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Stanley Macebuh: A personal tribute

By Yemi Ogunbiyi

I FIRST met Stanley Macebuh in 1966. He had just graduated from Ibadan, and had come back to King’s College, his alma mater, to teach. He taught sixth form English and I had the privilege and in retrospect, the exceeding luck of being one of his students. My memory of that period is, understandably, hazy now. But I recall him, at least once, scribbling, in his notoriously ugly handwriting, a note of approval in the column of one of my class essays, with the additional advice that I should strive for greater brevity and clarity in my writings! But Mr. Macebuh, as he then was, soon vanished from our midst as quickly as he had come, proceeding, it turned out, to Sussex University in England for a higher degree.

Then our paths crossed again in New York City some five years later. He was now teaching at the City University of New York, having taken a doctorate degree in English Literature from the University of California at Berkely. I was myself studying at the time for a higher degree at New York University.

It was a good time to be living around the New York area as a Nigerian. Ambassador Leslie Harriman was at United Nations as Permanent Representative, while Ambassador Deinde George manned the Consul-General’s office. Joe Okpaku’s Third Press, situated at 444 Central Park West in Manhattan, was booming with business and scores of Nigerians were studying and living in, and around the city, among them, Ibrahim Gambari, George Obiozor, Tunde Adeniran, Moyibi Amoda, Walter Ofonagoro, Dele Giwa, Kayode Ojutiku, Ore Soluade, Biodun Jeyifo and others.

We all seemed to work and study hard. But we also partied hard, dissolving our nights, in the words of Wole Soyinka, “in the fumes of human self-indulgence”! Stanley was a vibrant part of that experience. He had, by now, published his highly-acclaimed work on James Baldwin, James Baldwin: A Critical Study, which remains one of the most incisive analyses on Baldwin’s works in the English language to date. He had also, by now, met his future wife, Maggie. And when they eventually got married on that cold, wintry evening of December, 1976, it was one big Nigerian party where I recall, switching roles between master of ceremonies, arranger, steward and Mr. Fix-it!

But it was my encounter with Stanley at The Guardian newspapers that redefined the real nature of our relationship and fostered an immutable bond of friendship that survived to the end of his life. While head-hunting for the Guardian, he made several trips to Ile-Ife, where I had returned to take up a teaching appointment. He wanted me to join the nascent team of the new outfit. After months of hesitation on my part, we struck a deal: I would spend my 1983 sabbatical leave at the Guardian and if I liked it, spend one more year and no more. That was 27 years ago! I have never gone back to my university job!!

And what an experience the Guardian years turned out for me and the team of dedicated staff that Stanley had single-handedly assembled for the project. The experience and atmosphere created by Stanley’s leadership and vision at the Guardian shaped my career to date, and I am sure, those of others like me. It was not just about the razor-sharp brilliance of his fertile mind – although, I suspect that that was a part of it. It was a little bit more. It was also about his ability to gather under one roof some of the finest minds I ever had the privilege of working with (even if we were a disparate bunch of egotistical bores!!) and then getting us to passionately key into the Guardian dream as if our lives depended on it. The Guardian experience, under Stanley, was about leadership that was as self-confident as it was inspirational.

It was a delight to watch Stanley conduct editorial board conferences, twice, sometimes, three times weekly. His ability to summarise in a few minutes, several hours of intense brainstorming sessions in ways that succinctly captured the essence of the arguments put forward was sheer brilliance at its best. Usually, at the end of deliberations, with his stick of cigarette held between his fingers from a long, thin filter, his eyes darting across the smoke-filled room, he would patiently assign editorial topics to members of the team with a reminder that the Guardian’s editorial comments were far too important to be toyed with, because, in his own words: “When the Guardian says it, everyone, including the government, listens”! That was how seriously we took ourselves at the Guardian, under Stanley’s leadership. It did not matter what any other paper had written or said – when the Guardian says it, the government was bound to listen. Stanley said so and we believed him! Or perhaps, we believed it because Stanley said so!!

Ironically, quite a number of us whom he brought to the Guardian, like he himself, had no formal training in journalism. Yet, he demanded of us seemingly unattainable standards of the rules of engagement that would have done the most seasoned of journalist or even professor of mass communications very proud. Ever so thorough and cautious, he taught us that any good story that was worthy of the Guardian had to be well-researched, balanced, fair, well-written and presented in a manner that promoted the public good. His instinctively libertarian orientation meant that for him, a story, any story could be complex and capable of having several sides to it. One of several examples will serve to prove these points about his journalistic career.

When, I believe, in early 1985, on the eve of the introduction of new naira currencies, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, as a young aviation correspondent, uncovered the famous 53-suitcase story, it was a big-scoop which the Guardian was eager to run with before it became stale. But we had in Buhari/Idiagbon, a brutal dictatorship which was intolerant of criticism, and since the Emir of Gwandu, who had brought in the suitcases, was the father of General Buhari’s aide-de-camp, Stanley thought, and rightly so, that we needed to be dead right about the facts of the story before publishing it.

So, one day, in the heat of the story, Stanley ‘secretly’ pulled me aside and sent me back to the airport to reconfirm the veracity of the story. And only after the then Airport Commandant of Customs, a yet-to-be-famous Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, had reconfirmed the story, were we able to fully run it. And even then, between Stanley and Lade Bonuola, who was then Executive Editor of the paper, the figures were switched to 35, instead of 53, just to be sure that we did not appear to further provoke the military leadership of the day!

Dr.  Ogunbiyi  writes from Lagos.


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.