By Bashir ADEFAKA
Dr. Ezeoba Alex Nwokedi, CON, was Press Secretary to the Head of State in the military regime of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo but now the Igwe of Achalla,Â Awka North Local Government Area of Anambra State.
He was the first man to be the Public Relations Manager of Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN), now called Power Holdings Company of Nigeria (PHCN).Â He also served in the same capacity with Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).
The 76-year-old distinguished journalist turned mornach spoke to BASHIR ADEFAKA on what should be the role of Press Secretary to the Head of State (what today is called Special Adviser on Media to the President and Chief Press secretaries to the governor).
He also talked on how the personality of his former boss, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, changed his perspective of Nigeria.Â Excerpts:
You were Press Secretary to Chief Olusegun Obasanjoâ€™s military regime.Â What would you say inspired and worked for your becoming a journalist?
What inspired me in my early life as a journalist was the early discovery of me by those who hunted for it.Â Father Slattery would beg me to write reports for him to be used in Catholic Herald. I was then the Editor-in-Chief of what we called â€˜Gregorian Standardâ€™ where we wrote approved compositions and people picked it up to read.
That actually exposed me.
And you know, when I was in the college, myself, Edmond Asika, Emmanuel Kaine, we founded The Scorpion, which we used as a mechanism for critisizing the management.Â It came out every weekend and the three of us were actually the brain behind it.
Eventually ,when the Reverend Fathers discovered Scorpion after we had gone, they supported it and changed it to Megaphone.Â And they encouraged the boys to write whatever they liked therein.Â Â So what we were doing secretly became an open thing.
I am just trying to tell you how my interest in journalism began.
You said just now that the Scorpion was later discovered by your old schoolâ€™s management and instead of killing it for being critical of their activities, they changed its name and encouraged it to be more critical of them.
Today, government or its agents develop cold feet whenever the press does its job.Â How would you react to this?
You see, it is the level of understanding and knowledge of some of our people.
Let me tell you the truth, nobody likes to be criticized, especially when you are doing the wrong thing.Â You donâ€™t blame them because they feel that we are undoing them but that should not stop journalists from doing their job.
People donâ€™t understand one thing: journalists are like mirrors.Â When you look at a mirror and you smile at it, it smiles back at you.Â If you look at it and you frown, you see yourself frowning.Â That is what journalism is.Â What I mean is that you have to court them to make them understand you.
When I was Press Secretary to the Head of State during the military regime of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, I will never forget the support I got from my colleagues in the media.
I had a small problem with the NTA: They were trying to protect the independence of the media.Â I told them that the military donâ€™t take kindly to criticism because if you decide to criticize them, it means that you are inviting a counter coup.Â Isnâ€™t it?
So I tried to explain all these things to them that if it is question of changing government by votes, they would not mind. But that this one is changing government by gun and anything can happen.Â I must at this point praise Chief Olusegun Obasanjo: He absolved criticisms, even the everyday cartoons about him in the papers.
Can I have a sizeable account of how you emerged Press Secretary to General Olusegun Obasanjo as Head of State?
I was Secretary of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Lagos Branch.Â We had a meeting in the City Hall that day and it rained heavily.Â After the meeting ,I went back to my office and the late Alhaji Dikko who was then the General Manager of NEPA was cousin to Umaru Dikko.
He said he wanted to see me urgently in his office.Â I was wondering why the GM was calling me to his office.Â So, I went there and he saidÂ that he wanted to tell me that I have been appointed Press Secretary to the Head of State and that I should report at the Dordan Barracks.
I said excuse me sir, I am not going.Â I said we just finished the war and I fought against them, how can I now become their Press Secretary?Â That was exactly what I told Dikko and he said well ,if you are not going, leave my office.
So, I ran straight to Alhaji Lateef Jakande whom I admire very much.Â He wrote in those days as John West in Nigerian Tribune and he was a prolific writer.
I told him what I heard about the offer and he said ahâ€™ you should take it immediately!Â He advised me on what to do as a Press Secretary and said it was an opportunity for me to widen my knowledge.Â He lectured me for about thirty minutes and I said okay.
I then went straight to Dordan Barracks.Â When I got there, I met some soldiers on guard at the gate and I told them that I was asked to report here.Â They checked through the list because, everyday they used to give them list of appointments, my name was not there and they said oh, oga your name no dey here o.Â I said thank you very much.
I was happy. But one of them just said â€˜wait donâ€™t go yetâ€™.Â Then he phoned one of the secretaries to the Head of State, called Alhaji Mahmud Bauchi and said one man is here, he called my name to him and that he said he had appointment to see the Head of State.
I could hear Bauchi talking on the phone saying wait, wait, wait! I am coming, I am coming!Â He came quickly to the gate, received me and took me in.Â He then said I should report to an officer who used to be one of the Principal Secretaries to the Head of State.
He was then the Minister of Communications.Â As soon as I came into his office, he said oh, you are now one of us.Â At that point, I had to relax.
Then he took me in his car and we went to Dordan Barracks where he took me to the Head of State and the Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo took a very hard look at me and said welcome to the fold.
Iâ€™ll tell you that he changed my perspective. Oh, yes! This man was and still remains completely a Nigerian.Â Only that some people donâ€™t know him.Â He is completely a Nigerian both in action and in words.Â An Igbo-man was his Press Secretary, somebody from South-South was his ADC, he had a Yoruba-man and somebody from the North, Bauchi from Bauchi State, both of them as his Secretaries.
Ambassador Omotayo was his Personal Assistant. His staff were all spread out. He once told me; Ogbuefi (he started calling me Ogbuefi immediately), if I cannot trust an Igbo-man, why should an Igbo-man trust me?Â You see his philosophy?Â If I cannot trust a Hausa-man, why should a Hausa-man trust me?
And we started talking.Â We used to have many confidential discussions.Â He started talking to me and that changed my perspective about Nigeria.Â My perspective was that you people hate us, you donâ€™t like to see us.
What difference did you make in terms of making the office more efficient and effective?
That time, I discoveredÂ from the person I took over from, because we worked together for one week before he left; he would write a release and passed it to the Information Service and it would take the Information Service one day to re-write the release and issue to the press.Â Before the thing would come out to the press, it would take them up to about two, three days, a situation that hampered the information flow between the government and the press.
What then did you do to rectify thatÂ problem?
When I observed that weakness in his communication with the press, I changed it immediately.Â As soon as my boss finished, not necessarily speech, I would write release, take it to him for approval and as soon as he approved it, I established a courier service immediately to deliver theÂ Information Service copy to the press.
And so, the editors were very, very happy about the change that at least, instead of receiving stale news about the Head of Stateâ€™s activities, they were now getting it very fresh.
They were reluctant to publish stale government releases and that was why government used to say that newspapers donâ€™tâ€™ like us and that they donâ€™t want to cooperate with us.Â But it was not their fault.
My promotion was in abeyance before I came in.Â Two weeks after they saw that change, the Chief Secretary to the government then, a fantastic man, called me and said Ogbuefi, put up paper for your promotion to be confirmed.Â He said, â€œwhat you have done for us in two weeks were more than what your predecessor did in the three years he had been with usâ€™.
So, I put up paper and they promoted me.
To what level?
I think it was level sixteen straight from level 12 or so.Â And to this, I had to thank the media.Â I have always said that the media is my constituency. Till tomorrow, my constituency is the media.Â I donâ€™t joke with journalists at all.Â I always take them seriously.
But as Press Secretary, you were not comfortable when the NTA for instance criticized the government. Were you not, for once, challenged for being pro-government against your professional ethics?
You know why they did not challenge but cooperated with me?Â Because I knew the house of every editor in Lagos.Â In the night, I would visit their homes and tell them the principle and the philosophy behind each action of the government andÂ whatever was done so they would understand.
You see, this is the mistake people make. If they can make the press to understand the edict, policy, principle and the philosophy behind their actions, the press would always go along with them.
But when you feel too big to talk to them, you just speak and still want them to use their brain to say what you have and are hiding in your mind, what you get in the end will not be favourable because, you are presented based on your limited information.
You remember I told you that I used to play squash with the Head of State.Â I was able to understand his inner thought; as to why he said some things. Then I would relay it to the press: Champion, Daily Times, Sunday Times, Tribune, Daily Service, which changed to Daily Express with Eddie Aderinokun as editor and of course Sam Amuka was sweet.
At the expiration of General Obasanjoâ€™s military regime which you served most fervently, where did you go?
I went to the NNPC.Â I worked for a while with Alhaji Shehu Shagari when he assumed office as civilian President and he later seconded me to the NNPC, where I was Manager, Public Affairs.
How did you become Igwe?
In the first case, I was the fifth in the line of succession in my own fatherâ€™s line.Â When I was a child, my father, who himself was Igwe, used to take me to all meetings and I would sit just in front of him.
So when vacancy occurred for this title, I have four brothers ahead of me. One is a retired Supreme Court judge.Â All the four declined.
Then I was preparing for politics and if you ask my former boss, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, he would tell you that he once told Mbadinuju, the governor of Anambra State as at then that if not for this job of Igwe that I had taken, that I should have been his first minister.
What would you say about government effort to use the National Council of Traditional Rulers of Nigeria for peace project without constitutional guarantee?
I donâ€™t know about National Traditional Council.Â I have been invited twice and what I would say is, before a council like that is set up, there must be representation from six geographical zones as in the Constitution.
Each zone must have two representatives each, that is twelve, to form a committee and discuss.Â So let the House not make the mistake of passing that council without discussion with all the stakeholders.
I support that traditional rulersâ€™ council should be established but there should be no mistake.Â So let all of us come together and discuss the formation so that it will stand the test of time.
You lamented that you are missing your old colleagues and that you want a re-union.Â How?
Yes.Â This way, I am planning a reception in Achalla for my professional colleagues like Chief Eddie Aderinokun, Chief Segun Osoba, Chief Kola Animasaun, Mr. Adejumobi Adesola Marcaulay, Alhaji Lateef Teniola who is a very close associate of Alhaji Lateef Jakande, Mr. Abiola Olasope and others.Â I will soon send out the invitation letters.
I also would like to thank many of those who helped me to succeed as Press Secretary to the Head of State in the General Olusegun Obasanjoâ€™s military regime.Â I pay a glowing tribute to late Shehu Musa Yarâ€™Adua because as Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters at that time, he was very loyal to General Obasanjo. His loyalty to the Head of State was one hundred per cent.
I also thank Felix Odunaike, Peter Ajayi, now late, Chief Dr. Christopher Kolade, Head of the NBC (National Broadcasting Corporation) who was interacting with government at the top thereby making things easy for the NBC.
I also thank Chief Eddie Aderinokun, Mr. Sam Amuka, Alhaji Lateef Teniola, Mr. Abiola Olasope and many others.Â I appreciate them all, they are great!