By Sam Omatseye
That afternoon, I sit with a set of fellow students, waiting to attend a lecture. A tall, lean fellow with a knowing smile walks up to me. We had known each other but in the quality of acquaintanceship. We said casual hello on hallways in the hall of residence and around the humanities block. And, of course, before we jostled through the narrow doors into our seats in the auditoriums.
“I am Femi Ojudu,” he said as though I didn’t know that. It was a compulsion of courtesy and polish that I had observed from afar. That compelled him to formalise that introduction. It was a time of politics at the then University of Ife, and he was not going to let it go without his voice in the drama.
Ojudu was not running for position in the students Union. He was making the case for another person. It was another friend of ours by the name Austin Onuoha. They were best friends on campus, and he was sticking his neck out for him and he wanted to enlist my endorsement.
“We want to break the jinx,” he intoned, “whereby only females are allowed to run for vice president in this university. Every position should be opened for everyone. Even female students should be free to contest for president.”
It was a moment also of intertribal innocence. He a Yoruba, Onuoha an Igbo, contesting for a position that had forever tenanted only Yoruba female. But he was earnest. Onuoha, too. I joined that act, though tangentially. I was not, in a manner of speaking, an insider in the campaign work. My sympathy and sentiment of friendship drew me to the candidacy and to vote. Onuoha did not win, but it sowed a seed in me.
Ojudu impressed me with his sense of loyalty and zeal. He moved from hostel to hostel, room to room, and to classrooms to evangelise something novel, even revolutionary. He was trying to do for students and to himself what everyone knew was right but somehow did not muster the intellectual or social or political will to pull it off. If Onuoha lost, something else won: the progressive spirit. And Ojudu glowed in than elan.
That was evident in the high spirit that Ojudu, now a close friend, brought into another chapter in campus politics. We were backing another candidate and classmate, Gboyega Oguntuwase, who was running for the plum office of president. He knew Oguntuwase, whom we knew as Georgie, more than I did, and together, including Onuoha, we launched the campaign for a friend and campus progressive.
Ojudu did not see Oguntuwase’s candidate as just a young man seeking office. He said it to everyone’s ear that he wanted him to bring a strong egalitarian energy to student’s unionism. It should be about bringing justice and amenity to students. To make the hostels liveable, food affordable, classrooms suitable and life sustainable on campus.
But he always had an eye for the bigger society. He wanted justice not just for the forgotten student, but the Nigerian in the margins. Unlike other student candidates who just fleshed out their manifestoes in sketchy, superficial terms, Ojudu wanted a comprehensive package. He travelled with Oguntuwase to see the candidate’s father and he told me how impressed he was with the man’s articulation of the challenges and prospects of the Nigerian society. The old Oguntuwase was a progressive. He wanted an egalitarian society as well in the tried tradition of Obafemi Awolowo.
He and Oguntuwase came together and organised a retreat where we brainstormed on the issues and solutions. It took a whole day, and it was a great intellectual fest. Again, we did not win. We learned something more precious than victory. It was an experience in political organisation and pulling together for a cause everyone believed in.
Ojudu’s sense of society was clear. We did not believe in the role of the army in governance. It was during the Shagari years, and we thought that the NPN was playing the wrong sort of politics. He lashed out at the politics of the day. People moved from party to party. Corruption was rife and accepted. Politicians promised what they could not deliver. Politics was colourful but vain. We had a boom of sorts in the economy and permitted politicians loose principles. It was in that era that N2.8 billion was declared missing from our coffers.
Moral suasion and intellectual integrity had started to take a back seat in the country. Names like Umaru Dikko, Adisa Akinloye, Joseph Wayas crested the wave of official recklessness in public office. In the opposition, Awolowo roared for an alternative path.
At the time, Ojudu did not see himself as a politician. He showed his contempt. He saw himself more as a writer for justice, for human equality in a setting of hardworking men and women whose potential for development should not be taken for granted. He wanted to be a journalist, or at the very least an intellectual in the ivory tower.
On Sundays, he loved to cuddle the newspapers in his Angola Hall room. He read the columnists of the day, Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu, Andy Akporugo, Sonala Olumhense, Sola Odunfa, et al. He loved to debate their prose and poses, tried to cut through the cants and ideological posturing and positions. He was not one for cant or ideological purity.
On campus, the Marxists were very loud. He did not bow to their worship of the Soviet Union, or the cult of Karl Marx. He admired but was not mired in their views. He was more in the mould of Fabian left, who wanted the basics of society to be guaranteed for the weak and left behind. But the dynamic of trade and commerce and the flourishing of individual talent and dreams must be accommodated with every society. The community must embrace the individual.
In class, he always associated with this position. Always stern and principled against the students and lecturers who only fell for the false premise that unfettered capitalism redounded in a fulfilled society.
He was also a campus journalist, and we collaborated in the founding a newspaper called The Parrot. It was not only a plate of hot news on the individual student’s failings and foibles, it rattled the students in the political arena. The newspaper thrived on our personal funds, and Ojudu was always willing to give. Just as he gave willingly to shape the content and its fiery onslaughts not only on self-righteous students who were behaving badly but also on the university officials when they acted as though they never should account to anyone, not least the students.
After his National Youth Service, he landed a job as reporter with The Guardian. He worked with its evening newspaper, The Guardian Express. It was his first job, and he took it with gusto, and also with ideological fervour. He loved to cover stories that exposed the corruption, inequality and hypocrisy of the society. I recall his frustration when one his editors stopped him from covering a story about political inmates who were allowed to go to hospitals on lies that they were sick. They took the opportunity to live almost normal lives. They had been held on corruption charges.
I hope then, as I hoped for myself, that he would secure an outlet for his views. The Nigerian society was in the grips of the IBB years. The quicksand autocracy of those years called for vigilance. The gap-toothed general had an appearance of a democrat, a conciliating persona that bore the brutal, wily interior lost on the casual observer. The times required journalists steeped in the nation’s history, in its problematic romance with democracies and almost messianic embrace of soldiers. We were as a people in schizophrenic times. We suspected the politician. We had been disappointed by soldiers. IBB represented a crossroads of a soldier as entrapment. He loved politics, played it in the military and was on the biggest stage to showcase his dexterity. He had the army and the society of old and tried politicians.
Journalists, including the role models, were gradually conned by the charming tyrant. Ojudu left The Guardian and joined Bayo Onanuga in the African Concord under editor Lewis Obi. Obi provided an atmosphere for ideas to contend, but he had not had a great panoply of men, until Ojudu joined as staff writer.
Ojudu was not complacent even though the magazine had begun to rake up news exclusives that the dominant Newswatch magazine missed. Newswatch was the magazine of first choice. It twitted power, investigated and unearthed many a disturbing pattern in the increasingly seedy regime of the IBB regime. But the magazine was now beginning to flag after the depredations of the army on the organisation. First dele Giwa was killed. Afterwards, the magazine was shut down. Its censorious personality was gradually shifting into a tolerance of official high-handedness and impunity.
African Concord was ready to take a bold step. At that time Obi started recruiting staff, and it was then that Ojudu asked me to meet Obi, and he hired me. We had a team of ideological soulmates. Not hard-boiled, straitjacket types, but ones with emotional investment in justice, fairness and equality.
Ojudu, Dele Momodu, Seye Kehinde, Kunle Ajibade, Ohi Alegbe and I worked together to lift the magazine from its old humdrum of recycled newspaper summaries to exclusive stories and incisive commentaries. Onanuga led this group with Obi lending a free hand as the overall boss who coordinated the ideas and approved story ideas and encouraged stories that stoked the system out of its complacency.
This was in the late 1980’s. By 1990, the magazine had overtaken Newswatch with its raw, irreverent gaze at the IBB years in spite of the publisher’s glad hand with the regime. It came to a head when the magazine was shut down by the IBB regime. I was in Canada then as a Gordon Fisher Fellow, and was already working in the newspaper, National Concord. When Chief M.K.O Abiola apologised and the Concord Group was reopened, Ojudu resigned along with Onanuga, Kunle Ajibade, Kehinde. Momodu had already moved over to join Mike Awoyinfa at the sensational Weekend Concord, sensational not just as a genre but in its professional accomplishments.
It was an act of principle even with no prospect of the next meals. They all had wives and children. But they felt the pulse of Nigeria deep in their veins, and they risked all for the integrity of their principles.
But more trials were in the offing. I had been in touch with him, Onanuga and Kehinde as they formed their news magazine named, without irony, as The News. With a great formal property and array of reporters, writers and writers, the magazine soared. But it was in mid-flight, unknown to them and the world. The future held a turbulent card, and The News cruised airborne and prospered in that turbulence.
The turmoil came with the annulment of the June 12 election that chief M.K.O. Abiola won. The paradox was inescapable. Ojudu and his colleagues were now in the forefront of a battle to defend their former publisher. From the perception of a bourgeois peacock, Abiola had turned into the rallying cry for Nigerian progressives.
The annulment gave The News a dangerous visibility. Its principal staff were in harm’s way. They also had the PM News and AM News to enrich the armoury. It was a three-pronged onslaught, and a fourth, The Tempo, became the most potent missile against the impunity of the army. The military had changed Nigeria from a state with an army to an army with a state.
The soldiers could not stand it. They arrested one of their colleagues, Kunle Ajibade, who was the editor of The News. Ojudu and the rest of the team were living in the suitcase. They hopped from hideout to hideout, and produced their publications on the run. They eluded the Gestapo, and this baffled them indeed.
They were fighting for a democracy that was shorn of the military hand the country had experienced for a generation. But first they had to not only run for their lives, but keep the battle abuzz. Nigerians looked forward to every line in the publications.
A few times I met with Ojudu, when he eased out of the shadows. He always seemed aplomb, sometimes excited, about the course of events. Above all, he illumined the space around him with an inexplicable optimism. I knew it was this bright view of the future that powered him along, so he looked beyond the dark pall that had fallen over the times.
Eventually, he left the country, and he had to return. He could not stay outside as the nation wrinkled at once with fear and defiance. Protests erupted on the streets, the military was shaky, Abiola gaoled, but the goal remained unshaken: to oust Abacha whose regime became even more draconian than the IBB era that he replaced.
Eventually he found freedom, but that was at the end of that era as Abacha passed on and Abiola fell from poison. Ojudu was to show gratitude for a new era but that, of course, was short-lived as Nigerians, in civilian toga, resurrected the indiscretions and corruption that the military exemplified through captivity. Civilians were displaying it in the cartoonish caricature of freedom.
That explains why he has put his feet in the waters of politics. He served a term as senator from Ekiti State, and played his part in pushing progressive agenda. The same he is doing as political adviser to the president in the office of the vice president. In politics, though, he is seeking an Archimedean place to stand. The future beckons.