The interview, last Wednesday, was to be with Mr Ray Ekpu, one of the four co-founders of the Newswatch magazine and a member of the 2014 National Conference. However, it panned out as a conference interview of sorts with four directors of the company – Ekpu, Yakubu Mohammed, Dan Agbese and Soji Akinrinade in the moderately-furnished office they share at Ikeja.
Ekpu was the main interviewee but the others chipped in comments here and there as the chat gathered momentum. In the no holds barred chat, where the quartet could not hide what obviously is a deep regret over what had befallen Newswatch, arguably the first news magazine in the country, Ekpu dismissed as hog-wash claims by former Deputy Inspector General of Police, Mr Chris Omeben that Newswatch directors shielded Kayode Soyinka from being quizzed by the police over the murder of late Dele Giwa, the first editor-in-chief of Newswatch, in October 1986. He also spoke on the error they made in allowing Mr Jimoh Ibrahim access to Newswatch and what they have been doing since the crisis began.
He also shared his thoughts on President Muhammadu Buhari’s war against corruption, ministerial appointments and the flickering flames of insecurity in the country. To him, dialogue, justice and equity are the surest ways to address the nagging problems including the agitation of some Igbo youths for the actualisation of Republic of Biafra.
ONE year after you won the case to recover Newswatch from Jimoh Ibrahim, how has it been?
It is exactly one year since we won the case and the other party, the losers are appealing and the matter is at the Court of Appeal. It has not been heard yet.
Why did you sell Newswatch?
We didn’t sell it. We wanted to expand the company, get a printing press, do a grade A newspaper and expand our publishing enterprise. So we needed investors.
One of our managers said he knew somebody who had made massive investments in the press and his name is Jimoh Ibrahim. We didn’t truly know him at close range. Of course, we read somethings about him in the papers. He must have done very good self-packaging and self-marketing that perhaps people who did not have direct business with him did not truly know who he was. I think perhaps, we fell into that category. We talked with him and had series of meetings and he didn’t give us that impression that he came to con us. He kept saying to us: ‘you are my elders. I respect you, I respect the way you do your jobs’ and so on.
Did we get taken in by these things? Maybe. And we dropped our guards and signed an agreement. The agreement was okay. Pay N510 million before May 5, 2011 and we give you 51 per cent shares. After three months, you pay N500 million. When you pay, you get receipt and share certificate. He did not pay any money. That was why we went to court. The Board chose Dan Agbese and I to collect the money on behalf of the company, issue receipts and share certificates. He didn’t pay and could not produce any receipt or share certificate.
He came, took over the company, ran it for one year and three months and we started fighting. One year and three months, he ran it aground and shut it down. That is why we went to court. We won the case on October 20, 2014.
So, we are hoping that the Court of Appeal where he has appealed the case will hear the case soon. It is not fair for people who have worked in an organisation for over 20 years of their fruitful lives, labouring and sweating with their children suffering not having the chance of enjoying the attention of their parents because they are working in an enterprise as tedious as journalism and somebody comes, takes over the place and for four years now, we are not getting one kobo from it.
He has taken the brand name (Newswatch), mutilated it and is making money from it and we are not having access to our property and brand name. It is grossly and patently unfair.
His take on Newswatch Times
Somebody has lost a case, which means hand-over Newswatch to the owners. To circumvent the decision of the court, he goes and registers the company and adds ‘’Times.’’
The brand name is ‘Newswatch.’ And the Corporate Affairs Commission, which is aware of what is happening had the effrontery and audacity to register a company like that without asking questions. We are fighting it in court.
On retired DIG Chris Omeben’s comments that Newswatch management shielded Kayode Soyinka who was with Dele Giwa during the parcel bomb blast from being quizzed by the police
That is a blatant lie because the police interviewed Kayode Soyinka twice and there was no compulsion about it. There was no reluctance on his part. The Police never asked Kayode Soyinka to come for a third interview. He was here for two months between the time that Dele Giwa died and the time Dele Giwa was buried. And he still stayed around before he left for London where he was our correspondent.
He was not working in Nigeria, it was the Dele Giwa matter that kept him for two months. And of course, the company could not afford to lose the services of this prime correspondent. He was the only correspondent for the company in the UK for that period. He left through the airport. The police knew he was leaving and they didn’t arrest him, they didn’t call him. A week or two after he left, it was curious they wrote a letter to us asking us to produce him that they wanted to interview him again. We responded and informed them that the man left and we gave the address and telephone number of Kayode Soyinka. We don’t know if they later got in touch with him or not. Police all over the world are international, they have their links, they have INTERPOL. What Chris Omeben is saying is clearly an after-thought.
Breakfast in the study
He thinks he can draw wool over people’s eyes and explain away their incompetence or inability or reluctance to get to the bottom of the matter.
On Omeben’s comments that Soyinka was a prime suspect, who was with Dele Giwa when the parcel bomb was brought but went to hide in an adjoining room before the explosion
Mr Omeben does not know the facts of the matter. They were sitting in Dele Giwa’s study. They were having breakfast in the study. Soyinka was sitting opposite Dele. And Dele received the parcel from his son, placed it on his laps and was trying to open it when it detonated. Kayode was thrown on the floor and his ears were perforated, for many months he lost his hearing.
So, he did not run into any room because there was no next room. I have seen reports saying he ran from the dining room to the kitchen. It did not happen in the dining room, it happened in the study. I know the geography of that building because I lived on the other side, two wings of a duplex built the same way.
Omeben does not know the facts of the situation that is why he is making all these speculations. The police men came there after that incident and they did not say it was at his dining room or anything like that. It is absolutely false.
How he feels that 29 years after, Dele Giwa’s murder has not been unravelled and Chris Omeben is making the kind of comments he made
Mr Omeben has been struggling to explain away the incompetence of the police or their reluctance to get to the root of the matter. Omeben published a book on this matter in which he accused the directors of Newswatch of having a fight within the board and he claimed that it is a product of that fight that the directors killed Dele Giwa. So, it is unclear to me whether he is revising his opinion by pining it on Kayode Soyinka, who he says is a prime suspect.
Kayode cannot be a prime suspect because I don’t think there is any sensible person, who would know that a bomb will explode in a room and sits face-to-face to the person who will open the parcel. It is preposterous to think somebody will do that. So Kayode Soyinka could not have been an accomplice or anything like that.
Again, Kayode could not have killed Dele Giwa because he had nothing to benefit from it. He was not even in the top 10 of the company at the time. So what would he gain by killing Dele Giwa? In the next 10 years after that he would never have got to be editor-in-chief of Newswatch because apart from the three guys there were other senior people including Soji Akirinade, Nosa Igiebor, Dele Omotunde, Onome Osifo-Whiskey and others. So you have to find a motive, why would he do it? Mr. Omeben has not given us a motive.
Three, you cannot even accuse directors of Newswatch of killing Dele Giwa whether you are talking about the external directors or the internal directors meaning the three of us (Ekpu, Mohammed and Agbese) because Newswatch was arranged in such a way that we didn’t have this question of seniority or juniority. All the four directors were equal. They earned equal salaries and allowances, they had access to the magazine, all of them wrote columns, decisions were taken collectively. So, there was no super man status for anybody as per to kill Dele Giwa so that they could take his place.
Fourthly, I don’t know whether people that make these allegations, like Chris Omeben, know that we take friendship seriously. You talk about killing somebody and that somebody is your friend. killing somebody itself is anathema, then killing your friend, I cannot even imagine that.
Maybe in the police system these things don’t matter, we are not of that mould. You can see that even when we left Newswatch, we are still here together. Those are not people who fight and kill themselves.
Why we made Dele Giwa our leader
Can I tell you how people were chosen for those offices? Yakubu Mohammed and Ray Ekpu met privately in Yakubu’s house, they decided that since the other two guys had problems with their employers – Dele Giwa was removed as the editor of Sunday Concord and brought as a member of the editorial board, which I chaired; Dan Agbese was removed as the editor of New Nigerian and was not assigned any position. Yakubu and I said to ourselves, ‘we can make these guys feel comfortable and make their former employers, who treated them badly, feel uncomfortable.’
Having shown that we have confidence in them, we want the two of them to lead the organisation, Dele Giwa as the editor-in-chief and Dan Agbese as the managing director. We announced it to them within five minutes and there was no dissent.
No in-fighting in the board
None of us felt inferior to the other. There was no in-fighting in the board.
The role of Omeben in the investigation
Omeben did not investigate the case. Alhaji Abubakar Tsav, who later became the Commissioner of Police in Lagos was the one who handled the investigation. He did a report and also appeared at the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa panel and gave evidence. The three of us were at the Oputa panel in Abuja and Lagos and gave evidence.
Tsav said he did an investigation and he felt that there were people he needed to interview and these people were in the military and he wanted the police authorities to get permission for him to interview these people, search their offices and houses. He submitted his report.
The police authorities, as represented by Chris Omeben, did not take action. They did not return his report to him, they did not reassign the case to anybody. They just did nothing. That is the role that Omeben played.
Now, he is telling stories, singing like a canary trying to exonerate himself and the police system over their pathetic failure to do something about an issue that became a national and international problem. Dele Giwa’s murder gave Nigeria a very bad name. Of course we had many assassinations since then and in most of the cases, the police have not been able to find the culprits. But in Dele Giwa’s instance, the tell tale signs were all over the place but the police could not do anything. In fact, even after the then Inspector General of Police, we wrote letters to each IG that came after but there is no reply up till today.
Did you write the current IG?
No. I don’t think there is any point. This system kills people and buries them and you can never exhume them. So, what is the point?
Who was the last IG you wrote?
I can’t remember. It is not important, we have gone beyond that. On the 10th anniversary of Dele Giwa’s assassination, we had an anniversary meeting in Ikeja and we said, ‘after 10 years, we have forgiven those who committed the assassination.’
So, we have gone beyond that. It is too late to talk about it. Who wants to do it? Who wants to bell the cat? The information has been out there in the public domain. The Oputa panel report said the police should reopen the investigation. Have they re-opened the investigation? They have not. If Chris Omeben said we shielded Kayode Soyinka from being arrested, why haven’t they arrested us? Why haven’t they questioned us to say, why did you shield this man, if they cannot find a way of interviewing Kayode?
Kayode has been coming here. He came to contest the governorship of Ogun State twice since then. He runs a magazine, speaks to the press and is everywhere. There is no time limitation on cases of murder. Why haven’t they picked him up and queried him?
Are you establishing anything like a foundation to keep the memory of Dele Giwa alive?
We had a trust fund that we raised money to deal with the problems of the immediate family. That fund has been exhausted and the objectives have been fully achieved. We didn’t need any foundation. Whatever else we had done as publications were done on one-off basis. We published some books and dedicated them to him. We have the Dele Giwa Prize for Investigative Journalism and we marked the anniversary every year till we retired.
On their work ethic and what they have been doing of late
We are old school, we still do it the old fashion way. We are doing book publishing. We have published six books since we left Newswatch. You know we used to publish books at Newswatch but here, we actually write the books ourselves. We also collect manuscripts from other people, assess them and if they are good, we publish them.
His take on the five months it took President Buhari to appoint his ministers and the quality of the appointees
Yes, President Buhari took five months and some others have taken fewer months but I don’t think that, that takes anything away from the goal of the government. You can take a decision in a haste and it turns out bad.
By and large, I don’t think the quality of people nominated is bad. I believe that it reflects on Buhari’s attitude, the type of people he wants to work with and the direction he wants the country to go. A few issues have been raised about a few of the people but these are the kind of things you expect in a partisan political situation. I know a few people, who were persuaded to leave their lucrative businesses and come into cabinet. I think the president has done well to assemble a team like that. It is for us to support that team because we really don’t have a choices otherwise we will go down.
The country is not in the best shape possible. The economy is almost flat on its back. Oil revenue is low and we need to think outside the box, on our feet, for this country to grow. There are a few issues here and there, I think we should go beyond these partisan issues we are raising and support the government to move in the direction of revamping the economy and restoring sanity in the system.
Supports anti-graft war
I am particularly thrilled by President Buhari’s attempt on tackling corruption. Whether it is partisan or not, I want to see corruption tackled. I want to see part of the $100 billion he said was stolen brought back. I really don’t care about people being put in jail because if we put them in jail, we are going to feed them. I am of the opinion that government must work out a mechanism of collecting nine-tenth of the stolen money from the looters.
I am for plea bargaining because of this question of having a long time in the courts, they will hire the best lawyers that money can buy and frustrate the system. I am wishing that the government can fashion a system where it can negotiate with these people that have stolen money, give them a plea bargain, collect part of our money and we move on. If you put them in jail without recovering the money, they will come back and enjoy their loot.
On the rising wave of insecurity and dissent in the country with Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East, struggle for actualisation of Biafra in the East and the menace of Fulani herdsmen in the South and North-Central, with some Yoruba leaders threatening secession recently
Violence has become the norm almost all over the world, there is escalation of global violence.
Part of it is the global movement towards democracy and lot of people take freedom as licence. The dissent and problems you listed are some of the fallouts of a democratic government. Democracy gives you the licence to shout or fight for your rights. These things cannot abate except we have a comprehensive look at the way we live as a country. What are the Biafrans looking for? Late Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu waged the war for 30 months with arms, with soldiers and they were ready to fight and die. He didn’t win.
Strong arm tactics
These people are not using arms, they are saying they want return to Biafra, they are tearing their Nigerian passports, printing Biafran currency, etc. This is just a pressure group, as far as I am concerned. They are going the extreme way to draw attention to their problems. They have Radio Biafra, there are pirate radios in different parts of the world. This is just a pirate radio.
The government doesn’t need to just arrest people and throw them into jail. We have to talk. We need to have a conversation. Ask the Biafran people, what do you want?. They feel that they have been marginalised and not given their fair share. A lot of people in the country feel marginalised. What it calls for is a conversation among the different groups. Strong arm tactics alone will not solve the problem. These are young people who were not born during the civil war. They came after the war. The old men who tasted war don’t want war. If you have ever been at the war front, you will know that war is dangerous. War is evil.
These young men don’t want war but they want a fair share of the national cake. I don’t know whether they are doing it right but they want their voice to be heard. They are sending petitions to the United Nations and so on.
My view is that we can have a conversation. You can’t rule people without having a conversation and finding out what is biting them.
Whether they are herdsmen, Niger Delta people, militants, Biafrans or Boko Haram people, these are pockets of disgruntlements. Let’s see whether we can talk, whether we can meet each other half-way. Nobody can get from the system all that he wants but people must get a bit out of the system for them to be stable and for the system itself to be stable. So, we have to have a conversation.