A former Ambassador to Philippines, Dr Yemi Farounbi is 78 today, and shares his journey with two media houses including TheTabloid.net. Excerpts
When we talk of the film industry in this country, there is no way your name will not be mentioned unless the person is not well informed. Many years ago, there was this film which you were strongly connected with, titled Agbaarin. There was a lot of expectations in respect of the film, but suddenly something happened…
Agbaarin the film. It was a film that we thought will be a pioneer in history and an experiment through the General Manager of the Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State then, my friend, Mr Adebisi Adesola and through the Economic Advisory Council of Oyo State, chaired by the late Architect Layi Balogun. We got the late General Tunji Olurin, the then military governor of Oyo State interested in the concept of sponsoring Yoruba films. He will provide the funds for BCOS; BCOS will release the funds to the artistes. It will be a cooperative venture; the artistes and myself as the producer, and BCOS will receive money from the government over the years. But at a time, BCOS will no longer need subventions from the government; whatever we make from film productions will be used to sustain it. The whole idea was that after Agbaarin, and we get returns and do some other films until we can almost capture almost all the Yoruba artistes; and in any case, most of them were already working with me at Lab Deroy Centre which was my private company. Somehow, we finished the production and we were taking it abroad because it is celluloid; we had a soundtrack in a bag that Wale Faanu was taking on his shoulder to Ranks Studious, UK. He got to the UK and, yes, the soundtrack was still with him. But the 55 cans of exposed film that were checked in at Lagos, through Lagos-London flight on the Nigeria Airways, never got to London till today. So, we could not find the film. We spent about 30 days at Osun Osogbo making the film. So, it was one of the most testy times that I ever had. Money has been spent; production has been done; we cannot find the film; we have the soundtrack. There was nowhere we did get to, searching for the film, because the Nigeria Airways was going Kinshasa in Nairobi, in case it was an error. I was taken through the intricacies of the then airport. It was then that I found out where people used to interfere with people’s luggages; you are there at the airport, your luggage will come out and you find out that it has been opened. In any case, the film was stolen. I couldn’t go back to General Olurin and say money is lost; nor could we tell Layi Balogun who strongly advised the government to finance the project. So between Adebisi Adesola and I, we had to find a solution. So, we did a reshoot and in that reshoot, tribute to Tunde Kelani who the Director of Photography. He said: “I will shoot without payment. Just buy me new projector” The lighting crew, audio crew and technical crew all of them said this is a good work of art, we will shoot without pay. So, it remained the artistes. The artistes said, “alright, we will take percentages, but you will feed us, you will transport us.” We felt it was a fair deal and so we had to reshoot. Of course, that also gave us an advantage: there were areas that we now improved on. And, if we spent about 35 days shooting the first version, we spent about 15 days shooting the second version and it was now faster. I think it was and still the only film that was totally and completely scripted. So, we didn’t allow people to act themselves or to say what they ought to say; you had to learn the line. It was then I discovered an incredible capacity about the Yoruba artistes. There was one woman called Iya Elewe: she is a complete illiterate; she cannot read. She will say: “omo mi, read it to me” and I will read it to her thrice and she will repeat it without any error. Then, I found that, even though they were not literate, they were sound intellectually. So, it made the production beautiful. Of course, it was part government, part means the artistes and that was the time you had to take the film round: we bought the projector and we even bought a Peougeot 504 car to take it round. There were were very few cinema houses. In the course of doing that, Osun State got created out of the old Oyo. So, some of those people, like Kunle Adeyemo who was the Assistant Director, moved to Osun. In that interregnum in which almost all the management of BCOS had moved to Osun, we lost control. I will say we lost control because when they settled down, I asked for the film from Osun and they said it was not with them. I asked Oyo, they said it was with them. So, till today, we couldn’t find the film of Agbaarin; even the second attempt. We don’t have a copy of it. And it was a tremendous work of art that attracted almost all the governors.
Can you attribute that great loss to a human or deliberate sabotage?
Well, both. Within the artistes, there was competition; they thought how could Jimoh Aliu from somewhere in Ekiti, not known in Ibadan circle and Yemi Farounbi brought him. But I need his creative capacity. I knew Orisabummi and I had 18 other theatre groups working. What they didn’t know was that we are going to be recycling that after one particular artiste, it will be another artiste and so on like that. So, I believed that it was deliberate sabotage because that the luggage of the first version got missing cannot be ordinary. And that, at the end we couldn’t achieve anything. The kind of money that ought to have been made; that would have benefitted BCOS and created opportunities for subsequent productions, we couldn’t because the state got created and, in the process, nobody could tell me where the film is. Much later, Jimoh Aliu and I said “let’s reach Ranks Studios in the UK. They could still probably be having the raw stock and they might still have a master.” But Ranks Studios have liquidated and because we are in Nigeria, they had advertised that “if you any work with us, you should come and collect it.” We went there, I think, about three or four years after liquidation, we couldn’t find them. That was how we lost it. But I knew that at that time, before the state creation came, the film caught on. The attendance was quite good. There is this belief that two forces are controlling human activities- spiritual and physical. Does the film, Agbaarin, has anything to do with spirituality? Actually, it is a political narration that many people didn’t understand. Arin is a game and this was an annual game between two towns. One was always winning; the other was always losing. They were going to have this particular edition. The one that was always losing put everything into practices- training, passion, understanding. The one that was always winning assumed that it would win. So, they got to the competition and they were shocked that the underdog was winning. Fadeyi, the fearful medicine man said “ah ah, they are going to win?” And he disrupted the game by going to the regent of the winning side, took the crown, seized it and he walked away. It then became ajatuka ni t’agbaarin. Now interprete it. There was the 1983 elections. There was some traditional winners and there was some traditional losers. The traditional losers campaigned, worked hard all over and really we were told that they probably won the election, but they were rigged out and ended up in the military takeover that took away the crown.So, of course, given the circumstances that we had this incumbent president as the military president then, we never really interpreted it to anybody but that was the story. The government that funded the production of the film was just looking at the gains. When people go to watch films, they look at the artistic, the costume; they look at the make up. Our people are wonderful. You made up Ojo Arowosafe, who was probably in his early 30s then, and you will think that he was over 100 years. There was no imported make up that can do that. Our own people were resourceful enough. They will go over to a plantain stem; they one that has been harvested and is already decaying. The dip inside the decaying stem and when you put it around the body, it would look like wrinkles. We have fantastic people. So, people were more interested in that; I mean they were roaring in the auditorium, acknowledging and hailing and they saw the good and the bad; the good Orisabunmi and the bad Fadeyi. You had a confrontation that you had Aworo there on the side of Orisabunmi. Eventually they would win because the good must always win. So, they were only interested in that story; they were only interested in the incantations; they were only interested in the exchange of actions. And it was real because if you are going to fight, you really had to fight. Otherwise, I will not allow you. Then we have not reached the stage that, you want to roll along a rocky slope; these days, youbprobably would have padded your body. No!!! Then, you have to roll. If you want to throw a child, you throw it although you would have positioned the camera in such a way that it would look like a long distance. So, the people were carried away with the artistic. So nobody, not even the journalists, have ever wonder about the story. All they took away was that the good over-powered the bad.
You alluded to the fact that the 1983 elections were rigged. Can you emphatic on this, you were a major player then, even till now, in the Nigerian political system?
Let me explain this: General Ibrahim Babangida came with a little bit to the left and a little bit to the right. In this country, as I speak, the a little bit to the left people are more than the a little bit to the right. Call them leftists; call them progressives, they are more than the conservatives. You know why? Left-of-the-centre people are the poorest of the poor; the poor from the middle class downward. So, in any fair election, if you have a representation of the whole decadent men, the conservatives and somebody who is representing genuine change and progressiveness, he would win. That was what played out in 1983. In 1979, Chief Obafemi Awolowo could not find a running-mate in the North; none. He had to end with an Igbo as a running-mate; Yoruba plus Igbo running-mate in a country where the population had already been skewed by the British in favour of the North when it was a nin-starter. But in 1983, the progressive forces in the North found Awolowo Alhaji Muhammed Kura and you would have found that there was no state where the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) didn’t have a thinking, intellectually sound, resourceful candidate which it couldn’t in 1979. The people that eventually became the Shehu Yar’Adua Movement, at that time, worked with Awolowo. So, the natural expectation was that Awolowo would win the election. But the rigging was massive.
But the thought was that Chief Awolowo performed better in 1979 than in1983…
That was the result. But he was much more better in 1983 because he now has these radicals in the North; and, as I said, those who are now called the Shehu Yar’Adua Group were all behind him. But he lost and it became obvious to the natural winners that the way things were going, they would lose control or probably the political leadership of the country. So, they called on their military wing to take the crown. And so, we went on into 16 years of rulership by that military wing. So, it is the reality. And, until very lately, the left-of-centre people, even in the US, they are called the Democrats. Most times, they are not united. You should go and study the American presidential system. You will find that, for many years, the Democrats will control the House of Congress and Senate, but they will not win president. This is because they will not be able to agree among themselves- little to the left, centre to the left, extreme left- on a candidate that can unite all of them. Whereas, the Conservatives never had that problem. That is why for a long time before Jimmy Carter came, there was no Democratic president. And after Jimmy Carter, until Bill Clinton came, there was none because they will fractionalize; they will so struggle during the primaries that they will be exhausted at the end of it. They will fight the primary as if it is the end of the world. The middle of the left will want to over-power the outside left; the outside left will want to over-power the inside left. The same thing in Labour Party in the UK. That is why, until Tony Blair came, they were years in wilderness. And after Tony Blair left, he handed over to James Gordon Brown and they are now back in the wilderness; either David Cameron or Theresa May or Boris Johnson. This is the third Conservative Prime Minister because it is so difficult for the left-of-the-centre to subdue their pride, subdue their divisions, subdue their fractionalization and unite.
Where did you put the Nigerian situation in that calculation?
In Nigeria, we have those who masquerade as the left of the centre; but who, indeed, are not. This is because I knew this, working with the UPN; I knew a lot of candidates who won elections on the platform of the party. They were on that platform because that was the only platform that would win, not because they believe in what the UPN stood for. They only wanted a platform to win. That is what happens in Nigeria now. People only look for platforms to win; not because they agreed with whatever that platform stands for. So, if you ask them during the UPN days, what is rural integrated development, they don’t know. Free education, the same thing. When you start thinking of rural integration or gainful employment or Optimum Community (OPTICOM), they don’t understand. You couldn’t have been contesting on the platform of a party that you don’t understand what it stood for. But they did because that was the only party that could win an election in the West. So, we still have that; people who masquerade as leftists but who had no understanding of what it takes to have a left of the centre party and they say they are a progressive party. Then, you ask them, “what is progressive in it?” Then, they will tell you that they are natural inheritors of Awolowo. Is it because of their cap or you wear his glasses? Have you studied Awolowo himself? When Awolowo was doing Action Group (AG), he didn’t go out to build a national party. He built a party for the West and built alliances, either with the UMBC or Dynamic Party or a party in the South-East or Ibrahim Imam’s party. So, he formed an alliance. But when he formed the UPN, he decided he was going to have a nationally-oriented and directed party. And his cardinal points were different from his when he was ordering Yoruba. Yoruba was a welfarist AG- life more abundance.
That is what happens in Nigeria now. People only look for platforms to win; not because they agreed with whatever that platform stands for. So, if you ask them during the UPN days, what is rural integrated development, they don’t know. Free education, the same thing. When you start thinking of rural integration or gainful employment or Optimum Community (OPTICOM), they don’t understand. You couldn’t have been contesting on the platform of a party that you don’t understand what it stood for. But they did because that was the only party that could win an election in the West. So, we still have that; people who masquerade as leftists but who had no understanding of what it takes to have a left of the centre party and they say they are a progressive party. Then, you ask them, “what is progressive in it?” Then, they will tell you that they are natural inheritors of Awolowo. Is it because of their cap or you wear his glasses? Have you studied Awolowo himself? When Awolowo was doing Action Group (AG), he didn’t go out to build a national party. He built a party for the West and built alliances, either with the UMBC or Dynamic Party or a party in the South-East or Ibrahim Imam’s party. So, he formed an alliance. But when he formed the UPN, he decided he was going to have a nationally-oriented and directed party. And his cardinal points were different from his when he was ordering Yoruba. Yoruba was a welfarist AG- life more abundance. But now when he knew he was dealing with a Nigerian that didn’t have the exposures the Yoruba have, I hate to say this, but when you read the History of Africa by the time the whites came- you read their sociological or biological books- they will tell you that the Yorubas had 47 per cent of all the urbanisation of Africa, domiciled here. So, in term of exposure, they were different. So, Awolowo now looked at Nigeria and thought of equalizing wealth. Therefore, I just free education, I must free health, I must have rural integrated development. That is turning rural areas into suburbans. In any case, they tried to experiment it in Aawe, with Professor Akin Mabogunje and Professor Ojetunji Aboyade. You use the school as the centre of the town and you make sure that the school is so well developed; that it must have the same facilities as we have in the urban centre so that there will be no need for you to have a drift of your children from the rural school to the urban school. With the school at the centre, what do they need? They will need good teachers. What would the teacher need? He will need good housing, water, light. If he has all of that, he will not be thinking of going to work in Ibadan; he will be content. Alright, you are also going to have farms. You don’t expect these farmers to work with cutlasses and hoes. You are thinking of caterpillars and tractors; you are thinking of buying them rain boots and stuffs like that. You are beginning to think of the concept of farm settlement which was an Israeli idea. You live in a farm; not the kind of what their fathers used to live in, but comfortable places where they have electricity. So, if you want to watch television, you can watch it. If it were like today that you have GSM, you should be able to use GSM. So, you will not have the urge to want to leave. Awolowo called it Optimum Community. But these people didn’t understand. He thought that, if you are able to do all of these, then Nigeria will rapidly grow. And it would have. When people now say they are progressives and they talk about free education, I do say if Awolowo had been alive today, he would not talking about free education because it would have been taken for granted. He would not be talking of free health because it would be taken for granted. He would be talking of human capacity development. He would be talking of knowledge factories. He would be talking of ICT. We would have moved forward. He was never static in intellect.
Invariably, you are saying the 1983 coup was a successful attempt to thwart the developmental strides of the West then?
Both the West and those who sympathised and became the Progressive Party Alliance (PPA). If you remember, all of them got clamped into jails; all of them go 165, 300 years jail terms; all of them were put in prisons; some of them, Aper Aku of Benue, Bisi Onabanjo of Ogun, Ambrose Alli of Bendel, lost their health and died in the process. Even the vice president was in prison and the president was put under arrest in a Guest House. So, it was, in my view, an arrest of a possible growth and development of the whole country. Of course, it affected the West more because we are like an engine room. And that was the beauty of the Federalism we had before. There was competitive federalism; we were all interested in production. We were not operating a distributive federalism. Today, we are just distributive.Then, we were contributing. If the West was building a Cocoa House, the East was thinking of a Palmoil House; Mid-West was thinking of a Rubber House; the North will be thinking of a Groundnut House. If the West started, in 1954, started the minimum wage, everybody caught to it. If the West, in 1955, started the Pilgrims’ Welfare Board- it was the first to take care of its pilgrims in Saudi Arabia- everybody caught to it. Of the West started free education, the East attempted it. If the West built a stadium, the others did. The East built a University of Nigeria, the others copied it. If the West built a television service, the others copied it. You know, there was competitive and healthy rivalry that led to a forward movement. All of that was arrested with the 1983 coup.
You have been part of the system all through the years. At every point in time, you are close to the powers-that-be, even till now. You are personality that wields much influence. What did you do to bring all these to the knowledge of those that found themselves in the corridors of power?
That is a very interesting question. I had the privilege of working with Chief Bola Ige, one of the most restless brains I have worked with and who enjoyed good argument. That reflected in his governance. I will give you two examples: He wanted to do a television system and he told me: “My Leader started the first television in Africa. I want to build the best in Africa. That is your assignment. Go ahead. You are the only one who can do it for me.” I said: “that is turning me to God”. Then, I was so many things: I was Chairman, Directorate of Information; Special Adviser on Television and Broadcast. I could attend cabinet meetings and I don’t have to because he abolished the position of Commissioner for Information for me to able to do the so many things. I was looking after the Ministry of Information; o was looking after the Cultural Centre; I was looking after radio and television. So, I put all of them together as a directorate and I was the chairman of the Directorate. He said, “Give me the best television” and I said, “Fine, I am going to give you. But on one condition. I will be free to employ whoever I wanted, who can deliver.” He said, “Fine, so long as he is a Yoruba man.” That meant I was not restricted to Oyo State. That was why the likes of Kunle Olasope could take over the presentation from me. We had a lot of other Oyo State indigenes, but we had bright people from outside the state. He said “fine”. He said “the television house I want you to build, I have been asked by my Leader to give it to a particular person who had been nice to the party all along.” I said “who”. He mentioned the name and I said it won’t happen. He said: “Why?” I told him “building a television station requires expertise. So, I am not going to give it to somebody who knows how to build a house. He must understand the intricacies of how to build a television station because there is a flow from the reception and so on and so forth.” He said, “Ah, yoy follow me and come and explain to the Leader.” I went to the Leader and explain and Papa said, “Brilliant. Go ahead.” As I was going out, I now said, “Who built Television House, Agodi, for you? And I said, D’Alberto.” Papa said “gbere”. Of course, we couldn’t finish the building before the 1983 elections which was an electoral coup and then the military coup. But 25 years after, I was in Osun as the chairman of their broadcasting outfit and we wanted to revive the business. The building was still as solid as we left it in 1983 because the leadership of the party and the leadership of the government realised the need for competent and excellence. Using it, I have had the opportunity of interfacing with governance like that.
An incident nearly brought you at a loggerhead with the late Chief Bola Ige in the build up to the 1983 elections as stated by Prince Dotun Oyelade in his book, “Dotun Oyelade Reporting…Memoirs of a Newshound”. Can you expatiate on this?
One thing that I will forever respect Bola Ige for; he knew intellect when he found one. He knew he himself was brilliant and he used to tell me “the hallmark of a brilliant person is that he must recognise other brilliant people”; and he recognised them. I have told you that he enjoyed arguments. When you argue with him and you give him good reasons why he must not do what he wanted to do, he will agree. I have that, interestingly, also in Chief Awolowo. Some people tell me all kinds of stories until I met the man. I cannot remember exactly but I told him something and he looked at me and said, “Where did you get that idea from?” I said I read it from a book. He said: “That is strange. That is a good idea. Can I have the book?” I went and bought a copy for him. Baba insisted on returning my Two Shillings. And he read it and when we met next, he engaged me; what he agreed with; what he disagreed and why he disagreed. And I argued why I agreed. You see, when you strike a good point, Papa will say “Good point. Gbere”. He would be happy. So, I worked with likes like that. But there are people that you cannot talk to; they cannot understand. But that is democracy. Democracy is not necessarily the best form of government. It does not necessarily guarantee that you will elect the best. And in the circumstances of Nigeria, from 1993 or thereabout, it is who has the biggest account in the bank that they voted for. So, when you interacted with some of them like that, they have lots of money, as Dr Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe will say, “of sources known and unknown”, “legitimate and illegitimate”. So, they win, but it becomes difficult to reach them intellectually. But there are those we talk to, in my own way. For example, we were placing full page adverts on things that we believe in. We would first have written the Head of State or whoever by courier. Then we wait for sometime; then we place it as adverts in the Punch, Tribune and, very occasionally, the Guardian. But my own easiest of talking is that I am friend of the media. I am a part of the media and I am a friend of the media.
Can you confirm what Prince Dotun Oyelade wrote in his book concerning you and your principal when you were the head of the then Television Service of Oyo State (TSOS)?
Some people have left the UPN to come the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). They were doing a rally in Beere Area of Ibadan. They even attacked some of my people, like Alhaji Busari Obisesan. The late Chief Busari Adelakun, in his speech, said some things. We are reporters; we don’t put words into people’s mouth. We reported what they say.
What you reported got Chief Bola Ige annoyed…
Bola Ige felt they have libeled him; he was angry. When we saw in the evening of that day, he said, “Your station libeled me”. I said “hen hen”. He said, “Is that all you will say?” I said “yes, I trust my boys. They would not libel.” He said, “I will take you to court”. I said “go to court”. And he went to court. After the first hearing, he withdrew the case. This was because I knew my boys were right. I don’t have to ask them “is it true you carried this story?” I know that they knew that they did what they were allow to do by law and they did it.
Of course, it is the only way Uncle Bola Ige will retain me because if, as an ordinary General Manager, I resisted military governance, them I will be the chairman of a Directorate, I would not be able to resist a civilian governor? Then there is something wrong with me. I must offer them leadership and protection. They must have faith that they have a leader somewhere that would defend them if anything should happen. And I have confidence in them. And there was another instance; the station carried the story about shortage of drugs at Adeoyo State Hospital. Then, the Commissioner for Health (he is late now) from now Osun State said to Uncle Bola “this is an enemy within us. How can a station we set up be running us down?” Uncle said, “You wait. When we have a meeting where you can raise, then you raise it.” I knew my boys; I knew they will not say there is shortage when there is no shortage. He raised it and I faced him and said: “Is it true or not that there is a shortage of drugs at Adeoyo Hospital?” He said,” Well, you should not have raised it. We are in the process of processing the tender for it.” I now said, “What are you talking about? Don’t you understand the concept of minimum order and reorder level? That went you get a level in your usage of drugs, you must reorder so that the new order will come before you don’t have any?” Uncle Bola just said, “When you are not doing your job, you are bothered about Yemi’s job. He is doing his job; you are not doing your own. Now you said he is exposing us. Is he exposing lies or he is exposing the truth? How am I supposed to know that there were now no drugs if this has not happened?; That you didn’t ask for process tenders to buy new drugs on time?” The man felt unhappy until the end of the day. He eventually left the party and till he left, he never greeted me. That was the kind of leader that I had. So, I had, therefore, wonderful boys. I mean when I was the General Manager, the News Department sent Lekan Alabi to go and do an investigation of the water reservoir at Ilesa, now in Osun State. He did his investigation; he did his report. On his way back to Ibadan, he met the convoy of the military administrator, Paul Tarfa. Where is this man going? He turned; you know you journalists, curious people. He just followed them. And he turned out that Paul Tarfa was going to the then University of Ife, Ile-Ife, to address the students. Of course, by the time the young man got there, Tarfa was already addressing. As at that time, we didn’t have video; we were using film. He had to set up live and others. When Lekan Alabi was doing that, the administrator stopped, wondering who was this stupid civilian interrupting my speech, a military administrator? Lekan Alabi set up, rolled his camera and the man continued with his speech. When he finished and came back, you know we had to process the film, it couldn’t meet up with the news that day. He had to keep it till the next day. Apparently, Colonel Tarfa, as he then was, watched the news and he didn’t himself. He flared up: “After interrupting me, now the news is not even there. Tomorrow morning, go and arrest him and the cameraman.” They came and met the boys at the editorial meeting. They said they are looking for Alhaji. They were asked what happened. “The administrator said we should come and arrest them,” they said. “Then go and see the General Manager. We don’t know you. We only know our GM.” In the Television House, I had told them that if anybody phone you, tell them “we don’t know you. Talk to my GM. I only know my GM”. So, they came to my office and they told me that they want to arrest the reporter. I said no problem. I called Fabio Olanipekun who was a manager and said to him, “follow me”. We went to the military administrator. He asked, “where is the reporter?” I said I am the reporter. He said, “you are not the one. That one is not bearded”. I said “I am the reporter and that is the cameraman”. I said, “What is your problem? If the boy came late, it is because I sent him late. He leaves when I sent him. So, if you are saying he is late and I sent him late, do you punish him or me? So, you arrest me.” He said, “But you didn’t even use the story. I said “we couldn’t have used the story. He came back by 4pm. We had to process; we have to edit. It would only come on air today”. He said, “Get out of my office jo”, and that was the end of the story. So, I have learnt that and that helped when I had to do things for political offices. A the end of the day, are all human beings. If they know that know that you are not mischievous, they will listen to you. All the people that I have interfaced with, if I told them something, that was my genuine belief.
The expectation was that former President Olusegun Obasanjo would make you a minister. Why was it not so?
Obasanjo is a man that loves Nigeria totally and completely. And I can say it, I have not met another person who loves Nigeria like him. But also, he has only one human weakness: the first person that reports a case to him is the righteous. He hasn’t the patience of listening to the other side. But in our own job, we have toured the art of balance, objectivity, impartiality and so on. When he was military Head of State, he loved my station all years. In fact, there were instance that is was only NTV Ibadan that will be there covering his assignments because he loves our objectivity; he likes best our aggressiveness. He had a famous Jaji speech, we were the only station there and he was shocked that there was not even one other reporter there, not even from the Print. He asked, “where are you people from?” I said we were from NTV Ibadan. He offered to take my reporter in his presidential jet to Lagos. The reporter told me he came by road and that is he going back by road. He knows his GM is waiting to use the report for the 7’o’ clock news. So, he brought my reporter to Lagos. He gave him vehicle to bring him to Ibadan and I used the report. When anybody go to Lagos in respect of the report, he said, “go to Ibadan to get the script”. He had confidence in what we were doing.
At what point did you disagree with him?
I really don’t know; I didn’t disagree with him. I think he just thought that I am a rebel and now that he had worked hard and had become the president and they decided that it is only those who competed to be governors would become ministers, except in Osun State where Dr Olu Alabi was made chairman of the Federal Capital Territory. We had insisted that Chief S. M. Afolabi should be the minister. In fact, I was the one who made his nomination. But they didn’t even consider me for anything.You see, I got into politics fortuitously; I got into politics because Bola Ige wanted an excellent television station. There is no I can give an excellent television station without interfacing with the politicians, the finance commissioner and all of that. And when we started the job, I knew he had to have a second term for me to complete the assignment. So, I had to assist as a participant observer in ensuring that he could get a second term so that we can complete this dream of a Mecca of television Africa. It was a television system that took the television out of the studio inyo the street; m what they now do with the Nollywood unlike when we are used to the knockwood when we have the sitting room in the studio; we have the bedroom in the studio. We were to take television outside; I use your house; I use your sitting room as a sitting room; I use your bedroom as a bedroom; I use the university as a classroom. So that there is the naturalness. And also there is the right weather; there was no cold as we have it on Europe. It is warm enough for us to record. So, we were meant to be the Mecca of television for Africa. In trying to do that, I was interested in Bola Ige winning the election. That was how I got into politics. I was a completely a professional who finds himself surrounded by politicians. But I got respected by my boss. When we now had military interregnums, and a lot of people approached Papa Awolowo and all his lieutnants were in jail. We were the only few ones available. papa will not attend such meetings. He will nominate some of us and say “Yemi, four five people, go and represent me.” In that process, I got exposed to a lot of politicians across Nigeria. So, when now started the first political party which is the People’s Solidarity Party (PSP), I was the national deputy chairman. When we eventually wanted to form the original Social Democratic Party (SDP), I contested to be the national deputy chairman but the forces of the forces of Yar’adua, plus the financial muscle, made sure we didn’t win. But I ended up as the chairman of SDP interim when Osun State was created. That was how I got Alhaji Isiaka Adeleke as the pioneer governor of the state. But everybody knew me the way I am and I say things the way I understand them. Sometimes, I look at myself like the Yoruba. I didn’t understand politics enough; Yoruba also didn’t understand politics enough. Nigeria is a polygamous family; not a monogamous one. We Yoruba behave as if Nigeria is a monogamous family. That was the way I believed. If you come from a pastor’s family like I do; the father, the mother and the children, we are so opened- shenanigans. But if come from a family of one father, 10 wives, 40 children, you have to be able to read your mother’s eyes to get messages. We the Yoruba come into Nigeria, they forgot that we have only one father called Nigeria and we have so many mass mothers and you have to know how to play your game to be able to know how to survive in a polygamous family. So, if you come with the concept of a monogamous family; you are brilliant and you come to school: “I came first today”, you can tell that in a monogamous family, not in a polygamous family. You don’t beat your chest in a polygamous family; you get hated. That is what happened to Yoruba in Nigerian politics. Yes, we are the first to produce many things; the first to have a newspaper; the first to have a television station; the first to have a stadium, the first to produce a medical doctor; the first to produce a legal practitioner. You don’t do that in the polygamous family. You create natural enemies for yourself. You keep it to yourself; even if they ask you, just say ‘is that so?’ Yoruba didn’t do that.
Can this be attributed to the fact that the Yoruba are known to be blunt and fair-minded in their disposition?
Yoruba didn’t understand the politics of multiple-ethnic nations. Yoruba broke a rule; an author says every situation has its own law. If you work in the Nigerian Tribune and you resigned to go and work in the Guardian, the operational ethics, the unwritten laws in the Guardian will be different from that of Tribune. So, if you get there and if you don’t quickly learn the rules there, you will be exfoliated; you will be removed like a jiga. When you leave Western Nigeria and you come to the national platform, consisting of more 350 ethnic groups- different history, different values, different cultures, you must study them. You don’t go there and say “I am more intelligent than you.”
I think what you are saying is right but you can do it in a different way. This is because, sometimes, when you read some Yoruba comments like “only a dumb person would think that way”, what do you do? You insult that one, he becomes your enemy because you don’t understand that, in communication, there must be a common frame of reference. So, when I say ‘go’, what it means to me, it must mean it to you. We are 350 ethnic groups with different history. So, ‘go’ may mean different things to all of us. You have to take your time. In broadcasting, you say the truth. In fact, they taught us that facts are scared, comments are free. I went further that fact is good, but truth is better. Because it may be a fact that I said something, but have I said the truth? It is factual that I said it, but what I said is untrue. So, you must not only report facts, but they must be truthful facts. I called it the concept of believability. You must reach a stage that they believed you.
You know there was a stage, when you take the Nigerian Tribune, you believe it, whatever it wrote. When you say something, you say “I heard it on radio”,you believed it. So you must understand all of these. So, those who I thought I probably would have become a threat sold some ideas in corridors that created disenchantment with me. But eventually, because Obasanjo is basically intelligent- forget books, forget PhD- he has it, natural. Of course, he is also bossy like all military officers- they want to dominate their environment. But when you say the unusual, Obasanjo takes a look at you. One day, I got to a meeting and I said the unusual and everybody disagreed with me, Obasanjo said “shut up. We will leave it the way Yemi said. We would talk about it later”. When we were going out, he called me, “that thing you said, is it right?” I said “it is the truth. Don’t talk about right or wrong. It is the truth.” He said “okay, can you bring the person to me?”. I said ‘yes’ and I did and he found that it was the truth. But by then, he had left office. He said, “I wish I had known you better.” That was how I became an ambassador.
Nigeria is 62 years old today as an independent country. Coincidentally, you share same birthday with the geographical entity called Nigeria…
No, Nigeria shares birthday with me. I am the original owner…
Okay, Nigeria shares birthday with you. How do you feel with the country sharing birthday with you?
In 1960, I was very proud. As a student of Christ School, Ado-Ekiti, I was on top of the world- the only student having the honour of having his country sharing birthday with him. That day, they gave us jollof rice and Mirinda and I looked to a great country. In 1960, we were ahead if Singapore; we were ahead of Thailand; we were ahead of Malaysia; we were ahead of Indonesia; wet ahead of Egypt; we were ahead of Tunisia. We were ahead of all of them. Today, we are struggling to be the Poverty Capital of the World. In 1960, our Prime Minister was called the Golden Voice of Africa. Now people are struggling to understand what our president is saying. In 1960, you finished from any university in Nigeria, you are sure of post-graduate studies straight away. Nobody will ask you to do a Test of English for Foreign Students or a GRE because they knew you are rock solid. Of course, the university had universality in it; had foreign teachers; had foreign students. In fact, we were so rascally that we went to spend our vacation, doing holiday jobs in London. N384 was the cost of ticket. When they negotiate it, it would be about N200 for students. So, we had everything to be the masterpiece in Africa. Why won’t I be proud? Then, by 1962, what started happening in the West started happening. By 1964, there was a massive stroke by the Joint Action Committee of the Imoudu/Adebola and co. For three months, they were on the strike. That was when I started losing faith in Nigeria. That was when I started wearing this beard- no, this cannot be the Nigeria of my dream. Three-month strike? It cannot be. Fight in the Parliament? Fire on the mountain, arresting popular politicians? Doing stupid Coker Enquiry? Taking advantage of the Western Nigerian situation to create a Mid-West, while refusing to create regions for the other minorities of the Calabar/Ogoja Rivers and the Middle Belt, as recommended by the Willink Minority Commission of 1957? Trying to take over the National Bank because it belongs to the West, but for the Supreme Court? I said “no, this cannot be the country and that I will start growing a beard”. Of course, we are Marxists and that was the popular thing- Tunji Otegbeye, Mokwugo Okoye, Wole Soyinka and another one radical. I said when Nigeria becomes good, then I will shave the beard.Another time, you will remember, Victor Olaiya cane with a song in 1964, Ilu Le O, Ko Sowo Lode, even though we were enjoying. At least, First Class then was still N600. In fact, we were not in Naira then- we were still in British West Africa Pounds. Then, you take your passport and travel and you get to the airport there to get your entry visa- unlike now that you have to wake up by 4am to queue in one embassy. This is not the Nigeria of our dreams.