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My exit from Punch, by Azu Ishiekwene

In my column in The Punch on Tuesday 9 March 2010, I left an unusual footnote, titled, The bile this time. It was a subdued response to the wild allegations against me in the 7,000-word plus petition by the former Editor of the Punch, Mr. Steve Ayorinde, who was forced to resign by the management of the company for conduct unbecoming of his office. My restraint was not because I could not defend myself or because I was guilty.

However, I had to endure the wicked lies and fabrications against me because it was the fit and proper thing to do while the committee, set up by the Board and the company, where I had worked for 21 years, was trying to establish the truth.

The committee’s work is done. Its report, and that of the Management Committee, done after six weeks of exhaustive investigation, which I could not have influenced in any way, did not indict me of any fraud.

The wicked lies have been out now for almost six weeks, recycled in various forms and in various media by informed, half-informed and grossly ill-informed commentators all masquerading as the guardian angels of a benighted profession. I am not writing this for the benefit of those who already think they know all and who will not let the facts get in the way of their next malicious post or article. I am writing for the benefit of those — and thankfully there are still a number left out there — for whom fairness, balance and pursuit of truth mean a thing.
The Board Committee had the following specific terms of reference:
1. To probe advert surcharges for premium pages from 2006 to date
2. To consider any other issue in the petition in respect of which any person submits documentary evidence to the committee.

After three weeks of sitting, minus one previous of investigations by the Management of the petition, Mr. Steve Ayorinde could not produce a shred of evidence in support of his claim that I used my office to enrich myself.

Or that I was on the payroll of politicians, banks and some public officials. He had two clear opportunities to do this in five weeks. First on March 8, when the company wrote him to supply evidence, and later when he appeared before the Board Committee on April 3. On both occasions, he failed to substantiate his allegations.

I voluntarily submitted my statement of account; IBTC Share Tender Form and UBA cheque number 80473333 dated 27 September 2007 in favour of Nigerian Motor Industries Limited  for the sum of N1.95 million with which I purchased the car that Mr. Ayorinde falsely alleged was given to me as a gift; and three-year visa pages from my international passport for the committee’s inspection. I also submitted the original copy of my passport for citing.
And the surcharge pages?

In his petition, Mr. Ayorinde gave the impression that Arik Air was the only company that published adverts on the early pages without paying a surcharge. This, of course, is incorrect. I must say that the charge that I had overstretched my authorised discretion in favour of the advertiser and that I did not fully disclose my relationship with the company, is regrettable.

Yet, it is important to stress that neither the report of the Management committee nor the Board Committee, nor yet the Board indicted me of any fraud either about the adverts or any other allegations by Mr. Steve Ayorinde.

However, there were at least 23 other adverts in 2009, including full page colour adverts by Etisalat, First Bank, Zain, Globacom and the Lagos State Government for which surcharges were not paid but which also appeared on the early pages.

In his bid to throw the kitchen sink at me, Mr. Ayorinde was obviously not concerned about who else might have been in breach. The same Steve Ayorinde, who told O’Femi Kolawole, in his book, titled, The Gatekeepers, published in October 2009 but released in December 2009, that, “he (Ayorinde) opted to work in the daily edition (of Punch) with the man he had come to admire as one of the best in Nigeria’s contemporary journalism, Mr. Azubuike Ishiekwene,” is now singing a different tune three months later.

The cocktail of lies…
a) Musikilu Mojeed’s exit from Punch:
After Mr. Ayorinde’s false allegations were published on the Internet, there was a sustained effort to keep the flames of falsehood burning. And no firewood, however, wet, was spared. Mr. Mojeed left Punch in December 2008 over a dispute he had with his editor, Mr. Steve Ayorinde, at the time. He had filed a number of stories that were not used and had taken offence that he had not been given sufficient explanation for why his stories were not published. He wrote a petition against Mr. Ayorinde and only copied me.

I investigated the matter and wrote a memo to the MD/Editor-in-Chief on 30 December 2008. In the memo I agreed with Mr. Ayorinde in some areas but also suggested how the matter should be handled in future. To my utmost shock and surprise, this issue was stood on its head, lapped up by a few commentators and presented as proof that my only job in Punch was to “kill” stories. Conveniently, those behind it only published Musikilu’s memo, leaving out the subsequent memo and the report of my investigations (copy attached) which would have shown clearly that Musikilu’s grouse was against Mr Ayorinde and not me.

b) The imaginary “suspensions” from work
On Tuesday, March 9 and Wednesday, March 10, I was in the office when I received phone calls from concerned friends who said they had read on the Internet that I had been suspended. I also read it on the Internet. But I did so right at my office desk at Punch! And on March 22 when I commenced my vacation, the word was out again! Azu has been suspended! I applied for my leave and it was approved by the Management. My leave certificate, with reference number PN/PS/2005/451/134 is dated 22 March 2010. I was not on suspension and never have been in my 21 years at Punch.

c) “Refund” of N17million surcharge
It is a wicked lie that Punch has asked me to refund any money. How can I refund what I have not taken? Punch has said it is interested in asking advertisers whose adverts appeared on the early pages without authorisation to pay the surcharge for such adverts. I did not receive any payments for early pages and as far as I know the request for such payments — not refund — has not yet been made to the advertisers concerned.

d) The CNN/Multichoice judging panel
I have read in some publications that I was “removed” from the CNN/Multichoice African Journalist of the Year 2010 judging panel. That is untrue. After Mr. Ayorinde’s slanderous petition appeared on the Internet on 5 March, I informed the Management of Punch of my intention to discuss stepping down from the panel with the organisers. I had a telephone conversation with CNN’s Vice President for Europe, Asia and Africa, Maggie Eales on Monday, 8 March. On Tuesday, 9 March, I wrote a letter to CNN/Multichoice announcing my intention to step down until I have been cleared of the allegations against me. I worked with organisers to select Ikechukwu Amaechi, the Editor of the Daily Independent, as the Nigerian stand-in.

e) Azu as the axe man of Punch
This is a very convenient label, especially since 2007 when the editors started reporting directly to me. I have been in Punch for 21 years and people conveniently forget that I did not always spend that time in positions where I could influence the retention or removal of senior editorial persons. Before I became executive director three years ago, at least 12 senior editorial positions had changed for various reasons and under different circumstances all of which I had absolutely no control over. The resignations of Mr. Yusuf Alli and Mr. Yomi Odunuga, both mentioned in Mr. Ayorinde’s petition, had nothing to do with me personally, whatever they may have privately been led to believe. The decisions taken were a collective one.

f) An era ends…
More lies are spreading already, and I wish to remind the purveyors that I am not unmindful of my rights under the law. They are saying I was asked to choose between sack and resignation. I laugh. I voluntarily retired my appointment with Punch on 15 April, with the support and understanding of my family and friends who have stood steadfastly with me through this trying period. I know that a few out there wished for a humiliating ending — but this gracious exit is the Lord’s doing. For weeks, I watched Punch, the company where I have worked for 21 years, take a needless bashing and the names of its key officers dragged in the mud. I do not wish to do anything that would extend this grief by one day.
At 45 years of age and after a combined 10 years of editing two of Punch’s leading titles, including Saturday Punch, which remains the flagship since I had the honour to edit it, I have decided to explore other opportunities and challenges that beckon.

I have read that I “resigned,” or was “dismissed” from the services of Punch. I also laugh. My exit from Punch — and the records of my letter of retirement and the company’s letter of acknowledgement show this — couldn’t have been more dignified even if I had worked in Punch for another 21 years.
An era has ended; another begins.

Mr. Ishiekwene was, until Thursday last week when he retired, the Executive Director, Publications, Punch.


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