By Charles Kumolu & Osa Amadi
A former Managing Director of Daily Times of Nigeria, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, who
would be 75 next Wednesday, in this interview, narrates the story of his life, providing insights into what it was heading the most influential paper in Nigeria at the time.
In his story, which also captures his upbringing in Kano, you are confronted with Ogunbiyi’s burden of managing his relationship with his employers and holding the same people to account for the public good.
The significance of being a product of inter-ethnic marriage in a multicultural nation is prominent in his reflections. The phases of Ogunbiyi’s sojourn so far, highlighted in this conversation, are extensively presented in his autobiography, The Road Never Forgets, which will be launched next Thursday in Lagos.
By any inch, you don’t look 75. What does attaining the age mean to you?
I will be 75 on Wednesday. It means a lot, which is why we are trying to mark this event. And I decided to launch my book which tells the story of my life. There are so many reasons.
Being 75 means a lot to me because as you rightly said, this is a country where life is short. But life is also short anywhere. If you are 75 anywhere in the world, you have to give thanks to God. It is his grace that enables one to attain 75. It really means a lot to me.
Having a wife and an amazing family makes it an interesting journey so far. And I felt it would be interesting to mark the day simply to thank God.
You were born in Kano and had your formative years there. What was it like growing up in northern Nigeria at the time?
Growing up in Kano was an amazing experience. I grew up in a hybrid community. It was a community where we had people from diverse ethnic groups. My childhood friends and I didn’t think Kano wasn’t our home.
That explains why I didn’t see beyond the North when it was time for me to proceed to high school. I wanted to go to Saint Paul’s Wusasa, Zaria, and Saint John’s, Kaduna. I didn’t think of going to school in the West where my father came from or somewhere in the South where my mother came from.
The North was my worldview and that tells you where we came from. There was that kind of feeling that North was our home. Suddenly, we realised
it wasn’t home. But that came much later. My mother, may God rest her soul, said to me that I was born there but do not belong there. She said that to me when I was about to get into high school. She said I must find a way to attend school in the South.
This was my mother in the late 50s, who perhaps saw where Nigeria was headed. She said I must find a way to go to school in the South. I didn’t think it was a smart thing to do at the time. I thought mama was doing it for something else.
Looking back now I could see it was a smart thing to do. When I arrived in Ibadan where I lived with my relative, the arrangement was that by living there, I would go to the high school in the West. I had finished school in the North and spent one year because I didn’t want to go to Ibadan. When I arrived in Ibadan, I couldn’t speak Yoruba.
My Yoruba was bad. And I had a funny accent. People were surprised because my name is Yemi Ogunbiyi and I couldn’t speak Yoruba. I had removed Ifeanyi because I was known as Ifeanyi Ogunbiyi in the North.
I spoke only Hausa and Igbo. People laughed at me. I had to learn how to speak Yoruba from scratch. I learned the alphabets too. I enrolled in high school in Ibadan. I was a slow starter. It was a public school. It was not the best in the country but it offered quality education.
By the time I was 15 years old, I was considered a very bright student. I ended up becoming the head boy. In my third year, Gen Alabi Isama, retd, who was a colonel at the time, sponsored me to Man’O War drills at Gurara Waterfalls.
The aim was to prepare me for a leadership position. I didn’t know who sponsored me then, but I later knew he was the one. I ended up becoming the head boy of the institution. I was interested in going to Kings College.
At the time, nobody had gone to Kings College from Boys High School, Ibadan. It was done on a regional basis. Only four of us were taken from Western Region to Kings College. Before then, I had an experience in primary school when I was in Kano.
My primary school was called Igbo Union Primary School. 10 years ago, I asked one of my classmates, Ifeanyi, who just passed away how they got into Kings College when we were in school.
He said the teachers had a few forms and gave them to those who were Igbo. The forms were available but were given to my classmates who were Igbo. This was despite the fact that my name at the time was Ifeanyi Ogunbiyi.
We laughed over it and moved on. When I got to Kings College from Boys High School, I met them but they were one year ahead of me.
My childhood friends
My father was not the Sarkin Yorubawa , king of Yoruba, of Kano but his house was a beehive of activities. It was a melting pot for everybody.
The late Emir of Kano, Ado Bayero, who at the time, was the Wakilin Doka, head of local police, was a regular face there. My father was not a rich man. He was just a known tailor. Growing up in Kano was fun. All my childhood friends like Victor Ombu, Tony Ikhazobor and others saw Kano as home. V
ictor and my younger brother were classmates. His elder brother and I were classmates. During Christmas the Muslims among us visited our parents and they will give them money. During Sallah we visited their homes. We didn’t know any difference then. Our places of origin didn’t matter. That was the kind of life of innocence Kano provided.
There was something you once said that even though your father wasn’t rich, he taught you to treat everybody with dignity regardless of where the person comes from. What did you find valuable in that?
My father loved people. He was a friendly human being. My son works with Amaechi now and everybody tells me he is a lovely boy. That was the result of the values I learned from my father which I inculcated in my children. My son, Anu is also like that.
All my children are like that. They had seen that in me because I relate easily with people. My security man is from Taraba State. He said he wants to study Biochemistry in Ife. I am sponsoring him in school.
I didn’t know him from anywhere. But that is me and what I learned from my father, an easy-going fellow who related with people effectively. There is a story I told in my book.
When the civil war broke out, my father hid 17 Igbo on the rooftop of our house because they were being chased around to be killed. Information got to the army men that my father was hiding Igbo and they came to shoot my father.
One of them who was holding a gun was drunk and someone asked him why he wanted to shoot my father. He said my father was hiding Igbo people. My father said it wasn’t true. He asked them to check the house if they would see any Igbo. They checked and didn’t see anybody after which they left.
That was the kind of person my father was. When it was safe for them to leave, they left my father’s house. Some of them were people he knew. Others were persons he didn’t know. Most of us who grew up at the time didn’t know ourselves based on our ethnicity.
I didn’t know Tony Ikhazobor was from Edo until he died. It was when he died I knew he came from a place called Agenegbode.
If Tony and I were that close and I didn’t know where he came from until he died, it tells the way it was for us in the North. It is a pity the country that I knew no longer exists. It is finished.
Mama was very hard on us. We had to learn how to do all house chores including cooking. My younger brother is a better cook.
He learned a lot more than I did. Mama raised us to be very disciplined. When we were growing up, there was a day we saw somebody wearing a certain shoe and said we liked it.
My mother beat us so much that we never tried it again. When I became Head Boy at Boys High School, we used to wear Khaki trousers. Some guys would wear nice materials other than khaki. One of them once approached me to ask why I could not wear that kind of material.
I said to him that Khaki was what I could afford. Mama taught us never to look at whatever anyone has. She taught us to stick to whatever we had. It has helped me in my business. As the Managing Director of Daily Times, I was very strict with my friends who are suppliers.
There was one that supplied newsprint and brought money back to me. I asked him to keep the money.
I said when I leave the job, I would need assistance from friends like him. There was a time Abiola’s company supplied us with newsprint and one of his children brought a huge amount.
I was furious and asked him what his father would think if he discovered I collected money from him. He said the money had been taken out of their office. I took the money from him and took it to the person in charge of housing and application for funds.
I asked him to share the money among those who had applied for funds to buy cars and build houses. And as it turned out, MKO Abiola and I became very close. This house I am living in, MKO Abiola gave me the first set of money I needed to start constructing it. And I mentioned it in my book.
All that came from a strict Igbo woman who said the only kids she had must be properly brought up. It is something I look back to. My mum was the enforcer of rules in our house. My father was just a socialite.
You had an Igbo mother and a Yoruba father. What was it like coming from such a background and to what extent did it contribute in preparing you for today?
I think it did a lot. It did so much in terms of who I am. Anywhere I am, whether with Hausa, Yoruba or Igbo, I am at home. That can only come from the kind of background I had as a child. We took trains from schools in those days.
We would pick up kids from Lagos, Ibadan and Ilorin. We mixed easily. In my days at the Daily Times, IBB and I were very close friends. We would be seated discussing, when IBB switched over to Hausa I still flowed with conversation. It makes it easier.
Sometimes it could become an issue. Recently, I was at the Villa and some guys came in to see the Chief of Staff to the President and I spoke to them in Hausa. Some other guys came and we spoke in Igbo. So, that is nice.
I also found out that language is the grammar of communication. If you could speak any language it removes suspicion, which is natural. It has made my life a lot easier. I told a story of Abacha in my book. Abacha’s father and my father were friends in Kano.
Abacha and I also spoke Hausa. He used to call me Yomi. Abacha and I knew each other in Kano. I knew his father, who had a provision store called Kantin Abacha while the mother sold plates at Fegge Market. As Managing Director of Daily Times, there was a day he called me in the morning to complain about a picture of him frowning we had used.
He spoke in Hausa. At the time, there was a rumour that he was quarrelling with IBB. He said the picture we used portrayed him as if he had a problem with someone. In the next story about the army we did, we used a picture of him smiling.
The next morning, he called, saying Yomi you are doing a good job. When I was sacked from Daily Times, I was taken to him. It was during Ramadan, he was breaking his fast. We sat down, and the person who took me to him said Gen I brought Yemi. Abacha said what are you bringing him here for, his friend sacked him.
Abacha said he had known me longer than I knew my friend, but I never came to see him. He said I only visited my friend.
He said, now your friend has sacked you, what are you doing here? That day, Gen Abdulkarim Adisa, who was then a Brigadier, was there. Gen Onoja was there. He was angry with me and it was just because I was very close to IBB.
We were very close because we all grew up in Kano. So, that background created access for me. Sometimes it could create suspicion about you too. The late Papa Awolowo, quite friendly, but didn’t like the fact that Bola Ige spoke Hausa. Having access created a problem on its own but it was good. I felt at home anywhere.
In your book, did you explain the circumstances that led to you being relieved of your duty at Daily Times by Gen Babangida, who is your friend?
The issue of why I was sacked at Daily Times, I don’t think I was told what happened. But I only assumed. It was not something I dealt with extensively in the book. I would be speculative by doing so.
But I suspect I was removed because there were people around IBB who didn’t want him to hand over in 1991. And the fear is that my views about handover would be in conflict with theirs. I explained in my book that the President and I sat down and talked after I was removed. He said I exceeded his expectations on the job.
He said I did well. We are still very good friends. I visit Minna. I would take a copy of the book to him in Minna. There are some things I said in the book he might not like. But I had to say them.
The President always respected my views. When Obasanjo was leaving, I told him not to vie for the position. I asked him why he wanted to go back there. He looked at me and said Yemi you have not changed, you always told me the way you felt at Daily Times and that is what I am seeing here. I said thank you.
He said I was the first person to tell him not to do it. And he reminded me of things I had told him in the past about certain policies. I told him has done his best and should not waste his money on vying for the presidency. And he was so grateful.
For instance, the SAP riot was the most difficult part of my career in the industry because IBB is my personal friend. But as Managing Director of Daily Times, my professional calling required me to hold government to account.
Holding government to account and maintaining my relationship with President Babangida were the toughest aspects of my career in the media. I needed to balance it. It wasn’t peculiar to me. Mohammed Heikal was the editor of the biggest paper in Egypt, Alharam.
He and then Prime Minister of Egypt, Abdel Nasser, were best of friends. He wrote a book called The Road to Ramadan. He was asked how he managed his relationship with Nasser and still functioned as an effective editor of Alharam.
And he explained that he managed it. Military guys wanted total loyalty. That was what I learned quickly on the job. Politicians understand that you need to hold government to account, but the military guys want total loyalty.
That was something I had to contend with throughout my career in the media, especially as the Managing Director of Daily Times. It was tough. Babatunde Jose called it walking a tight rope. I called it walking on eggshell. It was a tough job, but people didn’t see that.
They only saw the glamour of the office. The tough job was how to hold the government to account and maintain a rapport with that same government that put you in office. At the Guardian where I was for a longer period, it was a piece of cake. But at Daily Times, the buck stopped at my table.
For instance, when the SAP riot broke out and Benin was on fire, Ogbeha was the governor. It was terrible. On that day, I had left the office when the Editor, Onyema Ugochukwu, called to know where I was. He said there was a story they had that needed my attention.
He said they were using the story the next day and wanted me to see it before it goes. When I got there, we sat down in the production room and looked at the story. The story was about the destruction in Benin. The prison was destroyed, the palace was affected, and the market was burnt too.
I said the story should lead the paper but the photographs should be taken inside. When I got to the office in the morning, the Vice President, the late Admiral Augustus Aikhomu called me.
He was very harmless but could scream. He screamed, asking why Daily Times would publish such a story. His point was that it was a government paper and shouldn’t have published the story.
I explained to him that we took the story in the interest of government. I said we took it so that at the cabinet, the proponents of SAP would see the need to rejig the policy. I said we did it to help the government know the level of public anger around the policy.
He said in that case, I should be careful. He understood the idea. It was just constant. It was such that Akilu of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, DMI, would call me to say that something had happened. There was a day I was called to sack someone they accused of working for the enemies of the regime.
The late Alex Akinyele was the Minister of Information. There was a time he wrote a letter, saying I should be fired that I was weak and incompetent. We set up a committee to look at the allegation but found nothing against the person they wanted me to sack. Akinyele didn’t like the idea that I didn’t sack the man. I had to fight on. Akinyele came from a Public Relations,PR, background and didn’t understand the workings of the newspaper.
When I was sacked I knew not sacking the man might be one of the reasons. It was just that I didn’t see it coming. They didn’t also like the fact that I had free access to the President. I didn’t need a pass to see the President at the time at Dodan Barracks.
It was a tough three years of my life but I survived it. IBB just couldn’t hold on anymore. He was under pressure to sack me.
You started in academia and ended up in the media as Managing Director of Guardian and Daily Times. You stayed longer at Guardian than Daily Times. You were also relieved of the appointment. Your exit from Daily Times came as a surprise …
I was in Pakistan where I had gone to interview Benazir Bhutto when I was sacked as the Managing Director of Daily Times. At the time I arrived on a Friday morning, I didn’t have a job. When I arrived, I was asked if I was interested in going to Daily Times, and I said no.
Ibrahim Alfa, who was very nice to me, snapped at me and said shut up, do you have a job? I said no. He said they were trying to give me a soft landing. I got my letter of sack on a Friday morning. Ibrahim told me about the Daily Times job in the evening.
Ibrahim was sent on a reconnaissance job. IBB said I should not be given the job without being asked if I would accept it. He didn’t want a situation whereby I would reject the job after they had announced it.
The appointment had also been given to Alfred Okubor, who had accepted it. He was given the job through Aikhomu. The letter was already with Okubor and they wanted to withdraw it. But they wanted to clear it with me so that I don’t end up rejecting it.
IBB had told Ibrahim and Kosheoni, who was Chief of Naval Staff, what to do on Monday at the cabinet meeting. So, at the meeting on Monday, they threw up my name and IBB said I was good for the job.
At that point, IBB said to Aikhomu your man has lost out. Aikhomou said sir but we have given Okubor the letter. IBB said it should be withdrawn. He called Tony Momoh and told him the decision but Tony said he didn’t think I would be a good Managing Director.
Babangida overruled Tony and asked him to announce my name. On Monday morning, I received a call, informing me that I had been appointed as Managing Director of Daily Times. When I was going to pick up my appointment letter, we bought Evening Times at Mobil filling station in Ikeja and saw the story of my appointment in the paper.
When I got to Tony Momoh’s office, he told me he was opposed to my appointment. When I got back to my house, many cars were parked because my sack in Guardian generated so many feelings. There was jubilation in my house when I arrived because Daily Times was big. I was earning the same amount as Ernest Shonekan earned as the Managing Director of UAC.
At the time you left Daily Times, you were in your early 40s. You went ahead to achieve success with Tanus Communications. That is quite amazing, especially when people with such experiences either go into obscurity or retire into penury. How were you able to achieve that?
It was tough. Our turnover when I started printing books for state governments was massive. I do a lot of printing jobs for state governments and agencies. We are still in business. I told myself I was going to start a company and nobody was going to fire me again. The Tanus story is in my book.
I had people who turned their back on me. I had people like John Edozien, who I told I wanted to print his company’s calendars. He said he would give me the job and at the same time, I should become his media consultant. He said that was what I should be doing with my media background.
At that point, I said I would explore the world of media consultancy. From there, I became a consultant for Union Bank, AfriBank, and others. It goes back to what I had said about being nice to people. As Managing Director of Daily Times, I used my position to help people. Some of these people were victims of injustice.
And helping them turned out to be helpful to me when I left the Daily Times. I started printing calendars and diaries for companies, which was a big business at the time. The story here is that you must be nice to people.
It doesn’t cost anything to be nice because life is too short. I could have used the position to destroy lives. My business picked up quickly through the help I got from being nice to people. I also owe it to discipline. I don’t live above my means.