STEVE AYORINDE TALKS ABOUT HIS LIFE AS A COMMISSIONER, EDITOR OF THE PUNCH, MD OF NATIONAL MIRROR AND MORE – ‘My issue with Azubuike Ishiekwene was unfortunate – but we’ve all moved on’
Except we want to shy away from the truth, journalism has been very, very nice to Mr. Steve Ayorinde. Currently the Commissioner for Information and Strategy in Lagos State, the bearded father of three who is married to Tope rose from being the Arts Editor of The Punch to becoming a member of the A-list–newspaper’s Editorial Board and ultimately the Daily Editor.
Educated at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife and University of Leicester, U.K, where he read Music and Globalization and Communications respectively, he dove into journalism in 1991, at The Guardian. And from there, The Comet. Before finally settling at The Punch. Widely travelled and well exposed, the admirable author of Masterpieces: A Critic’s Timeless Report is also the immediate-past Vice President, Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE). Inside his beautiful office, in Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos, on Thursday, February 11, 2016, YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, got the cerebral polyglot to open up on certain pertinent issues – ranging from his new designation to his controversial exit from The Punch, his family and journalism. Enjoy…
How did you meet His Excellency, Gov. Akinwunmi Ambode?
Well, I’ve always known him from a distance. He was the Accountant General while I was the Editor of The Punch. And you know the thing about being an Editor is that it’s a privileged position kind of; privileged in the sense that you are also able to meet people, meet friends through friends and therefore we got introduced through some mutual friends. That was a long time before his interest in politics…Let’s say a few years after he left service and did a lot studies and stuff and started running his own firm – Brands Me. A lot of people felt that with the kind of experience he has accumulated in public service, spending 27 years, they felt that he could actually be the type, the kind that the party might be interested in using as the candidate of the party and then as the next Governor. I belong to that class of people who thought that he had the quality necessary to run a place like Lagos.
So, what kind of person is Gov. Akinwunmi Ambode?
Very deep and detailed, very meticulous. He has the rare ability to combine seriousness with a jovial profile, when you get to know him closely. He’s a lover of the arts and entertainment. If you know him deeply, you will see that his involvement in promoting the arts is beyond superficial. He’s available to those who know him quite well. And I will not hesitate to say that he’s a damn good manager of men and resources and I will also say that he’s a very kind-hearted and compassionate person.
He’s been in the saddle now for over 6 months. What will you describe as his singular greatest achievement, so far?
I would say that, that monumental asset donation he made to the Nigeria Police and the re-branding of RRS (Rapid Response Squad in November last year has been a singular game changer for this administration, because it became obvious that this Governor has the capacity to turn around the situation that looked very challenging at some point and it’s on record that with that asset donation to The Police and RRS, he has become, you can say, the No. 1 Governor in terms of attention to security infrastructure – 3 helicopters at the same time, 2 gun boats, APCs, hundreds of power bikes and vehicles and people now look at all these things and say oh, is this Lagos or is this New York? It’s not just about the material aspect of it; it’s about the fact that for the first time, he’s also looking after the welfare and the insurance of those men and women of the RRS who are going to man the assets, who are risking their lives on a daily basis. The whole point is that yes, he’s concerned about security of every Lagosian, but by that monumental asset donation, he’s also concerned about the welfare and the families and the lives of those officers. So, I would say that that was a major game changer. But of course, it’s obvious that we’ve also built several achievements upon that, running throughout the last quarter of last year and then from day one of 2016. So, yes, we had a game changer in those donations to the Police, but of course I think that if people will be charitable, it’s obvious that this is a Governor who has gotten his groove back.
What has changed about you since you became a Commissioner?
I’ve been a lot busier, a few people tell me that the gray beards (laughing) are increasing; I do not intend to change as far as my relationship with friends and family is concerned. But I appreciate the fact that public service, particularly for the kind of role that one is playing, would require enormous investment of one’s time on the job and possibly one’s resources to ceaseless requests from people who think that public service means that you’ve run into wealth, which of course the contrary is the reality. So, I wouldn’t say nothing much has changed; I’ve not even taken an orderly (laughs), because for me I do not think that I need anything that would take me away from my constituency, my folks, my area, because at the end of this; this is a tenured appointment, at the end of it all, one is also returning to his constituency and you know how it is – once a journalist, you are a journalist for life!
What’s the sweetest thing about being a Commissioner?
Sweetest may not necessarily describe it; fulfilling may be the right word. But of course, fulfillment can also be sweet (laughs). So, if we inter-change sweetness with fulfillment, I would say that it is in the recognition that one could function in this office. It is the recognition and the invitation to come and serve. I believe that public service is the highest form of service and it’s a call to make your own contribution so that one wouldn’t keep criticizing or suggesting from the sideline. I think the privilege of being among the 42 members of cabinet puts a huge responsibility on one. So, as huge as that responsibility is, it is also very sweet in the sense that it’s a privilege to be called among those people that are working to ensure that Lagos remains the No. 1 state, not only in Nigeria, but in Africa.
So far, what are the things you don’t like about the office?
Even if there are things I don’t like about the office, will I tell you? (general laughter). I’m just saying, but the whole point is not to dodge the question. But, one would necessarily if you are coming from the private sector; the need to quickly transit from the private to the public sector is there. And that would not necessarily mean that because you are transiting from our sphere of life, to the other, you are dissatisfied with what you have transited to. It only requires getting used to it and taking leadership to ensure that even if there are ways that things are being done, they could be done in a better manner.
You made your name as a journalist, what are the things you miss now about no longer being into active practice?
I miss the madness of the news room (laughs). We say that the news room is a mad house. For me, I think that the authority and the privilege that the newsroom confers on you are invaluable. The authority and the privilege to be able to call anybody and insist that you would like to talk to them and if they refuse to talk, you have the liberty to go on with your report without necessarily trying to seek a revenge. So, I believe that except for law enforcement officers, who by the way are limited, because you can also challenge their own actions in court. So, if we accept that they are also privileged, and except for them, I will believe that journalists are the only other privileged people that can legally intrude into your space. So, I miss that polite and lawful intrusion into people’s lives, commenting and everything. But you see, I’ve also not completely left journalism. What we do here, there’s a whole load of journalism involved. As the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, I also write, I am the Editor in Chief of the monthly publication of the Ministry – Alausa Alert, which comes out in English and in Yoruba. I edit it before it goes to press. It has an Editor, but as the Editor in Chief, you have to see it, what you are publishing. I write a monthly column in there – Lagos On My Mind. It is therefore gratifying to move the news room, so to speak, down here and create, if you like, a public service mini news room that reminds one of the creative madness of the news room.
You rose to become the Editor of The Punch, you also rose to become the MD of National Mirror, what makes a good journalist?
Hard work, love and abiding interest in writing, in reading and good eyes and nose for intrusion, for news. You can be a journalist by training, but by re-training and passion and by interest, only with those can you be a good journalist. A good journalist is also one who would recognize the changing terrain of his or her industry, a good journalist will see that the future is digital and the future is now and therefore what makes you good would be your readiness, like the Boys Scout, the preparation for adaptation. A good journalist will be fearless, will be attentive and will be adventurous to always want to explore, to always want to be there, be on top of the news. Everything to a good journalist is news. A good journalist does not miss any form of information, because whether it is today or tomorrow or next year, it will be useful. Either to serve as background information or indeed as piece of news. A good journalist sees every outing, whether with friends, whether with associates, even on holiday, as a potential platform for a scoop. That’s what makes a good journalist – attentiveness and the spirit of adventure.
What’s your own personal definition of news?
News is that piece of information that the next person wants to read, wants to know about and wants to pay for. If it’s not worthy of arousing interest in the next person, it won’t be news. News therefore is not necessarily useful to you, but to either the reader or the audience and it must evoke that eagerness to want to possess from the other party before it can be good news.
What makes a good Editor?
Ability to turn a mere piece of information around, into a national, if not a global, piece of event that will arouse interest in everybody; ability to identify the strengths in people that he either wants to recruit or he’s working with. A good Editor is not that person who necessarily knows what to publish, but who knows what not to publish. Because the Editor comes in contact with privileged information, with sensitive information, and therefore must know that he’s there because he’s only been privileged by virtue of his position, and a good Editor will always run into stories, information, ideas, interviews like that; that can either destroy his own career, destroy his medium or cause mayhem in the country and therefore must be alert enough to say that this will not be good for public consumption. The overall good of the public, beyond the need to use his expertise to sell that brand that he’s privileged to edit or to supervise, must always drive the good Editor. The overall good of the public.
What makes a good MD of a newspaper?
He must be a good manager of men and resources. A good MD of a newspaper must have transited from being a damn good manager. He speaks, he sees more of management than professionalism, even though he would not have left core editorial position. But he sees business, he sees marketing, he sees opportunity in everything he’s doing. A good MD will consider the welfare of the staff and what will bring about that welfare of the staff, what will we need to sell…You will see that the two are interwoven. Because he’s been an outstanding editorial person; editorial things alone cannot sell the paper. He will now have to use his own specialized skills to say this is the type of good editorial that we need to produce on a daily basis and this is how we must market and sell it, without injuring the organization’s reputation. So, he combines both – the art of professionalism and then the science of commerce. Both must go together.
When can a story be said to be well written?
When it satisfies both the editors and the consumers. It must satisfy both, it must conform with the established, if you like, structures of good writing, of good English, if the medium of language is that. But above all, as I said, it must impress the editorial leadership and satisfy the consumers, which will be the readers or the audience.
Delving into your career now, can you single out the most memorable story that you’ve written – beginning from when you started? And why?
As a reporter, there are quite a number. But then, if you insist on one, I would say that as an arts and entertainment/culture reporter at that time, I left the comfort of my beat to venture into exporting report abroad. I was a Fellow in Paris, at the Foundation Journalists-in-Europe and then I went on a holiday to Brussels. I stayed with my cousin who said I should follow him. He was a newspaper vendor – he was doing his PhD, but also working three jobs at the same time. Not vendor in the sense that we know it. He’s like a distributor, he collects papers from the distributing point and will use his car to distribute them. Some other people use bicycles and bikes to distribute at a particular district between 3am, when they would’ve finished printing and 5.30 in the morning. He said I should come and I thought hey! I’m on holiday. Don’t mess my holiday up by going with you. But eventually I did. I followed him one day and when I got there; anyway, the reason why I followed him was he said well, if you don’t follow me, you know you are a journalist, it would have been nice for you to meet some of the top footballers in Nigeria and of course I just woke up. I said which footballers? He mentioned them, including a former captain of the Green Eagles, when they were Green Eagles…
(Interruption) – Which of our captains?
(Laughing) – The journalist in you is asking questions now (more laughter). Demola Adesina. And I said what are you talking about? Are you saying that former super stars in Nigerian football do this with you? And he said yes. So, I followed him and lo and behold, indeed, I saw that not only was Mr. Ademola Adesina involved in it, there were a number of other people, including those who had done very well in our Under 17 football team, who got to Belgium and having lied about their age, they discovered that they had very little time to play and they had no other thing to do, but engage in this job. I wrote the story and filed the story to Nigeria and it had all the whaaooh! effects and eventually I won the Sports Writers Award at the Nigerian Media Merit Awards, Best Sports Reporter, for The Guardian then, and people were like ah-ah, when did you become a sports reporter and I said oh yeah! So, for me, that stood out because I wasn’t a typical sports journalist and then the manner in which I stumbled on that story. For me, it’s forever refreshing. It might interest you to also know that those things are still very rampant if you go to Europe.
Your career has been on an upward swing – Arts reporter, Arts editor, Editor of The Punch, MD of National Mirror and now Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Lagos State. Where do you think that most journalists get it wrong?
Lack of focus. My belief is that there’s no aspect of journalism that is back water. I do not think that there’s a beat in the news room that is not profitable. Now, I’m using the word profitable advisedly. I think a lot of people tend to concentrate on immediate gains when they are doing this job rather than trying to be outstanding and to keep a profile that relies heavily on credibility and integrity. Yes, in everything that we do, the God-factor is always there, luck also cannot be discriminated, but focus and hardwork are also great ingredients to boosting grace and luck. I say this to a lot of people – ordinarily, an arts person is not your ideal kind of Editor. But then I ask people, don’t we go to the same schools? If it’s also about getting additional qualifications abroad and being exposed, I mean, don’t we have it? So, why then should News Editors or Political Editors or Business Editors or even Production Editors/Sub-Editors, as it’s the case in some newspapers, be more privileged, would be the first to be considered than say an arts and entertainment person or even a sports person to becoming an Editor of a paper? I think some of our people therefore who are in less viable or fanciful beats, shall we say, tend to resign to fate and leave things to the way it’s been done. And I use the example of you and most of our friends in the general interest magazine. I used to count for them and I say look at most, if not all the successful general interest magazines in Nigeria. Every Editor or Publisher of such magazines must have had an arts or entertainment background. From Ladi Ayodeji to FAJ (Femi Akintunde-Johnson), to KB (Kunle Bakare), to Bob Dee (Dele Momodu), to Mayor Akinpelu, to Afolabi Odeyemi, and even you, Azuh Arinze (general laughter), who typifies the testimony of what a journalist can achieve by dint of hard work and persistence. So, I say to people, can we not replicate this in the traditional hard sell media? At what point are we going to have more of Olumide Iyandas, more of Steve Ayorindes and stuff’. But of course, there’s cause to be glad and to be hopeful. I mean, look at somebody like Ayeni Adekunle, for example, transiting from soft sell to hard sell, making some fantastic call at This Day and at The Punch and now setting up The NET, doing fantastically well with PR. I think it has to do with the power of focus and vision and the tenacity that is required. If you want to do this as a 100 – metre dash, I doubt if you will go very far. It’s a marathon, like the Lagos City Marathon (laughter). You just have to keep at it.
In journalism, how does one attain success and sustain it?
Well, a popular journalist who went into government was once credited with a statement that says he will not like to end up as a veteran journalist, because veteran journalists end up being pauperized and dumped. As fair an assessment as that might be, I do not think it is charitable to dismiss journalism as a job that is not for old age. I think one can do well if your expectations in life are realistic. I hear very often from my former boss, Mr. Lade Bonuola, who was the former MD of The Guardian, now the Executive Consultant to the paper, saying something like define your needs. And that for him, his needs are very modest and very limited. You may not necessarily look for affluence, ostentation or wealth in journalism, but I think that if you do it very well, maintain your integrity, you have credibility and build bridges and keep good friends, be expansive in your thinking and strive for the best in terms of training, education and delivery, write books, keep good company, I think that you can make some very tidy, decent living and of course, that can also translate to some other possibilities, either in terms of recognition for public service or in consultancy, in creative writing and even in international jobs. So, you will just need to see it as a profession that is not a 100-metre dash. Keep at it and go for the best, I believe.
I know for a fact that you didn’t leave The Punch on a happy note. How do you feel about the way and manner you exited The Punch?
Em…I don’t know about not leaving on a happy note, but things happen in life and it happens everywhere. If tables were to turn and I was the one interviewing you as Azuh Arinze about leaving Encomium, I wouldn’t say for a fact that I know you didn’t leave on a happy note. I would say there were issues that necessitated you leaving, but I would also acknowledge that having left, you are probably the better for it. So, for me, I retain fond memories of my time in The Punch as the Arts Editor, as a U.K Correspondent, a member of the Editorial Board and as the Editor of the paper. Everybody in The Punch is still my friend. An issue that ought not to have happened did happen, unfortunately. But of course, events that happened after a while vindicated one. That, I’m happy about, even if one had left in a manner that you wouldn’t have loved to, considering the fact that it was obvious that one was doing very well and it was obvious that the issue that happened was very minute and shouldn’t have caused any uproar. But because one left with his integrity intact and the world could see that one was vindicated, so what else can I ask for? It does happen, and life does not always run on a straight court. But sometimes certain things have to happen, maybe for you to get to where you are meant to be.
You had a major mis-understanding then with your Executive Director, Mr. Azubuike Ishiekwene, which actually was what triggered your unplanned exit from The Punch, where you were the daily Editor. How is your relationship with Mr. Azubuike Ishiekwene now?
Very cordial! We speak when necessary. He was the MD of Leadership (Newspaper) when I was first the Editor and Executive Director and later MD of National Mirror, and we happened to be the ones printing for them and we were speaking if he needed to get something done at National Mirror and we had served on the same committee in Abuja before. I saw people, you know, one time when we were at a function in Abuja and we were sitting together and I saw photographers coming bla, bla, bla and I whispered to him, I said I’m sure they are coming to take us because we are sitting together and he said let them have their fill (laughing); take as much as you want. I was unable to attend his 50th birthday last year, but we spoke on the phone and I still read him like a Bible; he’s a fantastic writer. As I said, what happened shouldn’t have happened, but we have moved on. He’s moved on in life, doing very well and I’ve moved on in life, doing very well. I mean, life goes on.
How much of a family man is Mr. Steve Ayorinde?
Ah, much o! (general laughter). I am happy that I have a very understanding wife and children and therefore for times when I’m not always available, she understands and she holds the home front very well. I call her the Minister for Interior (laughs). She holds it very well. So, I try to make up for the time that one is not available. On Valentine’s Day, I was in Ibadan, but I knew that I needed to be back for that day and I said hey, dear, let’s roll, it’s Valentine. So, I’m a family man and I’m proud of the family that the good Lord has given me and I do say to people that my greatest blessings in life are not the accomplishments in terms of profession and privileges, it is the family – my wife and the children that the good Lord has given me.
Can we meet your wife and your children?
My wife is Tope. She also trained or she was once a broadcaster. She veered into PR; a lovely, beautiful Lagos lady (smiling). We have two boys and a daughter…
What are their names?
Oba is what you find recurrent in the three names – my first son is Obajimi; our daughter, we had her in the UK, her name is Ireoluwade. But we often call her Eniobanke and our last born is Obawanle – the king is at home. So, when people say Baba Oba, how are you? I say Oba wan le (laughing).
How did you meet your lovely and beautiful wife, like you described her?
I had just returned from France in 1998 as a Fellow at the Foundation Journalists-in-Europe, and I think maybe it was my mom’s prayer that returned me to Nigeria single, because I don’t know where she got that fear from – maybe I had been expressing certain things as a kid, because she felt that I was gonna come back home with a white girl. But it turned out that I returned to Nigeria and met this lady who was in school and was doing her I.T at The Quadrant Company. She brought some press release or something like that and I said can I send you to my friend in The Quadrant Company? Mike Nzeagwu (laughs), who’s more like a pastor, and I sent Mike a note through Tope to say that Mike, I will need to see you. And Mike called me; there was no GSM then. He called me on the land line, while Tope was there from the other end, to say that I know why you want to speak to me. This is not the type of girl bla, bla, bla. I said ah-ah! Have I said anything? And then the next time when she came again, I said I would like to send you to Mike and she said is it only Mike you send people to? (general laughter). And I think we just developed some friendship from there. And as they say, the rest is history. So, when I now took her home to meet my mom and everything, she said thank God; you didn’t come with a white lady, but you have come with a white Nigerian lady. So, I said all correct!
What would you say has kept your marriage going?
Well, I’m not an expert in marital issues, but I remember one thing – in 2002 when I got a scholarship to go to Berlin by Goethe Institute and she was going to go with me for 3 months, because we had just newly married the previous year, I remember I was with Lagbaja, the musician and he was asking me about oh, is your marriage up to one year now? I said not really, almost, and he said okay, nice, when you are 6 years, let’s reflect on marriage because just before my marriage the previous year, we were together with Lagbaja in Abidjan on tour – with the Lepa Gau guys (Magic System) and we were talking about life, talking about everything in general and he had a very good world view about life and marriage and everything. So, he said after 6 years, let’s talk. So, after 6 years we saw and he said how is your wife and kids? I said they are fine. So, he said what do you think? I said nothing! The same way, we are cool. He said it must be that you are married to your friend. Because if you are married to your friend, it will be seamless. To a friend and a confidant and no cosmeticism, no struggle to impress her; it won’t be an effort. We are not so long in marriage; we’ll be 15 this year. Maybe that’s also not too short. We are not doing too badly. I do not recall one time that we have had any cause to call an outsider to intervene on our matter, because we have never had any matter that we couldn’t resolve. As I said, we’ve always travelled together, we’ve always done things together. Yes, it can’t be perfect. There would be cases that will require you being frank with each other, but I remember one time when I became the Editor of The Punch and we went to MUSON Centre (in Onikan, Lagos) for a concert. She’s also a great lover of classical music, and we saw Mama Muson, the late Mrs. Akintola Williams and she said my dear, congratulations; talking to my wife. Your husband is so, so and so. But I need to tell you; you need to take it easy with him o! She knelt down there and was listening to her and then when we got upstairs before the concert started, she said ah! I thought Mama Muson and Mr. Akintola Williams are the oyibo people, but this kind of advise and I said well, you have heard o! From an 80-something year old woman. And I think she understands that as a good woman, that power, I believe, does not come from being naggy, being over-bearing, being intrusive. I think that power comes from understanding your spouse and being his friend that he can rely on. I don’t think that any spouse should stray if the home front is well looked after. And I’m glad that we have that.
Away from work, what do you do for relaxation?
You know that my background is in the arts? I wish I could be in Cannes (France), but certain travels, certain things have become luxury now that you can hardly do them. I’m into the arts, I want get-aways, I like to travel. I believe that film is in my DNA and so I believe that nothing exists outside of the cinema or the wonders of cinema, because every form of art – visual art, music, sound, images, poetry, everything, you will find in a good film and sitting down watching in the cinema. And for me, I did mention that in one of my articles – going to a cinema is like sitting down in the company of elders, you do more of listening than talking. So, 2 hours in the cinema depicts picture from wall to wall. I just want to forget everything and chill in the cinema. Good music too. You know I’m into classical music and everything – jazz. So, for me, I am an abiding enthusiast and lover of the arts and I relax doing that a lot.
At the end of your tenure as the Commissioner for Information and Strategy in Lagos State, what would you like the people you will be leaving behind to say about you? What fond memories of your stay here would you like them to continue to hold on to?
I would wish that they remember me as a colleague, a team leader rather than as a boss. I would love for them to remember me as somebody who added a good layer to the great foundation laid by Mr. Dele Alake, who was a Commissioner here before me. I would like for them to remember me as somebody who brought professionalism, integrity and passion to the onerous duty of being the mouth piece of Lagos State. Above all, I would like for them to remember me as somebody who was passionate about the progress and the unique platform that Lagos as a multi-cultural global city offers to every citizen living in Lagos State.
Lastly, why do you wear beards?
Beards are natural and I would think that wearing them is probably more natural than shaving them, if one could maintain them. Wearing beards to me is as natural as keeping your healthily grown, nurtured and trimmed head. I can’t imagine my head clean-shaven in my 40s. But I should also add that Teddy Pendagras was the inspiration for my beards while I was at the university. Not a few friends acknowledged my ‘petit teddy’ in those days.
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