By Henry Okonkwo
At a tender age, Rasheed Adegbenro, son of the late Premier of defunct Western Region, Alhaji Dauda Soroye Adegbenro, was already poised for the life ahead; to be his own man and take his destiny in his hands.
Growing up and having a father that was a popular and active politician, little Adegbenro eyes curiously were fixed on the vigorous politicking going around him, listening with rapt attention at the politicized philosophy dripping from the lips of his dad and even reading newspapers, thus keeping himself abreast of happenings in the country.
Rasheed became aware of his environment at a very young age. This perhaps prepared him in taking decisions about his life and career path.
With the immense political clout of his father and his deep knowledge in current affairs, many expected him to blaze the trail and go into politics or waltz his way into some government work. But Adegbenro shocked many when he took interest in the pen profession.
“My father was an active politician,” he said. “And I gathered much knowledge listening to him talk about the polity. A certain editor urged me to be putting my opinion down on paper. He then gave me a topic to write for him, which I did, and he marveled at my write-up.”
And with that early attempt, his love for journalism blossomed.
He had challenges getting into the university, so he decided to enrol into the Nigeria Institute of Journalism, NIJ, for a diploma course where his reporting skills where honed.
However, his family did not like his fascination with journalism.
“I had challenges entering the university so I took up journalism as a viable option. My family tried to dissuade me because they believed that it is not a profession that advances the career of its practitioners. An uncle of mine, a PhD holder, even called me aside and cited an instance with his classmates that were still reporters many years after they left school.”
Adegbenro did not bulge to pressure as he pursued his vision in the journalism profession. He scaled the topsy-turvy scenes of beat reportage, proving his worth in various print media. He also tested the waters of electronic broadcasting with the Nigeria Television Authority, NTA. Having paid his dues, he made a foray into the corporate world, where he worked with various establishments like Volkswagen. He was also in the Public Relation Department of the Manufacturing Association of Nigeria (MAN) from 1981 to 1989. In January 1995, MAN called him up to work in their Corporate Affairs Department.
Adegbenro who is the incumbent acting Director-General of the MAN, in this interview, speaks on his life in the media, manufacturing in Nigeria among others.
At what point did you decide to foray into journalism?
It all started when I had challenges securing admission into the university. So, I took up journalism as another viable option. My family tried to dissuade me from going into newspaper writing because they believed that it is not a profession that advances the career of its practitioners. My uncle that stayed some years abroad pursuing his PhD even called me aside to dissuade me, pointing out some of his schoolmates that were still beat reporters many years after they left school. Many saw my decision to go into journalism as rebellious, but I believed that even as a kid, I should know exactly what I wanted.
So, I went on receiving extramural on the tenets of journalism. Then I saw an NIJ advert, announcing that they were collecting applications to train interested individuals in journalism. I already had the basic knowledge about journalism, so, I applied and got admitted for a three months training in Advance Writing.
In the class, many people thought that I was already practising the profession because of the knowledge I exhibited and the references I had. In May 1975 when we finished the course I led the class, emerging the best student. Unknown to me, the Rivers State Government Publishing Company had an agreement with NIJ that whoever came first in the course would get automatic employment in their firm (Nigerian Tide). So, I got my award and appointment letter with so much applause. The next day, my story was on the cover of national dailies. My father got calls from all over the country telling him that his son’s face was on the pages of most newspapers. My family was amazed that I really wanted to make a career in journalism, and that I had started very well. Even when they knew I was involved in journalism training, they never thought I would really take it serious.
I took up my appointment with Nigerian Tide. But my experience there was sour. I had the energy to work, I covered various beats, but the stories would never get to Lagos on time. They used to print in Port Harcourt then transport it to Lagos. Sometimes, en-route Lagos, there may be break down, thus causing lots of delay, and eventually when the news got to Lagos, it was after four days and sometimes one week. So, no vendor would want to buy the paper. At the Nigeria Tide it was all action without motion.
I left Nigerian Tide. One of the editors of the Sketch -the first newspaper of the Western Region- came to see my father. He got wind of what I was facing at the Tide and invited me over to the Sketch. I joined Sketch in November, 1975 and in March 1976, I was made acting Sports Editor at the age of 22. I was the only prints journalist in Cairo that covered the semi-final match between IICC and Zamalek that saw Nigeria win the Winners Cup for the first time. Another was Timi Fatoyinbo, who was running a live broadcast for Radio Nigeria; we were only two journalists that covered that match. At the return leg in Ibadan, Best Ogedegbe the IICC goalkeeper played the shot via penalty and that gave Nigeria the victory, so I did the story and cast the best headline I have ever written: ‘Best’s best goal’ that made the cover of the Sunday Sketch, the next day.
After about 10 months, I left the Sketch and joined NTA. People were even shocked that I resigned from the Sketch. At the NTA, I had a totally new experience; NTA had lots of graduates and Masters Degree holders from various prominent universities in the workforce. So, I realized the urgent need to deepen my academic qualification if I must excel in my career. As a young boy, I was doing well on air and gaining fame, but that didn’t take me far financially. I realized that to make money, I must go back to school. In 1980, I travelled to the United States to further my studies.
I applied for study leave, which was ordinarily my entitlement, but then many advised me that I have to lobby the sole administrator in charge of NTA for approval. Lobbying was something I hated right from my days as a young man. I believed that if am good at what I do for the station then, the management should reciprocate. I refused to be seen lobbying or using any political platform, which many knew that I had, to achieve what I needed. So, when I could not get endorsement for my study leave abroad, I tendered my resignation. Many were shocked at my decision.
There is always a plan B in life, so I switched to my plan B, and left NTA for MAN as Public Relations Officer (PRO) in 1981. Many were surprised but within me, I knew there were other goals that were worth pursuing. That was how my role as a journalist ended.
So, that is the story of my life. I could have been a policeman. When I was searching for admission, I applied and was called to join the police force where they offered to train me but I was put off by the requirement that I had to sign a bond that would keep me in the force for a number of years. I was very young then- I was barely a 20-year old- so, I didn’t want to be tied down with the police in case something better came up. I really did not like the idea of being bound by a bond, and I didn’t regret not joining the police force at all.
Do you miss anything about journalism?
Yes. Sometimes, I feel that itch to come back to journalism, particularly when there are major stories breaking. I would wish to go out there and be on top of it. I don’t feel comfortable sometimes sitting at home watching television or depending on the net for news from the foreign media who are reporting events on Nigeria. Journalism is beautiful then, and even now.
Why didn’t you take to active politics like your father?
I tried to join politics on the fringe as a professional, not as an activist. The foundation of that politics was on one condition that beyond those who contest election, each and every one of us has a role to play as to who leads us. And my little study of politics convinced me that not every interested person must contest elections.
I liken it to a stage drama where 10 to 15 actors would thrill an audience of about 3,000 persons, helping them to relax and to yell and laugh. That is the way I liken politics. The whole National Assembly cannot have up to 200 senators; the governors could not be more than 36, but the fate of more than 150 million people are tied to the decision of these few.
So, from my perspective I saw a larger role for a larger society. Based on that, I tried to convince a few to view politics in that light. And I had good success convincing a lot of professionals to join and together we formed the September Club, a clique of apolitical individuals. Thus, our members were free to join any of the two registered political parties, Social Democratic Party (SDP) or National Republican Convention (NRC). We intended the club to be a platform where politicians unite and enjoy mutual dialogue among themselves. Our aim was to cleanse the political system. It would be beautiful if that could be replicated today.
People like Femi Fani-Kayode, Greg Mbadiwe, Odein Ajumogobia and many others were in our fold. But when IBB did a policy summersault, jettisoned the new-breed politicians, removed the ban on the old politicians, some of us went back to our corporate lives while many remained and pushed on strongly. That was my romance with politics. I never went into politics to play ‘compensatory politics’. I joined for value addition. I have a career as a journalist and as a PR person so; I never saw politics as a source of livelihood.
How would you rate the state of manufacturing in Nigeria?
It is still challenging. You cannot divorce manufacturing from the totality of the environment. That our environment is ravaged by high unemployment today is because our factories are in slumber. If we got it right like some other economies did, and allow manufacturing to take its full bloom like it was recorded in other climes, the economy would not be in the wood as it is today.
If you do a quick scan on global environment, each of the countries that you point out to be successful today, all became wealthy through manufacturing.
The success in manufacturing is naturally laid to expansion in service provision. So, service serves to compliment the real sector and agriculture. But we got it wrong here, because it got to a point the service sector was growing faster than the real sector it was supposed to compliment. Simple economic logic would tell you that something is wrong with that economy.
The beauty about manufacturing is that it is a job-creating enterprise. For example, when an entrepreneur imports goods like a dairy product, he could end up employing between 10 and 20 staff, but when the dairy producing company is set up in a country, it would surely employ hundreds of skilled and unskilled workers-engineers to manage the machines, people with bio-tech and food-tech background, who have hands-on experience on how to manage the production of diary product. That is the value of manufacturing. That is why emphasis should be more on manufacturing than in trading.
The universities of technology and polytechnics we have were created to turn out the human resources required for manufacturing, they were not trained to work in the Customs, or for engineers and architects to start seeking paid employment in banks.
But at the end of the day, our industries did not grow, thus creating the high rate of unemployment in the polity. The unemployment menace would continue until the manufacturing sector is revived.
We started getting it wrong when there was a dichotomy between business and government. We were running two economies- the economy as seen by those in power and the economy as perceived by the professors. Until we see our economy as one single entity, with the government understanding that the local businessman is a partner in their role of managing an economy, we would remain in the woods.
Another challenge manufacturers grapple with is the excess and multiple taxation slammed on them by government officials. Here, we see local government chairmen sending their scouts to go and keep extorting money from small-scale industries at odd intervals and for frivolities. Manufactures are milked without recourse whether he made profit or not.
Entrepreneurs should be worshipped by government because of the employment opportunity they create for their populace. We got it wrong when confidence building crashed. Because the wrong managers were on the driver’s seat, our economic locomotive derailed. Many policies were announced and never implemented. Some were implemented and abandoned halfway when another administration takes over the mantle of leadership. That is what I call ‘push and go policy’, and we just cannot plan with such setting. We can’t.
That was what happened with Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP. International Monetary Fund, IMF, wanted to assist us with loan. They spelt out their criteria, but because we were not ready to adhere to the strict financial terms, we said no, that their term was too much and that we would do our own internal restructuring. So, SAP came and at the end Nigerians suffered for nothing.
What must be done to revive the trend?
Support strong protection for our industries. I told you every successful economy we have in the world today went through the routes of manufacturing. When America, Europe, China and India started, they had strong protection of their industries from their governments. It was until they were sure that they have stabilized and could face competition that they opened their doors.
China just opened its doors and have since been exporting and ravaging the whole world with their products, because their economy was locked up for donkey years. Then, you can’t get anything to either India or china. I was in China two years ago; a company in china no matter the location can compete with the world because the necessary support has been put in for them for more than 20 years ago. And the government has supported their industries hence; they are so strong and resilient to compete in any part of the world.
What about the government’s ban on some items to encourage local production?
Please, tell me any product that was banned in this country that still does not find its way into the Nigerian market? It is because of our lack of seriousness in our operations.
The more danger is that those who smuggle contraband do not pay duties, so government loses revenue. And because they do not pay duties, they could afford to sell below the market cost price, which affects legitimate sellers. In the long run, the smugglers smile to the bank while the government and the manufacturers suffer.
What is MAN doing to get the youths off the streets into manufacturing and entrepreneurship?
MAN is a specialized Nigeria Governmental Organization (NGO) and its mandate is to promote manufacturing. And we advocate for manufacturers. But beyond that, for the last two years, we have embarked on capacity building for our members, and are interested in promoting entrepreneurship.
We provide capacity for our members to write business plans to companies and for those that want to expand their operations or go into a new venture. So, through that capacity building, we’ve discovered a niche to support society. We have seen a new window for youth empowerment through the entrepreneurship programme we are putting in place. And we intend to go into partnership with some donor-agencies to fast-track and get good human resource personnel to deliver talks and training.
Many people would say that entrepreneurship is innate, but I believe one could be trained to be an entrepreneur. Nobody came to this world and became a doctor over-night; it was through training. The innovative element in one is brought to fore the through training.
How do you cope with the pressure of work and your family?
I study a lot. I have lots of books, materials and documents to fill up a library. I prefer to be doing something positive for three hours than to be stuck in traffic. I derive more value working.
I have three children; two have graduated and the other is about to graduate. For my wife, I guess it is an involvement we’ve got used to. The only challenge now is that I don’t read at home again. I no longer take some work home.
I unwind by mainly reading the holy book. I am not a football fan. I used to run commentaries on TV, but now, all that doesn’t interest me anymore. I switched off from football in 1980, when Nigeria won the Nations Cup. I can say with my little understanding, Nigeria was not the best team that year, yet, we won the Nations Cup. May be that played a role.
What is your advice to the youths?
The youths have their challenges but they must keep their heads and not let this environment swallow them up. They should be resilient in whatever they do, because if they are weak, they cannot win. They should be focused and never allow the environment to alter their vision.