At 50, Mr. Louis Odion, undeniably, has done very well for himself. Especially if where he’s coming from is duly factored into the equation. Born into a middle class home on March 25, 1973, I doubt if he knew back then that journalism will eventually bring him before kings and queens. Or even princes and princesses.
Initially interested in accounting, and somehow secretarial studies, which was his first course of study in the polytechnic, God ended up using Mr. Tunji Bello, now commissioner for the Environment in Lagos, to turn his life around at The Concord group of newspapers – where he started out as a stenographer, contributor, staffer and so on.
A former deputy editor at This Day, he later joined The Sun as the editor of their Sunday title, then managing director/editor-in-chief of National Life, commissioner for Information in Edo State and now special technical assistant on media to President (under the office of the Vice President).
YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine publisher editor-in-chief, AZUH ARINZE got the handsome, hairy and husky-voiced father of three to share the rest of his very, very interesting and inspiring story on Sunday, March 26, 2023.
How would you describe life at 50?
First of all, I would like to give glory and honour to God Almighty for the gift of life. Of course, it’s not been easy. By official statistics, the life expectancy in Nigeria is about 54 or thereabouts. So, to clock 50 in Nigeria is a big achievement and it feels great to be 50.
What will you describe as the biggest lesson that life has taught you at 50?
I would say the greatest lesson is the virtue of patience. You know when we were in our twenties, our mindset was different. We wanted instant gratification for everything. When we got into our thirties, we were forced by circumstances to modify some of our expectations. In our forties, it is also different. Then you get to fifty, you realize that what matters doesn’t count, and what counts does not matter. So, you try to take one step at a time. For me, the greatest lesson is patience; believing that what God has destined will come to pass and God’s time is different from ours. We think for the moment. But God has a longer view of things. There are things you hanker after and with God’s wisdom, He’ll say no, you don’t need this now, I’d rather give you later. So, when you come to wisdom, maybe a few years down the line, you’ll realize it was good I didn’t get it then. God’s time is the best and the greatest lesson is patience. You have to be patient. Whatever God has destined will definitely come to pass.
What will you describe as your greatest achievement or accomplishment at 50?
Wow! That’s a tough one. I’ll say my greatest accomplishment is my family. My family is my greatest asset. When I look at the people around me, I feel loved, I feel fulfilled.
Do you have any regrets at 50?
Definitely! I have lots of regrets, because when I sit back now and reflect, I realize that some decisions I took in the past were not informed by wisdom and if I have a second chance, I definitely would have acted differently. When I look back now, I realize that some people that I fell out with in the past, the reasons were not tangible and if I have the opportunity now, I’ll apologize for acting out of immaturity. Life is good now, but again, one is able to understand life in a better manner. We all have our inadequacies and the true test of maturity is giving a space to the next person. People are not bound to think the way you think, so you try to make allowance for the next person.
Let’s assume that this is the first phase of your life. What are you looking forward to achieving in the next phase, say the next 50 years?
I don’t usually hanker after anything. If you tell that to an average person, they’ll say you’re NFA (no future ambition). But I don’t usually say, “Oh, in five years, this is what I will achieve.” Whatever modest thing I regard as my accomplishments, they’re things I never planned for. I just allow myself to be guided by certain values. Wherever I find myself, I try to apply myself fully, I give every opportunity my best shot. If I succeed I’ll count it as what God has destined, but if I miss, I just take it in my stride and move on. I consider myself to be a very serious minded person. I’m also somebody who subscribes to certain values – value of honesty, value of loyalty; loyalty to people, loyalty to friends and to family. If I’m given any assignment, I apply myself seriously. But I honestly can’t say in the next five years, I want to buy a car, I want to buy a house, I want to be the governor. That’s not my style. But whatever I have the opportunity to do, I always throw myself at it. I tell people that when I became commissioner in Edo State, I reluctantly accepted the offer as a matter of fact. I think it was the second time Comrade (Adams) Oshiomhole made the offer that I accepted. And when I thought my job was done, I told Comrade that my time was up. He was surprised. I told him that journalism is my comfort zone, and I wanted to go back to it. In fact, when the news broke in Edo State that I resigned, people couldn’t believe it. Some people said, “Did you fall out with Oshiomhole?”, I said no. Some other guys said, “You must be crazy. People lobby to be commissioners, now you’re running away.” I said it’s not a big deal. Why I say this is that I don’t usually hanker after anything. The same thing with the appointment from the federal government. I didn’t also lobby to get it. They called me one day and said, “Louis, we’ll like you to join us” and I agreed. I went to Edo State and came back untainted. So I said, let me also give it a shot. It’s been a privilege working with the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo. My experience has been enriched and I’m very grateful for that opportunity. So, to come back to your question, I don’t lobby for appointments, I don’t hanker after anything, but wherever I find myself, I give it my best.
As the commissioner for Information and Strategy in Edo State, what would you describe as your greatest accomplishment?
Let me answer you by telling this story. Before I went to join them, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu actually called me, because before Governor Oshiomhole made his second offer; from what I heard, he had approached Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. And as you know, Asiwaju is one person who can tell me something and I won’t refuse. When he called me, he said Comrade was doing a fantastic job in Edo State, but he had some problems with communication. That his accomplishments were not being properly projected. He said he believed he needed an effective information person to help him manage information. Without sounding immodest, when I got there, I realized where the problem was coming from and within a month or two, there were changes in the perception of Oshiomhole’s government. As a matter of fact, I think sometime in 2012; exactly on February 17, 2012. That was the day the late Oba of Benin, Oba Erediauwa was giving out his daughter in marriage. I attended the ceremony and the then Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta was also invited to the ceremony. We were together. When we were going, he was with the late Chief Tony Anenih. He now said oh Louis, thank you. I’ve noticed that Oshiomhole’s image has changed since you joined them. The information management of Oshiomhole has really changed. You’ve brought professionalism into the management. I noticed that Chief Anenih wasn’t happy with the comment. So, he came over while Governor Uduaghan was complimenting me. By the way, I had known Governor Uduaghan before I became commissioner. But Anenih didn’t quite like that and he was now pointing a finger at me that “Louis, you will see what will happen to you”. I wanted to challenge him, but Uduaghan pinched me. When we got to Government House that day, because Governor Oshiomhole also attended the same ceremony. The ADC said, “Bros, I saw you and Leader (Anenih) from where we were. You guys were shouting.” I said no, he was threatening me! I’m telling this story just to illustrate the kind of impact one was able to make, and I feel happy that my own intervention at that point was able to change a few things and I think without sounding immodest, Oshiomhole was a successful governor in Edo State and I believe that whenever and wherever his story is told, people like us would be given some credit.
Currently you serve as the Senior Technical Adviser to the President, in the office of the VP. What exactly does that job entail? This is the first time I’m seeing someone occupying that position…
You know with my experience and network in the media, the sort of job we do is behind-the-scenes. It’s offering technical advice, bringing our value and network in the media to bear in terms of information management. You don’t discuss strategy in the public. But those at the receiving end, when they are hit, they know that somebody is working.
Let me come back to journalism now. The fascination for writing, what prompted it?
Well, I actually started as a secretary. Long before then, I’ve always had a flair for writing and that dates back to my secondary school days. Initially, when I got to class 3, boxing was my stuff, I was into amateur boxing. Then as time went by, I also joined the school press club and I’m talking about around 1986. I was in class 3 then. That was about the time Dele Giwa died, so the death of Dele Giwa brought me closer to written works. And I found that I could now divide my time between boxing and writing. When I got close to Class 5, my final year in secondary school, I became the deputy editor of the school press club. I did my WAEC, while waiting for my result, I also did entrance exam to Federal Polytechnic, Ado-Ekiti. I was admitted to study accountancy. The result came out almost around June and I think the WAEC result came out around July. I made seven credits, then I had P7 in Mathematics. A drama therefore happened when I got to Federal Polytechnic, Ado-Ekiti with all my baggage, ready to resume. I went for my registration. When I tendered my certificate, I was just 15 years old then. They now asked me for my other result, I said which result? I thought I did well. They said your other result, I said no, this is the only one. Then, they said no, that I can’t study accountancy without having a credit in Mathematics. I went with my dad, and it was like a movie because before we left Ikare for Ado-Ekiti, it was like a huge celebration that I did common entrance, two weeks later, WAEC result came out. Everybody was saying, “Ah, you did well, you did excellent”. I got A in Literature, I got A in English… So, long story short, they told my dad and I that I had to do a programme that didn’t require Mathematics and that programme was secretarial administration. That was why I ended up changing course to secretarial studies. My dad didn’t quite like that because he had told his friends that his son was going to become an accountant. So, while I resumed on campus, I honestly wasn’t too fascinated with the programme I was doing, but my escape was writing. So, I joined the campus press and within two months or so, I became very well known on campus and even though I was a fresher, the leadership of the campus press was by somebody in HND. The guy was in HND one, the editor-in-chief. But I more or less overshadowed him in terms of writing. So, it was that background I brought to Concord. As a matter of fact, when I resumed at Concord as an IT student, my first boss was Mr. Dele Alake. They employed me as an intern, an industrial training secretary. But as soon as I came in, they noticed that if they gave me scripts by journalists then to type, I was correcting even some senior journalists. It wasn’t the age of the computer, so you’ll write in long hand and you’ll pass to your editors. So, when they bring the rough copies, I’ll be editing them. Then one day, I think it was the third week of my assumption of duties, I did an article which was like a short story and I handed it over to Sunday Alabi, who was the deputy to Dele Alake. When he read it, he said where did you copy this from, because it was bearing my name. I said I wrote it and he just walked straight to the sub desk and told them to pass it for production. I think the fourth week was when Dele Alake noticed that there was a little boy in the house, who writes very well. When he writes, there’s no correction. They call it errorless. So, Dele Alake now called me and said, “Louis, you have a baritone voice, you have a studio voice, you should be working on TV. I heard you write very well too, even though you’re an IT student in the secretarial department. I’ve asked that your name be put among those who will be getting weekly transport claims which they gave to reporters.” And that was how it began.
I now started getting money for stories even though I was working as a secretary. So, within two to three months, my reputation grew in Concord, because I was not just writing for Sunday Concord, I was also writing for the daily paper. Lanre Arogundade was the features editor then while Taiwo Ogundipe was the midweek editor. So, I will send a story to Lanre Arogundade and also Taiwo Ogundipe. On a good week, you probably will see my byline on Sunday, and on Monday you’ll also see me in National Concord; Wednesday you’ll see me again in National Concord. So, within three months or so, Mr. Nsikak Essien who was the editor of National Concord called me to his office. When he called me, I was afraid. But he said, “Louis, I’ve been following your writeups. You write so well. Go and get admission to university, I’ll get Concord to give you a scholarship. You have a lot of potential.” While this was going on was when the real favour came through Tunji Bello. I’m talking about a space of five or six months now. It was actually Tunji Bello who did the whole thing by asking the advert section, where I had been deployed, to release me to him. Then he was the group political editor of The Concord and was very influential. So, based on his recommendation, the idea of not being a graduate was waived for me and I was employed as an OND holder to be a journalist. So, I was earning a salary as a graduate even though I didn’t go for any journalism training. They mentored me, they groomed me, taught me the nuances that when you’re writing opinions, it’s different from news writing and all that and I’m forever grateful to him.
Talking about starting off with an OND. You ended up getting admission to study at the University of Lagos. From there, you also went on to do your master’s programme. How were you able to juggle all those things with the job back then?
Like I always say, Tunji Bello is the person God used to change my story. By 1994, after June 12crisis started, Concord was shut down and our lives were disrupted. Concord re-opened when I had secured admission to UNILAG. Now, it’s against company policy for you to be schooling and be working. But Tunji Bello protected me. He allowed me to be schooling and working full time. He just took me like his younger brother. As a matter of fact, at some point, some of my immediate bosses and even my immediate supervisor in Sunday Concord reported me. But by then he (Bello) had become the editor of Sunday Concord. He came around and said, “Look, Louis does not come to work early oh and from what we heard, he’s working against company policy; he’s schooling at UNILAG”. Tunji Bello said, “Really? When he comes tell him to see me.” So, one of those days, he called me and said, “Look, this is what they’re saying oh, but I had to pretend as if I don’t know. Just continue with your studies. As long as I’m here, you’ll have your job.” So, he was able to protect me for four years and he didn’t just protect me, he gave me all the support. When things were difficult in Concord, he was offering me financial support. When I needed to get accommodation, he paid for that. So, I became a man overnight and learnt the meaning of responsibility. Boys of my age then, in their early twenties; it was the age of chasing women, going to parties. But I didn’t have that luxury. You can imagine I had to leave home in the early hours of Monday, go to UNILAG, any course beyond 2pm I never attended. I will normally close by 2pm and try and find my way to Concord, resume about 4 to 5pm, and we’ll work till about 9:30pm. Tunji Bello will still drop me off at Ojuelegba. From Ojuelegba, I will take the last bus to Yaba, from Yaba I will now take the last bus to campus. And in UNILAG, I’ll stop at New Hall at about 10:30pm. I did that for four years. So, that toughened me. Working full time and all that made me become a man overnight. Also, when you live with older people, it rubs off on you. That was how I was able to work full time and also school full time.
What makes a good journalist?
Fundamentally, you have to have the passion for a just cause and justice to be a successful journalist. I always tell people, if you want to make money, you won’t succeed in journalism. But once you are fired by that passion for justice, if that’s what drives you, if that’s what motivates you, if that’s what gives you joy, not monetary things, then you will succeed. Because the more you get known, the more other things will come. So, you have to have a passion for the job and when you start getting published and very famous, other privileges will come. You are likely to then get in contact with people who can assist you, who can help you in a way that even you can’t imagine.
We have some journalists who can’t string words. Any journalist who wants to write well, what must the person do?
You have to read very well. In journalism, the first principle is reading, because for you to inform people, you have to be more informed than who is reading you. So, if you don’t read, you can’t be a journalist. Like I said before, I didn’t go to any formal journalism school when I started. Although I also give credit to my dad. When we were growing up, my dad usually bought newspapers, Concord and Sketch. So, as a matter of habit, we’ll read them cover to cover. When you develop that passion at that age, reading becomes a part of you. So, you have to read everyday, you have to learn something new everyday. If you write a script now, your editor corrects it, if you want to learn, you read the corrections your editor made so that when you’re writing next time, you don’t make the same mistakes. Like me, when I started under Tunji Bello, of course, I was a raw talent. I wrote effortlessly, but there are technical skills about writing news. So, I also read them to know and learn the nuances. Also, when you read wide, you read well and you read deeply, there’s no way you won’t learn. One of the benefits of working with Tunji Bello was that it created an environment for constant learning and review. When he wrote articles, he would pass it to everybody, including me, to read and make our input.
Back to National Life. That’s one business that you went into that did not succeed. Why exactly did National Life die?
National Life succeeded! But I think I became a victim of the success of National Life in the sense that when we started in 2008, of course, with a lot of support from Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. It was an instant hit, and part of our secret was this – Asiwaju Tinubu provided us with the network, and we had a superb distribution system in the country and also the printing infrastructure. We had a printing press in Lagos, Abuja and Port-Harcourt. So, we were being printed simultaneously and also distributed everywhere. That was how we were able to hit and penetrate the market. So, in the space of three years or so, we were everywhere. I can’t thank Asiwaju enough for all the support he gave us. Now, if I became the bride that Oshiomhole wanted at all costs, it was because of the success that I recorded in National Life. As a matter of fact, when I got to Benin, part of the tasks Comrade gave me was that he wanted me to repeat what I did at National Life in The Observer. He said he liked the way National Life became a national success within a short while and he wanted me to also help lift The Observer. But you know that if you are the chief visioner of a mission or a business and you are not around, it’s unlikely that the people you left the business for will have the same network, the same reach as you. So, in my going to Benin, National Life became a casualty…
Which means you never had successors or any succession planning?
I had good successors. The guy I handed over to was Christian Ita. He’s now the special adviser to the Governor of Cross River, Ben Ayade. But when I talked about having the network, the people I had access to, the people who helped us and all that, they didn’t have that. So, that became a problem. It was impossible for me to be running National Life in Edo State and that impacted the newspaper.
How do you feel that the paper is no longer in existence?
Well, I had the option of starting when I came back from Benin. In fact, some of my workers then, the moment they heard I resigned from Benin, they were jubilating. But I told them that the business landscape had changed. The things we were doing in 2008 when we started, we couldn’t repeat them in 2015 when I came back. So, I said look, online is the new form of journalism. Notwithstanding, when I came back, I teamed up with my brother, my friend, my life-long collaborator, Azu Ishiekwene. I’m sure you must have read about The Interview? I have an interest in The Interview. So, I’ve not left journalism. As a matter of fact, when I came back, one of the meetings we had initially at The Interview; we were thinking of expanding the business. But I said, look, in a matter of years, journalism would go digital. And that was how we suspended the plan.