Remembering the Publisher:
A Tribute to Alex Ibru
By Yemi Ogunbiyi
I RECALL clearly my first meeting with Mr. Alex Ibru. It was in June of 1983. After months of prodding from Dr. Stanley Macebuh to join the nascent team of The Guardian, I accepted his offer to visit the premises of the organisation at Rutam House.
And as was the tradition in those days, Dr. Macebuh took me to see Mr. Ibru first. Coming from Ife, with my heavy dose of latent left-wing biases, I was not sure that I wanted to meet with Mr. Ibru just yet! The meeting turned out to be brief and I remember asking Dr. Macebuh later on how best to address Mr. Ibru. In his usually curt style, Stanley snapped at me: “Just call him the Publisher”! And the Publisher, he remained for me, always.
Somehow, to my utter surprise, at our second meeting barely weeks after, the Publisher and I hit things off like old buddies. Anyone present would have thought we had both come a long way. Between him and Dr. Macebuh, every effort was made to ensure that I quickly settled down to what was to be one of the most exciting times of my life. Indeed, in a very short time, the Publisher and I became true friends, in ways that are unnecessary to restate here now.
Without question, my tenure at the Guardian, which looms larger than the six years I actually spent there, defined the trajectory of my subsequent career. Everything I learnt about the profession, especially those details that were to come in handy at my tenure as managing director of the Daily Times, and in subsequent years, I learnt on the job at the Guardian. But that was possible, essentially because the Publisher, urged on constantly by Dr. Macebuh, gave me the chance to be myself.
It would be impossible in a short tribute such as this to exhaustively restate those details. But I will try. When, for instance, in the early years, we were all eager to project the newspaper’s image as an authoritative medium with strong international links, and we embarked on doing what no Nigerian newspaper had ever done, that is, conduct interviews with world leaders, the Publisher gave more than a nodding support to the project.
He decided that he would accompany me on those early trips. Between us, we met with, and interviewed some ten world leaders, among them Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Israel, Col. Mamman Gaddaffi, Thomas Sankara, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and Robert Mugabe.
Essentially because of the nature of those trips, the long, lonely hours in seemingly unfamiliar places, the tortured and sometimes, boring rides in rickety vehicles, the long waits in dreary presidential waiting rooms, we became even closer as friends and almost inadvertently, he let me into intimate areas of his own life. Those were memorable moments, made even more so by the sometimes, ludicrous details of some of the trips.
By far the most bizarre of the trips was our encounter with Col. Gaddaffi. We had arrived on a Saturday for a scheduled Sunday appointment with the ‘Leader,’ as he was then fondly called in all of Libya. At breakfast the next morning, officials from the President’s office came for us, politely chauffeured us to the airport and flew us out, without prior knowledge of our destination, to Benghazi for what we were assured was to be a prompt interview with Col. Gaddaffi.
Because of the assurances given that we were being taken away for only a couple of hours, we took only our notebooks, tape-recorders and a camera. We were not prepared for the shock that was to follow. With the private Gaddaffi jet that flew us in neatly parked at a nearby aerodrome, we ended up spending three days in Benghazi, in near seclusion, without our bags or change of clothing, waiting for a meeting with the Leader!
Our situation was not helped by the fact that the Publisher and I wore big ‘afro’ hair-cuts which required the use of large wooden combs that were unavailable in Benghazi!! Every night, for three days, the Publisher and I washed our clothing, dried them up and got them ironed by morning!!!
Finally, on the fourth day, tired, exhausted and visibly distressed, we were ushered in for our interview with the Leader! The Publisher never accompanied me to another interview!!!!
Somehow, the image of the Publisher that has percolated in our consciousness is that of a young man who stumbled early on wealth and made the best of it quickly. But that is not quite the case. His beginnings were as humble as any.
The youngest of five brothers, he was born in Lagos in 1945, far away from his native Agbarha-Otor in Ughelli north local government, into a family that was anything but middle-class. His father, Chief Epete Ibru, had worked at the Igbobi hospital before branching off into the frozen fish business.
After Ibadan Grammar School and Igbobi College, he went on to Trent Polytechnic (now Trent University) where he studied Business. At 25, barely out of the Polytechnic, he founded Rutam Motors in 1970. By the time he founded The Guardian newspapers thirteen years later in 1983, he had become a wealthy 38-year-old, with considerable interests in a range of other businesses, from Insurance, Hospitality to Advertising.
But it is fair to assume that more than his other business achievements, more than the modest prison reform he initiated as Internal Affairs Minister, more than even the imposing Ecumenical Retreat Centre in Agbarha-Otor, his lasting legacy would rest substantially on the import and achievement of The Guardian newspapers.
And what a monumental achievement it has turned out to be. Founded on the finest tenets of liberal republicanism and engrained in the belief that it is the duty of the state to provide the basic necessities of life to all its citizens, the Guardian has, before our very eyes, become an authentic voice of the Nigerian people.
It is a lasting tribute to the memory of Mr. Ibru that nearly thirty years after it was founded, the paper has sustained, with clarity of vision, the lofty ideals of its founding fathers, especially too, in so difficult an environment as our own.
For me, personally, The Guardian experience was very unique. Mr. Ibru pushed me, sometimes, beyond my own limits! At every opportunity, he literally threw me in the deep end and then challenged me to survive on my own!!
Barely months after I came on board, he moved me out of the Editorial Board, created an amorphous Directorate in his office and asked me to head it as Controller. And when it was time for me to return to Ife after my one-year sabbatical leave, he refused and piled pressure on me to stay on.
Before I could make up my mind, he offered me an Executive position as Marketing Director and handed me an almost unattainable marketing target. Meanwhile, between my mandatory daily 8.00 a.m. meetings with the Circulation, Transport and Advertisement managers, and my daily briefings with Mr. Ibru on the company’s daily financial situation, he insisted that I continue with our interviews with world leaders!
Unfortunately for me, I had, at about the same time, on the
nudging of Dr. Macebuh, agreed to start T
he Guardian Literary series, which ended up being published every Saturday for two and half years. Before long, the Publisher created another new company, Guardian Books Limited, and appointed me its managing director.
In between these challenges, there was always a variety of unscheduled assignments: endless nocturnal negotiations with unscrupulous security operatives who were convinced that Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson were the ultimate villains, a luncheon appointment with Estate executives to promote our proposed Property pages, the surreptitious meeting, on Dr. Macebuh’s instructions, with the Customs’ Airport Commandant at Ikeja, a certain Atiku Abubakar, to confirm the veracity of a story about 53 suitcases, which had been filed by a certain young reporter called Shuaibu Adinoyi-Ojo, the odd
write ups which were always time-bound, such as a lengthy art review for Eddie Iroh’s Sunday Supplement Pages, a piece on Sunmi
Smart-Cole’s Photography, the draft of an editorial on Professor Oluwasanmi, who had just died, an Op-Ed piece on the Cicero of Esa-Oke, a marathon four-hour interview with Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the transcript of which Lade Bonuola eagerly awaited for use on the eve of, I believe, Awo’s 75th birthday and so on and so forth!!!
It was an absolutely crazy and relentless schedule. Every day was different, each challenge unique. I would get home every night thoroughly exhausted, but eagerly looking forward to going back to work the next morning.
Looking back now, those six years, which now look like twenty years, were certainly my most productive professional years. And I suspect that that would be the same for many of my colleagues at the time. Ironically, the pay, as Dr. Tunji Dare has pointed out elsewhere, was pittance.
Although, I was assigned an official residence, as an Executive Director, I did not even have an official car. But somehow, it did not seem to matter. I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing. Between the Publisher and Dr. Macebuh, a conducive atmosphere was created where work was also great fun.
Then suddenly, one day, all that came to an abrupt end. For reasons which I suspect were much deeper than those put forward at a Board meeting by the Publisher, Dr. Macebuh and I were forced to resign our appointments, while Amma Ogan and I were in far-away Pakistan conducting an interview for the paper with Benazir Bhutto.
Not unexpectedly, our forced resignations led to a flood of other resignations and the company faced, in my view, its first self-inflicted crisis. The manner of the departures was painful. We all moved on, but the pain lingered for a while.
And although the Publisher and I made things up, thanks to his lovely wife, Maiden, we never really came to terms with what led to that season of rancour. Unfortunately, the Publisher and Dr. Macebuh never patched things up before Dr. Macebuh himself died; which was a real pity because they were, together, a formidable team. Without either, I doubt that the Guardian, as we know it today would have happened. But now that they are both up there, I am sure they will be forced to sort things out!
Like all who are destined for great things in life, Mr. Ibru’s life was a study in self contradiction, the most obvious being the fact that he, a very private person, headed one of the most public of our institutions. In a country that thrives on flashy, self-promotion, he, the prime custodian of a key medium for such excesses, was the very embodiment of self-effacement.
Ever his own man, he, the very quintessential businessman, never once displayed a staid mediocrity to the intellectualism that was dominant at the Guardian, at least, during the early years. Shy, without being utterly unstuffy, the very ordinariness of his immaculate persona could be deceptive.
For, while Mr. Ibru could be warm and even generous, he had the opposite capacity to be unyielding like a tough combatant who could take on unpleasant facts head-on. His less charitable critics accuse him of ruthlessness, impulsiveness, snobbishness and even arrogance.
There is no doubt at all that he was an astute and keen-eyed businessman, with a copious original mind. There is also unchallengeable evidence that he acquired a measure of discipline from the bureaucratic machine which his oldest brother, Olorogun Michael Ibru had set up.
He was, undeniably, a brave, gutsy entrepreneur who, in the eagerness to get quick results, could be tough, obdurate and even pugnacious. But he was no snob. And if snobbery implies sycophancy, then the word is absurdly misapplied here because Mr. Ibru never bowed in humility to power, not even during his tenure as Federal Minister.
In retrospect, I am happy that we both made up long before he took ill and that I got to visit with him a number of times, especially during the past few months. He remained his old confident self to the end, although his austere convictions had now given way to deep philosophical reflections about life.
I recall my very last visit, barely weeks before he died, when he implored me to thank his wife, Maiden, for being so dedicatedly supportive of him. It turned out to be a most moving last encounter.
In the end, his contributions to Nigerian journalism will be adjudged monumental. Nothing, not even the fact that he was aided in that process by Dr. Stanley Macebuh, could detract from his immense contributions. History will be kind to him, essentially because he earned the right to such recognition.
Because of him, the history of Nigerian journalism will be written differently. We shall all remain perpetually in his debt. The immediate challenge that remains is for Maiden and her lovely children to ensure that the legacy he has bequeathed us is sustained for all time.