Nigeria: ‘I interviewed Thatcher, Gandhi, Sankara, Mugabe but Awolowo was best’ – Ogunbiyi 

By Eniola Akinkuotu
Posted on Friday, 14 October 2022 13:49

Yemi Ogunbiyi (photo: Premium Times)

Very few living Nigerian journalists can boast of the achievements of Yemi Ogunbiyi. In the 1980s, this Fullbright scholar was an employee of Nigeria’s 'Guardian' newspaper and later Managing Director of the government-owned Daily Times, where his travels across different continents to interview world leaders and newsmakers made him a trove of insight and stories.

Between 1983 and 1990, Ogunbiyi interviewed no fewer than 15 heads of state. Some of them include: General Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria), General Ibrahim Babangida (Nigeria), Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Margret Thatcher (UK), Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso), Muamar Gadhafi (Libya), Shimon Perez (Israel), Rajiv Gandhi (India) and Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan).

In April 2022, President Muhammadu Buhari congratulated Ogunbiyi on his 75th birthday, extolling his “insight into issues and contributions to knowledge and public discourse”. Buhari noted that Ogunbiyi left his footprints in “dramatic arts, literature, journalism, publishing and […] academia, both in Nigeria and other countries”.

A few months ago, this veteran journalist and lecturer at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), wrote his memoirs titled The Road Never Forgets and organised an elaborate book launch, which was attended by notable Nigerians, including Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, and a host of governors.

In his expansive library located in his upscale Victoria Island home, which harbours a large collection of high-end African sculptures and paintings, Ogunbiyi goes down memory lane, recalling his exploits in the media industry, especially the notable interviews with world leaders.

He tells The Africa Report that of all the notable figures he interviewed in his journalism years, the late Obafemi Awolowo – one of Nigeria’s founding fathers – remains the most impressionable.

Awolowo the sage

“We interviewed about 15 heads of state, including the UNESCO director-general who was not head of state, but the most impressionable interview was with Chief Obafemi Awolowo and he was not even a head of state. After him was Thomas Sankara.

In fact, Sankara was the brightest African leader I ever interviewed. He was a fantastic guy. Some of the things he said at the time are still very much relevant today and he was only 36 at the time, but Awolowo was outstanding in his thought processes; intellectually he had depth, which we didn’t see anywhere,” Ogunbiyi tells The Africa Report.

He threw me off completely when I interviewed him.

Ogunbiyi recalls glowingly that Awolowo, who was a lawyer and philosopher, was a bibliophile who had practical and brilliant answers to every question and often had facts and figures on the tip of his hands at a time long before Google existed.

The veteran journalist notes that his interview with Awolowo was more of dialectics than just a mere question and answer session

“He threw me off completely when I interviewed him. He asked why I called Bola Ige [ex-governor] Cicero in my article. I told him that this was Ige’s nickname in school because he was an orator. Chief Awolowo then said you don’t [refer to] someone you love [as] Cicero.

“He said Cicero was beheaded. He asked if I had heard of Demosthenes. When I said ‘no’ he shook his head. He said Demosthenes was a Greek orator while Cicero was Roman. He told me of the old saying, ‘when Cicero spoke, the people said how well he spoke but when Demosthenes spoke, the people said let us march’. I was deflated completely,” Ogunbiyi says.

Incidentally, like Cicero, Ige would be murdered 14 years after the Awolowo interview.

Confident Sankara

The veteran journalist also spoke highly of Sankara whom he interviewed in 1985 shortly before he was killed in a coup. He says Sankara exhibited wisdom and confidence even though the interview was done through an interpreter.

“The interview was in French, so we had to use an interpreter. Interestingly, Buhari was the military head of state in Nigeria at the time and Nigeria had just shut its borders. Sankara, who did not seem impressed by this, said Nigeria has big men but you don’t have a big country,” Ogunbiyi says.

In his interview with Robert Mugabe, the freedom fighter turned sit-tight leader, who would go on to rule Zimbabwe for 37 years, from 1980 to 2017, the author says Mugabe received journalists warmly and never gave the impression that he would be a sit-tight leader.

“We never assumed he would perpetuate himself in power. All he wanted at the time was socialism for Zimbabwe. He said it would not be a problem. I was also impressed with him at the time. I was 36 at the time. Mugabe was also young too, although older. We saw a man that was conciliatory towards the white citizens at the time,” he says.

Gandhi’s fear

The author also tells us about his two separate but memorable interviews with India’s youngest prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who took office at age 40.

“Gandhi had us flown to Bangalore in the south where they were building India’s Silicon Valley. He asked us to see the small-scale industries and how they were planning to transform India,” he says.

In this second interview, I asked if he was bothered that he could get killed on the job as prime minister

The author recalled the second time he met Gandhi was when he accompanied Nobel Laureate, Prof Soyinka, who was visiting India to deliver a lecture.

“I accompanied Prof Soyinka to India where he was going to deliver a lecture. When the lecture ended, I went with him to have tea with the prime minister. Gandhi recognised me again and I brought out my tape recorder. He said ‘oh no, not again’ and we all laughed.

“In this second interview, I asked if he was bothered that he could get killed on the job as prime minister. He was startled that no one had ever asked him such a question before. He said yes. It bothered him.”

Gandhi was killed not too long after the interview. He was only 46.

The Iron Lady

Ogunbiyi recalled his pleasant interview with UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who had been nicknamed the Iron Lady because of her stern leadership style.

“She was also very warm even though she was referred to as the Iron Lady. During the interview, her press secretary signalled to us that it was time up, but she overruled the press secretary. She said interviews with Nigerian journalists were rare,” Ogunbiyi says.

“She asked that we be given a tour of the war room which was [in] the basement of number 10. When she couldn’t immediately answer my last two questions, she said she would send the answers to George, the high commissioner. When I got to his office, he said she had already sent the answers by fax. He said ‘that’s Margaret for you’, what you see is what you get. They were on first name terms and friendly.”

Bhutto’s rage

Ogunbiyi, however, notes that not all his interviews left a positive impression on him. He says that after his interview with Gandhi, the prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, also invited his team for an interview at a time when tensions between Pakistan and India were at an all time high.

“I didn’t realise that the tension between India and Pakistan was so deep. I asked her about Rushdie’s book titled Midnight’s Children and I said now that two midnight’s children are in power in India and Pakistan in the person of you and Gandhi, would there be less tension, she said unprintable things about Mr Gandhi.

My worst experience was with Bhutto. She was nasty to us…

“It was so bad that the press secretary begged me to delete parts of the interview when we had finished. So, it wasn’t a pleasant interview,” he says.

The interview ended abruptly after his colleague asked her a question about doubling as a nursing mother and Pakistan leader.

“My worst experience was with Bhutto. She was nasty to us, which was an irony because she was in her 30s and she came from an influential political family. She had been president of the Cambridge Union, she had visited Nigeria and we thought she would behave properly. The interview started well, but then halfway into the interview, the editor of Sunday Guardian, Amma Ogan, asked what I believe was a harmless question.

“Bhutto as a sitting prime minister had just given birth to a baby. Amma asked how she was able to combine motherhood with her duties and she flared up. She said it is none of our business. She thought the question was intrusive. The interview ended at that point.”

He notes that in 1985, his interview with Nigerian military Head of State General Buhari was not a memorable one either.

“Buhari’s interview too was not very nice because this was the only interview we had with a head of state and there would be armed men sitting in the room. It never happened anywhere else at that time”.

Regan, Castro miss

He, however, regrets not interviewing Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Yasir Arafat of Palestine, both of whom had officially invited him for a press engagement. Ogunbiyi says he had to cancel the interview because it coincided with the funeral of Chief Awolowo. He, however, did not get a second opportunity to interview them.

The author also recalls visiting the White House to interview President Ronald Reagan, but this was called off after a government emergency.

Nigeria 2023

The 75-year-old author says many of these interviews were very difficult to get as they required constant phone calls and letters to foreign embassies, something most journalists were not patient enough to achieve.

He notes that many of the world leaders he interviewed at the time – including Nigeria’s heads of state – were in their 30s and 40s.

Today, however, the younger generation has failed to take leadership positions in their country. In Nigeria, the two frontline candidates, Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, are in their 70s, hoping to lead a nation with a large youth population.

On whether Nigerian youths would take their destinies into their hands in next February’s polls, Ogunbiyi does not seem not too optimistic despite the fact that the ruling party has not done well.

“I don’t see the youths taking the country into their hands despite the #EndSARS protests they were able to pull off. Toppling a political establishment needs serious work. They need cells and organised groups but it is not happening,” he says.

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