THERE is not much to add to, or take away from, Tatalo Alamu’s judicious “critical appreciation” of Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, the dashing editor and dazzling new newspaper columnist, who died two weeks ago, aged 75. Still, I feel obliged to enter some personal reminiscences on a person I counted as a friend.
Ogunsanwo had star quality stamped all over him. He had boyish, movie-actor looks and comported himself with effortless dignity and grace – what the French call savoir faire. His column “Life with Gbolabo Ogunsanwo” overflowed with wit and humour, its fluidity and felicity a product of his omnivorous reading, his capacious vocabulary and his lexical inventiveness.
Ah, the man could turn a phrase.
Even now, I can visualize the rambunctious Federal Commissioner for Information in the Yakubu Gowon regime whom he described as “frightfully riotousdecades Today, some four years later and at 93, the fellow is not a whit less bumptious.
Who can forget his piece on the long-retired “Papa” who “got a brand new job” when his son, the military governor of one of the Eastern (now South-south) states recalled and pressed into service to lead the government’s new transport corporation?
Ogunsanwo’s giftedness never got into his head. He was an engaging raconteur, but you could never accuse him of being self-absorbed. For he was also a good listener. He liked to hear other voices beside his own, which was vibrant and sonorous.
He entered journalism as an instant star. His column for the Daily Times where he made his debut drew a large, appreciative audience. It was habit-forming. Grateful readers pined for the next instalment, and the next, and the next.
On encountering it for the first time, I had asked myself: Who is this Ogunsanwo guy? Where has he been all these years? I will not be surprised if members of the attentive audience had asked the same questions.
It came as no surprise, therefore, when Ogunsanwo was catapulted to the editorship of Sunday Times, probably the youngest person to hold that office since the legendary Peter “Peter Pan” Enahoro some two decades earlier.
The weekly menu of features, reviews, entertainment, celebrity gossip and essays, of which Ogunsanwo’s column was invariably the pièce de résistance made breezy, delightful reading. It catapulted Sunday Times to the top of the weekly titles, with an audited circulation of 500,000 copies. Your Sunday was not complete until you had at least leafed through the paper and communed with Ogunsanwo through his scintillating column.
Given the altered environment in which today’s newspapers operate, it is safe bet that this record will never be surpassed.
Ogunsanwo became a celebrity, a gadfly and man-about-town. His wedding to his sweetheart from his undergraduate years at the University of Lagos days was the stuff of society nuptials. He had everything going for him. He seemed destined to reach the editorial pinnacle of the largest and most influential newspaper publishing house in Africa, with connections to the powerful Mirror Group in the UK.
But as Ralph Waldo observed with accustomed insight, “Events are in the saddle and rule (hu) mankind.” He could have added from his observation cabin Walden Pond that it is in the nature of such events that they are unforeseeable and unfathomable.
The events that supervened in this story began with the July 29, 1975, coup that felled the regime of General Yakubu Gowon. A curfew was in force, and breaking it posed not a little danger. The sedate, bureaucratic editor of the Daily Times went missing as this epochal story unfolded. He would explain later that he could not find his car keys.
But the crackerjack reporter, Segun Osoba, an assistant editor of the Daily Times, who was given to thinking on his feet, mounted a motor scooter and braved the ride to the paper’s offices at Kakawa Street, and to the home of its publisher and managing director and chief executive, the Babatunde Jose. Back at Kakawa, Jose, a newspaper man to the core, and Osoba, put out the next day’s edition, with news and tidbits that Osoba had ferreted out from his well-placed sources.
Staffers arrived at Kakawa the next working day to find flyers announcing, effective immediately, Osoba’s appointment as substantive editor of the Daily Times. That was exactly what the press barons in the UK who had groomed Jose for the position of chief executive of the Times would have done. These were powerful men who answered marginally at best to their shareholders, and to nobody else. He held it as a principle that you cannot not run a newspaper on the plebiscitary principle.
Ogunsanwo was to remain editor of the Sunday Times, though there was a lingering feeling that he too did not rise to the responsibility his office demanded.
But Osoba’s preferment rankled. It breached what had long been regarded as the line of succession at the Daily Times: The editor of the Sunday Times was promoted wherever the position was vacant. Going by that tradition, Ogunsanwo should have replaced Areoye Oyebola.
The shake-up brought together senior editors, managers who had been nursing grievances against Jose and the Fleet Street –style imperial streak that ran through his overlordship at the paper. They put together a well- documented petition demanding Jose’s resignation.
A new government eager to demonstrate that it had come to change the way of doing business embraced the petition enthusiastically, ousted Jose, the petitioners, as well as Ogunsanwo who had found common cause with them.
Thus ended a phase of Ogunsanwo’s life that had seemed invested with boundless possibilities. He was in his mid-thirties. He had not fully absorbed that blow when his wife walked out on him He tried his hands on trading on imported canned beer from the UK; the business hardly got off the ground. Meanwhile, the invitations to high society events and diplomatic receptions dwindled to a trickle, then stopped altogether.
I would come to know that feeling about a decade later when I quit my post as chair of the Editorial Board of The Guardian and editorial page editor on a matter of principle. More than once, I actually heard the person I was calling instruct his secretary to tell me he was not available. If I ran into some old friends and they could not make a quick getaway, you could almost see their blood pressure rising from thinking that I might ask for a loan.
Ogunsanwo fell back on what he knew best. He launched a fortnightly he called New Nation, on which I served as a contributing editor. It thrived for a while and then ran into the usual financial headwinds. Some of the stalwarts of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) which had a lock on party politics in the Southwest offered to support it financially it he would turn into a party organ.
He refused. Even in his privations, he would not compromise his journalistic autonomy.
Many later, Ogunsanwo bobbed up at my office in Rutam House, at one of the turning points of military president Ibrahim Babangida’s duplicitous transition programme, and told me that he was going to run for president and was sure to win.
For more than an hour, he sketched various scenarios according to which he would be the only candidate left standing by the time Babangida was done banning, un-banning and re-banning the dozens of seasoned politicos in the field.
The scenarios had no room for the doubts, the prejudices, the miscues, the prejudices, and the force that make politics so unpredictable. The whole thing was mathematically elegant, iron-clad even.
After he left, my colleague Sully Abu whom I had invited from his office next door to meet Ogunsanwo and I wondered which of Nigeria’s professional soothsayers he had been communing with.
In the event, Ogunsanwo did not even get to the starting line.
I last met him some six years ago, at Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s place in Bourdillon. He was making a precarious living in building construction. Thereafter, I would learn that he was in South Africa, and then in Australia, but nobody could say what he was doing until news of his death in Lagos broke two weeks ago.
Of Gbolahan Ogunsanwo, it might be said that he rose like a rocket and fell like the stick.
But he will always be remembered for his towering accomplishments and his fundamental decency. His was a life of equanimity, a life without bitterness even in the face of betrayal and adversity.
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