From the Exchequer to the Editorial Suite: Dilating the Intra-Professional Mutations of Onyema Ugochukwu, By Tunde OLUSUNLE (Part 1)

0
32
Onyema Ugochukwu


Introduction
For those who encountered Onyema Ugochukwu only in the years immediately after the return of democratic governance in Nigeria a little over two decades ago, it will be understandable if he is profiled as an administrator, politician and statesman. Such followers of his career will predicate their submissions on the fact that he was the pioneer Chairman of the Niger Delta Development Commission, (NDDC). The interventionist agency was established by the administration of erstwhile President Olusegun Obasanjo, to help address the neglect of the oil producing states and communities, notably in the south south geopolitical zone, and the neighbouring south east and south west. The assignment entailed shrewd management of resources remitted by the federal government and oil producing companies for the development of the oil-bearing areas. It enhanced national visibility for Ugochukwu. In December 2000, Obasanjo appointed him to lead the NDDC and to ensure that the new Commission succeeded where previous efforts had failed.

Ugochukwu may also be described as a politician by many, because he contested the governorship of his home state, Abia, during the 2007 general elections. He won the primaries of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), the ruling political party at the time. The general election, where he contested against Theodore Ahamaefule Orji of the Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA), was reportedly marred by several irregularities and alleged compromises by officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Ugochukwu was declared runner-up in the election and the matter subsequently went through a tortuous judicial process to determine the actual winner of the election. While Ugochukwu was adjudged winner of the polls by the Elections Petitions Tribunal, the case was taken to the Court of Appeal for further adjudication. Ugochukwu and his party were reportedly schemed out, with Orji and the PPA, adjudged winners. The PDP and Ugochukwu filed for a cross appeal of the matter at the Port Harcourt division of the Court of Appeal. He was once more outwitted ostensibly, by a web of conspiracies and intrigues. This level of involvement in partisan politics, will reinforce the perception of Ugochukwu as a politician.

As an elder statesman, Ugochukwu was a delegate to the 2014 National Conference, instituted by the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, to discuss the national question and issues and problems bedeviling the country. These endeavours and his many roles at the level of his community and various sociocultural groupings in his southeast geopolitical zone, further subsume his primary preoccupation as a media practitioner and publicist. His longstanding loyalty, commitment and consistency as a long serving member of the PDP, irrespective of his experiences in the past, was rewarded with his induction into the Board of Trustees (BOT) of the party a few years back. The body is the topmost advisory organ of the party, and is made up of accomplished and respectable leaders and elders, whose guidance and interventions on matters affecting the health and well-being of the party, are taken seriously. This again is one aspect of his more recent multivalent engagements, which could obfuscate his primordial professional foundations and exertions. As he strides towards the league of octogenarians and living legends of the profession, it becomes critical to situate his most eventful career in the media, within the context of his aggregate contributions to the profession and indeed to national development.

Early Career
Ugochukwu attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) where he studied Economics, earning a Second Class Upper degree in 1972. He was already a student in the institution in 1967, when the Nigerian civil war, broke out. This development impacted his education as Ugochukwu (2014, p.53), explains:
I went to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, UNN, to read Economics. The war came and disrupted our education for about three years. During the war, we had to go into the Biafran army and fight. When my best friend, Henry got killed, I had to join… I had to compete to join the School of Infantry. It was a tough competition. Six weeks after training you were commissioned an officer. The next thing was to face the war front. If you were alive in three months, they would confirm you a Second Lieutenant. I got a double promotion to become a full Lieutenant, although I got injured not too long after. The war ended and we went back to school in 1970 and I graduated in 1972.

Ugochukwu indeed went on to become a Captain in the Biafran Army, before the end of the war. Upon graduation, he was employed by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) as a research analyst. The Research Department was one of the several subdivisions in the organogram of the CBN, under the supervision of the deputy governor in charge of Economic Policy. By 1975, however, Ugochukwu, a quester for new challenges gave up his job in the CBN, for a new career in the media. Ugochukwu notes further:
The CBN paid the highest salary then… But I wanted to be a journalist because it was exciting. I took a salary cut to become a journalist. My starting salary in the CBN was £1,400. The federal civil service was starting people at £800. When we converted to naira in 1972, it simply multiplied by two. My salary became £2,880 per year. In 1975, my salary was N5,600. Daily Times offered me N4,500 and I accepted it. I went over to work for Business Times which was just starting then.

Ismail Babatunde Jose was Managing Director of the Daily Times conglomerate when Ugochukwu joined the organisation. Jose, adjudged perhaps the most successful chief executive of the Daily Times group, had initiated general interest publications like Spear magazine, Headlines newspaper, and Times International magazine. But he desired a specialised newspaper to amplify developments in the nation’s economic and financial sector, following the indigenization exercise of 1974. That policy, encouraged Nigerians to venture into entrepreneurship and participation in the nation’s stock market. Daily Times newspaper had a business section. But Jose believed the space and attention devoted to business and economy was inadequate to capture the socioeconomic dynamics of the time. This vision berthed the Business Times newspaper. Jose and his colleagues in the Daily Times, had to search for journalists with bias for business and economy, to pioneer the publication. According to Jose (1986, p.132):
(Business Times) was the only publication started during my time for which we had to look outside Daily Times for an Editor. Because of the economics background required for that post, I asked my friends at the Central Bank to identify some of their bright young men who could be successfully trained in journalism within the shortest possible period to become Editor of the newspaper. That was how we recruited Effiong Essien a former staff of CBN’s Research Department as Editor of Business Times. He was succeeded by another CBN man, Onyema Ugochukwu now Editor of West Africa weekly magazine.

Business Times
Ugochukwu obtained a post-graduate certificate in sub-editing from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ), to prepare himself for the challenges of his new vocation. Later in his career, he served as Visiting Instructor in financial reporting in the same institution. He began his professional journey in Business Times as an economic analyst. His core responsibility was to explain the technical terminologies and nuances of business and economy, to a population just getting to grips with concepts like stocks, shares and the market situation.

He was on this brief for just eight months before his appointment as acting editor of Business Times, and subsequently, substantive editor of the financial newspaper. Koyi (2011, p.444), recalls that Ugochukwu belonged to the crop of earliest university graduates who were enlisted into journalism by Jose, a development which changed the face of the profession for good:
… Jose has been most influential in shaping the lives of many of today’s journalism greats in Nigeria… Some of these people, notably Ogunsanwo, Ugochukwu, Sonaike and Aboaba were fresh university graduates that he (Jose) recruited into his pilot journalism programme, which in fact, marked a turning point in the practice of the pen profession.

Business Times became the reference point and most authoritative outlet for economic discourse in Nigeria. This reality, challenged emerging print media organisations to also establish business tabloids so as to remain competitive in the newspaper market. The emergence of Business Concord published by Concord Press of Nigeria; Business Guardian from Guardian Newspapers Ltd among others, were stimulated by the precedence of Business Times. Side by side with this, Ugochukwu mentored successor financial journalists, notably Ndu Ughamadu, Kunle Bello, Femi Olatunde, Kene Okafor, Wole Olatimehin and Emeka Odo, among others, who also contributed to the evolution of business journalism. They have also contributed to the growth of various institutions in the economic sector in the course of their careers. Ughamadu served as two-time spokesperson for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, (NNPC), while Olatunde was an assistant director in the corporate affairs department of the CBN, before his unfortunate demise in 2011. Emeka Odo is serving his second term as Chairman of the Enugu State Board of Internal Revenue, ESBIR. The Board, under his administration, increased internally generated revenue (IGR) in the state by over 100% between 2016 and 2019. The IGR figures grew from N14 Billion realised in 2016 before Odo’s appointment, to N31 Billion three years later.

As editor of Business Times and subsequently as one of the globally accredited business journalists in his time, Ugochukwu covered or attended the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 1976 and annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1977, 1984 and 1988. He was also at the United Nations (UN) Special Session on the African Economic Crisis in 1986. He covered the UN General Assembly in 1988 and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Special Economic Session in Lagos in 1980 and the follow-up session in Addis Ababa in 1985. Ugochukwu covered annual meetings of the African Development Bank (ADB) in 1986, 1990 and 1991. He was also at the 1983 and 1984 meetings of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and annual meetings of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1977, 1983, 1988 and 1990, and the annual summits of G7 countries in 1977 and 1984.

Onyema Ugochukwu

West Africa Magazine
In 1983, Ugochukwu was deployed to the London office of the Daily Times group, publishers of West Africa magazine. Just before his redeployment, The Guardian newspaper which was just coming on stream, made him a job offer. At the same time, he had been offered a job with OPEC, in Vienna, Austria. Determined to retain his services, however, the leadership of the Daily Times, offered him a position in West Africa. According to Ugochukwu (2014, p.
53):

I had been Editor of Business Times for five years. I was getting a bit restless. The Guardian was starting. I was part of the planning for The Guardian. They gave me a letter of appointment as an Associate Editor. My Managing Director heard about it and tried to talk me out of it. Not too long after, I had gone for an interview in Vienna and OPEC offered me a job. It became “if going abroad was what you wanted, why don’t you go to the West Africa magazine in London?

The magazine had Kaye Whiteman as editor, while Ugochukwu functioned as his deputy. Ugochukwu assumed the substantive position of editor of the publication, in 1985. He thus became the very first African to be appointed editor of the 60 year old magazine at the time. West Africa magazine which was established in 1917, was conceived as a veritable fountain of information about developments and goings on in the Anglophone countries of West Africa. It was reputed to be the most diligent reporter and recorder of sociopolitical events in the West African sub-region. Its reportage documented West Africa, in the years during which coups and counter-coups defined governance and political stability in the sub- region. Working in West Africa enabled Ugochukwu to meet many international figures in the line of duty. Remarkably, his writings dwelt among others, on developmental and economic concerns, drawing attention to Africa’s debt burden and the need for global understanding. Ugochukwu was in West Africa for a little over four years, and according to him, “I worked hard, I was committed”.

Daily Times
Upon his return to Nigeria in 1987, Ugochukwu was appointed Editor of the Daily Times. Ascending to the editorship of the Daily Times, the leading newspaper in Nigeria at the time, was for a journalist akin to being appointed a service chief in the Nigerian military. Olagunju (ed., 1996, pp. 35-42 ), lists Ugochukwu’s predecessors in that position to include: Ernest Ikoli (1926 to 1929); Adeleye Titcombe (1929 to 1942); Ayodele Lijadu (1943 to 1946) and J.S. Ogunlesi, the first graduate (January to February 1947). There were also Joseph Oloyede (1947 to 1951); Ebun Adesioye (1951 to 1955); Gabriel Idigo (1955 to 1957) and Babatunde Jose (1957 to 1962). Other editors of Daily Times included Peter Enahoro (1962 to 1964); Alade Odunewu (1964 to 1968); Henry Odukomaiya (1969 to 1972) and Areoye Oyebola (1972 to 1975). Segun Osoba (August 1975 to December 1975); Tony Momoh (1976 to 1980); Martin Iroabuchi (1980 to 1984) and Farouk Umar Mohammed (1984 to 1986), all edited Daily Times before Ugochukwu came on board in 1987.

Ugochukwu had a notably studious approach to his job. Olusunle and Okereke (2009) recall that he spent the first few hours at work everyday, studying the file of newspapers and publications on his desk. He diligently observed this ritual before any other distraction. He matched the coverage of news and events by the Daily Times, with other publications. He also articulated topical issues for discussion and consideration at the daily “editorial conference” with line editors, a daily routine. Line editors within the context of the newspaper industry in Nigeria, are specialist heads of the various departments which feed the editorial content of the newspaper. They include the: news, features, political, business and economy, international affairs, sports, arts and culture, science and technology, defence, aviation, women and children, photo, graphics and special reports departments among others. Editorial specialisation had become imperative in consonance with the dynamics of the newspaper industry. Ugochukwu attended meetings of the editorial board, the intellectual engine room of the newspaper. The board comprised mainly of scholars and academics in various fields of knowledge, and he made contributions. He was the bridge between the newsroom and the editorial board, ensuring that there were intersections between themes and topics the newsroom was probing, relative to subjects being considered for lead commentary by the editorial board.

Ugochukwu began his job as editor of Daily Times, when Olusegun Osoba, was Managing Director. The appointment of Yemi Ogunbiyi as Osoba’s successor engendered a new dispensation of collaboration between two sticklers for hard work, innovation and a brand new work ethic. Olusunle (2019, p.83), notes that:
The Daily Times itself was not without its fair share of career journalist- intellectuals who shared Ogunbiyi’s vision for a rejuvenated organisation. There were the likes of Onyema Ugochukwu, the economist-banker turned journalist who was one of the pioneers of contemporary business journalism, Farouk Umar Mohammed who had functioned variously as Editor and General Manager of the Daily Times…

Ogunbiyi’s appointment took effect from March 1, 1989. His last job was Executive Director and Chief of Staff of The Guardian. He came with revolutionary ideas to re-engineer the Daily Times which had assumed a conservative editorial temperament, over the years. This ran counter to the editorial robustness of its major challengers. Consequently, its major competitors enjoyed greater mass appeal on the newsstands. With the support of Ugochukwu and progressively-inclined senior executives, fundamental personnel changes in the organisation were initiated. This involved hiring bright and experienced young professionals from other media organisations, predominantly from The Guardian. This helped the makeover project of the Daily Times. Emphasis was also placed on the re-training and retooling of existing personnel, as the organisation began to embrace modernization in the emerging milieu of computerization. Olusunle (2017, p.439), has “alluded to the massive, cross-departmental overhaul of the organisation, culminating in the rapid and radical improvement of editorial content and discourse within a brief span”. The Daily Times rapidly regained respectability and mass appeal. The new reputation of the Daily Times, opened doors and world leaders were receptive to being interviewed by the newspaper. Notable figures interviewed by Ugochukwu include Nigeria’s former military President, Ibrahim Babangida; former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (conducted with Yemi Ogunbiyi) and Sierra Leone’s Siaka Stephens.

Controversies surrounding the passing away or otherwise of Nigeria’s first republic President, Nnamdi Azikiwe, created quite a dilemma for the press in 1989. On November 4, 1989, a number of newspapers published a story reporting the presumed departure of the former Nigeria leader. The Daily Times’ lead story on that day, had the headline “Zik is Dead” and the newspaper was signed by Ugochukwu. As it turned out, however, this was a hoax which created quite some credibility challenge for the hitherto respected tabloid. Ogunbiyi (2018) recalls
that:
… The old man was well and alive in his Nsukka home. Shortly after we ran the story, the late K.O. Mbadiwe stormed Daily Times to announce that Zik had handed over the mantle of Igbo leadership to him before he died! Minutes after that, R.B.K. Okafor came in and claimed that he was the last man that Zik had spoken to and anointed the next leader of the Igbos!! Both men ended up dying before Zik himself died. Meanwhile, the Board of the Daily Times, headed at that time by the late Mr Laban Namme, who by the way was a devout Zikist as a young man, called for the sack of our Editor, Mr Onyema Ugochukwu, as he then was. I pleaded with the Board and only after I had offered to resign instead of having Onyema go, was the matter dropped.

Ugochukwu was naturally a sober, meticulous and discerning professional and Ogunbiyi reckoned that that gaffe was not the making of a generally circumspect, thorough and painstaking top journalist. Ugochukwu was a famous taskmaster in the Daily Times. He was averse to mediocrity and indolence of any kind. Olusunle and Okereke (2009) recall Olusunle’s encounter with him on his return from an assignment in Opobo, Rivers State, on the centenary of King Jaja in 1991:
On his return from the Island, Olusunle filed his report which was splashed on the Sunday Times magazine. The morning after, Ugochukwu accosted Olusunle along the corridor and incredulously barked at him: My friend, are you back? Thinking Ugochukwu had not seen the “Sunday” magazine feature for which he had been lavishly commended by readers, Olusunle replied: Yes Sir, I’m back. You should have seen the Sunday Times magazine. Ugochukwu’s face was deadpanned. Big deal, Ugochukwu replied. How did you get to Opobo? … I want to read your experience, a travelogue with photographs… Is there nightlife in Port Harcourt? Do me a social diary. When this organisation sends a writer of your calibre on an assignment, that is the minimum we expect in return. Typical of Ugochukwu, he managed to squeeze out not one, but three stories from one single assignment.

Onyema Ugochukwu

Ugochukwu and Ogunbiyi, shared the same views and perception about some editorial staff. These journalists, notably: Tunde Ipinmisho, Femi Ajayi, Segun Ayobolu, Emeka Nwosu, Chijioke Amu-Nnadi, Afam Akeh, Dapo Adeniyi, Yomi Ola, Tunde Kaitell, Victor Ekpuk, Gbenga Ayeni, Felix Omorogbe, Kayode Tejumola, Tunde Rahman, Hakeem Bello, this writer and a select others, were labelled “Ugochukwu/Ogunbiyi boys” by long serving Daily Times staffers. They were usually top on the list of journalists to be deployed on critical assignments which was misconstrued as privilege, especially by older colleagues. On the contrary, these officers were trusted to deliver quality at the shortest time possible, irrespective of inconvenience to themselves. The situation actually meant they were prone to being over- overworked. For Ugochukwu and Ogunbiyi, the reward for hard work, was more work. Amu- Nnadi, one of Ugochkuwu’s proteges, who has grown into an award-winning third generation Nigerian poet, pays tribute to Ugochukwu in his debut collection of poems, The Fire Within

(2002, p.i): “Onyema Ugochukwu, mentor, boss, father and friend, you gave me the paper to write with a long time ago. Many years later when the desert threatened you found me once more. Thank you for the water you hold out to a pilgrim.” Such was the manner of mentorship Ugochukwu impacted on his professional wards.

Activist
The Nigerian Guild of Editors, (NGE) was founded in 1961. It was was conceived to provide a rallying forum for editorial leaders in the nation’s journalism profession and to create a professional path for the growth of the industry. It was to serve as an exclusive melting pot of top-level media practitioners to advance the interests of the profession and deepen their relationships with their various audiences. For almost a decade, beginning from 1978, however, the NGE was dysfunctional. It was reawkened by Ugochukwu and a few editor colleagues. Idowu, (2019, pp. 64-65) reports that the meeting which crystallised in the reawakening of the NGE was held Saturday March 12, 1988. Editors in attendance included: Ugochukwu, Nwabu Mgbemena, News Agency of Nigeria, (NAN); Nduka Obaigbena and Lanre Idowu (Thisweek); Kunle Elegbede, (Daily Times); Pat Okon, (Chronicle); Lade Bonuola, (The Guardian) and Doyin Mahmoud (The Herald). Banji Kuroloja, (Nigerian Tribune); Najeem Jimoh, (The Punch); Kunle Jenrola, (The Republic) and Stanley Egbochukwu (Business Concord), were also present. Toye Akiode, (Vanguard); Bayo Osiyemi, (Lagos News); Yahaya Sanni, Nigerian Television Authority, (NTA); Biesha Bellgam, (Tide) and Ben Lawrence also attended the meeting. Thereafter, they unanimously supported Ugochukwu’s ascendancy as its first President, after those long years of inactivity. He occupied the office from 1988 to 1990.

Idowu, (2019, p. 72) describes Ugochukwu’s era as “one of quiet diplomacy informed the ownership of the medium he represented and his own discreet carriage.” Ugochukwu had cause to upbraid Chris Okolie, publisher of Newbreed magazine who mistook Ugochukwu’s genteel approach, for lack of will. Idowu, (2019, p. 72) recalls Ugochukwu’s response:

I certainly do not need a lecture from you on the principles of journalism or of freedom of the press, or the ideals of the Nigerian Guild of Editors for that matter. When you speak of moral courage, you seem to take the myopic view that courage consists entirely in taking positions against government policies and actions. Surely, moral courage also implies the courage to say “no” to things you don’t agree with, even if that is not the popular thing to do… You do not exhibit an excessive tendency to intolerance in accusing those you disagree with your methods of “selling out.”

One of the highlights of Ugochukwu’s term in office, was the intervention of the Guild in securing the release of their colleague, Chris Mammah from detention by the security services under Ibrahim Babangida’s rule. Mammah as acting editor of The Punch had approved the publication of a cartoon in the newspaper, which the military authorities interpreted as supportive of the attempted regime change of April 22, 1990, against the Babangida government. The coup was led by Gideon Gwaza Orkar and the cartoon in question, depicted the national gloom which attended the foiling of that coup attempt. Mammah was set free after the engagement of the Guild with the top echelon of the secret service.

Administrator
For a 15-month period between 1990 and 1991, Ugochukwu served as Acting General Manager of the Times Publications Division (TPD). This was the subsidiary of the Daily Times organisation which managed the broad spectrum of the institution’s publications. Ugochukwu’s reassignment followed the nomination of the substantive General Manager, Farouk Mohammed, for a programme at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Plateau State. Ugochukwu continued to invest his energies and expertise into the overall growth of the organisation, a period which culminated in the resurgence of Daily Times to its primordial leadership position in the industry. He was renowned for his frugality, where his background in economics regularly came to play, in scrutinising requests for out-of- state travel allowances and applications for refund of expenditure on local shuttles by staff.

On Mohammed’s return from NIPSS, Ugochukwu reverted to his duty post as editor of Daily Times. Following the reconstitution of the Board of the organisation in February 1992, Ugochukwu was appointed Executive Director, Manpower and Development. Not too long thereafter, he was re-designated Executive Director, Publications, which once again availed him the opportunity to impact on the content and form of the broad spectrum of publications in the publishing giant. He was also Chairman, Board of Governors of the Times Journalism Institute (TJI) among other administrative responsibilities. Ugochukwu retired from the Daily Times, after 20 eventful years in the organisation, on his 50th birthday, November 9, 1994.

Tunde Olusunle, Ph.D., Poet, Journalist and Scholar, can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a Reply