Aare Dele Momodu has traversed nearly all facets of journalism. And truth told, not only has he excelled spectacularly in them, he has also continued to push boundaries and reinvent himself. Currently one of the toasts of the social media, YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/ Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, sat down with him on Thursday, August 13, 2020, for two solid hours, to hear how he’s been doing it and more.
The 61-year-old father of four (all boys), with a first degree in Yoruba Language and a master’s in Literature in English (both from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State) held back nothing.
Taking the story from how the journey began, with all the twists and turns, he expertly recalled all the bends and bumps, hills and halts, before finally berthing at where he’s headed next. Especially with his precious and precocious magazine, Ovation International.
A marathon interview, it was. But trust me, you will not only enjoy it, you will also learn a whole lot from it…
Why is it important for a journalist to reinvent himself?
Well, it’s not just a journalist. Every professional who is serious about his career and wants to grow in that career must continue to reinvent himself or herself. It’s every profession; it’s not just journalists. But mostly journalism because the mortality rate is high. You also have to consider the fact that we are the poorest professionals, especially in Nigeria.
Yes, journalists are the poorest. Journalists hardly get salaries; they don’t also get good salaries. That’s even when they get paid. But we have too much influence and this influence tends to deceive us that we are very important. Journalists are again poor business-minded people. They don’t see journalism as a business, they see journalism as charity. To even the readers and the viewers, journalists are the lambs of God who take away the sins of the earth. So, what they do is, “You people, eyin le ba Nigeria je, you spoilt Nigeria, you don’t tell government the truth.” And when they arrest you, they laugh at you. When your publication dies, they say “oloriburuku”, you see, he was doing “shakara”, he was doing “ako”, now, the paper no longer comes out. So, when people ask me, you are charging in Ovation, I say what do you expect? I don’t have any other means of livelihood. I don’t do government contracts, I don’t do “government anything.” All I do is Ovation. And so, what I have done over time, when you talk about reinvention, is to make sure that I study my environment; what is in vogue at this time, you find me there. I came to Lagos a poor man. I need to even tell you a little about my trajectory – I came to Lagos out of joblessness in 1988. I had wanted to be a teacher, marry a teacher and live happily thereafter. But even that one eluded me. I couldn’t get a teaching appointment, because there was an embargo by the military government on appointments and promotions in the universities or in the colleges of education then. I traversed everywhere, I couldn’t find a job and I just finished my Master’s degree then in 1988. So, my best friend, Prince Adedamola Aderemi, suggested to me that this one that you can’t find a job, why don’t you start writing? So, I started writing for The Guardian newspaper.
The Guardian was the most prestigious newspaper then. It’s still one of the most prestigious newspapers in Nigeria and indeed in Africa. I remember the first day my name appeared on the pages of The Guardian. Ah! You will think I was on the moon. Now, I was writing for them and they were paying me N25 per article. That’s another thing. Never worry about immediate cash. A lot of people worry too much about immediate cash. You see, you have to do it in stages – there must be preparation, there must be readiness, then there will be victory, and when there’s victory, there will be glory. So, I was writing for The Guardian, N25 per article, and I will wait until I’ve published four and travel from Ile-Ife (in Osun State) to Rutam House in Lagos to come and collect my N100. I was that poor. I can tell you that I’ve seen the highest level of poverty. But now, I’m talking about when my poverty had improved a bit. So, I will come to Lagos, collect N100, squat with a friend, if I needed to sleep, and go back to my base in Ife. I was also writing for The Sunday Tribune, edited at that time by Mr. Folu Olamiti. And Tribune couldn’t afford to pay me. I never complained. What’s guaranteed was that my name must appear on the pages of Tribune. So, what I was doing was my preparation. I was planting my seeds and then the seeds began to germinate, and then they began to blossom and then it was harvest time. So, by the time I came to Lagos in April 1988, I was desperately in search of a job. My mom was a stark illiterate, my father had died when I was thirteen in 1973 and I was left with this poor widow. So, she had done everything humanly possible to send me to school, to take care of me. I’m the last born of my mom and the only product of my mom for my dad. She had done everything. But I was becoming an embarrassment that after all she did, I still could not find a job. It got so bad that my mom had to ask, and you know, uneducated people tend to be superstitious sometimes. Though she was a prayer warrior. However, she began to ask, “Ayobamidele, se ko wa si?” I hope that this thing, there is not more to it than meets the eye? But because I had been writing those articles, I was now a familiar name in the newsrooms. So, the first port of call… Well, I was invited by my friend of blessed memory, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo and he introduced me to Nduka Irabor, who was editing The African Guardian magazine at the time. Which was my dream medium, because I was a scholar. Cerebral, with a Master’s degree in Ife. So, I went there and the story was that there was no vacancy. You can imagine my disappointment.
But I didn’t give up. Nduka then took me to Concord newspaper and listen to this story – I was initially reluctant! Why? Because I had a bias against Chief Abiola (MKO). All the stories I read about him were negative. Oh, he’s a fundamentalist, oh, he’s a billionaire fanatic, oh, he’s this, he’s that. The same Abiola that later became my father. That’s why people don’t know what informs my mindset when I do certain things. It’s based on personal experience. Don’t judge people unfairly, don’t judge anyone without listening to their stories. It is because we don’t hold an annual general meeting of sufferers, that’s why we don’t know who the president of sufferers association is. So, people just assume that because you are this, you are that, therefore you must be very comfortable, you must have stolen money. Anyway, I got to Concord newspaper, met Mr. Lewis Obi. Immediately I was about being introduced to him, he looked at me, “You are Dele Momodu?” I said yes, sir. He said, “You mean you are not more than this?” I said I’m Dele Momodu, sir. He said, so what can I do for you? With trepidation, I said “I need a job, sir!” You? You need a job? How can you need a job? With the way you write, no, you are too good to be looking for a job. He gave me a job on the spot. I’ve never applied for any job in my life. Never! That was my first full time job as a journalist. He now asked me, so, how much salary do you want? Imagine a bush man coming from Ile Ife, somebody is asking me how much salary do I want? You know I was calculating with Ife. Ah! If I can get N700 a month I will be okay. He said ehen, is that a total package or … I didn’t even know what was a total package then. He said okay, that will be N8,400 a year. Okay, I’ll put it at N9,000. That was how I got my first job. And I had to beg him to let me go back to Ife, because I was not prepared. To cut a long story short, that was the beginning of my journalism odyssey and because of my background of suffering, I had to work harder than an average person. I had to put it in my brain, I had to remind myself regularly about what brought me to Lagos… Now, when I got to Concord, Chief Abiola had about eight different publications at the time. Okay, initially, about seven publications, then the following year, eight. You will not believe it, I was writing permanently for The African Concord, and I was writing periodically for The National Concord, Sunday Concord, Isokan and Business Concord, whenever I had a business story. So, I was being paid for only one job, but I was working for five different titles. And in no time my employers noticed that there was this boy who was working like crazy. So, they started checking me out.
Fortunately, I resumed May 1988. By January of 1989, I got a call from my editor, Mr. Lewis Obi. He said Dele; I said sir. He said it seems you are being transferred from here. I said to where? He said there’s a new publication called Weekend Concord and the MD has requested that we must move you there. I said why me? You can imagine a scholar hearing Weekend Concord. My idea of a weekend paper was Daily Times of those days – their Lagos Weekend. I said no way! I can’t work there. I didn’t know that was where God was waiting for me. It’s like God wants to liberate you, but you are busy fighting. In life, I’m an incurable fatalist. I believe that the destiny of any man would be fulfilled if you don’t resist what God has planned for you. But sometimes people get too stubborn and then they miss it. So, I had to move to Weekend Concord, headed by Mr. Mike Awoyinfa. He was the editor and the deputy editor was Mr. Dimgba Igwe, of blessed memory. God bless his soul. These guys were too nice to me. I joined them in February, but we launched the paper in March.
The maiden cover of Weekend Concord was written by me. Cover after cover, scoop after scoop, exclusive after exclusive, I was just churning out the hottest stories. And that was the preparation. It came from the fact that I had done this and that before I came to Lagos. I had amassed many distinguished personalities in the course of doing my job. Even as a student, because I studied Yoruba first and then English Literature for my Master’s. So, I used to do translations for politicians just for me to earn a living in Ife. Ono kan owo oja (one road does not lead to the market). That was how I started doing stories after stories. You will not believe it, we started the paper in March, by April- May, I had earned double promotion. From staff writer, I was supposed to go to senior staff writer, but my boss said no, you are way ahead of that level, and he moved me to literary editor. You will not believe it – exactly one year after I landed in Lagos. Again, months after, in November, my editor called me. He said Dele, you are due for another promotion. I said, but you just promoted me about six months ago? He said leave that one. Now, you are going to be our associate editor. That’s how I became No. 3 in the hierarchy.
Then, shortly before six months, I got an invitation from May Ellen Ezekiel, also of blessed memory – who was married to Mr. Richard Mofe-Damijo. She said, “Look, our magazine needs someone like you, we’ve watched your adventures at Concord and we want you to join the paper.” She then made an offer that I couldn’t resist. And that was how I became the highest paid editor in the whole of Nigeria. Initially, I was scared. I said what if I get there and they can’t pay? Then, I went to see my MD, Dr. Doyin Abiola, that mummy, it seems I will move. She said oh, is it about money? I said no, it’s not about money, it’s just that I’ve reached my peak too quickly. I can’t be editor here. Unless Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe are going, there’s no way I can come up again. And then I also said I wanted new challenges and that I believe I had been able to demonstrate my capacity at Weekend Concord and she gave me her blessing. But I couldn’t tell Chief Abiola because I had met him prior to that. I knew he could have put pressure on me and I would not be able to go. That was how I left Concord. My boss, Mr. Awoyinfa, I want to thank him once again. He personally drove me to my new job. He told me that it’s a good offer. Please, take it. Without his blessing, it would have been impossible for me to take that job. So, I took the job and again I asked my boss to give me just two weeks. I talk a lot about preparation. I didn’t just go there and say yes, I’m a damn good journalist; yeah, let me go and resume. I asked them for two weeks. During that break, do you know what I was doing? I wasn’t resting, I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t at home, I’m passionate about this job. If I’m involved in a project, I will put everything into it. I prepared six cover stories before I could resume. So, I wasn’t depending on any reporter. You know you can get there and get messed up. Every organization has its own politics. And I didn’t want to get enmeshed in any politics. So, I prepared for six good covers for six good weeks. It was a weekly magazine. Meaning that in the next six weeks, even if news stories didn’t come in, I already had my cover stories. Planning ahead! So, that was how I joined Classique. Things were going fine. Of course, somewhere along the line, because you are the editor now, whatever happens, you carry the blame. You will also step on toes. I was arrested once and taken to where coup plotters were kept in 1990. But that’s another story for another day. Anyway, I was there (Classique) for 16 months. Then, I don’t know what happened. One day, I was in England. Nduka Obaigbena had sent two of us to go and work on a book for him in London. And about three days before leaving London, I ran into Chief MKO Abiola; that’s also another story for another day. And my life changed! When I got back to Nigeria, I think anyone would have noticed the transfiguration of Dele Momodu. Then, foolishly, you know when you have a little money… I told my publisher that I wanted to travel to London and Spain. And then, the day I travelled, I was removed as editor. I don’t know what happened and nobody told me. So, when I got back to Nigeria, Oba Dokun Abolarin, now the king of Oke-Ila (Orangun) was the one who came to pick me at the airport. He was not yet a king then. He told me, “Dele, congratulations!” I said congratulations over what? He said you are now the managing editor of Classique. I said me? Managing editor? I said no, they’ve promoted me into redundancy. The following day, I resigned. When you are young, you take risks. They took my official car, took my official driver, took my official this and that. But I didn’t mind. The next day, I knew people would be asking me, “So, what are you doing now?” And you would have to be explaining. And I’m not ready to explain to anybody. I just went straight to Wonder Bakery, Chief Abiola’s bread. I started selling bread. Newspaper headline – Editor turns bread seller! Hmmmm… There is dignity in labour. Now, see how God works – if I did not humble myself to become a bread seller, the next thing would not have happened. I didn’t have a car and I was using my “footwagen.” So, one day, I went to the bakery and I saw a second-hand Jetta outside, blue. I saw “for sale” on it. So, I asked the bakery manager – I think she’s Mrs. Belonwu now, but she was Miss Ajuluchukwu at the time. She’s M.C.K Ajuluchukwu’s daughter. I said to her, I saw a car outside and I’m interested. I don’t have a car again. They’ve taken my official car. I will like to buy it. I said how much, she said N25,000. I said N25,000 is too much for me, can you give it to me at N20,000? She said she’s not the owner, but that she will talk to Kola Abiola. That Kola is very close to the owner. You won’t believe what happened next? Kola invited me to his place. He was living in Anthony Village then and when I got there, he said Bob Dee, is it true that you like the Jetta? I said I don’t have a choice, I just need a car right now. I asked if he could talk to his friend to reduce the price by N5,000. He said not a problem. Then, he took his phone and called his friend – one Alhaji. He said Dele likes your car, he wants to pick it up, give it to him. And that was how I got my first car, free! I didn’t pay one dime. Then I decided, what’s the next thing I’m going to do? The first dream of a journalist is to do a paper. I don’t know what is wrong with us! Every journalist who has ever lost his job will never think of how he can build a different empire, it’s always about papers. So, I said I’m going to do a magazine and then I sat down with my friend, Kunle Bakare and we came up with the name, Ovation. Then, I went to a very big Nigerian who likes me till today. If you are looking for an angel from heaven, God sent this spirit down to me. I went to him to help. Then, one day, we sat down in his office and he asked me, “So, what is the ownership structure going to be like?” And I said, well, you are going to be our chairman, sir. I will be the MD. Then, we have people like Mr. Kayode Ajala, who was the editor of Hints magazine, and Mr. Dotun Olukoya… My idea was to have a combination of Weekend Concord, Fame magazine, Hints magazine – romance plus lifestyle. A perfect blend. Then, my angel looked at me, he shook his head and said, “From my experience, I don’t do business with people because I don’t want trouble. You will fight.” He said you, I know very well, you and I, we are not going to fight. But he said all those people you are mentioning, I don’t know them and I’m not ready to do business with them. I thought it was a joke. Then, I looked at my potential chairman, and I said, sir, but I gave my words to those guys, I can’t go back on my words and he stretched out his hand and he said, have a nice day and that was the end of my dream. You will not believe it.
Then, I moved to Kola Abiola. I gave my business plan to him, he liked it and then said, “Yes, Dele, I love this. This looks very good. It will fly, but…” Once I heard but; I learnt that from my old principal. A Catholic Reverend Father. Dele Momodu is dutiful, he’s jovial, he’s intelligent, but… Once he puts but, he has destroyed everything. So, he said, “You know the problem, my father is a publisher. Probably the biggest in sub-saharan Africa. If I invest in the publication, don’t forget I come from a polygamous family. People will go and tell him that Kola is trying to compete with you.” I will never forget that. That’s wisdom. “So, I’m sorry I won’t be able to invest.” Again, that was the end of my dream. You could see the devastation on my face. He could also feel it that this seems the end of the road for this man. He then looked at me, he said, “Dele, is there anything else we can do together?” I said like what, please? He said like PR – public relations. I said I’m a born publicist. That’s part of the deal. You must be able to sell yourself. I saw another window of opportunity. So, I quickly sold myself. I said what sort of publicity do you need? He said oh, our company, Summit Oil. We are going to need PR. He said they had gotten in touch with another big company to handle it. He mentioned the company’s name, but said “something says I should give it to you.” He then said, please, please, don’t let me down. So, even before having a company, I got my first account. A very juicy account…
Your company’s name then was Celebrity Goodwill or something like that…
Yes, Celebrity Goodwill Communications. That was how I started PR. We started the public relations campaign. By the time I came back to him, he asked how much I wanted, I told him, he said well, as a matter of policy, he would have to cut some of it off. But by the time we finished the job and he was ready to pay the balance, I went to his office. You won’t believe what happened again – he said with the bill I gave him, he’s so impressed with what we did and he’s going to pay it in full. Kola Abiola did not only pay in full, he now brought out his own personal cheque and said this is from me to you. So, my life is not a common life. It’s also about the ability to humble yourself, to re-adjust to situations. When you think all is gone, you are down and out, be prepared for the next journey. So, the question you asked, that’s the genesis. That’s where it came from.
It’s from that background. And of course, the next thing after that, Nduka Obaigbena invited me and said he was starting a new paper; his first paper had died – This Week. He was publishing This Week, from Ogunlana Drive in Surulere then. He said he wanted to do a new publication. So, he registered a new company called Leaders and Company, which is today the parent company of ThisDay newspaper. And he invited me, we struck a deal and I became the first editor, the pioneer editor. I didn’t know I will ever go back to journalism, and he empowered me to recruit most of the founding members of that publication – George Eno Ufot, Augustine Sam… I brought all of them. This was in December 1992 – a few days to my wedding on December 19. Then, after the launch of the paper and everything, end of January 1993, something happened – Hope 93. Chief Abiola launched his presidential ambition. Naturally, as an adopted father and by then we had become so close. So, I had to go on sabbatical from Leaders and Company. I told Nduka. Nduka said no problem. Even the official car he gave me, he didn’t take it back. That’s why me and Nduka, we are forever one. The car he bought for me, he allowed me to go and use it to campaign for MKO. Meanwhile, MKO was in PDP, Nduka was in NRC. Nduka was campaigning for Bashir Tofa, I was campaigning for Moshood Abiola. That’s the thing that people cannot understand about relationships – your ability to build and sustain relationships is also part of that reinvention. You have a lot of people who have burnt bridges; everywhere they have worked, they cannot go back there. Anyway, that was how I joined Abiola. Election of June 12 came. On June 12, I was not in Nigeria. Chief Abiola had sent me to Vietnam in Austria to represent him at the Bruno Kessler Award – which Gani Fawehinmi was receiving. I left Nigeria on the 9th of June, got to Vietnam on the 10th, the award was on the 11th. I left London on the 12th, the day of the election. But there was no way I could get to Nigeria. So, I missed the election. I went to London. On Sunday, June 13th, I called Nigeria and The Concord people told me, oh, I shouldn’t worry, that chairman was coasting home to victory. That they were just waiting for the official result to come. So, on the 14th, Monday, I called Nduka Obaigbena in Nigeria. In those days we didn’t have telephones like now. So, Nduka said Dele, I’ve been looking for you. Where are you? I said I’m in London. Then, he said, please, you must try and reach your man, Abiola urgently! He’s going to win the election, but they are not going to give him power. I told him it was impossible. But in retrospect, I think I should have listened to him. He also said the same thing to Dr. Doyin Abiola and she confirmed it. Perhaps if Abiola had reached out to Babangida, I don’t know, maybe things would have turned out differently. But what I know for a fact now, is that at that stage there were people on (Ibrahim) Babangida’s neck, telling him he cannot hand over to the man. And you know what, the more powerful you are, the more powerful your enemies. Yes, that was what happened. So, Chief Gani Fawehinmi flew in from Austria that day – on that Monday, 14th. I called him, he was still in his house in Croydon, London and I told him that this is what I had picked up from Nduka. He said no, no, no… It’s impossible. Chief also dismissed that. Nobody could imagine you will organize such a beautiful election, no problems, no wahala, everything went smoothly and then refuse to announce the winner. But I remember something – that night, that was the day they launched a book on Abiola – Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi and Chidi Amuta. They were our lecturers in Ife in those days. So, after the launch, I went to Chief Abiola’s house. He had a letter to send to Gani Fawehinmi – letter of congratulations. Unusually, Chief Abiola’s house was empty. So, when he wanted to give me the letter and the money to go with, he took me into the bedroom. There was only one man in his living room. I had never seen that kind of thing before. He had emptied everywhere deliberately. He told me the man is an agent. I’m sure they sent him to come and check my mood.
It was a grand conspiracy and it was a military operation. I hope that someday General Babangida will be able to tell the full story.
Anyway, I left London on Wednesday; that will now be the 16th of June with Chief Fawehinmi. In those days we used to go through Gatwick Airport. So, it was at Gatwick that we got the message that there was crisis in Nigeria. That they announced that they should not continue the election and all that. And of course, Chief Gani Fawehinmi got in touch with Beko Ransome-Kuti, Femi Falana and all of them. So, they were waiting for us by the time we got back to Nigeria. That was the beginning of the trouble. Of course, I threw my full weight into it. I’m a risk taker. People abused me, why are you getting involved? People who don’t have principle will always discourage those who have principle. Of course, by the end of July, I was the first person they arrested. Chief Abiola asked me to come to the house in the afternoon, at about 2 O’clock and I didn’t leave until 4AM. That was the night Mayor Akinpelu had his Bachelors’ Eve at La Campagne Tropicana on Adeniyi Jones. I will never forget that. So, Chief only saw me after everybody had left. He gave me some documents to Tell magazine and then when I was going, he saw me off and when we got to the stairs, he pulled my ear and said Dele One! I’m very sorry for keeping you waiting. I was holding a lot of very powerful meetings. But don’t worry, I will become the next Commander in Chief. I left and I went towards Akowonjo where Uncle Kola Ilori was living. He’s one of the directors of Tell magazine. Before then, I quickly went to La Campagne Tropicana. I wanted to see if I could still meet Mayor Akinpelu who was having his Bachelors’ Eve. They had just finished when I got there. But I was in the mood to rock because I had been sitting down in one place all night at Chief Abiola’s home. Then, I went to Waterparks, on Toyin Street, where Shina Peters was performing. When I got there, they had just finished too. Then, I went to Niteshift Coliseum. Our man, Ken Calebs Olumese, said we must have breakfast. It was a day of environmental sanitation. Of course, as journalists, you are able to drive. So, from there, I now went to Uncle Kola Ilori’s house. Unknown to me, danger was waiting for me. When I got to Uncle Kola’s place, he came out to see me, I handed the documents from Chief to him. He said I shouldn’t worry, that they will take care of it. Then, I drove home. I was living in Adigboluja in Ojodu. So, I got home and just dived into bed because I was nattered. My wife rushed in suddenly. She said as soon as you came in, some people had been banging on the door. I said who are they, she said she didn’t know. And as the man of the house, what will I do? We didn’t have any kid at that time. So, I went to the door and I asked who was there and he said from Police headquarters. I said what can I do for you? He said my boss will like to see you. I said, who is your boss? He said Assistant Commissioner of Police Ganiyu Dawodu. I said okay, let him come in. My wife said, are you going to open the door for him? I said the man is threatening to break down our door.
So, I brought him in. To cut a long story short. I said I wanted to go and pack and freshen up – you know I had been away all day. They said we know. We’ve been with you all night. We’ve been following you everywhere you went. But don’t worry, you will come back soon. I said no. From experience, you must always be prepared. When security tells you, you are coming back now, you might go for years. I packed my bag, I followed them. I knew there was nothing and that I’m not a danger to anybody. Anyway, you won’t believe it, I ended up sleeping in Alagbon and that’s how I was kept and people will come to me, what’s your own and Abiola, you should leave the man alone; they said the only way they will leave you is if you abandon Abiola. Anyway, I didn’t know that was just a baptism of fire. So, it continued. Around that time, Chief Abiola himself took off. That was when he escaped with his plane and travelled abroad. And I managed to reach him, I spoke to him and I was begging him that he shouldn’t come back. He said no way, that he can’t run away from Nigeria. Babangida was still struggling then. He handed over hurriedly to Ernest Shonekan. Then, Sani Abacha took over. And when Abacha took over, I think that was November.
Then, one Saturday, he was in the house in Ikeja and he had a meeting with a couple of very close friends – Alhaji Teni Olukoya, Prof. Femi Agbalajobi, Alhaji Supo Adetona, Mrs. Iyabo Aboaba. Just a few people were there in the study. And I was there, sitting down quietly and listening to them. At a point, he said he must fight Abacha and his friends were advising him, oga, cool temper. You fought Babangida, he left, you fought Shonekan and now you want to fight Abacha. And he said, but the man has stolen my mandate. Abacha was very skillful and very strategic. He had prepared the ground long before that day, even though many underrated him…
Back to reinvention, and thanks so much for that riveting and revealing story. What are the best ways for a journalist to go about reinventing himself?
Well, one, you must know what is in vogue at all times. It’s very important. I will give you an example – I contested and lost the presidential election in 2011. But I gained something – I gained social media. But for that election I would not have known anything called Twitter. Today, I have 1.2 followers. I’m sure I’m even close to 1.3 million followers on Twitter now. That is power, that is serious power. Now, look at this office, I don’t need to go anywhere, I can, at the touch of button, reach millions of people globally. I’m approaching 700,000 followers on Instagram. According to Funmi Iyanda, Ovation was the Instagram before Instagram. This was when people were saying, oh, photo, photo, photo album; we don’t have anything to read in the magazine. Meanwhile, some young people saw the future and they realized that the reading habit of people will shrink, people will no longer have time to read, especially in Africa. So, pictorial stories would be it. And immediately I joined. That’s because I have one of the most robust libraries on photography in Africa. In fact, there is a good friend of mine, Dayo Adedayo, who says Dele Momodu is the richest photographer in Africa, without raising a camera. It’s because I have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pictures. That is why right now, I’m building a library resort somewhere. That library resort is my gift to humanity – that we must have a good, a serene place where we can invite scholars to come and then we can do great things in Africa. But Africa will rather be chasing irrelevant things, frivolous things. Yet if you die, they are not going to bury you with anything. So, for me, the future is about that. So, I saw the future and I quickly keyed into it and today, no young person in journalism can intimidate me. I haven’t seen the person. I have a son, Eniafe, who is into media. He graduated from Leeds University, same university with Wole Soyinka and I’ve told him. I said go and work elsewhere, because there’s no space here. You have to go and learn somewhere, but that I’m going to leave this place for you, you are wasting your time. Look at Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, look at King Sunny Ade, for over 50 years, these guys have dominated their trade. Those are my mentors.
When should a journalist, particularly a serious one, begin to think about reinvention?
Let me tell you – before you start any business at all, you must be vigilant. What we call reinvention is vigilance – to know when things are getting dull for you. Because life is a graph. It goes up, down. So, your ability to know when things are going down for you is key. I left Nigeria, I passed through Ghana, I went to England, started Ovation and I told myself I will never allow a situation where another Abacha will come back to Nigeria and I will have all my eggs in one basket. So, what did I do? I established in Ghana.
Right now, we have a New York bureau chief for Ovation. So, if anything is happening in America, I don’t have to send anybody from Nigeria, I don’t have to go to America. All I have to do is to put a call to Tope Esan and say Tope, please, there is a wedding taking place at so, so, so. This is how much we are charging, this is what we need to do for them. He knows the photographers, cameramen and all that to assemble immediately. So, that is part of the reinvention and you must always make yourself relevant.
Let me tell you another secret – don’t say because you are in the business of media and public relations, then you will neglect your own PR. What I’m doing tonight is my own PR. I’m selling myself to the world. So, when you speak to people, you preach the gospel, you preach the sermon to them – that is who you are. Don’t let people define you, define yourself.
The Instagram interviews that you now do, what triggered them, what gave rise to them?
I’ve been seeing Instagram Live, Instagram Live, but most times when I saw it at the beginning, it was a bit banal. You see people talking about boyfriend, girlfriend and stuff and then one day, I think it was a commissioner – Seun Fakorede in Oyo State who called me and said ah, “ejo” sir, you know you are my mentor, I would like to interview you. I said how? He said on Instagram Live. I didn’t know how it worked then. I’m talking about the Covid season and then he interviewed me and I enjoyed it. Then, I think it must have been on a weekend. By Monday, another lady, Bolanle Ajayi, she lives in Scotland, contacted me and said I will also like to interview you. I said Bolanle, you are a very good “aburo”, there’s no way I can say no to you. And then she did. And then I said, wait o, am I not being stupid? People are calling me to interview me. Me that I have the contacts of everybody in the world, why can’t I also do it? And turn it to serious business. You won’t believe it. That’s why I said you have to be vigilant. If I hadn’t been vigilant, I would just be doing interviews upon interviews stupidly.
In fact, what is happening right now is that non journalists have taken over journalism in Nigeria. And the so called journalists are looking like “mumu.” They are just sitting there, abusing themselves. On my 60th birthday, one guy; I refused to reply him anyway. He didn’t deserve my reply. He wrote that Dele Momodu is not a journalist. You will not believe it. And that’s another problem with journalists – the “bad belle” is so much. Now, non journalists have taken over our trade. But I will be one of the people to challenge them. That we are too legit to quit, we are not going anywhere. You are not going to chase us out of this job and profession.
So, who was the first person you interviewed on Instagram?
The first person – you know me; Ovation is loud for a purpose. When I’m starting something, I must start with a bang. The first person was the chairman of the Governors’ Forum, Dr. Kayode Fayemi. Can you believe that?
So far, you have interviewed big wigs like Dr. Kayode Fayemi, ex-Governor Olusegun Osoba, Mr. Keem Belo-Osagie, Dr. Cosmas Maduka, Mr. Donald Duke, Mr. Peter Obi, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu and so on. Who would you like to interview on Instagram but hasn’t been able to get?
There’s only one man I would like to interview that I haven’t. Even if he’s in the sky, I would like to follow him there – Dr. Michael Adeniyi Agbolade Ishola Adenuga, Jnr, the Spirit of Africa. Even if he’s in the sky and he says come and meet me there, I will go…
But Bob Dee, considering your closeness to him, why has it been difficult to interview the Spirit of Africa?
I’ve never asked him. You see, because I know chairman; the day chairman needs to talk, I won’t be the one to call him, he will call me. I know him! I’ve known Dr. Adenuga for 29 years. I know him inside-out when it comes to studying your mentor. I call him my Spirit of Africa. He’s a Spirit that you don’t see, but we have that connection, we have an incredible relationship. He knows that if he needs me at 12 midnight, all he needs is to call, I will deliver. So, maybe on his 70th birthday… I’ve had informal sessions with him where he taught me a lot about the secrets of life, about why he keeps to himself. I know so much. I can write about him without a formal interview because I’ve had that privilege. But I’m looking forward to a day he will call me, “oya, let’s sit down and talk.” The story will be a bestseller in any part of the world. I’m not joking. That’s why I call him the best kept secret. The best hidden treasure in Africa. That’s what I call him.
What makes an Instagram interview interesting?
It’s that the person who is going to interview someone has to be intelligent himself. You must ask the right questions, you must be able to add humour to it. It shouldn’t be too serious. If you watched my interview yesterday with Bishop Felix Adejumo and Mrs. Funke Adejumo, that was a blast. We went from religion to science. We went into all sorts. So, you must be versatile. If you ask stupid questions, you get stupid answers. That’s it!
From experience and with the benefit of hindsight, why do you think that most professional journalists are yet to embrace social media?
Because they are still daydreaming that life would return to normal. Life goes on. You will see some of them, they will say no o, I’m not on social media, I don’t like social media. I say to them, you are old, then retire. No problems! If you don’t know it, you are soon going to be jobless.
Any journalist who wants to get into the social media space, what must the person do?
The first thing is to download the Apps, go on Twitter, go on Facebook, go on Instagram, you must also have a YouTube page. Now, by the grace of God, OvationTV will be going 24 hours very soon. We’ll announce it. You see, we’ve been at it for about five years. That’s why I told you about preparation. Most people will start gbooom! And it will die gboooom! But slow and steady wins the race. So, now, we have content – we are not starting with DStv, because I believe maybe we are not ready for DStv yet. But the day we are ready, DStv will come to us because Ovation would produce the best programmes in the world. There is no country that can compete with Nigeria when it comes to enjoyment. Forget about all our wahala. Nigerians, we are born to enjoy. You will see a poor man in Nigeria who does not have a kobo and he will eat food every day of his life. He will go from place to place. In fact, my mom used to tell me, “A kin rin oku ebi n’titi!”
And that’s the reality in Nigeria. Nigeria is the only country where someone will do party for 5,000 people and serve champagne. So, social content today is not Nollywood. Nollywood, you can say, is make-believe. It’s acting. But this is real time. Are you going to allow a useless journalist now to enter your house to come and cover a wedding and what they will be showing is your dirty kitchen? When we go there, we will take the finest angles. And that’s part of the packaging.
So, having excelled in the traditional and social media, what would you say is the difference between those two territories?
The difference is technology. It’s the use of technology. It’s still the same thing – information dissemination. You want to give information out and your biggest asset is your access. You must have access to newsmakers. That is the magic. Do you know how many magazines have come out to compete with Ovation? I remember one day, I was driving in America with the king of Bevista, Mr. Benny Obaze and one of my staff called from Lagos and said hey, oga, trouble o, trouble. I was scared, I thought someone died. I said what’s the trouble? He said there’s a new magazine that just came out. It looks exactly like Ovation. I said did they write Ovation on it, he said no. I said then, what’s the trouble? The man will do his own, I will do my own. So, let us meet in the market place.
He said they are recruiting people. At the time, we were paying maybe N20,000 to photographers, the man offered N50,000 and I said if you want to join him, why don’t you go there? Join him! I will never stop anybody from advancing in their career. So, if they are paying more money and you believe it will be positive, why not? I took risks in my own time. I don’t ever panic. People call it over confidence, but I say it’s not. If you know your onions, and maybe because I studied Yoruba – “Won nit i ogun eni ba da ni loju, a ma fi ogun e gba ori.” So, if you are sure of what you are doing, you must be able to say so. You see, another proverb – “Omo to ni iya e o ni sun, o un na ko ni fi oju kan orun.” The person who wants to threaten me, ah, the person too will not sleep. Because me I don’t sleep. I didn’t come to Lagos to count bridges. I came to Lagos for business. So, I’m not going to allow anybody to just come and push me out of what I know best.
What are the best avenues for any journalist to make legitimate money?
The first thing is you must have goodwill. Nobody can survive on his salary alone – even if you are MD of a bank. Don’t forget, Nigeria is a country where we don’t have the credit system. Until our credit system improves, it’s going to be very difficult for people to earn legitimate income. I tell people, I have one big brother, a professor in Ife, same mother, but not same father. He came to see me, many years ago. If you remember that time I was staying at Excellence Hotel. He said I came to fight you. We were alone in the room. Why are you staying in a hotel? I let him finish, then I prostrated. I said, sir, it’s your fault. He said how can it be his fault? He added that people I taught now live in their houses – I was a teacher at some point. I taught A-levels students at the age of 22. They have all built houses, you don’t have a house. You are wasting money in hotels. I said I’m not wasting my money, I’m building a brand. That brand, Ovation, if I tell you, it cost over $100 million to build, nobody will believe it. Do you think UBA became UBA in one day? Do you know how many years First Bank has been in operations? So, why do people think Ovation, after five, six years, I can build a house from it? That’s what kills most businesses in Nigeria. I wasn’t in a hurry. I got this my apartment when I was ready. It’s six years old now. I never had any savings. Every money was going into building the brand. Whereas smaller people, once they get money, they marry more wives, build mansions, buy cars at the detriment of the business. I didn’t do all that. So, when I was going to buy, I bought a flat. I’m okay with that. My kids live abroad. In this house, am I going to sleep in two rooms? No! My wife knows that if she has a competitor, No. 1 today, it is Ovation! So, you must build your brand to the level where you can even go on auto pilot.
So, that has been my own secret – and sometimes I may try other businesses. I tried some things in Ghana for example that didn’t work. I started a paper in Ghana. In Ghana, they don’t have Sunday papers, and anywhere in the world Sunday papers are supposed to be the hottest selling papers. And then I said no, I’m going to break it, I’m going to crack it and then I started it. Then, I found out I was throwing money away. One day I gathered our staff, I said, good morning ladies and gentlemen, I said I have good news for you today. And they were happy – what’s the good news? I said, we are killing African Star. That was the title, before it kills us. They said ah, you can’t do that, people will say we have failed. Then, I looked at all of them, “Have we not failed? We have failed!”
How can professional journalists take back this profession from quacks and charlatans?
I think it’s going to be very difficult for us to take it back. Except the few who are absolutely committed and are ready to deal with that. Journalism is gone! And you know journalism has always been one of the most respected professions… It’s everybody’s business now. As long as you can write. Journalism is the only business that a carpenter can come now and do a magazine for carpentry, automobile companies can do a magazine for cars, somebody who loves insects can do a magazine for insects. So, that means that you don’t have to go to a journalism school to become a journalist. You can’t do that if you are a doctor. If you are doctor, you must go to a medical school, they train you to be a medical doctor. I was never a journalist. I told you I came into it out of joblessness too. So, for you to make any appreciable mark today, you will keep sleepless nights, you will be a gambler, I call it casino. It is the ultimate casino, because if you spend £100,000 this month to publish Ovation, by the time you bring it back, you realize that another production is due. You have not yet distributed o, not to talk of selling the current one. The cover price is N2,000, you are going to give it to the agents, they are waiting for you – Victory in Maryland, Segun in Ikeja, Femi in Abuja. All of them. I know all the big, big guys in the industry. They are waiting. By the time you take it to them, you must give them 50 percent of that money. That’s N1,000 out of N2,000. Out of that N1,000 with you will go some money to The Magazine Printing Company, Enfield, in England, out of that will go to your cargo company, Eko International, for clearing at the airport… So, if you are not a gambler or you have other people helping you on the sides, forget it. But God has been kind to us at Ovation. That’s why I said the keyword is goodwill. If you have people who believe in you, who don’t want you to die… I’ve been talking about the Spirit of Africa. I will talk about other people also. We will go to UBA, talk to Tony Elumelu, we are doing this project, he’s ready. We will go to Iya Adura (Esther Ajayi). Our mummy, we are doing this project, she is there. So, if you don’t have such people… I wrote a story last Saturday. I nearly committed suicide at one point – and then a call came from Chief Alex Duduyemi that changed a lot of things. There are so many instances. Or Dr. Bode Olajumoke, who I went to interview. After that, he called me, he said I noticed that you are very brilliant and that you are struggling with the magazine. Can I give you a loan? I said, with all pleasure, sir! He gave me £10,000. He gave me one year to repay. Of course, magazine business is “kalokalo”. The money disappeared. I went to his house, in Parkview, I said, sir, I want to beg you to help extend this loan. He said, what happened? I said it has disappeared. It’s “kalokalo.” He said don’t worry. He said I didn’t lend you the money. I had to call it “borrowing” so that you will get serious. I have noticed the improvement in your magazine and he went in and gave me another cheque for N1million. I will never forget that man. I have so many of them like that. Or it is Hakeem Belo-Osagie. When I was in exile for three years, when they were going to bring Moneygram, he said you supported me when I bought UBA. He was having problems with the media in the Ibadan axis then – Tribune, Sketch and all of them. I took him, single handedly, to Ibadan. He said he wouldn’t go, but trust me, he eventually did. How old was I then? Maybe about 34, 35.
And we went there, and we settled everything. Goodwill! When I was in exile, he called me, he said I’m bringing Moneygram to Nigeria; I’m going to ask them to appoint you as their media campaigner and that gave me a regular income. I have so many people. Chief Ezekiel Fatoye was the first person to give us our first £10,000. This was a civil servant who had scraped his entire savings. So, few people know what it takes to go into the business; it’s not an easy business.
To write well as a journalist, what must one do?
The answer is behind me (point to his rich library). To write well, you must read and read and read voraciously, greedily. That’s what I do. If you look around me, you can see that I’ve created my own world. Once I enter here, before I go to bed tonight, it might be 2AM, it might be 3AM. I must read something. I still have your books here – you are telling the story of how others made it. I’m learning, I’m in school permanently.
Journalism is one education that never ends. That is why you stop earning the day you stop learning.
There’s no doubt that journalism has been gracious to you. What more do you want from the profession?
It’s for God to give me good health so that I can be a journalist till I enter my grave. I can’t do without being a reporter. Look, I have journalism greats I admire. One of them is Chief Olusegun Akinrogun Osoba. Haaaa! That’s another story! Till today, he’s still a reporter. He still sends news, by 7am, to my WhatsApp. After all his accomplishments. So, how can you say what more do I want from journalism? I haven’t started o. I’ve only done about 20 percent. That’s how I respond on social media – that you are not going to kill my source of livelihood. Irritants on social media.
What is the greatest thing that journalism has done for you?
Well, it will be the visibility. Not cash. There is no where I will go in this world today that someone will not recognize me. A lot of them don’t even remember my name, they will just say Mr. Ovation. What journalism has done for me is that we’ve succeeded in building a double brand. Even if you look at my name on Instagram, it’s called DeleMomoduOvation. So, you can use both of them interchangeably. If you mention Dele Momodu, your mind goes to Ovation, if you mention Ovation, your mind goes to Dele Momodu. It’s like Richard Branson. I picked that from Richard Branson whom I’ve met. I got invited to his house twice and I can tell you, I studied him very, very closely and I wanted to build that kind of double brands. It’s like when you talk about Bill Gates and Microsoft and all that. So, it’s the same thing that Ovation has done for me.
Of all the stories you have written, which one will you describe as the most remarkable and why?
Ah! (Thinks) Story, not interview?
It depends… story, interview…
You know there’s a difference between stories, articles, essays, interviews…
Yes, I do, sir. I actually read Mass Communication…
So, if you ask me to pick which is my best essay, which is my best story…
Any one will do?
(Scratches his head) – It is difficult! It is difficult! God has given me a lot of masterpieces. I think I wrote some of my best stories in Weekend Concord. You know when you are poor and hungry, you perform better. Chief Abiola told us that poverty is the most stubborn animal. He said the cane you use to chase it away, don’t throw that cane away because it will still come back. I think one of my stories that I personally enjoyed – The first is an article entitled ‘And My Idol Died!’ It was written the night Michael Jackson died. I was writing, I was weeping. If you asked me, my all-time idol was Michael Jackson. Because as a young boy, we all looked up to him. We wanted to be like Michael. Anything by Michael, the way he danced, the way he sang. We even felt he was a baby. You wouldn’t know he was that old. So, I was writing my Pendulum column for that week and suddenly there was a breaking news on CNN and I had to change the topic to Michael Jackson. You won’t believe it, I wrote from the heart to the extent that I attended his funeral in Los Angeles. I travelled all the way…
So, for me, that’s definitely one of my best articles ever. Another one should be about Karenplification of Africa on Karen Igho of Big Brother – where I coined the new word. If you go on Google, you will see it come up immediately. So, I’m very adventurous.
Of all the interviews you have done, which one do you consider to be the best?
Ah! I have too many o! I think I’m an authority on Chief Gani Fawehinmi and that is why he attended my wedding. Gani does not go to weddings, he does not go to parties, he does not socialize. But Gani travelled all the way from Lagos to attend my wedding in Ijebu-Igbo, Ogun State. That’s how close we were. So, I think my interviews with him were the best. And what made it the best was the one we had when they brought him from Gashua Prison to Lagos. The whole place was barricaded. No journalist was allowed to enter, but I saw a man, a Police officer, I can’t remember his full name, but I think it’s S. K. Momodu or so. And because we bear the same name, I said my name is Dele Momodu. So, he allowed me to penetrate and I had my recorder. All the security people were there – but I secretly put my tape close to Gani and he was giving me details without anybody knowing. On so, so day, they took me to Gashua, this, that happened. Then, security people will come, push me away. I will still go back when the security people were a bit relaxed. I will bring out my tape recorder again and begin to record. Gani knew I was recording and once I moved closer, he will be shouting and abusing them. I turned it to a front page story – Gani Grows Beards in Gashua Prison or something like that. That was a sell out! We had a bond. In journalism, some of my masterpieces were on Gani Fawehinmi.
Which has been your highest selling edition in Ovation?
Ah! Many! But I think it’s the Abacha edition. And that one again – see the story – bad belle people. I went there as a journalist to cover an event, and then I ended up getting you another news that you will not get anywhere. In fact, I was thanking God that day. I said, see God o. The same people who ran me out of Nigeria have invited me to cover their event, because if Abacha had not chased me out of Nigeria, perhaps there will be no Ovation today. You know I told you I had perished the idea of Ovation, when I couldn’t get an investor locally. Not knowing that God wanted me to do an international magazine. So, we went to Kano. Mrs. Abacha, beautiful woman, fantastic woman. I don’t know why the husband could not just have pity on us at that time.
Anyway, we covered the event. Nobody ever saw where Abacha was buried at that time. He was buried in a special mausoleum at the back of his house. I got Ajayi Oyebo to go behind and smuggle out a few shots. Anywhere in the world, I would have made millions and millions of Dollars from copyright. Nigerian media, the same people who were attacking me for going to cover an Abacha event, they were also lifting our pictures. Some of them will not even acknowledge that Ovation took those pictures. I’ve suffered! And yet they pronounced a fatwa on us – Ovation must die. In fact, somebody called me one day, he said he heard that Nigerians have decided that they must boycott Ovation. I said which meeting ground did they use? Interestingly, that edition sold out! If I tell you, maybe I have only a few copies in my safe today. That was our best selling. And then of course, Terry Waya. Terry Waya sold out. Most of our editions, they are collector’s item. What we decided was that we are going to target only those who value quality. A magazine should not be for everybody. You must have your niche market. If you don’t find your niche market, you will be throwing your sweat away.
What’s your dream for Ovation? Where would you like to see Ovation, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now?
It will definitely be to go public, because as you get old, you get tired and you can no longer hold on to a business as a one-man business. That’s another thing that can kill a business. Unless you are very formidable like an Adenuga who has muscles in oil and gas, in banking, in manufacturing and things like that. A journalist can’t do that. That’s one of the smartest things that AIT did – Daar Communications, when they went public. So, you must invite other investors, let them bring their money, then you can re-energize the company. That’s my dream and I know that by the grace of God it will materialize – because we have the goodwill and we have the track record. So, by the time the television comes and everything is doing well, we can still do so. Now we are 24 years. By the time we get to our 25th year, it will be time for us to start doing something else with Ovation.