It is my unpleasant duty to pay this tribute to Prince Tony Momoh, a very significant member of the media profession who died on February 1, 2021 at the age of 81, 85 days shy of his 82nd birthday.
Eventhough Prince Tony Momoh had served in several vineyards as a teacher, community leader, lawyer, administrator, politician and humanist his roles as a journalist, a journalist’s journalist and a trainer of trainers in journalism have placed him on a prominently higher and more visible pedestal like a diamond ring on a beautiful finger.
The death of any man, even of an 81-year-old man like Momoh, is a calamity for two reasons. One, no death is replaceable. Two, every death leaves a gaping gap in the biological family, professional family and the family of humanity.
So, Prince Momoh’s death leaves a gap, in all three families, because he was a man of dignity, a man of simplicity, a man who was dedicated to the unstinted service of club and country, a man who was dedicated to the three families. Prince Momoh was born into the large family of the Otaru of Auchi, Momoh I in 1939. His father had 48 wives and 257 children so Tony Momoh needed no lecture on the meaning and positivity of diversity, a word that has become an ugly word in Nigeria today.
In the media profession, Prince Momoh held several positions: sub editor, reporter, Chairman of the Accreditation Committee of the Nigerian Union of Journalists, Secretary and later President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Board member of the Nigerian Press Council, board member of the Governing Council of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Training manager at the Daily Times Journalism Training Institute and Editor of Spear magazine.
But Tony Momoh made the most significant impact on Journalism when he ascended the throne of that grand and avuncular institution as the Editor of the Daily Times. The Daily Times used to be a very beautiful lady then, more beautiful than beautiful and many people, call them readers, were unnerved by her delectability.
This was before the military government gang-raped her and took her virginity away. Those who ran the show at the time tried to do a good repair job but by what magic, by what process, by what prowess can stolen virginity be restored or repaired? What the military government did to the Daily Times was not euthanasia but a hallucinatory, annihilation of a stout symbol of press freedom.
By the time I got to the Daily Times in December 1980 as Editor of Sunday Times, Tony Momoh had already made his mark as Editor and Trainer. I was not fortunate to come under the admirable tutelage of that meticulous task master but everybody I met there said he was meticulous, thorough, methodical and professional to his fingernails. Tony Momoh did me a favour without knowing it.
In 1977, the General Manager of the Cross River State Newspaper Corporation, Chief Efiong Essien had invited Prince Tony Momoh as an external examiner for the purpose of selecting Editors for the two titles in the Corporation, Nigerian Chronicle and Sunday Chronicle. Momoh set a written test for the seven of us who sought to occupy the two editorial positions. The ethnic vultures were swirling around seeking to plant their favourite candidates in those two chairs.
Tony Momoh stood by the result of the test he set for the seven of us. The following day we were interviewed by the Public Service Commission members with Momoh present. He defended his work and insisted that if they invited him to come and conduct a practical test for the candidates it means that they wanted the best for the corporation. That is how a man like me not from a big tribe, not having a godfather or a godmother and not equipped with the gift of sycophancy or flattery became the Editor of the Nigerian Chronicle at the young age of 29.
By his insistence on merit Tony Momoh made that possible. No journalist who was around in the 80s would fail to remember the epic battle that Momoh waged against the Nigerian Senate which summoned him to step into their chambers and disclose the source of information published in the Daily Times when Momoh was the Editor. Momoh went to court and challenged the order, insisting that non-disclosure of information source by a journalist was an article of faith in journalism practice. Momoh was a passionate defender of journalism’s essence and professionalism.
When Tony Momoh was to be sworn in as the Minister of Information and Culture in September 1986 he did not swear by either the Bible or the Koran. He simply said “So help me God.” Later, journalists asked whether he was an atheist. He said he was not “I am a Christian and a Muslim, when they are not quarrelling and neither when they are.” Religious irredentism still haunts us like an inscrutable mystery till this day. Tony Momoh was different.
When he was the Minister of Information, Momoh phoned me to come and see him in his office in Lagos. I was the Chief Executive Officer of Newswatch then. He told me on arrival that there is a document which President Ibrahim Babangida intended to take on his trip to France for a state visit. He said that the officials of his Ministry said that it will take them three months to produce the document. He told me that he believed Newswatch could deliver within two weeks. He gave me the job and the money and I left. It involved publishing the document in English and French.
We put the Newswatch machine on high gear and within five days the job was done and dusted. On the fifth day, a Sunday, I called Momoh to say I wanted to see him. “I hope there is no problem,” he asked with anxiety in his voice. I said there was a problem. He said I should come quickly. I rushed to his residence in Ikoyi with the printed materials. He received me at the door with anxiety written on his face. “What is the problem” he asked. I said: “The problem is that I have come to deliver the job you gave us.” We both cracked up. On that contract no kickback was given, no kickback was taken. Tony Momoh made that possible.
In June 1997, Tony Momoh told the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN) that it needed to do something urgently about the National Mass Media Commission and Press Court which General Sani Abacha’s government wanted to foist on the nation. The NPAN under the leadership of Mallam Ismaila Isa called a meeting of the NPO. The NPO directed me to draft a quick response to the two controversial issues. I presented a 17-point document to the NPO which was approved, printed and distributed to major decision makers in Nigeria. That 17-point document became our document of revolt, our war trumpet, our liberation creed, our magna carta. Tony Momoh made that possible.
According to Mr Taiwo Obe, one of the significant performers in the media industry, Tony Momoh seems to have an inexplicable romance with the number 13. The number 13, is according to legend, an unlucky number. In some countries that number is avoided like the plague. High rise buildings do not have floor number 13. In Tony Momoh’s case, 13 seems to be his lucky number, his good fortune talisman. Look at this: Momoh lived at number 13 Bush Street, Maryland; His law office was at 13 Sylvia Crescent, Anthony Village; he was the 13th Editor of the Daily Times; he was the 13th Minister of Information in Nigeria and the 13th Chairman of the Governing Council of the University of Jos. For him good luck was 13 and 13 was good luck.
I am proud to state without any fear of contradiction that Prince Tony Momoh our Journalism legend, our battle axe, our indefatigable warrior for press freedom and responsibility had contributed immeasurably to the eminence of Nigeria’s journalism. We are truly proud of his contributions because he made many things possible in our profession. Sadly, the one thing that he was not able to make possible was the prolongation of his own life beyond age 81. But his achievements will prolong his life in our heads and hearts. Prince.
Ekpu, the Chief Executive Officer, MayFive Media Limited, presented this tribute at a session organised by the Nigerian Media to honour nine of their departed colleagues in Lagos on May 21, 2021.