By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, it is often said that God will not come down from heaven to help anyone, but he will always send someone in the form of an angel to do so. Let me confess, that, I found one in Mr Mike Awoyinfa, my former boss at the Weekend Concord, from March 1989 to May 1990. For the benefit of those who may not know this quietest of quintessential gentlemen, Mr Mike Awoyinfa is one of the most prolific and exceptionally versatile writers that Nigeria has ever had. A literary guru, with an exceptional and exciting witty writing style, Mike Awoyinfa is a cut above most of our writers. His intelligence and sense of logic demonstrated in his writings are complemented by his bright and engaging personality which those closest to him have enjoyed over the years.
Our paths first crossed around April 1988. This is a story that I have told several times. Since it is one of those stories that defines what I have now become, and also because it is relevant now, as I celebrate Mike Awoyinfa, I will briefly recount the relevant parts of the story. I had travelled from Ile-Ife to Lagos desperately in search of a job. I had just completed my Master’s thesis in Literature-in-English at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, after a first degree in Yoruba at the University of Ife (1982). My dream was to be a Scholar/lecturer, but for some reasons which I need not elaborate upon now, it became an impossible mission. In frustration, I was advised to engage in freelance writing as a way of inching myself up the Nigerian journalistic ladder. I started to work freelance for two major newspapers with relative minimal compensation. The Guardian in Lagos was paying N25 per article. The Sunday Tribune in Imalefalafia Ibadan paid nothing, but I was happy with the exposure I was getting, the contacts that I was making, and the experience that came with it. These were invaluable.
It was during this period that I travelled to Lagos again in search of greener pastures. I had hoped to get a job at The Guardian, but it soon became clear that this was a mirage. I was then advised by my friend, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, of blessed memory, to explore the possibility of being offered employment at the African Concord magazine. I immediately seized upon the advice and visited the offices of African Concord magazine, where I met the Editor, Mr Lewis Obi, and I was instantly offered employment. I already knew it was only a matter of time before I got a decent job in journalism because of the work that I was already doing, and I was prepared to wait patiently for this to happen. Prior to that visit, I had begun to make a name for myself as a writer and was becoming well known in journalistic circles. The offer of appointment was therefore partly a result of my growing reputation. During that trip, and after the job offer, the adventurous spirit in me led me to the Features Desk of the National Concord which was headed by Mr Mike Awoyinfa. On meeting me, Mr Awoyinfa instantly engaged me to write a feature for him which I obliged excitedly and proudly. I believe our mutual love for books and music also got us glued to each other. His inspirational and effervescent style of writing also endeared him to me and was an inspiration for me. He has a simple and effective way of communicating. Not enamoured with the use of grandiose and grandiloquent words unless they communicate his intentions and feelings more. Some of the way that he writes has influenced my way of writing too.
Even though I was a Staff Writer at the African Concord magazine, I was simultaneously contributing to other publications under the Concord Group, periodically, such as the National Concord, Sunday Concord, Isokan, Business Concord, and before long, I had become a star writer within the Concord Group and a household name in the public domain. This pattern of writing for the other Titles in the Concord Group stable had been kicked off by that first Feature story commissioned by Mike Awoyinfa at the beginning of my time at African Concord.
In early 1989, barely seven months after resuming at the African Concord, Mr Lewis Obi called me to drop a bombshell. He said a new publication to be called Weekend Concord was being launched and the Management was poaching some of the best writers in the business to start the new tabloid. I had been considered one of the best writers in the Concord Group and earmarked for reassignment and redeployment to the new tabloid which was to be headed by Mike Awoyinfa as the Editor. To say the least, I was both disappointed and apprehensive particularly as I was told that I had no choice in the matter. This element of coercion in the job put me off completely. For a Scholar, I preferred writing for what I believed was a serious journal like African Concord. I felt it was a come down and demotion to become a writer for a tabloid like the Weekend Concord was planned to be.
Unknown to me, my destiny was heavily tied to Weekend Concord, and I would become a globally renowned and highly reputed and respected journalist because of the experience and expertise gained from being a star writer at the Weekend Concord. We spent some weeks planning our maiden Edition. Mr Awoyinfa insisted we must launch it with a bang, so we needed a banger of a debut cover, what he called a major scoop. He was the right man to direct the affairs of the weekend paper because he had a nose for stories and knew exactly what the people wanted to be served at the weekend.
Mr Awoyinfa sent me out in search of that extraordinary story. It was like traveling in the wilderness in search of the unknown. I dreamt up many ideas, but none was easy to activate and actualise. However, mercifully and eventually, I got my major scoop from an interview with Mrs Laide Soyinka who was the Chief Librarian at the Olabisi Onabanjo University, in Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State. I also got another exclusive interview with Ilemakin Soyinka, the son of the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka.
On my return to the office, my boss was floating in the skies, very excited that I had gotten enough stories to last us the first three weeks.
It would be difficult to find another Editor in the league of Mr Awoyinfa, who was also lucky to have his best friend, Mr Dimgba Igwe, of blessed memory, a prose stylist, as his Deputy. Dimgba and I shared the same birthday, 16 May which probably also made us soulmates at Weekend Concord. There were also a few crack newshounds like Omololu Kassim, Aliu Mohammed and others as backup. We met our launch target of March 4, 1989. To say we took Nigeria by storm would be an understatement. Week after weeks and month after months, we broke new grounds and our circulation figures increased uncontrollably. We soon hit 250,000 copies in a jiffy. Only the shortage of newsprint curtailed and slowed down our growth in the circulation stakes. My boss could have claimed all the glory, but he was humble enough and he regularly praised my talents and uncommon nose for news to high heavens. He did not stop there, he backed up his generous words with kind promotions. Within two months, he recommended me for double promotions, straight from being a Staff Writer to Literary Editor, in May 1989. And barely six months after, in November 1989, I became News Editor, which made me the number three man in the hierarchy at Weekend Concord. My life in Lagos was absolutely surreal. In under two years, I had become the darling of my employers, Chief Moshood Abiola, our Chairman, and his highly cerebral wife, Dr Mrs Doyinsola Hamidat Abiola, the Managing Director. The only snag was that I had reached my peak so soon and there was no more room at the top as far as the Concord Group was concerned. It was Mike Awoyinfa’s effusive praise and appreciation of the work I was doing for Weekend Concord that made me become the cynosure of all eyes not just in the group and the media world but also in celebrity circles. I was already well known in those circles because of acquaintances I had made through family, friends and at the university but this snowballed because of what I was doing at Weekend Concord. Mike Awoyinfa was prepared for me to hug the limelight, notwithstanding that I was his subordinate and using his platform. It is the measure of the immense man that he is, that he recognised the star that he was nurturing and was only too eager to support and advance my career in every way possible. I guess he knew he was birthing a star journalist.
This was the period something monumental fell on my laps. I got an invitation to have a discussion with the highly spirited Publisher of Classique magazine, Mrs May Ellen Ezekiel Mofe Damijo, now of blessed memory. MEE as she was fondly called had started a lifestyle journal, but according to her running it was proving problematic because of her vision and other commitments. She needed a competent and confident Editor with the right contacts and connections while she would tackle the issues of marketing and business expansion. She made me an irresistible offer which would instantly catapult me to the pinnacle of my career as Nigeria’s highest paid Editor. While I was busy procrastinating and dilly-dallying, I decided to mention it to Mr Awoyinfa, whom I thought may choose to be selfish because of my utility roles at Weekend Concord, but I was dead wrong. Not only did he congratulate me, but Mr also Awoyinfa personally drove to the Penthouse office of Classique magazine, then at 3 Allen Avenue, Ikeja, and encouraged me to accept the offer immediately. That was it. Our mutual respect for each other grew in leaps and bounds thereafter, and we became like members of the same family. Till this day, our love has never faded. His children are close to me, especially Babajide, who he jokingly told me that he has donated to me because “he likes you too much…”
As “my Boss for life” celebrates his Platinum jubilee, I humbly plead with everyone reading this piece to kindly rise with your glasses filled with wine, water or juices, and join me in raising a toast to one of Africa’s extraordinary journalists of the 20th and 21st centuries, Mike Awoyinfa…
May Mike Awoyinfa continue to live in good health, happiness and prosperity…