Prince Henry Olukayode Odukomaiya has written his name in gold and left an indelible mark in the pen profession. And for three decades he bestrode journalism profession like a colossus and shone brilliantly. This was after initial opposition from his father for dumping his university education. And like a man who sees beyond the confines of his environment, he embraced journalism wholeheartedly and it paid off. He became the editor of Daily Times in 1969. And 10 years after, he was invited by the late M.K.O Abiola to set up Concord Newspaper. After three years, he was invited to establish Champion Newspaper and was also instrumental to the setting up of Sir Gabriel Igbinedion’s now-rested Daily Telegraph. As he turns 80 on July 10, Odukomaiya takes Funke Olaode through his early days and career
Your outlook depicts a happy go fellow. Is it a reflection of your personality?
Oh yes! You are right. And journalism profession, which I embraced early also contributed to my ‘go ‘go go’ approach to life. Ironically, I was a very reclusive person particularly during my early years in life up to the university level. By nature I was an introvert until journalism took that aspect out of my life. It was easy for me to develop into an extrovert because when you are on this job you don’t have choice but to be sociable so you can make contacts. Otherwise you won’t make progress.
At 80 you still look good, what is the secret?
God is the secret and it is the truth. I have exceptionally good health which is divine.
Maybe probably you avoided all the ‘bad things’ in your early and career days?
On the contrary I did not. I was a chain smoker not into too much drinking though. It was on my 55th birthday that I had a resolution to stop smoking. Then I was managing editor and editor-in-chief of Champion Newspaper. It was a decision that I pleaded with God. Funny enough, I still smoked the last cigarette in my packet. I was in Port Harcourt that day and I knelt down and prayed to God to give me the willpower to stick to the resolution. And it has worked for me by the grace of God in the last 25 years.
How would you describe your growing up?
I was born on July 10, 1934 in Odogbolu in Ogun State but I hail from Ijebu-Ibefun. My father was a primary school teacher at Odogbolu. He was also an organist and choir master. My mother who hailed from Odogbolu only had Standard Six and ended up as a petty trader. I started schooling at Odogbolu and at age five my father was transferred to Ibefun my home-town where I continued my education. I left Ibefun at the age of 11 in 1944 after Standard Four, which was the highest class available then. My father sent me to live with his youngest brother in Lagos. I enrolled at St. Johns School, Aroloya. From there, I took Common Entrance Examinations to CMS Grammar School in 1947 and later went to University of Legon in Ghana for a degree in Classic.
Why the preference for Ghana not University College Hospital (UCI), which had been established at that time?
I was offered admission in both Universities (Ghana and UCI) but University of Legon offer was accompanied by a full scholarship. If you were my in my shoes you would do the same thing. I went to Ghana with Higher School Certificate obtained in private classes at Molusi College, Ijebu-Igbo, which were being run by my father’s old friend, Oluwole Awokoya who later became the first Minister of Education in the Western Region.
What was your aspiration in your youth?
My only aspiration was to be a lecturer with the wish to become a professor. But that dream never materialised as a result of my own doing. Going into journalism was accidental because I was in undergraduate at University of Legon in Ghana where I was studying Classics (English, Latin and Philosophy) when I abandoned it to move into journalism. I came home from Ghana during the vacations and that time it was the usual thing for university undergraduates who were not from rich family to seek employment. So I was teaching in a secondary school on Lagos Island. And prior to that, I was fond of writing articles but they ended up being published as letters to the editor. I didn’t mind as long as it came out.
How did your journey into journalism begin?
I saw an advertisement in Daily Times looking for a Leader Writer. I hadn’t the faintest idea of what a leader writer was or what he was expected to do. But my lecturers used to tell me that I was a good writer and in order to ascertain the authenticity of that claim, I applied for the job. This was in June 1957. I had only one year to complete my university education but was still attracted to the job. I felt intimidated among the job seekers because out of 32 of us 14 were university graduates in English while others had higher certificates and had experience in journalism. Surprisingly, among all the candidates shortlisted for the final interviews I was the only one chosen for the oral interview, which centred on my background and what type of salary I was expecting. I told them that I had only one year left and going by my academic records if I didn’t come out with First Class, I would end up with a minimum of Second Class Upper, which would qualify me as an assistant lecturer. So I said I would not take anything less than a lecturer’s pay.
What was your father’s reaction when you decided to jettison a university degree for a career in journalism?
I was myopic but because of the salary attached to the offer I forgot about completing my university education. I was also attracted to the position because a Leader Writer in those days was an equivalent of Chairman Editorial Board today. My job was to write opinions for the paper and also supervise the Features Desk. The salary that I was offered was amazing to me. It was N35,000 per annum. In all this, my father was not happy about the decision and he prayed that I didn’t regret it. I assured him that I would finish my degree through Correspondence Courses. But the volume of the work made it impossible. About four months later the board of directors most of whom were expatriates from London appointed the late Alhaji Babatunde Jose, who was a Regional Representative of the paper in the North as Editor of Daily Times. Honestly, God made me to find favour in the sight of Alhaji Jose. When he resumed in Lagos he was familiarising himself to the editorial team and when he got to me he asked me what I do as I said I am in charge of the editorial board of the paper. Alhaji Jose said a Leader Writer doesn’t have his opinion but represents the opinion of the paper. He asked me to see him in his office by 10 O’clock the following day.
Were you not afraid of losing your job or what was going through your mind at that time?
To be sincere I was afraid but summoned up courage and went to see him the following day. Alhaji Jose said ‘Kayode, why did you abandon your university education when you are almost through?’ I said my father too wasn’t happy about it but was attracted to the salary which was higher than my lecturers. Then as at that time you could hardly get any graduates in the profession. Alhaji Jose said because of what I just said he would introduce graduate trainee institute because he is not comfortable with journalists who are parading themselves without going through the proper training in journalism. He said he would find a school for me where I would be able to learn journalism before I could be acceptable to him. He said outside of the salary and perks of office I would not go high in the job.
What was your next move?
He said I should bring all my credentials. He sent them to London to look for a university where I could convert to a degree in journalism. The reply came from London in less than two weeks. And they said it was impossible to convert to a degree in journalism because as at that time, no British University offers a degree in Journalism. It was only offered in Polytechnics. I said ‘sir, I would be okay with whatever you are able to get for me’. Inside of me, I was happy for pursuing my studies further but the greatest joy was that I was going to England. Eventually, they got me two admissions at Royal Glasgow Polytechnic and Regent Street Polytechnic. I went to Royal Glasgow Polytechnic in June 1956 where I did two academic years and got a Higher National Certificate. And because I did very well and what l could call ‘good luck’ from my boss back in Nigeria, Alhaji Jose, I was asked to be seconded to a tabloid newspaper in London for six months. The UK director asked me whether I preferred to work with Scottish Daily Record based in Glasgow or London Daily Mirror. I said I had always seen and known Daily Mirror that I wanted something different. So I stayed back in Glasgow and worked for Scottish Daily Record as Sub-Editor for six months. I came back to Nigeria in 1962 and was appointed Chief Sub-Editor by Daily Times.
How would you describe your experience in Daily Times?
It was wonderful for me. Daily Times was the best Newspaper in Nigeria. I remember Sunday Times circulated about 500,000 copies at a time while the Daily circulated up to 350,000 copies. I joined in 1957 and left in 1976 as editor of Daily Times. I became Editor of Daily Times in 1969. Honestly, I found favour from God through Alhaji Jose. By that time Daily Times had set up Daily Times Institute and was headed by an expatriate from Daily Mirror in England. So I was sent to a school for the training of journalism teachers’ in Plymouth in South of England. And when I came back I was appointed Editorial Trainee Manager and my first set of trainees were Areoye Oyebola who left teaching to become trainee journalist, Oladipo Ajayi who had just graduated from the University of Lagos then and some school certificate holders who were recruited to be journalists. The graduate would spend one year while the school certificate holders would spend two years. I was undergoing a four-month seminar in England when Alhaji Babatunde Jose who had become the chairman of Daily Times phoned me that I had been appointed editor of Daily Times with immediate effect. A ticket was bought for me by one of the staff members in London and I flew business class for the first time. I resumed on May 4 which was on a Sunday in 1969. I edited the paper for three years before I was appointed Deputy Chief Executive of Newspaper Division of the organisation. As editor I was hobnobbing with the high and mighty. Honesty, it was my best moment of my career life.
Can you recall your uncomfortable professional moment in your career?
It was my second year as editor of Daily Times in 1970 when the army came and seized Daily Times. I was picked up along with my News Editor then, Segun Osoba. They also picked Alhaji Jose and Mr. Nameh who was deputy managing director. We were detained at Ikoyi. It was Chief Anthony Enahoro of blessed memory that secured the release of Alhaji Jose and Mr. Nameh that day but myself and Osoba were not released until the following day when we were asked to go. Up till today we didn’t know what went wrong. I didn’t feel like quitting even in the face of intimidation because the goal of any journalist is to become an editor and whatever difficulty that comes along the line you take it as occupational hazard. I was still deputy chief executive of the paper when the military junta of Murtala/Obasanjo took over power and seized the paper. It was after they took over the paper that it was on the descent. The military junta fired about 13 staff members who headed sensitive positions including Alhaji Babatunde Jose and my humble self.
That episode marked the end of your career in journalism?
Not really, though I was out of journalism for three years. While ruminating on what to do a Greek friend of mine who was managing director of Mandilas whom I had favoured by publishing things about his company invited me to work with him as Public Relations Officer. I rejected the officer. He later sent me to his friend another Greek man who was managing director of Flour Mills of Nigeria Limited to give me distributorship. Again, he also offered me a Public Relations job and I rejected it. I said if I don’t find a job as a journalist I would like to be a business man. This man gave me card as a distributor and another card as haulage contractor. I didn’t take up the distributorship because I didn’t like the idea of becoming a trader. I later regretted it because I could have been richer. Although being wealthy was never in my dictionary once I am comfortable. So the severance pay I got from Daily Times was enough for me to buy 911 vehicles and I started the haulage business. I did that for three years until the late M.K.O Abiola invited me to set up Concord Newspaper in 1979.
How did your path cross with Chief M.K.O?
I only heard about Chief M.K.O. by reputation as a multi-billionaire. He was then head of ITT in Africa and the Middle East but was always in politics. I got to know him through a fellow journalist, the late Alhaji Fola Ashiru who was a colleague of the woman who later became my wife. He was working in Daily Express in the early 60s. We kept our relationship over the years and even when I became an emergency businessman we were still in touch. An opening came when Chief Abiola was shopping for an experienced hand when he wanted to start Newspaper and Alhaji Ashiru recommended me. Chief Abiola said he has heard about me.
Though I was about three years older than him but he said it doesn’t matter that we would get on together. He invited me to his Moshood Abiola Crescent in Opebi and asked Alhaji Ashiru to bring me up to his bedroom. I was amazed because he had never met me. Chief Abiola stood up to greet me and said ‘Egbon, I have read about you. Are you a Moslem or Christian? I said I was a Christian. He asked further whether I was a practicing Christian and I said yes, that I was from a staunch Christian home that my father was a teacher and good choir master. Chief Abiola said he called me that he had heard a report about me as a good newspaper man and good manager that he would want us to work together.
He asked me what political party I belonged to and I said I wasn’t a card carrying member of any party. He said let me ask you a private question and I would want you to give me an honest question. He asked me who I voted for in the last election. I replied that I voted for Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He said that suggests that I belonged to the Unity Party of Nigeria. I said no that I voted for him because of his track records and political ideology. He said he wanted to set up a newspaper whose credo would be three ‘Cs’ Cordiality, Conviviality …I have forgotten the last ‘C’. He said if I happen to be his candidate he would know during the course of our interaction. He said I would find him a good person to work with. He asked me to go and do a feasibility study. I said I never went to a Business School. He explained to me what it was and he gave me one week. I said it was impossible because I had to go back to my previous employers and ask questions particularly about machinery, which I never bothered to know about as a journalist. I asked him to give one month but he declined that he would give me three weeks. I went around and came back with about 35 pages of ‘an essay’ according to Chief Abiola which he would have to quantify in monetary terms. Surprisingly, Chief Abiola read those long essays within one day and already converted it to monetary terms. He said with what I had written it would cost X Million. He assembled the team and the late Alhaji Ashiru became his executive assistant. We held a meeting. And meeting with Abiola was endless. Our meeting usually started and would not end until about 2am the following day.
When did you actually roll out the paper?
It was in 1980 after we had gone to London to purchase all necessary equipment. That was the second time I would fly to London in Business Class. He got a huge warehouse in Mafoluku Area where we put the machinery and the front part was converted to offices. Within two months our machinery came. In the interim there were advertisements in the radio and television. We rolled out on March 1980 on a Sunday and the Daily came out the following day which was on a Monday. I was managing director/editor-in-chief while Dr. Doyin Aboaba who became Dr. Doyin Abiola was the first editor. Dr. Doyin Abiola was Features editor of Daily Times when she joined Concord. I spent only three years in Concord and left due to circumstances beyond my control. You know there was a family feud which I didn’t want to get myself entangled with. When the situation was getting out of hand I quit against Chief Abiola’s wish. Even though there were no condition of service when I joined Concord Newspaper and in fairness to Chief Abiola, when I decided to leave he gave me two years’ salary.
Then you floated Champion Newspaper?
After I left Concord prematurely I bought press and was operating a printing press. I did this for two years when Chief Nwuanyanwu wanted to set up a newspaper company and was directed to me by the former Chief Press Secretary to Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Chief Duro Onabule. He arranged a meeting with him in Owerri where we held meetings how we were going to go about it. We selected machinery and floated Champion Newspapers at Isolo area in 1986. Again, I came in as managing director. It was a three year contract but I ended up spending six and half years. I retired finally from active journalism from Champion Newspaper when I turned 60 in 1994.
What have you been doing in retirement?
A journalist will always be a journalist. At one time I was Nigeria Correspondent of Voice of Germany for five years. That fetched me a lot of foreign earnings. I have been into consulting for people who want to set up newspaper. In the meantime, Chief Gabriel Igbinedion tried to hire me. I used the word ‘hired’ deliberately because this was a man who bought obsolete machinery when he wanted to set up his newspaper called Daily Telegraph. I guess somebody must have lured him into buying an ancient machine. He gave me a letter as managing director/editor-in-chief with a salary higher than what I was earning in Champion. The paper did not see the light of the day. I only worked for two months and left him. I condemned the machinery and that was what annoyed him. Since I retired I have been fully involved with my church Arch-bishop Vining Memorial. The church appointed me chairman of the publication committee. It was a voluntary non-paying job. This gave me the opportunity to continue with my skill.
How would you compare journalism of ‘old’ and today?
I am disappointed at what we are reading today. I am disappointed because in those days when we started practicing journalism in the 50s, there were hardly university graduates, and yet, you could find good English because of well-trained sub-editors who had superior education than the reporters because they had advanced GCE. Today, you have journalists with chains of degrees but still read errors. This is not peculiar to a single media house; it cuts across.
How do you feel turning 80?
I feel very happy and grateful to God for sparing my life. My mother gave birth to 10 children and I am the only survivor. Seven died at infancy. I grew up with two of my siblings. Unfortunately, one died as a foundation student of Our Lady of Apostle Secondary School Ijebu-Ode as a government scholar. The other one died in 1963.
Considering your life, can you say that all your life aspirations have been fulfilled?
Not exactly, because I had aimed to be a lecturer and hoped to rise to the position of professor. And that is my only regret that I never finished my university degree which would have been a stepping stone into fulfilling my childhood ambition.
What would you like to be remembered for?
Many people still refer to me as the last editor of Daily Times. I wasn’t the last editor of Daily Times when it existed but I was the last editor who could hire and fire, who had a grasp on the newspaper because I had a boss who had confidence in me. Today, no editor has the power or the audacity. I want to be remembered for my contribution to journalism in Nigeria. And also as someone who came in and did his best.