By Malachy Uzendu
In 1992 upon completion of my NYSC programme, I was retained by Punch Nigeria Limited and offered appointment as a Senior Correspondent. I was retained at the Abuja Bureau office under the headship of Mr. Folabi Lawal. We operated from the “Fleet Street”. That was at Area 3, Garki, Abuja, opposite then NYSC headquarters.
There were a good number of journalists: Camillus Eboh, Emeka Nwankpa, Osaretin Imahiyereobo, and Philip Ojisua (Guardian); Victor Adegbamgbe, Lattef Ibrahim, Kayode Olaitan, Sade Orinmolade, Timothy Imokhunase (Baba Natty) and (Sketch); Anselm Okolo, Yinka Oduwole and Tunji Oyewo (Nigerian Tribune); Sheriff Mohammed and late Suleiman Ibn Mohammed (Democrat); Felix Onuah (Today); Abdulrasaq Bello Barkindo (Newswatch magazine), and of course, not my colleagues in Punch: Mrs. Nike Adenike, Chuks Ohuegbe, late Joel Gure, and Stella. Senator Osita Izunaso, then the lone correspondent of the Satellite newspaper, joins us every evening from his office at Area 8, before jetting off for an almost routine evening hangout with Anselm Okolo (the two musketeers). Innocent Nwobodo, Bureau Chief of Daily Champion, alongside Amaechi Dike and Goddy Enweremmadu, provided the needed fillip each time controversy arose on the slant taken in any news reportage. Amaechi usually would flood discussions with his jaw-breaking words spiced with Latin phrases. Kehinde Olaosebikan, Sufuyan Ojeifo and Emma Ujah (Vanguard) were usually the last to join in our jokes, the rib-cracking vibes from the late Joel Gure.
I recall vividly how Ojeifo set the record of being the first and only journalist in Abuja to procure two micro-recorders. Ojeifo would be teased for hardly sleeping since he had to transcribe interviews stored in the two recorders. And his tenacity paid off as Ojeifo garnered laurels as the most hardworking journalist.
The late Reginald Okochi, Dr. Orji Ogbonnaya Orji and Gbenga Onayiga (Radio Nigeria Network), would equally breeze into the Fleet Street, at times with Cordelie Nwolu (Ukwuoma), the political correspondent of NTA, to share bangers and as well devour some plates of pepper soup and ‘nkwobi’ at the “Mango and Banana Republic. The hardworking Chief Olu Akerele, the late Frank Ized (National Concord) and Mohammed Adamu (African Concord) and a few other reporters from the Concord Group, never missed in the action. Martins Oloja, Editor of Abuja Newsday, will always churn out exclusives chronicled by one Ambassador Udeigwe. The newspaper was arguably an encyclopedia on FCT matters. Chuks Okocha, who would always plead to be carried along by the ‘big boys’ in the industry and his cameraman, Bamidele Biodun (Republic) played critical roles.
I recall how we, the Political Correspondents kept vigil at the headquarters of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC), now being used by the National Defence College and Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) respectively. Our stories led the news items.
Chuks Ohuegbe, my colleague then in The Punch, one of the most enterprising political correspondents, was on the campaign train of the late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola all through the 36 states of the federation, while I held fort at NEC and the headquarters of the SDP and NRC. Remi Ibitola and Joseph Ogunsemi would breeze in from The Punch head office when necessary, and so would Lawal Ogeinagbon (Daily Times), who comes in to support Clement Iloba, who had the task of editing Abuja Times. Joel Attah and Molly Kilette, as well as Charles Ozoemena, gave Abuja Times added pedigree with extra-ordinary news stories.
One of the groups that almost polarised journalists was Association for Better Nigeria (ABN) led by Senator Arthur Nzeribe and Abimbola Davis. Inspite of how the misgivings of some of us, we did give them voice.
The most credible and transparent general election conducted through Prof. Nwosu’s Option A4, was the anti-climax when all of a sudden, the final results of that election, which remained only results from Taraba State, whose Resident Electoral commissioner was already somewhere close to Abuja, got annulled. For the journalists, a major jigsaw puzzle was whether to give publicity to a statement on the annulment proclamation or not. The statement did not bear the usual Presidential Villa trademarks: it was not on letter-head and bore no signature. Just on a plain sheet of paper! The news item did not get to the Fleet Street through the normal channels. I remember engaging Ohuegbe and our Bureau Chief, Folabi Lawal, on the implications of filing that report. That’s part of the news man’s dilemma. But we had to gamble. The midnight June 10 judgment by Justice Bassey Ikpeme of the FCT High Court, nullifying the June 12, Presidential Election was another headache.
Reminiscences of covering the defunct National Electoral Commission (NEC) are still very fresh. Prof. Humphrey Nwosu’s mastery of the country’s political dynamics and being on top of his assignment as the Chairman of NEC, was legendary. His unique gesticulations earned him the sobriquet, “National Electoral Choirmaster”. I remember it was Joel Gure and one Obi Udefuna (Daily Star) who tagged him.
The Transition Committee headed by the late Justice Mamman Nasir and late Dr. SG Ikoku, were on the front burner due mainly to Ohuegbe’s ‘coup’. I recall vividly how Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, Abiola’s running mate and Chief Tony Anenih, National chairman of SDP, abandoned Chief Abiola and SDP’s presidential mandate. Kingibe joined Chief Tom Ikimi, chairman of the NRC, to lend credence to the annulment. Also, the late Oni of Ife, Oba Okunade Shijuade, led traditional rulers from the South West to ask Chief Abiola to dump his mandate, while in detention. One can understand why Chief Ikimi, endorsed the annulment, but not Kingibe, who would have been the number two citizen. But in our politics, all is fair and good; the end justifies the means.
The events that forced Gen. Babangida to “step aside” and the emergence of the Interim National Government (ING) led by Abiola’s kinsman, Chief Ernest Shonekan, is a narrative on its own, but suffice it to recall that Shinekan’s administration soon crumbled when his deputy, also the Defense Minister, Gen. Sani Abacha, shoved him aside. I recall Abacha’s iron (mis)rule and how Nigeria became a pariah nation. I recall the five political parties and how they all adopted Abacha as the sole presidential candidate but for providence on June 8th, 1998. Abacha died!
If I fail to recall how Ohuegbe coordinated media publicity for Daniel Kanu and his Youths Earnestly Ask for Abacha (YEAA) and their One Million Man March on March 20, 1998. My disdain for that jamboree earned me the jack-booth of Sergeant Rogers, one of the most notorious goons and Rabo Lawal, then O/C MOPOL, were part of the Strike Force. Rogers almost snuffed the life out of me at the International Conference Center, Abuja in April, 1998, during one of the numerous adoption programmes arranged for Gen. Abacha. The Secretary of the Abuja Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Shok Jok took up the issue with the National Security Adviser (NSA), Ismaila Gwarzo and the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Ibrahim Coomasie. Apology and compensation was offered. Mr Aamos Dunia, one of the leading reporters in the New Nigeria Newspapers, who took over from Amaechi Dike as the chairman of the NUJ, had to put up series of programmes which softened Media, Military, Police relations. And you need more of this? Don’t worry, you get that in part 11.