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Op-Ed: Forty-six years and counting

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Is’haq Modibbo Kawu


Forty-six years ago, on the 1st of February, 1977, at just 16 years and 4 months old, I resumed work at Radio Nigeria as a studio manager (Trainee). I was one of the youngest people ever to be recruited by the defunct Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), Radio Nigeria. The late Hannatu Ibrahim was the Head of Programs, Northern Nigeria, and she had facilitated the special dispensation upon which I had been hired. I had concluded the WASC examination in June 1976, seven months earlier. I was so young, that my late mum had suggested that I resumed work, wearing babanriga, so as to look, a bit more mature. Broadcasting seemed the natural setting for me, because as a young boy, I grew up living with my great uncle, who listened to the Hausa Service of the BBC, every morning and night. At that moment, you could hear a pin drop, because no one dared to disturb, as the radio signalled: “London take kira, BBC ke magana”. On the other hand, my mum, presented the first program for women on radio, in Kwara State.

I was recruited by Radio Nigeria within very exciting moments in Nigeria, and the general context of the optimism of the 1970s in Africa and the world. I resumed work during the pan-African cultural fest, known as FESTAC ’77. Nigeria was hosting Africans from all parts of the continent, as well as the African Diaspora, including even Australian Aborigines. The euphoria was sweeping, and like young people of my generation, I was positively caught up in the moment. And my work as a trainee Studio Manager, meant I had to learn fast, to tune the receivers in the studios, to be able to join the Radio Nigeria network for broadcasts from Lagos, the main venue of the festival, and later also, Kaduna, where the FESTAC Durbar was held.

The broadcasting House was always a magical place, where Nigerians from different backgrounds worked, learnt to creatively think through ideas for programs and news, and current affairs. It was, therefore, a house of absurdities, off-beat behaviours, of thoughts and ideas that stretched the limits of the normal and a site of incredible talent. Men and women who seemed to be inspired by a magical attachment to the haloed setting of the Broadcasting House (BH) to express the most outrageous but lovely creativity.

I thrived within the certainties of the environment, and after just three months, it was discovered that I had far more potential than to just be a behind the scene employee, as a Studio Manager (Trainee). I was auditioned, and I successfully made the transition into Presentation as an announcer. By March 1978, I was sent to the Radio Nigeria Training School for the Basic Announcers’ Course. That opened a new vista: phonetics training; newsreading coaching and practices with the very best in Nigeria; music presentation; scripts writing; music compering, and incredibly, the great Nigerian highlife musician, Eddy Okonta and his band was brought for us to actually simulate what we would be called upon to do as successful Announcers.

The training school regime opened up avenues of relationships with colleagues from across Nigeria, and more enriching was the weekly programs post-mortem, when the qualities of presentation, as well as the performances of Announcers were dissected. That was the height of professionalism. And Marie Irikefe was the boss who chaired, while all the great names were present: Stella Bassey; Stella Awani; Eno Irukwu; Ishola Folorunsho; Martins Okoh; Mike Enahoro; Kalu Nsi; Marius Ugada; Ron Mgbatogu; Vincent Oyo; Kevin Amaechi; Rosaline Ogbangwor; Theresa Nyong; Sonny Irabor; Yori Folarin; Jones Usen; the list was literally longer than an arm! But what that did was to offer a cast of truly incredible stars, that one could learn from and be inspired by, and the reality that what underscored all the successes they had was hard work and ever more unstinting application.

Nigerian broadcasting of my generation gave me a lot of opportunity. I was an Announcer, Disc Jockey, News Reader (I was reading news on the National Network Service by 1980, and I wasn’t even yet 20 years old!), News and Current Affairs news analyst, sports and ceremonials commentator, presenter and producer of Programs and before long, I was reporting for international broadcast outfits, like Radio France International and the BBC World Service. I was even invited to Radio Nederlands International in Hilversum, to explore the possibility of being recruited as a Producer/Presenter.

It was incredible that twenty years after, almost to the day, in February 1997, I was recruited to become the pioneer general manager of the Kwara State Television Service. In that twenty-year period, I had literally done everything, and also gone to school, earning a Diploma in Mass Communication, a Bachelors Degree in Mass Communication, during which I won a scholarship every session as best student, and graduated top of my class, and I also earned a Master’s Degree. When I was recruited by Radio Nigeria in 1977, my salary was N97 per month, and after six months, we earned a raise of three Naira, and that brought the salary to N100 per month. Twenty years down the line, as pioneer GM of KWTV, I was earning the highest salary possible, but even that was N13, 000+, and that was in Nigeria of 1997.

After five years of service as GM, a combination of circumstances made it imperative for me to move on to a newer challenge. That was against the backdrop of the situation in Nigeria, towards the end of military dictatorship, and especially the media environment in Northern Nigeria, which called for the emergence of a robust newspaper, able to convey the opinion and feeling of our region. That call was answered by the intrepid visionaries who established first, WEEKLY TRUST, out of Kaduna, our old capital, and eventually from the setting of Abuja, DAILY TRUST. I was interviewed in December 2001 for the position of pioneer substantive editor, and I resumed in May 2002.

It was a most challenging new vista, but one that I took to with enthusiasm, because of the context which created the paper. After a year of editing the paper, one morning, Kabiru Yusuf, the editor-in-chief, asked why I wasn’t going to begin to write a weekly column. I had been writing a lot of the daily editorials and was increasingly chairing the Editorial Board, too. I took up the challenge and my columns became known far and wide, especially in the North, and those who knew my earlier life in broadcasting were often surprised just how easily I made the transition into journalism. I’ve been very lucky to be given the opportunity by our incredible country, to serve in radio and television broadcasting, as well as journalism.

Subsequently, I moved on from DAILY TRUST, to take up the new challenge of being part of a team that helped to establish BLUEPRINT Newspaper, where I served as an Editorial Consultant, Columnist and Chairman of the Editorial Board. One fine afternoon in 2011, soon after the elections, I got a call from Uncle Sam Amuka, the great “Sad Sam”, a pioneer of modern Nigerian journalism. He noticed that my column had been missing in DAILY TRUST for a few weeks; he enquired from Malam Muhammed Haruna, another great name of our profession. Haruna confirmed that I had resigned from DAILY TRUST. Uncle Sam said he was calling to invite me to become a columnist, with VANGUARD Newspapers. Such an invitation couldn’t be rejected. I informed Muhammed Idris, publisher of BLUEPRINT Newspaper, and he didn’t oppose the syndication of my column. That was how I wrote simultaneously for both newspapers.

In 2014, I was selected as a delegate to the National Conference, as one of the representatives of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. And as events moved fast in Nigeria, the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), defeated the ruling PDP, allowing President Muhammadu Buhari, to become the first opposition candidate to defeat a sitting president in a Nigerian election. Buhari appointed me Director General of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), in May 2016. The main challenge that I took on effusively, was the Digital Switch Over (DSO). A few weeks before I was appointed DG, the pilot switchover was carried out in Jos, Plateau State. I worked to break the logjam which had characterised the process, by first getting the Chairman of Pinnacle Communications Limited, Lucky Omoluwa, to vacate the court case he was pursuing against the NBC.

Similarly, we made superhuman efforts to rally other stakeholders, who had different agendas and were often working at cross purposes, with each believing that it must secure the most advantage from what was perceived as government largesse. Despite the relentless hostility, treachery and unending suspicion and betrayals, we managed to launch the DSO in Ilorin, Kaduna, Enugu, and Osogbo. The stakeholders were paid their entitlements, and as the directive from the Presidency had stressed, ALL approvals for payment on the DSO funds were DONE by the Minister of Information and Culture. That is Lai Muhammed.

In 2018, Pinnacle Communications Limited was also paid N2.5 billion, and the approval was done by Lai Muhammed, as Minister of Information. A few months later, I was invited by the ICPC to answer why Pinnacle was recommended for payment. I offered the explanation, as embedded in the Government White Paper on the Transition to Digital Broadcasting in Nigeria. Besides, it was the Minister who had APPROVED the payment; and what I had done was to recommend. The Minister could have declined approval if he had felt the payment was not in order. The basic rule everywhere, was that whoever approved logically takes responsibility. But in the case of the payment to Pinnacle Communications Limited, there were incredible subterranean currents, which were directed to two purposes, and these were to humiliate Lucky Omoluwa and to remove me as Director General of the National Broadcasting Commission.

We were arraigned in court in April 2019, and I became the object of one of the most vicious and most relentless media trials in recent times in Nigeria. The pattern of reportage in practically every news outlet, ran with a perspective that created an impression that I was accused of having stolen N2.5billion! Those that I had severely criticised in my columns in the past, especially the old political hegemony in my state, Kwara, employed social media trolls to regularly accuse me of having “stolen” N2.5billion! In court, I’m being tried for allegedly “misleading” Lai Muhammed to approve payment to Pinnacle Communications Limited, while in the media, including and especially the social media space, I was cast as having “stolen” the money paid to Pinnacle Communications Limited.

An online newspaper, Premium Times, set up by an individual who I grew up, went to school and lived with, and who was my Comrade in the Nigerian Marxist-Leninist Movement, became my main accuser. There were other individuals, who could be described as acquaintances, who similarly wrote scurrilous pieces attacking me, and requesting my sack, because of their hatred for the late Abba Kyari, who was my very close friend!

For me, it was a humbling experience, that despite my years of proud, unblemished professional record, and as a Fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, not one newspaper, not even those I worked with or wrote for, bothered to request my side of the story. They ran with the accusatory perspective which my accusers pushed relentlessly. I found out the hard way, that in the Nigerian media, there’s a deep-seated jealousy and resentment for colleagues who get public appointments, and the tendency to pull them down, or gloat over their difficulties, is embedded in the culture of the Nigerian media.

They bayed for blood, literally my blood, and what was going to please them, was for me to be sacked. And I was sacked on February 13th, 2020! Unfortunately, Lucky Omoluwa, the Chairman of Pinnacle Communications Limited, who had made tremendous sacrifices, and was the single largest financial contributor to the DSO process, died suddenly, on February 18th, 2020, five days after my removal as DG, NBC. In a much saner society, Lucky Omoluwa would have been given a national award for his singular contribution to the DSO, but he and I were docked, and we’ve been undergoing a trial since April 2019!

For the past thirty-five months, I’ve been without a livelihood, because it is impossible for a person undergoing a criminal trial to apparently earn my type of livelihood, as a journalist and broadcaster. I earn no salary, and I didn’t have any money stashed away in any location. I’ve survived because of the generosity of a few very caring and most understanding friends.

But I decided that I was not going to bemoan my fate. Five days after I was removed from my position, I was in class at the NDA, in Kaduna, to defend the PhD thesis proposal. It was during that session, on that fateful day of February 18th, 2020, that I got the call from Idi Farouk, that Lucky Omoluwa had died suddenly that morning. It was one of the most tragic moments of my life. But I persevered, and on September 8th, 2022, I successfully defended the PhD thesis that I wrote on the reportage of the farmer-herder conflicts by the Nigerian Press. In the midst of all that I’ve faced in the past three years, I successfully graduated with a PhD in Defence and Strategic Studies!

The case against us remains in court, and is therefore subjudice. We have been going back and forth, and been subjected to several adjournments; my passport has been seized since 2019, so I cannot even travel anywhere, a major punishment for a person, who was born with the genes of movement, as a very good Pullo. But I’m here, defiantly holding on to sacred hope, in the words of Augustinho Neto, one of the great heroes of African liberation. No matter how long the night, it would certainly give way to the light of day.

What my accusers, and those people who have written scurrilous pieces against me do not know, are very few, but very vital facts. The first, is that I valorise my origins. My forefathers are Fulbe Islamic scholars and public servants. I’m a descendant of the Emirs of Ilorin. I’ve always held the background I come from as a badge of honour. And I would NEVER do anything to bring into disrepute the background that I come from. Secondly, from the age of 16, I had been very active in the Nigerian Marxist-Leninist Movement, and I worked actively and committedly in the Nigerian students and trade union movements. These have defined the ideological values that formed my worldview and the choices that I have consciously made in my professional, as well as public life.

Today, on this 46th anniversary of my life as a professional broadcaster and journalist, there’s a lot to be thankful for. And even in the context of the most painful past four years of my life, during which I’ve known the true meaning of despair and very lonely moments, I won’t make an alternative choice to the one that I made all those years ago. Forty-six years of professional life, and still counting. Alhamdulilah!

Dr. Is’haq Modibbo Kawu, FNGE, is a broadcaster, journalist and Political Scientist.

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