Alhaji Liad Tella, former National Concord chief and MD, The Monitor Newspaper, is currently National Commissioner, National Hajj Commission. He spoke to BASHIR ADEFAKA on how he became a journalist against his wish. Excerpts:
It looks like you have passion for your home then, how. What is it about?
Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds, My position about my family, Iwoland, Osun State and Nigeria as a whole was informed by Islamic position. Iman (faith) is incomplete without commitment and affection for your town: first to your family, to your neighbour, then to your community, then to your town, then to your state and then to Nigeria as a nation.
I took that commitment from my father who, though was not western oriented educationally but, became highly intelligent through the Islamic oriented education that he had. He trained me and taught me to love, to care and to forgive: at the slightest opportunity for forgiveness, give it because you don’t know when you are going to die.
Then at a particular age, I think between the age of 13 and 15, I examined and I asked myself: why were you created by God? I reflected on this for a while, as a young person in modern school.
And I came to the conclusion that Allah had created me, first to worship Him with passion; two, to be a messenger of hope for anybody I meet on my way in the course of my sojourney on the face of the earth; in other word, as a helper for whosoever comes my way.
It is not an accident that God created as a son of Abdurrafiu Tella, it is not an accident that God created me and put my origin as Iwo and it is not an accident that I am a Yoruba person.
It could have been otherwise, I could have been Fulani, I could have been Beriberi, I could have been Anga or any other tribe; I could have been a Brazilian, I could have been English. But I find myself where I was created by God. But my impression of where I was created is that I should leave my footprint on the sand of time.
So, I cannot claim to be good in Iwo without being good to members of my family. I cannot claim to be good to the people of Osun State without, first of all, being recognised as good by the people of Iwo. I cannot claim to be good to the people of Nigeria without an acknowledgement by the people of Osun State that I am acceptable.
What is your mission therefore in politics?
I have gone into politics without any expectation from anybody except from Allah. Iwo is my town and unfortunately the town is the most backward Federal Constituency in the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It’s a forgotten Federal Constituency in Nigeria.
There is nothing Federal in Iwo Federal Constituency except the name ‘Federal’. The only road that is Federal road in Osun State, two minor roads: one major road, one minor road; is from Oyo to Iwo, from Iwo to Gbogan. The Iwo-Gbogan Road is impassable now!
Not even one vehicle can pass through that place. Iwo to Oyo is a question to 20 minutes drive, maximum, but you require one and half hours to pass through a journey of 15 to 20 minutes if the road were good.
There is no higher institution that has a Federal name here; whether hospital, education or any other thing. There is a road that links Oyo State to Osun State through Iwo. Ordinarily in most other states of the Federation, roads of such are designated Federal roads but that of Ibadan-Iwo-Osogbo has not been designated to Federal road and so a journey that should ordinarily take 30 minutes now take one and half hours.
That is the way I see it. And if you pass the road on a regular basis, you must change your shock-absolver every three, three months.
And, having been in journalism for upward of 30 solid years, I felt after retiring from journalism I should focus on political bargaining. May be, by that, God will use me to open the door of opportunities for my people in Iwoland.
And how was your journey to journalism?
I became a journalist by the wish of God because I never wished to become a journalist. In my secondary school at Baptist High School, Iwo, during my A’Levels, I used to tell people that I would never be a journalist. Although I started a school Press Club and I published a magazine.
I had worked for about three years before I came back for my A’Levels. I started the school magazine, I ran the Press Club with a big signboard, students writing various articles and we were publishing.
So the teachers in the school saw me as a potential journalist because my class teacher, Mr. Oladunni from Ikire, wrote in my Testimonial: “Liad Tella, a potential journalist”. And I went to him and said is it because I run Press Club? I said I said, instead of being a journalist, I will be a politician and journalists will report what I’m saying and I’m not going to be the one reporting what people say.
That was my dream. I wanted to be a political leader. Although in my English composition in primary school, I used to write that I wanted to be a doctor because every child wanted to be a doctor. But at my A’Levels class, I saw the perception of the world and I wanted to be a politician but God did not destine that.
After my graduation from the University of Ibadan, about five of us; from Yaba College of Technology, from University of Ife and University of Ibadan, we collected ourselves together, went to the NYSC to beg the NYSC director of operation to post us to Kano.
One, we wanted to learn Hausa Language; two, we wanted to know about Northern culture; three we had so many friends and brothers we wanted to meet and so we thought we were going to be at home in Kano. And we were very, very crazy about Kano, particularly me; two others were Christians. Three of us were Muslims.
Were you granted the request?
All others were granted except me (laughs). All others were posted to Kano except me and I was posted to Lagos.
And what was your reaction?
I protested. When I got to the camp, I went to the director and explained to him that I was wrongly posted to Lagos. He said what do you mean?! When people are begging to come to Lagos, you are begging to go to Kano? He said we will give you after the orientation because we want people to go to Kano.
I said good and so, at the end of the orientation, I filled my form again to be transferred to Kano. It was Alhaji Kila who was the director of NYSC, Lagos State then and he said young man, why do you want to change to Kano?
I said in Lagos I have been a salesman before, I live in Lagos, I have a family compound in Shomolu, I have another family in Oronye in Isale Eko. As soon as the interview was conducted to me and I attended to that question, he said okay young man, any other reason? I should have kept quiet.
I said yes, Lagos is so congested, traffic hold-up; if you close in the office in the afternoon, you get to your house at 10 o’clock in the night and when you leave house at 5am you won’t get to your working place until it’s late. He said these are all the problems the government wants you to solve in the future and he just wrote on my form: No transfer for this candidate again.
That was how I got stuck in Lagos and having got stuck in Lagos, I was posted to Daily Times of Nigeria Limited as a corper. But in Daily Times, first week, second week, third week, we were doing nothing.
I just remembered my days at Baptist High School and I picked up my pen and started writing articles intuitively. So I sent them to one of two editors and they were publishing me!
So Daily Times got interested that this person has potential to be a journalist and so, during my NYSC, I was sent by Daily Times for Advanced Diploma in Journalism and at the same time I was deployed to Daily Times Training School as a teacher in the Certificate class.
While I was a teacher in the Certificate class, I was a student in the Advanced Diploma class. So at the end of my NYSC, I had two certificates: one in journalism and the other, NYSC certificate.
Even for my published articles during my NYSC, Daily Times used to pay me, that time, N24 per article. Plus my NYSC allowance, I was a king. Then Daily Times had higher purchase centre like commodity centre, where you buy fridge, television, rice, beans and the money deducted from your pay.
Daily Times gave me employment letter two months before the end of my NYSC. Why should I look for job when I had one at hand? So that was a providential arrangement, not my own personal wish.
And so you became a journalist naturalist. Was it the time Pa Babatunde Jose?
Pa Jose was exiting at the time we came in. It was Jaja that took over from Babatunde Jose. We were in NYSC when Pa Jose was going out and by the time I was fully employed, Pa Jose had already gone while Jajah took over.
What is your own account of the Daily Times debacle?
Well I stayed with Daily Times between 1978 and 1981 December 31st. But inbetween those three eventful years, I became unofficially Assistant News Editor, Foreign Affairs.
It was a pride for me and at the time I was exiting I was already appointed Chief Correspondent. In Daily Times it was quite unusual for a graduate reporter, which is classified as a senior reporter, to become chief correspondent in three years. But it was a political era: my writings were radical, my focus was more in favour of radical parties and I was taken to be UPN, PRP sympathiser. So, I was posted to Ilorin to dislocate me from headquarters.
Already I was introduced to Punch by Dr. Ogunniyi from Ede, who was at that time Deputy Chief Executive, Manpower Training and Development, Daily Times. Either the Editor-in-Chief of Punch at that time, Mr. Sam Amuka or the Editor, Tayo Kehinde, contacted him, Dr. Ogunniyi, to source somebody for them who could become the News Editor of the Punch that they were looking for a hard working, well focused and well oriented News Editor.
Dr. Ogunniyi got in touch with me and I came from Ilorin to attend the interview. I didn’t write any application. I just went straight and met Amuka in his office, he called Tayo Kehinde and then he (Sam Amuka) said young man, you have been introduced by Dr. Ogunniyi. So we believe in him. But now let me ask you a few questions: If you have 24 reporters all over Nigeria, how will you deploy them?
I had to buy time. I repeated the question three times. He said young man, don’t you here me? I said I heard you but I am repeating the question for emphasis so that I can get my thinking straight.
He looked at Tayo Kehinde and said did you here him? And he said okay young man, answer our question and I said okay: We are in the political era and so the seat of the presidency must be fully covered and so, take one out. I continued: The newspaper is resident in Lagos State and so we have a governor in Lagos State.
That seat of governor must be covered because they are our landlord, they can make trouble for us, if we don’t cover them effectively. Sam looked at the face of the editor and said three? I said the National Assembly is here in Lagos. He said 24 all over the country?
I said yes. You cover the National Assembly effectively, may be with one or two reporters: Senate, one and House of Representatives, one.
He said okay, where again? I said okay, Lagos is the hob of activities; all potential leaders pass through Lagos Airport. And airport correspondent in those days used to be very power. I said I will cover the Airport.
He said where again? I said I will cover crime because crime sells newspapers and so, Lagos State Police Cammand in Ikeja should be fully covered! He said where again? I said now let me leave Lagos and go to the rest: There are four political capitals and two subsidiary ones that must be effectively covered.
I said one, Ibadan, Enugu, Port Harcourt, Kaduna; the next one is Benin because for Bendel, Benin is the gateway between the East West.
I didn’t know Amuka was from that area. Then he said where again? And I said there is something that people are not focusing on but which I want to focus on: I said there is Inland Port in Sapele and Warri. So, some small ships are usually diverted to that place.
If possible I’d put a reporter to shuttle between the two. And Lagos Port is not covered now by any newspaper, if I come in here, I will like to get somebody to cover the Port because it could be a source of revenue for adverts and other things.
Amuka said you have said enough! This man has gotten the job. I got the job and he said can you resume tomorrow? I said no sir. I must be properly disengaged from Daily Times.
If I don’t properly disengage from Daily Times, it means I will leave you the way I come in. I need to give one month notice as required in my letter of appointment or you pay for one month in lieu of that notice.
If you do that, then … but even if you do that, since I have never been News Editor before, I need a minimum of two weeks to understudy three newspapers’ news editors.
I need to go back to the Daily Times, share one or two ideas with the news editor and deputy news editor; I will go to New Nigerian to share their views and then I will go take time to go to Tribune in Ibadan even if for one or two days, interact with them, see the way they organise themselves.
I said after that I will come to resume.
That I needed those two weeks to really plan my strategy on what I want to do as a news editor and assume duty. I said I didn’t want to assume duty just jumping to the ship.
No. Sam Amuka was very excited and he said okay, this December 15, can you resume January 1? I said yes. He repeated January 1 and I said yes. He said it is a public holiday.
I said I will report. He said why? I said business is business. If I have business to do, what is my concern with public holiday on January 1? The business of newspaper is publication. People want to read newspaper the following day. I said why shouldn’t I come here?
He asked: How much is your salary and I said: I want N15,000, in those days. He said ah, one does not have that kind of money o! but we will give you something. When I got my letter of appointment they gave me N9,800.
What year was that exactly?
I got my letter of appointment in December 1981 to start January 1, 1982. That N9,800 was about $12,000 then. So if you convert $12,000 to naira now, you are doing to have about N1.6 million. That is the equivalent of what I was offered and I began to work.
Before I came in, I had got a lot of stories written by me. I had conducted interviews for five political leaders, the kind of thing you are doing now, I had done that. So, when I was coming in, I came with a can of stories: I called it stories can.
And so, whenever my reporters failed to give me stories to lead, I always had a feeler from my can (laughs). Tactical stories!
One day, the first national black out following NEPA strike by the workers, we covered it better any other newspaper. The following morning Sam Amuka walked straight to the Newsroom and asked where is the news editor? I said I’m here sir. He shook my hand and said congratulation! You had the best newspaper story.
If Sam Amuka shakes your hand, it’s like Obama shaking somebody’s hand (laughs) in the media and so, everybody was happy for me that Sam Amuka coming to the newsroom to shake hands with you as the news editor!
So, that’s my experience with Sam, our honourable leader, focused, well intentioned, very professional: very hard professionally but very gentle in conduct. I had a very good experience with him, with Tayo Kehinde, with Owolabi.
Let’s talk about why you lost the chance of being Editor of the Punch.
I joined in January 1982 and in June 1983, the publisher, Olu Aboderin, called me and said that he was going to make the editor the Punch, two days before my departure for hajj, which was to be my first ever hajj. The offer was a high honour, glory and financial development.
I then asked myself: which one do I take? Eventually I got him to endorse my hajj and he asked me to bring somebody who would do the job till I return to resume as editor and who would not betray me.
I brought somebody he rejected the person. He now introduced an old man, Mr. Fagbemi, who was former editor of Sunday New Nigerian and at that time was about 53 years old and I was just about 36 years old.
Olu Aboderin’s belief was that 53 years old man would not have interest in usurping the seat of the younger person. He was wrong. Before I came back, the man moved round all the big men and got himself ratified as editor and I was made to deputy for him. I said all the same, one and half years in Punch to become deputy editor thereafter is something.
I was never disturbed I kept on doing my job and so I was promoted group news editor, which was like deputy editor in charge of news.
And then some of colleagues staged coup against me; they staged the first and second coup, aborted. But they staged the third one and I decided to leave. I left without with no where to go but I must leave if I wanted to survive because I saw my life under threat. I left the Punch to work in bakery and I was selling bread.
It was then Abiola got to know about my plight through Professor Nurudeen Alao, who was head of Department of Geography and later became the Vice Chancellor of University of Lagos Alhaji Saka Fagbo, Justice Muri Okunola and one Ismail who were together in Islamic Welfare Foundation.
They told Abiola about my condition and I was given letter of appointment without applying. And they had to look for me for about two months before they could locate me. I was placed special correspondent at National Concord and the word special correspondent is used for editorial writer.
The MD at that time did not want to put me on the editorial board for reason best known to her. She consulted with the editor, who was Duro Onabule and who later became President Secretary to the President during Geneal Ibrahim Babangida military regime, he is called double-chief.
And Duro Onabule said when I was at the Daily Times, has she forgotten that I performed very well on the Foreign Desk? That the Foreign Desk here is next to zero and so we should post him to Foreign Desk. I was posted there as Foreign Affairs Editor and I was there for about one and half years when I was posted back to the newsroom as news editor therefore, I was news editor in two major national newspapers.
Three months later I was, firstly, promoted group news editor, six months later I was promoted deputy editor. So within four years of my arrival at Concord, I became a deputy general manager. I later became a general manager in charge of sales and circulation where I made my impact before I left while the ovation was loudest.
I started a communication company of my own before I was contacted by Aare Arisekola Alao to become the Managing Director of The Monitor.