Professor Idowu Sobowale is many things rolled into one; a veteran journalist, an academic par excellence, a civil right activist and more. According to him, his major inspiration is drawn from a piece of advice he got from his journalism school in Lagos; do not refuse any assignment. This he has followed religiously. Today, Sobowale remains one of the doyens of Mass Communication in Nigeria. In this interview, he speaks about his life, his days in Daily Times, his reason for calling it quits with journalism and a host of other issues. Excerpts
Looking at life at the stage, how would you describe the experience so far?
For each day God has given me, it’s been wonderful. Every bit of it has been heralded by testimonies of God’s goodness. Right from when I was born, as far back as I could remember up till this moment, I have had nothing but gratitude to God. Indeed when I celebrated my 60th birthday, the title of the programme was Grace. When I celebrated my 70th birthday, it was titled Grace through and through. I have come across diverse people from different places on the continent of the earth who have been helpful to me and I have tried all my life to be accessible and friendly as possible. It has been sweet stories of God’s mercy, goodness, enablement, fulfillments.
How much of the good old days do you still remember and relish?
I have had occasions to look back in order that I can chart a course. I have had occasions to look back in order that I can properly assess the present. I have also had occasions to look back in relations to the present so that I can map out a way forward.
What was growing up like for you?
Growing up was quite an experience for me. I started as a village boy, a farm boy. As I said in my testimony, my father was a peasant farmer; my mother was a petty trader, in addition to being a farmer. That was what my energy was channeled into. It was not until after I had turned 13, that I decided to go and become an apprentice in a mechanic shop and it was in the process of going to school for one year, by the decision of the family so that I could be numerate, if my boss says, I should bring a screw driver, I would not bring a spanner, if he says I should bring a screw, I would not go for a hammer. That was all the education I was sentenced to have. God, however, had his own plan for me. Like I said in that testimony, right from first time in school, I never saw the walls of a classroom before. I was too old to be admitted into class one and the class two that I was rambled into, the sight of the blackboard nearly made me collapse. They gave me a pencil but I didn’t know how to handle it, they gave me a paper, I didn’t know what to do with it. I was just drawing line and the rest. But God’s purpose in man’s life, no matter what, would be fulfilled. First I was being attached to a genius who would finish his work, take my paper, do mine and finish and all of us will get same mark. Our teacher then shifted me, and moved me from the side of the genius and out besides somebody who was not too brilliant but somebody whom I could copy and I could get one over four or sometimes two over four. We went on like that until I was moved again and put beside somebody who was ten times worse than myself; somebody who was old and much worse than myself. So rather than copying him, he was the one copying me. So right from that moment, until I left primary school, I was never second to anybody. The only time I took a third position was when our teacher went on maternity leave and they brought the arts master to come and teach us. I would say he was a useless man and that was my first encounter with corruption and in spite of the fact that the man cheated me, I was even flogged by my brother for this. Somebody, who never in his life thought that I could even get to class two, not to talk of school. Apart from that occasion, whoever was second to me, was a distant second. At secondary school, I was never brilliant and I was not worse off either. Then when I went to university, I just picked the impetus of primary school.
What informed your decision to study journalism?
My studying of journalism was by seeing, which they say, is believing. There was somebody in my school, Baptist Academy who is still very much around, his name then was Ajibade Thomas, now Ajibade Fashina Thomas, he was about three years my senior. He was writing about the school, activities around the school, on sheets of paper and pasting it all over the school and everybody was going there to read. That just caught my fancy. Then Chief Onabanjo who was also known as Bisi Onabanjo, a former governor of Ogun State who was one of the media leaders in Nigeria then, was released and discharged from the Chief Obafemi Awolowos’ felony trial and we went to pay him a solidarity visit. We got there and in the course of our discussion, I told him I was interested in journalism and I would want to work in the Daily Times, and he told me the paper was going to die but that his friend, the late Alhaji Babatunde Jose, had just set up a training school for the Daily Times and that he would give me a note. He then gave me a note and when I left his house, I headed straight for Kakawa. When I got there, by the corridor, I met Alhaji Jose and gave him the note. When he looked at the note and saw it, he just placed it on the wall and minuted on it and gave it back to me to take to Number 13, Cooper Road, Ikoyi that was where the training school was. We were to spend one year at the training school but after one month, Mr. Riley, the trainer, an Australian, took both Ayodele Kekere-Ekun later a dental surgeon and myself from the school and put us in the newsroom at Kakawa and said that we had demonstrated sufficient potential.
You covered the civil war, what was your experience during the war?
My experience was harrowing in some respect, interesting in other respect, fearful in most respect. The share scale of destruction was enough to put anybody off and to make anybody wish that not only Nigeria, but that no country would ever witness war. The dangers that one went through, the near misses and near death were quite fearful. The experiences of the casualties of war, even those who were captured what they went through was fearful not to talk of those who were killed. The magnitude of suffering that the Biafrans experienced was one that one would never wish, even his enemies. It was really sad, of course at the end of the day, when the war was over, the magnanimity of the Federal Government, the readiness of the Biafrans to embrace peace, all made the whole episodes quite interesting. I must tell you that four of my colleagues who were journalists were killed during the war.
Still talking about the war, the late Chinua Achebe gave his own account of the war, which was greeted by controversies. As some one who also witnessed the war first hand, what is your take on this?
I will try not to use adjectives and adverbs because what they help us do is to inflict our own prejudices on others. I am not going to say he was very wrong and I am also not going to say he was very right. He presented the perspective of the war from his own freewill, from his own looking glass and some of the experiences he has produced could have been actually things that he went through or he saw people going through. I told you earlier that seeing what the people went through was quite harrowing. Those people who have rushed to commend him as well as those who have also rushed to condemn him have really not looked at the whole scenarios dispassionately. He, who was also involved, might not have been totally impartial.
Around the 1970s, upon becoming a deputy editor, and also an editor, you left the Daily Times for academia, what informed that decision having attained such height?
I was the substantive assistant editor of Daily Times, the deputy editor then, Chief Segun Osoba, the former governor of Ogun State, went on a year IPI training so I stepped into his shoes as the assistant deputy editor. Later I became the acting editor of the Evening Times. I had everything going well for me. At that time, however, the position of the assistant editor of Daily Times was superior to that of the editor of Sunday Times, and that position was reserved for me for one and half years while I was at the University of Lagos by the late Alhaji Babatunde Jose. So the day I finished my final papers in the morning I went in the evening to resume on that desk as the Assistant Editor of Daily Times. But what informed my leaving was that both my salary and all of my other emoluments were not up to the car allowance of my editor, that is the person I was assisting or the editor of Sunday Times who was supposed to be somewhat lower than me. I then went to the man who was in-charge and he said he was the one who did not give me what was recommended by my editor and I asked why and then said, “With so many Christmases on earth and with four children, three of whom were in school and he then responded with a question too, “So many Christmases with the Daily Times”, I then burst into laughter and I left. Immediately, I headed for the University of Lagos where I had just graduated at about a year and some months and I had the best result. When I got there, Mr. Aspinol, who was acting Head of Department was just too happy to take me on. He was hesitant because he said having been an assistant editor of Daily Times, acting deputy editor of Daily Times that my salary was more than the salary of the Vice Chancellor. That was his assumption and chances are that I would not want to be a lecturer. I then told him that no, the reason I was coming was not for salary and that I wanted to have a different experience. He said if it was that, when would I resume and I asked him if I could be given up to a month so I could properly disengage from the Daily Times and he said fine. I then asked him what I needed to do, he said I should write an application and I asked again if I could write it in long hand and he said yes. I then told him, please give me a piece of paper and he did and I wrote the application letter and he took me to the Vice Chancellor and immediately I was employed on temporary appointment, that when I came fully that I would be interviewed and my appointment would be regularized.
So you left because of salary difference?
Yes, I mean, the salary difference was not small at all. What actually happened was that the man, who was removed as the assistant editor, was brought by the man who refused to implement the recommendation for me. God vindicated me later because I was later in a position to render him assistance and through the grace of God I did it for him what he failed to do for me.
Any other young man in your shoes would have attempted to lobby or run around to have their case looked into, why didn’t you toe such line?
Well I didn’t know if it was by divine arrangement or by intuition but I just felt that with that kind of man in-charge of the editorial affairs of the paper, the future for me was bleak. I didn’t think twice, because as soon I left, I just headed straight to UNILAG.
As a former commissioner for education and also a special adviser, how would you say your experience has impacted on your academic move?
Probably I would say to some extent, but not to a great extent because I was already a commissioner before I was appointed as the chairman of the committee that transferred pupils from private to public schools when Jakande took over and it was as a result of the success of that assignment that I was appointed special adviser for education under the regime. But there is no doubt that my encounter while carrying out that assignment influenced some of the things I did later as a lecturer. Some of these things have become national events today. For example, the Post UME exams, which the universities are conducting today was a product of one of my ideas. This was because of what I had experienced in our public school system. When I became the Dean of the School of Communication at LASU, I suggested at a Senate meeting that we should conduct our own exam regardless of JAMB scores for those who wanted to come in. At first it was resisted. I then told them of what I had experienced and some people then said, we should not just throw out that suggestion and that they should allow me to go and implement the decision in my school and then the following year, if we saw how it went, the school would know what to do. As God would have it, the person that had the best result in JAMB that year also chose LASU and chose Mass Communication too. But when he took that exam which was also taken from the papers that they did from that year’s JAMB, he scored 18 percent. This was what prompted the whole school to say, lets embrace this. When other schools saw it, they too embraced it. The government kicked against it and the Minister of Education and others rose in defense of the universities and today, the rest is history.
Can you share some of your memorable moments as a lecturer?
As I have said in my testimony that every moment of my life has been memorable. For instance, I have enjoyed God’s grace immensely in my activities as a lecturer. For instance, when the members of staff of the Department of Mass Communication were very few, we introduced several programmes. I was the acting head and we introduced a Ph.d programme which was stopped after I left and was kept in abeyance for so many years. Then at LASU, I also had the privilege of starting the first School of Communication in Nigeria, when I moved to Olabisi Onabanjo University, that also was replicated and other places that I had also had contacts, I have had significant impact.
In 1978, after coming back from your Ph.d studies, you introduced opinion polling in Nigeria, Nigerians seem not to have much confidence in opinion survey unlike what is obtained in advance countries. What is your view on this?
Well I don’t think it will be correct to say Nigerians don’t have confidence in opinion polling. If one asked Punch and the former management that pioneered opinion polling with me, they will tell you that yes, Nigerians have confidence in it. Punch was just like any other newspaper and as soon as we established such opinion poll, starting with the events and the perception of people regarding issues in Uganda during the reign of Idi Amin, the budget for that period, economic activities and other political issues, people took Punch like a Bible and Punch influence just soared like that. To back it up, God gave us the grace such that all the predictions that we made, especially as regards the election were all correct and those that we have been making ever since have also been correct. The real problem, however, has been that we have not been able to sustain it because one, it is capital intensive. Secondly, the media houses have not been vast and strengthened enough to be able to continue the tradition of conducting opinion polls. Not only Punch has done it, we took it to Guardian, they did it too and it was successful. But like most other things in Nigeria, things filtered in, misperceptions came into it, people had to be maligned and others. The Republic did it too and everywhere we had done it, it has boosted the sales and the popularity of that particular media.
You were consulting for a newspaper and at a time the newspaper blossomed and later it went down, what really happened?
I don’t know whether I was consulting for them or not. I mentioned a newspaper before, The Republic, I left that newspaper medium. At first, I established my own newspaper called Searchlight, and like any new newspaper, people felt that we would have a rough time, particularly when we had just about three months to plan it, but I told those who had tried to admonish us to bid our time, that with my experience if I could not start a newspaper in three months, then I didn’t have any worthwhile experience. In no time at all, it began to succeed, the paper rose and became a national newspaper. Then it was during the dark days of the Babangida administration, there were too many obstacles. That was the era of gagging, closures and other things. The pressure was so much that we could not continue with it, not because we didn’t succeed but because of the political interference so we had to rest Searchlight. I then went to The Republic that had almost died then and it was resurrected in no time at all and because of the same political interference, because the owner of the paper was a friend of the military hierarchy and we were trying to do what was professionally demanded, so it brought me in conflict with the owner.[The Sun]