25 Years Ago, Ovation International Magazine Was Born In London – By Dele Momodu

Fellow Africans, I feel so emotional today, please, indulge me as I take you through the trajectory that gave birth to what is now known today as the Ovation Media Group, comprising of a magazine and television, as well as an online newspaper, The Boss. I just can’t imagine that a quarter of a century has already passed, just like that. The journey has been long, but the story itself is even longer. The saga of how I meandered my ways into London in July 1995 is no longer news. I must have told and retold it on many different platforms a million times! I make bold to say that it is a unique and veritable lesson for most aspiring young journalists and would be politicians. I therefore offer no apologies for repeating it here again. However, because this is not the thrust of my epistle today, let me just summarise it for the sake of those who were not yet born at the time and may not be aware of the politico-military pestilence that hit Nigeria like a brutal tornado, an unrelenting and unremitting tropical storm, at the time.

On June 12, 1993, a Presidential election was conducted by the Babangida government. It was a straight fight between two business moguls, Chief Moshood Abiola and Alhaji Bashir Tofa. The election was adjudged the best and freest in the history of elections in Nigeria. The winner was undoubtedly Chief Abiola. The results were never announced officially, although the full results had been compiled by the electoral umpire of the time, the National Electoral Commission (NEC), the precursor to today’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and published by most newspapers. Some Smart Alec thought that by adding ‘Independent’ to the name of the body, it would suddenly become independent. Get real! There is nothing in a name. Now we know that the nomenclature may be slightly improved, but the antics and tactics remain the same. Shame on all those Czar’s that have held sway at the helm of affairs of our electoral body, apart from possibly Prof Attahiru Jega. Anyway, I digress. Unfortunately, the military leadership at the time, based on whatever possessed them, decided to annul the election, after the event. It was generally believed that an immensely powerful group of Army Generals and their civilian collaborators connived and conspired to rob Chief Abiola of his unprecedented victory. That is a tale I have also told a few times, but the gory details have never really been revealed. This is definitely a story for another day.

I was deeply involved in the political denouement that played out at the time, not only because I had become a senior journalist in Chief Abiola’s stable of newspapers, but also because I had become close to the colossus himself and I was one of his trusted aides. I was not a thoroughbred politician but boasted of socio-welfarist credentials at the time. I was not overly impressed with the Nigerian military or the politicians that shamelessly thronged around them like flies and fleas.

Once the freest and fairest elections were annulled, I could not like other fair-weather friends and acquaintances, abandon, desert or let down my boss and “adopted father”, Bashorun MKO Abiola. I decided to get involved in pro-democracy activities which landed me in detention in Lagos and, later, exile in England.

The main story for today is about what happened in the city of London after navigating my way from Lagos to Cotonou to Lome to Accra and eventually to London. I had been a relatively frequent visitor to London since the 1980s, but I was never tempted to abscond and disappear into thin air like many visitors often do. Despite some challenges, life was generally good and sweet in Nigeria, until the military boots decided to step and march on our necks! So, despite the imminent dangers I faced in my dear beloved country, it never occurred to me that one day I will make the United Kingdom my veritable home until my first cousin Segun Fatoye opened my slumbering eyes to stark realities. He had asked me what I would be doing to keep body and soul together now that it was clear that I would be in exile for some time. To be honest, I had no idea and didn’t even contemplate such. He then volunteered a suggestion, which was later developed with my brother and great friend, Damola Aderemi, in a basement bedroom in their maisonette home at Rowley Way Estate, on Abbey Road, London, that would change the course and direction of African celebrity journalism in a ground-breaking and remarkable manner, forever. That was how the seed of Ovation International magazine was planted in me. Against all odds and, in particular, a chronic lack of sufficient funding for the mega dream and vision that we shared, we braved the odds to start. That is another story. I’m eternally grateful to all those who came to my rescue.

The first copy of the maiden issue of Ovation International magazine rolled off the press in April 1996. It was a miracle. Again, I must thank all the dare-devil friends and colleagues who made this feat possible. We managed to produce a masterpiece with Mohammed Al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods at the time, on the Cover. By the time this premiere edition came out and we delivered copies to his office, he was so impressed that he sent us bottles of wine, champagnes and some chocolates, and above all a powerful letter of appreciation. It was the first indication that Ovation was going to be a great and huge success.

Our maiden edition contained populist stories of the commendable successes of African businessmen and businesses that would ultimately gain traction across Africa and beyond as the real African story. We can rightly and proudly assert to say that Ovation was the trail blazer for showcasing and celebrating the riches of men and women of Africa and African descent which some non-African magazine franchises have now enhanced by having a separate section and journal to deal with these personalities. Indeed, our first cover was on some African billionaires, including Al Fayed from Egypt; Chief M. K. O Abiola, leading a long list of Nigerian moneybags; Mr Amadou Samba of The Gambia; Dr James O. Onobiono of Cameroun; Daniel Asafo of Ghana, the Olympio Brothers, Salomon, Nathaniel, Harry, John and Alberto from Gabon and others.

We ran a controversial story on 100 stormy Nigerian women which became the major topic for gossips. The women included Mrs Bolajoko Kuforiji-Olubi, Chief Mrs Opral Benson, Mrs Florence Ita-Giwa, Ms Jennifer Uju Madike, Mrs Daisy Danjuma, Mrs Julie Coker, Mrs Maria Sokenu, Lady Grace Egbagbe, Mrs Bianca Onoh-Ojukwu, Hajia Laila Dongoyaro, Mrs Ronke Dalley Ayuba, Prof Grace Alele-Williams, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, Mrs Morounkeji Okunowo, Mrs Titi Ajanaku, Lady Onyeka Onwenu, Mrs Christie Essien-Igbokwe, Regent Omotunde Adelabu, Senator Franca Afegbua, Erelu Abiola Dosunmu, and so many distinguished names. It practically sold out the magazine because we paraded who’s who in the Nigerian social scene. The very first article (under the column called “Good Day Africa” on page three was penned by my journalism hero and inspiration, Mr Sonala Olumhense, from New York. My great friend, Onukaba Adinoyi-Oyo, an extremely gifted writer, now of blessed memory, wrote about the struggle for power in ‘Somalia: Fragments of a Nation…’ Who could have imagined Nigeria would one day go through a similar, if not worse situation, as we are doing today? I can never forget these lines in the story: “It is easier to find an AK47 than a loaf of bread in a typical Somali home…”

We had a story on famous Pastors, including Pastors Tunde Bakare, Reverend Francis Wale Oke, Pastor Agu Irukwu, the Odulele Twins, Albert and Vincent, Reverend Matthew Ashimolowo and different Nigerian and Ghanaian Pastors. The story was authored by Ms Pauline Walley.

Famous broadcast journalist, Mr Mani Onumonu, interviewed Mrs Lola Ayanrinde, the first African female Conservative Councillor in the UK, representing Wandsworth. We culled a story from The Spectator, which was written by Ms Zulikat Wuraola Abiola, titled ‘Let My Father Go.’ We never anticipated that Chief Abiola would later die in prison.

My old school friend at the University of Ife, Juwon Ogungbe, wrote a column called ‘Pleasure’, on music and entertainment. There were stories on Fela, Manu Dibango, Yousour N’Dour, Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, Hugh Masekela and others. Weird MC was also featured.

I wrote a story on Buckingham University as an African University where children of rich and famous Africans schooled. His Excellency Judge Bolasodun Adesumbo Ajibola, a Prince of Owu in Egbaland, was conferred with the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa and, guess what, the Rt. Hon. Baroness Margaret Thatcher of Kesteven, KG, was in attendance. Ajibola’s children Segun (now a SAN), Ademola, Akinmade, and their sister, Mrs Modupe Afikuyomi all read Law at the same Buckingham University. Judge Ajibola’s citation was read by another distinguished Nigerian, Dr Olufemi Elias, son of Justice Taslim Olawale Elias, Former Chief Justice of Nigeria and President of the International Court of Justice who is himself a renowned international Public International law lawyer. The graduation ceremony paraded many Nigerians at the Bachelors and Masters levels, including Ms Olayinka Aina, Ms Iyabo Olayinka Ogunseye, Ms Bilikisu Rimi, Ms Hakeemat Iyadunni Segun-Oki and Abdul Rashid Waziri. Ms Olufunke Olatokunboh Onitiri bagged a first class in Law. There were so many Nigerians in the school.

Popular Nigerian journalist, Alaba Yusuf wrote an exciting column. My former colleague at the Concord Press of Nigeria, Larry Echiejile (now known as Larry Izamoje) wrote our beautiful Sports section beginning with ‘The All-time Goals’. George Opong Weah (now President of Liberia) was prominently featured.

We had a page for Property of the month, in which we featured the magnificent home of then Managing Director of Alpha Merchant Bank, Otunba Olujimi Adebisi Lawal. Chief Femi Alafe-Aluko, a property and real estate guru also authored a property column for us. Okagbue Aduba not only wrote the beautiful story on The Rising Profile of South African Women, but he also helped tremendously in production. We had our resource persons in Princess Funmi Ayandokun, Princess Moradeun Solanke, Badou Diop, Mrs Tayo Agunbiade, Mr Francis Kokutse, Mr Segun Adebayo (Photographer), Mr Sanya Ojikutu, Mr Kunle Bakare, Mr Sylvester Mbou, and others.

But the main clincher for us was the cover story written by the celebrated author, Ike Okonta, titled JUST DREAM. Just imagine a poor being, an irreverent committed idealist and non-conformist, let loose on Harrods, one of the most exotic and expensive shops in the world. It would be harrowing and galling, yet wonderful and awesome in its glamour and glitz! That was the traumatic experience Ike Okonta enjoyed, or suffered, as he explored the gilt, ostentation and razzmatazz of all that Harrods had to offer. Ike wrote:

“Nothing comes cheap at Harrods, true. But one endearing side to this hymn to opulence is that it has a place for the very affluent and also for those who aspire to affluence. You can pick up a Cartier diamond watch for twenty thousand pounds. But take a walk to the next counter and you can just as easily pick up another, silver though, for about two hundred pounds. And it will take a tested connoisseur to detect the difference. At Harrods, the watchword is good taste.
“Time flies. But you hardly notice. You are feeling thirsty. You take the escalator to the ground floor to slake your thirst with a cold beer. But you pause as you notice the price-tag. At Harrods, you just must pause. But then you are just as quickly seduced by the beauty of it all, the understated elegance, the power, the aura.

“Harrods is the world, minus its poverty and sadness…”

It would be nice to be able to reproduce some of these stories someday. There is a lot of history, not only in the facts recounted in the stories but also in the life and times of the prodigious and prolific authors and contributors that have graced the pages of this magnificent, majestic and monumental magazine, even if I say so myself. Sadly, some of the personages and authors alike have passed on to the great beyond and I pray for the sweet repose of their souls.

It is noteworthy to tell you one of the best things that happened to us at the beginning. It was the visit by Prince Nduka Obaigbena and the profound advice he left behind: “Dele, make sure Ovation does not die. Do everything to protect and sustain it. Failure has no friend or relatives. I discovered this fact when my magazine, Thisweek, died! Ovation must not die…” These words continue to resonate and reverberate not only in my ears but stridently, obstreperously and endlessly in my heart and mind… (To be continued) …

– Momodu is a respected journalist and publisher of Ovation International magazine

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