By Adeyemi Adefulu , MFR

Upon hearing the demise of Gbolabo Ogunsanwo recently, one our friends and contemporaries described him as “one of the finest of our generation.” He could not have been more apt.

We met in the University of Lagos as freshmen in 1968. Gbolabo was physically, mentally and intellectually engaging. As a practising journalist with the Daily Times he already had an emergent name and was on the way to exposure to the privileges of fame.He was handsome, confident, mature and debonair. Financially, he was, endowed because by the grace of the forward looking Managing Director of Daily Times, the foremost media group of the time, the iconic Alhaji Babatunde Jose, Gbolabo was on his full salary even while he was a full time student in the university. Given our handicap, we didn’t dare to compete with Gbolabo on any score! He was ahead of us. Gbolabo was one of Jose’s blue eye boys and,obviously, one of the budding stars on whom the old man hung the hope of the Daily Times of the future.

But Gbolabo was anything but spoilt. He plunged into his education with such severity that you would have thought he wanted to finish his 3 years of study in 1 year! Gbolabo walked 3 kilometres to the library and was there for the opening of the library at 6am every morning. There was an obvious hunger and passion in the bones of the young man. By the policy of the library, the first person to arrive was entitled to make his choice of some facilities. Gbolabo was therefore able to secure the same carrel of study everyday for three years!

The jury of the boys was out asking whether this unusual fastidiousness was vice or virtue. The lazy students, whose hall of residence was barely 200 meters to the library but were still snoring when Gbolabo was already in the library thought it was a mark of greed! But if the proponents of this thought were not, obviously, so lazy, their jaundiced proposition could have been worthy of some thought. Whatever may be the merit or otherwise of their argument, the total commitment of Gbolabo to the cause, showed his character and his tenacity of purpose. It was clear that when Gbolabo wanted something there was no stopping him. He was competitive, fastidious, sacrificial and totally focused. He graduated on top of his class with a Second Class Upper Division specializing in Philosophy & English.

But whatever may be his shortcomings, Gbolabo had a large heart. I recall that he and I, individually,nursed the ambition of becoming the President of the University of Lagos Students Union. There was pressure among our mutual friends that we should reconcile our interests so that one ran for the presidency and the other the Secretaryship. And since I was the younger of the two there was pressure that I should run as Secretary.

I gave the counsel a serious thought. But after a deep introspection and sharing with my Henry Kissinger, Omoruyi Alonge, we came to the conclusion that Gbolabo and I may have inherent differences which was likely to result in a conflict of style and philosophy in the running the student union government. I therefore decided that what I wanted was the presidency and nothing else.

By the time I came to that clear conclusion, Gbolabo was away in England on holidays. I decided that it would not be fair to him to hear of my decision from someone else. I had to await his return before launching out. On the day of his return from the UK, Omoruyi Alonge and I welcomed him at the airport, helped to clear his luggage at the international wing of the airport where MM2 stands today and then, as his taxi was about to take off, I handed over a note to him. It tersely announced my decision to run for the office of President of the Students Union. It also said that if he also decided to run I hoped we would have a clean, keen but impersonal contest.

I proceeded to assemble teams to handle various aspects of my campaign. From then onwards, our strategy focused on Gbolabo being the formidable opponent I would confront and how to deal with contesting against a friend. Up to this day, I do not know, and did not ask why, Gbolabo did not come out and launch his campaign. After waiting for quite some time, my strategy team and I conferred again at our strategy session on the opponent who has refused to show up. Meanwhile a strong opponent from the College of Medicine, Niran Adeniji, had, unexpectedly, come into the race. He was older than I, mature and articulate. We concluded that if somehow we could get Gbolabo’s support it could be crucial to my bid. I therefore sent my Henry Kissinger to go on a shuttle diplomacy with a view to coalescing our interests. He was to ask for the support of Gbolabo in return for my promise to sponsor him for the presidency of the National Union of Nigerian Students if he would support my candidacy and I won. Gbolabo accepted my offer and gave me his open blessing and support. It was a master stroke.As it turned out, the support was more crucial than we had thought. Niran was a hard nut, an old fox. If Gbolabo had not been on my side, the split of the main campus would have enabled Niran Adeniji to win. In the end, I got the coveted prize handily.

As promised, I sponsored Gbolabo for the NUNS position despite some vocal opposition raised by some vested interests. They said I was sponsoring my friends- Ogunsanwo- President, Alonge-Secretary, Ayanlaja- Treasurer and Adegbola – Financial Secretary. But a promise is a promise and loyalty has its reward. Unfortunately for us, we lost that bid at the NUNS Convention held at the University of Ibadan by a single vote of 36:37 in December 1969 to Said Abubakar of Ahmadu Bello University. His team included Tom Ikimi who later became Abacha’s Foreign Minister and late Alex Adedipe who became the Leader of the House in Ondo State under Gov. Ajasin. The It was our first experience of realpolitik and defeat. In the end, we were betrayed by some of our dear friends. It was a crushing defeat and a very bitter pill to swallow. Gbolabo was in severe pain and I recall him swearing in agony that night that any one living on politics was cursed!

All through my Presidency I enjoyed Gbolabo’s support and we fought many battles together. But there was an interesting side to Gbolabo’s professional life which I should mention. As a press man he had the attitude of a secret service undercover agent. He simply won’t talk on some situations. If you asked a direct question on such a matter, he would laugh hilariously and move on. Though we suspected it but he never owned up to being the writer of a weekly column in the Lagos Weekend under the pen name of Macaulay which zeroed in on the happenings on the campus. It was Gbolabo’s edge to take students before the court of public opinion under the cover of anonymity. He enjoyed the power and mischief but never gave the secret away, close as we were supposed to be!

Gbolabo was as versatile in the sciences as he was in the arts. Initially he wanted to be a doctor. In his HSC class at the Ijebu Ode Grammar School his subjects were Chemistry, Biology, Physics. But he was soon to discover his real calling by winning two major national essay competitions, the John F Kennedy Essay Competition and the Milo National Essay Competition. These performances made him a star student at Ijebu Ode Grammar School.

These two celebrated essay competitions pointed Gbolabo at his real calling. He grew up to become a journalist’s journalist. It flowed in his veins. He lively with d for news. He was a remarkable wordsmith and a good dramatist whose column was a must read for many people across Nigeria. As Editor of Sunday Times he ignited public interest and took its readership from a modest 300,000 to nearly a million after taking over the mantle. He wrote several landmark essays like “The Babangida in All of Us”, a bitting satire which kept the nation engaged, guilty and sober. He said pointedly that Babangida, who we all decried with such relish, was an epitome of all of us! Gbolabo became a must read for hundreds of thousands of Nigerians every Sunday.

Gbolabo was a journalist with an evangelical zeal. His classic, “If you Takar me I will Daboh you” shook the Gowon government and played a significant part in the unseating of a powerful Minister, Joseph Takar, and his former accomplice turned informant and story teller. When all Takar’s entreaties, including the offer of a huge gratification to Gbolabo failed, the powerful Minister, reporterly bought up the entire western edition of Sunday Times production at the distribution centre and was said to have made a bonfire of the lot rather than let it get into the hands of the reading public. It took the production directive of Alhaji Jose, at Gbolabo’s situation room report, for production of the western edition to continue to run till 9am which was unheard of.

With the benefit of a hindsight, this period, supposed to be the beginning, turned out to be the peak of Gbolabo’s career. The end came too soon. At one point he is looked like a prince waiting to be crowned. At a stage he was the first person to be Editor of Sunday Times and acting Editor of the Daily Times at the same time. It had never happened before and Gbolabo could do no wrong. This was a mark of the passionate love and confidence that the late Alhaji Babatunde Jose, the Murdoch of Nigerian journalism, had for Gbolabo. I had been bestman at Gbolabo’s wedding in 1972 where Alhaji Babatunde Jose was the Chairman at the reception. The love between them was contagious and palpable and was the envy of many people.

At Alhaji Babatunde Jose’s 50th birthday in 1975, in a speech from the throne, he announced that Gbolabo would become the Editor of the Daily Times by 1976. It was like the enthronement of the Prince of Wales, the future King of England. To all intents, Gbolabo was the king in waiting. This was Gbolabo’s finest hour.

But by a sudden twist of fate, that event was not to happen. Following the Murtala Mohammed coup in 1975 a number of events occurred which led to a dramatic fall from grace and a fall from which Gbolabo did not recover. It led to the sudden change of the promised appointment of Gbolabo as Editor of Daily Times which was given to Mr. Segun Osoba, hitherto Editor of Lagos Weekend. By a sudden visit of misfortune, as often happens in the corporate world, Gbolabo was surpassed!

For all I know, this was a crushing blow and the turning point from which Gbolabo never recovered. Thereafter his relationship with Alhaji Jose went downhill. But it also, tragically, signaled the precipitous fall of the greatest media house that Nigeria or Africa ever knew. The careers of a number of giants of the press I do not have space for in this short historical account, also perished in the ensuing melee. There was a massive spilling of blood on Kakawa Street which housed the Daily Times Group.

Suffice it to say that when the Daily Times crisis started Gbolabo found himself among the “Jose Must Go” group. The Daily Times was embroiled in a vicious intestinal broil which led to the fall of the empire that powerful politicians and administrators once feared. Typically, in an era of meddlesomeness in which the military buoyed by petro dollar acquired anything in sight- universities, hospitals, stadia etc- the military government led by General Murtala Mohammed and General Olusegun Obasanjo acquired the shares of Daily Times through the fully owned government insurance company, the Nicon Insurance.

As is usual in such circumstances in the buildup to the acquisition, the rumour mill was agog with all manner of allegations leveled against Alhaji Babatunde Jose. He was supposed to have surreptitiously acquired the shares of the Daily Times during indigenization and to have appropriated a lot of the assets of the company for his personal use. The government set up a judicial commission of inquiry headed by Hon Justice Gbegbaje, to investigate all the allegations while Alhaji Jose took a leave of absence pending the investigation. The Commission of inquiry found that all the allegations were baseless and absolved Alhaji Babatunde Jose. As it were, the government had acquired the company before investigation.

After the inquiry, Alhaji Jose was asked to return as Managing Director and was to report to a new Chairman in the person of Alhaji Aliko Mohammed the Chairman of Nicon Insurance. It was the humiliating castration and the de-clawing of powerful Babatunde Jose which he declined. He explained later that a snake does not return to the skin it has left behind. He also said that he had struggled hard to build a United company which was then divided and that returning to Daily Times would have been to a divided house. The lion of Kakawa went into voluntary retirement and maintained his dignity.

Until the last minute, the mischievous top military brass kept Gbolabo’s hope alive and expectant that he was going to get the editorship of the Daily Times, the prime jewel he wanted so badly. One day he was called in by a top military brass and told to get ready to assume the top position. The day after that meeting, Gbolabo was peremptorily retired in 1976. This was the back breaker. The Daily Times,the giant of the Nigerian newspaper industry, was crippled forever and it never quite recovered from the decimation.

There are many people who go from one failure or bankruptcy or one career to the other but ultimately succeed. But our dear Gbolabo was not so lucky. Journalism was right at the center of his life. It was inconceivable that he should ever be out of it. He founded a glossy weekly magazine called “The Nation” which was printed in England. For someone used to working in a structured media house, the logistical issues of a one man operation were too much- exchange rate, airfreight, clearing at the port, distribution, finance etc. It was just too much and the troubles crippled the intellectual edge which really was Gbolabo’s main capital. The promise a weekly became two and three weeks. The journal floundered and died.

Some of us, including Gbolabo, had been active in the Awolowo political school after the military lifted the ban on political activities from 1978. The Ogun State government under the leadership of late Chief Olabisi Onabanjo in which I served as a Commissioner appointed Gbolabo as the foundation Chairman of the Ogun State Television a post he held until the military struck again in 1983.

Gbolabo gave his life to Christ and became very involved in church activities under the Redeemed Christian Church of Christ. At a stage he headed the outreach group the CRFU- The Christ Redeemed Universal which reached out to the high and mighty in society to take Christ to them. He was ordained as a Pastor in the RCCG.

Gbolabo was a fighter and a general of many wars. But it was difficult for him to put a closure to Daily Times. His life typified the saying that the race of life is not to the swift. Like many of us the members of his generation, he realized only a fraction of his potentials. We were left wondering what happened to all the talent and all the promise of our youth In the Nigerian extravaganza of the last 50 years. We have been left holding the wrong end of the stick. The constant military incursion froze and de-froze the polity too many times. The society stagnated and floundered. Fortunes and destinies were altered and opportunism held sway. Like the rest of us Gbolabo was only able to utilize a tiny little part of his abundant promise. And what a waste and what a loss that was for Nigeria and his generation !


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