By Onochie Anibeze
Chris Okojie had just returned from Enugu where he went to cover a league match.
He met some players who asked after me. When I saw him in the newsroom, he asked me if I played football. I said yes, and he yelled: “what are you then doing in the newsroom?” Before I could answer, he repeated the question. Chris was the Sports Editor, and Ikeddy Isiguzo was his deputy. You were dead if you couldn’t learn under these guys. They were masters on the sports beat. Abimbola Akinloye was on the sports desk too. Their office was in a room adjoining the newsroom.
Frank Aigbogun, who was then the News Editor and now publisher of Businessday, heard the seeming interrogation from Chris and shouted: “Onochie, are you listening to him?” It was a pleasant tension. Two editors were showing interest in a freelance reporter who was also hoping to be officially hired. It was a memorable moment for me that day.
I had before then been assigned to the judiciary desk, and my immediate boss was Richard Akinnola. Under him, I cut my teeth in news reporting. And what a great teacher and mentor he was.
A cigarette on the left hand and a pen on the right, Richard would work on my scripts and return to me to read before I submitted them to the News Editor. He also regularly called me to his side to explain things to me.
Akinnola was my teacher in the newsroom. But it was not only his tutelage in reporting news that has remained green in my memory. He built confidence in me by assigning important assignments to me. As a junior reporter, I found myself with the likes of Alaba Adetumobi of Sketch Newspaper, Chris Akpambo of Tribune covering big cases. Biodun Kessington was the Director of Public Prosecution. He was ably assisted by Bola Okikiolu, a beautiful and elegant lawyer who never relented in explaining technical matters to us. She was brilliant, and I’m not surprised she is one of the reputable judges we have today.
Kessington was also brilliant and very humorous. I wasn’t surprised he entertained people as a judge. May his soul rest in peace.
Richard allowed me to cover big cases like Lagos State vs. Kenneth Clark and Angus Patterson, two British aircraft engineers who were charged with stealing an aircraft belonging to Prince Morison Olori.
Some Nigerians were already facing trial for the attempted abduction of Umaru Dikko in London and the military government in Nigeria appeared to be spoiling for revenge. Olori had leased the aircraft, and when he was alleged to have defaulted in the lease-purchase agreement, the owners of the aircraft decided to recover it. They sent two pilots who sneaked into the country and flew the aircraft away without clearance. Our military regime acted swiftly, intercepted the aircraft in Abidjan where it landed to refuel. The pilots went back to Europe from there, but Clark and Patterson who serviced the aircraft before it was flown out were charged as accomplices. It was a very interesting case.
The British and Nigerian governments were interested in the case. Sogbesan, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria made a brilliant defence for the Britons but some people wanted the Britons jailed to revenge what the Umaru Diko alleged abdctors were already facing. It had an international dimension, and Richard allowed me to cover this case that was the cover story in all newspapers each time it came up. For a junior reporter to be leading the front page was special not only to me but also those who knew what it meant. And they were many. That was what Richard had made of me.
There was also the case of Lagos State Vs. Ojukwu. Ojuukwu, after returning from exile, was battling to repossess his house on 29 Queens Drive, Ikoyi, Lagos. Stories from this case were also front page lead stories, and Akinnola allowed me to cover the case till the end. The dramatic aspect of it to me was when the Supreme Court delivered judgment in favour of Ojukwu. The matter had been adjourned sine die for judgment. I was at the Ikeja High Court covering an armed robbery case when judgment was delivered.
Aigbogun, the news editor, didn’t know what to do to me as I entered the newsroom without the story. He was mad at me. The editor ordered that I should just be told to go home and never return to Vanguard again. Richard pleaded for me to be retained. My case was helped when the News Agency of Nigeria, NAN had to the details in their afternoon bulletin. Aigbogun also put in a word for me and I was retained.
Akinnola did a lot for me. But I wouldn’t know if what I did later amounted to betrayal. And even if it was, he didn’t see it that way. He wished me well, and that cleared my conscience.
When Okojie and Aigbogun showed interest in me, I visited Aigbogun in his house at Ijesha and pleaded with him to allow me to move to the sports desk as it appeared I had better prospects there. He promptly agreed and even told me he had discussed my matter with Okojie, then Sports Editor.
That was how I left the judiciary beat where Akinnola was an institution. It wasn’t long after that incident that he became the News Editor. He was not offended that I left the judiciary beat. He rather encouraged me. He encouraged me throughout my years as Sports Editor, and he is still encouraging me now as Editor, Saturday Vanguard.
So, Thursday was not only special to Richard Akinnola. It was also special to me and many of those he has touched their lives. This is wishing this great Nigerian a wonderful 60th birthday. At 60, I can say that he is still a young man. But those who know about his human rights activism during the military era and relationship with Gani Fawehinmi will appreciate how far he has come of age. May God grant Richard Akinnola many happy returns for him to serve humanity the more. God bless you, my brother.