A veteran journalist and professor of journalism, Idowu Sobowale, in this interview speaks about his growing up and life experiences.
As someone born to a farmer and trader, what fond memories of growing up do you still have?
I retain very fond memories of my birth, upbringing and relationship with my parents when they were alive. I was born in a village in Ogun State. My father was a farmer while my mother was a petty trader. She was not the only wife of my father; he had three other wives, and whenever it was time to harvest his farm produce, everybody would assist. So, I was brought up in that tradition of following him to the farm, while my other siblings had gone to town. In no time, I also became a farmer, specifically when I was six. I remember that while carrying farm produce to the market, my neck would have sunk in by the sheer weight of the load, and how much would the load be; about three Kobo. I was doing that until when I was 13.
One day, we got to the cocoa plantation and my father apportioned the work I would do, but I told him I was no longer interested in farming. I told him I wanted to go to town to become a mechanic. He couldn’t believe it because I had become so useful to him in the farm. He was devastated and immediately, we left the farm. When we got home, he relayed what I said to my mother, his sisters and his half brother. They wanted me to recount it but I refused and told them I would run away from home if they didn’t allow me to become a mechanic. When my siblings came home, he narrated the story and they said I should recount it. I maintained that I would run away if they didn’t allow me. They said I should not run away but wait till January when my brother would come to take me to Lagos. They said I would go to school for one year so I could be numerate towards my apprenticeship. On January 3, 1954, my brother came and took me to Lagos.
That day must have felt like another Christmas for you; leaving farming to become a mechanic…
(Cuts in…)I was so happy that my aspiration was being fulfilled. When we got to Lagos, I was so old that no principal or headmaster would admit me into primary one. I was 13 plus. I was born in 1941 and we are talking of 1954. There were not too many schools in Lagos Island then, so we went round every school but nobody would take me. They said I was already an old man, but somebody told my brother that at St. Peter’s School in Oyingbo, a teacher was going to conduct an entrance exam for pupils transferring from other schools to class two. My brother took me there and after discussing with the teacher, he told my brother to bring me the following day to take part in the exam.
On getting there the following day, the sight of the blackboard nearly sent me to my grave. My heart just cut and it remained separated until the exam was over. They gave me a piece of paper and a pencil, but I didn’t even know how to hold the pencil, because I had never been to school. When I put the pen on the paper, I was just drawing what was absolutely meaningless. In the evening when we went to the man’s house to see the result, he said my brother should never bring me near a school again, that there was no way I could cope. I didn’t know how the discussion went between them but he told my brother to bring me the following day so I could come and start in class two. They gave him a list of things to buy, and when he was going to buy those things, he told me that if I failed in the first term, that would be the end of my schooling. In any event, I didn’t want to go to school; I wanted to become a mechanic, so it wouldn’t have mattered much.
How were you able to cope in class two without any previous education?
The teacher put me beside one small boy, Olanrewaju Samuel, in the class. I’ve been trying to locate him since then but I’ve not been able to. He was a genius; tiny as he was. Whatever exercise was on the board, he would finish well ahead of every other person. Then, he would take my paper and write mine too. So, I was getting the same mark he was getting. And I used to be second or third in the class. The teacher was wondering how I was doing so well, so he moved me to sit close to a female student, who wasn’t as brilliant as Samuel. She was struggling too, so there was no room to help anybody. I started copying what she was doing. If she got three, sometimes I would get one or two.
Again, the man suspected that it was not my work, so he moved me again, all of these within one term. He moved me and paired me with one man who was much older than myself and who seemed to have spent so many years in school but didn’t go beyond that class two. He was the worst of us all, so there was no one for me to copy from. But, due to my brother’s threat, the urge to succeed was always nudging me on. At that time, the commercial buses we used to board were full of inscriptions, so I was struggling to read whatever they wrote on them. That was how I started learning. At the end of that term, I took the third position. I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy that I couldn’t wait to collect my result and the prize I won, but my cousin brought them home for me.
How did your brother receive the news?
In the evening, my brother called us and told us to present our result sheets. Others presented theirs, but when it got to my turn, he said, ‘dullard, where is yours?’ One of them gave him the report sheet and the prize and told him I did well. Instead of praising me, my brother queried why I was not the first or second. For the remainder of the three terms, I kept maintaining second or third, because Samuel’s first was constant. At a point, I changed school when Chief Obafemi Awolowo introduced free education. Throughout, it was only once that I took tenth position and that was because I didn’t bribe the teacher who came to relieve our mistress who went on maternity leave. He was openly demanding and I couldn’t meet his demand, so I took tenth position.
Regardless of my explanations, my brother gave me six strokes of the cane. Apart from that occasion, I cannot remember when I took a second position, and whoever would be second to me would be a very distant second. I remember the remarks of my teacher, Mr. Z.I. Ogabi, who wrote in my report card that ‘let the parents of this boy encourage him further.’ That was how it started.
After your secondary education, you worked with Daily Times. What attracted you to journalism?
In my secondary school, there was one of our seniors, Ajibade Fasina Thomas, who was always reporting events around the school on a long sheet of paper. He would paste the news he had gathered everywhere. He was two years ahead of me and I was always admiring him. When he left the school, I just took over that task. In no time, people were looking up to me for information. My pen name was ‘Constant Show,’ which I just chose because I didn’t want to use my real name, and up till tomorrow, some of my classmates and my juniors still call me that name. That was how I first became a reporter.
When I left school, I went to Lagos City Council to work with my Grade II secondary school certificate. I was working there when I met the late Chief Olabisi Onabanjo, a former governor of Ogun State, when he was released from detention over the treasonable felony charge against him and the like of late Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Lateef Jakande. Chief Onabanjo was the Managing Director of Daily Express. I told him I wanted to come and work with him, but he said the newspaper was going to fold up but that he would give me a note to his friend, Alhaji Babatunde Jose, who was then the Chairman and Managing Director of Daily Times. I went with the note and on seeing the letter, Alhaji Jose signed on it immediately and said I should take it to their office on Cooper Road, Ikoyi. He said they were starting a training school that day. I ran there and truly 10 of us started the school that day.
We were to be there for one year, but after a month, two of us, Dr. Tajudeen Ayodele Kekere-Ekun, now a dental surgeon and myself, were taken away from that school to the newsroom. They said we were performing excellently. We were attached to senior reporters and shortly after, I was covering assignments on my own. Later, I was posted to the airport as the aviation correspondent. I was getting exclusive stories for Daily Times like no man’s business.
And you were doing all that with your secondary education?
Yes, but one day, a colleague, Kola Adesina, who was working for WNTV/WNBC, called me and said I was making it but that I would not go far if I did not go back to school. I really didn’t appreciate what he said because my name was everywhere. Agbeke Ogunsanwo was the editor of children’s page then. She was one of those who spent one year in the training school, but she went to UNILAG for a diploma course. She came back and she was elevated. Then, Kola reminded me why I needed to go back to school.
That motivated me to apply for diploma programme in UNILAG. Daily Times sponsored me for the programme. Instead of just focusing on the diploma programme, I also had my eyes on the degree programme. By the time we finished, I got all the prizes, including Daily Times’ typewriter for the best diploma student. Then, about six of us applied to transit to the second year of the degree programme. There was opposition from the degree students but our results spoke for us. In the second year, I won most, if not all the prizes, and then the Federal Government gave me a bursary award to complete the programme.
What then happened to the scholarship you were enjoying courtesy of Daily Times?
I wrote to Daily Times to stop the sponsorship so I could take the Federal Government’s scholarship. In the third year and final year, I got the best performance in the class and I won most of the prizes. Sometime later, the position of the Assistant Editor of Daily Times became vacant, which was created by a major reorganisation in the company. But Alhaji Jose reserved that position for me for one and a half years. The day I took my last paper, I went to Daily Times that evening to resume as the Assistant Editor. Due to the innovation I tried to introduce, I fell out with my colleagues and even my news editor. After that, I just felt I should go, and then I applied for admission to do a Master’s degree.
Was that why you left journalism for lecturing?
Before then, something happened. I was the Assistant Editor of Daily Times and my understanding was that the position was superior to the position of the Editor of Sunday Times. But my salary, emoluments, allowances and other things were not up to the car allowance of the Editor of Sunday Times, ditto the Editor of Daily Times whom I was assisting. One day, I went to meet Chief Adagogo Jaja, who was the Chief Executive Officer for Editorial and the person in charge of our emoluments, discipline and such things, to complain that my whole package was not up to the car allowance of either of the editors. I told him with so many Christmases (in the office) and four children, three of whom were in school.
Then he asked ‘so many Christmases with the Daily Times?’ I just laughed and I left. When I left, instead of going back to my desk, I just went straight to UNILAG. I asked them that I wanted to return to teaching. The man I went to meet was happy but he said they could not take me because as the assistant editor of Daily Times, my salary was higher than the salary of the Vice-Chancellor, and I told him I wasn’t coming because of the salary. I told them I would take whatever they gave me. I wrote my application right there and the person I was speaking with took it to the Vice-Chancellor. I told them to give me one month to go and resign. Within 15 to 20 minutes, he got back with approval to give me appointment as acting assistant lecturer. I told him I would come back in a month after I had properly resigned from Daily Times. That same day when I got to the Daily Times, immediately, I wrote my letter of resignation.
The following day, Alhaji Jose had a habit of proofreading all the pages that would be published the following day. So, that day, he was told that I had resigned. He came to ask me why and I told him for personal reasons. When he insisted, I told him it was because of what was happening in the company. He asked what I meant and I told him my encounter with Mr. Jaja. My understanding then was that Alhaji Jose was not privy to what was happening to me and I still believe that he wasn’t, but he preferred to side with his management team than with me. I told him those who surrounded him didn’t like him and they wanted him to fall for either of two reasons, whether because they were afraid of him and they could not tell him the truth or they were not afraid of him but they wanted him to fall so they could take over, which turned out later to be more like it.
How easy was it to adapt to the academic environment?
After one year at UNILAG, I was given permission to go to Syracuse University in United States for my Master’s degree for two years, which I did in one year. UNILAG was paying my salary because I was on study leave with pay. I was also taking courses towards my PhD. By the time the two years elapsed, I had only one course to do to complete my PhD programme. I wrote to UNILAG for extension of time so I could finish my PhD but they said I had to come back to reapply. I said it would be unnecessary to do that because of one course. I wrote the Federal Government but no reply. I was there, high and dry. At first, I left with my wife, leaving my children with my brother. But he died a year after we left, so I had to come back to take them with me. The situation was so bad but I had colleagues who helped. I just thank God that I did not yield to the pressure to return after I finished my Master’s. Most probably, I would not have been able to go for the PhD because I was the last person that the university sent out on leave of absence, either with pay or without pay. At every stage, my life has been one of testimonies.
How did you then move from being a classroom teacher to become an adviser to the then governor of Lagos State, Chief Lateef Jakande?
One day at the University of Lagos, somebody just grabbed me and said he had been looking for me everywhere and that Alhaji Jakande wanted to see me. He had just been elected as the governor of Lagos State. I never met him before then, but I knew that he was my professional father. When I got there, Alhaji Jakande said he wanted to transfer all the pupils in private primary schools to public schools and he wanted me to be the chairman of the committee. I thought about it there and then and I said I would do it, for one singular selfish reason.
My four children and a niece who was with me fell under the private schools, and I knew that if I did not take the assignment, somebody else would and I might not like what they would do. It was not an easy decision because that was the time the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation asked me to go and establish a School of Communication in East Africa. I decided that it was better for me to forgo that than to see my children being treated the way I would not like. And at that point, everything I needed for that journey had been concluded and sent to me, so it was a big disappointment to UNESCO and they didn’t forgive me for a long time.
Did you regret that decision?
I had no regret. In everything that I have done, God has blessed me. I became the chairman of the implementation committee for that transfer. After we completed the assignment, I was again teaching and going about my duty when they started looking for me again, from Alhaji Jakande. He said he wanted to appoint me as his Special Adviser on Education and I told him I didn’t want it.
I told him I didn’t like the way civil servants worked. He said he didn’t like it either but he promised me his own administration would be different. I asked for time to think about it. I sought the advice of about 60 people. It was only one person that expressed hesitation and others felt I was unserious not to jump at the offer immediately. I told Alhaji jakande I would do it, but I gave him two conditions; that the semester was mid-way and I had to teach my students till the end of the semester before coming to resume.
The second was that I would love to continue to teach and he agreed, as long as teaching would be part time and his work full time. If you were working with Jakande, you had better devote 150 per cent of your time and attention to him because there was no breathing space at all. We were doing that until the military struck and cut it short. When they came, they drove everybody away and put people in detention. But to the glory of God, of all the people who served in Jakande’s administration, I was the only person not detained.
Why were you excluded?
The reason was that in their three or four months investigation, they said they did not find anything for which to detain me. We were reporting to the National Security Organisation (now Department of State Services), Army and Police six days in a week. When we got there, we would stand from morning till evening because they would give all sorts of excuses for us to wait. The day they were going to be detained, when I got to the door, they asked why I came and that if I didn’t have anything to do, I should go to my house and sleep. So, I turned to go back. My colleagues also wanted to follow, but they shouted on them to go back. At 4am around Kingsway, Ikeja, I heard on the radio that all the commissioners, special advisers and the deputy governor who served under Jakande had been detained. I looked at myself and wondered how lucky I was. I was driving towards the house of late Alhaji Atanda, who was a special adviser on housing and later became the commissioner when I saw from the distance that anti-riot policemen had taken over his house. I also saw three of the commissioners in their singlet and pants. They were detained. I can’t tell you how I got to my house, whether I drove, or got down from the car and carried it or that I put the car in another vehicle; I just found myself at home. I was shaking, thinking they could still come to pick me up. But the following day, I went to UNILAG to resume teaching and no one came after me.
Having returned to teaching and not being a politician, how did you get the appointment as a commissioner under former Lagos State governor, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu?
I was still at UNILAG, and just as they were looking for me during Jakande’s period, they were also looking for me. Two people, Dele Alake and Ayo Opadokun, came to stick notes on my door. When I went to meet Tinubu, he said he wanted to appoint me as the chairman of the committee that would look at the education sector in his administration. The major aspect of that assignment was the return of schools to private owners. I was instrumental in trying to abolish private schools, which didn’t succeed. It was my lot to return it to private owners. After that, Tinubu called me to appoint me as his special adviser on education. That was my second coming. After about one and a half years, I became the commissioner.
What was it like to be a commissioner then, looking at the glamour and perquisites?
It was a bigger responsibility and of course the glamour was there. But for me, not much changed. It might be an exaggeration to say nothing changed but as far as I was concerned, nothing changed. For someone in that position, you would be given a car, a driver and I had a police orderly. When I was the chairman of the public schools committee, the car they gave me was a wreck. You would not even give it to your home help, but people insisted that I should go to Jakande to complain so they could give me a brand new car and a house, but I refused. I was never enamoured by those perquisites of office. While I was special adviser under Tinubu, I had a car, a driver and a police orderly but I was using C20 (Danfo bus) which was my wife’s vehicle. I had a Volvo but I gave it to her and I took the Danfo.
As a special adviser, I would ask my orderly to sit beside me in the Danfo and the official car would be behind me. One day, at the old secretariat, an executive council member stopped me and said I was a disgrace to the administration. I was embarrassed by that statement. I quickly surveyed myself, I knew I had not taken a bribe and I had not done anything wrong. Then I asked him why he said that. He said despite the car, driver and orderly I was given, I preferred to drive a Danfo myself. I asked if that was my offence and he said yes. I reminded him I didn’t apply for the job. I told him to take the job if he wanted to.
Why were you driving a danfo when you had an official car?
That was because I didn’t see anything strange about me and the position. It’s still the same thing till tomorrow. I have remained me and I thank God for that. I believe that positions in life are transient. You are there for a while, but for a longer while, you would not be there. When I was occupying those positions, my house used to be a beehive of visitors and activities, but anytime I was no longer in office, you wouldn’t find anybody. So, if I had not been myself, I would have found it extremely difficult to adapt afterwards.
When I was working with Jakande and I was still lecturing, anytime we met at the staff club, my colleagues were always surprised that I did not forget my root. The day Buhari and Idiagbon kicked us out, the following day, I was back at UNILAG and people were jubilating and congratulating me. It was impossible for some people to go back to where they were before.
You were also a war correspondent as a reporter. How was it?
It was terrible and it was so risky. Four of my colleagues were killed in the war. One from Morning Post, one from New Nigeria and two others. There was a day when we got to the third marine command and the commander, Benjamin Adekunle, asked if we (journalists) liked Suya, he said we should get into the vehicle and he took us to where Biafra armoured cars had been disabled, with soldiers killed inside them. The place was terribly stinking. He said that was the Suya, we should eat.
There was also a day we were taken to a small stream that separated the federal troops from the Biafra troops and those people had sharp shooters. The war was so fierce that when we were about to leave, out of the battalion that went, fewer than 20 people came back alive. Many had died, many had been so terribly wounded and they were just packed in lorries that brought them to Calabar for treatment. On many occasions, we would be eating and we would just hear gunshot and the soldier or someone else beside you would have been killed. That happened several times when we were eating. I had several instances of close shave with death. Let me not say more than that.
What lessons did you take away from that experience?
The lessons I took away were that war is not anything that anybody should joke about. If you hear people singing war songs, they are most probably people who have never experienced war. Even if you escape, seeing the sufferings of others can be terrifying. There was a story I filed then in Daily Times, titled, ‘The agonies of Monica’. Monica was a lady we found in the bush who said she had just given birth to a baby and that she was hungry, so she had to leave the baby and come out to look for something to eat. The federal troops found her. I was moved with pity. She begged them to follow her to go and pick the baby, but nobody would follow her because they said she could be a trap. So, they took her to Otukpo. Months later when I went back, I saw this woman and she was no longer herself. She had become haggard. Nobody would wish that kind of suffering for his or her enemy. There was another occasion when somebody was caught and he was being interrogated. One crazy soldier was just coming from behind and he just took a cutlass and split the person’s head into two just like that. It was not a pleasant thing to watch or wish for anybody. Look at Awka, the capital of Anambra State, it was levelled to the ground. Not a single house was standing; not one. It was a terrible moment.
At about 76, do you have any unfulfilled dream?
I can’t think of one, because every inch of me is a testimony of God’s goodness. Honestly, I could not have wished for anything better than I have got. I have been blessed. I was a farmer and I never expected to ever go to school, but I went to school. I never expected to go any much higher than primary or at best secondary, but I found myself in the university and from there to Syracuse University. I came back and found myself in government. I thank God for everything. I have no regret whatsoever in my life.
Since you were in government a number of times, did you ever consider full time politics?
I don’t have the temperament for politics. I cannot lie to people. If I make a promise, I just must fulfil it. If I don’t, until I do, I would not be myself. Politicians don’t behave that way.
Between being a journalist and being a teacher, which did you enjoy most?
I enjoyed both because the two of them are different and they present different opportunities. As a journalist, I met the topmost public servants and at least three United Nations Secretary Generals, presidents and the under-privileged people in the society. That is something worthy of giving glory to God for, that there is no level of human relationship that one did not interact with. As a lecturer, you meet diverse people from diverse worlds, with different orientations and aspirations and you try to mould them. I’m saying this for the first time; there are people that I had helped in the university with N500 a term. That was all I was able to give them, and they did well in life. So, when you look at these people, you want to give God the glory that you have been able to make some contributions to their being.
Are you fully retired now?
I don’t know whether I’m retired or not; I still help them at a university in Ogun State, but I now do it at my own pace. – Culled from Punch.