Ace media practitioner, Soni Irabor, goes down memory lane in this interview
How would you describe your early days growing up in Benin?
It was nice and fun. When you are with your family, you would think you have seen everything till you grow up and see that there are ways others live that is slightly different from yours. I went to school in Benin and I enjoyed it mainly because I had all my friends and peers. We grew up in a lively environment and I was very close to my family. My primary and secondary education was in Benin.
Would you say you were born with a silver spoon?
I come from a large family and we never displayed wealth because we are not from a wealthy family and I say with all pride that we were not poor either. Even if we did not have money, we were not desperately in need of money. We were able to take care of ourselves within our means. Those days what was considered as being expensive is chicken feed today. Whenever I tell people that my first salary was N156 a month, they are shocked. But it is the truth; there was a time that people were earning N25 a month.
Did you ever visit the farm as a child?
I went to the farm and enjoyed the experience. The beauty of going to the farm was that you would enjoy the sound of nature and you would witness plants grow till they mature and begin to bear fruits. Farming was fun and I feel that it is a unique way of sustaining life.
What was the best part of your childhood?
There were good moments and every Sunday was one of them mostly because we ate the rice that we didn’t have opportunity to eat during the week. Also, on Saturday evenings, you would see some wives making stew that the whole neighbourhood would perceive the aroma before their family finally ate it.
Now that you are talking to me during this festive season I want to bring to the forefront the way we celebrated Christmas. Family members moved around especially the young children, they normally moved from one family friend’s house to another. In fact, sometimes you wouldn’t eat the food your parents prepared you just found yourself moving from one house to another. There would be so much food that by the time you got home, your tummy would have been very big and you would be so tired. We also used to wear uniform clothes during this season and woes befall the tailor that did not get the clothes ready for both the Christmas and New Year celebrations. During this period, we also saw scenarios whereby families that were not on speaking terms reconcile and the children tended to be the ones that united the family.
While growing up, were you a troublesome or quiet kid?
I was a jolly good fellow but that did not mean that if you stepped on my toes, I would not fight you. I loved fun and I was very humorous just like my parents. They made life fun for us but it did not mean that they would not flog you when you messed up. I did not take part in masquerade games but I saw them. I noticed that I was not good at the ones I wanted to take part in, so I just enjoyed the fun. There is a masquerade for this season in Benin called Kareta, and they used to wear their masquerade regalia with the little jingle bells they tie to their wrists and ankles. These masquerades would do somersaults and we found it very interesting. It was fun.
What were those things that provoked you to fight as a kid?
To be honest, I lost many fights. I would never forget what happened to me in May 11, 1963, I almost lost a part of my index finger. There was a collapsible chair that trapped my finger and in a strange way, it dissected the finger and I saw a white bone. Blood did not come out for some seconds but when it started gushing out, I began to scream. I can never forget that day in my life because every May, the finger aches me. A fight I can never forget was the one I had with my first cousin, Jonathan, that same year. He used to intimidate me a lot and in Benin, once you are older than a person, even if it is by a day, you are his senior. I always used to pull my weight about being older but Jonathan was bent on fighting with me. We decided to settle it with a wrestling match and whoever was able to beat his opponent would be the winner of the match. We were best friends but we fought occasionally. While we were fighting, I jumped and he grabbed me mid-air and slammed me on the floor. To break my fall, I landed with my left hand and I sprained it. Everyone was cheering him and I was shamed and in pains, so I went home.
I did not tell my parents about it and few hours later, the hand had swollen. Then my mother asked me to pound yam. I told her that I was not going to but she insisted. With tears in my eyes, I began to pound the yam because you need two hands to pound. The pain that I went through was unimaginable and I screamed. It was at that point that my mother saw my hand and I had to confess that I was involved in a wrestling match. A cast was put on my hand for six weeks and I was told that I was lucky because it was a bad sprain. I went through a terrible ordeal and to think I can still use my left hand is God’s work.
At what point in your life did you move to Lagos from Benin?
Many of us dreamt about Lagos a lot. Apart from that, I was already always in and out of Lagos because my sister and cousins were in Lagos and for me, it was a good thing because whenever I was on break during my secondary school days, I used to come to Lagos for holidays. Although there is a wide gap between my elder sister and I, it was always fun whenever I came to Lagos and I used to stay long at her place. The moment I completed my secondary education, I came to Lagos.
How would you describe your days in the university?
I was a social person, I have been and I will always be one. I was a bit shy but I enjoyed Lagos because it was fun.
I was not very good at playing around with women, so I had just one girlfriend throughout my school days and I enjoyed life. It was fun to be in school and we did not have what they do these days where people hound you to death. There was something called a Hook in Unilag and for you to be in that campus magazine, you must have done something really bad; so people checked themselves. We had different categories of people; the Scripture Union, the ‘normal’ people and those who just enjoyed themselves. I was off campus, so I cannot say I was that active in school. I was already working in Radio Nigeria when I was in Unilag. I had my friends and we did our parties in my house; I invited my friends and even lecturers to my apartment and it was fun.
In 1971, Lagos was a beehive of activities but it was also not a bad place to live. I could never understand why there was always traffic that could last for ten hours. These were the days when you had Julius Berger coming in full force and they built Eko Bridge and it became symbolic but before the bridge was finally achieved, Carter Bridge was the only route from Ikoyi to Ebute Meta.
We had a love garden where Muson Centre is today and couples used to go there hand in hand to enjoy themselves. There was also Ikoyi Park and that is where Park View is today. It is so sad that we had places like Ikoyi Park with a wonderful ecosystem like plants, aquaria; there were man, made ponds but they had links to the sea and when you went there, you would see fish. I don’t know that British person that did it but it was a wonderful construction. One day, we just did not see it again. That was where I used to take my wife, Betty, to in those days. In 1982, Ikoyi Park was still there and in 1985, it was no more.
How do you feel when you pass these places without those historic monuments?
I feel very bad, we even still have more picture that we took at Ikoyi Park but there are no pictures to tell the tale of Ikoyi Park today. In modernising Lagos, they killed the beauty of its ecosystem. There are no more trees and fields in Lagos. Maybe what (Governor Akinwumi) Ambode is trying to do would help rekindle the beauty of the past but really, we have done a disservice to Lagos.
Not many people know you worked with the Nigerian Prison Service for some years. How did you get the job?
My sister was a very senior person in the Nigerian prison services and it was through her influence that I got the job. I was there for about six years. While we were there, everyone got the Udoji pay increase in 1974. Udoji was an influential man who sat at the review board of salary increase for civil servants. What he did after his research was to make recommendation to the government to increase the salaries of civil servants because there was oil windfall at the time. We were earning in pounds before they changed to naira that same year. I had so much money that I decided to buy a new sounds system and a television. That was a period in my life that I thought was quite interesting. Looking back, I would say that was the time Nigerians started living a flamboyant lifestyle. Many of us got a lot of money and at the time, N100 was a lot of money. I got about N475 as arrears and out of it, I bought the sounds system, television and some other things to the house I was living with my cousin.
If you had so much fun at the Nigerian Prison Service, why did you leave?
That was not the life I wanted. I did not like the idea of being with prisoners or working with them but working there made me see life differently. I appreciate life differently because I saw once powerful people reduced to nothing either because of their guilt or they were framed. Dealing with them made me look at life a bit more philosophically and it made me live life in a way that you would not be incarcerated. There is a saying that I got to find out later, boredom breeds stress.
Why did you choose to become a media personality?
The media has been a larger part of my life. I ventured into the media because I wanted to be a media person especially on the radio. I have been with radio and television all through my working years. I started in 1974 but I became employed in 1977. I enjoyed every bit of journalism, thanks to my producers and bosses during my early years. I enjoyed the job because I realised there was purpose in it.
How would you describe your early days as a journalist?
It was very exciting. We could afford to work until we got tired and went home but not many people would do that today. I think what we should be looking at is how to make the job conducive for every worker so that you can get the best out of them. Provide tools of trade and that kind of facilities that would make the worker happy to do the work. Also, select those who are passionate and have the intelligence for the job; don’t employ based on sentiments. It is true that they accuse a lot of young people of being lazy but who is the cause? It is leadership by example. Some of our leaders are very lazy and they don’t keep to their promises. So when kids grow up without being corrected when they ought to be, then this is the outcome.
Can you remember when you got your first car?
Yes I can. My first car was bought in 1982 and I got a loan from the government to purchase the car. I was able to get the loan because I was already a senior officer with Radio Nigeria and they said I could apply for a car. By then, I had won my first award which was given to me in 1979. I was shocked. I went for the biggest car for my age, I was 30 years old at the time and the car I picked was a Reno 18 GTS with all its full features. I chose a very unusual colour and the way my friends reacted when they saw the car made me feel like I was in heaven.
The interesting thing about this story is that the car was less than a week old when I met my wife, Betty. She was the Public Relations Officer for a firm called VOO. She had a Romanian lady friend who was the secretary of the company. They were launching something, so I was invited and I saw this dashing, beautiful young lady. I told my friends who were with me jokingly that she is pretty and I would love to marry her. In her busy schedule, I was able to corner her. Onyeka Onwenu was there because it was at the album launch of an artiste called Jonell Cross. I asked her if she would love to have lunch with me and because I wanted to show off my car, I took her to where I parked and opened the door for her to enter. I started the engine and switched on the air conditioner. You know a new car has a peculiar smell, so I ensured she noticed all that. We talked a bit in the car and when I asked her out, she initially was reluctant but she later agreed.
Do you think your car helped in getting the woman?
No, it was the Romanian woman that was effective in convincing her because she was calling me Robert Redford and that made my head to swell because I love the actor. We got married exactly a year after we met. – Punch.