An Innocent Man! By Olusegun Adeniyi
A humourous man who always introduced himself as “I am Innocent”, the late veteran journalist, Mr. Innocent Oparadike was also very humble; despite his incredible reach and network. And he had great affection for me. That was why the news of his death hit me very hard as I recall several interactions I had with him over the years.
It is, however, a shame that only few members of Oparadike’s generation of journalists wrote books to share their varied and rich experiences. For instance, the tribute he wrote on General Ibrahim Babangida last year was more than a thank you message to one man; it was in several respects a compelling story of Nigeria and the promise of what can be. It was on how, in 1985, General Babangida “brushed aside threats, blackmail and high level conspiracy” to appoint him Editor of the ‘New Nigerian’, making Oparadike the first and only southerner (and Christian) to edit the once-powerful federal government owned newspaper with regional bent.
For the benefit of members of the Twitter generation who may not know what ‘New Nigerian’ means, it was one of the biggest newspapers of the past, with head office in Kaduna. But in reality, ‘New Nigerian’ was more than just a newspaper; it was perhaps the most formidable platform for promoting and defending the agenda of the Northern establishment before and after independence. That was what made the appointment of an Igbo man as editor quite remarkable but there were also twists in the tale.
I am reproducing Oparadike’s recollection, with the kind permission of The Guardian newspaper where it was first published, as I bid him goodnight:
The story actually started in 1982. Chief MKO Abiola, Publisher of the ‘Concord’ Newspaper had directed that all political stories be cleared with me. Some of the editors of the individual titles resented this directive. One of them told the publisher that I was using the position to enrich myself. Chief Abiola ordered an investigation. Unknown to me, my lifestyle and banking relationships were thoroughly investigated. The outcome reinforced his faith in me. He promoted me from Chief Political Correspondent to Group Political Editor.
When I got to know of the investigation, I felt like a victim. My joy at being promoted was dampened by the thought of being surreptitiously investigated. I used this as an excuse to accept an offer to be the pioneer editor of a new newspaper to be based in Kaduna, known as the ‘Democrat’.
Courtesy demanded that I informed a publisher who had treated me as his kid brother not only that I was moving, but also why. Chief Abiola apologised for doubting my integrity but asked me to see the brighter side; the outcome reinforced his faith in me. He advised me against taking up the ‘Democrat’ job. He said it was a ploy to get me out of the system. He revealed that the Northern establishment had asked him to fire me but he refused. He warned that by taking the appointment, I was making myself vulnerable. He said they would use and fire me. Unfortunately, I had given my word to the prospective employers who took me on a facility tour prior to making me an offer.
My stay at the ‘Democrat’ was brief. The first rescue mission of General Muhammadu Buhari spelt the death of the ‘Democrat’ as unknown to me until then, its continued survival was dependent on the NPN (National Party of Nigeria) remaining in power. I became a columnist in the weekly paper, receiving a hefty salary I didn’t earn. I felt obliged to resign and I did. Members of the Board of Directors couldn’t believe that a Nigerian with a young family (I wedded Lady Esther in 1983) would resign for not earning his pay. Just as I was to leave Kaduna for Lagos, I saw an advertisement in the ‘New Nigerian’ for vacancies that included Editorial Board Members and Deputy Editor. I settled for member, editorial board, but someone persuaded me to go for Deputy Editor and I did.
Professionals were hired for the recruitment exercise. Given my qualifications and experience, I really had no competition in both the written and oral tests. But I had an intrinsic disability. I was a Christian, Southerner and Igbo. Some hawks among the ‘New Nigerian’ stakeholders wanted to use the name of General Buhari to deny me the position. Unfortunately for them, I knew Alhaji Maida Wada, his Press Secretary, from our days at the News Agency of Nigeria where we were both pioneer staff. I told Mallam Maida what was going on and he asked General Buhari who reportedly retorted, “What is my business with who becomes the Deputy Editor of ‘New Nigerian’?”
Mallam Maida came to Kaduna to tell the ‘New Nigerian’ Management to do the needful and leave General Buhari out of the internal politics of the newspaper house. So, I became the Deputy Editor of the ‘New Nigerian’ in 1984. My editor, Mallam Bukar Zarma was a brilliant young banker who transitioned to Editor, in the ‘New Nigerian’ tradition that began with Mallam Adamu Ciroma, the venerable newspaper’s first Nigerian Editor and later, chief executive.
My relationship with Zarma was a bit tricky at first. I was a professional journalist. He was a new entrant. I was also more experienced and probably older in age. With time, he understood that I meant well and had no designs on his job. He gave me ample room to perform which was smart of him, as he earned more discretionary time.
Unfortunately, there were people in-house who resented his superimposition on them. They fought him to a point he needed to disengage. I became acting editor. Those who ousted the substantive editor had sought to recruit me into their group but I told them about my loyalty to my boss. They resented my being at the mantle of office they had successfully fought for. I became the new target.
Meantime, General Ibrahim Babangida had emerged as new leader following the overthrow of General Buhari in August 1985. As he assumed power, he had Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe as his deputy. We learnt that they had decided to make Mohammed Haruna the Managing Director and me, Editor.
The Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Information, a gentleman from a powerful family in Kano, had the duty of communicating this. Rather than do this, he allegedly convinced Mr. Mohammed Haruna to accept the position of Editor (in the interest of the North) while they looked for a suitable Northerner to appoint as MD.
After acting for six months, the Board had to decide to confirm my appointment or revert me to my substantive position. It chose the second option. But there was a problem. Haruna was then at Columbia University. So they came up with the brilliant idea that I continued to edit the newspaper, which they acknowledged I was doing well, but the name on the imprint would be Mohammed Haruna’s.
I felt very sad that bigotry could descend to this level. I wrote back to say that what they asked me to do was unlawful and unjust, therefore impossible for me to accept. They decided to recall Mohammed Haruna and summoned me to a meeting and ordered me to withdraw my letter where I had stated that members of the Board were, as individuals, decent persons but as a collective a disgrace to human decency. I went to the Board room, reaffirmed what I had written and walked out on them.
Leaving the board room, I went to my office, picked my bag and left the premises. I was simmering. I was sad. I was confused. I couldn’t go home, because I didn’t know what to tell my expectant young wife. I decided to visit an army general friend of mine living in Kaduna. I knew him in Rotary Club and saw in him a decent Nigerian. Luckily, he was in: General Mohammed Inna Wushishi, the Chief of Army Staff in the President Shehu Shagari administration in the Second Republic.
The General was surprised to see me at that time on a working day. He wanted to know if anything was the matter. I told him I was out of job. I narrated to him what had happened. He asked me how I felt. I said sad. Sad that a body of eminent Nigerians would judge somebody for a position not based on competence on the job but on extraneous factors such as geography, faith, tribe and tongue.
That day as I walked in, there was somebody who was sitting quietly, apparently reading the dailies. He was not introduced to me, so I just greeted him and sat down with my host to converse. At some point in the conversation, the person asked our host for the use of his phone. When told that the phone was by his side, he asked for permission to use the phone inside. This visitor was also a General, somebody I already knew by reputation but was yet to meet. General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau was this visitor. He finished his conversation, came out and went back to what he was doing earlier without saying a word.
Soon after, I took leave of my host. I actually went back to Lagos that same day but not the way I imagined; for after whiling away time, I forced myself to go home. But before I could open my mouth to explain why I was home so early, I was told that my office had been calling me. I was told that I was required that evening in Lagos by Dodan Barracks, but that I should first see the Honourable Minister of Information, Prince Tony Momoh. I packed an overnight bag and with Mohammed Haruna went to Lagos.
We took the 5p.m. Kabo flight to Lagos, arrived Lagos after 6p.m., got into traffic and got to the Minister’s home a few minutes to the commencement of the NTA 9p.m. network news. Our appointment as Managing Director and Editor respectively was the lead story and the reason we were summoned to Lagos. I was told by Mr. Yusuf Mamman, an IBB confidant and Press Secretary to Commodore Ukiwe, that Gusau’s phone call made General Babangida aware that his directive had not been carried out. He had long approved our appointments but some unpatriotic public and civil servants wanted to subvert it. He directed that it be announced that day.
Thanks to Generals Babangida, Wushishi and Gusau, the day my name was to disappear from the imprint as Ag. Editor was the day the qualifier was removed and I became substantive Editor. This is the first reason for thanking General Babangida. Additionally, on at least three occasions high level conspiracies were hatched to nail me.
I was abroad in 1986 when Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe was booted out of office. When I returned, I left Kaduna for Lagos to pay him a courtesy visit. There was nothing clandestine about this. I went in an official car, gave my complimentary card to the secret service personnel at the gate and also signed the visitors register. This was conveyed to General Babangida as proof of my loyalty to Commodore Ukiwe and by inference, disloyalty to him.
He asked the then Military Governor of Kaduna State, Col. Abubakar Umar to look into the allegations. The governor dutifully invited me and after hearing me out went to Dodan Barracks to report back. What was my defence? I owned up to visiting Ukiwe. And I asked the general what kind of friend he would consider me if, as soldiers are wont to do, he was removed and out of fear for my job, I refused to visit him to cheer him up. I am told he understood that impulse to stand by a friend or mentor in distress.
On another occasion, the Marafan Sokoto, Alhaji Umaru Shinkafi accused Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki, then General Secretary of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, of running a one man show and issuing self-serving orders in the name of an ailing Sultan. The ‘New Nigerian’ ran the story, the subject of a press conference and the Editor earned the wrath of the man who later became Sultan in controversial circumstances. Alhaji Dasuki asked General Babangida to remove me because I was putting a wedge between Northerners. The General reportedly told him to do some soul searching because an outsider can only put a wedge where there is a crack.
After the Kafanchan riots and the crisis it generated, when for one month I couldn’t sleep in my quarters and had to send my family down south, because the then Police Commissioner considered me an infidel who didn’t deserve police protection, General Babangida through his Press Secretary, Duro Onabule facilitated a holiday abroad for me. Unfortunately, it seemed I paid him back with ingratitude when the paper I edited accused his wife of going on Hajj with an entourage of 100. That was one set-up I couldn’t “cleverly side-step” to quote the publisher of the defunct ‘HOTLINE’, Alhaji Hassan Kontagora. He said that when I cleverly sidestepped all previous traps, including people offering me financial assistance with the plain clothes police ready to pounce, they hit on a plan that was foolproof.
The Hajj story was covered by our Kano Editor, who always covered Hajj; so one was bound to believe the story. Two, not being a Moslem, it would not occur to me to query why the First Lady was travelling with such a large entourage and without her husband. Three, they were in luck. I was attending a book launch in Lagos. I left Kaduna with the first flight meaning to return with the last. In effect, I did not edit the paper that day. I was picked up at 10.30pm at the Kaduna airport, kept overnight in Kaduna secret police office and returned to Lagos and detention under Decree 2, the next day.
When shown the offending news and denial by Dodan Barracks, I smuggled out an apology which I signed as Editor. Unfortunately, the man in charge of our Lagos office into whose hands the apology was entrusted sat on it and instead published an annoying, “We stand by our story–Editor”. I am told that when the First Lady saw the piece, she cried out and said “What did I do to this young man?”
That heartfelt cry still haunts me, especially as I had no opportunity to explain to her what transpired before she transited.
Part of that conspiracy was to keep me in detention for a specific period, after which, according to the ‘New Nigerian’ Editorial Policy, another Editor would be appointed. They underrated my wife, Lady Esther Oparadike. She flew to Lagos, went to ‘The Guardian’ newspaper office and saw Nduka Irabor, who interviewed her for his hot-selling evening paper, ‘The Guardian Express’. “Editor Missing” was the screaming headline that got the world media, principally the BBC, to ask questions that embarrassed and woke up the Federal Government.
Admiral Aikhomu denied signing the order. It seemed somebody cloned his signature or used a pro-forma copy. From 15 Awolowo Road, I was taken to House Arrest in Victoria Island to buy time. There again, my wife got the media to know that contrary to the information that I had been released, I was yet to return home.
I was finally released, went back to work, on borrowed time, offered my resignation to Admiral Aikhomu and was turned down. A month later, I was redeployed to the Federal Ministry of Information which had no room for me. I was then given a choice of government parastatals, I settled for MAMSER.
Preconceptions and misconceptions were too hard to clear. Let me now publicly say thank you to Generals Babangida, Wushishi, Gusau and Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe. Thank you Prof. George Obiozor, for coming to take me out on bail on one of the occasions I was a guest of the (Nigerian Security Organisation) NSO at 15 Awolowo Road, Ikoyi. Posthumous thanks to Ochiagba Dikenafi, Chief Collins Obih, who alerted Prof. Obiozor to my plight.
Thanks to all the beautiful souls that were my colleagues in the ‘New Nigerian’, especially my erstwhile Deputy, Mallam Adamu Adamu, the current Hon. Minister of Education. And without mincing words, thank you to my amazing wife and mother of my wonderful children.
Olusegun Adeniyi’s Note: Without any doubt, Chief Oparadike was an accomplished professional and a fantastic human being. As he is therefore laid to rest tomorrow in his village in Imo State, I join friends, young and old colleagues as well as numerous well-wishers across the country in praying God to comfort as well as grant Lady Esther Oparadike and the children the fortitude to bear his loss.
Aso Rock Watch
Lightening, according to a popular adage, does not strike twice. Given my experience, I hope and pray that proves to be true in the case of our country. President Muhammadu Buhari, who left Nigeria more than a month ago for what was initially coined as a ten-day vacation before it became an indefinite full-scale medical mission, has officially told Nigerians he needs to spend more time in the United Kingdom to attend to his health.
To be sure, President Buhari has done all that is demanded of him by the Constitution. He has even taken the extraordinary step of allowing Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who is acting in his stead, to sign Bills into Law. So, there is no vacuum as far as the leadership of our country is concerned. However, as the Yoruba adage says, what follows six is more than just seven. Therefore, while President Buhari may have fulfilled the letter and spirit of the law, he cannot legislate over politics and human behaviour; especially when he is thousands of kilometers away from home.
For that reason, I am keeping watch of developments within the federal government as we enter another delicate intersection in the political history of our beloved country. Watch out for this page!