In this interview, Ray Ekpu, a retired Chief Executive Officer, Newswatch Communications Limited, raised an alarm that youth population in our country is a time bomb waiting to explode…
What is an update on the protracted legal battle between Jimoh Ibrahim and Newswatch Communications Limited?
Thank you very much for this opportunity. My colleagues and I retired from Newswatch on May 5, 2011 precisely. We invited a man called Jimoh Ibrahim to come and buy 50 per cent shares in the company. He came and took over the company. He didn’t pay the money and he ran the place for one year and two months. And we hope we will get justice and reclaim the company from him and decide on what to do next.
Do you regret associating with Jimoh Ibrahim because of the way the deal ended?
Yes, because we didn’t think Newswatch would end the way it ended. We thought that when people retired, Newswatch could have been in safe hands and it will move from that level to a higher level. But that didn’t happen. Those are some of the setbacks that you have in business; because you never know their true character of the personality, until you actually come close to him. William Shakespeare said there is no art to find mind’s construction on the face. We have moved on since then, and we are doing training of journalists, book publishing and media relations, among others. We are in a somewhat different track now.
As a journalist with impressive track record, are you happy with the way journalism is being practised today?
Well, there are merits and demerits on the levels of practice that we have today. First, demerits- we are better equipped now. You can use your phone and send email, messages and so on. The advantages are innumerable. So, this has contributed largely to improvement in our practice. You can ask, there is information on the internet, Wikipedia, and other social platforms. So, this is also an advantage. So, as it is normally said, there is no advantage without disadvantage. While we have an advantage of better technology to enhance our performance and bring us to the cutting edge of journalism practice, we also have these setbacks. The second setback we would have is in the quality of education, not just the education of journalism practitioners, but the quality of even the readers- those who read and receive media messages, assimilate the information that we send out. But, by and large, one should say that the quality of practice has gone up considerably when you look at the quality of newspapers, you don’t just look at the low quality newspapers and make a judgment. These are publications which will stand the test of time, but when you look at the mainstream media, you can say that the standard is relatively high. There is always room for improvement. I believe that the professional growth will work towards making the practice look like a truly deserving profession.
How can NUJ or any other body weed out quacks from the journalism profession?
NUJ does not have the power to weed out quacks or anybody for that matter. NUJ is a trade union. But the combination of the three groups: Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) can do something; if they are truly worried about the prevalence of quacks in the industry and the bad reputation that they are bringing into the practice. I think they ought to be seriously worried about it because in the long run, if one thing is soiled, it brings rot. That is what the quacks are doing; they are giving journalism a bad name. And it could also affect those who are practising professionally. So, the three groups ought to worry about it. The Nigeria Press Council used to do something about it; even then, the press council didn’t have the teeth to bite. It was just toothless, because it didn’t have the power of sanctions. I do know that in some occasions, the press council, even under eminent man like Alhaji Odunewu, invited editors to come and answer queries based on their reports and they refused to attend to answer those summons. So, even at that level with a man as eminent as that, the journalists didn’t show respect to the press council. So, I think that it ought to be something that is done voluntarily by the three groups. In fact, when I was President of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), I actually went after these touts that have separate groups, give awards, write gang stories, distribute and collect money. So, I went after those special groups and I said they should just get on to the NUJ. When I left, they went back and started doing whatever they were doing before. It has to be a concern for all of us who are in the business. How do we sanitize it? It’s not that there won’t be problems in the profession, you have problems in the medical profession, you have in the legal profession, but they have bodies- disciplinary bodies. We don’t have, and appropriately, we ought to have.
At 57, has Nigeria done enough to justify its political independence?
Every country at 57 makes its achievements and its mistakes. Nigeria has made its own fair share of achievements and it has also made its mistakes. There is no perfect country in the world, and Nigeria is far from being perfect. We have gone through a lot of turbulence, in the 60s and 70s, and even the instability at the present moment. But those constitute what one can still call growing up pains even at the age of 57. Nigeria is a walking progress; it’s not a perfect creation. It wasn’t a perfect creation from the beginning, but the various governments have taken different initiatives to try and make the country united and make the country progressive and for the people to benefit from the meekness of Nigeria. In that journey, Nigeria has made some achievements. It has also made some mistakes, but the important thing is to have faith in the country and continue to work at it to improve what can be improved, and to move on as one united and progressive country.
What should be done to groups or persons agitating for break-up of the country?
There is no question about it. Every group has the right to feel that it is not getting a fair share of the national cake. I believe that those legitimate aspirations to get a bigger and better share of the national cake, and that is human aspiration, and it is not indigenous to one group, is global as far as Nigeria is concerned. Every group feels somehow in one way or the other politically, economically or socially. There is no single ethnic group that you would talk to in this country that will not say that it is marginalized, either in terms of appointments, in terms of projects, or other amenities. But the important thing is that in a democracy, there must be a forum for resolving these differences, for listening to grievances, so that they don’t feel left out, and then become a source of disharmony and a source of implosion in the country. That has not been significantly handled. That is why you have these vicious statements in different parts of the country. I believe we ought to have a meeting point, where people can bring their grievances to the table, and we discuss and dialogue and consult each other, and make concessions. Life is a case of give-and-take, and the life of a nation is the same thing. You have several components forming the nation. They must give and take for the country to move forward. And because this is not happening, we don’t have a forum where people can bare their hearts, vent out their grievances and discuss and wrestle with each other, and get what they can get and move on. You have to do that as a country, as a leadership, you have to do that to get the kind of country we want. Everyone will not be satisfied with the result of whatever the result will be, but at least, everybody will have a chance to get what he can get from that dialogue. That is my view.
On clamour for the restructuring of the country, what are your views?
It is long overdue. It is a pity that we moved away from the 12-state structure, which Gen. Yakubu Gowon created. I think it is my personal opinion that that was a more perfect structure for Nigeria. It created a balance between North and South, and the states were not too small to survive, and were not too large to swallow up people. But subsequent years, various military governments kept adding up the country into a multiplicity of states, due to pressures and their own personal interests and political decisions just to get adoration from the people who wanted creation of states. But creation of states eventually became an albatross on the neck of the country. Two-thirds of these states are not viable at all. They just go to Abuja, collect money and 80 per cent of the collections used for salaries are recurrent expenditure, 20 per cent is left for capital projects. That is why we are going to have stunted growth and many of the states are not making money from internally generated revenue, because of the indolence and going to Abuja to collect money from the federal pool. They have lost their sense of creativity and the hard work that brought a lot of development in the 60s in this same country- that initiative is gone. Everybody just goes with a bowl to Abuja at the end of the month, and collects money and comes to pay salaries, and then nothing else is happening. So, restructuring is absolutely necessary. Some of these agitations that we are seeing, are products of the kind of system that we now have, which has created a lot of unemployment, a lot of poverty that hasn’t been alleviated, unemployment that hasn’t been dissipated, and these have propelled youths to say ‘where is our future?’. And the future is being gradually mortgaged because we are borrowing a lot of money now to solve resident problems and people will have to pay for the money with interest in the years to come. So, the future of the youths is bleak right now, and about 70 per cent of Nigeria’s populations are made up of youths. So, there is a problem; it is a time bomb that is waiting to explode, and I would ask President Buhari to decide where we are going to. It is not a matter of talking about 2019. Are we going to get to 2019? But that is going on now in different places, not only about fighting Boko Haram. Yoruba people are asking for their Republic and so on. So, these are signs that things are not normal, that things need to change, and I believe in restructuring by whatever name you want to call it.
What should National Assembly do to assist states relying on the monthly allocations from the federation account?
It’s not the National Assembly. I think the states have to look inwards. All the states of the federation and it is actually the Federal Government, not even the National Assembly. The Federal Government can cause appropriate legislation, that is where the National Assembly might come in, and decentralize the exploitation of solid minerals- the solid minerals including gold in all the 774 local government areas in the country. But these minerals are largely exploited by illegal miners, and that has been the case for a number of years, and the Federal Government hasn’t done much. It is the same problem that you have with liquid minerals-oil and gas. If you don’t have a policy whereby those people who live in the areas where these minerals are exploited benefit, you will never get the best out of it, because there will be disruptions just as we have been having disruptions in the Niger Delta oil and gas. So, it is up to the Federal Government to bring the legislation to the National Assembly, and to push through, even if it wants to accept the same 13 per cent for solid minerals and a certain percentage for the areas where these minerals are allocated, so that the people can directly benefit, and don’t disrupt the production process of these minerals. You have to do that for everybody to benefit. If you do that, a lot of the unviable states will become viable.
In addition, they can draw their attention to agriculture. Agriculture was a major source of sustenance in the 50s and 60s. We had farm houses, and so on, which the Israelis were teaching Nigerians. These farm houses are still available in some parts of the country. If you go to Israel, a desert country, they are producing food by drip irrigation, and it is successful. If you go to the Arab territory, that is barren, but in the same territory the Israelis use drip irrigation, and they export a lot of things. They produce enough for their country, and they export. So, if Nigerians draw attention to agriculture in large scale, I think a lot is happening in that now. A lot of rice production, cassava production, and a lot of yam production, and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development actually said some time ago that Nigeria is about exporting yams to various countries. There is a lot we can get from agriculture. Any type of food can grow in this country, and because there is technology, there is enhanced species of crops. We are no longer doing shifting cultivation, you cultivate here, and in four years, you come back. You can cultivate the same species every year. There is improved fertilizer, improved seedlings, so the laziness that is showing now is because we had oil, and we just went to sleep and then told the oil companies, just bring out the oil and sell it and give us the money and we abandoned agriculture. Now is the time to crawl back to agriculture and ask for forgiveness like the prodigal son.
TO BE CONTINUED…