Looking back, our sacrifices during the military era were worth it —Lanre Arogundade

Mr. Lanre Arogundade was popular as a student activist, union leader in and out of school and as a journalist. He shares his journalism experience with SAM NWAOKO in this interview.


If you are to share how you started, how would you say you started journalism sir?

My first stint at journalism was at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) as an undergraduate. I was a member of the Campus Journalists Association of Campus Journalists (ACJ) being one of the reporters for Petals Magazine. At a stage, I was in the leadership of that organisation. Ife has a thriving media tradition which means you have different journals owned by different student groups. Some, ideologically different, others, not. As an undergraduate, I was practising one form of journalism or the other on campus. When it was time to look for work, I felt that journalism would be good, that it was an ideal environment for someone who had been a pro-democracy and students activist on campus. So in 1988, I was privileged to join The Republic newspapers. That was the beginning of my journalism. I was on the features desk, I was a features writer. I left The Republic for National Concord, then to Vanguard where I was a Deputy Editor at the Sunday Vanguard.


From campus journalism and the activism active in you, when you came out and started real life journalism, did you find them the same or the journalism of real life equal to your campus expectations?

The two are worlds apart. On campuses, it was just an amateur journalist who didn’t go through any kind of training. It was something we did out of ideological association or flair. It was in those days magazines identified with certain trades on campus. The Petals magazine for example was left-leaning and I was a student socialist activist. So, to that extent, those of us who belonged to the Alliance for Progressive Students naturally gravitated/migrated towards Petals magazine which was one of the front organizations of the then Alliance for Progressive Students. We had other people too, we were not the only ones. We had those who believed in soft sell journalism. We had magazines on campus whose interest was more or less gossip — gossips about lecturers, about students and so on. We had Cobra. There were also other serious ones like The Bang and a few others. But when you compare that, what we were doing was more of writing ideologically opinionated articles but also taking on the authorities on what we felt was not going right with the way the campus was being run. We were a bit critical, we were practicing, if you like some form of adversarial journalism. But you can’t compare that to what obtains outside.

Outside, you have a medium operating as a normal medium, where you respect all the rules of journalism. There, you know that on certain occasions, there could be some limitations on what you can report or how you can report it. So, that was the kind of experience that one had. In comparison with outside, outside was much more rigorous. When I first wrote my few lines, seniors in the profession like Dr Tokunbo Oloruntola, who came from Daily Times to join The Republic, didn’t feel comfortable. He said ‘yes you have the idea; you have the flair for it but you still don’t get it’. Their duty was to make sure that I got it.


For the ‘Aluta person’ that you were, it might have taken you time to adjust to real journalism. How much of your activism did you inject into your work and did it take you long to adjust to real time journalism?

In a sense, it didn’t take long because some of the things I was reporting in the early stages of my career were also working class-oriented, like covering the strike action of Berec (Batteries) workers. Berec used to occupy the premises that were later taken over by Basorun MKO Abiola which he used for African Concord. I was covering protests by workers in the factory. The way the media works is that you don’t just sit in one place, you go round and share different experiences. But it was different really, and even though it didn’t take long, there was a lot of interest in me. There were a lot of senior colleagues who were willing to really put me through. They were there to correct when it was too long or too short and so on. That was the kind of environment I benefitted from as a young journalist. We had the likes of Mr. Tokunbo Oloruntola, who was one of the reporters in The Punch in the 1980s when I was the NANS President. He had covered and did stories on NANS. He was naturally interested in me — this troublesome boy has now come to the newsroom. One of the things he did was to encourage me to start a column on life on campuses. I can’t remember what I called the column now but campus was there. On a weekly basis, I would go round the campuses, get the gist of what was happening there and then I would put it together and have it reported. That was the kind of training on the job that one had. Mr. Niran Malaolu is currently the proprietor of Rock City FM, he was an award-winning reporter with The Punch Newspapers. By coincidence, himself and Mr. Oloruntola were living together and on weekends, I would go to their house to go and learn more. In those days, if you wanted your story to go in time, you had to also know how to plan pages and Mr. Malaolu was one of the best sub-editors in the country. So, while Mr. Oloruntola would teach me the news, Mr. Malaolu would teach me sub-editing so that I could plan my page. That was the kind of experience that one had. So, I was privileged to work with seasoned hands. The Republic was a new newspaper and it had some of the best hands in the industry. Our news editor was Mr. Kunle Jenrola; his deputy was another Kunle, Kunle Odufuwa and our editor was Mr. Caxton Idowu.

When I got to The Republic, it was a different experience entirely when compared to campus journalism. This was real journalism and because I didn’t study Mass Communication or Journalism (we don’t offer those courses at Ife) the only experience was campus journalism. I read Psychology. I had to train on the job and I was lucky that the likes of Tokunbo Oloruntola had joined The Republic. He took me as a brother, like someone he could train on his own. My campus column led me to my fist breakthrough in terms of exclusive stories. I did a story on a World Bank loan that the Federal Government was going to take secretly. I was able to get the document and I did a story. That was the beginning at The Republic before I moved to the National Concord later on.


Was this period pre or post-Abacha experiences of Mr. Niran Malaolu?

It was pre because I joined The Republic in 1988 and I was there up to 1991. By the time Malaolu was being clamped into detention by the Abacha regime, I was already the Chairman of NUJ in Lagos. That was between 1995 and 1999. Abacha came into power in 1994 after all the drama of the transition programme. By then, Malaolu was working for The Diet Newspaper when he ran into this problem.


With the military on rampage, were you not concerned that you might also be targetted?

I entitled my memoir ‘Breaking Coconut With Your Head’ and as the chairman of NUJ Lagos State, we tried to break coconut with our heads. Definitely one was concerned, yes we were afraid but we also felt we had a job to do. Our major task then was campaign on behalf of journalists who were already in detention. At some point, the military just felt that we were irritants. My Editor when I was in Vanguard, Mr. Frank Aigbogun, told me a story. That time, George Onah, who was our Defence Correspondent had been arrested and detained at the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) in Lagos. He was held for a long time and we were brainstorming on what we could do. For me, as NUJ chairman, my idea was that the NUJ should go to town, condemn his arrest, charge him to court if he had committed any offense or set him free. However, there was the thought that we might complicate the issues by that because we were not told his offense and he was Defence Correspondent. At a stage, we felt, let everybody use his or her own approach. The NUJ went ahead to issue a statement and made it widely available. The Editor, Mr. Aigbogun went to the DMI to meet the director, the (in) famous Colonel Obeta to discuss the issue and the director was now making reference to issues happening and he brought out a statement that I issued. He said NUJ Lagos was ‘talking nonsense’ and he said ‘well, let them be talking their nonsense’.

Maybe I was lucky but people who were members of the NUJ Lagos State Council were being detained. We took a stand that we would fight for them. So, it was risky but we did what we could. We had George Mbah, Babafemi Ojudu, Charles Obi, Mrs. Chris Anyanwu, Kunle Ajibade. These were journalists who were taken before military tribunal and charged for being accessories after the fact of the coup. Niran Malaolu too was linked to a failed coup. Then we had Osa Director, of The News Magazine, who was put in chains and manacled. It is a long list.


Looking back sir, especially at the media and what you went through, do you think the sacrifice was worth it? 

The sacrifice was worth it because the media, especially that time, came to the rescue of Nigerians.  The military had waged war against everybody – students were attacked; human rights groups, especially their leaders were attacked and jailed and so on as was the case of Chima Ubani. The media spoke for everybody and spoke truth to power. That meant that that would come with a price, which was the fact that in spite of everything, the military had no choice than to hand over to civilians. I think we need to commend the media and all those who played a role that time. We shouldn’t just limit it to those who were picked up or those who were at the tribunal, there were many others who also suffered. We have a person like Mr. Soji Omotunde, who was abducted in broad daylight and was almost killed. Then we have journalists whose media houses were shut down, those working in The Punch and National Concord where I worked and so on. So we had the media which played a collective role. Before Abacha, we know the kind of persecution media houses like Nigerian Tribune went through, editors were regularly picked up by the military. We have Haroud Adamu, a publisher, who was just thrown into detention by the Buhari regime. Those who were jailed under Decree 4, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson were there too. The sacrifice was collective and it went round as many media houses as possible. There were those who were not detained but whose means of livelihood was destroyed. Now that we have democracy, it makes that sacrifice worthy.



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