Interview by Funsho Arogundade and Bolanle Sokunbi published in THE WEEK MAGAZINE, VOL. 30, NO.2, of SEPTEMBER 14, 2009.
Prince Tony Momoh, veteran Journalist and Lawyer is a man whose thought and progressive views on national issues are remarkable. He is reputed for his contributions to the growth of journalism profession in Nigeria. The prince from the prominent and large Momoh family of Auchi, Edo State clocked the age 70 on April 27, 2009. Rather than roll out drums to celebrate, the former information and culture Minister under the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida opted to delay the celebration until a book on him, which for seven years had been in the works, was ready for presentation. The book, Prince Tony Momoh; A National Bibliotherapist and Cultural Engineer was anchored by Dr. Andrew Okwilagwe, an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ibadan. In this riveting 90-minutes interview with THEWEEK’S Funsho Arogundade andBolade Sokunbi the former minister explains his relationship with former President Ibrahim Babangida, late Dele Giwa and other important national issues. As usual, the former editor of Daily Times provided his ready made response to our questions. Excerpts.
Congratulations sir on your birthday. How do you feel attaining the age of 70?
When people ask me how I feel at 70, I laugh because you are asking me about the age of a cloth. The body you wear is a cloth which the Almighty has given you to use on earth. Without this body, you cannot manifest on this earth.
So I look at this body from the perspective of the wearer. I, Tony Momoh. I am the wearer of this body, like the cloth the body itself wears which can be dropped. This cloth, this body, can be dropped and is dropped at physical death to return to the earth, the dust it is made of.
I, the wearer, I am ageless, eternal. I am not a native of this earth. When I drop the body, I return to where I came from, what people call the Beyond.
I can tell you then that the age of my body is 70 years. But I, myself, I sense and carry in my mind age 35.
You are not known for celebrating your birthday. What is so significant about the age 70 you are celebrating this time around?
I’m not celebrating my birthday. My birthday is April 27. April 26 was a Sunday. What I did then was to host my club members, the Etsako Club 81 members. I hosted them because those born in a particular month host the meeting for that month in the home of one of them. This is what I did and nothing more.
What I was going to celebrate was the book that was written with me as a peg. Work on the book lasted seven years. There are three other books written by me that would also be presented.
Tony Momoh at 70 project is basically the presentation of that book, Tony Momoh, A National Bibliotherapist and Cultural Engineer.
This book is going to be presented along with three other books written by me. They are Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary Vol.1 and 2 and Tony Momoh Spiritual Essays. The Democracy Watch handles the agenda-setting role the media must undertake in performing its constitutional duty to monitor governance. I have done so since November 1999 every week.
How did you start practicing journalism.
I came to Lagos in 1962 and then wrote applications. The most important one was to the Daily Times.Alhaji Ismail Babatunde Jose was the editor of the paper. I called at the office a couple of times, and got to be liked by his personal secretary Mr. Giwa.
One day Giwa told me a letter had been sent to me in response to my application for a job. I said, “saying what?”
He said, “saying there is no job.”
Then I said, “I want to see the editor.”
Eventually Alhaji came out of his office, and I said, “Sir, I have written an application looking for a job here…”
He said, “Yes, we have written to you saying there is no job.”
I told him, Sir, I know your headache, sir.”
He said, “My headache? What is my headache? “
I said. “It is because I don’t have experienceand that is why you say there is no job. I have not done this job before…”
He said, “Yes. You have no experience…”
I said, “Sir, you know that you are known all over the world today because someone gave you the chance. Give me that chance for one month, don’t even pay me. If I don’t impress you, sack me.,,”
And I added, “If you don’t give me this chance, when I grow up and get married and have children, I will tell my children that I wanted to be a journalist but Alhaji Jose denied me the opportunity.”
He said, “You dare not do that.”.
I said, “Then give me a job…”
And he gave me the job.
“Where do you want to start?” he asked me.
“From the very scratch”, I said.
He gave me a job of trainee sub-editor. He promised he would train me And he did.
When I was applying to go to university in 1964, I had to list three courses in order of preference. My first choice was Journalism, the second was journalism; and the third was journalism.
The University of Nigeria, Nsukka was the only institution offering journalism as at that time and it was the only institution I applied to. During my last year at Nsukka, that was 1966/67, there was a problem in the East that later led to the civil war
Non-Easterners were all thrown out of the East. So we went to the University of Lagos where a programme was arranged for us to complete the degree course in mass communication.
Later I read law at the same university, went to Law School and was called to the Bar in 1975. I read law because I wanted to strengthen my grasp of the profession I had chosen to pursue in life, that is journalism.
Many people don’t know that when I became the editor of Daily Times in 1976, I was already a lawyer.I was the first lawyer to edit the Daily Times.
IBB is somebody that is viewed from different perspectives. How was your experience with him?
Very exciting, and very busy. That was one of the busiest times I ever had in my life. From day to day I was busy. Everyday I had to see people from morning till evening.
I don’t know if any other person has done it but I know nobody did it before me. I visited all the states of the Federation three times in three years.
I always spoke at about 13 locations in each state – the governor’s office, the state chairman of the council of traditional rulers, the federal ministry of information and culture offices, state ministries, newspaper, television and radio interviews and finally the press centre where I rounded off the tour.
How would you describe General Babangida?
Let me tell you what I have not told people. When I was minister, if there was anything going wrong, I would reach out to Babangida and say “One On One Sir.” By One On One, I meant two of us.
When we first met on One On One basis, I told him, “Sir, I would request that when I ask you for a One On One audience, you grant it. Only two of us will be there. You will please not at that time see yourself as president nor would I see me as your minister. I won’t abuse that privilege…”
I took that opportunity, which I must confess was never abused in the four years I was there, to tell him what was going wrong where I believed something was not just right.
He listened and did not ever ignore what I advised should be done.
Babangida is someone who consults widely.
Before I became a minister, I was part of the team from the Daily Times that went to Dodan Barracks to interview him. I was general manager of Times Publications Division and Chief Segun Osoba was managing director.
The editor, Farouk Mohammed, had asked for the interview. The managing director thought I should come along, and I did.
When IBB came into the interview room, he patted me on the back and said “Tony! How are you?”
I had never met him face to face before. He is a very kind man.
There was an occasion when he walked to one of the reporters in the presidential villa, and said “Happy Birthday.” Many of the reporter’s colleagues did not know that day was his birthday.
IBB just removed his gold watch from his hand and handed it to the reporter!
Some people say he institutionalized corruption…
I am not aware whether he was corrupt or not. There was nothing in the brief I had as a minister that said I should collect a percentage of the contract awarded to anyone and divert the money to any person or body of persons.
My second letter to my countrymen was titled, Corruption in High Places, and in there, I said that anyone who is corrupt opted for a personal agenda to be corrupt.
I was not the minister of finance but I am aware that not one of the total of 45 ministers who worked during his tenure was later called to explain any wrong-doing.
The most notable incident during your tenure was the death of Dele Giwa…
(Cuts in), In fact when I heard of the death and rushed to the office of Newswatch, then to the hospital where he had been taken to and saw the body, I was shattered.
The fact is that I was Dele’s next of kin and I was instrumental to bringing him from America back to Nigeria. And I was the one who introduced Dele Giwa to the Nigerian public because as editor of the Daily Times, I made him features editor and agreed that he should write three times a week! I even bought him a typewriter.
I was very close to him. We are from the same part of Edo State.
The fact is that a parcel bomb was delivered to Dele Giwa at his residence. Someone did it and that someone may think that he will hide forever. But there is no hiding place in Creation for anyone, for any deed, be it in word, in thought or in physically manifested action like the parcel bomb.
I said then and will continue to say, it is the work of the police to look for and arrest and prosecute someone who has committed a crime. Those who know anything about his death are the ones to give you information about his killer.