Conversations with Abang Mercy brings to you Chief Dele Momodu, the publisher of the glamorous Ovation International magazine, pro-democracy activist, former pirate radio host and also a Presidential aspirant in the 2011 General elections where he garnered 26,000 votes. In this week’s edition of the Conversation Series he reveals some never heard before bits about his involvement with Radio Kudirat; above all his passion for a functional Nigeria comes to fore more than ever before.
You are a Journalist and a Publisher, What would Dele Momodu have done differently if he didnt practice of Journalism?
Am sure I would have been a teacher, my dream was to be a teacher, probably marry a teacher and live happily thereafter. I started teaching in 1982 while on national service, I was teaching A level yoruba as well as litreature in English at the then Oyo College of Arts and Science in Ile Ife. And I fell in love with teaching, I love the youths, I love the kids; I believe that we must impact whatever knowledge we have in them we must transfer knowledge. Without our teachers I don’t know where we would have been today maybe we would have been in our village somewhere. I went back to do my masters in literature in English in 1986, my first degree was in Yoruba, I graduated from Ife in 1982 so while I was doing that I was still hoping I will be a teacher but by the time I finished in 1988 I couldn’t find a job. So I actually came to Lagos out of joblessness. I was desperately looking for a job, and since I couldn’t get a teaching appointment because there was an embargo by the then military government on appointment and promotions in higher institutions. I managed to find a job as a staff writer with the then African Concord Magazine and that was how my life changed completely. So it was not as if I planned to be a journalist but I was fortunate to get a job with African Concord Magazine which was owned by the late Chief Moshood Abiola. That was my starting point but I rose so quickly, it was a meteoric rise that even me, I didn’t know what hit me. And going back to anything else since then has been very difficult.
You started Ovation International in 1996 while you were still in exile, was the vision conceived while you were barred from Nigeria?
No. I already had an original vision as far back as 1991/92 after losing my job as the editor of classique magazine which was owned by Mrs Helen Ezekiel Mofe Damijo of blessed memory. She was married to the actor Richard Mofe Damijo, she was my boss. So I left that job, I was the highest paid editor actually in Nigeria at the time and the natural progression for a journalist is always; if you are no longer a writer or reporter or editor, you want to publish your own magazine. The planning was going on very well but eventually I couldn’t get the required funding, I had to abort it and went into public relations. Unknown to me, God was going to bring the project back, about 4/5 years after, and of course being in exile, I needed to do something. One Sunday afternoon, I was with a cousin of mine Segun Fatunyin, who asked me a question I couldn’t really answer. Ahh!! Egbon now you are in London, what are you going to be doing for a living and I had not really thought about it and I said I don’t really know. And he said you must know because in London if you are not careful you will end up washing plates, even dead bodies. And he said but you were a good Journalist back home, why don’t you restrict yourself to your area of core competence by starting something. And I said ok, the next problem is, if you want to start a business you have to do a business plan. We did a business plan, how do we raise money? The business plan showed that we need £150,000 to start small scale. If you sold my family from the first generation to the last generation I couldn’t raise that kind of money. We managed to raise about £20,000 and that was it? We took a big risk, it was a gamble. Even my bank manager at that time, at the National Westminster bank told me she didn’t know how we were going to do it. But we had this abundant faith in the good lord and in our determination to make the impossible, possible. In April 1996, 17 years ago we took the plunge and today the rest is history.
As the publisher of Ovation International, a magazine that has given publicity to many Africans and Public servants perceived to have illegally amassed public funds, does that speak well of you and what you stand for?
Well, the job of a journalist is to report the good, the bad and the ugly. I don’t know of any paper in the world that discriminates about, maybe you will have to go and take permission from government before you publicize people. But I must correct something here about Ovation. Less than 20% of what we do has anything to do with public servants. People don’t read, you see the glamour is what attracts people. Please tell me what Ovation publishes that punch doesn’t publish, that Thisday style does not publish that Genevieve Magazine does not publish that Allure in Vanguard does not publish that Life Magazine does not publish. I think the picture of Ovation sometimes confuses people and they think that it’s all about glamour. We have featured everybody from Mandela to the queen of England. Even when her majesty was coming to Nigeria Ovation was selected by Buckingham palace as the official magazine; it was not selected by the Nigerian government. So it tells you the importance of Ovation on the continent of Africa, right now we are publishing 3 editions in a month. We have the French Edition, we have what we call the International edition and we have the rest of Africa edition; where we feature on the cover, stories from Ghana, from Kenya and so on. If we were publishing rubbish, nobody will patronize you for 17 years. So this idea that Ovation is publishing corrupt people, who are the people who are not corrupt, who are the people who are corrupt? How do you determine, that’s not the job of a journalist. Especially a celebrity, we are a lifestyle magazine that mirrors the lifestyle of the rich and famous Africans, it’s not just Nigerians. If that’s what we publish as some people allege, we will be out of business by now. I criticize government a lot so we do criticize people who feed you. You must give a dog a bad name to hang it, you see the success of Ovation has been so blistery that a lot of people feel so uncomfortable and they believe I must be a billionaire of sort. Anybody who knows me will know that am a man of very modest means. That’s just true, am open to do things mostly from goodwill and my goodwill stems from objectivity. A good Journalist must be objective. People say why should you feature the Abacha’s in your publication, what is wrong with it somebody must show how they live. How did we know about Ghaddafi’s palace in Libya – How did we know about Osama Bin Laden? CNN anytime the terrorist release their tape, CNN will carry it. That’s something that even has security implications, our job as journalists is to inform the public and let the public be the judge. The only way that I can judge public officials is in my opinion and I write that in Thisday. Ovation is a business concern that depends largely on being objective. In Journalism you are only allowed to express an opinion in an opinion article or in an editorial, anything else is called censorship. We fought the military government that they did not allow some people to talk on NTA on Radio Nigeria and you are saying we should also practice the same thing by disallowing some people from talking. If anybody is doing a wedding which is the most commonest thing you find on the pages of Ovation so I will say because its Ibori’s daughter I shouldn’t carry the wedding? So if Ibori is sick and goes to a Pharmacist, so a Pharmacist will not serve drugs to him? So people expect Journalists to be lambs of God who take away the sins of the Earth. The people, the commonest people are not ready to fight their oppressors they expect the journalist not to do business. The market woman will sell when they’re doing wedding the pastor will allow wedding in the church whether the bride and groom they’re corrupt or not, the pastor will officiate. They will get an event planner she will make money, they will get a musician to come and perform, they will get an MC and a comedian, they will get everybody. They will buy their clothings, they will buy their accessories, the will buy everything you will now say the Journalist who is coming to take pictures is corruption that’s stupidity.
What would you have done differently if given an opportunity to run the affairs of Nigeria?
The first thing is, like I wrote in my article in Thisday. I believe that governance in Nigeria is too expensive that will always be a lot. Look I’ve interacted with world figures, virtually all over the world. I’ve studied governance there is no place in the world where politicians live permanently as if every day is Christmas except Nigeria. Even in countries where they have infrastructure, in countries where their economy is relatively better than our own; nobody spends money the way we are spending. I saw David Cameron today; he paid a quick visit to Afghanistan you should have seen the man simple. In Nigeria if we are not launching one thing we are launching another, I don’t know where we got our tradition from. Our culture is a bit too much and when you have problems the only way you can tackle the problems is to reduce your expenses as a business man I know that. When we are not making money, there are certain things we must do away with, when we are making money you must also manage it because you know that it’s not possible for you to make money every day. In many parts of the world they are laying off workers so if you are not a good manager is either you will lay off your workers or you will not be able to pay off their salaries. And I’ve been in business for 17 years and I’ve gone through all the turbulence that you can go through in life and I know how difficult it is to run a business so I would have managed government like a business man. Because leadership is not about politics, leadership is about management of people and resources. The reason why we are in this mess is that most of the people managing our affairs are people who never managed any business in their lives so they don’t have that business sense. When you are in government people come to you Oga when we go to New york you have to stay at the best hotel oh and they will bring all kinds of useless bills. Oga you must stay in a Presidential Suite, that Presidential suite will cost $50,000 per night. Because you never stayed in one in your private life, you will sign. Oga if you are not going to use presidential jet, you must use BA and you must be in first class and that first class will cost you $20,000 for a first class ticket; you will sign. Ofcourse you never flew ones whereas if you are a business man, you will tell them why are you telling me I must fly $20,000? If you book 7 days ahead or 2days ahead, your ticket will be cheaper, if you book your hotel rooms you’re either at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel or Waldorf Astoria or Marriott or wherever to book two weeks ahead you might be able to get a bargain. And if you are coming with a team of 40 people, that is bulk booking they will pay for that discount that is how to run a business. But in government, everything in Nigeria now is in billions; Is like we have exhausted millions so millions is no longer important so now everything must be in billions soon it will be in trillions. It doesn’t make sense to me, so definitely as the President of Nigeria, that I will have to tackle. Any politician who feels too big to live an austere life should go back to the job where he was living big before. Most people do what they could not even do in their private life as soon as they resume work in power it doesn’t make sense.
Tell us about your Involvement or relationship with the late Moshood Kashimawo Abiola also known as MKO?
My relationship is that of a Son to a father. Publicly he had acknowledged that I was his adopted son and he acted and we both acted like father and son. On my wedding on December 19, 1992 he played the role of my father. I lost my father as a young boy; I was only 13 when my father died in 1973. Chief Abiola was the one who received my wife on my wedding day that’s to tell you how close we were. And I am very close to practically every member of his family that I know and they treat me like one of them. I believe I’ve been very loyal to his cause, I’ve been very sympathetic throughout the tragedy that befell our family and I remain a bonafide member of that great family.
You served the Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade Oluse 11, managing the Motel Royal Limited owned by the monarch.. Why did you resign from Motel Royal?
Oh that was simple I went back to school in 1986. I was working with him prior to resuming there at the University of Ife for my masters in Literature and English. I’m still very much in touch with the palace of Oduduwa.
You were arrested and detained at Alagbon Lagos, after the annulment of the June 12 Presidential election by General Ibrahim Babangida. Do you regret working for democracy, looking at how critical you have become about the current administration?
No never. I still work for democracy, the beauty of my kind of activism is that I’m not one of those come and chop activist. A lot of people do it as a career you know. But I’ve always been very consistent since 1978 as an under graduate in Ife I started. Even when Jonathan was being harassed by the Yar’adua Cabal you saw me on the streets of Abuja. You won’t believe it I’ve never been to Jonathan’s office. I’m not sure if he meets me on the road he will know me. We had a meeting once; but I was looking at him from afar in Aso Rock, the Presidential Candidates in 2011. But that’s me, so a lot of people think if they were in my shoes they would have taken advantage to go and seek political appointment. I am just where I am, I don’t do things based on ulterior motives, I do everything based on my personal conviction. If I’m convinced about anything I will do it. If I have to follow you into fire, my sister trust me if I give you my word that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Tell us about Radio Freedom which later changed to Radio Kudirat?
Radio freedom was an avenue for oppossition mainly NADECO people at that time to be able to air their views, like i said there was censorship and we couldn’t use government media so we had to create our own. I must say a very big kudos to people like Wole Soyinka, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Kayode Fayemi, Senator Tokunbo Afukunyomi. There were guys that had what I call abundance of courage and they really really worked very hard. They were young guys at the time, people like Richie Dayo Johnson, George Noah and a few others who actually ran the day to day operations of the radio. The radio was actually operated from a Scandinavian country I don’t know if it’s been revealed where it was but I was in London we operated by telephone we never saw each other. I ran the Yoruba Programme I had a pseudo name, Saliu Elenu Kporo Ele Olorum Opka, that was my name on radio. I used to announce amini, Saliu Elenu Kporo Ele Olorum Opka, we occasionally ran Hausa programs as well. I had a female Hausa friend the first day we were going to anchor Hausa service she didn’t even know she was working for Radio Kudirat, because we never told her. We just told her we needed to translate something can you help us translate and put it on tape, this is one of the few times that I’ve really revealed some of this things.
During the 2011 Presidential elections, you emerged Presidential Candidate of the National Conscience Party (NCP) but could not win the elections. Do you think Nigeria lost an opportunity to get it right?
Certainly I wasn’t very sure I was going to win, but you do not say because you are going to fail, you will not start. You must start before you can win or fail and I’m very proud of that move, I remain eternally grateful to the 26,000 Nigerians who saw the vision and supported it. From every part of the country, people voted we gave Nigerians an opportunity to see a different candidate. The book from that experience should be out any moment from now written by the youngest campaign manager in the history of Nigeria, Ohimai Godwin Amaize who is now working with the Minister of Sports. I had the best team nobody will believe that we were just about four or five people and we shook every part of Nigeria and beyond. People knew about my campaign, it was classy. If we had money am sure we would have done even better than Obama but we didn’t have the funding people were afraid. All my friends who are business men were afraid of government that if government discovered that they were funding me they will get into trouble and nobody likes to get into government trouble in Nigeria. I understand, so the book is going to be very interesting is tilted ‘Fighting Lions with bare hands”
Why did you choose to aspire for the First office? some people have suggested you could have gone for the senate?
You see a lot of people are very unambitious what I’ve realized a lot of Nigerians have this attitude of self doubt. You must assess yourself and know your strength. There is no law or principle that says you must start from being a senator before you become a president. Abiola was never in government, he contested elections and won so the main reason I wanted to be president was not for personal ego it was because I realized that for anyone to change the country it must come from the very top. Until you get the number one right, Nigeria will never be right. Chief Abiola told us that, Chief Olu Falae told us that when he was contesting and I’ve analyzed it. The problem with Nigeria is not with the multitude, it’s with one man and I’ve studied world history. Every nation had one strong man with a strong vision and a strong direction and a strong determination that made it possible to turn things around for the country. Nigeria is waiting for our own.
Are you considering joining the new merger? The coalition of ACN, CPC, ANPP and APGA.
Let me say very very confidently, that I wish the merger well. I wish the opposition can get its act together and do what is right. You see no nation can be ruled perpetually by one party that is dangerous for democracy. Democracy means if a party in power is not doing well it should be replaced by another party; it doesn’t mean that that other party is better. I read comments on social media where people say the Tinubu’s are not different. We have tried them at the state level and they haven’t done badly, look at most of the ACN states. I actually believe that there are doing a lot better than the PDP because the PDP has a dual advantage of controlling a state and also controlling a Federal Government. So you will expect that they will do a lot better and be shining examples for other states but except for places like maybe Akwa Ibom, Rivers and a few of them. You can’t see what they’ve done with all the money; there is so much money in circulation in Nigeria. Like I wrote in my article today, we spend so much money on over inflated contracts but get little or nothing in return.
Why did you leave Labour Party for NCP?
My dream was to use the platform of labour to transform Nigeria from a social welfare package for our country because a country as poor and impoverished as Nigeria should be a welfare state. But unfortunately the ideology of labour party I realized was not different from PDP and the leadership told me clearly there were not interested in fielding a Presidential candidate even though they accepted my nomination form and even got my nomination fee.
As a reputable journalist , is there any article or news story that you felt a tinge of regret for writing? If yes, why?
None, I think before I act I don’t act before I think. A lot of people don’t think, don’t forget that I come from a background of scholarship, from a background of research and education was still very good in Nigeria in our time so they taught us how to reason. I read so much philosophy, I read so much psychology to be a good Journalist you must know about psychology, you must know about philosophy you must know about history you must know about religion, you must know about language. You must know about Literature, you must have a way with words. So when I write even those who disagree with me, in their hearts of hearts they will know this man is telling the truth, I try to be as objective as possible.
Are you being critical of the Jonathan administration because you are interested in securing a Federal appointment?
I believe it would have been easier for me to get an appointment if I was in PDP and even in ACN that’s to tell you how principled I am. 80% of the people in ACN, I mean who are the people in ACN. You will pick Baba Akande the National Chairman he is like my father; you will pick Tinubu. Tinubu and I, I mean you can’t imagine how close we are its like forever. I respect him to high heavens I’m an independent minded person. Chief Olusegun Osoba is my God father in Journalism. Chief B. E Durojaye is like my father in-law. All the people in ACN are there and am not even in the party. If I want a federal appointment, do you think if I go to the PDP they will reject me? There is no party that will not like to have someone like me in their midst but I am just independent. The day I need an appointment, I know what to do to get an appointment. I don’t even have to beg I will get it. So when people say this, it’s just cheap blackmail. They say every critic, so is it not easier for me to participate even if I am not getting an appointment. If being a member of the PDP I can become an ambassador. I can become minister; I can become anything that’s an easier root to take than to fight government. Being critical of government means you want good governance. Being critical of government even means that you love the government because it is the person you love that you criticize because you want to make that person a better human being. If the person now says well my case is beyond redemption, then you leave him.
The last time Reuben Abati was on Channels, you tweeted praising his dexterity at answering questions, does that mean you have forgiven Dr. Abati for bringing personal issues into the public exchanges between both of you?
There is no way me and Reuben can ever fight, he is my brother. We just had that, like he himself said it was like the work of the devil. He impressed me because he called to apologize and that’s it . I’m a true Christian you must forgive 70 times 7 times. I can never hold any animosity against him. That’s why people say you people hate Jonathan, why will I hate him? Did he take my wife? Even if he took my wife it means my wife was ready to go with him. He has not taken my wife; I’ve not taken his wife. He is the President of Nigerian and I know that it is only God that can make you president. I cannot hate anybody who is in that position, in fact tap into his goodluck for me to have mine. We are both from South South, I’m from Edo he is from Bayelsa, and naturally I wish him well. If he fails that means all of us from the South South we have failed.
I’d like you to draw a comparison between the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration and Goodluck Jonathan Government. What has changed?
Well I can’t see much difference in their administration other than that Obasanjo was more ruthless, Obasanjo was bolder. Obasanjo would have been the best President for Nigeria if he didn’t allow personal ego to ruin his government. Obasanjo for me is the most Knowledgeable leader Nigeria has produced. He knows Nigeria very well; he is very passionate about Nigeria. He is very bold, he comes from a Military background he will do anything and get away with it. But unfortunately I think his personal ego, always thinking about me and me alone ruined his chance of becoming one of the greatest statesmen in Africa. I mean he would have been maybe at the level of a Mandela. Because Obasanjo, I mean he’s been a Military leader came back to be Civilian President for two terms that’s a lot. Jonathan still have a chance, I won’t give up on him. I’ve been told by his friends not to give up on him and that’s one of the reasons I keep criticizing him because I just want him to succeed. Look if I were in his shoes, I will form a government of national unity. When I was running as President maybe you were not aware of it, people I considered as my Vice Presidential Candidate were not even from my party. I considered Nasri Elrufai to be my Vice President, I considered Awwal Tukur he used to be in the House of Representatives. The son of the PDP Chairman, I considered Risquir Murtala Mohammed, late Murtala Mohammed son. And I didn’t pick them because they were children of anyone but because apart from having political pedigree, these were bright guys in their own right. It is like picking a Kennedy in the US that’s the way I think. Every day when I write, I look at why would you have a Donald Duke in PDP and you can’t give him a job. This is a guy who showed so much promise. A man who could conceive on Tinapa and deliver on it in 8 years, no matter what Tinapa has become whether successful or not. The man dreamt let us begin to dream like the rulers of the Emirate. If you go to Dubai or you go to Abu Dhabi or you go to Qatar and you see what these guys are doing with money you will be amazed. We can’t even fix just ordinary roads, just Lagos-Ibadan the most critical road in the entire nation linking our commercial nerve center with the rest of Nigeria we can’t even fix it; since PDP came into power 14 years ago they’ve not been able to do it.
What is that one thing President Jonathan has failed to get right?
Ability to run a simple government, everything is still the same ceremonial system. Let me tell you, Nigerians are not difficult to govern, Nigerians are not asking for too much. They’re not asking you for skyscrapers they’re not asking for underground trains. They’re just looking for the basic things of life
There is a divisive issue of fuel subsidy, what is your opinion on the matter?
The lack of transparency in how it is being operated is why there is so much division and mistrust. Maybe if the government can manage the affairs well, Audit its accounts well maybe people will see reason for. Don’t forget that this fuel subsidy thing has been an ongoing thing even right from the time of M.K.O Abiola. Every time the government withdraws they will promise us heaven and earth, or when we remove this thing we are going to build more schools creates more hospitals. We will be able to rehabilitate our roads, keep increasing the price of oil and nothing changed. They increased it the last time have you forgotten despite our protest they went ahead and increased it. Everything they promised us since then SURE-P or what. What have you seen from it, nothing.
If you were to assess the Nigeria media, would you say the much acclaimed vibrancy is a fallacy? Which are your favourites in the Nigerian media space
I think against all odds we haven’t done badly. Every profession has its bad legs and we definitely have ours but don’t forget that we are like the masquerade. The Masquerade is not from heaven, it’s a human being behind the masquerade we still have to exist in this society. We have to pay bills like the rest of the society so sometimes if people can’t make it legitimately they get corrupted. Is not everybody that can endure the way some of us have endured? Contrary to what people think, hey this guy must be making money. How do you make money if you are not a friend of government? Everything 99% is controlled by government so when you are fighting government you cannot make money like those who are their friends. Like i told you, I’ve never entered Jonathan’s office. We have never had one on one interaction, I was very closed to Mrs Stella Obasanjo in those days, I used to even travel with her but I will fund myself. I’m someone who is very thorough as a professional, I won’t wait on any leader to come and do things for Ovatiion. If you want to advertise or you want to publish your events that’s a legitimate earning but it’s not every media organization that has that kind of opportunity.
As it is typical with Nigeria campaigns have already started for 2015, what are the political plans of Dele Momodu?
None really, because I know that for anybody to dislodge the PDP we need to do more work than the opposition is doing presently. I also don’t think the Merger is absolutely necessary going back to your questions about the merger. I’ve told some of the top guys in the merger, I told them even before they took the decision that look when the South West was going to support Jonathan there was no merger. Merger is in the mind, I can claim to be a part of the Merger and I’m outside it and I know how treacherous human beings can be. For me I will rather that the opposition all of us come together and see if we can present an alternative agenda to the socio-political-economic growth of Nigeria. It is not just about replacing the PDP but what are we going to do different from what the PDP is doing at the moment. I believe so much in ideology and principles, that’s why when I was in Labour I was able to link up with the British Labour Party and we were going to design that kind of platform for our country’s social welfare. Why should a young man leave school, years after, he can’t find a job? Why will a man lose his job and he can’t easily work across and get another. Of course it’s going to create a lot of social upheavals and that’s what we are all paying for today very dearly.