By Ikechukwu Amaechi
More than a century ago, 1898 to be precise, the influential French sociologist, Gabriel Tarde, wrote that newspapers “both enriched and leveled … the conversations of individuals, even those who do not read papers but who, talking to those who do, are forced to follow the groove of their borrowed thoughts. One pen suffices to set off a thousand tongues.”
Today, in the serene premises of the Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies (CIAPS), an innovative academic and research institution, Adekunle Fajuyi Crescent, off Adeniyi Jones, Ikeja, an epochal event will take place.
Those whose pens suffice, in the words Tarde, to set off a thousand tongues will congregate to announce the birth of a new association – League of Nigerian Columnists (LNC) – founded by some of the most influential columnists in Nigeria today.
Vibrant and sophisticated tribe
It is long overdue. Nigeria has always had a vibrant and sophisticated tribe of column writers. Yet, unlike other climes, these oracles of the pen profession have never deemed it fit to have an association.
For instance, in the U.S. there is the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, founded in 1977, which “serves columnists everywhere at all levels of experience, in all media and formats, through education, advocacy and support.”
A column “is a running series of essays, from personal to persuasive, employing research and reporting or extending to fantasy and satire” but observing all journalism standards and ethics.
Journalists include columnists, editors and reporters, but in pecking order, a school of thought believes that a columnist occupies a pride of place.
The Encyclopedia Britannica says while a “journalist collects, writes, and distributes news and other information,” and his work “is referred to as journalism,” “a reporter is a type of journalist who researches, writes, and reports information to present in sources, conduct interviews, engage in research, and make reports,” and “a columnist is a writer or editor of a newspaper or magazine column.”
In a broad sense, therefore, the term journalist includes various types of editors, editorial writers, columnists, and visual journalists, such as photojournalists.
But the Encyclopedia Britannica went ahead to define a columnist as “the author or editor of a regular signed contribution to a newspaper, magazine, or Web site, usually under a permanent title and devoted to comment on some aspect of the contemporary scene.”
Tracing the history of that genre of journalism, the encyclopedia said “the word columnist is of relatively recent origin, apparently dating to about 1920.”
Although columns themselves came earlier, it was not until the early 20th century that the role of the columnist who presided over these collections of diverse elements became more defined, and the modern column emerged.
“In the 1920s columns proliferated in many fields, including politics, economics, books, movies, society, medicine, homemaking, sports and contemporary life, and ideas. National syndication of columns increased rapidly, and the development of the Internet greatly expanded the reach of individual columnists to a global audience.”
But unlike the other genres of journalism, “writing a column requires, in addition to knowledge of the subject matter, the ability to project a personality that engages with an audience and establishes rapport with it.”
This is essentially what makes column writing tasking and places the columnist at a very high pedestal and explains why some believe that a columnist is a newspaper’s greatest asset.
Syndicated columnist, Akogun Tola Adeniyi, agrees.
“To me, columnists are a rare breed. Whether as creative artist, visionary, analyst, essayist, historian, preacher, ideologue, propagandist or agitator, the man or woman who can originate and compose thoughts by way of commentary that would engage the mind and thought of their reader almost in a compelling manner should be singled out for celebration and adoration,” he noted in remarks he made at the maiden meeting of what he called the “Oracle Confraternity” on Thursday, June 21, 2018.
“No other branch of journalism interrogates the mind as the columnist. And no other professional calling wields as much influence as the columnist does,” he concluded.
Akogun Adeniyi is the initiator of this project. Together with Professor Anthony Kila, the proprietor of CIAP, the idea of an umbrella association of “men and women who wield mighty pens that shape and mould the thoughts and world-view of communities,” was floated.
Like the axiomatic mustard seed, today, the LNC parades industry giants such as Yakubu Mohammed, Ray Ekpu, Reuben Abati, Henry Boyo, Ben Lawrence; Jimanze Ego-Alowes; Dare Babrinsa, Martins Oloja, Akin Osuntokun and yours sincerely as inaugural members.
Attending meetings with these men, some of them in their 70s and 80s has been very enriching. An assemblage of members of the same pen-pushing tribe with no other goal other than documenting Nigeria and, indeed, the world, with some perspectives, the meetings are a cornucopia of humourists, men whose encyclopedic knowledge of Nigeria and the geo-political, ethnic, religious and economic nuances that define her cannot be quantified.
At such meetings, I usually listen rather than talk. Sometimes, the discussions lift the spirit, yet, at other times they dampen any hope for a resurgent Nigeria.
To be sure, column writing is as old as the newspaper industry in Nigeria and columnists have always been powerful and influential in the country. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the legendary Ernest Sese Ikoli were thorns in the flesh of colonial overlords.
In recent memory, the exploits of Herbert Unegbu (Unuhabib), Dapo Fafiade (Dapfafiday), Edun Akenzua, Remi Ilori (The Alpha), Tom Borha (Tom B), Olu Idowu (Olu Akaraogun), Augustine Njogwani (Atigus Guni), Ajibade Fasina Thomas (Paul Pry), Smart Ebbi (Marshal Kebby), Dapo Fatogun (Don Nugotaf), Increase Coker (Inko Matamba), Dapo Daramola (Dap Dorman), David Ozurumba (Davey O Zed), Anthony Enahoro, Lateef Jakande, Ebenezer Williams, Bisi Onabanjo, Adamu Ciroma, Alade Odenewu, Peter Enahoro, Sam Amuka, Areoye Oyebola, Asaora Ulasi, Esther Adebiyi, Dupe Adeogun, Helen Obviagele, Bumi Sofola, Nojeem Jimoh, Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, Haroun Adamu, and a host of others remain indelible.
Defining the League as the body of the finest columnists working in Nigeria media today, the president, Tola Adeniyi, said it was needed in now as never before.
Deepen and cross-fertilize
“The coming together of Nigeria’s leading men of the pen will help deepen and cross-fertilize the market and reach of ideas as never before,” he said, adding that, “Those who wield the pen with great skills are brothers and bonded by ideas. An association as this is thus a necessity, for both the good of the columnists and above all their society.”
Yet, some wonder whether in this age of the Internet, when with the proliferation of news sites and blogs, anyone can access the opinions of millions of commentators, the association is not late in coming.
Some have even gone beyond that to question whether, given the dynamics of the internet age in which the media industry, particularly the print media is, to put it charitably in a period of transition or worse a state of flux, the columnist still has a future.
Paul Waldman, an American columnist and member of the U.S. National Society of Newspaper Columnists answers: “As long as there exists a thing called a “newspaper” — even if many of the 1,400 daily papers currently operating in the United States go out of business — people will continue to believe that the opinions of those whose words rub off on our fingers are somehow a little more valid and important than opinions we find only on the Web.”
I concur! So, welcome League of Nigerian Columnists.