Assorted Colours Of The PUNCH As House Of Heroes -By Tunde Akanni, PhD

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A Review of Our Punch Years:Reminiscences of and insider accounts by former editors and staff of Nigeria’s most widely newspaper at 50

*Photo Tunde Akanni, PhD*

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Courtesy

Please Permit me to adopt the already established protocols.

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Most sincerely, I feel immeasurably honoured and deem it pleasurable too, undertaking this assignment.  It’s a call to special service comparable only to that of an uncommon food taster who certifies delicacies fit for most distinguished guests.

Here I am, officially enabled to harvest trans-generational experiences of heroes, lapping up the self-celebratory epithet adopted by one of the contributors, ahead of millions of ambitious readers.  Who will not be anxious for the inside knowledge of many wonders that have happened inside the  newspaper that took root at the towering-spirit inspiring location of Onipetesi as different from a plain or even a valley? From day one perhaps, The Punch had been destined for the heights as we shall get to share more in the course of this presentation.   

Introduction

From the religiously philosophical, to the scientifically analytical, straightforward narration and even poetic rendition, Our Punch Years has reaped reasonably from them all as they betray workplace as learning place as much as being one with chameleonic tendency with the capacity to woo  and wean if not to outrightly frustrate with steely officialdom. The book apes the rainbow with its multiple synthesis of loud colours, all the same

It delightfully adopts what is contrary to what you find in most books. In what seems to be a proactive response to the yearning of members of the reading public’s intermittent but invisible anxiety for the images of the bylines they may have familiarized with, Our Punch Years, parades colourful headshots of all the 38 contributors, including that of Editor Lekan Otufodurin and two ladies, Bosede Olusola-Obasa and Elizabeth Diolulu. These are on no fewer than first seven pages with spaces allocated unevenly. Done  with the photographs, your voyage into the seas of experiences commences.

It finally concludes with a comprehensive list of all past editors Sunday Punch, The Punch and Saturday Punch

In the Beginning

First is that of Innocent Adikwu,former editor Sunday Punch and later, The Punch. Adikwu is an unusual northerner or if you like, middle belter, being Benue born.  The oldest in the pack of the contributors, he began his journalism career at New Nigerian 52 years ago after obtaining his first degree. Opting out of what obviously was his comfort zone, Kaduna, where he had worked for both New Nigerian and Mercantile Press, Adikwu recounts his love for the unmistakably liberal work environment at Punch with accessibility of editors and all the big bosses with the ageless journalism patriarch who later founded Vanguard newspaper, Sam Amuka Pemu, presiding then.

 Adikwu, in the first place, chose to leave New Nigerian as a resentment for disregard for merit by the management of that newspaper.  Together with some of his colleagues, he had been sent to take a News Reporting Course at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Ogba-Lagos and he rounded off with a distinction. But when it was time for promotion, Adikwu’s name was missing on the list. Unable to bear this he left. First, to Mercantile and later The Punch and much later Daily Times.

 But The Punch held an irresistible appeal. In the course of work one day, he had what seemed a bitter disagreement with Uncle Sam and deemed it time to leave Punch. The prized professional promptly landed another job at the prime Daily Times. But he was later dis-armed by Uncle Sam: “He called me and asked for reconciliation.  I remember him telling me that if friends quarreled, they ought to reconcile… I was touched by his magnanimity and humility…Not long after, I was moved up…”(p.38) Accompanying Adikwu’s climb were numerous pleasant experiences including social influence and connections with the high and the mighty in the society.  He recalled that Publisher Aboderin personally introduced him to MKO Abiola. And they both remained very good friends for as long as possible.

In the same first generation  with Adikwu belonged Alhaji Najeem Jimoh who was editor of The Punch from 1984-1989. His was a casual stroll into being hired at The Punch. He was a sub-editor already at Daily Times. Unlike Punch however, the government influence was suffocating and merit took the back seat too. He was no longer enjoying his job and one evening chose to visit his friend of ages, Liad Tella, whose contribution is missing here.  I’m however privy to his forthcoming memoir with robust account of his Punch years.

He asked Liad if there was anything he could do for Punch. Liad made him realise that what was available was rather below him. It was the job of  Night Editor. Najeem did not mind this and thus began his career at The Punch.  Such was the extent that Najeem’s performance endeared him to Aboderin that when Adikwu’s deputy, Soji Akinrinade resigned, Aboderin sought Najeem’s opinion on who should replace Akinrinade. Promptly, he responded that Liad Tella should be. But Aboderin finally settled for Jimoh himself!

The freedom of thought that prevailed at Punch was so seamless and hardly respected anyone. It suddenly became a self-inflicted nemesis during a visit Jimoh undertook to former Industries Minister General Alani Akinrinade, in the company of Publisher Aboderin. Just when they were arriving Akinriade’s place was when he was reading the editorial that had punctured one of the policies he was promoting for the government in which he was serving.  But the deed had been done and was typical of the hard hitting Punch with a chairman that wanted as much freedom as the journalists desired

Jimoh, indeed, passionately recounts that the freedom he enjoyed as the editor was such that he was given the free hand to build a team of his choice. Against the seeming preference of the management for instance, he insisted Demola Osinubi must be his deputy because “he knew the job…was a beautiful writer…could edit, cast headlines, write editorials and could be trusted…had a lot of integrity-ma f’ara kanmi (don’t stain me style of a man).” Jimoh went further to recruit renowned Paul “Sports” Bassey all the way from Chronicle newspaper in Calabar. Passey, according to Jimoh had earned indomitability with his his scintillating features as much as inimitable reporting and analysis of sports. He equally brought in former Patience Akpan, now a professor of Political Science in a top notch American university.

Such is the interminable love Jimoh has till date that he believes that he would have been able to intercede for Punch in government circles during the troublous era of the military government’s attacks against Punch and all.

Sustaining the Tradition Pro-People Journalism

But the Punch’s own cat with nine lives is Joshua Agbeniga, journalist and lawyer. He joined the Punch in 1979 as a State Correspondent but subsequently served in the Circulation and Corporate Affairs departments, thanks to the visionary in Chief Ajibola Ogunsola, ever guided by the philosophy of business decision.

 In line with some popular belief and as it has come to be reinforced very recently by a video clip circulating recently about how much  Rotimi Akeredolu celebrated his deputy’s first and surname, Lucky Ayedatiwa, Agbeniga’s entry into Punch was on a salary envied by his former colleagues at the  Nigerian Tribune.  And there was no stopping Agbeniga till he retired.

It is on record that Agbeniga had the singular honour of making his publisher, Chief Aboderin, assume for him the responsibility of a copy boy at some point. Hear him:

He answered the call. I introduced myself and explained the difficulty I was facing relaying my stories to the newsroom by radiophone. The Chief said: “Hold on.” In about two minutes, his voice returned and said, “Start your story.” This caught me by surprise. I thought he would send for a reporter to be called from the newspaper building, which shared the same compound as his home. I dictated and he scribbled the stories by himself, and assured me that Matthew, his house help, “will take it to your Editor.” I thanked him profusely. May his soul rest in peace.(p67)

Respected Punch Journalist Agbeniga also had his first car, a Peugeot 504, literally awarded to him by a former Military Governor of Oyo State, retired Col Oladayo Popoola. The Governor offered to accompany him  a little out of his  office after an exclusive interview session and shockingly discovered to his amazement that Agbeniga had no car. Thus began the Governor’s process of supporting in this regard.

Even after causing a second hand car to be sold to him for #2,000 he had no money to pay and the company had no facility to advance. Kind hearted Areoye Oyebola, renowned media chieftain and publisher eventually saved the day for Agbeniga. He made his company advance out the needed money as a loan and the car became Agbeniga’s

In addition to fatter allowances apparently far buoyed beyond those of Tribune, Agbeniga found further favours at Punch including being promoted Circulation Manager as well being supported to earn a diploma  in marketing.  On top of all these came in 1986 a six-month foreign training opportunity.  This was at the instance of the Ogun State Council of Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ. Agbeniga made it to Julius Fucik School of Journalism in Prague, Czecholovakia.

At Punch, Agbeniga admitted to having my “rollercoaster ride of good fortune…”(p.74)

Like Agbeniga it later seemed for  Dipo Onabanjo and Sulaiman Osho who joined Punch in 1983 and 1985 respectively and much later Tunde Chris Odediran who enlisted on the workforce in 1994. Far much more for   Gbemiga Ogunleye, interestingly.

Somewhat antithetical to what these threesome experienced were the lots of the duo Olubayo Biodun and Bola Bolawole who is as much religiously philosophical as Olalere Fagbola-also in this account-to keep his soul going, as they say.

Onabanjo merely accompanied Olalere Fagbola to Punch headquarters and hoped that he might be hired. And hired he was, first as a freelancer made to  report from the far flung old Gongola State.  With   consistent exclusive reports emerging as lead stories on the front page, it did not take long for the management to substantiate his employment.  Onabanjo worked himself to such an invaluable height that he was brought to Lagos and later emerged at different times as news edior and acting editor. Like Najeem Jimoh, Punch is so dear to him that his friends who facilitated his entry remains an affectionately even as it was another friend he still cherishes triggered the exit. Onabanjo stayed for as he long as he wished and reigned when he felt he was almost overstaying. He could not conceal his emotion:

A friend led me into The Punch

Another led me out of it

Both friends still tug at my heart

Just like The Punch: Our professional pride (p.83)

Sulaiman Osho like Onabanjo was made to pioneer Punch reporting from Minna as a serving corp member even as he was officially posted to Niger State Government owned radio station for his primary assignment. He reported impeccably and even impressively that he became multiple award winner as a substantive journalist.

From Concord came Tunde Odediran. A former re-write editor for National Concord, Tunde was hired by Punch as news editor and rose to become acting editor for Sunday Punch and much later head of the Abuja Bureau where, fearfully though, he had the privilege of standing in for the publisher at a meeting convened by the dreaded military government of Sani Abacha.  Tunde relished his sojourn at Punch as enabling him to further his reservation for the abuser of the rights of the MKO Abiola as the winner of the historic June 12 1993 presidential election.  Tunde eventually left Nigeria to join the love of his life in the US where he is an Information Technology expert.

Beyond seeking to be employed, Gbemiga Ogunleye was actually invited by Demola Osinubi as the Managing Director.  As if he knew how much folks had tried to persuade Gbemiga against working for Punch, he volunteered: “Let me sell Punch to you”.  He eventually started as features editor and actually carried out substantial reforms, including the introduction of Midweek Special section, apparently to delight of the management. Soon afterwards, Gbemiga was made deputy editor of Punch and soon afterwards, appointed editor thus replacing Tunji Adegboyega of the Cyclone column fame. Gbemiga later rose to the position of deputy editor-in-chief.

 In addition to possessing fine editorial skills, Gbemiga excelled with being a stickler for time combined with being a pleasant people manager, all of these evidenced by the recollections of colleagues also published in the volume in focus here.

Funsho Aina  recalled how he roused Gbemiga at the dead of the night when the former governor and former attorney general of the federation,Chief Bola Ige was murdered. Around 2am, both drove back to the office to ensure Punch was not overtaken on this story by any of its rivals.  They got the story out outstandingly. 

Another contributor here who, like Funsho Aina, had been with Gbemiga on the features desk also celebrated Gbemiga’s power of mediation even as he could be brutally frank. Aremu had disagreed with Gbemiga’s successor as features editor on work matter and he allowed it to fester responding angrily to every query he received from his boss. The boss eventually issued him a warning and the matter was taken to Gbemiga as editor. Gbemiga’s conspicuous admiration for Tunde as “genius” notwithstanding, he registered it boldly on him that there was absolutely nobody in the organization that was indispensable, hence the need for him to defer to his boss. Aremu agreed with the superior wisdom shared by Gbemiga.  For Gbemiga, sweet are the memories of The Punch.

Uncommon Sacrifices

In sharp contrast, for seven years, Bola Bolawole was irritated by newspaper work. According to him, the wisdom his grandma shared with him remains evergreen It warns him strongly against being a betrayer such that you don’t, whatever the temptation may be, become the inhibitor for whoever may have called you to come and eat. Unfortunately that was his interpretation of what he was asked to do at the height of his career at Punch. Like Gbemiga, he too rose to the position of deputy editor-in-chief but was suddenly asked to come assume the position of deputy managing director. He then began wonder on what would be left for his friend, Osinubi, who had invited him to come and chop in the first place. Following persistent pressure, he chose the path of honour by resigning.

Such was the development devastating to BB that he could not return to media writing until seven years later having to yield to his people’s persuasion.

By far the most emotion drawing account for me in the entire collection are those of Tunde Abatan and  Olubayo Abiodun. In a most dramatic manner, Abatan got sacked same day he got letter of commendation for  good performance. Yet he had to go

For Bayo Biodun, his ambition wasn’t just to become a journalist but a Punch journo. At the start, after being signed on, his line editor  kept on slipping his story into the morgue. He complained and editor BB promised to work on it. Finally after they started publishing him as an Insurance beat reporter, even Chairman Ogunshola who is an actuarial scientist, fancied his reportorial style and mentioned it to the MD. He had also managed to forge friendship with Tony Ede, then corporate affairs director of CBN. However, over time, CBN had found certain reports of Punch somewhat offensive.  CBN therefore chose to punish Punch.  This impacted severely on the newspaper.

Meanwhile, Bayo got married. But not long after he was transferred to Abuja. On arriving Abuja, the bureau chief, Tunde Rahman, promptly conscripted him to go appeal to Tony Ede of CBN. The CBN man, out of respect for his relationship with Bayo agreed to resuming the patronage of Punch and even started immediately with some bunch. He added too that he did that hoping the resultant commission would accrue to Bayo.

Unknown to Bayo and all was that there began Bayo’s rites of exit from the company he loved to serve genuinely. Some crooks within the system processed the fat commission and managed to just send an envelope with a paltry sum to Bayo. Thus opened the gate to relentless queries Bayo could not endure as it shattered him emotionally by the day realizing he would be sacked ultimately. Bayo resigned without consulting with anyone including Yusuf Alli, his closest associate then. Even as that was a voluntary decision, Bayo could not help locking himself up in one of the toilets at Punch to cry uncontrollably.

Appreciating the Company

Strikingly, almost all the contributors saluted the management style of Punch which has sustained it till date after enabling it to weather the stormiest era of 1980s as well as those of post June 12 proscription. Most contributors submitted that that even as the management often chooses to be firm on whatever position it never lost its compassion. Olubayo Abiodun with his pitiable experience, for instance, keeps appreciating the compassion of the MD, Osinubi, for approving full tank measure of fuel for him to travel to his home-town  at the height of a phase of fuel scarcity. 

Perhaps more significant than Bayo’s sense of gratitude is Lekan Otufodurin’s. Permit me at this juncture to specially register the fact that Lekan is most deserving of our plaudits for conceptualizing the book of the day. Lekan  believes that but for Punch he could not have come this far as a media development enthusiast. His story: After being duly recognized for good performance over the years, he had been awarded promotion and eventually became Group News Editor. Following an error detected someday by the Chairman however, he was directed to step down. Meanwhile, prior to this development, he had applied for a Thompson Foundation Fellowship in Cardiff. He was offered partial funding but would need to defray some other costs still. He had banked on the Punch. Will they still do this after making him step down?  Not only did MD Demola Osinubi facilitate the needed moral support of the company, he secured sufficient financial support for him as well.

Need for Moderation

Yet another recurrent character of the company manifest in this book in the recollections of contributors is that where discipline is all pervading but leaving the staff with lack of capacity to dispense goodwill even when it may seem indispensable. They are quick to tell you Punch doesn’t publish promo and so forth and if you disregard this and do some sneaking, you should be able to guess what awaits you. But how do you explain the newspaper’s refusal to honour a tribute in honour of a past editor? As a journalism teacher still media active, I remain confounded till date on this.

No less befuddling is the English Language training and testing which unfortunately led to the sack of many reporters. But even highest scorers in the test like Sanya Onayoade were never rewarded. What happened to motivation where there is sanction. The company’s choice of the resource person was not scientific either. Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, will it not be valid to require that the language training and testing should be supportive of media compliant writing? But can anyone also give what s/he doesn’t have? The resource person for the exercise for many years after a thorough Google search never published a single article in the any newspaper. Not even Punch!

Appreciating the Book

Permit me, distinguished gentlemen and ladies, to say that this book has come to offer immense historical information yet so lively in form. It has availed past editorial workers of Punch to formally register their gratitude to the platform that launched a number of them to their current positions.

Providing an indispensable foundation for that is the eloquence of some of the contributors who, by global standard, are worthy journalistic models that some of us as journalism scholars will not hesitate to share with our upcoming ones.

Since that book in honour of Dapo Olorunyomi, arguably Nigeria’s most celebrated living journo, we have all come to terms to the invaluability of celebrating ourselves in more preservable form in books.  This is a further reinforcement.

In the final analysis, may I humbly register that future editions of this book will do better with a more thorough editing. The word resume, for example, is made to function as assume repeatedly on pages 45, 152, 216 and possibly some others. Incidents of lack of subject verb agreement also abound even as cases of long sentences are many especially in the intros of some of the entries.

* Tunde Akanni, PhD, is the immediate past Head of Journalism Dept, LASU. Follw him on X via:@AkintundeAkanni

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