Chief Ajibola Ogunsola, erstwhile chairman of The Punch played a key role in the revival of The Punch, one of the country’s leading newspapers. Ogunsola who trained as an Actuary, took over the position of chairman as a family responsibility turning the paper which in the mid eighties in death throes into one of the country’s successful newspaper businesses.
Presently, a delegate at the ongoing National Conference, Ogunsola who turns 70 today in this interview speaks on the lessons of life, the challenges in lifting The Punch among other issues.
By Charles Kumolu
At seventy what is the feeling like?
I am lucky to have good health. If you are in good health and you have enough money to buy and eat things you want to eat, and sleep on the kind of bed you will want to sleep on, live in a very comfortable house, have a good family, then you are likely to feel good. I feel good. That is how I feel at seventy. The secret of my looking younger than I am, perhaps as far as I know is that we have good genetics in our family.
The second element is that I try to exercise three or four times a week. And the exercise which I do is not strenuous. I take simple walk in my compound and when it rains, I do it inside my sitting room. I avoid soft drinks. I learnt that of soft drinks from the present Olubadan.
We met at a party where I was mixing coke with beer and enjoying myself, he asked why I was taking that. He said he stopped it many years ago. He then gave me a lot of diet prescriptions. He was eighty three then. So, I don’t drink all those things anymore, except occasionally when I go out.
How did you feel taking over as chairman of Punch given that the newspaper was at that time believed to be in death throes?
The circumstances of that time were such that I had no choice but to accept to become the chairman. I had no choice but to accept the position. It was obvious that it was going to be tough, but knowing that I had no choice but to accept the position, I was determined that I will face the hard slug.
What were the particular things you did then?
One cannot remember all the things that one did. But what I remember most was that we brainstormed a lot both at the board level and in my interaction with the management. At the board level then, it was just me and the non executive directors, later on, we had some executive directors who were also members of the management.
Then there was my interaction with the General Manager and some heads of department. Some of those meetings lasted for several hours. There were some meetings that lasted till eleven pm. We went through hell. I don’t want to go through that again because we had no money. After the first chairman died, he was succeeded by late Chief Muyiwa Aboderin, who was the eldest child of our mother.
Muyiwa was the number one while Olu was the number five of our mother’s children. I am number six of my mother’s children. All the other five are gone. I am the only one alive. Being lucky enough to be around is another reason why I have to celebrate being seventy. We performed no magic to revive Punch, all we did was to work hard.
Perhaps my own singular contribution was to insist and ensure that we got as much information as possible about the working of the system before we took any decision. My background as an actuary also played a role. After my mathematics degree in 1967, I went abroad to qualify as a fellow of the Certified Institute of Actuary in the UK.
That prepared me for the statistical approach of trying to put many things as possible before taking decisions. After a brief spell as the Head of the Life Department at NICON at that time, I went to Niger Insurance Company where I became the chief executive in 1984. My brother (Olu) died, 1984 and I became chairman in 1987. By the time I became chairman Chief Muyiwa had not died.
By that time I had left Niger Insurance and was a Consultant Actuary then. I had management experience on how to handle people and I attended some management courses which I chose for myself as the head of Niger Insurance Company. That helped me in preparing for management. In my early years as the chairman, one the staff gave me a book written by Harold Evans, who was formally of the Times of London. The title of the book is Good Times, Bad Times.
It was on his experience as the editor of the Times of London. He had been removed by the chairman and you could see reading through the book that he was bitter about it. Reading through it, I was able to form my own ideas what a good relationship between the chairman of a newspapers company, the top management and editors should be. It helped me because I know that journalists are sensitive about their relationship with the chairman of the company. It is a relationship that is supposed to be handled carefully.
What can you point at as your legacy in the newspaper industry?
What I will say is that during the period I was the president of Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, I was respected by my colleagues. And that is an important achievement. That means that they saw that I tried to make a difference.
There were things we tried to do, which we did not succeed in. We made efforts in the adverts sphere. There are legacies that can be ascribed to me. But one should not claim these things alone.
I came up with the issue of Ombudsman and we were able to appoint a retired Federal High Court judge as an Ombudsman. I also tried to get the industry to adapt certain things about advertisement, which I thought would be good for the industry. But the industry did no buy my ideas on that. I know that my colleagues respected my contributions.
In your time in Punch you were reputed to be a very hard man who sacked staff at will leading to a lot of tension among staff?
Whatever was done, was done in order top make things better. That is just a simple answer to your question. Without any attempt to cast aspersion on any group of persons, we had problems on grammar. Almost throughout the period of my chairmanship and it is not only Punch.
All the newspapers with exception of one or two that stood out. Later on, the problem crept in because you cannot continue to be better than your environment. The people you are recruiting are from the universities and the universities are no longer teaching English. When we were in secondary school, we looked at people who graduated with BA in English like small gods.
There was nothing like grammatical mistake from them. We believed and it was probably true that they wrote English more than English men.
We are talking about Soyinka, Ogundipe, Erele and some others. So grammar was one of the main issues we had to face during my time.
And a staff that is not competent, is not worthy to be kept in the system, because he or she will pollute the system. And if the system is polluted, you will find out that it is the staff who are frustrated. They will be the ones who will become politicians in the company, carrying stories from one person to the other. So we thought that there was no point leaving incompetent staff in the system.
All that we could do was advertise and take those we need. We expect that the person will improve. We recommended particular magazines, books and courses to help them improve. We brought in university professors to train them. We brought in lawyers to take them on libel, still some of them were committing libel.
I always say that a journalist knows when he is writing libel. There is nobody who will write something libelous without knowing. To be able to get our desired results, we had to do some of those things.
Another thing we did was to start conducting periodic English tests. And if you fail more than twice, you will find your way out. We also gave room for improvement but if you don’t improve there is no point keeping you. Similarly in advertisement, if you don’t perform there is no point keeping you. In any case, I am sure that staff who don’t do well are still fired.
In addition to the banks that were being owed, there were plenty of bills like libel suits. Some of you might have read in an old interview of mine, how I used to hide under the table when creditors come for their money.
The credits were not incurred in my time. Whenever they came, the Chief Accountant would tell them that I was yet to arrive from a foreign trip. And that was not true.
There was a particular case when the people came to look for me and I hid under the table. There was a particular painful case of a nice man. That man is dead now. He had actually carried all the air conditioners, I came out and begged him. I pleaded that within forty eight hours we will do whatever we can to pay part of the libel money.
It was a longstanding court judgment. He was an Igbo man. Knowing that there was no money, we went to court the following day to appeal the judgment and asked for a stay of execution. That was the only way we could survive. What we did was wrong. There were others who were not so kind to us.
How was it possible to reactivate the company considering the various times the paper was closed by the military?
The first closure was in 1990 under Babangida. I think it lasted for about six weeks. That was hell because we had just started creeping out of the hole and then there was a closure.
If he had known that keeping The Punch closed for another one month would be the end of Punch, they would have done that because I am sure they wanted to kill us. We were lucky that it lasted for about six weeks although there were intense efforts to get it reopened. Abiola was useful then.
I visited about three of the top Yoruba traditional rulers. I visited Olubaban, fortunately the Alaafin was visiting Ibadan at that time. So, I also visited the Alaafin of Oyo, from there I moved to Ife. I did all in one day, just to get them to reopen The Punch. Olubadan was very interesting because he had phoned Alafain to tell him that I was coming. I then left to see the Alaafin who was in the G.R.A Ibadan.
I discussed it with him and he promised to do his best. I then left at 5pm and arrived Ooni’s palace at 7 p.m. They could not phone Ooni that I was coming because they were not in good terms. When I arrived I said Ooni should be told that the chairman of Punch was around to see him, because if I said Chief Ogunsola, it would not have been easy. He was not in the sitting room, he was upstairs.
He came down. I told him I had been to other Obas. He promised to assist by talking to the authorities. Duro Onabule at some point made efforts.
The other thing at that time was that Abiola said that the security reports about me were bad. He said that Babangida told him that.
I did not know what could have led to that because I was not in politics, I was not an activist. But Abiola told that Babangida said the security reports about me were bad. Maybe he used that to justify the closure.
I know that there were rumours that some people in government wanted to buy The Punch and I then revived it. In fact somebody told me that some people high in government will like to buy the Punch and I said no that we will get it revived ourselves.