Veteran journalist, Mike Awoyinfa, was the pioneer Editor of the Weekend Concord. He takes a trip back into time with ADEMOLA OLONILUA as he explains some reasons why the national newspaper died despite some successes it initially recorded
Was the Nigerian Concord Newspaper the first place you worked as a journalist?
I studied journalism at the University of Lagos in the Mass Communication department and I graduated in 1977. I did my National Youth Service Corps programme in Jos, Plateau State. During my service year, I got a job with the News Agency of Nigeria, so I worked there as a reporter but I did not enjoy the kind of journalism they practised. It was more or less a cliché kind of journalism, that is, journalism of anonymity whereby sources are not given names. That was not the kind of journalism I wanted to practise. When it comes to journalism, I am ambitious. There was a time I wanted to join the Sketch Newspaper during that period. When NAN saw my acceptance letter from the Sketch Newspaper, they promoted me from level eight to level nine. Even that did not stop me from leaving NAN. At the point when I was leaving NAN, Moshood Abiola was already starting the Concord Newspaper and he recruited the best hands of that era to run it. He employed the likes of Dele Giwa, Sam Oni, and many others. When I saw the advert that there was a vacancy in the Concord Newspaper, I knew that it was where I was meant to go. I applied and I was asked to come for an interview. To cut the long story short, I ended up at their Kaduna office as a chief correspondent.
I saw Kaduna as my constituency and I did not limit myself to only news reporting. I also wrote some feature stories and sent them directly to the Editor of the Sunday Concord, who was Giwa. He saw something in me and we had developed a rapport, and before long, he became my mentor. He was a columnist and I also wanted to be a columnist in his paper and that was a very big ambition for a young reporter. I once wrote a piece that he could not resist. There was this press conference that held in Kaduna and it was hosted by Aminu Kano, who was a great politician of the northern era. During the press conference, I noticed a certain lady who was also a journalist, but she was illiterate. She had no pen but when she was to ask Aminu Kano questions, she spoke in Hausa. Immediately, I realised it was a story, so I interviewed her and did a story about a reporter who was illiterate and had no pen or notebook. Dele Giwa gave me a column – Reporter’s Notebook – and captioned the write up, ‘Hadija, a reporter without biro and notebook.’ When he created the column, I was very determined not lose the column, so I made sure that I found him a write-up he could not ignore every week and that was how that became my column.
What year did you join the Concord Newspaper?
I am not very sure of the year I joined the Concord Newspaper but it was in the late 70s. It was a great feeling working for that newspaper and I always wanted to see my byline. Every reporter wants to see their byline. I felt very happy and fulfilled working there and I did not just sit down to report news, I was improving myself by buying foreign newspapers and learning from their reports. It is a job where you have to really improve yourself. The Sunday Concord had what they called the Sunday Concord magazine which was a pull-out. It was not just for anybody because as a reporter, you really needed to write as if you were publishing the article for the Time Magazine. Dele Giwa was a great editor.
What are some of the memories you have of Dele Giwa?
He was the editor’s editor. He came from the United States after working for the New York Times. There was this razzmatazz about him, especially with the way he wrote. He was somebody who was a leader in journalism and you would enjoy working with him. If you worked for him, you would want him to mentor you. It got to a point that I was getting ambitious and I wanted to join the New Nigeria Newspaper when I was in Kaduna. They wanted to employ me so I had to tell Giwa and he persuaded me not to go. He told Concord Newspaper to increase my salary, but I had always been ambitious. Around that time, there as an opening in the Sunday Concord; Lewis Obi, one of the writers was moved to the features desk as the editor, so there was a vacuum there. So, Giwa came to Kaduna to get me and that was how I got to Sunday Concord. In those days, we called the Sunday Concord – Writers’ enclave. You would get there believing you were a writer because the editor himself was a writer of class. Working under Giwa created an environment that really inspired everybody to be their best. The Sunday Concord was the place I really honed my skills as a reporter because they made you to do everything. You would write features, commentaries, news analysis, etc. The magazine was the most challenging aspect of that department and it took you away from Lagos to various parts of Nigeria, where you would need to do a lot of research. It was like a documentary. It was like writing a cover story for the Time Magazine. You had to bring in a lot of voices, interview people and also do personal research. You had to really polish your write-up because the man we were dealing with was someone who was very difficult to satisfy. Giwa was the kind of person who would storm the newsroom to sing your praises if you blew his mind with your write-up. What else would inspire a writer than his editor praising him in public? He would not just praise you in public but also put your picture on the front page of the newspaper and celebrate you; so, you would become a star for the week.
Is it right to assume that the Concord Newspaper helped to shape your career?
Yes, definitely. However, there was a crisis in the Concord Newspaper at the time and I do not know what happened between Abiola and the likes of Ray Ekpu and Yakubu Mohammed as they left to start Newswatch Magazine. There was a time they called them the ‘Benzy journalists’ because they were living a high profile life and they were the big fish in Concord and the journalism industry. Eventually, they had a clash with Abiola. I cannot remember the details of the clash, but Giwa had to go. Ekpu, who was the chairman of the editorial board, also left because he was Giwa’s friend. Mohammed also joined them. The three of them broke out to form the most authoritative news magazine of that era called Newswatch.
Was that part of the reason the Concord Newspaper died?
No, it was not. This happened around 1988 and at the time, the Concord Newspaper was still vibrant. After Giwa left, Shina Adedipe later became the editor and I travelled abroad for a fellowship. It was a Commonwealth programme where I met other journalists from other Commonwealth nations. It was a three months’ programme that involved going around the UK and working with some newspapers there. I think I worked in Newcastle with a paper called the Sunday Sun. That was where I got the tabloid mentality and whenever I cast a headline, people were always amazed. That was where I began to discover that I had skills to cast headlines. I was in the UK for about three months and I was writing a column called – Awoyinfa in Britain – for the Concord Newspaper. I shared my experiences with people I met in the UK and the most unforgettable one was the piece I wrote about the Punks of the UK. These were a bunch of renegade youths who coloured their hairs and always looked so aggressive. I penetrated them, asked them questions and I did a big story about them. I sent it to the Sunday Concord and it created a lot of buzz. Shortly after I came back, I was promoted because before I left Nigeria, I was an assistant editor. I was sent to the features desk to replace Lewis Obi again as the features editor.
Prior to that time, my friend, the late Dimgba Igwe and I, met under Giwa and we discovered that we had a lot of things in common. That was how we became friends and decided to write a book – The Art of Feature Writing. We wrote the book because we were getting frustrated and becoming ambitious. When we looked at the whole structure, we began to ask ourselves, for how long would we be editors? We decided to write the book to secure our future. We did not know it would become a bestseller.
So your friendship with Dimgba Igwe started from your days in the Concord Newspaper?
Yes. But for Concord Newspaper, we would never have met. We both worked at the Sunday Concord. I was his senior in Sunday Concord. I remember he wrote an article about the agonies children went through in Lagos while waking up early in the morning to go to school. He joined the popular ‘Molue’ buses and spoke with children. That story was used in the Sunday Concord magazine and that was very rare. Giwa became very curious and was eager to know who he was. Before we knew it, he went to Yankari Games Reserve and gave us a pictorial piece on the rot there and it was used again in the magazine. We were all looking forward to meeting him and one day, he came to the office to collect his fees for the write-ups he had done and that was how Giwa grabbed him and gave him a job instantly.
So he was a freelance journalist for the Concord Newspaper?
He was not really a freelancer. He just did a story and sent it in; I guess we could call him a freelance journalist. He got the job at Sunday Concord and he sat next to me. I did not know that he had been reading my write-ups and admiring me as well. I made him my friend instantly and from that moment, we became a tag team doing assignments together. The biggest one we did was when Abiola celebrated his 50th birthday. There were drummers and a large crowd so we did our interviews for the Concord Magazine and from then on, we became really close. When I got to the features desk, I noticed that what they were calling features were not really features; anything just went for features. They would bring essays, commentaries, and every other thing and call them features. The features department was not doing features. So, I called a meeting and shared my ideas with them, adding that if it did not work out, we would revert to their old ways. We started a column called – Man on the street – and every reporter was asked to go out to interview the man in the street and at the end of the day, we came out with a human angle story. We also started a piece called faces and places where people would write a feature story based on scenarios and things they had seen. It became a hit and we changed the way features were being reported.
We became a human angle-oriented department and we began to generate news from our features desk. It came to a point whereby the features department was competing with the newspaper itself because it was becoming a newspaper within a newspaper. We were changing the whole dynamics of the whole National Concord. It was at that point that the managing director of the newspaper, Dr. Doyin Abiola, called me and told me that she would want us to start a Saturday only newspaper. She told me that she knew I could do and it was as if she played into my hands because I was someone who was ambitious.
Some members of the management staff were telling her that I was not ready for the post and that people were not reading newspapers on Saturdays. Some other people advised her to start it as a pull-out, but she just ignored them and told me to give her a prototype. That was how the Weekend Concord started. She wanted to name it Saturday Concord but I advised that we call it Weekend Concord. I was the pioneer editor and I recruited my team. I recruited the likes of Dele Momodu, who was in African Concord, while Igwe became my deputy. I brought in so many other people like Femi Adesina, who behaved like Dimgba. He brought in a piece he had written about people who lived on Pepple Street where Fela Kuti lived.
Immediately I saw it, I was wowed and he became a part of the Weekend Concord. We created a revolutionary paper that was based on human angle stories and anybody could hit the cover. We were focusing on the underdogs. The strategy of the Weekend Concord was to revive the dead stories of the week. For us, it was never over. The paper became a hit to the extent that other newspapers started imitating us; every other newspaper began to create a Saturday department.
So before the Weekend Concord, there was no newspaper that had Saturday department?
No. What they had were the Sunday and the weekday newspaper.
What did you think about Abiola as the Publisher of the Concord?
I do not know why he started it but some people felt that it was to counter Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Tribune Newspaper because he was into politics at the time and he was with the National Party of Nigeria. Initially, the Concord was reporting anti-Awolowo stories and it was a paper for the party, but when Abiola left the NPN, the Concord became a normal newspaper without sympathy for the government of the day. We had our freedom and liberty to practise journalism in an unfettered way. Abiola, as the publisher, was a very liberal person who never imposed anything on his editors.
Being that the Concord was a successful newspaper, at what point did you begin to realise that sales were dwindling, if that is what led to its demise?
There was never a time that sales were dwindling. When we had Weekend Concord, we became the highest selling newspaper in Nigeria. We were selling as many as 250,000 copies daily. We never had dwindling sales because it was not the era of the Internet. The Concord did not crumble because of dwindling sales as it was a very popular newspaper. The problem started when Abiola went into politics and he wanted to become the President of Nigeria under the Social Democratic Party. We also had problems with the military government of the time and people like Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Gen. Tunde Idiagbon, Gen. Sani Abacha and so on. The soldiers were ready to pounce on us because of anything we wrote about them. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, in his era had the Decree 4, which said that if you wrote anything against any public official or embarrassed anybody, you would be in trouble. We went through all that, but we survived. The only problem we had was constant closure. We were closed down during Babangida and Abacha’s regimes. It was a terrifying period because as a reporter, you suddenly had nothing to do. You would have to find alternative ways of surviving so that it would not affect your family.
But how did Abiola’s political ambition directly affect the newspaper?
We know the story of June 12 and I do not want to go into that. Abiola thought Abacha was sympathetic towards his cause and that he was a democrat. He did not know that Abacha had his own agenda of ruling the country. Abacha saw Abiola as a threat and an enemy; so eventually, when Abiola was forced to come from exile to declare himself as the President, he was arrested because there cannot be two captains in a ship. It was the toughest period the Concord and Nigeria ever had. The time when Abacha was Nigeria’s leader was an era of terror and killings. You never knew who was next, so everyone went underground. The news magazines invented their own guerrilla kind of journalism. Such was the fear that people were afraid to place adverts in the Concord. The captains of industries, politicians, and others were afraid because they did not want Abacha’s problems. That became a big issue and we started having cash flow problems.
But people believed the Abiola family was very wealthy…
Abiola was the one funding the newspaper and with the owner of the newspaper in incarceration, the newspaper itself was also in incarceration, in a way. The forces we were fighting were too strong. They killed the man’s wife, closed down his businesses and everything that would have made the Concord survive was stifled. By that time, I had left the Concord after I had been the editor for about 10 years.
What year did you leave Concord Newspaper?
I left in 1999, it was towards the end of the millennium and the management felt we had stayed too long and our matter worsened when we declared Gani Fawehinmi as Nigeria’s man of the century. That was the story that put us into trouble. We were so committed to people like him who fought for the common man. He was the Weekend Concord’s hero. The management thought we were too excessively in love with him. I think the story really infuriated them and there was a reshuffling in the Weekend Concord. I cannot remember the title they gave me, but I became an editor without portfolio but I could contribute to any of the publications. My friend, the late Igwe, was moved to the editorial board. We looked at the whole scenario and knew that it was their way of asking us to leave indirectly. Igwe felt we should not take that from them; I was the passive one while Igwe was more radical. He forced me to write my letter of resignation and he also wrote his and we submitted them. That was how we left the Concord. Immediately we retired, we focused our energy on writing books and that was how it started.
How did you feel when you learnt about the demise of the paper considering the promise it had and your efforts as pioneer Editor of the Weekend Concord?
I was very sad and it was more like losing your baby. The Weekend Concord was my baby and as a father, when you lose your child, it comes with so much agony. It was not the type of pain one could describe. It was very painful. I had always been praying that the Concord would find its way back to the streets. There was a time I wrote a column that Concord would rise again. I did not know that people would read meaning to it and before I knew it, there was a rumour that Mike Adenuga had bought Concord Newspaper and made me and Igwe to run the company. That is the kind of goodwill people had for Concord; they were just praying that something like that would happen. This was before Igwe died. The rumour was all over the place but there was no iota of truth in it. It is very sad that the Concord died. I wish that the paper could really come back.
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