When Folu Olamiti clocked 70 on November 30, his peers and junior colleagues dropped lines on social media and in newspapers in honour of a man who strayed into journalism but became one of its titans in his country during 32 eventful years at one of Nigeria’s oldest newspapers.
Mr Olamiti left the Nigerian Tribune as an executive director. Before then, he had held all the top editorial positions in the newspaper. He had also been a star reporter, famously covering the unsuccessful presidential campaigns of the founder of the newspaper, Obafemi Awolowo, in 1979 and 1983 under the short-lived Nigerian Second Republic.
But he also made good friends outside the loop of his professional fraternity, as he reflected when he sat with this reporter for this interview at his Abuja home a day after a quiet celebration of his birthday. Some of those friends offered the hands that helped him back to his feet after an unhappy end to his service at his beloved Imalefalafia station.
Perhaps a bigger irony of his life, however, was that Mr Olamiti never really planned to be a journalist. He did not know what it meant to be one and was surprised when he found himself as one. “I had no inkling of the profession until after I joined it,” he said.
Strayed into journalism
After writing his higher school exams at Ilesha Grammar School, Mr Olamiti had gone to Ibadan to look for a job. At the secretariat, he ran into his former school principal who told him they were recruiting young teachers. But after two years he decided to quit teaching and got another job as a sorter of mails at the post office.
His childhood friend, Eric Teniola, who would become an editor at The Punch before retiring in the civil service as a director at the presidency, was at that time a reporter at the Tribune. He invited him to their office in Adeoyo.
“It was a ramshackle one-storey building with wooden staircase and ceilings,” Mr Olamiti recalled. “The editor was Ikhan Yakubu, who is now late. He said I should write an application. The next day Eric came with my appointment letter. I said is this how to be a journalist? It was an attractive job, people rated journalists very highly then. So I was very excited.”
But he was quick to experience the less glamorous side of his new profession. “They put me on the police beat and I was going to police stations every day to see their diaries of petty crimes.
“One day I wrote a story that burglars were terrorising Ibadan. That even people living very close to the police station were being robbed. That was how they came and picked me up. They locked me up for three days. When I came out, people started shouting, ‘Journalist from detention, journalist from detention.’
“Not quite long after, they asked me to go for training at NIJ (Nigerian Institute of Journalism in Lagos), a three months training in news writing. It was there that I knew what journalism is, that you have to keep yourself informed and know the rules. Not like now that everybody is floating online newspapers and publishing all kinds of things. They have polluted the profession, and it is going to be very difficult for us to get it right again.”
Covering Awo’s campaigns
Mr Olamiti went on to cover many beats, reporting from across Nigeria and travelling to many countries for professional training and to cover events. One of his most interesting assignments, however, was covering the electioneering campaigns of Mr Awolowo for the presidential elections of 1979 and 1983.
“It was an exciting experience. There is no place in Nigeria that I did not tour with Baba Awo. Most of the time I flew with him in the same helicopter, covering the campaign everywhere he went. There are no more politicians like Baba in Nigeria. Baba structured his campaign so that he could speak to the people in every part of the country. His rallies were well attended. Everywhere we went in the north people were shouting ‘Haske’, haske, haske.’ That is ‘light’ (the symbol of the UPN). And we were all hopeful that Baba would win the election.”
Awo and electoral setbacks
Mr Awolowo did not win either of the elections. His Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) returned second behind the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) of President Shehu Shagari both years. However, the UPN, and most stridently the party’s mouth organ, the Nigerian Tribune, bitterly protested that the polls were rigged.
Mr Awolowo challenged the result of the 1979 poll, which was conducted by the retreating military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo, up to the Supreme Court. The major ground for the challenge was that Mr Shagari did not satisfy the constitutional provision of receiving at least a quarter of the votes cast in at least two-thirds of all the states. Mr Shagari had met that benchmark in 12 of the then 19 states but was controversially declared the winner because he recorded over a quarter of the votes in two-thirds of another state, Kano.
In 1983, the NPN even more controversially swept the polls and Mr Shagari was overwhelmingly reelected president, again beating Mr Awolowo to the second position. This time, Mr Awolowo declined to challenge the outcome of the election in court. Instead, he maintained what the media called “a loud and ominous silence.”
Three months into Mr Shagari’s second term in the last days of December 1983, a military coup overthrew his government and the entire Second Republic edifice collapsed. The soldiers would keep civil rule at bay for the next 16 years.
Mr Olamiti had a ringside view of events in the Awolowo camp in those giddy days and recalled the politician’s personal attitude to what turned out to be his final electoral setback.
“He did not take it lightly. That was when Baba started having that heart problem,” he said. “You see, I pitied Baba over all those events because he used his resources and energy to fight for the leadership of this county. But Baba was too trusting and some of his subordinates betrayed him. I won’t mention names. While he was working hard they were pulling him down.”
Mr Olamiti cited a major event in the 1983 election to buttress his analysis.
“We were in Maiduguri for a campaign schedule when they called Baba to come to Kaduna. They said a group of the Northern establishment that the media then called the Kaduna Mafia wanted to discuss with him.
“Later, they called us that Baba wanted us to join him in Kaduna. When we got there, myself and Segun Osoba, who was then at the Daily Sketch, Baba said things had changed o. That they had endorsed his candidature and they would announce it publicly on Monday.
“It was on a Saturday. He said go to Ibadan and write that story for the Sunday Tribune. It was on the front page that Sunday and it flew all over.”
But the endorsement was not the ‘Open Sesame’ that Mr Awolowo anticipated as the UPN did not do better at the poll in the north than it had managed four years earlier in 1979. Mr Olamiti said he believes the Kaduna Mafia endorsement was a ruse and had led the UPN to lower its guards, leaving the NPN to have a field day in allegedly manipulating the elections.
Mr Olamiti cited another incident that grated even more with the Awolowo camp – the perception that then head of state, Mr Obasanjo, unfairly helped Mr Shagari across the line in 1979. This was aside from the controversial position of the then Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) on the two-thirds saga that finally decided the winner.
“We were in Sokoto during the 1979 campaigns. I was listening to the network news on the radio very early in the morning when I heard Obasanjo saying something about the best candidate not necessarily winning an election. I said what kind of statement is this? He was the best candidate. Nobody campaigned like Awolowo.
“I went to him and said ‘Baba, this is what I heard o. He said ‘Are you sure?’ I said ‘Yes, sir’. He said ‘okay, let’s wait for the 9 p.m. news. Baba said, ‘I assure you that if they do not allow us to win this election that may be the end of democracy in Nigeria’. But he then said: “We must have faith in God, don’t let us be discouraged. Man proposes, God disposes. But if they rig the election, fine’. That was what Baba said. I think he did not believe that it would happen.”
Close view of Awo
Mr Olamiti’s job enabled him to have a close personal relationship with Mr Awolowo, his publisher. “Baba loved people around him. If you are honest and sincere, Baba would love you. There was a time we were on the table eating with Baba and we were discussing. I said ‘Baba, I never knew I would meet you in life. When I was very young, people would be shouting ‘Awo, Awo, Awo’. They would put a bowl of water on the ground and say they could see your image in it’. Baba just laughed it off.
“Baba was bold. That is why his political foes feared him. They feared him because they didn’t know the source of his power. He had faith in God. Baba said we should have a clean heart, that there is nothing you will ask with a clean heart that you will not get. Baba served God till the end.”
Another side of Mr Awolowo that impressed Mr Olamiti was his concern for the welfare of people.
“One day, we were going somewhere and Baba just called me and said ‘You must be thinking of owning a house.’ My father served the Anglican Church for 40 years and he did not own a house. My father retired into a mud house. So I told Baba that I didn’t have that dream of owning a house yet because of that background.
“But Baba rebuked me: ‘Don’t talk like that, young man. Your ambition should be tall. You should be thinking already about how to own a house. On Friday, go and look for land in Ibadan, I will pay for it.’
“On Sunday he called me and said: ‘I sent you and you did not get back to me.’ That was how I went to meet my in-law, Ade. I said I needed a parcel of land immediately. He said he would give me two plots for a nominal fee of N100. When I got to Baba and said I had found land, he said ‘how much?’ I said N100. Baba gave me N250. That was how I got the land. By the time I was 41, I had a house.”
Exit from Tribune
After Mr Awolowo’s death in 1987, Mr Olamiti remained close to the family and continued to work at its newspaper in Ibadan. He edited the Sunday Tribune and then Nigerian Tribune in the last stages of military rule in Nigeria under the Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha regimes, during which the newspaper managed to keep out of trouble when the two dictators shut down many national newspapers after the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election.
However, Mr Olamiti was shown the door after over three decades of service to the newspaper. “I left amid so many intrigues and crises,” he said.
But that was when he also began to see the values of the contacts and friends he made during those many years of journalism.
“I went on a course. When I came back they sent me on terminal leave. I had just sent my first child to the university in America then. The boy was 19. He was on a scholarship but I had to be paying about six thousand dollars to balance up. When I left Tribune, there was just N100,000 in my account. They calculated my emoluments for 32 years and it was about N700,000. But they paid me only N200,000 because they said I stood in for some credit adverts.
Friends and post-retirement recovery.
“And that is why I can never forget Chief Bode George. He has been a pillar of support for me. He paid some of the school fees of my child abroad and through him I was able to get into the civil service. President Obasanjo appointed me as a member of the Presidential Action Committee on Firearms (Lights weapons). After two years, I was appointed to the ICPC to work with Justice Ayoola who was also our chairman at the Presidential Action Committee. That was how we met. There were all kinds of intrigues too at ICPC but Baba Ayoola stood by me.
“Other people also played key roles in my life. Brigadier-General David Mark who I first met when he was military governor of Niger State. We have maintained a close relationship and he was one of those who first sent me birthday wishes.
“General Buba Marwa too has also taken me as a brother, he also called me yesterday. He is always with his friend, come rain or sunshine. When I went to see my son who was at the air training school in South Africa, General Marwa was the High Commissioner there and he treated me like a top diplomat.
“Another person who played a key role in my life and is still there is the former governor of Ogun State, Segun Osoba. He loves people of the pen profession, he can sacrifice his life for the journalists that he believes have integrity and are hardworking. I remember when we went to cover the case against the deportation of Shugaban Darman in Maiduguri in the Second Republic, he booked my flight and accommodation. Knowing our challenges then at the Tribune, he also allowed me to use the communication gadgets of Sketch.“
Mr Olamiti is serious on the issue of faith. Maybe that should be expected, given that his father was a cleric.
“That is the key thing in my life. You see, when you have God, hold on to Him. Don’t waver, don’t move sideways. Just call on God. He listens to us. Even as we are sitting here now, the spirit of God is with us. He is looking at us now. When you have faith in God nothing can move you. Have confidence in yourself too. But when you commit sin, that is when your faith cannot work. I don’t have money but I have integrity and I have friends around me.”
The celebration of his birthday in Abuja was low-key. His wife, a university don, was on sabbatical outside the country while his children also live abroad. But Mr Olamiti was no less happy. “It was awesome to find two leaderships of the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion, present at the thanksgiving and Holy Communion service,” he said of the event at the Anglican Church in Life Camp, Abuja.
“The current leadership of the church, the Archbishop Metropolitan and Primate of Nigeria, Henry Ndukuba, was in charge of the service and the immediate past Primate, Most Rev Nicholas Okoh and the wife, were present. That is to show how glad I was. I don’t remember ever seeing those two key people in the Church of Nigeria present at an occasion like that. I was so excited. It was a workday, but the quality of the people that came, and those who have even called me, make me so happy.”
Maybe his experience as the son of a cleric could also have chased him in a different direction. He recalled his tough early life. “My father was a catechist. We suffered poverty. No money. Then, when I sat with my father, I would not talk. He would ask me why I was quiet? I would say, ‘Baba I am quiet because I am thinking of the future, a future where I can take care of you my parents. Baba would say let’s keep praying.
“We depended on church members for our upkeep. There were seven children in the family, but there was never enough food to eat. But my father loved children because his father’s children had died one after the other. My father didn’t want anything to happen to us.”
“But something happened before my Papa died. That is why we should have faith in God. My father used to move around, they were in Ondo and he retired into a mud house. In that house, we just put a mat on the floor to sleep, there was no furniture. In the kitchen we used firewood.
“My elder brother and I would hawk for our mother early in the morning from around 5 a.m. We would go round the community to sell before preparing for school.”
House for father
Mr Olamiti said he always thought of taking his father out of the mud house.
“We later built a family house for our father, a bungalow. We put everything inside, bed and all. When I told my father that we were moving him out of the mud house, he said he would not go to anybody’s house. I said let us go Baba, the house is yours. Mama said let us start packing everything, but I said no need, let’s leave everything here. When we got to the house, my father stood outside and stared at the house. ‘You mean this is my house or somebody else’s house?’ He shook his head when he entered and saw the bed, light and fan. He laid on the bed and started praying for us, his children.”
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