29 July 2012

Nigeria: Segun Olusola - I Should Have Enjoyed My Youth Much More Than I Did


Former Nigerian Ambassador to Ethiopia, Chief Segun Olusola, who died on June 21 was buried in his country home Iperu Remo, Ogun State on Friday July 20. Oji Onoko recalls his encounter with finest broadcaster.

I had walked up the upper room of his Surulere, Lagos home cum office that Tuesday afternoon with my heart pounding. Would he or would he not? After two culture bureaucrats I thought I was close to turned down my request, I had every cause to worry. He smiled warmly, gesturing me to a seat. "Yes?" he asked. "I would like you to write the preface to my book," I blurted out, expecting him to give an excuse. Instead, his face lit up. "That's no problem," he replied. "But first, you have to get me the manuscript". By the time I brought it to him the next day, he exclaimed: "You didn't tell me it's this big". And so it was that my first published book, Glimpses of Our Stars, had the imprimatur of the Ajibulu Moniya of Iperu Remo, Chief Segun Olusola. And he was there also at the public presentation at the Muson Centre, Lagos, alongside other art patriarchs: Steve Rhodes (now late), Bruce Onobrakpeya, Professor Yusuf Grillo and Demas Nwoko. As I walked into the hall that day and ushered to the high table to sit among these revered men of culture, I felt highly privileged. I also knew the high chief played a major part in getting these men to be present at the event. Segun Olusola is inextricably tied to culture and the arts in all its ramifications. In an earlier chat with me, he had confessed: "It happens that arts and culture in this country require some intervention. I can't go away from it". It is no surprise that he was always there for the young and the old; the experienced and the inexperienced as long as you had an iota of idea on advancing the cause of the arts whatever the genre. He was always willing to sacrifice his time for the arts. More than a patriarch, he was a guardian of the arts.

His Father Was a Carpenter

His father was a carpenter, who he referred to as a wood worker. The young Segun not only watched his father bring wood to life in various forms and sizes but understudied him in the classic example of a true apprentice. Soon, he could do as much of the craft as his little hands could carry him. At that point, he began to nurse the idea of taking part in theatrical activities. An avid Bible reader, Segun found himself becoming the Secretary of the Literary and Debating Society while at Remo Secondary School. Because he excelled in Arts and Science subjects, there was the pressure to opt for the Sciences as this was the vogue in the early 1940s and early 1950s. But arts came naturally to him.

By 1953 when he left school, his mind was made up-broadcasting or nothing. This did not come easy though. The Nigerian Broadcasting Service, NBS, was located at Oxford House, Ibadan, but his quest for a job there in early 1954 did not materialise. His first job was as far apart from broadcasting as the South Pole and the North Pole! It was as accounting assistant at Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN), the forerunners of Nigeria Electric Power Authority (NEPA) and latter day, PHCN. The only consolation was that ECN was next door to Oxford House. This paid off as some of his friends who were with NBS usually strolled to his office and routinely invited him to read stories or part of stories for broadcast purposes. These were his finest moments. It took a whole year before an opening came at NBS and it was for the position of Junior Technical Assistant. He applied instantly, went through the audition, scaled through and was appointed Junior Technical Staff. In less than a year, he rose to the position of Announcer. He was living out his dream and he loved it all.

'Best Job That Ever Came My Way'

In 1957, he got what he described as "the best job that ever came my way- a Junior Features Assistant/Producer". The position gave him the opportunity to come up with ideas for features programme, write and develop them to the point that the senior producers would accept easily. Part of his schedule at the time included submitting newsreel contributions everyday at 9.00 pm. "You made input into a 15-minute national news, fed in from the out station," he explained. Some of the memorable stories he did included that of the death of controversial politician Adegoke Adelabu and the visit of Goldie Mier, then Foreign Minister of Israel, to Ibadan. By 1959, he became interested in the film medium. Earlier, he had teamed up with Christopher Kolade to found the play group called, Players of the Dawn. "If you were interested in plays and you were already in radio broadcasting, it was inevitable that you would think of film-which is a more attractive medium," he explained. He in fact tried to move over to the Federal Film Centre but it did not work out. At about the same time, the Western Nigeria Television (WNTV) Ibadan was coming on stream. He applied for the position of a producer and got the job. The first task he gave himself was to ensure that Nigerian plays were given the same prominence as Bonanza, Coronation Street among other foreign features that ruled the air waves on WNTV in its early years. The programmes except for news and current affairs were wholly foreign. He felt that that was not good enough and was poised to change the tide by the infusion of local programmes. He therefore contacted the leaders of the famous travelling theatres of the time to showcase their plays on WNTV: Hubert Ogunde, Duro Ladipo and Kola Ogunmola among others. As an added boost, Wole Soyinka returned from Britain about the same time and was asked by the producer to write a play for the station. "He wrote the first-ever television-made drama in Nigeria, titled My Father's Burden," Segun Olusola recalled. "The challenge was to get used to the medium, to train some other people and more importantly to ensure that television was used to promote Nigerian programmes- drama, documentaries, and art," he said of how he saw his job.

Creating Village Headmaster

On the difference between radio and television, having been on both sides of the divide, he explained: "Radio gives you wider opportunity to design, to create, to imagine. Now, television is more exact. You have to be more disciplined. I still consider radio exceedingly liberating as a medium whereas TV is more restrictive".

But by far the biggest statement that Segun Olusola was ever to make in favour of local programming was his creation of The Village Headmaster on Nigerian Television Service (NTS) which metamorphosed into NTA. The idea dated back to his days on radio as a features writer/producer in the 1950s. He had at the time produced a programme called The Remembrances of My Headmaster which involved his reaching out to some prominent people asking them to recollect sketches of their headmasters. He wrote the programme and broadcast it. But the memory remained with him for a very long time because as he said, "the headmaster character that came out of their recollections became for me an unforgettable character". He also wanted to use the programme to prove that like their foreign counterparts, Nigerian Television producers can produce good TV series and serials. He wrote the master script, invited other writers and a producer, Sanya Dosunmu, and together they produced the first 13 episodes of The Village Headmaster, the first television drama series in Nigeria. It took four years for the entire programme to be fully packaged (1968). Paradoxically, when the programme came on air, he did not bask in the euphoria neither did he pop any champagne cork or roll out the red carpet for celebrations. At 33, the feat could not have called for anything less. On this, he said: "I didn't feel like that. It was as if one had been in the business for years. I believe in retrospect, I should have enjoyed my youth much more than I did. I aged too soon. I thought this was something that should be done and we went to other things".

Lukewarm Attitude to Ambassadorial Job

It was with the same lukewarm attitude that he took his appointment nine years later as Nigeria's Ambassador to Ethiopia. He knew he would represent Nigeria the best way possible, interact with other members of the diplomatic corps, the Nigerian community and other stakeholders. And he acquitted himself quite well. But his appointment as Nigeria's representative to the Committee of 15 of the Organization of African Unity, now AU, on Refugees that visited troubled spots in Africa had profound effect on him. His heart was broken at the sight of the refugees, victims of avoidable conflicts in Africa. He was further shocked when he discovered that mostly whites and other nationals were helping out these helpless and hapless victims of war with few if any black among them.

That was what prompted him to set up the Africa Refugees Foundation, once he finished his tour of duty in Ethiopia as an African initiative in resettling the refugees and offering other essential services. He was still at the planning stage in 1993, when the Rwandan war broke out with attendant human miseries. AREF rose to the occasion and is today functioning in several African countries as well as Britain and America. He found himself shuttling between the conflicts areas, trying to bring succour to the displaced while at the same time keeping pace with his cultural activities, his natural turf.

His Wish Was to Retire to Iperu Remo

A member of the Vision 20 20 Sub-committee on Culture, Olusola, who occasionally played golf, lived and breathed culture until the very last. But not many would know that his secret wish was to retire to his Iperu Remo village in Ogun State to do what he was equally adept at- "listening to other people's problems, settling quarrels, providing succour. It relaxes me," he had said.

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