By Louis Odion, FNGE
Though sounding casual, it nonetheless caught me completely off-guard, leaving this numbing sensation that reminded me of what a treacherous hammer blow did to my temple back in my amateur boxing days.
Yet, his question was this simple: “What’re your plans for the future, Louis?”
“Abroad”, I mumbled on regaining composure, but hardly able to conceal the shame of being yet incapable of a clear-cut vision of life ahead.
“Abroad?,” he probed further with his accustomed quick smile meant to put me at ease, “To do what?”
While I was still stammering for words that fateful afternoon in late 1991, Mr. Tunji Bello’s interjection was brusque, yet most candid: “Look, you have to understand something. Without sellable skills or good education, most of those rushing abroad end up doing menial jobs like dish-washing at fast food joints. Louis, I see you have great writing talent. Just be focused and diligent in what you do here, the sky’ll be your limit in Nigeria. You don’t have to go abroad and slave.”
And the parting shot: “To go far, you must get university education. You’re still very young.”
Three decades later precisely, the foregoing statements still echo in my ears trenchantly today. I would, in fact, even consider that my own epiphany.
Indeed, as the youthful, affable and influential editor of Concord’s Group Politics desk, coupled with his old affinity with student unionism, Mr. Bello naturally attracted, with gravitational force, the company of youth corps members and Industrial Trainees like myself back then.
In the coming years, he would choose to get intimately involved in my affairs beyond the limits of office, affording me the loyalty of a genuine friend, availing me the fierce protection expected of a true biological elder brother I never had.
The now familiar story of how a little boy without formal training in journalism rose from the humble station of a mere stenographer to become the editor of an esteemed title in Nigeria’s leading media empire within seven years will always sound like a fairy tale.
Let it now be known that the credit for that incredible trajectory belongs largely to none other than Mr. Bello through a decade-long show of uncommon compassion at that “little boy’s” moments of dire need, unstinting solidarity amid countless tribulations at work and instinctive brotherhood during emotional turbulence outside office.
What made this quite significant is the ocean of contrasts yet between us. Indeed, age, tribe, tongue and creed differ. But true generosity of spirit has been characterized as the capacity to give without expecting, to lift those not in position to repay immediately or in the foreseeable future. So, I reckon Mr. Bello’s sustained help along the way could only have been motivated primarily by an abiding genuine love for fellow human beings.
Through the good and bad times later, there are few values I would then imbibe from him. Chief among these is the early realization that talent was not enough; character matters even more.
Inspired by the force of his example, I learnt never to be shy to demand just compensation for my toil, but in no circumstance ever accept any pay for my conscience. I also learnt the nobility in never staying neutral during moral crisis, especially when justice is involved. That, above all, what makes us family is sometimes not blood, but shared values.
For easier recognition, the moral universe invariably evoked by Mr. Bello’s radical example could, for instance, be readily glimpsed from a zero tolerance for “jeun jeun” or “keske” (PR) stories for politicians or political/business interests under his editorial scrutiny either as head of Group Politics desk or substantive editor of Sunday Concord and later National Concord.
Like Joseph Putlizer, the media immortal, he believes the moral obligation of journalism to the society is to always speak for the voiceless, siding unmistakably and unreservedly with the weak and vulnerable.
So, anyone who filed a report that reeked of even the faintest trace of that pecuniary odor by headline or content risked being summarily slapped with heavy fine of several barrels of “OPEC” (also code-named “Operation 1759”) on behalf of “the masses” of Nigeria, redeemable instantly to “The Secretariat” over which Mr. Bello himself presides as Life President, deputized by Comrade Kayode Komolafe, with yours sincerely as the dutiful “Secretary General”. (Well, for the benefit of the uninitiated, more clarity on this “OPEC” later.)
Before our life-changing conversation of 1991, I must confess that I had caught the prevailing affliction of young impressionable Nigerians of the 80s and 90s to “check out”, acutely impatient with the moment.
Arriving Lagos at age 18 in the late summer of 1991 from Federal Polytechnic, Ado-Ekiti, I was literally bare, with no connection whatsoever. Then, Concord Press offered me a place to undertake the mandatory Industrial Training having obtained National Diploma in Secretarial Administration. I only needed a toe-hold in Concord to unleash my energies.
All along, amateur boxing had offered a vent to relieve a certain restless vigor I felt in my body. While writing expressed the poetry I heard from my soul.
Now under the Concord climate, I chose not to be limited to the stenographic corner. Within two weeks of being assigned to Sunday Concord, I got a feature story published.
Surprised that the type-written copy had no single error, Mr. Sunday Alabi (then the deputy editor) initially wondered if I had copied it from somewhere.
His doubts however vanished the next week when I turned in another “clean copy”. He then mentioned my “exploits” to the editor, Mr. Dele Alake, who generously approved that my name be added to the “weekly transport claims” paid journalists as incentive.
Naturally, I began to spread my wings to the daily title. So, in a good week, Comrade Lanre Arogundade could publish up to two or three of my writings as Features editor. While Mrs. Ewaen Osarenren and Mr. Taiwo Ogundipe also “accommodated” me in the “Midweek Concord” Section.
So much that, one day, the daily editor, Mr. Nsikak Essien, invited me to his office and said something that almost made me cry: “Louis, well done. I note your hard work. You write so well. But I understand you don’t yet have a degree. Go get admission to the university and I’ll get Concord management to give you scholarship.”
While growing “fame” was in itself already intoxicating, all these bylines also translated to big money for me monthly once I filed claims…
That indeed was the small world of little “fortune and fame” I was becoming rather contented with until my path crossed Mr. Bello’s.
The June 12 crisis of 1993 would disrupt Concord’s fortunes. When Mr. Bello was mandated by the management to pilot Daily News leased from Lateef Jakande (following the proscription of Concord by Babangida), Mr. Bello shortlisted me among the “Dream Team” boasting arguably the cream of Concord’s editorial army, even though I wasn’t yet a graduate.
And when Concord was restored following Abacha coup of November 17, 1993, he influenced the regularisation of my appointment as a correspondent on Concord’s Group Politics desk against company policy requiring a minimum of first degree/HND to enter the editorial cadre.
Overall, it is impossible to work under him and not become infected by his critical spirit, this passion for social justice and contempt for power. His leadership style was charismatic. Designations were merely for administrative convenience as far as meeting editorial targets was concerned. Everyone proof-read for the other. We were always locked in intellectual jousts all the time, punctuated by raucous banters. That formidable faculty included Sam Omatseye, Victor Ifijeh, Jonas Agwu, Gboyega Amonboye, Abdulwarees Solanke and Idowu Bakare.
Though the leader, Mr. Bello was never too proud to allow his juniors take a second look at his writings and criticise freely before the scripts were passed for production. That way, he imbued subordinates like us with a self-confidence, the strength of conviction to hold our ground anywhere.
That charismatic leadership would, however, come under severe test when MKO was clamped in jail and Concord encountered difficult times. The management relied on him to talk to a number of editorial staff like us to abandon better remunerations elsewhere (THISDAY) and return to Concord after the second proscription by Abacha that lasted whopping eighteen months.
He returned as the new editor of Sunday Concord.
Even as salaries grew more irregular, our dedication to duty remained unflinching. For keeping the wheel of production running despite great odds, special tribute should however be accorded all those who ensured the river of “OPEC” continued to run deep in its dark viscosity. (Those still insistent on further divulging of this highly classified professional secret are hereby excused to proceed by themselves and yank off the scanty apron now left on the visage of the proverbial masquerade.) Of course, that brew communion or “Operation 1759” was sometimes first grounded with “solid minerals” (agriculturally termed “bitter collar”), supplied exclusively by Comrade KK.
Conversely, it took the same ensuing “hard times” in Concord for me to feel the depth of Mr. Bello’s own personal generosity and loyalty. The period coincided with when I had enrolled for a degree programme at UNILAG. It was only natural that his accustomed fraternal airs as leader also helped foster family spirit in Sunday Concord. That birthed deep fellow-feeling.
In my Year 1 at UNILAG, for instance, all my drama text-books came from Sam Omatseye’s library. When I had to rent an apartment close to the office for convenience, the rent was provided by the editor while donation from Yomi Idowu partly helped furnish it. When the rents expired, Mr. Bello was also kind enough to fix me up in an apartment owned by his father-in-law, now late Pa Meschak Ibidapo.
Schooling full-time and working full-time was quite grueling. Meaning I had to endure a choking schedule virtually round the clock, for six days in a week, for four years on end, without a car, thereby learning the true meaning of responsibility early in life.
Even more challenging was the attack that came in the office at some point. Fresh from school one afternoon, I was summoned to the editor’s office.
After waving me to one of the two seats before his huge mahogany desk that day, he took me into confidence about a new development.
Two of my senior and far older colleagues had knifed me savagely before him. Apparently unaware of the bond between us, they went to complain that my concurrent full-time schooling was “clearly against company policy” and affecting my productivity.
“Well,” he continued in a conspiratorially low tone, lest his secretary – a very lanky man with mischievous smile – in the ante-room could eavesdrop, “I just called you to tell you not to worry in case you received any query from them. I can tell what you’re presently going through is tough. But rest assured that as long as I remain editor here, your job is secure.”
Without Mr. Bello’s protection at that critical moment, I probably would have been forced to withdraw midway from UNILAG. The other option would be to continue but quit the job providing financial support, however little and irregular.
When my friend and “co-conspirator”, Segun Adeniyi, had to migrate to THISDAY early in 1999, Mr. Bello’s emotional pain of losing a good hand was palpable. His apprehension seemed worsened by the suspicion that Segun might have “sweet-talked” me to join him.
To be doubly sure, the editor quickly recommended to the management to make a preemptive counter-offer. On a single day, I was promoted by three steps to take Segun’s place as Assistant Editor!
The big break came barely six months later. Following Mr. Alake’s nomination as Information Commissioner by Asiwaju Bola Tinubu in June 1999, Mr. Bello was named the new editor of National Concord. His erstwhile deputy in the Sunday title, Comrade KK, was promoted the editor. Now, a vacancy opened for deputy editor of Sunday Concord.
When the management eventually met, I happened to be among the shortlist of five. The story was told that, while most members considered me hardworking and obviously the youngest, the issue of my coming in with OND came up and was going to count decisively against me.
From what I heard, it was Mr. Bello who then informed the management that I had not just recently bagged a degree from UNILAG but also came out with Second Class Upper (2.1).
That was it!
No sooner had the management meeting ended than the news of my elevation hit the airwaves like a hurricane. As it filtered into my own ears, what echoed back were the words Mr. Bello had uttered eight years earlier about the necessity of higher education.
In the final analysis, the big point should not be lost. When the golden opportunity came, possession of a degree meant I could seize the moment effectively.
In the parlance of practising Christians, destiny-helper describes a God-send. Looking back to my own desperate hour of need, I can’t think of anyone more qualified to be so described today than Mr. Bello.
*Mr. Odion is the Senior Technical Assistant on Media to the President. Being excerpts from a new book, “In Pursuit of the Public Purpose – Essays in Honour of Tunji Bello at 60”.