BY Steve Osuji
THERE WAS ONCE A NEWSPAPER: Nigerian journalist of the 80s and 90s not practising in the The Guardian, was simply a landlubber. It was not for nothing that it was nicknamed THE FLAGSHIP OF NIGERIA’S JOURNALISM.
“Sooner or later, you will read THE GUARDIAN,” had been emblazoned on billboards as teasers weeks before it was launched in February, 1983.
It was a revelation, a new testament for Nigeria journalism, a fresh beginning and if you like, and a coup of sort!
The Guardian rethought and indeed, reinvented newspapering in Nigeria.
Hitherto, newspapering was a drudgery for technicians and plumbers. The Guardian brought much light, philosophy and enlightenment to bear on the ancient art of news gathering.
Alex Ibru, scion of the wealthy Ibru brothers; post-colonial comprador barons had the original spark. He envisioned an enlightened newspaper, a sort of intellectual watering-hole for the Nigerian elite, not unlike The Guardian of London. Or even better.
STANLEY MACEBUH WAS HERE: Alex conscripted a certain American-trained maverick intellectual by name, Stanley Macebuh. An icon, a dashing man of letters and light-heartedness. In the sense that he was such a guy who could get his job done with a fat ciga dangling from his left fingers and the finest glass of cognac in his right hand. Such was the Macebuh persona and he wrote the best prose one ever read.
Alex found Stanley and Stanley rallied all the best minds in the land. Okay, let’s not exaggerate, almost all.
The roll call of the early Guardian minds is almost inexhaustible. Here are a few recollections: Lade Bonuola (Ladbone) Onwuchekwa Jamie, Eddie Iroh, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Andy Akporugo, Femi Kusa, Emeka Izeze, Ted Iwere, Omolara ogundipe, Chinweizu, Amma Ogan, Olatunji Dare, Edwin Madunagu, Femi Osofisan, Chidi Amuta, Alade Odunewu, Sonala Olumhense, Ashikiwe-Adione Egom, Greg Obong Oshotse, Sully Abu, Sunmi Smart-Cole, Bisi Ogunbadejo, Mitchell Obi, Nduka Irabor, Nick Iduwe, Sunny Ojeagbase, Kingsley Osadolor, Adigun Agbaje, Mary Kanu, Reuben Abati, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, Taiwo Obe, Godwin Agbroko, Fred Ohwahwa, Debo Adesina, Paul C Nwabuikwu, Gbenga Omotoso, Jahman Anikulapo, Onuoha Ukeh, Bruce Malogo, Abraham Ogbodo, Ibiba Don-Pedro and yours truly, to name but just a few.
It was a packed house. The Editorial Board made some university faculties green. It was star-studded. The technical team was driven by the trio of Lade Bonuola, Femi Kusa and Mac Alabi.
And there were the wild-eyed stars of the newsroom and production backroom. You didn’t have to be just a graduate, you had to to be first class or exceptional to work at The Guardian. It was a plucky class and a new age for us. We were proud like peacocks and Rutam House was a not just the hub for journalistic excellence but the veritable incubating force for a new Nigeria had it not faltered.
The Guardian was Nigeria’s first quality newspaper.
You could either read the Guardian or you couldn’t read (it)! We made no pretence what we were – a highly literate and enlightened daily.
It was an instant hit with the elite though it wasn’t an immediate economic win.
At the peak of its glory, The Guardian shifted the paradigm of journalism, not just in Nigeria but in Africa. There was no president in the world the paper couldn’t interview, and it did some. It had correspondents in London, Harare, and Washington. The Guardian was doing very big things, it was leading Africa, the way Nigeria should have been doing.
While the content was right, the business model didn’t quite match at the start it needed time. There were initial hiccups, then about five years down the line, the smudgy hand of ‘Nigerian factor’ started to manifest.
AND THE FLAGSHIP HITS A STORM: There was a palace coup in which tacky technicians edged out the free minded thinkers: Macebuh and his gang of liberals were pushed out by Lade Bonuola and his plumbers. This marked the first virus that infected The Flagship.
Though this period of the 90s marked the boom time of the paper, it was also the plateau for those who understand newspapering. It was living off the early glory.
The Guardian made more money in the 90s and early 2000 than even some banks. Obituary adverts were abhorred as a policy at the start but the Bonuola group opened the floodgates. It became a status symbol to put your obit in The Guardian. At a point The Guardian became an obituary newspaper; a printed morgue. Little did it know that it was carrying its obituary in advance.
The Guardian vision of course fled with Macebuh and his ilk. Alex too, the urbane visionary was sucked into the rogue government of Gen. SANI Abacha, against wise counsel. That adventure was to cost him his life as well as mortally damage what was left of The Guardian soul.
But all these happened in a period of over a decade of much boom before the burst.
Let me assert that the Nigerian disease, badly infected the paper once it experienced it boom. Ladbone’s group was also to be edged out by a narrower tribal group led by Andy Akporugo just as it edged the Macebuh group out. The Macebuh group was pan-Nigerian while subsequent ones were narrow.
Alex had become very infirm and his wife, Maiden Ibru moved in. At this point, The Guardian was perhaps, the cash cow of the Ibru Organisation.
Maiden took over the paper and had in tow, his brother, Tomopoulus and young son, Toke and they built a garrison, Forte Ibru, at Rutam House.
THE FALL AND FALL OF THE GUARDIAN:Maiden is as enthralling as a Greek goddess but she is no Katherine Graham (the heiress who took The Washington Post to great heights in the Watergate era). And at that, newspapering is not beauty pageant; it’s a delicate art.
Thus it was that since the Maiden crew stormed Rutam House, the Flagship had been in relentless storm. And for very clear reasons.
First, Madam’s brother didn’t seem to have much acumen to run even a grocery store. When that fact became apparent, Madam Maiden quietly shoved her sibling aside and took personal charge. Of course, as noted earlier, it’s not a fashion shop. She struggled so hard but only earned bad wrinkles on her beautiful face, instead of revenues.
Now, the story is that her son, Toke has forcefully elbowed Mama and taken charge.
We hear consultants of all dubious shades have been doing more work at the Rutam House than media men. And there are few real journalists left in the house anyways.
Story was told of a certain consultant that knocked down all the walls in the work areas and replaced them with expensive fancy glasses. Of course he made a killing and also left the paper comatose.
SITUATION REPORT: The last act which triggered this piece is of matricidal magnitude.
Toke Ibru, who Maiden had virtually brought in in a pram (in a manner of speaking), is today, Executive Director and is now de facto CEO. His name is Toke Alex Ibru after all, if you get the gist.
In the final drama of a few days ago, Toke had reshuffled the top echelon. His mother, Maiden had counterminded him by reversing his directive.
Toke was said to have in a fit, axed the entire top echelon and practically chased all of them out of the premises, never to return. The Flagship is now bereft of captains and it is asinking!
FINAL ANALYSES: Only a divine magic wand can bring the Flagship out of the storms now. Charlatanry, as you well know, can only thrive for a while. To molotov the ship analogy, just imagine a layman captaining a ship on the high seas, he would be riding on the wings of grace.
Of course the paper long lost its raison d’etre; it lost quality people, and finally, today’s media dynamics is like COVID19 making mincemeat of the weak and infirm.
The Flagship will likely sink irretrievably because it can never reenact its initial character of a quality newspaper even if it tries; it cannot reinvent itself into a damn good news purveyor fighting principled causes for the people.
Lastly, even if the family resolves to step back, it will be nigh impossible to find the right mix of managers to salvage the ship and make it yield revenue once more.
Would it be too cynical to say adieu, THE GREAT FLAGSHIP?
▪︎Steve Osuji, Monday, June 23, 2020