Wole: The inimitable Awolowo, by Garba Shehu

For the two years I have written on this page from the outside, I can attest to the freedom and egalitarianism that has ensured the survival of the Nigerian Tribune as Nigeria’s oldest independent newspaper. We must give this credit to its leadership.
Before coming here, I have been to a few destinations in my nearly 30 years of sojourn in the journalism profession.
It is not unheard of that the newspaper owners have a role in what goes in and out of their papers. There are some in this country, who put down the rule concerning what to print and what not to print. Some owners have a long list of friends and a long list of enemies to be dealt with accordingly. In all circumstances, the publisher’s wish must be respected. In the case of the late publisher of the defunct Concord, Chief M.K.O. Abiola, he wasn’t hypocritical about anything. He laid down “three don’ts” for his newspapers. He said to them “don’t attack Islam, which is my religion; don’t attack my business because that is my livelihood and three, don’t attack the marriage institution because I have respect for it.”
In some media houses, they softly whisper into your ears to spare a particular government, an institution, a politician or ask that you write a good aphrodisiac for a big man in cahoots with the owner. In its heydays, the Zik Press Enterprises published nearly a dozen newspapers scattered across the length and breadth of this big country and in all cases, they allowed each publication to take account of the local political climate and run purely as a business. These were newspaper founded side-by-side with the Nigerian Tribune in the pre-independence period. It will continue to interest scholars and practitioners in Nigerian publishing why, as I said from the beginning, that the Nigerian Tribune weathered all storms and beaten all odds to come this far.
I have chosen to dedicate this column to the late publisher, Chief Oluwole Awolowo, who passed away last week at 70 in the hope of providing a clue to the longevity and the survivability of the Tribune.
As I read tributes upon tributes that have poured forth since his demise, I can only see good deeds he did. Reading those nice things said of Wole was by itself deeply touching. They say that he was patient and very humble. As a publisher of a newspaper in the country’s top five, he had power which he could use to advance the self, but he declined to do that to the point where he was accused of being an “Awo without being Awoist”. I think what they meant to say that he was apolitical. His obscurity from routine as well as historical chronicles was a function of his deep humility. He wasn’t a regular face in Abuja at Ministers’ waiting lounges. He kept a back role and allowed the newspapers to keep the old tradition of “published and be damned” He gave them the wide latitude of freedom they needed to operate independently and I am a witness to that. The Tribune has never rejected my manuscript. They have never edited my copy for political correctness or business reasons. The publisher had never requested my phone lines to pass down a word or request a meeting by way of interference or censorship.
I wrote as I wished. As Catherine Crahen the late publisher of Washington Post wrote in her auto-biography “Personal History”, the biggest gain a publisher makes is not in terms of cash returns. If It’s about money, you can make more hawking gold or foreign currencies in the notorious Lagos traffic. The gain of publishing comes from influence. Yet, Wole wasn’t sucked into that. The late Wole shied away from the glamour, glitter and fortune that attend publishing. The first time I saw him was at the offices of the defunct Today, published by late Abidina Coomassie. He was in the company of Malam Ismaila Isa who was the President of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, NPAN at that time. Throughout the meeting, the late Wole just managed to mutter a few words. He spoke little. My thinking was that he was aristocratic. Mallam Ismaila Isa later explained to me that no, it was humility. He said the late Tribune publisher was a well-raised child who grew up amid material wealth. He was the closest, of all his siblings to their mother in whose life he filled an important role after the death of their father and the family’s patriarch. When the widow shook off her grief, she went on to play a shaping role in the life of the family and that in doing this, she handed the family’s most important possession, the Tribune newspaper, to Wole to direct. That today, Wole is dead and Tribune is alive and stronger is a vindication of his mother’s confidence in him. As a reporter and publishing aspirant, I have been left in awe and admiration of his success in the Tribune.. Today, every Tribune man or woman takes a full salary at the end of the month. A survey of the publishing environment will reveal a lot of newspapers that fail in their obligation in this regard. Where some are reduced to the life of scavengers, Tribune staff walk in and out with their heads held high.
In a bid to reduce the “Jewishness” of the New York Times by its Jewish owners, they once set the rule that no Jew should edit the paper. That has changed with time. Today as I write, Nigerian Tribune is managed by an enterprising young man from Delta State, South-South Nigeria. In making the recent changes, the late publisher may have laid a new vision for the paper in the final moments of his life, that the Tribune must continue with its steadfast and aggressive expansion of its markets to maintain its leadership role as the country’s oldest, freest and independent newspaper.
Chief Wole Awolowo has paid his dues as a publisher, which the thing I mourn most. He was a responsible family head and a true son of his parents. He truly was inimitable.
May his soul rest in peace.