being in government, just like him, was big sacrifice for us. He had made some big marks in business and in my own little way too, I had been able to make something for myself, which we both had to put aside to do this work. So, because of my truthfulness, by the grace of God, he listened to all I had to tell him. And incidentally, there were some people who were close to him, who other people in the cabinet had issues with, to use the very strong word, hated. But my own was not like that because I had good relationship with all my colleagues in the cabinet. He listened to me because I will always give him honest advice. I would give him very honest opinion at all times. And then of course, there is also something that will also work for you.

Once you are not seen as a hustler, once you are not seen as somebody that has come to government to grab, your antecedents are well known, that gives you some respect, because a commissioner resigned at the twilight of the last administration and the reason he gave for resigning was that he didn't make money in government. There was no money to make in Ogun State. I just pity all those who are jostling for positions. They want to be commissioners; they want to be this, and they want to be that. They would be disappointed, because even if you want to steal, the money has to be there, in the first instance. You can't steal anything from the workers' salary because the moment we get allocation from Abuja, that is the first thing. About 99 per cent of all the money and at times it's not even enough to pay workers salaries and emoluments. That is the situation in Ogun State.

You have moved from the classroom to newspaper editorial board and now to the front seat of managing a newspaper business. How prepared would you say you are for your present task, considering the distress and fatality syndrome in Nigerian newspaper industry?

I did tell you that Mr. Biodun Oduwole recruited me into Tribune. Just as I became very close to Otunba Gbenga Daniel, as my boss and governor, I was also very close to him. I watched how he managed Tribune at close quarters. In fact, at that time, just the way I was seen to be very close to Otunba Gbenga Daniel as well as the one influencing him; that was the way I was seen. If somebody got commended in Tribune, they would thank me that I must have put a word in for them with Biodun Oduwole. If somebody got fired by him, I would be condemned for having a hand in that.

So, I watched newspaper management at close quarters with my association with him. I worked with him also all over the country when he was President, Nigerian Guild of Editors. We met governors, we met General Ibrahim Babangida at that time, later Ernest Shonekan came in and then the late Sani Abacha came in, and the entire June 12 saga; we were in it together at that time. That exposed me. And, of course, the issue of mortalities and fatalities in the media, the main problem in media management is that, we insist that journalists must head these organisations, must be managing director, and must be editor-in-chief, which is good and which is right. There is no way you can be made the CMD of a teaching hospital if you are not a medical doctor. There is no way you can be made the vice chancellor of a university if you are not a professor. So, it is a good thing that journalists insist on heading. But very many of our colleagues are also not business minded and not business-oriented.

A newspaper must make money first, for it to be able to pay its bill and then maybe even give some dividend, because you must be seen not just as a social service. It is, first and foremost, a social service, but also a business venture. For a newspaper, like Compass, Western Publishing Limited, publishers of National Compass and The Westerner magazine, the objective of those who founded it, and I can tell you that Otunba Gbenga Daniel has substantial interests in that organisation, was not to make money. These are very successful people, Are Kola Oyefeso and Asiwaju Femi Shomolu. These are the people who came together with Otunba Gbenga Daniel to float this paper. Their objective was not to make money, but to provide service. But at the same time, that paper must be able to survive and to pay its own bill. That is what you see lacking in many of these organizations.

So, on April 26, of course, I had shown interest in what was going on in Compass; it was the biggest supporter of our administration, when we were in government. I had interest in it. We've been talking about it. On April 26, the very day we had the gubernatorial elections, the governor called me and said, we were going out of government now, I want you to go and manage Compass for me. My first reaction was to say no, 'Oga, you know my businesses have suffered. There's money for me to make. Niger State government wants me to come back as a consultant and all of that. One thing about me, by the grace of God, is that wherever I found myself, I did my work with diligence and integrity, that they always want me back. I told him no. But, he said I should not say no, I should think about it and come back in two days time.

Two days after that, I told him that the offer would not work and I made recommendations and promised that I would use my contact to gain patronage for the paper. He knew me as a business person. I made some suggestions on how to repackage The Westerner magazine and the others. I gave him that suggestion and we kept the matter like that. On May 27, we did what we called the handover notes to the incoming administration. He was going to the airport. I sat in the car with him and he said he was going on leave. Of course, the media speculated that he was on the run and that he ran away and all of that. I saw him drive to the door of the aircraft before I went back, and he said as he was going, I should go and look after Compass, adding that he had recommended me to be a director in that company. Well, I went there thereafter. I found the place to be well-equipped with facilities and infrastructure. I don't think there is any newspaper that matches what you have in Compass.

Everything that is needed for the smooth operation of a newspaper is there. In the next two weeks he called to say there was no running away from this thing, that I was the man that can run this thing. He urged me to make this personal sacrifice. He asked me to come in as the MD/editor-in-chief and that was it. That was how I became MD/editor-in-chief of Compass. There is no way you can pull the wool over my eyes in anything concerning newspaper business, be it the business or editorial aspect of it. I have always been there. It is a very familiar turf and I believe that with the co-operation of the staff, we'll make a success of that place.

Some people sat that the media should give to the society what it wants. Others say the media should give to the society what it needs. What's your take and which of these would you say reflects the behaviour of the Nigerian media?

It is both. If you say, okay, you give to the society only what it wants, you also will be enmeshed in that society. But if you say you give to the society what you think they should like, they should need or they should want, it would be like having a very good play without an audience. I will give you a very good example. In FESTAC 77, there was a very big orchestra that came to play in National Arts Theatre in Lagos.

There was definite silence from the audience. Nobody responded. No applause, nothing. And the leader of the orchestra said: 'Bad audience' and the late Professor Sam Akpabot made a remark and said: 'Bad music.' Now, what does that mean? If you have very good editorial content, very good newspaper packaging that does not reflect the existential realities of the people, you are just on your own. It's like bringing in New York Times and just transposing it in Nigeria here. Yes, good journalism and all of that, but are we at that level? No. That is number one. At the same time, if you say, okay, the people like rumour mongering and all of those things, and you give to them, you will not be able to provide direction because as a media organization, you are supposed also, to show the way forward. You are not just also to reflect the existential realities of the people in the society as it is, but you also must show them the way forward.

That is why we write opinion about what ought to be, pointing the society to the better way because if it was just to reflect what they do then you are just being the organ of the government and just be parroting whatever the government says or what the big people in the society say. So, it has to be both. It has to be reflective of the position of the people at any particular point in time. It also must point to the way, morally, economically and politically. You must reflect the reality and you also must reflect the ideal. It is the combination of those two that will make a paper successful.

Critics accused Nigerian media, especially the print media, of engaging in PR especially for the government and the political class and not doing the critical aspects as expected. What do you think?

That is the challenge that we have with the media. For you to retain very good hands, you have to pay them very well and make the environment conducive. When I got to Compass, I discovered that we're spending about N6.4 million every month on diesel alone. That is huge. How do you make vital money? You have a very big salary bill and adverts patronage is not coming, as it should; the easiest way out would be to look for patronage from the government. And I do tell my people, if patronage comes from government anywhere, we'll do it. We'll appreciate it, but there is a whole lot there where you can make money for a daily newspaper. We have the non-governmental sector that we can exploit. I believe that it is the lack of resourcefulness, on the part of some of our colleagues, that make them just want to look for patronage from government. It is very easy to do that. But you see, once you depend on government and one of them gives you a patronage of N50 million now, there is no way you can write anything against that government. And if you want to build a credible voice, you have to avoid that. And then again, I also discovered that once you have developed your brand, to be strong, they are the ones who will come and beg you. Because once the people perceive your paper as a credible voice, they buy. Once your circulation figures increase, the people will come to advertise in your medium. That is the way it is supposed to be. You don't necessarily have to look for government and all of that before you survive as a newspaper. It's a very easy option but it is not the only option available.

Before your experience, you must have played some pranks and done some naughty things. Let us into these.

Like every young man did, I had my own measure of rascality right from my secondary school days. We go out of the hostels without permission. We go to parties. One day, we were caught in the night by one teacher we used to call 'Mr. Intoto' because the very first day he came he used that word. He said: 'you have to do your work intoto.' So, we started calling him Mr. Intoto. He caught us on the way to a disco party. That was in the 70s. The rule was that when you are caught in that, you would be given 24 lashes of cane in the assembly hall. And foolishly for me, I knew what the punishment was, so I went and wore several pants because it was such that you would be held flat. One big boy will drag your two hands and another will hold your two legs. So, when the teacher flogged me the first time, the cane bounced back. They shouted 'Ah!' And then they took me behind the hall and asked me to begin to remove the pants. And I think they were able to remove about six or seven. Some of them were even dirty. They took them to the hall and the whole hall roared. (Laughter). That was a very big embarrassment for me because I should have known that it would be discovered.

I did a lot of that. And I told you that I was a Marxist. Our dream at that time was that the socialist movement would take over government; we were going to subvert the state; we were going to take over government. We were day-dreaming. We didn't know what state power was. I did a lot of that until I became a Christian and knew that those things were not right. We also did a lot of rascality, in terms of going out with girls and I was practically a ladies' man. I knew how to make money, even from childhood. So, even as a young lecturer at that time, I had the best car on campus and then later two. That is Olabisi Onabanjo University. So, the girls just kept coming and I thought I had a very good life, but the day came, in 1994, when I met Christ and then I stopped all those things. All those things gave me some exposure, anyway. My close working relationship with Mr. Oduwole also gave me a lot of exposure early in life: meeting people, eating with governors, and meeting the president.

I was in my early 30s at that time. So, I've seen the best of life and I have slept in the best of places. Immediately NICON Noga, at time, was opened, we started sleeping there. I was exposed to good life; that is why it really doesn't mean anything to me now, because I have seen it all. So, the realisation is that whatever you want to do in this life, you need to have a relatively strong economic base for yourself. As a young academic, I knew that we needed to have a strong economy, even if you want to be a radical and fight the government. As a result of that, I have quite a number of business interests. So, now I don't lobby for any job or position because, by the grace of God, I am not looking for what I am going to eat. That helped me in government. I was not there to grab. I didn't see it as an opportunity to make money, but as a moment for losing money.