By Shola Oshunkeye and BEIFOH OSEWELE
As you step into his living room this sunny afternoon, he is comfortably seated in front of the Plasma television watching a Yoruba movie on a pay channel. He is dressed up, wearing a pair of brown trousers and a flowery long sleeve shirt, with a brown pair of shoes to match.
“How are you, gentlemen?” he asks the three-man team of ICON, as they step into the living room, poised to pump their hands in warm handshake. He flashes his signature smile, genuinely, as he shakes each member of the troika. The handshake is firm and strong. It belies his 71 years on earth.
The time now is 1p.m., one clear hour behind schedule. But Sola Odunfa, ex-Daily Times, former Editor of The Punch newspaper, and for many years, special correspondent of the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, is not angry. The legend shows perfect understanding, even pities the team, over the traffic gridlock that almost shut down the city that day.
For a man of his professional status and age, his simplicity and calm are quite disarming. In the Nigerian media milieu, Odunfa is no mean man. He is one of the iconic figures Nigerians know by name. They are familiar with his velvety voice on the BBC, a voice that is now yielding its mellow to a rich baritone.
In case you didn’t know, Odunfa’s media odyssey dates back to 1963. He was barely 22 when he caught the bug. An editors’ editor, you would be stating the obvious if you say that this legend has seen it all. He began his career with the Nigerian Tribune, had a stint with the defunct Sketch, before cruising with Daily Times at the height of the conglomerate’s glory. Later, he berthed at The Punch where, as editor-cum-sports reporter, he set a record in 1974 as the first Black African journalist ever to cover the World Cup finals. He joined the BBC in 1977 and still works part time for some international media organizations till date.
Despite his years on the beat, the Sola Odunfa that we met on Thursday didn’t look tired a bit at 71. This was why kick-started the interaction by asking him if journalists should actually retire.
He didn’t ponder over the poser before proffering an answer. “Journalists must retire,” he said matter-of-factly. “If you don’t retire you will die young, or rather, you will die early. There is a limit to the stress the human body can be put through.
“Let’s say you start running around from the age of 22, 23, 24, and you work really hard, by the time you are 50, your body starts telling you that you need a rest. By the time you are 60, watch out because a few things may have cropped up in your body. After 65, definitely, you would have one of those issues with your health, and by the time you are 70, if you are lucky to live that long, you know that you have no choice than to slow down.
“There is a limit to what you can do as age creeps in. I was lucky because I learnt early that one must take a holiday; real holiday, not what Nigerians call working holiday. There is nothing like a working holiday. You are either working or you are on leave.
“If you take a full leave every year, you are likely to be able to work a little longer. But if you go on ‘working leave’ every year, your lifespan would be affected. At least, I have learnt that the body is not made of steel. Even steel suffer wear and tears. The same goes for the body; it suffers wear and tear. So, if you don’t respect it, it wears out early. If you respect it, you can push it, push it, push it.”
Well, as they say, the taste of the pudding is in the eating. Please, enjoy the rest of the meal.
Apart from learning early to observe your leave, what other things did you do over the years to ensure that your mind and spirit are healthy in a healthy body?
Well, that I don’t know, I cannot start pontificating on that. But I can tell you that living well entails doing whatever you are doing very well. I have enjoyed the practice of journalism all my life. I devoted my entire living to it. I worked hard and I played hard. When I had to work, nothing could stop me, and when I decided it was time to rest or take an interval, nothing could take me away from it.
Of course, there is the spiritual aspect to life; life is not just material all of the time, there is the spiritual aspect. You need to find time to reflect on yourself, reflect on your living, reflect on your relationship with the environment. I guess if you adapt more to what nature demands of you, you are happier. If you do a lot of reflection, you are not likely to be greedy, you are not likely to run after material things all of the time. So, your mind is clear. As we say, you are at ease with yourself. If you are at peace with yourself, nothing would disturb your equilibrium.
What are the things you do that qualify as playing hard?
Everybody has his own way of unwinding. I like going to nightclubs. I enjoy it. Rather, I should say, I enjoyed it. I have all the time, 24 hours to myself now, but I don’t have the energy or the means to indulge myself in that.
Not many people would believe that you lack the means.
Well, I am saying it. Also, I like intellectual exercise. I read a lot, not about esoteric things, but about the world around me, about people, especially autobiography. I like reading autobiographies because that is where people tell a lot of lies. If you buy a book of 300 pages, be sure that at least 100 pages would be packed full of lies. Nobody writes an autobiography to discredit himself, you write it to praise yourself. Whatever you might have done wrong, you paper it over. And whatever your failures, rather than ascribe them to your own inadequacy or inefficiency, you ascribe them to somebody else or to some other circumstances. In spite of that, I like reading them; they keep me relaxed and make me smile a lot.
You enjoy the lies?
The Yorubas say two people don’t suffer from lies. If the person telling the lies knows that he is telling a lie, he is enjoying himself. The other person who is the recipient of the lie would suffer it only if he doesn’t know that it is lies. But once he knows that whatever he is being told is a lie, he doesn’t suffer. If you come to my house at 1p.m., and tell me good morning, I don’t need to look at my watch. I would say, they have come again. So, you’re not losing anything, I am not losing anything either. We are not likely to quarrel because I am not offended and you are not offending anybody. We would just laugh and shake hands, and that would be it.
How many years did you spend in journalism?
I should say all my working life. I started active journalism in 1963 when I was 21, and I have done nothing ever since. I stopped real hard work when I was 65 because then I concluded within myself that I had to apply some breaks, otherwise, the breaks would come from somewhere else. So, I slowed down at 65, but up till now, if I get any commission I work. Most of the time I have been freelancing. So, I am used to working on commission. I don’t write for free. You want me to do something, we agree on the price, I go out and give you what you want, and you pay me.
You don’t write for free?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t write for free, because this is my livelihood. I live on it. I have nothing else doing. However close you are to a lawyer, he is not likely to go to court and file a suit free of charge for you. If you say, ‘but we are friends,’ he would tell you, ‘I would do this free, but you pay for that.’ It is livelihood. Why must I write free of charge? That is what I live on. I may choose to reduce whatever I charge because we are friends or because we are in the same cause, but I won’t give you 100 per cent rebate.
What are the things you write on these days?
Don’t forget I have worked as a reporter. I always say that I have been a reporter all my life. Even at the period when I was an editor, I went out to report events, I went out to do interviews, I went to conferences because it gave me joy. It still gives me joy.
When I am at home and I get a news flash on TV about something happening somewhere, my first instinct, even now, is to rush there or call my contact. Then, after a few minutes, it occurs to me, ‘Sola, why are you doing that? You have nobody to write for.’ So, I relax. I have done it all my life. And as a reporter, usually you don’t choose all the time. You don’t say I am going to write on the economy, I am going to write on politics, I am going to write on the environment. No. A reporter is a reporter, and your job, your profession, your livelihood is to convey the atmosphere and event to people in their homes and offices, let them know what is happening. That is your job. It doesn’t matter whether it is economic or political, those distinctions come in later. If there is a plane crash, for instance, your job is to rush there, speak to people, make your observations; the first thing is to convey to people that there was a plane crash and that you are looking at the scene now. Once you got that over, you file it.
Then, the next thing would be that after reporting so many people dead, it would be time to find out who are the people affected. Then, you discover that the chairman of one board or company was there. A businessman was there. Then, another angle comes in. The man who is interested only in the economy would come in and say, what plane was that? A Boeing 737? When was it purchased? What is the value?
I just finished a book, for the third time, about some hijacking in the Middle East in the 1970s. At interval, the author would put there: four aircrafts, a Boeing, a DC 9, a DC 10. He describes them and starts putting value on them. The hijackers blew up the planes later. The author said, that was so much money gone in flame. As a reporter, you wouldn’t put that in your very first paragraph. No. So, when you find an event like that, there are so many angles to it. That is why you may keep chewing at a story for a week or two after the event happened.
You just mentioned ‘chewing’ at a story. Do you see much of that these days?
It is there. Let me tell you something; since the middle 1980s, I have been writing mainly for the international media. There are things I take for granted when I approach a story, but whether you do that or not is not my business. I am not here today to do a critique of your own job. If you do it and your employer says it is okay, it is okay by me.
The reason for the question is that you’ve been part of this process for so long, and there were standards below which you never operated? And as a consumer of media products are you happy at what you see these days?
I would say the practice of journalism in Nigeria today is of a standard commensurate with the quality of the welfare of the practitioners. If I am working for a newspaper in Lagos, and I am asked to cover an air crash in Ota, what will qualify my report will consist of what kits I have to get to the scene. There will be a difference between the man who drives a car to the scene and the man who has to find a danfo (commercial bus). There will be a difference in quality between the reporter who has a functional communication equipment to file his story from that place and the man who has to rush back to write in long hand. There are many factors which qualify what your output is. Maybe when that man returns to the office, he would do a first class report, but it may be too late because his competitors who had better facilities may have exhausted everything or beaten him to the market. So, his own report is dead on arrival. So, I feel reluctant to judge the work done by people.
You are holding back.
I am not holding back. It depends on the facilities at my disposal.
A few years ago, there was trouble in the Niger Delta. I needed to do an in-depth report from the angle of the militants. I went to Warri and I met one of the leaders of the group with whom I was a friend in Lagos. I didn’t even know he was deep into that crisis at the time. He arranged for me to visit one of their bases in the creeks. He called the leader…How would I get there? He said, ‘Mr. Odunfa, you would have to find a speed boat.’ I didn’t have a speed boat. He said they would arrange one for me. He said the boat cost N15, 000. I said there was no problem. I brought out my wallet and handed him the money. Then, the escort who was one of them also takes something, a sort of allowance. But then, while agreeing to pay so much, I was also calculating what the report would fetch me. I mean, I couldn’t afford to make a loss. I don’t make a loss on my reports. I must make profit because that is why I am working. I have a family to look after. So, when I calculated everything and the number of reports I could write, I would make good money. So, I could afford it. None of my very good friends in Warri working for the Nigeria media had ever even attempted to go after these people, because they could not afford it. So, that is part of the welfare I was talking about.
Whenever I called any of the militants either in Warri, Port Harcourt, wherever I went, they would say, ‘O, let’s meet you in the hotel.’ ‘Let’s have a drink, dinner or lunch.’ I would pay, of course. I was looking for something. But few Nigerian journalists I met could afford that. And if you cannot afford to service your sources, you don’t get anything out of those sources. But if you can service them, that is money, provide welfare for them, they will service you in return. For you to buy a person N2, 000 lunch or dinner, you must have more than N2, 000 to play with. It is just common sense. But if you don’t have the type of money, the sources you cultivate are not likely to be useful.
What really is the job of an editor? Is it to go looking for stories like you did or sit back at his desk and wait for reporters to bring the materials?
Practically, the job of an editor is that of a public relations person. The job of an editor, strictly speaking, is to attend parties, attend cocktails given by ministers, the top echelon either in the industries or politics, cultivate sources, primarily for yourself or for your newspaper. But when you consider that there is no profession called editor, then you may have to use your head to qualify the job you do as an editor.
If all you want to do is attend parties and cocktails every night, okay. The day you lose that office, that chair, you are useless to yourself and to the industry and you won’t find any other job. That is the difference between the professional and the passer-by. There are professionals and there are passers-by, people who come, they are raised, within two to three years, they are editor. But they don’t see themselves as professionals. The moment they get something better financially, they move out. The moment they are offered PR managers in a bank, they are gone. But you find that the professionals stick to the industry. He is an editor. Even his employers know that whatever the circumstance, they can rely on him to give their paper a good report wherever he goes.
I have covered the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGOM). While I was editor of The Punch, I covered the World Cup. I make bold to say I was the first black African journalist to cover the World Cup final, and that was in 1978 in Argentina. I couldn’t have covered the World Cup final if I had not been covering the local league or the Challenge Cup or the FA Cup, as it is now known. And Nigeria was not at that particular World Cup final anyway. So, it wasn’t a case of NFA (Nigeria Football Association) putting me on a plane. I was sponsored exclusively by my employer- The Punch. My employers knew that behind the facade of an editor, I was a good sports reporter, because I had done that for many years. So, I could report it. When I went to Kuala Lumpur, I could report the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. That is the subtle difference between the professionals and those who just pass-by or who are in it for the glamour.