14 May 2019

Nigeria: Swagger and Swagger Stick

opinion

The Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) has just rounded off its biennial convention in Lagos and elected a new executive that will hold office for the next two years. A few weeks ago the Election Committee of the Guild met in Lagos to do the first screening and give provisional approval to candidates qualified to contest the election. The Committee is made up of five eminent and experienced journalists of which I am privileged to chair.

The other members are Mr. Bonny Iwuoha, former National President of the Nigerian Union of Journalists and Ex-Commissioner of Information, Abia State; Mrs. Dupe Ajayi-Gbadegbo, award-winning journalist, lawyer and former Managing Director of the Sketch Newspaper, Mr. Abdulhamid Majia, a director of the Federal Radio Corporation, and member/Secretary of the Committee, Mr. Gbemiga Ogunleye, former Editor, lawyer and Provost of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism. All the five members of the Committee are Fellows of the Guild. We met on April 23 in Lagos to do the initial screening.

We created a platform for easy communication among the five of us to avoid seeking help from the executive of the Guild. During the screening, we called aspirants and their employers where we had doubts as to the authenticity of their documents or claims. We designed the ballot papers without any input from the executive, printed them and kept them in our custody and did everything in our power to organize the election in a fair, transparent and credible manner. However, we discovered during the screening that there was a provision in the NGE Constitution that seemed to discriminate against people who were no longer in an editorial driving seat but were still active in the Guild and journalism.

Even though we felt that this was discriminatory and a miniaturization of people's rights, we as election managers, could do nothing to remedy the situation because we had no power to amend the Constitution. Our duty was to conduct the election with the Constitution as it is, not as it ought to be. On that basis, some of the aspirants were disqualified. I knew that that unfair provision in the Constitution would cause some disharmony among the members. I spoke to the members before the election and admitted that the Constitution was defective and was in need of an amendment. I said too, that we were all guilty for approving it in the first place and that no member in good standing should be discriminated against by the Guild.

Most of the members including those who were disqualified accepted their fate with equanimity in the hope that the obnoxious provision in the Constitution will be erased. For any organization to function well, its Constitution, warts and amperage, must be respected until its offensive provisions, if any, are amended.

Mr. Steve Osuji, a man I admire a lot for his skillful writing was one of the aspirants for the position of President of the Guild. The other aspirant was Mrs. Funke Egbemode. Mr. Osuji was one of four persons disqualified under the controversial provision in the Constitution. Since his disqualification, he has been inconsolable, he has been busy throwing tantrums and tirades, making false, wicked, dubious, and defamatory allegations against members of the Election Committee. He has threatened to go to court, which is his right and to form his own Guild, which is also his right.

But it is not his right to paint people he hardly knows with the tar of corruption. That is despicable, loathsome and disgusting. He wants to throw away the baby with the bathwater. It is a pity that a brilliant man like him would, out of deep desperation, willingly expose himself to the possibility of being gunned down with a bevy of law suits for his reckless, defamatory effusion. His language resembles that of a guttersnipe, coarse, rough, rude and indelicate. When I read his tirades planted on several platforms, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. He doesn't seem to know that when he spits in the wind, it may come back and land on his face. A few remarks from him will suffice. He calls his seniors in the profession to which he belongs "so called seniors" and the Guild to which he belongs "Guild of idiots". He says further; "on the Constitution I insist that the Election Committee or some members thereof were suborned as part of the grand plot to stop Steve Osuji. I was the target there. All others screened out were collateral damage". This is hogwash. I challenge him to substantiate his reckless allegation of the Election Committee being bribed.

An editor is an evaluative filter. Even if he got an allegation like that, it was his duty as an experienced journalist to evaluate and filter the information taking into account the quality and character of those on the Election Committee. He did not. I can say to him without any equivocation that the Election Committee under my leadership did its job with a high level of fairness and integrity. If Mr. Osuji thinks differently, he should place the facts before the Court of public opinion instead of peddling his gracelessly wild accusations, insinuations and bare-faced lies. His effusions bear the imprimatur of a desperado dying to drag decent people down to the gutter where he wants to be. I don't want to be in the gutter with him. Mr. Osuji says further: "I assert that Mrs. Funke Egbemode practically handed the Election Committee the list of her favoured candidates. Those not on the list were barred from contesting on silly excuses." I am surprised that an experienced journalist like Steve would talk like this. I assert on my honour that if I accept to chair an election panel, there is nobody, repeat nobody under the sun who can give me a list to rubber stamp. Nobody. Who born dog? If Mr. Osuji doesn't know me, he should talk to those who have worked with me. Without any attempt to boast or engage in false self-advertisement I have acquitted myself creditably in the integrity department. Whether practically or unpractically nobody gave us any list.

Mr. Osuji should join others in making a case for a constitutional review. The law is not on his side but logic is, and when there is a clash between law and logic, law wins. If a man has been admitted as a member of the Guild, he remains a member and is entitled to all the rights and privileges of membership including voting and being voted for. That is my view. So the discrimination between those who hold command positions and those who do not creates an unnecessary problem because designations and job contents vary among those organizations. During our screening process, we had to call the employers of some aspirants to verify the actual job content of certain offices.

It is possible for good men to make bad laws unknowingly. That seems to be the case here. Some editors obviously felt that it would be better for those who run the Guild to be people in the commanding heights of the profession, probably younger in age. That is how in one moment of absent-mindedness, I don't want to say madness, journalists who are decision-makers for the industry could insert in their Constitution a clause that renders most of them, all fully equipped professionally, limp, lame and amputated. At the first blush that provision has caused problems for the Guild. The provision is obviously discriminatory and aimed at shutting out of the Guild the oldies. That is wrong. Or do we want small men in big boots?

All societies and organizations are made of a combination of the young and the old. The young bring their youthful energy and swagger. The old bring their wisdom and their swagger sticks. The energy of the youth comes with activism and the wisdom of the elders brings moderation. That combination brings cohesion and progress without rascality. That combination also brings a steady evolutionary way forward for club and country. Let me repeat it, Mr. Osuji may have been the one who wanted to contest an election and that section of the Constitution stood on his path as a barrier. But he is not the only one affected by it. That section affects most of us. It creates discrimination, a Guild of unequals, a Guild of unequal rights; while some people have full rights some other people have their rights abbreviated even though they are equally meeting their obligations to the Guild. As the saying goes when equals are treated unequally, that is injustice. The other point to raise is that such discrimination shows the Guild in bad light. Editors are the pontificators-in-chief where people's rights are concerned. We speak about people's rights from a moral high ground and the traducers of the Guild can feel comfortable in saying to us: "physician, heal thyself". Let me say this to Mr. Osuji. You have a good pedigree as an editor and admirable writing skills. Don't destroy all the respect that comes with your accomplishments because of one election. In two years' time there will be another election conducted, hopefully, under a revised Constitution. Don't let the public perceive you as a bad tempered and foul-mouthed aspirant who wants to bring down the roof of his Association because he is desperate. Desperation can blindside people. The Guild is not perfect but it remains our prized property that we must rally round and build into a formidable battle axe for press freedom and professional excellence. It is our umbrella. If it did not have value, some of our colleagues who went into politics would not have come back to the Guild. See the short list: Onyema Ugochukwu, Segun Osoba, Yakubu Mohammed, Bonny Iwuoha, Louis Odion, Baba Dantiye, Freston Akpor etc. if it did not have value some of us would not have stayed in if for decades.

I was proud to head the Election Committee. I can say without any equivocation or fear of contradiction that the Committee was not, is not, purchasable because it is a group of tried and tested people of unimpeachable integrity.

Next week: Agenda for the Guild.

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