Papa Herbert Unegbu was a first generation Nigerian journalist. He was News Editor, Daily Times, Editor, West African Pilot, Eastern Regional Editor, Radio Nigeria and Head of News, Biafran Broadcasting Corporation.
The 87-year-old, Pa Unegbu speaks with BASHIR ADEFAKA in his residence at Onitsha, Anambra State, on how journalism brought him close to the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Excerpts:
How was journalism during your time?
Our media organisations, particularly the print media, were very, very active and vibrant in the early days.
We had more newspapers than any other black country in Africa ,all of them talking politics, social and good life for everybody. In fact, it was generally acknowledged that we had the most vibrant press in Africa. I think it is still the same today.
Tell us about your father and his attitude to your decision to go into journalism?
My father was an administrator. He was Supervisor in the Native Authority Administration at Ogoja, which was a provincial headquarters at that time. He married my mother from there and I have cousins all over the place.
On choosing journalism as career, my father resented it but my uncle, Egbuna, who was a shareholder in Zik’s Press, gave me a letter to Zik. With that letter, Zik personally interviewed and employed me directly.
And because I did well in the interview, I was sent straight to the Daily Comet; Anthony Enahoro was the Editor of Daily Comet at that time. After three months in the Comet, they sent me to The Pilot and it was there I started rising until I became editor of The Pilot. Just wait for my autobiography for details of all the things you want to know about me, and I won’t say more than that.
What was your growing up like?
First and foremost, I was born on the 9th day of November, 1924 in Onitsha. I celebrated my 85th in 2009 and so now, I am 87.
I grew up here Onitsha. I had my primary and secondary education here in Onitsha and I started my writing life here in Onitsha. In 1946, I wrote something in the Nigerian Spokesman, which was in Zik’s chain of newspapers and A. Y. S. Tinubu, who was the editor of the newspaper, cast the headline and said ‘School boy!’
I have been everywhere in the media: I was in the Daily Times, I was editor of The Pilot, I was at Radio Nigeria, I was Head of News, Radio Biafra.
It must have been exciting working in Radio Biafra considering the nature of its establishment?
It was okay. The radio was heard loud and clear everywhere and many correspondents around the world came to Biafra to see what was happening. We were alright there; we had, at that time, an ongoing TV station because, you know, there were two radio stations: the Regional Radio and the Federal Radio that is Radio Nigeria, where I worked for sometime.
Then they merged the two and they became Biafra Broadcasting Corporation, which had Voice of Biafra for the foreign content and then Radio Biafra for the local people.
It was a big war and then our radio and the Federal Radio were in constant battle where there were issues regarding the war.
The Radio Biafra job: how did you get it?
As I said, at that time I was the regional editor of Radio Nigeria in Enugu. I was then in charge of the Eastern Region operations. I said there were two radio stations: the regional and federal and that the two were merged to become Biafra Broadcasting Corporation. And then I became absorbed and therefore it was automatic that they should absorb me and then they made me Head of News of the Biafra Broadcasting Corporation.
Did you have any relationship with the warlord, Ojukwu, in the course of the job?
We had to go to meetings in his house. You know, whenever foreign visitors came and he was going to receive them, we would always be there. My radio station monitored 27 radio stations daily throughout the world. We didn’t have newspapers and so everyday, we produced a bulletin of world news and before 8 o’clock, it must be on the desk of leader of the Republic of Biafra, Ojukwu.
Some of you, Igbo professionals, contributed to the war in your respective capacities: While Engr. Kaine, the former CEO of PRODA, was producing the bombs, you were holding sway in the media…
(cuts in) You see, war is not an easy thing. Engr. Kaine was working on bombs and all that kind of thing and we were dodging bombs here and there in the course of war coverage. Biafran people were manufacturing their own armour too; like guns and all these small, small modern weapons in vogue at that time and anti-aircraft guns and all that. But Nigeria had superiority of armoury and we were all terrorised really.
We survived but in the end, the Republic of Biafra collapsed.
After the war, what happened to your journalism career?
Those of us who were federal civil servants were re-absorbed by the Nigerian government. That was how we went on until I retired from the federal service in 1985.
Now, 25 years in retirement, how do you feel?
I feel good and at my age, I feel fulfilled as a journalist. In fact, I had nice time working as a journalist. When I was at the Pilot, I brought Tunde Akran, who today is Aholu Akran, the traditional ruler of Badagry to the newspaper. He walked up to me with a letter from A. Y. S. Tinubu; we worked in tandem. All these people are my friends in Lagos. I spent over 20 years in Lagos before coming back to the East.
What other things do you now do in retirement?
I read foreign newspapers like you can see there. I read at least one paper daily and on weekends two papers. I do this to keep myself alive. I run a current affairs programme on Radio Nigeria, Enugu Zone that is the East, called Correspondents at large. It was after my retirement I started that programme and it still runs; it is a weekly current affairs programme to keep myself busy. And then, here we have a newspaper; I am its managing director and it’s still on.
Who were your contemporaries?
They include the ones I have earlier mentioned and my good friend, Sam Amuka and all these big journalists: Jakande, Alex Nwokedi and others. Alex Nwokedi’s appointment as Press Secretary to Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo at that time was a matter of joy to us, his colleagues in journalism. This man was Public Relations Officer of Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, ECN; he did so well.
That time, ECN was having problems with power supply; it was solved and through his public relations ability, strikes were neutralised and that, perhaps, was what Obasanjo saw and then selected him to work with him as Press Secretary to the Head of State, Commander-in-Chief.
You must especially have been very close to Igwe Alex Nwokedi…
(cuts in) Alex was a very wonderful man and we were very close friends so much that when he married his wife, Kofo, I was the best man at the Christ Church in Lagos. At a time, we had what we called the Nigerian Friendship Society that was in East Germany. I was the head of that society and Nwokedi was my secretary.
We organised scholarships for Nigerian youths here and there in Eastern Europe in those days. Even though he was a socialist, we did all things together and essentially Nwokedi was friendly to all.
How about your marital life?
I have had a very successful marital life and I thank God for that. The first woman I married is my town’s girl. She is my first wife and she was a teacher. We met in Lagos and our wedding ceremony took place at a Catholic Church in Surulere, Lagos. In all, we are blessed with good children who are doing well.
What is the secret of your fitness even at 87?
I take care of my food. I take care of my health. I do exercises every morning and I walk on my own many times without a walking stick. I have a little bother of arthritis in my legs but I have the answer: I arrange and negotiate the answer. I am enlightened enough to know what is good for my health and what is not and I don’t lack things that I need.
Food was the first you mentioned talking about your fitness. What food is your favourite?
Having lived in Lagos, Amala has become a kind of food and Alex Nwokedi will testify to this. Myself, Alex Nwokedi, Layi Mabinuori – he used to be in the Daily Service then – in their area at Apongbon, there was one Alhaja that used to prepare amala and we would all go there to eat. And again, we had so many joints. So, amala is one food that I don’t miss.
Do you still eat amala now that you are no longer in Lagos?
I still eat amala and so, one of my daughters is in Lagos and whenever she is coming home she brings me amala here.
Can you share one of your major experiences you will never forget?
They are many but the major one was when Chief Obafemi Awolowo was detained. When I heard the information and I phoned Olu Adebanjo, who was then the Editor of the Daily Service, I said wait for me so we can go together. When we got there, police people surrounded the house where he was detained and I said to Olu: ‘Go in and tell Papa Awolowo that I am outside.’
Awolowo said go and bring him in and when I got inside, Rotimi Williams was there. Jakande was there and others. So, when I got in, Awolowo said: ‘Welcome, the incorruptible editor! See what they have done to me.’
Then I said to him: ‘Sir, I have no doubt that in the end, you will triumph.’ That was the biggest experience that I had. There were so many of them and these will come out in my autobiography.
When will the autobiography be ready?
It is half-ready. I am expecting some inputs from people like Jakande, Laban Lame, who worked with me in the Pilot and in the Daily Times. He was my senior in the Pilot but I succeeded him in the Daily Times as News Editor when he was seconded to Ibadan. I also want the present Oba Akran of Badagry to contribute. I have not heard from him since I wrote him about it but in an article he wrote in the Compass recently, he acknowledged that I employed him in the Pilot.
What is your view of Nigeria at 50?
Let me tell you one thing, people are shouting about problems here and there but Nigeria is still the most stable in the whole of Africa. The problem with peaceful co-existence that we talk about here is a global problem.
There is no single country that has peace. Like we have problems in the Niger Delta, there are people in Latin America who have been fighting war for 46 years. We have more than 200 ethnic groups here and yet we manage to remain together as one and that is the unity that I can say was celebrated during the Nigeria at 50.
Also if you are talking about a country where press is free, Nigerian press is the freest in Africa. We don’t have censorship and all that kind of dictatorial people commanding what you have in the press and all that.
So, all we need is just little, little patching here and there so we can stand properly on our feet.
I mean we can feed ourselves if we begin to pay attention to agriculture because we are naturally blessed along that line. It is even good that we are now beginning to realise that we can live on agriculture alone. Saraki is doing wonders there in Kwara State, talking about agriculture, and generally we can follow suit.
Gradually, everybody is realising where we make mistakes and we are beginning to make amends. That is what I think and I believe we are making progress. Niger Delta or not, kidnapping or not, what I believe is that we can make a change through laws and not by coup any more.