By Modestus Chukwulaka

I count myself fortunate to have come across some of the finest Nigerians of different ethno-religious backgrounds during my close to two decades in active journalism. But I believe it was more of providential design than mere happenstance that I met Mr Ifeanyi John Ububukoh from the beginning of my career. He was wont to introduce me as a friend and colleague, but he was not just a superior and a mentor, he was a destiny helper. And this is not discounting the treasured friendship he offered freely and demonstrated at every critical turn of my chequered tour of the newsrooms. I worked in three different newspaper organisations from 1992 to 2011, and on each occasion, Ifeanyi Ubabukoh was the single recurrent human presence watching my back as I took those leaps of faith into the unknown.

We met in 1990. Towards the end of our undergraduate studies at the University of Lagos, print journalism majors were required to intern with a newspaper organisation for a semester. Armed with an introductory letter from the department, my close pal and classmate, Justus Nwakanma, and I headed to Majomi House on the Iganmu axis of Lagos to seek for an internship placement. The building used to house the defunct The Mail Newspapers, published by the debonair ex-journalist and public relations guru, Dr Clarkson Majomi.

On arriving at Majomi House, the then Managing Director, Fidel Odum, accepted us after a few minutes of interaction. Dauda Shehu was editing the daily title, deputised by Ubabukoh. Fred Owhawha was the Sunday editor, while Leke Salau, one of the most humane of the human specie I ever met in a newsroom, was the news editor. Everything considered, The Mail was kind to us, and in a more definite sense, to me in particular. And I will explain presently.

Shortly after returning to Lagos on the completion of the national youth service in September 1992, I visited Majomi House to touch base and inform the good folks there that I was ready to practise.  Ubabukoh, had by then become the editor of the daily title, and told me straightaway that my visit was rather fortuitous as the organisation was on the cusp of hiring reporters. He invited me to apply if I was interested. What a slice of fortune! I sent in an application and was subsequently interviewed with a horde of others. A couple of weeks or so later, I had my first job as a reporter. When Ubabukoh asked me when I wanted to report for duties, I pleaded with him to give me some time to get some mental clarity after the service year. He obliged, and I eventually started on November 1, 1992. That was how considerate he was.

One of the reporters who was employed at the same time with me was a nice, mild-spoken young man of immense talents called Rudolf Okonkwo. Although he had graduated in agricultural engineering, Rudolf could write on virtually everything under the sun, from the mundane and ridiculous to the serious and sublime. He wrote in both prose and verses, at times experimenting with satire, his flair for writing only rivalled by the ease with which he churned out those copies.

It was not about whether Rudolf would write himself into trouble, given the temperament of the military dictators in power; it was a matter of when. And the inevitable came way too soon the following year, leading to the sudden departure of both Ubabukoh and Rudolf from the Mail, and orchestrating my own departure less than a year later.

It was a notorious fact that the publisher, Dr Majomi, was in bed with the military juntas in Abuja. I remember one occasion when I was told the visiting publisher wanted to see me. It was ostensibly for the purpose of seeing a young reporter who had written a story he considered good. But before I took leave of his office, Majomi pointed at a portrait of then Military President, Gen. Ibrahim Babagida, by the wall and told me that ‘that man’ was his friend. I caught the drift, thanked him with a bow, and left.

One fateful day in 1993, The Mail published an opinion piece entitled, ‘Orkar’s madness’. The author was Rudolf Okonkwo. The piece referenced the aborted military coup of April 1990, which Babangida managed to survive by whiskers. In that piece, Rudolf attempted to update the late Major Gideon Orkar with happenings in Nigeria since his execution by firing squad three years earlier. Rudolf excoriated the late Army major, who became the public face of the putsch, for being so hasty in his ‘misadventure’ and wondered what he would have done were he to be alive in Nigeria of 1993. What an audacity! It was a satirical piece on the benighted state of a nation in perpetual search of its centre.

Understandably, the military government was displeased. As the puppeteers in Aso Rock came down on him over the piece, the publisher ordered Ubabukoh to proceed on an indefinite suspension. If he had stopped there, Ubabukoh would not have minded as he told me later, knowing how nebulous proprietary interests could be in such a choking atmosphere. Ubabukoh, who could sometimes be fatalistic in his world view, was later to say he knew the story could land him in trouble. So what angered him – and that is to put it mildly – was not that Majomi took an administrative action against him, it was some of the words he used in the fit of raw anger, something Ubabukoh rightly interpreted as a Freudian slip directly from his employer’s dark heart.

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One day, the suspended editor stormed Majomi House, challenging the publisher right from the gate to show up if he was man enough. I never saw him so enraged, and it bears stating here that Ubabukoh, an ex-military intelligence officer, was not a person any rational person would want to incur his wrath. Thank God Dr Majomi was not anywhere within the office that day. Ubabukoh went to his office, cleared his desk of personal belongings and left Majomi House for the final time. Of course, Rudolf did not come back. He travelled out of the country shortly after, and has since made a name for himself as a political satirist of note, becoming the popular Dr Damages in the process. 

As Ubabukoh left Majomi House, he told me to make haste and leave that place as well because the publisher had programmed his huge investment in The Mail to fail. It turned out to be prophetic. Before then, The Mail, which was conceived to compete with the best newspapers in the country, had begun to suffer a steady and irreversible reversal of fortunes. One of the lowest points was the mass resignation of members of the newspaper’s editorial board in protest of unacceptable proprietary interference. The story had it that Majomi had faxed an editorial written by his leader writers to Abuja. The puppeteers felt that the editorial would be more impactful and beneficial to the military juntas if it was published in the more illustrious and wider-circulating federal government-owned Daily Times. So when the editorial taken to the publisher for clearance got published in a rival newspaper, the editorial board members quit.

Ubabukoh joined the Champion Newspapers as a columnist, Opinion and Editorial (op-ed) Page Editor and Member of Editorial Board. I re-united with him in Champion Newspapers in February 1994, and again he had a hand in the move, and took me under his wings as soon as I arrived at Champion House. In 1995, I was posted to Owerri and for the next two years served as the correspondent of the newspaper in Imo State. By December 1996 I was transferred to Abuja, and for the next three years I reported the Presidential Villa.   

Upon my return to Lagos in January 2000, Mr Ubabuko had become the Deputy Chairman of the Editorial Board – which he later chaired. As the Features Editor of the newspaper, I was co-opted into the Editorial Board. While sitting on the editorial board, I understood why he was nicknamed the Sage at Champion House. Ubabukoh was contemplative and incisive. His piercing looks gave him a mystical aura of a sage who always knew more than he was willing to publicly admit. His opinions could be strong. Completely shorn of pretences, he never left you in doubt as to where you stood with him. Such traits were not in abundant supply, and certainly did not endear him to some people.

He did not believe in eye service, and his attitude towards the mundane could sometimes border on the cynical. “I don’t hope; therefore, I cannot lose hope,” he would say. Rather than being a declaration of resignation to fate, it was a mental hedge that prepared him for the worst in an unfair world where dogs could at times eat dogs. He was frugal with his words, whether written or spoken, and when he voiced out his thoughts, they were as penetrative as his sharp gazes.    

Serving as Features Editor and Deputy Sunday Editor in Champion Newspapers of those days placed me on the path to future responsibilities in the organisation, thanks to then MD/Editor-in-Chief, Mr Emma Agu, whose kindness to me remains unrequited. However, I had confided in Mr Ubabukoh early enough that having lived in Owerri and Abuja in the preceding five years, I had been thoroughly seduced by the sanity and orderliness which Lagos neither offered nor promised me. My heart was still in Abuja, and moreover, I was also contemplating life outside the mainstream media.

Towards the end of 2002, Ububukoh called me to his office one day and said a new publication being promoted by some of his ex-colleagues in the defunct Concord group could offer me an escape route back to Abuja.  He had already put in a word for me and wanted to know when I was ready so that he would take me to the promoters. True to his word, he took me to the Ajao Estate office of Mssrs Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe’s McDee Communications, and handed me over to the latter. The late Mr Igwe insisted that his men interviewed me first, handing me over to Mr Femi Adesina and Pastor Patrick Enilama.   

I resigned from Champion Newspapers on December 31, 2002 to join the pioneer staff of Sun Publishing Limited, in Abuja. Ubabukoh himself was later to become a media aide to ex-Governor Peter Obi during his second term. He did not return to Lagos at the end of his political appointment. After what came to be our last phone discussion last year, I told my wife that I would like to pay him a visit at Igbo-Ukwu. It was never to be.

When a call from Mr Ozioma Ubabukoh came through the phone as I drove home from church that Sunday afternoon, I thought it was a tad unusual and told my wife as much. As I returned the call upon reaching home minutes later, Ozioma told me what I was most unprepared to hear: his dad, Mr Ifeanyi Ubabukoh, had passed on. In Ubabukoh’s death I lost a benefactor. His dust-to-dust rites take place in his Ngo Village of Igbo-Ukwu, Aguata, Anambra State on Thursday, April 25, 2024. May God comfort his wife and the rest of the family. And may his generations never be stranded in life.     

• Modestus Chukwulaka lives in Abuja