On behalf of the Ajibade family, by which, of course, I mean TheNEWS family, I welcome you all to this important ceremony. For me, this is a particularly special event; for, not only have I known Kunle Ajibade from his early student days at Ile-Ife, I have also had the pleasure of following, with pride, the growth and development of his career as a journalist of distinction. Besides, Kunle Ajibade is also a close personal friend. So, when he got in touch with me to invite me to this event, I recall what my exact words were to him: ‘Kunle, for you, I’ll do anything.’
Therefore, in being present here today to honour Kunle on his 50th birthday and witness the public presentation of his collection of essays, What A Country!, I invite us to reflect briefly on the significance of today’s event, not just for Kunle and his immediate family, but also for the growth and development of the practice of journalism in our country. Because, the truth is that, in many respects, Kunle Ajibade represents the very best in the practice of that profession in our country today. And here, I speak, not only of the sense of commitment which you encounter in Kunle Ajibade’s works, but also of the presence of what Professor Wole Soyinka describes elsewhere as “editorial integrity and ethical rigour” in his journalistic writings. It is therefore not an accident that Kunle Ajibade has paid dearly for his firm commitment to a standard that has set him apart from many.
The more remarkable thing, of course, is that Kunle Ajibade has been able to achieve so much in so putrid an atmosphere such as our own where basic values are constantly under assault by a political leadership that is bereft of vision and direction. Unfortunately, this situation has sometimes been compounded by sections of the media itself, particularly that fringe section of print journalism, sometimes ingloriously referred to as junk media. So virulent is this fringe section and its effect that in certain quarters the media is also accused of some of the same excesses or inadequacies that it seeks to expose and discourage; inadequacies that include a blatant lack of self esteem, sheer incompetence, laziness and a lack of the basic tools of the profession.
Yet, this was not always the case. It is interesting to note that even among the first generation of Nigerians to found newspapers and practise the profession were to be found distinguished men of refinement, enlightenment and educational competence. For instance, between December 1859, when the Rt. Revd.
Henry Townsend, an Anglican missionary, founded the first Nigerian newspaper, Iwe Irohin fun Awon Ara Egba ati Yoruba in Abeokuta and about 1950 when partisan politics supplanted journalism as a full-time vocation, the roll-call of newspapermen was largely a galaxy of first-class professionals, lawyers, engineers, educationists and intellectuals, men who sometimes took active part in politics and determined, for better or for worse, the course of our national history.
These names include Richard Blaize, the wealthy businessman of Yoruba and Sierra-Leone origin, who founded the Lagos Times in 1880; J. Blackall Benjamin, a ‘Saro’, who founded the Lagos Observer in 1892; Owen Emerick Macaulay, student of Greek language and history and we are told, a grandson of Bishop Ajai Crowther and brother of Herbert Macaulay, who founded the Eagles and Lagos Critic in 1883; there was Dr. Akinwande Savage, a 1900 Edinburgh graduate of Medicine, who founded and wrote for the Lagos Spectator in 1893; there was Thomas Horatio Jackson, brilliant and affable scholar of the classics, who reactivated the Lagos Weekly Record in 1915; there was Christopher Josephus Johnson, a 1898 Economics graduate of Liverpool University, who founded the Nigerian Chronicle in 1908.
There was also Sir Kitoye Ajasa, cricketer, lawyer, Fabian philosopher and legislator, who founded the Nigerian Pioneer in 1914; there was, of course, the great and irrepressible Herbert Macaulay, civil engineer, nationalist, politician, essayist, a man of unusual literary gifts and courage, who reactivated the Lagos Daily News in 1927; there was also the great Ernest Sesei Ikoli, politician and essayist, who founded the African Messenger in 1921; there was Dutse Mohammed Ali, scholar and author, who came out with the Comet in 1933; there was the one and only Nnamdi Azikiwe, orator and nationalist politician, who founded the West African Pilot and finally, of course, there was Obafemi Awolowo, one of the finest minds of his generation, who founded the Nigerian Tribune, I believe, in 1949.
Several factors united these pioneer journalists: their love for their country, a passion for truth, a dispassionately scholarly mind, an unmistakable amount of self-esteem, one which was impelled by a sense of mission and ingrained in the socio-political reality of their time. However, following, it seemed, the emergence of modern-day political parties and party-controlled administrations by the end of the 1940s and early 1950s, journalism lost some of its best minds to politics, leading, as it were, to something of a vacuum in the profession. It would be almost a quarter of a century before that problem would be addressed. And ironically, the man who sought to rectify that situation and bring back into journalism men and women of sound education, in the holistic sense of the word, was not even himself a university graduate.
He was simply a hard-nosed, down-to-earth professional who knew what was wrong with the profession and sought to correct it. His name is Ismail Babatunde Jose. As Managing Director of the old Daily Times at the rather young age of 37, he set up a “graduate scheme for the training of journalists and other professionals”, who were, in some ways, to set the new agenda for the profession to this day in this country.
Your Excellencies, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, unfortunately, my role as Chairman, confines me to merely welcoming you to this event and does not allow me the time to elaborate on these broad historical outlines I have made here.
Therefore, I am unable to establish concretely the links between then and now and what those broad historical strokes mean for this occasion. It is sufficient merely for me to end by saying that in honouring Kunle Ajibade with your presence, on the occasion of his 50th birthday and the public presentation of his book, we honour a man who comes, imbibed with a long tradition of commitment to professional excellence in his chosen profession, even if that commitment is not readily acknowledged in our country today.
Think, for instance, of the enviable work and battles that our journalists were engaged in during the nationalist struggles or the deprivations that people like Kunle Ajibade suffered under the terror that was Sani Abacha. Or think, for instance, of the ultimate price paid by my dear friend, Dele Giwa, for his doggedness and sense of commitment. It is only when these struggles are put in perspective can the full import of today’s celebrations be fully understood. Once again, I wish to thank you all for coming and to hope that you will all have a wonderful time.