Nosa Igiebor, a veteran writer and one of the co-founders of Tell Magazine, talks to ALEXANDER OKERE about his harrowing career during the military era, including his arrest and confinement by tyrannical governments and the impact it had on his family.
Because of the dangers you endured throughout your time in the service, many people regard the fact that you turned 70 in December of the previous year to be a significant achievement. What was your upbringing like, given that you were born before the United States gained its independence?
My life was extremely pleasant and uneventful. I hail from the state of Edo. I was born in Benin, and I spent my childhood there as well. When I was a kid, life was always full of adventure. When Nigeria won its independence on October 1, 1960, I was a little child attending elementary school. I distinctly recall that on that day (October 1), our class stood in a line holding the tricolour flag that included green, white, and green stripes. During that time, Benin City was at peace. There was a correlation between the neighbourhoods that people lived in and the degree to which they knew one another. I believe that I was raised with the appropriate morals. The vast majority of my ancestors adhered to the Catholic faith.
You maintained a rigorous approach to journalism despite the challenges you faced. Have you ever thought about pursuing a career in journalism? Or is there a chance that it was something else entirely?
Throughout the course of my life, I have given much thought to the topic on several occasions. My first and foremost passion is engineering, but in the secondary school that I went to, I was never given the opportunity to study science subjects. Even if I had been given that opportunity, however, I believe that the subject of mathematics would have been an obstacle for me because I have never been interested in mathematics. That is the irony of my life, but one thing I learned as a youngster was how to build a passion for reading, and it has been a career for the entirety of my life. Therefore, I’m not going to refer to myself as an accidental journalist. As I’ve mentioned before, one of my dream jobs would have been working in engineering. After I graduated from secondary school, I was interested in pursuing a degree in economics; however, I lacked the self-discipline to sit down and study mathematics, which was a prerequisite for that particular field of study.
The writing was another activity that fascinated me. I used to write short tales, and some of them were picked up for publication in the Sunday Observer. At the time, the Sunday Observer was controlled by the (now defunct) Mid-West Region, Bendel State, and eventually Edo State. Due to the fact that I struggled with mathematics, a fellow student of mine named Dr Michael Ehima suggested that I pursue a career in journalism instead. I gave it some thinking, and ultimately, that was what led to my entry into the field.
Before helping to establish Tell, you had positions in a number of different media organisations, such as the Nigerian Television Authority and Newswatch magazine. When you look back on your professional life, would you say that it unfolded the way you had hoped it would?
To a significant extent, I will answer in the affirmative. NTA Benin was the station where I got my start in the field of broadcast journalism. To reiterate, I received my diploma from the Ghana Institute of Journalism in July 1976 after completing my studies there. I had also begun to take an interest in cinematography throughout my time there. I always had aspirations of being a camera operator. Upon my return from Ghana, I was fortunate enough to secure employment with the Daily Sketch newspaper in Ibadan (Oyo State). I was also offered a position in public relations, but I wasn’t interested in it; at the same time, I was offered a position at NTA Benin, so I decided to take the position at NTA Benin instead. I stated that because I work in broadcast journalism, which is analogous to cinematography, I would travel to NTA Benin in order to further my education. Later on, I was given the opportunity to study cinematography in the United Kingdom, and I submitted for a scholarship issued by the Mid-West State Government at the time; however, I was not successful in my application, so I decided to shut that chapter (cinematography).
I worked for the NTA for close to three years, during which time I learned that the organisation was owned by the government and that the range of journalism that could be practised there was restricted. As a result, when I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in journalism, I realised that the NTA would not provide me with the opportunity to reach the level of success that I desired. I regarded the establishment of Concord Newspapers in the early 1980s by the late Chief MKO Abiola as an opportunity, and as they were hiring individuals at the time, I became one of the pioneer staff members.
During the time when the late General Sani Abacha was in charge of the military, you served as the publisher of Tell. This was perhaps the most difficult moment of your career. How did people get along during that time period?
I am the type of person that gives one hundred per cent effort into anything that he undertakes. I take journalism very seriously, and I count myself extremely fortunate to have worked with coworkers who had the same deep appreciation as I do for strong journalism. When we decided to leave Newswatch and start to Tell, this was the primary goal that we had in mind. We wanted to do the kind of journalism that will have an impact, journalism that focuses more on investigations, that tackles issues that are pertinent to national development, and that considers what Nigeria should stand for to Nigerians. Before Abacha came to power, there was the government of (General Ibrahim) Babangida, which was marked by the disaster of June 12 (1993) and the crisis that it stoked. That was a time when we believed who we needed to step up to the task, and we were not the only ones who did so; we also had The PUNCH, The Guardian, and a significant number of other private media outlets that stepped up to the challenge. It was necessary for us to stand up to the military government that was exploiting the general population. As a result, we thought that this was the perfect chance to realise the vision we had for Tell magazine back when it was first conceived.
It was not a challenge that we were, for any reason, prepared to back down from, and the circumstances were such that we were obligated to do it.
You were taken into custody by agents of the Department of State Services in December 1995, and you spent a good portion of the following year behind bars. When you were taken into custody by the DSS, what were you told?
They never explained to anyone they arrested what the crime was, but once one was branded by the state as an enemy and given the umbrella term that one constituted a threat to national security, one knew exactly why they were picked up even if they weren’t told anything else about the reason for their arrest. When the individual who was detained got at the location they were being taken to, it was the first time anybody informed them that they had done a piece that was critical of the government. Therefore, it was abundantly evident to us that what we were doing had a level of danger due to the fact that we were opposing a military government that was merciless and not willing to accept any challenge from any source. Even constructive criticism was interpreted by them as an implicit threat. We were aware of the potential consequences, yet this did not prevent us from continuing.
How did you deal with the fact that you were apart from your family for such a long time?
After General Abacha dismissed Chief (Ernest) Shonekan’s temporary government in 1993, three of my coworkers and I was taken into custody for the first time. When Babangida stepped down as president, he installed a makeshift administration known as the Interim National Government. Shonekan, whom Babangida had personally selected, served as the government’s leader. As a matter of course, that administration was illegitimate in the view of Nigerians, including us here at Tell, because despite the fact that we had held a lawful election, the results of the poll were overturned because the election was invalidated. It should come as no surprise that there was no debate on the outcome of the election regarding MKO Abiola. Therefore, this strengthened our position about the regime, which is that we would not permit it to continue in its current form. We were relieved to find out that we were not the only ones who held that opinion. For instance, one of the media organisations that were routinely shut down was called The PUNCH, and the editors of that publication were subjected to harassment and detention.
As a result, my coworkers and I were taken into custody and held for almost one week as we waited for Babangida to ultimately step down and Shonekan to take his place. When we were first brought to Abuja, we were detained at the DSS headquarters. After that, we were moved to one of their substations, and then we were escorted to a police station in the Asokoro neighbourhood. We were just in the location. Nobody brought us to a court or explained the reason for our arrest to us. The Deputy Superintendent of Police who was in charge of our case told us to be patient because he didn’t really see what they (the government) were going to do with us in terms of taking us to court and what the case against us would be. This is an important detail that I would like to bring to your attention because it is something that I would like to remember. He assured us that we would be freed as soon as Babangida was no longer in charge, which is precisely what occurred. He informed us that he was extremely positive that this would take place within the following few days. As there were no official accusations brought against us, we decided to go. After that, however, we were asked to come in by the police because we had published certain stories.
At that point, the majority of the editors had moved out of their houses since they were under continual surveillance and couldn’t risk sleeping there. On December 23, 1995, I travelled back to my hometown to spend time with my family. Unfortunately, before I could leave, a group of DSS officers showed up in front of my gate. I was picked up and taken to their office in Shangisha in Lagos, where I spent Christmas and New Year’s until they said the paper ordering my detention was signed in Abuja. At that point, I was taken to the DSS office in Minna, Niger State, and later transferred to the Minna Correctional Centre, where I was detained for months before being released in June 1996. I was one of the fortunate political detainees who was released as a result of the intervention of the late Pope John Paul II during his visit to Nigeria. He was able to secure my release through his visit.
What were some of the first things that went through your thoughts when you were finally able to see your family again?
Oh, the most important thing in my life was my family, which included my wife, my children, and my mother, who was an old woman at the time. At that time, I was the only son of hers who had survived. I didn’t really care about what would happen to me. My first few weeks in detention were challenging, but I was able to adapt to the environment there and make sure that I took care of myself at all times. I didn’t slip into self-lamentation or sadness. My wife was able to visit me once a month and she brought books for me to read. I consider myself very fortunate for this. Reading was the only thing I did with my time, and it was really helpful in taking my mind off of the concerns I had over my family. Getting to spend time with my wife once a month was also incredibly reassuring. At the very least, I was able to confirm that everything was going well at home, including with my mother, my children, and my wife.
Obosa, one of your children, stated in an interview with Sunday PUNCH that if there was ever a time when she wished you were not a journalist, it was probably during the Abacha regime because then she would not have been held at gunpoint and you would not have been imprisoned. Obosa also stated that if she had been held at gunpoint, she would not have been imprisoned. Did you ever the thought that it would have been better for you not to have a wife or children whose lives would be in danger because of the risk inherent in the sort of journalism that you practised? If so, when did you have that thought?
At the time, she had just turned three years old. She was alluding to an event that took place in 1997 when she made her statement. It was true that Abacha was severely ill, but the military administration did not like the account that Tell had written about it. Tell had written the story. They didn’t like it because, during an African summit that he (Abacha) attended with several African leaders of state, one of the African heads of state recommended he take better care of his health since he was not looking good. This is the reason why they didn’t like it. Therefore, we went ahead and made that confidential material public, and the military administration was not pleased. Again, the DSS showed up at my house, but this time I was able to get out before they entered my flat, and of course, the ruckus roused everybody else from their sleep.
You were talking about my youngest and final kid, who was just three years old at the time, and she is my daughter. They barked and checked everything, including the ceiling, with their paws. According to the narrative that was given to me, one of the soldiers, who appeared to be intoxicated, put his weapon at the head of my daughter and said, “Where’s your daddy? ” Where’s your daddy?” The poor little kid immediately started sobbing since she had no idea what was going on. I was able to elude capture and went into hiding for around two weeks before to my departure for exile. I didn’t realise how fortunate I was until many later when I found out that if I had been apprehended that night, I would have been “wasted.”
When the security agents were unable to locate you, what actions did they take?
They took my wife into custody. They got in touch with one of their policemen while they were transporting her to Shangisha and informed him that they had arrested my wife since they were unable to find me. This occurred while they were in the process of transporting her. However, the officer instructed them to bring her back to the house so as to prevent humiliating headlines from appearing in the media the next day. Have I ever had a moment where I wished I wasn’t a journalist? Because I was driven by the force of our moral conviction that Nigeria could be better and that it was time for Nigerians to stand up to the military dictatorship and enthrone democracy in the country, I have never once regretted the decision to become a journalist, in spite of the challenges I imposed on my family and all of the inconvenient circumstances I was forced to endure. The central purpose of the mission took precedence over any individual concerns that we might have had.
Did you not feel any pity for your wife and children, who had no choice but to endure the bullying and threats they received as a result of the fact that you held your occupation?
It is inevitable that some civilians may be killed as a result of military operations; this is known as “collateral damage.” My family was put in harm’s way as a result of the high-risk work that I held at the time, which was journalism. However, we were able to pull through because to the enormous support that was shown to us by other people. Despite the fact that security agents went to Academic Press in Ilupeju to seize the print run of different editions, which was sometimes 100,000, 200,000, or 150,000 copies, every edition of Tell that was produced was a sell-out. This was the case despite the fact that many people believed in what we were doing. But we were resolute, and when they took them, we emerged from that situation in a new way.
In general, did practising journalism during the time of the military have any negative effects on your personal life or the lives of your family?
Sure! Due to the length of time that I was away, my children were forced to live with the continual worry that something terrible may occur to their father, such as his being imprisoned, arrested, or even killed. Naturally, they felt anxiety and concern about the possible outcomes related to me and went through that emotional experience. In addition to this, it bolstered them. I can say without any fear of contradicting myself that one of the lessons that all of my children learned from the experiences they had with me as a journalist is that it is a noble thing to fight for justice and stand up for what is right. This is one of the lessons that they learned from the experiences they had with me as a journalist.
Let’s continue our discussion of Tell and how it works, shall we? Five senior journalists, all of whom had previously held positions at Newswatch magazine, came together to launch the publication. Why did the other co-founders decide to quit the firm, and how did management handle the crisis that arose within the organisation?
At Tell, we were never faced with a dire situation. I have no idea what led people to believe that we were in the midst of a catastrophe. It goes without saying that we are human beings. We do not all agree on the path that should be taken, the activities that should be carried out, or the procedures that should be followed. The difficulty the corporation found itself in is what I will refer to as the crisis that occurred at Tell. We were influenced by the state of the economy during the course of the last ten years. Again, it is impossible to overlook the worldwide phenomenon of the digital platform having a negative impact on conventional media that has been there for a long time. Traditional media organisations have been able to accomplish a successful shift to digital platforms, and their businesses are prospering as a result in many regions of the world. [Citation needed] It is usually tough to make that shift in developing nations like Nigeria since there is a shortage of investment in those countries.
Because the print edition can no longer be produced in the usual manner, the Tell team is now working to develop a digital platform for the publication. Going fully digital is the obvious choice for us, so that’s what we’re working toward doing right now. We should be up and operating on a digital platform by June of this year if all goes according to plan. At Tell, there was thus never a state of emergency (among the management).
But what motivated the departure of the other editors?
They decided to retire. They chose to go on their own own. There were originally five founding editors, however now only two of them editors are still active. The first one resigned in 2002, citing an interest in pursuing a political career and a desire to serve in the Senate as his reasons for doing so. He did not survive, which is a terrible disappointment. The second one departed in 2010, and similar to the first, he planned to pursue a career in politics and run for governor at some point. The third guy is still a part of our group but has been dealing with certain health issues for some time. As a result, he is currently in the United States. Only Onome Osifo-Whiskey and I are here now; the others have been eliminated. Following the departure of the first two founding editors, we welcomed two new editors to our management team at the editorial level. They, too, made the decision to retire; both of them were pioneers on the Tell staff. They stayed behind because there was a situation to deal with.
Permit me to add this as well, since I believe it to be quite significant. One of the issues that we had, and I’m sure that we are not the first people to face this challenge, was that although we were all extremely devoted, enthusiastic, and skilled journalists, none of us had any previous experience working in a commercial setting. Yes, we performed quality journalism and built a very strong brand at Tell, but we needed to develop a strategy that will allow it to continue operating successfully well into the foreseeable future. Because we lacked that commercial acumen, we suffered, and it is one of the banes of the media industry, particularly when journalists create a firm with little or no entrepreneurial skills. This is especially true when journalists start a company with little or no business acumen. On the other hand, as time went on, we saw the error of our ways and were better at striking a balance between the two. For my part, all I’m trying to do is get Tell up and running again on a digital platform, and if I’m successful in doing that, I’ll consider stepping down in a year or two.
When you rated the administration of President Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), you gave it a poor score in 2021. Have you reevaluated the situation now that there are fewer than five months left till the conclusion of the programme?
I believe that my analysis from the year 2021 is even more relevant today than it was then. The interim leadership provided by Muhammadu Buhari has, in my view, been nothing short of catastrophic for the country. It is a terrible situation. This is not about making assertions as an alternative. The truth cannot be refuted by anyone. Anyone you talk to should be able to answer this question for you: compared to where we were in 2015, are we in a better or worse position? The response is unambiguous and unequivocal; the situation in Nigeria is currently worse than it was in 2015. No matter the indicators of quality of life you choose to evaluate, you cannot deny that this government has been an abject failure. You can reduce them down to the three areas that the President indicated were going to be his priority, which is revitalising the economy, putting an end to insecurity, and combating corruption if you want to be generous. It is important to keep in mind that no one has even brought up the topic of fighting corruption in the past three or four years. This is because it was obvious to everyone from the very beginning that the fight against corruption was nothing more than sloganeering, media trials, and other similar activities. I won’t go into that because I don’t want to, but it doesn’t mean they haven’t achieved any kind of success.
Giving them an F grade is being kind in light of the economy and their precarious situation. They never grow sick of laying the blame for their failure on the shoulders of former administrations. When President Buhari took office in 2015, the world was in the midst of an oil crisis, which had a significant negative impact on Nigeria. It seemed obvious that many of the world’s economies, including the economy of Nigeria, would enter a period of recession. Ours was due to the fact that we have a single-culture economy. The majority of the money needed to maintain our economy comes from the sale of crude oil abroad, which also generates revenue. However, what actions were taken by this government in 2015? They did not take any action. They turned in for the night. Even though it was obvious that a catastrophe was on the horizon, they took no action to head it off. There was no functioning government for a period of six months. If you recall, he didn’t start forming his cabinet until December 2015, which was well after the recession had already begun. Nobody was in command of the economy, and there were no measures in place to try to stop the impending recession from happening.
If they had failed the first time, maybe due to a lack of experience or not understanding what to do, one would have thought that they would have gained important knowledge from the experience. However, as you are aware, we experienced another recession, and the economy has been struggling ever since. Today, all Nigerians are poor; even the wealthiest among us would admit that they are having a hard time making ends meet because they are unsure whether or not their company will continue to function. The government’s failure to recognise the connection between economic growth and increased safety is something that many people find to be incomprehensible. When there is a general lack of safety in the environment, economic growth will not be possible. There are investments that individuals ought to have made, but they are holding back because the atmosphere is not stable enough for them to feel comfortable doing so.
In light of the next presidential election, what kind of outcomes do you anticipate? Is there any chance that Uhuru will become available to the general public?
There are so many people running for office that it doesn’t really thrill me. People get elected, but as soon as they take the oath of office, they disregard all of the commitments they made, and they are no longer answerable to anybody. Since the year 1999, has any state legislature or the National Assembly been successful in holding any governor or president accountable?
Both the President of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, (Femi) Gbajabiamila, have stated to us in the past that they do not believe in confrontation but rather in cooperation with the executive branch. As a result, they have stated that they will approve anything that the President brings before them, as they operate on the principle that the President is always right and cannot be questioned. To that extent, the National Assembly has been a disgraceful failure for our country, just as state assemblies have been a disgraceful failure for their respective states due to the fact that governors act as mini-emperors in their respective states.