Ben Lawrence is a journalism veteran who has created a niche for himself in the profession. He was Editor, Evening Times, Acting Editor and Managing Editor of the Daily Times before quitting in 1987 to work as the spokesman of the Volks Wagen Company.
He spoke to BASHIR ADEFAKA in Lagos. Excerpts:
What would you say is wrong with Nigeria that, in spite of oil boom, we have doom and confusion?
As a journalist, I have seen people who were able to manage poverty in this country and they did it so well and achieved a lot. What they did is what is being destroyed now in the time of plenty.
As a journalist, also, I am disappointed that the country is not being properly reported. If the country is properly reported, all the wrongs that our leaders have perpetrated would have been exposed long time ago. There is bad management of public affairs, there are bad governments everywhere.
They would have been exposed but journalists have not done enough in this regard and they should do more. Journalism has its own science and the people who taught us were the masters. We got our training from them, not from all these try-and-error people that will tell you that they are doing journalism whereas they donâ€™t know what a good report is; editors who donâ€™t even know their country!
I will tell you that Iâ€™m highly disappointed with the way the country has been managed in the last twenty years. Only few instances can be said to be okay. During the time of General Muhammadu Buhari, he tend to have a stomach for wanting to run a good government to improve the countryâ€™s situation. General Ibrahim Babangida, no matter what you say, tried because, in his time, there was no money in the country. Oil was about six or nine dollars per barrel and, yet, he was able to run the country. Itâ€™s the same thing with General Sani Abacha.
Politicians are a disappointment. They didnâ€™t perform well in the second Republic and they are not performing well in this Republic too. There is nothing to commend them for.The economic descent of Nigeria started in the Second Republic because there was no growth at that time at all.
Buhari came and introduced exchange of oil for goods and, by that, we were stabilizing. When Babangida came, these same civilians penetrated the man and unleashed SAP, which is Structural Adjustment Programme, on us. When Babangida saw that SAP was not a good programme, he came up with palliatives like rural development, community banks and all that. Yet he had very little from oil.
But whenever the politicians are in power, there is always plenty but they cannot manage it. In the Second Republic, we had a lot of money but we couldnâ€™t manage it. This republic is another chance for the politicians to prove themselves. Oil price has gone up, we generate a lot of money but nothing to show for it yet. There are bad roads and no electricity.
What do we have to show for all the money other than the fact that companies are folding up? Manufacturing sector is always the power of any country. But the manufacturing companies in Nigeria have all left. They left for Ghana, a less-endowed country with less income. Is it not disgraceful to Nigeria?
So, I have nothing to commend about how the so called civilians have ran this country. In fact, they are not politicians because they have no philosophy. Their philosophy is only about how to earn thirty-million naira each in a month. That is not a good philosophy that can move us forward as a nation and as a people.
Donâ€™t you think the civilian administrations that you are being critical about could have been sabotaged?
By who? It is not in the interest of anybody that they should fail. Not even Britain that some people would point accusing fingers at in this case. They donâ€™t just know what to do. British people have left here a long time ago. It is neither in the interest of the British nor Nigerian people that the civilians should fail.
You send your children to school in Britain with the money you have stolen here and when they get there, they imbibe all sort of things and they are giving you problems. You canâ€™t blame Britain for that. There are things you can blame Britain for: You can blame them for leaving a bad structure behind, a bad federal structure. But, letâ€™s face it, we are still a group of nations and not a nation yet.We donâ€™t even know how to manage ourselves as a nation, if at all we are.
What are you suggesting?
Let me tell you, there is need for separation for self-evaluation. If we have been apart, we would have been able to move faster than this. Under five years, what Chief Obafemi Awolowo did in the West was unimaginable. There were no roads in the West but by 1959, the roads were there and you could link one part of the West to the other; whether Asaba or anywhere.
How many hospitals were in the West in 1952 when Awolowo took over? But as at 1959 , there were General Hospitals almost everywhere. At least, in every division, you had a General Hospital. Is that what we have now? Nothing is working! No hospital, nothing.
I must compliment, however, some of the civilians who ruled during the Second Republic.: like Lateef Jakande, Sam Mbakwe of blessed memory, and Abubakar Rimi. But they were a small percentage of governors. Mbakwe did well for Imo, Jakande did well for Lagos, Rimi did well for Kano, Ali did a bit well for Bendel. It was not generally so. Most of them were just on a showbiz.
We have perpetually remained a petrol-dollar economy. How healthy is this for us as a nation?
The problem of Nigeria is the problem of having lazy people to lead. They donâ€™t have oil in Thailand, they donâ€™t have oil in South Africa, they donâ€™t have oil in most countries like Japan and they are doing well. But we have lazy people here who just believe that the money must come from the oil alone.
When Awolowo was building the West, were we using oil money? When Sardauna Ahmadu Bello was building the North, were we using oil money? When Okpara took over the East, were we using oil money? The present day people are just lazy, they are not thinking and they donâ€™t just want to work! Now to build road, they must give it out on contract. They canâ€™t even build roads, they canâ€™t do anything. The federal roads are all bad and they canâ€™t maintain them.
You edited the Evening Times â€¦
(cuts in) Yes and I also edited Daily Times on acting ground when the editor was not around. And when I was there, the Daily Times sold three hundred and fifty thousand copies a day and the Evening Times sold over one hundred thousand around Lagos.
But the papers still died. Why?
Look, it was bad management by government. Before government came, we didnâ€™t have problem. Government of General Olusegun Obasanjo killed the Daily Times. He started the killing in his military regime when he caused the raising of government ownership in the paper from thirty per cent to sixty per cent. They were still able to run it then because the man they made Managing Director of the Daily Times, Mr. Dele-Cole, allowed the professionals to do their jobs.
So, the circulation was there and everything was still in order. But after him, they brought in Emmanuel Jajah and made the job impossible for him, being that they appointed people who did not have any business to do with journalism to work with him.
Was that why you left Daily Times for the Volks Wagen Company to work on its public relations?
No. I was in Volks Wagen before Daily Times but because of my love for journalism, I left Volks Wagen for Daily Times. But I went back to Volks Wagen. The profession of journalism was noble and great at that time. Journalists were great people; so much that ministers and very prominent people were bowing to journalists like Jakande, Herbert Unegbu and others.
Journalism has come of ageâ€¦
(cuts in) It has not come of age. It used to be, but now, it is a toddler. Newspapers now are badly planned. There are a lot of grammatical errors. Sub-editors ought to see to these things. Most of those television stations are now like video centres. You donâ€™t see television stations doing documentary programmes like before. NTA used to do it and Onyeka Onwenu was marvelous at it at that time. Except Channels and NTA, I have not seen any of the television stations, these days, doing more than mere video centre things.
What about motivationâ€¦?
(cuts in) What I donâ€™t want to hear is motivation! We donâ€™t go into journalism for money but for the good of it and I have enjoyed every bit of it. Many people have become millionaires through my connections but I enjoyed myself not being rich if that is what it takes to be good journalist.
Journalists, trade unionists and some lawyers liberated this country. You canâ€™t talk of Nigerian freedom without journalists, without people like Samuel Akinsanya, Zana Bukra, Dipcharima, Peter Enahoro, Saâ€™ad Zungur, Mattew Ayodele Tokunbo.
You canâ€™t talk of librating this country without mentioning these people. They met the white men brave for brave, brain for brain and they were never uprooted by them. All these politicians now are not doing what those people used to do. The Constitution at that time was tailored to suit our country because the regions were so autonomous.
There was no nationâ€™s centre and we are still going back to that because we have different aspirations. The South-South is much Europeanized because they have been with the British for six hundred years. The South-West have their own Oduduwa way, the North-West have their own religious thing and you cannot disturb them from doing it. We should go back to that but have a common centre which is loose. We need a new Constitution to achieve that.
It appears there is more about Mr. Ben Lawrence than meets the eye. What do we not know?
I want my handwork to talk about me. However, I was the Managing Editor of the Daily Times before I left in 1987 and I am happy that I have trained a lot of good people who have made it both at home and in the Diaspora. They won prizes all over the world and that is one of my consolations.
Quite frankly, I have no regrets being a journalist. I started reading newspapers at the age of ten and so, I think I know much about Nigerian politics.
You edited the Bitter Sweet: My Life With Obasanjo, a book by Mrs Remi Obasanjoâ€¦
(cuts in) No comment about that book. I have contributed to a lot of other books: Nigerian Columnists and their Art; there is a book on Sam Amuka, your Chairman, which five of us wrote and many others.
But the book by Mrs Obasanjo sounds more controversial than those you mentioned?
She lambasted her husband, the former President.
But the man has the right to reply, and he has replied by asking Iyabo, the daughter of the woman , has your mother got more to say? (laughs).
You are into literary work?
Journalism is literary work, donâ€™t you know?
What I mean is that you are into poetry. Arenâ€™t you?
No.I donâ€™t like to be a poet but I write prose. All I know how to do best is to talk or write on journalism and politics.