Sunday, March 28, 2021 1:00 pm
By Lanre Arogundade
Femi Ojudu and I belong to what is now famously referred to as the Great Ife (University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University) golden 80s generation.
The idea of the golden 80s is basically about the fact that it was an era of vibrant campus life, exemplified by radical and revolutionary students’ activism and robust students’ engagement – or if you like, confrontation with campus authorities and the powers that be.
Even students’ social clubs were part of that vibrancy and together with the students’ union as well as leftist students’ bodies like the Alliance of Progressive Students to which I belonged were responsible for countless symposiums, lectures and debates at which polemical war of ideas were waged. Politicians came to such events only to get knocked out of their political dumbness by well read and very informed students.
But another evidence of that era was the prevalence of campus journals and magazines, such that there was also what was called the Association of Campus Journalists and it was at this front that I can recollect that our path first crossed, even if at some distance. Femi was a prominent member of Parrot Magazine while I was a member and vendor for the left leaning Combatant and Petals magazines. I speak of the period between 1980 and 1984.
Campus journalism was indeed a major factor in the vibrancy of campus life in the era under reference. The magazines always took on the university authorities whenever they engaged in excesses such as the violation of the rights of students to decent living and studying environment; they were always at daggers drawn with lecturers who engaged in unacceptable behavior such as sexual molestation of students and they equally beamed search light on fellow students who engaged in behavior considered to run against the norms and values of an academic citadel of great Ife heights.
Now, and perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, one could say that involvement in campus journalism laid the foundation for our generation’s career in the media upon graduation from Great Ife. And this represents the second level of our relationship. Thus, while the likes of Femi Ojudu, Dapo Olorunyomi, Owei Lakemfa, Wale Ajao, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu etc, took up employment at The Guardian Newspapers. Tony Iyare headed to The Platform and would much later pioneer online newspapering with the introduction of Gleaner NewsOnline. Bolaji Adebiyi got employed at The Citizen while Sam Omatseye, Dele Momodu, etc, turned to Concord where I later worked. But I started my own journalism career at The Republic newspapers, Lagos along the likes of Edmond Enaibe, who also graduated from Great Ife.
It must be said that the mid to late 1980s also witnessed the movement to the media of other erstwhile students’ unionist and activists irrespective of whether or not they were involved in campus journalism. Among such were the likes of Kayode Komolafe who also made his journalism debut at The Guardian after graduating from the University of Calabar; Chris Mamah who went to The Punch from University of Calabar and Tunji Bello, Ayo Aluko-Olokun and Gbenga Amusan from the University of Ibadan who worked at Concord Newspapers. The late Abdulrahman Black, who was rusticated from Ahmadu Bello University by Professor Ango Abdulahi worked at Nigerian Economist, Labaran Maku at Champion and Okey Ekeocha at Platform after their respective graduations from University of Jos and University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
Coming from either radical or leftist campus background, it was not accidental that this generation played a major role in laying the foundation for what later became known as journalism of social relevance in the Nigerian society. Around 1988, Femi Ojudu, who although did not belong to leftist or radical organizations at Ife, teamed up with a group led by some of the ex-students’ activists mentioned above including myself at a gathering at the then National Secretariat of the Nigeria Labor Congress to form The Progressive Journalists Association. The association initially wanted to be a socialist front in the Nigeria Union of Journalists, but the need to have a broader front of intervention invariably led to the dropping of the ‘socialist’ toga and the embrace of The New Trend Platform.
The New Trend platform took the Lagos Council of NUJ by storm when in 1989 it elected the dynamic leadership of Ladi Lawal, Tunji Bello, Richard Akinnola, Kayode Komolafe, Bong Ita, Niyi Bankole, Dagogo Jack etc. It later extended its foray to the national level with the subsequent election of Sani Zoro as the National President of NUJ.
But the New Trend also operated at the level of the local chapels and Femi Ojudu, a member of the nascent movement, served as Chairman of the Concord Chapel before he moved on to TheNews Magazine alongside Bayo Onanuga, Dapo Olorunyomi, Kunle Ajibade, Idowu Obasa, Seye Kehinde and others. Bayo Onanuga and Femi Ojudu had actually left the Concord Newspaper after a principled disagreement with Bashorun MKO Abiola, who had wanted the African Concord editors to apologize to General Ibrahim Babaginda over an edition of the magazine that he found unpalatable.
The NUJ Chapel that was subsequently established at TheNews Magazine embraced the New Trend’s philosophy while the magazine as an institution supported freedom of the press and the wider human rights of Nigerians.
TheNews Magazine fought abuse of power by the military and the later civilian government which obviously explained why it had to run into troubled waters with the powers that be at different points in time. Femi Ojudu along with other editors of the magazine invariably found themselves in military detentions and the campaign for their freedom was one of the cardinal tasks that confronted the leadership of the Lagos state Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalist under my chairmanship from 1995 to 1999.
When later the same Lagos Council of NUJ came under the onslaught of the military regime and its agents TheNews Magazine provided moral and material support to ensure that we survived the dark period.
But in order to survive the relentless onslaught of the Abacha regime, Femi Ojudu and his colleagues at TheNews/Tempo had to devise what became known as guerrilla journalism. It was a journalism genre hitherto unknown in the country but one that ensured that the editors and reporters operated underground but still managed to hit the newsstands with pro-democracy and anti-military reports in that unique period in the history of Nigeria.
Meanwhile, the role that TheNews media family played in the fight against military dictatorship and its historical contribution to the restoration of democracy could also be situated in the context of the human rights background of the founders.
In this regard and we are now looking at the third level of relationship, it is worth mentioning that Femi Ojudu was a foundation member of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) just like my humble self.
The precursor of CDHR was actually the Beko Ransome-Kuti led Free Femi Aborisade Committee which was formed to fight for the release from one-year detention of Femi Aborisade, the then editor of the Labour Militant – a socialist newspaper which now goes by the name Socialist Democracy. It was when the Ibrahim Babangida regime which held Aborisade started jailing many more activists that Femi Falana at one of the meetings of Free Femi Aborisade Committee suggested the need for an all-embracing platform. The idea and name of Committee for the Defence of Human Rights was there and then agreed upon.
Invariably by the time the struggle against continued military rule peaked in the early to mid 90s particularly with the struggle for the validation of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by Bashorun MKO Abiola, people like Femi Ojudu were operating at the levels of human rights and pro-democracy movement as well as journalism.
I would soon be reunited with the TheNews magazine family shortly after my tenure as NUJ Chairman in 1999 when the International Press Centre (IPC) was established and I was to become the pioneer Coordinator.
This takes us to the fourth level of relationship with Femi Ojudu that I should attest to in this brief narrative. This is the realm of media development and capacity building of which The News magazine family were early pioneers through the establishment of the Independent Journalism Centre (IJC). IJC, while it existed, organized series of trainings especially on investigative journalism while it hosted seminars on press freedom and rights of journalists. IJC was actually the first Nigerian media support group to belong to the International Freedom of Exchange, a global platform for defending freedom of expression.
It also happened that when a group of international media and freedom of expression organizations comprising International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Sans Frontiers, Article 19 and West African Journalists Association approached the European Union for a grant to implement a Media-for-Democracy in Nigeria project, IJC alongside Media Rights Agenda and Journalists for Democratic Rights were chosen as Nigerian partners.
The project sought the review of Media laws, worked for an access to information law and established a media resource centre named International Press Centre. The representatives of the three Nigerian partners of the Media for Democracy project serve as board members of IPC and that was how after Sola Isola and Idowu Obasa, Femi Ojudu became a board member of the organization as representative of IJC.
So in short, my relationship with Femi has come a long way and in varied forms. Both on the professional and political planes, our paths seem fated to always converge. But since 1999, more of this convergence seems to have happened more often on the professional than the political plane and this is connected to the situation following return to civil rule. On the eve of the 1999 general elections, a question arose in the ranks of the community of pro-democracy activists: what form should the post-military rule Nigeria take and whether a capitalist economy superintended by irredeemably corrupt and self-serving ruling elite in civilian garbs could satisfy the aspirations of the working masses who rose up against the military because they saw in their desire for democratic rule the prospect of a better life. The answers each constituent part of the movement gave to these questions determined their subsequent sojourn on the political turf. And it is good to note that in his political career so far, including serving as a Senator, Femi has not been associated with scandals characteristic of Nigerian political elite. Suffice to say that nearly two decades after, history is yet to have a final say on who was right or wrong. No doubt in the fullness of time, the history of the period which is still unfolding even now would be written. Perhaps a chapter of that history could be titled: the fifth level of my relationship with Femi Ojudu.
Lanre Arogundade is the Director of International Press Centre (IPC), Lagos-Nigeria. A socialist, trade unionist, human rights activist, journalist and media development specialist, he is a former President of the National Association of Nigerian Students and former Chairman of the Lagos State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists.