Sunday, November 8, 2009

The journalist as a patriot: Onyema Ugochukwu at 65

Tribute by Tunde Olusunle & Dan Okereke, Vanguard

IF Chief Onyema Ugochukwu needed a reminder of what the ordinary Abian expects of him, the treatment he got at a recent party rally in Umuahia Central will help steady his walk through the slick trail of Nigerian electoral and judicial politics.

Thousands of supporters mobbed him like a hero and his best efforts at giving what he may have prepared as a rousing speech were mercilessly drowned by cheering voices of excited party men and women.

A shy and unassuming man, Ugochukwu soaked the deafening cheers with commendable aplomb, even as he must have wished for the crowd charming skills of his idol and kinsman, the late Dr Michael Okpara, Premier of the defunct Eastern Region, the great orator, humanist, party organizer and visionary administrator who laid the solid foundation upon which the economy of Eastern Nigeria, without mineral resources, grew faster than some Asian and Central European countries in the 60s.

Seeking neither heroism nor political domination, Ugochukwu is the most unlikely candidate for the interminable adulation and goodwill that flow to him from the common folk he encounters. Everyday, ordinary people send him solidarity messages through his mobile phones.

This account is not his official biography but we suspect he may have chosen other vocation besides politics to serve his people were the situation in his native Abia State not so dire and alarming. Actually, Ugochukwu, a devout Methodist Christian of the old order (they don’t make them like that anymore), will have much to thank God for preserving his life, anytime he gets his chance of a meeting, because having faced innumerable danger at several fronts in his remarkable life, he is entitled to believe that the Almighty is biased in his favor.

Thankfully, his belief in the potency of prayers or in God’s sovereignty has not been encroached by the development and deployment of a scientific mind. On this occasion of his 65th birthday, we join his numerous friends, associates and well wishers across the country and beyond, in wishing him many more years of meritorious service to our nation in particular and humanity in general.

Historic figure
In their preface to Andre Maurois’s biography of Benjamin Disraeli, the editors of Time Reading Programme, while applauding English stylist Lytton Strachey, set an artistic principle that “a historic figure must be evaluated for himself, not merely as an interesting symptom of his age.” Symptom of this age of political corruption he certainly isn’t.

As impressionable, idealistic young Nigerians, we are intrigued by the Onyema Ugochukwu narrative. Here is a man richly endowed by his Creator with an incredibly intelligent mind, deep perception and an uncommon persuasion of moral appropriateness.

The Ugochukwu we know is an unapologetic moral idealist who views every social and material phenomenon from the right or wrong prism. It is very easy to detect and detest a sanctimonious skew to his inquisitiveness but at the end of every mission, it becomes clear he has exercised superior judgment. His unique sense of functionalism makes him question the rationale for every action of man, which must be ethically situated.

Cerebral, urbane, charming, well-groomed and disarmingly courteous to the big and small, Ugochukwu’s cosmology is indeed universal, and humanity is his true constituency. On numerous occasions, those who have encountered Onyema Ugochukwu holding court amongst his kinsmen in his beloved Umule village, during his days as an editor or administrator in Daily Times of Nigeria; at State House Abuja as a presidential aide; at NDDC as chairman or elsewhere as a politician, will testify to the fact that his focus is farther: he would readily subsume his personal interest for the larger national interest.

Ugochukwu trained as an economist and first took appointment with the Central Bank of Nigeria as a research officer but he would locate his bearing in the newsroom of one of Africa’s most notable newspapers. Folklore has it that his mother’s serious concern that lawyers would one day die of hunger if all men became righteous, forced him to abandon studying law for economics.

Embarrassed by his decision, an uncle who first mooted the idea of his studying law now went to his mother and explained to her that “do you know that Onyema is going to the university to learn how to be a miser?” The poor woman soaked in misery all day.

Maybe the uncle had clairvoyant powers, because Onyema Ugochukwu does not suffer spendthrifts gladly. No budget will escape his dreaded red pen as many would testify from his Daily Times, Presidency and NDDC days, a trait laced with a healthy loathing for extravagance and inattentiveness. But on his love for his people, there is no holding back..

Ugochukwu is at heart a villager. Umule has benefitted immensely from his generosity. The Ugochukwus are a pillar of support for the community, a typical African village but one which has not lost its innocence. Inside the Ugochukwu family compound proper is the African extended family tradition at work. The bond of family is strong here. Everyone looks after the other. They work together, pray together, eat together, and share their gains and pains together.
His younger sibling, Ude, a successful corporate lawyer is his sounding board and although both would laugh it off, probably his closest confidant.

His charming wife of 30 years, Joyce, a medical doctor and mother of his four children, two boys and two girls, is never too far from his side. Ugochukwu’s illustrious career in Daily Times spanned twenty eventful years during which colleagues and subordinates illustrated him as a thoroughbred professional, an editor’s editor, merit-driven, man of integrity, etc.

Ugochukwu would team up with Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi and Dr Chidi Amuta to make Daily Times the newspaper of quality it was then. Younger elements remembered that Ugochukwu would not meet any visitor until he had first gobbled all the news in all the newspapers stacked high on his table.

God help the reporter who missed a good story. Olusunle counted himself as one of the lucky Ugochukwu/Ogunbiyi boys, alongside Femi Olatunde, Segun Ayobolu, Gbenga Ayeni, Femi Ajayi, Afam Akeh, Felix Omorogbe, Chijioke Amu-Nnadi, Tunde Kaitell and others, but even he could not escape Ugochukwu’s celebrated sharp eye for a good copy. In 1991, Olusunle was assigned to write on the centenary of the legendary King Jaja of Opobo.

On his return from the Island, he filed his report, which was splashed on the Sunday Times magazine. The morning after, Ugochukwu accosted Tunde along the corridor and incredulously barked at him “Are you back”? Thinking Ugochukwu had not seen the Sunday magazine feature for which he had been lavishly commended by readers, Olusunle replied, “Yes sir, am back and you should have seen the Sunday Times magazine.” Ugochukwu’s face was deadpanned. “How did you get to Opobo?”

Tunde explained how he flew in a plane from Lagos to Port Harcourt, rode by car to Bodo in Ogoniland and travelled by speedboat to Opobo. “Do you realize you covered three of the four known means of transportation on that single trip? I want to read your experience, a travelogue, with photographs. How about the social life? Did you meet human beings where you went? Don’t they have nightclubs in Port Harcourt? Do me a social diary. When this organization sends a writer of your caliber on an assignment, that is the minimum we expect in return”. Typical of Ugochukwu, he managed to squeeze out, not one, but three stories from one single assignment.

Even more significant for the Nigerian media, especially for media-government relations under the military, was Ugochukwu’s great efforts at promoting dialogue between men of the pen and the sword. One testy case was the arrest and incarceration of Chris Mammah, then editor of The Punch. In the aftermath of the aborted Gideon Orkah coup in April 1990, The Punch, noted for its riveting cartoons, had published a cartoon depicting Nigerians’ reaction to the news that Orkah’s coup has been crushed as moody and despondent.

The bosses of the Directorate of Military Intelligence were not amused at all and they clamped Mammah in detention for his mistimed sense of humour. These were the heyday of frosty, even hostile media-military relations. Ugochukwu, as president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, mobilized his members to reach out to contacts in government to set Mammah free. He initiated a pattern of dialoguebetween the two mutually suspicious groups to ease tension and improve relations. Those were the days of Generals Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, Halilu Akilu and Kunle Togun.

Ugochukwu became the first editor of Business Times and brought a new definition to business reporting in Nigerian journalism. Under his tutelage, Ndu Ughamadu, Kunle Bello, Emeka Odo and Wole Olatimehin flourished and became authorities in financial/business journalism in their own right. Ugochukwu did not merely edit a great, readable business newspaper; he introduced editorial activism into the pages, championing causes for frugal spending, accountability, judicious use of oil revenue, economic nationalism, and so much more. Later, he was posted to London to edit the West Africa magazine and after four years on the saddle, handed the title to Mr Ad’Obe Obe, another of the country’s celebrated editors with whom he would cross paths later in the State House.

On return to Nigeria, Ugochukwu was appointed editor of Daily Times, fulfilling the prophesy of the iconic Alhaji Babatunde Jose, ‘father’ of Daily Times of Nigeria. It was under Ugochukwu’s watch as general manager, Times Publications Division, that the group recorded the highest profit in its history. How did he manage that feat? Somebody should call him to write us a memoir to guide today’s younger media managers.

Ugochukwu’s lifelong zeal to help build a solid national economy saw him serve meritoriously on the Board of the Nigerian Stock Exchange. But it was as President of the University of Nigeria Alumni Association, Lagos Branch that he got the real chance he always desired to make a lasting contribution. On the day he took over the reins of the Association’s leadership, he inherited a N12,000 deficit, which his predecessor, Professor Pat Utomi, another ‘Great Lion’ of Esteem, graciously paid from his personal pocket.

But by the next financial year, the Association had earned N600,000 and N1.2m the following year. The Alumni Association set up a scholarship scheme for indigent students, as well as a foundation to revive the moribund bakery factory in the Nsukka campus, alongside other commercial ventures. Ugochukwu’s foray into national politics in October 1998 was as controversial as it beamed a searchlight into the workings of his inner mind. Close associates say he will never shirk from a tough decision just because it could be misunderstood.

His career as a chronicler of history must have taught him that time educates better than gut feeling. When Chief Olusegun Obasanjo accepted to run for president, he naturally inherited the structures of the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Campaign Organization which had laid out directorates manned by such personalities as Professor Babalola Borishade, Dr Iyorchia Ayu, Professor Tunde Adeniran, Chief Yomi Edu, Dr Haroun Adamu, etc.

When it came to the headship of the Media Directorate, such familiar names as Dr Patrick Dele Cole and Dr Stanley Macebuh were suggested but Obasanjo preferred to send the other gentlemen to other tasks. General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, a long time friend of Ugochukwu’s from his Daily Times days who was a key figure in the ‘Obasanjo for President’ project and later in the Obasanjo government was instrumental to Ugochukwu’s emergence as head of Media Directorate. But it was not a quiet choice.

Ugochukwu’s romance with Obasanjo was seen as treacherous by many of his Igbo kinsmen who believed the Igbo nation should deploy all its human resources to back a presidential candidate of Igbo extraction. It was an absolutely courageous decision, maybe adventurous but certainly risky. Ugochukwu still bears the brunt of that fateful choice till date.

However, it was a decision he thought through in his methodical manner, balancing pragmatism with patriotism. If an Igbo was going to be president of Nigeria why can he not pick a media chief from Nasarawa, Bayelsa or Ekiti? Clannishness manacles the entrepreneurial Igbo spirit and should be grossly offensive to someone who graduated eminently from the Daily Times system where meritocracy nearly always triumphed over parochialism. When President-elect Obasanjo privately hinted Ugochukwu of his decision to appoint Dr. Doyin Okupe as chief press secretary, Ugochukwu conceded to the president his prerogative to appoint anyone into any position and praised Okupe as a bright professional (although a medical doctor), but quietly suggested the pair of Chris Mammah and Tunde Olusunle, as “my own choice if I were asked to make one.”

Contrary to popular belief that President Obasanjo dumped Ugochukwu soon after his election, he continued to seek a more elevated position for him. Ugochukwu could not be named minister because Abia already had two members in the cabinet. Chief Ojo Maduekwe, minister of culture and tourism, later of transportation, was nominated by the party, and Prince Vincent Ogbulafor, minister of economic affairs, then of the ANPP, was a product of “government of national unity”.

But Obasanjo bidded his time. With the successful passage of the NDDC Bill which provided for a chairman from one of the member states in alphabetical order, President Obasanjo sent Ugochukwu’s name for confirmation since Abia was first in that order. The opposition this time was from unexpected quarters. The Abia State governor, Chief Orji Uzor Kalu, had his own candidate. Together with some of the three Abia senators – Bob Nwannunu (ANPP), Ike Nwachukwu and Adolph Wabara (PDP), they waged a ruthless battle to scuttle Ugochukwu’s nomination twice. The third time, however, Ugochukwu managed to rally forces to overpower their resistance and scaled the nomination without any hiss.

Ugochukwu will claim his place among the pantheons of nation builders with his pioneering work as NDDC chairman. He was determined that NDDC must not repeat the grave mistakes in conception and expectation deficit which destroyed the credibility of previous intervention agencies. The difference was in engineering a new theoretical paradigm which would at once deliver infrastructure remediation, youth empowerment, community survival, ecological sustainability, trust in leadership and belief in the sincerity of government.

Rather than sustain the narrow focus of its predecessors, Ugochukwu’s NDDC emerged a holistic and integrated regional development agency which aimed at transforming the entire Niger Delta region into an interdependent, organic, socio-economic, ecological, growth community.

It was important to re-educate the peoples’ mind to appreciate a sense of community where goals are shared. While the specific needs of core oil bearing communities are being addressed, it was important to appreciate the contribution of outlaying communities which hosted oil and gas pipelines and where oil workers lived or passed through. It was on this basis that a suitable revenue sharing formula was arrived at.

From its budget, Ugochukwu’s NDDC allocated projects and other interventions on the basis of 20 per cent on the equality of states; 35 per cent on volume of oil produced; 10 per cent as NDDC operating expenditures; 10 per cent on income capacity enhancement; and 25 per cent for projects with regional impact.
*Tunde Olusunle and Dan Okereke contributed this tribute from Abuja

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