By Mathew Hassan Kukah
In their days, sheer grit, depth, polish and professionalism defined the quality of the journalism of the time. John’s weekly “Newsweek” programme could easily offer material for a media seminar in the best journalism school anywhere in the world. The all-encompassing one-hour programme, presented with masterful diction was a salad plate of fast-paced, authoritative, evidence-based news, covering politics, sociology, economics, local and international politics.
Almost as if rushing to meet datelines and satisfy a stern Editor, three of the nation’s gems within the media family exited by the front door to eternity. All of this happened within just ten days – Biyi Bandele: 7th August; John Chiahemen: 10th August; and Chief Duro Onabule: 16th August. Of them all, I knew John Chiahemen the most and would like to start these tributes with him.
Looking back, I do not even recall when, where, and how I met John. However, whatever little memories I had were further built up through my other friend, Tony Nnachetta, who over the years has been perhaps John’s most faithful friend. It is to him that I always had to turn for the latest updates regarding John’s endless travels around the world as a reporter without and beyond frontiers.
John was a swashbuckling, doughty, chivalrous, no-nonsense, devil-may-care, energetic yet graceful gentleman. He was a master of the art of reportage. In his days, John was a hardnosed journalist who wound his way on the open, verdant landscape in search of news, very much like a cheetah stalking its prey. The times of John Chiahemen were the times that the National Television Authority (NTA) stood alone like a lamp post on the Nigerian news horizon.
Those were the days. The NTA preceded CNN and paraded a galaxy of some of the most handsome, debonair and beautiful women anywhere around the world. With the quality of people in the NTA, we could hold our own with the best anywhere in the world. Sitting before the television set, it was often difficult to know whether we were watching or listening to the news because the newscasters’ elegance and poise often got in the way. Recall briefly such names and faces as Patrick Ityohegh, Tom Adaba, Michael Enahoro, Bode Alalade, Ronke Ayuba, Adamu Augie, Kere Ahmed, Yori Folarin, Elizabeth Nze, John Momoh, Khalifa Baba-Ahmed, Tony Ede, Bimbo Oloyede, Kehinde Young-Harry, Onyeka Onwenu, Sienne Allwell-Brown, Dora Ifudu, Cyril Stober, Matthews Otalike, Tokunbo Ajayi, Eugenia Abu, Chris Anyanwu, Lola Alakija, among many others.
My last physical contact with John was in Yola where I caught up with him in the course of one of the meetings of the Board of the American University. I had gone to the Gotel Radio Station for a programme and, as I came out of the radio station, right before me stood John and a group of international journalists. He told me he had left Reuters, shifted base to South Africa and was now undertaking consultancy work here and there. He had, he said, come at the invitation of Atiku Abubakar to see how to turn Gotel media around. After that, we spoke a few times, but often through Mr Nnachetta whenever he came to town. It is not surprising that it was from the same Tony that I heard that John was in poor health. Before I could respond, Tony consoled me by saying, I will give you his wife, Chizi’s telephone number.
I called her immediately to get updates on John’s condition. She was exceptionally warm and said that John had often spoken about me. It made our conversation very easy. She said she was on her way to the hospital and would call so I could speak to John. She did well to prepare me for what to expect by telling me ahead that although John would be able to hear me, he would not be able to talk to me.
Our paths crossed briefly in London but that was before he soared to greatness. Unfortunately, our paths never crossed again but I lived in admiration of his awesome talent and how far he had come. Biyi had energy and deep passion about Africa and Nigeria. He has joined the long list of our great sons and daughters for whom Nigeria remained a dream deferred. God rest a true son of Africa.
About forty minutes later, she made a video call and took the phone to John’s bedside. He looked healthy and as soon as he saw my face, he gave me a generous smile which gave me both great joy and deep sorrow. Though I was glad to see him but I couldn’t deal with the situation before us. Chizi had already told me that John’s Parish priest had come to the hospital, celebrated Mass and given him Holy Communion. That pleased me and made it easy for me to proceed.
Praying for John was a very difficult decision for me, especially knowing from the briefing I had received that he was literally on his death bed and it could be my last time of seeing him. He could hear me but he couldn’t talk. I prayed for him. I saw him struggling with nods of approval. He responded with more smiles to the prayers.
I did not wish to hold him for too long. I wanted to have the last laugh so, I said to him: John, I hope you know that every Catholic, including the Pope would be thankful to God to have the holy Mass celebrated specifically for him on his deathbed. So, I said to him; please remember that despite being on your bed, you still have to make an offering for the Mass that was celebrated for you! He got the message and in return, I got another very wide, priceless smile. It was the best parting gift I got as a treasure from John. Then, it all faded.
…and then, my younger brother, Biyi Bandele. I first met Biyi in 1988, I think. I had just returned from Nigeria with over one hundred recorded tapes of my interviews across northern Nigeria for my Ph.D thesis on ‘Religion and Power Politics in Northern Nigeria.’ I was struggling with transcribing the tapes and needed time and concentration. One day, I received a call from someone who introduced himself by greeting me in Hausa. Then, he told me that his name was Bandele. I was excited to hear someone speak Hausa to me as it was a bit of a rarity. Before then, I only relied on my long weekend conversations with my dear friend, Taju of blessed memory, who was in Oxford and Peter (Giwa) Badejo for some banter in Hausa. I was still trying to figure out this Bandele who spoke Hausa when he said to me, Ni dan Kafanchan ne (I am a Kafanchan boy!).
Long story short, the prospects of meeting a Yoruba brother from Southern Kaduna was exciting to me. When he asked when we could meet, I was even more excited by that prospect. My ear drums were already tired from transcribing my tapes and I needed a break so we agreed that he would come to my place over the weekend.
When he showed up, I hugged him and took him to my modest student accommodation in central London. Then, it turned out he had other intentions. All that being Kafanchan boy was part of his effort at seducing me into granting him an interview! I had no idea that he was a journalist of sorts. I am, he said, working for a newspaper called, Home News and we have been looking for you for some time. I had been assigned to look for you and to ask for an interview and so I am so happy to finally meet you. It was too late for me to complain about my brother who had now transformed into a journalist! He was armed with a tape recorder.
Home News was a well-produced newspaper and I would later come to rely on it for news about home that was naturally so scarce in those days. The publisher was Tunde Fagbenle whom I would finally meet in the London home of my friend, Peter Badejo (OBE). Our paths crossed briefly in London but that was before he soared to greatness. Unfortunately, our paths never crossed again but I lived in admiration of his awesome talent and how far he had come. Biyi had energy and deep passion about Africa and Nigeria. He has joined the long list of our great sons and daughters for whom Nigeria remained a dream deferred. God rest a true son of Africa.
Over the years, our paths did cross. Chief Onabule continued to write some of the most muscular, well researched and educative columns. He held very strong views, and his writing was not flippant. He showed evidence of a man whose well of knowledge ran deep because his opinion pieces had the capacity to walk through the length and breath of Nigeria’s tortured history. He represented the last drops of the old wines of journalism.
Finally, the inimitable Duro Onabule. I had known Duro over the years since his days are Editor of Concord newspapers. However, it was not until the Babangida coup that I was introduced to him by the late Chief Akanni Aluko at a reception organised for him after his appointment as the Chief Press Secretary to President Babangida.
However, my most memorable engagement with Chief Onabule was in 1992, after the charade that was the trial of General Zamani Lekwot and his kinsmen. I have told this story in my book, Witness to Justice. In response to this most unjust trial, the Archbishop of Kaduna, Peter Jatau and his counterpart, Christopher Abba, both of blessed memory, sought to see President Babangida in other to plead the cause of General Lekwot and others. After over two months of frustration with the wall erected in the Villa, they decided to drop the matter.
One day, I decided to put a call through to Chief Onabule. After our pleasantries, I said to him: Chief, what is the required protocol for seeing the president? When he asked who wanted to see the president, I told him I was the one and he immediately said: The president will be happy to see you because he knows and often speaks about you. When do you want to see him? I paused to take all this in because it was more than I had imagined, and too good to be true, so we agreed that I would call him the next day.
I then put a call through to Archbishop Jatau and informed him that a window had opened and that I was told I could see the president. The Archbishop was shocked but pleased to hear this. I then told him that I would like to use the opportunity to book for an appointment so both he and Bishop Abba could see the president. He gave me the go ahead. However, this was early June and preparations for the elections were in full swing. I was part of a Nigerian delegation of the Catholic Church for the International Eucharistic Congress billed for Seville between the 7th and the 13th of June, 1992. (I recall that all I could do for the June 12th elections was recite the rosary in Seville on that Saturday).
On the 9th of June, I got a call from Chief Onabule to say that the President would be ready to see me on the 10th of June. I told him that I was out of the country and that there was no way I could make the appointment. We agreed that I would call him immediately I got back to Nigeria. On the 19th or so, I called him and he said the president had said he would be ready to see me on the 24th. I was quite excited and then, the annulment happened. I called the Chief and he said authoritatively to me: Just find your way to Abuja. The President has said he is going for a meeting of the Supreme Military Council but he will see you still.
The next day, I got on a plane to Abuja convinced that there was no way I would be able to see the president. But, as it turned out, the meeting did take place. I arrived the Villa that day and found that I was the only one in the presidential waiting room. I was trying to get hold of myself as I was literally sweating, this being my first time in the mythic buildin,g when a soldier stood attention and said: Fr. Kukah, the president will now see you. I stood up to one of the most charming and infectious human beings I have ever met in my life. The rest is story for another day.
Over the years, our paths did cross. Chief Onabule continued to write some of the most muscular, well researched and educative columns. He held very strong views, and his writing was not flippant. He showed evidence of a man whose well of knowledge ran deep because his opinion pieces had the capacity to walk through the length and breath of Nigeria’s tortured history. He represented the last drops of the old wines of journalism. Rest in peace, our dear Chief.
*Kukah is the Catholic archbishop of Sokoto Diocese. Why the North Bleeds and the People Sleep.
By Mathew Hassan Kukah