He is unarguably one of the most influential journalists and socialites who have made journalism profession a dignified one in Nigeria. His political career had seen several hot points of reckoning, especially as a politician who rose up to be a govenor. Chief Segun Osoba is indeed a rare gem; a political juggernaut who rose to the pinnacles of all his chosen careers through a special grace of the Almighty. In this rare interview with Punch Juliet Bumah and Comfort Oseghale the Egba High Chief spoke on his many years of service as a Daily Times journalist and how he was a target of Al Mustapha murder squad … Photos: Odutayo Odusanya
Can you tell us something about your childhood?
I had good, beautiful memories of my childhood. I wish I could go back to my childhood and live it all over again. I grew up in Osogbo, in an area founded by the Egba. My father is from Abeokuta, but was living in Osogbo. He and other notable Egba in Osogbo then created a quarter within Osogbo and named it after their roots. They named it Egbatedo, that is, an area founded by the Egba in Osogbo.
My father was instrumental to the creation of Egbatedo because he was very close to the royalty in Osogbo. When he got to Osogbo, he was a tenant of the then royal father in Osogbo, Oba Alatana. Within that Egbatedo quarters, we had all the federating units of Egba because we the Egba are federalists.
There are about four or five sections in Egba and each of the sections was represented in Egbatedo. We were all like a family. So I had a very disciplined, responsible, honourable upbringing within the Egba in Osogbo then. My father was also a strong member of the African Church because the African Church was a stone’s throw from the house, even though he was born an Anglican in Osogbo.
He was a member of the African Church. I schooled at African Church School, for my primary education in Osogbo. We had a very powerful educationist then as our headmaster in the African Church called Mr. Fakunle. He is an Ijesa man but very strong.
He gave us a very solid foundation. Our lifestyle was a communal lifestyle. You were not only under the discipline of your parents; the community itself could discipline you. Any elderly person in the community was authorised to mete out punishment for any misbehaviour. That was the environment in which I grew up and that environment has influenced my life all the way through.
Where was your secondary education?
That one is a long story. I was first of all taken to the Teacher Training College in Ilesa by my uncle, Joseph Babalola, one of the founding fathers of the Christ Apostolic Church. He is a senior uncle to my mother. I spent a few days before the Inspector for Education came in and decided I was too short to be a teacher. I was quietly asked to withdraw. I lost a year after my primary education; I left school in 1953.
How old were you then?
We went to school a little bit late. You know in those days, even in my primary education, you had to stretch your right hand to touch your left ear. Because my right hand didn’t touch my left ear, my primary education was delayed. I was losing all the way through because of my body size and look. Even though I’m now over 70, people still see me as a 40-year old; people see me as being too proud because they don’t know my age.
I want to say I owe my educational development after my primary education to Mr. Famuyiwa, who advised my father to send me to Lagos to take an entrance examination to Methodist Boys High School, which was the school that Mr. Famuyiwa attended in Lagos. I came to Lagos and took entrance examination in 1955 and started my secondary education in January 1956.
Among my classmates were the like of Rasheed Gbadamosi; the late Chief of Air Staff, Nureni Yusuf; the late Admiral Mufutau Olugbile; Prof. Omojola, one of the top professors in the Obafemi Awolowo University; the brilliant and famous sports commentator, Fabio Olanipekun; those were some of my classmates at the Methodist Boys High School.
Where did you attend your university education?
That again is another very interesting story. In those days, the most famous professions were medicine, law, of course, teaching and clerical jobs were highly regarded and respected. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer and I was pursuing that until I had admission to the University of Lagos. I was to resume in UNILAG in September when Alhaji (Babatunde) Jose invited me to come to the Daily Times; I was given a job on June 8, 1964. I thought I would just do it for three months and go to the university.
Surprisingly and shockingly to me, within the few months that I joined the Daily Times, the then Editor, Peter Enahoro, wrote a beautiful letter to me to commend my performance as a cub reporter and that did it. Alhaji Jose had to sit on my neck, persuade me not to go for law but to take up journalism.
He said he saw great potential in me and supported the view of my editor. That was how I was diverted from law to journalism even though I had shown the traits of journalism when I was at the Methodist Boys High School. We were editing the school magazine and there, I was writing and helping to edit the magazine. It was therefore not something new to me when I joined the Daily Times and I was able to fit in fast.
We were supposed to be on the job training for some months under the supervision of a European that was sent from the Daily Mirror in London. There were a few of us who had advanced level or higher school education then, so we were pioneer reporters with higher background than school certificate at that time when we came into journalism.
There were three of us – the late Prof. Femi Sonaike, myself and Dipo Ajayi. We came in as pioneer HSC or advanced certificate holders. The then system was that you would go for an assignment with a very senior and experienced reporter. The senior one would write his own story for the paper; ours would go to our trainer. Enahoro, within a few weeks, decided that my story should be the one to be used. That was how I was pulled immediately out of the cub reporter’s training and put on direct assignments.
You wrote lots of headline stories shortly after you joined the Daily Times then, like the white man who slapped a lady at Kingsway and you were said to be the first to discover the late Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa’s body. Can you tell us how it was for you back then?
People put too much emphasis on the discovery of Tafawa Balewa’s body. It wasn’t my first breakthrough story. One of my first breakthrough stories is the one you mentioned about Kingsway Stores, where a European abused a Nigerian lady by slapping her. The United African Company then had a powerful public relations department headed by Chief Kunle Ojora and had strong influence in the media and of course Daily Times was the paper. Arrangements had been made to kill the story; I didn’t know. I was a young reporter, dynamic, interested in good stories. The system then was like a mafia kind of thing. I didn’t care about all that.
I was more interested in the story. I wrote the story, Peter Enahoro was very interested and it became a national issue for a European to manhandle an African lady. First of all, the UAC denied that nothing of the sort happened, but I continued investigating and doing in-depth follow-ups and that was what impressed Enahoro because he told me later that those days, you don’t just write a story and forget it.
I kept pursuing, revealing more facts. I was continuously tying the arms of the management of the UAC. It led to the labour union of the company deciding to go on strike. The story became a national issue and there was demand for the deportation of the European, who eventually had to leave the company a year after because the company didn’t want to give in, so as not to be seen as caving in to pressure.
That was my first breakthrough, two months after I joined the Daily Times. In those days, you don’t get a byline as a rule in the Daily Times. You must have done a story that is extraordinarily brilliant and good and you must have been a senior reporter. I, in my first few months, targeted bylines (byline is putting the name of the writer). Not now when reporters rewrite press releases, or you just even put in a press release written by somebody else, you put your name on it. It was not so in our days.
A byline was for serious and most times, exclusive stories. You don’t know who the writers of most stories in those days were and that was what shot me up. The Tafawa Balewa story was much later, and I had then covered more stories that were national news. For example, there was a time a minister brought in a long chassis Mercedes Benz, which we found scandalous. I was able to do investigative reporting, have all the documents, the importation documents, the bill of lading and everything when the minister was trying to deny and kill the story. These were stories I was lucky to pursue. Somehow, I just loved pursuing stories. I didn’t know I was creating a niche for myself by being persistent.
You rose to become the editor of the Daily Times…
I didn’t just become the editor of the Daily Times because Alhaji Jose immediately began to give me a strong educational foundation in journalism. In my days, there were no mass communication departments; there were no departments for diploma in journalism in any tertiary institution. The training was along the British line where journalists were trained professionally like accountants on the job. The only school of journalism then was the Regent School of Journalism in London and it was just a diploma kind of thing. I was a pioneer student of what later became the Mass Communication Department of the University of Lagos. There was a course sponsored by the International Press Institute under UNILAG and Jose, in 1964 or 1965, sent me out to take that course for a session. I can say that we were the pioneer students of what later became the Mass Communication Department in UNILAG. I came out of that course, not long after, Jose again sent me to the UK. There was a strong professional union for the Commonwealth countries. They called it the Commonwealth Press Union and they designed a course for senior journalists. I was the youngest and the least experienced among my colleagues, who had got in from different parts of the world – India, Sri Lanka, Barbados, Bahamas, Australia. We were all brought from different parts of the Commonwealth countries. Part of our course was at Elizabeth Hall at Oxford University. That was where I met Prof. Akinyemi, who was then doing his PhD programme at Oxford University. I came back from the UK and within another year or two, Jose shipped me out to the United States, to Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana State, for another course in journalism. I was one of the first Nigerians to have the honour of being a Newman Fellow. I have had training, deep international and expansive training in journalism before I became the editor.
While you were making all these headline stories that challenged the status quo, were you ever threatened?
A lot; a lot. For example, when I was coming back from the Commonwealth Press Union course in England, the Civil War had then started. The elite of those days, when coming back from Britain, you came back by boat. It was fashionable for the elite to come back in a luxury cruise liner and among the luxury cruise liners then were the MV Auriel and MV Apapa. You board a ship in Liverpool and it takes you about two weeks from Liverpool to Lagos. I came back; I didn’t know that security were laying siege for me at the port. My family came. Rather than go to my house, they went to my auntie’s place, had a small get together, everything was over. By the time I got to my house in St. Agnes, they were waiting and I was arrested.
Arrested for what?
Arrested for no reason other than they think that being a very investigative reporter, I was going to be a threat to the Civil War that was being pursued. Jose had to hide the fact from my family because it would had been a terrible thing for my family to hear that on my return from England, I was taken into the detention. Jose was very influential then and made sure I got out the following day. No member of my family knew until I came that I had been locked up on arrival.
Do you remember the actual date this happened?
I think it was 1967 or ’68. The war started in ’67, so it was ’68. I had a series of arrests. I was always hounded by security (agents) who thought that my investigative style of journalism was risky to the interest of the country. All this harassment by security agencies now is not new. I’ll give you another example. There was a day the security agencies under Gen. Yakubu Gowon came to invade the Daily Times.
They shut down the paper for no reason, arrested Jose, the chairman/managing director of the paper. They picked his deputy, Laban Namme, picked the editor of the Daily Times then, Henry Odukomaiya. I had nothing to do with the serious part of the Daily Times business.
I was then editor of Lagos Weekend; Odukomaiya and I were appointed editors the same day. He was appointed editor of Daily Times, while I was appointed editor of Lagos Weekend. I had nothing to do with any major story; mine was covering club houses, writing divorce cases, little scandals, but I was very factual. It’s not now that they blackmail people and use fictitious stories.
I was also arrested and we were taken to the Obafemi Awolowo Police Station where that notorious armed robber was kept; the robber was shot at the Bar Beach. We were locked up but the like of the Attorney-General then, Prof. Teslim Elias, heard of Jose being arrested and it was unimaginable then to hear that Jose would be arrested because he was one of the most powerful people in the country.
Two hours after, Jose was taken out of detention and Odukomaiya and I slept over night in a cell. I think that robber was Oyenusi; I slept in Oyenusi’s cell with Odukomaiya. Such cases were common for me. I will give you another example. I was always running into trouble by covering stories that were factual. During the Civil War, the then Liberian president, President William Tubman, very strong in the West African Coast, had been a close friend of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. He then invited Azikiwe to Monrovia for a secret meeting with Gowon to chat and break through the Biafran hierarchy.
Somehow, the KLM flight that was bringing Azikiwe from Europe to Monrovia, made an unscheduled stopover in Lagos. Some of my contacts in the airways called me up early on Sunday morning to inform me that Azikiwe had landed in Lagos, which was a big story. It was like Ojukwu suddenly landing in Lagos and I ran straight – recovering from overnight clubbing on Saturday – to the airport to cover the story. When the security informed Gowon that Azikiwe was at the airport, he ordered that he be brought to Dodan Barracks and the whole of Lagos went wild to know that Azikiwe had landed.
On his way back from Dodan Barracks to rejoin his flight, the whole of Lagos was out to cheer. I was waiting at the VIP Lounge. I was rushing back to the VIP lounge to use the telephone to dictate the story to my office when the telephone rang. I picked it up and the voice said, ‘Hello.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ The voice said, ‘Who is on the line?’ I said, ‘Segun Osoba.’ He said, ‘This is Jack,’ and I asked, ‘Which Jack?’ He said, ‘Jack Gowon,’ I said, ‘Sir!’ He said, ‘Segun how did it go? Is the former president safely back at the airport?’ I said ‘Yes sir, in fact the flight had taken off.’ He said, ‘Thank God, I’m very happy’ and dropped the telephone. I didn’t know that the security would take offence to my reporting that I spoke to Gowon on the telephone and that Gowon was excited about Azikiwe coming in and leaving safely and that did it.
I was locked up again, but decently treated. At that time, the officer in charge of our investigation was Alhaji Shinkafi, a young officer but very decent, amiable and friendly. I was locked up. Peter Obey, who took the picture, was locked up; Teju Bakare, who claimed to have been the one that first saw Azikiwe, was locked up for no reason.
For just reporting and being factual, and being lucky to speak to Gowon and putting that in the story. I was always running into stormy waters, detention. I had never deemed it anything strange. It was part of the hazard of the profession I went into. It was part of baking me in the bakery, so to say.
Journalists today are better paid, better educated than in your time. Has it in any way influenced the quality of journalism?
Yes, it has because our own training was more on the job and for someone like me, I was having different trainings. There was no one single formal three-year or four-year course as we have now. Today’s journalists are better educated, better exposed and better informed. There was nothing like CNN in our days; there was nothing like Sky News or BBC, where you see events happening live.
The best that we had then was transistor radio and had to monitor international events on the radio. There was an incident, the resignation of President Richard Nixon; the event took place at about 9 pm American time, which is like 2 am Nigerian time. Prof. Idowu Shobowale and I had to take our radio to Marina. Marina then was not sand filled, right in front of First Bank was the water and we had to take the radio to the lagoon side to be able to get good reception, to manually record the resignation of President Nixon. You today would watch that live, you would even have a copy of the speech in advance on the Internet.
You have all these advantages but one thing that is lacking is courage on the side of today’s journalists. Dedication is lacking, commitment to the profession is not as strong. We were not as well paid but we were happy, we were dedicated, we were interested and I for example never jumped from one newspaper to the other. I stayed all my life, all through until I became editor with the Daily Times but today’s journalist place too much emphasis on the reward that would come out of the job. But we had better contentment than you have now.
So why is it that respected journalists such as yourself, Alhaji Lateef Jakande and others are not successful publishers?
For me it is not worth it. Why should I, after spending all my life working almost 24 hours? In our days, there were no working hours and if you look at a man like Jakande, he over-worked himself as a journalist. He was the chief executive of the Tribune and he used to run the Tribune from the John Holt building in Lagos here and there was nothing like editorial board in our time. Jakande used to be the sole writer of the editorial of the Tribune. He would write the editorial in Lagos and dictate it on the telephone to Ibadan and his editorials then were biting and serious. No government then dared ignore the editorial opinion of the Tribune.
Can you tell us briefly your most memorable moments as governor of Ogun State?
The most memorable would be the election of MKO Abiola on June 12, 1993. I say it’s most memorable because the military then didn’t expect June 12 to go smoothly. They didn’t even plan to make Abiola win the Social Democratic Party Primary as presidential candidate. In all these events, I was very central to the whole thing. And, it would be one of the greatest landmarks as governor of Ogun State for me.
That was why you went into the democracy struggle?
The struggle started even when I was a governor. There was an occasion when (Ibrahim) Babangida threatened to sack the governors. I was the first to immediately pack my things out of the Government House and asked that the then military government should carry out its threat to deal with the governors.
Did you push your son, Olumide, into politics or he just developed the interest?
My son has always been part of politics because during the June 12 struggle, he, as a young boy totally, was involved. He was always with me, even at meetings with governors because then we all had our guest houses at Victoria Island and I used to go to those meetings with Olumide. The like of the governor of Anambra State then, Dr. Ezeife; and Chief John Oyegun, governor of Edo State, used to call him my ADC because he was always with me.
When I was in detention for one year, he went through serious political security harassment because every week, the security, headed by one Agbaje from Alagbon, used to come to search the house in the wee hours of the day, every week from the hours of 2 am to 5 am. They would bombard my house. Olumide has been fully involved for over two decades now.
During the tenure of Gbenga Daniel, why did you flee the state for eight years?
Because as soon as Gbenga Daniel got into office, he went after me. I was accused of all kinds of things, destabilisation of the state. To the extent that President Obasanjo had to call me, invite me to a meeting as soon as I left office. I was accused of attempted murder; that I planned to assassinate him and his wife. Till today as I’m talking, I’m still on a N50m bail bond. I was accused of sabotaging water supply to the Government Reservation Area, the area that I lived in Abeokuta. I was so accused of so many things and I thought the best thing was to stay out of the whole thing. It was a deliberate action based on a state-sponsored political harassment that made me to stay out.
At what point in your life did you meet your wife?
Very interesting, the first time I came back by MV Auriel. The second time I went for a course in America, I came back by MV Apapa and she was a customs officer. She was the customs officer that cleared my goods that day and that was the first time I met her. The following weekend, I think we met at a party and I said this is that beautiful lady that I met at… and that was how we started courting.
When you learnt Abacha had died, what was your first reaction? Were you expecting Abiola to reclaim his mandate?
Of course yes. When Abacha, on November 17 1993, announced his palace coup and the dissolution of all democratic structures, it didn’t come to me as a surprise because, actually, I had before then packed my things out of the Government House to my private house in Abeokuta. When on that night on November 17, he announced the dissolution, I just drove straight to my house and stayed there. By the following morning, when the military came to invade the government houses, they didn’t find me there.
Of course, we thought Abacha would be a kind of a short time interim government based on even his own relationship with Abiola. He was the one who encouraged Abiola to return from exile. We didn’t know that he would turn himself into perpetual ruler and life time president and would be ruling like Mubarak and Gaddafi forever.
There was the fire incident that was reported at your house that you escaped, what was it about?
That was a small thing. There were two attempts to kill me which is on record at the court, Sergeant Rogers once stayed in front of my house in Dolphin. Fortunately, I didn’t come out that day, I was in the house and they waited all day. I didn’t come out for them to pursue me and kill me. There was a second attempt that is stated in the court proceedings, that is the trial at the Lagos High Court when they followed me from my house on the way to Abeokuta and at the Sagamu interchange, the military checkpoint saw my car and recognised me and waved me past and stopped them. The few seconds that they stopped them to ask questions was what saved me. They couldn’t meet up with me until I got to my house in Abeokuta. Before they went to attack Commodore Dan Suleiman, before they went to attack Gani Fawehinmi’s office, my house was the first they came to; a day or two before. We were to celebrate Abiola’s birthday that morning, August 24, when they came to attack my house. By then, for security reasons, I was no more staying in the house because my family had travelled out for summer holiday and I was then not sleeping in the house. I was lucky; they did not meet me in the house, my house was the first they attacked. My security in the house was battered, in fact, it was at Dr. Doyin Okupe’s clinic that the young man was taken to for treatment and my SSS security still attached to me as former governor then, exchanged fire with them. That morning, Olu Falae and I went to pick spent cartridges at my house. There were many serious attempts; the fire was a much later day thing. I was just lucky to escape the explosion that I heard and I woke up and because of the leadership training that I had in Man O War base at Cameroon in my days in 1960 as a young man, I learnt to crawl rather than standing up, I was to be smoked, I would have inhaled carbon monoxide. I had to crawl out of the house. Within a few minutes; the whole bedroom was gutted in Abeokuta. I had a few lucky escapes, we thank God. I’m still alive, it is God’s grace.
What is your take on the song Mustapha is singing in court presently?
I don’t think any Nigerian will take Mustapha seriously with those silly statements. I can say and vouch for both Chief Bola Ige under whom I worked as managing director of Sketch and Papa Adesanya, who was like a younger brother to my father-in-law, that never will any of the two take a kobo from any government for any consideration, whatsoever. I’m a witness to the last days of Papa Adesanya.