|Urhobo Historical Society
The Bayelsa State House of Assembly is considering a proposal brought before it by Governor Timipre Sylva-Sam to the effect that all three media arms in the state – radio, newspaper and television – be sold to private political interests, ahead of the 2011 elections. In this ninth chapter of his book, Epistle To Maduabebe, Nengi Josef Ilagha, journalist and broadcaster, provides a basis for questioning the rationale behind this move, and reveals the unwholesome attempts by government to undermine the Fourth Estate of the Realm in Bayelsa.
For The Sake Of Our Media
Real peace is not just the absence of conflict; it is the presence of justice.
– Harrison Ford
By His Majesty Nengi
Mingi XII, Amanyanabo of Nembe
Bayelsa State, Nigeria
OUR MAJESTY, I am obliged yet again to come before you on account of a writ of summons posted into my email box by my solicitors. The gist of it is that I am being summoned to appear in the Yenagoa Judicial Division, High Court of Bayelsa State of Nigeria pertaining to Suit No. YHC/270/2009 filed by Mr Toinpre Berenah, plaintiff. I am listed as the First Defendant, while the Bayelsa State Newspaper Corporation, BSNC, is named as Second Defendant. I will do well to acquaint you with a short history of the case in simple English, and leave you to draw your own conclusions.
As you probably know by now, I was appointed General Manager of the Corporation on October 2, 2007, by Governor Timipre Sylva-Sam, no less. I assure you that the appointment came on the strength of the pressure mounted upon the governor by our mutual friend, Mister Ebiowei Woyengipre Sokare, erstwhile Commissioner for Information, who had come to the conclusion that the governor was being largely unfair to me, having left me to grope in the proverbial lurch for so long and surrounding himself instead with a varied selection of hypocrites and fair-weather friends. Sokare is entitled to his opinions.
My appointment was greeted with a great deal of celebration by the good people of Bayelsa, especially those who were well acquainted with my humble pedigree in the pen pushing business. On my part, I received the news with some measure of relief, and was quite willing to forgive the governor for his long-standing oversight on several scores. At any rate, it was comforting to know that I would not be working with Sylva at close quarters, as a Special Adviser for instance. I was content to remain at a self-respecting distance, showing up before him only when I have to, while doing my utmost to promote the very best that Sylva had to offer the land and people of Bayelsa.
By virtue of my exploits in the local media industry up to that point, I had no doubt that it was equally my responsibility not to let the governor sleep on his oars when in fact he should be rowing out to sea. In other words, if he messed up along the line, it was my place to tell him in plain terms that he had messed up. That, in my estimation, remains the duty of a dedicated and patriotic journalist. Tell the truth and tell if forthrightly and fearlessly. If and when Sylva deserved kudos, I was willing and ready to be ahead of the praise singers. But when thumbs should be pointing down with regard to the unpopular policies and programmes of government, I shouldn’t be found sticking mine up. If I did, I would have betrayed my sacred mandate, so to speak.
That, then, was how I saw my role as the new boss of the print arm of the media. And I expected, quite naturally, that Sylva would provide me and my colleagues with basic working tools without waiting for us to make any spectacular overtures to government, bowing and trembling on our knees. After all, even before he became the youngest member of the Rivers State House of Assembly in times past, Sylva had established a printing press in Port Harcourt, as a measure of his belief in the power of the written word.
In other words, he understood too well that as members of the Fourth Estate of the Realm, we were part and parcel of government. If that applied in principle, then it might as well apply in practice. For an enlightened governor with Sylva’s credentials who pledged a great deal of respect for the highest tenets of democracy, it was the least we could expect. We could only promote government if we had working tools to promote our opinions in the public mind.
You can imagine my amazement, therefore, when the governor announced my appointment and looked the other way, practically consigning me to history. It was as though he had done me a great favour by appending the title of General Manager to my name, and it was up to me to live up to the designation in my own way. In short, it soon became apparent that Sylva was not prepared to know whether or not we survived. For all he cared, we could go jump into the ox-bow lake and drown. But as Edwin Louis Cole put it, you don’t drown by falling into the water; you drown by staying there. Since I was not in the mood for drowning, therefore, I did my best to remain afloat and swim ashore.
To begin with, I needed to let the governor know that he didn’t make a mistake by appointing me to that humble office. After waiting for the better part of one month without word from government, therefore, I approached my friend and former school mate, Toinpre Berenah, for assistance. He was working at the time as branch manager of a bank. I placed my cards on the table before him, gave a convincing account of my peculiar plight, and invited him to invest in what I believed to be a worthwhile venture. Knowing how close the governor and I used to be in the past, Berenah reasoned that if he helped me out now, he stood a good chance to be remembered whenever the governor chose to remember me.
Berenah granted me an initial loan of 600,000 (six hundred thousand) naira on a monthly interest of 20 percent. I accepted the sum with great gratitude, and proceeded to Lagos with a small editorial team to produce the prototype edition of the paper. I generated a corporate logo, designed a new template and changed the format of the paper for good, recasting it altogether to enable it compete with its peers at the national level. I worked out an elaborate outdoor advertising programme for the paper, reached out to vendors, and virtually set out to win the patronage of our primary market of readers and advertisers alike.
But we soon ran out of funds and nothing was as yet forthcoming from government, outside the paltry monthly overhead. With over 200 staff and about ten departments and units to satisfy with regular remittances, it became a great challenge to get by week after week. Not only did I inherit darkness, in the words of Alamieyeseigha, I inherited a whale of debts as well. How could a newspaper house be expected to function in the twenty-first century without regular power supply, without funds, without vehicles, without editorial tools, without marketing outlets, without any link to the worldwideweb?
On November 27, 2007, I routed a correspondence to Chief Timipre Sylva through the Honourable Commissioner, Ministry of Information, Culture and Communication, on re-making New Waves in the following words:
“Your Excellency, I hope this correspondence meets you in good health and excellent spirits. Allow me to formally thank you for inviting me to play a cardinal role in the making of a new Bayelsa by appointing me as General Manager to take charge of the fortunes of the Bayelsa State Newspaper Corporation, publishers of New Waves. To begin with, Management has engaged the professional consultancy services of a Lagos-based advertising and media agency to re-invent our newspaper. Specifically, we have given the go-ahead for WorkStation Limited to undertake the following:
* Website design, including training of local administrator
* Complete make-over of New Waves, covering all seven days of the week
* Printing of the first seven editions of the newspaper
* Training of four artists on layout and design software, to enable them work with the template afterward in Yenagoa
* Collateral design and printing of letter-headed papers, as well as ID and complimentary cards for all staff, with a new corporate logo.
* Printing of promotional vendor vests, car stickers, face caps and T-shirts
* Week-long refresher course in modern journalism for editorial staff in Yenagoa
* Radio and television jingles to orchestrate the advent of a new product on the news stands.
As you may have noticed from the foregoing, Your Excellency, we are settling for nothing but a virtually new brand-name capable of compelling the Nigerian media market, and the international readership on the web. The first promotional edition of New Waves has already been published, dated Wednesday November 21-23, 2007. Three editions have been ready since our formal outing. But we have been unable to print afresh on account of shortage of funds. Indeed our forthcoming edition will provide a symbolic occasion for the Bayelsa State Government to identify with the state newspaper, and present it in commendable light to the public at a formal launch.
The presentation ceremony of the state newspaper and the inevitable facility tour around the premises by the Governor of Bayelsa will serve to provide you with an opportunity to appreciate the sorry problems facing the Corporation at first hand, hopefully in the second week of December, 2007.
To this end, we would require an initial sum of N20,000,000 (Twenty Million Naira) only, as part of a wholesome take-off grant such as you may see fit to approve, to enable us acquire basic working tools and a stand-by power generating plant. We have no doubt that we could print the first few promotional editions from this sum, host Your Excellency and entourage to the formal launch in question, and set the stage for repositioning the paper among its national competitors.”
Over my name and designation, I signed with a flourish. This humble request, like several others after it, fell on the deaf ears of the Sylva government. To undertake the day to day running of the office, therefore, I felt obliged to seek fresh assistance from Mr Berenah, believing that we would repay his kindness as soon as commensurate funds came into the Corporation to enable us stabilize and offset our debts. Berenah was understanding enough to extend another lifeline of 250,000 (two hundred and fifty thousand) naira. That brought our indebtedness to our fateful benefactor to a total of 850,000 (eight hundred and fifty thousand) naira. Given the 20 percent interest on it, and with nothing defrayed from the capital, this sum quickly accumulated from month to month and stood at an embarrassing pile by the time I left the active service of the Corporation twenty months later, without the expected overture from the Bayelsa State Government. The plaintiff is now making a case for 4,420,000 (four million, four hundred and twenty thousand) naira.
I had assured Mr Berenah that, since I secured the loan on personal recognition and in my honourable name, I would do well to pay it off. But since I was acting in the best interest of the Corporation, however huge it may be in the end, the interest would rest squarely on the Corporation and therefore on Sylva’s government. He saw reason with me, was truly sympathetic to my cause, and encouraged me to pay off the capital in order to stem the interest to a manageable level. Incidentally, I was unable to offset the capital, and the interest kept mounting until our helper was compelled to seek court action.
The Commissioners under whom I served, both of whom were my former colleagues as Special Advisers, did not help matters. As passionate as they pretended to be about moving the media forward, they were both overtaken by a desperate need to keep a sizeable share of whatever token was likely to come from the coffers of government. Suffice it to say that Sokare’s tenure as Commissioner for Information came to an uneventful end without any extension of financial relief for the Bayelsa State Newspaper Corporation. Instead, he cultivated a fertile conspiratorial friendship with Megan Bozimo, the boss at the radio house, and did his best to grip the neck of Morris Ozeke, General Manager of the pending television station, under his armpit.
When Sokare’s successor, Chief Asara A. Asara, came on board, hope was rekindled among management and staff of BSNC, especially given Asara’s heroic pronouncements on his maiden visit to our offices on Friday September 5, 2008. Asara threatened to resign his appointment unless Sylva swiftly responded to the plight of the Corporation. He could be depended upon, he said, to convince the entire State Executive Council that a gold mine was going to waste at BSNC, what with the gargantuan printing machine that was gathering rust for seven years running. He was referring to the seven-chamber Rotary King Press acquired by the Alamieyeseigha government in 2001 for a staggering fortune of 1.2 billion naira.
In spite of all his posturing, however, that was the last we were to hear from Asara. He turned a blind eye to the lack of vehicles at the Corporation, the absence of basic working tools, the sheer dearth of funds. He turned a deaf ear to our entreaties for government intervention. To be fair to him, he did give assurance that he had won a battle royale on behalf of the Corporation, having secured 262 million naira being the balance for refurbishment of the printing machines which had been on-going from day one, on behalf of the contractors, Industrial Press Limited. In addition, he categorically stated that 52 million naira had been received by his office on behalf of the Corporation, and Management would do well to let him take stock of our priorities so that the Ministry would purchase and supply us with what we needed as soon as possible.
However, Asara’s priorities were elsewhere. His interest obviously lay with the state-owned electronic media, especially the television station, which was gulping funds as surely as a glutton at work under the new management of the highly ubiquitous Megan Bozimo. After six months of waiting for Asara to make good his word, I practically took up the gauntlet. On the basis of what he had told me about the funds he had secured on our behalf, I went to town with a loud proclamation on the front page of the WWW edition of April 24-May 1, 2008. The headline read as follows:
Asara Disowns Baby
…denies N52 million grant to BSNC
Like every edition before it, that May Day cry came like a bombshell on Bayelsa. The quake it caused resounded in every home. In the body of the story, I challenged the Commissioner to declare the various amounts he said he had secured in our name. I called on him to resign from office on grounds of proven incompetence and inexperience in media management. By so doing, I had put a bell on the cat, for indeed public opinion on Asara’s credentials was as low as could be, given his intrepid record of fraudulence in past governments. I had done what no one could contemplate under the circumstance, calling upon my immediate boss to vacate his office.
Asara was heart-broken. The Akipelai chief looked like a wet chicken in the rain. His countenance became gloomier by the day. He lost face wherever he went, avoided his own office for weeks and, before long, developed symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Nothing he held was steady in his hands anymore, except perhaps the funds that he never tired of acquiring, and he was prepared to blame anybody but himself on his sorry plight. Some of Asara’s friends, however, came to his rescue with an advice to suspend me from office. Asara wondered why he hadn’t thought of that before.
So it was that on June 3, 2009, Asara put out an announcement over the state radio to the effect that I had been summarily suspended from office on an indefinite basis. A letter to that effect was served on me a few days later. I took it all in my stride. I received urgent signals from sundry sources that I should watch my back. Asara and his fellow wizards were thirsty for blood. The paper upon my lap had done irreparable damage to his reputation, far more than I thought possible. The wolf had been forced out of his pretentious sheep’s clothing and was baring his fangs at the moon, howling for blood.
For the time being, I chose to hang my gloves and give him some respite, sufficient time to prance around the ring, feeling cool with himself. I suspended publication of the next edition of WWW that would have come as a haymaker on the jaws of my assailant. Asara is still pretending that he has won the face-off. He is still bragging all over town that he will remain Commissioner for Information and Communication for as long as Timipre Sylva, “that small boy in politics” remains Governor of Bayelsa State. When last seen, Asara was on his way to India with eight million naira in his kitty, approved by the same Sylva, for the fisherman from Akipelai to recover from his groggy bout with Pope Pen and hopefully survive Parkinson’s Syndrome.
Your majesty, I have gone so far as to put you in remembrance of these recent events, not because you are not aware of them, but because you need to put things in perspective. You need to understand why I hold you culpable in all this. None of this would have happened to bring shame to your door step, if you had acted like a large-hearted father of the government. You were in a position to intervene, but you did not. You could have forestalled the mess to come, but you were preoccupied with making much more mess elsewhere. You were so besotted with your gown and crown that you forgot your role as a royal mediator whose opinion counted primarily with the governor.
All you needed to do from the start was to acknowledge the role of the media in governance, especially the print media, and give it the patronage it deserved. All you needed to do was support the growth of all three arms of the media in Bayelsa on an equal basis, without particular preference for any. All you needed to do was speak up in defence of righteousness. But you preferred to remain silent and let things go to seed. You installed the government, virtually brought it into office, and denied your role as kingmaker. Your ponderous intervention was all that was needed, but you felt too majestic in your self-esteem to come forth.
The other day it was widely reported in the papers that your nephew engaged Fred Agbedi, the chairman of a faction of the Bayelsa PDP in physical combat, in Abuja. Since when did Sylva become a boxer, and under which coach did he train? Why did the governor find it necessary to lock up a law-abiding citizen who was doing his job as a journalist, having waylaid him in Abuja and ferried him all the way to his private gulag inside the confines of Creek Haven? These are sorry incidents that could have been avoided, in the first place, if the state newspaper were fortified for a wholesome campaign of corporate image-making for Bayelsa.
Inevitably, therefore, you practically watched with glee while Rome went up in flames. Like good old Nero, you did not reckon with the fact that, in the end, the flames would consume you even as you played out your finest tunes to the admiration of your private gallery of royal ushers, court clowns, sycophants and money mongers. Alas, the long expected day of reckoning has caught up with you. Do not look elsewhere to lay the blame. It lies heavily upon your lap, and remains quite at home there.
I rest my case for now, waiting to take it up again as soon as possible. What’s more, you will recall that, in the days following your coronation, I dutifully requested that you grant the state newspaper a well-deserved interview. You considered this beneath your royal esteem, and yet the front pages of our peers in the newspaper and magazine market were aglow with colourful editions of your grand coronation ceremony. I am obliged, therefore, to bring a fresh questionnaire before you. Please answer the following XII questions, and be as frank and current as possible.
I. Can you carry a cross half way down your bedroom? What, indeed, is your personal relationship with King Jesus?
II. Why did you find it particularly necessary to declare the Holy Spirit contraband in all your dealings with the world, while pleading lip service to Christ and Christianity?
III. What is your personal monthly royalty from the oil companies operating in your domain, and what do you do with the proceeds?
IV. What percentage of the emoluments from each burial ceremony in Nembe comes to you at the end of every funeral, and from each grieving family?
V. What is the exact role you played in the infamous Halliburton scandal involving highly placed Nigerians, such as yourself and Olusegun Obasanjo, among others, making headline news around the world till date? Exactly how much of the Halliburton bonus did you set aside to bribe members of the Nembe Chiefs Council for them to shut up when you are talking?
VI. It has since come to the knowledge of the Nigerian public that a portrait of Yar’Adua’s wife adorns the President’s official chamber alongside the coat of arms, whereas neither his portrait nor that of his Vice are anywhere in evidence. This fact was widely established by the cameras of AIT in their report of October 1, 2009, during the Independence Day broadcast by the President. Given your years in public office and in the Presidency, is this appropriate? Or, does it mean that Nigeria is being ruled by her first female President, acting in the shadows?
VII. Where would you prefer to serve your life-time jail sentence, in Nembe or in Switzerland?
VIII. What was your favourite meal in prison, following your crimes at the NNPC? Do you perhaps have any new preferences, so to speak, such that all warders around the world may take note in the event that you turned up like a bad coin?
IX. When do you hope to reconstruct the unity bridge in Nembe? Or, are your thoughts disunited on the subject of unity and brotherhood?
X. What is your plan to eliminate the mosquitoes and tse-tse flies in the better part of your kingdom in a bid to contain the outbreak of diseases associated with these insects so that your friends, colleagues and associates from abroad can visit freely before the end of the world?
XI. Is your bank account as wide as Skye Bank? If not, how intercontinental is it? If not, how oceanic is it? And, in your knowledgeable estimation, how many bank accounts make one billionaire?
XII. How large is the mausoleum you plan to build for yourself, and what are the specific dimensions of the ancestral structure in mathematical terms?