At different points in his life’s journey, Dele Momodu, publisher of Ovation International magazine, has trod different path; from being a scholar, administrator, teacher, reporter, columnist, photographer, political activist, detainee, actor, hotel manager, and even marketer for the late Chief MKO Abiola’s wonderloaf.
However, one major thing has largely defined every stage of his life and career trajectory – his penchant for thinking outside the box. In 1982, against the tide and despite his wide exposure to English literature and scholars like Wole Soyinka and Kole Omotosho, he chose to study Yoruba for a first degree at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife). “Do you want to become an herbalist?” Momodu recalled his mum asking him then. “The other thing was that I wanted something very spectacular. I wanted people to underrate me and say because I studied Yoruba, I was not brilliant,” he recalled. He fuelled his rising profile for undertaking the unbelievable when he proceeded to bag a Master’s degree in Literature in English in 1988.
Since then, Bob Dee, as he is fondly called, has not looked back in his adventures into uncharted terrains. Forced into exile in London by the late General Sani Abacha for championing the June 12, 1993 election cause, which his mentor, MKO Abiola reportedly won, but was annulled by General Ibrahim Babangida – who was then military head of state – Momodu, with the support of friends, started Ovation in 1996. Although there were many others before him, Momodu’s Ovation has since gone on to redefine the landscape of celebrity journalism/reporting in Nigeria and Africa. “It was turbulent when we started. They said it won’t last six months… But we have been able to do what people thought was impossible and we are still managing ourselves to carry on. Ovation would be 17 years old this month (April). Africans must believe in themselves,” said the successful journalist and publisher, entrepreneur, and one time presidential candidate.
In this exclusive interview in London, Momodu pulls no punches about his days in exile after the June 12 struggle, Abiola, his journalism passion, Ovation, criticisms of President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, and in his words, why he doesn’t make a fetish of his humble beginnings, like having no shoes while growing up.
SU: You must have had some very nasty experiences over the course of interviewing influential or controversial figures?
DELE MOMODU: In reality, the funny thing is that we have never interviewed controversial people. We cover events like every other newspaper or magazine. But because of the quality of Ovation and success of the publication, all the attention was always on us. Please tell me what Ovation is doing that Genevieve, ThisDay Style, Allure in Vanguard or Life in The Guardian is not doing? They go to weddings, we go to weddings. If the Abachas or Babangidas are getting married, we would go there. That’s our job. The job of CNN is to cover everybody; the same way they would speak to President Obama is the same way they would speak to Osama bin Laden or Gaddafi if they were available. Was it not on CNN, Sky News and the newspapers that we saw the house where Gaddafi lived? But in Nigeria, we tend to adulterate and bastardise everything. So if Ovation shows you the house of Abacha, it means that Ovation is corrupt; whereas if Hello shows you Saddam Hussein’s palace, nobody in Britain is going to accuse them. One of my favourite analogy is this; you say a man stole your money and I show you how he is spending it, then you hold me responsible. It’s crazy. If someone steals your money and a publication comes to show you how this man lives, and you leave the person who stole your money to grab the other’s neck to say he is promoting corruption, how come? So, how would you have seen the houses where these people lived if a journalist did not show it? How would we have known about terrorism and Osama bin Laden? They even showed us their terror training camps. So would you say they were trying to encourage people to become terrorists? They are just doing their job.
SU: Against the odds, you ran for the presidency in 2011. Did you really believe that you would become president or was it just a far flung expectation, especially as very many felt you stood no chance at all?
DELE MOMODU: You see, you must never allow difficulties discourage you in life. I knew it was going to be very difficult to win that election. But trust me; I believed that if Nigerians were serious about change, then, there was no reason why I couldn’t win it. Firstly, I had expected that the media would educate the people about the quality of candidates. But I was very disappointed. It was even the media that told me from day one that I had no chance. The media rated Nuhu Ribadu, a police officer; Atiku Abubakar, a former (Nigerian) customs officer; Goodluck Jonathan, a former teacher; and underrated a publisher of international repute. Some people said, oh, I won’t waste my vote by voting for Dele Momodu because I know he can’t make it. But it’s a game of numbers. If all those who believed in change voted for me, then Jonathan would not be president. Then I would be president. But, not in a country where we live in self-defeatism. Before an average Nigerian starts anything, he is already looking at one thousand obstacles. It was only one pastor who called me and gave me hope. I don’t go to his church. He said, Dele, I’m following what you’re doing, please don’t give up, people cannot see where you are going, but don’t let anybody discourage you. There was nobody that (President) Jonathan knows today that I did not know ten years before him. Is it Aliko (Dangote), Femi Otedola, Mike Adenuga, Jimoh Ibrahim? But, everybody was afraid. That is the problem in Nigeria. Once a man is in power, then everybody moves towards him. Yet, there were a few people who believed in my dreams and knew that I was trying to make a statement; that when you have alternatives, consider them. They said, ah, our votes won’t count. If it was so overwhelmingly obvious, nobody could have stopped it. But I also knew from experience that John Kuffour in Ghana contested three times before he became president. Professor Atta Mills also contested thrice before he became president. I knew that Abraham Lincoln tried so many times before he made it. So, as they say, the journey of a lifetime begins with the first step. I’ve made that first step. I’ve shown clearly that I am not going to sit down at home and complain that Miss Nigeria is ugly when I won’t allow my own daughter to contest. That is the situation of Nigeria, people sit down at home, complain and lament, like Jeremiah, that; oh, Miss Nigeria is very ugly, how can this one represent us? Meanwhile, you have beautiful daughters at home and won’t allow them go for a beauty contest. That is how politics is.
SU: Did your contesting for the presidency affect your relationships with some of your friends, like some of the ones you mentioned? Did they abandon you?
DELE MOMODU: No, no. I sympathise with most of them. I knew that in their secret corner, they would have wished for somebody like me to be president of Nigeria. But you can’t blame them. Most businesses in Nigeria would collapse if government decides to attack them. Even one or two that I met said, Dele, don’t worry, we would do things. They didn’t do it. I understood… because I understand our society. I know many of them had even suffered persecution in the past based on the misperception that they were supporting one candidate or the other. Obasanjo or Jonathan could go after anybody who tried to support the opposition. If they know that you support opposition in Nigeria, you are ruined.
SU: If you were to throw a party, do you think these aforementioned names would come, considering the fact that you are also highly critical of the current administration, especially with your columns in ThisDay?
DELE MOMODU: Oh, yes. People respect me because they know that I speak the truth. They know I’m not vindictive. I don’t write to attack government. That is where I am different. I don’t know about other critics. I criticise Jonathan to help him become (a) better (president). I don’t have anything against his person. I respect authority and respect him as the president and commander-in-chief of Nigeria. I won’t go personal and abuse his person. I will abuse his policies. It’s nothing personal. If Jonathan makes it today, I would benefit from it, but he will carry the glory. The reason I criticise Jonathan is because sometimes it occurs to me that, maybe this man does not know what God has done in his life. What he has today on a platter of gold is what some people died for. Some of us went to prison for this. It’s why some of us were forced into exile, why Yar Adua died in prison and Obasanjo spent so many years there. That is what he got on a platter of gold, without even asking for it. So, how would you now compensate God for that blessing? He is the luckiest man I know on earth.
SU: Interestingly, you and President Jonathan share almost similar humble beginnings. How much did your humble beginnings help you today to become the success you are?
DELE MOMODU: For me, I don’t make a fetish of humble beginnings, no shoes, no this; it doesn’t matter. That is in the past tense. What is important to me is God; the fear of God is what has helped me to know that if He helps you, you must help humanity. People don’t know because they expect you to announce what you do. Most of the things I have done since 1978 when I entered into the University of Ife is to see how I can make our society a better place. When Jonathan was being oppressed, I went on the streets of Abuja with others. If you go on the internet, you will see the pictures; police grabbed me, almost killed me. I didn’t know Jonathan. I have never gone back to him to say, oga, I demonstrated so that you would become president. No, I don’t do things because I’m expecting monetary gains. I’m a thorough bred professional. I know the kind of money journalists who don’t even have Ovation make today. It doesn’t bother me. Nobody can say, oh, Dele came here to interview me or threaten me that if they don’t do things for me… it doesn’t matter. I do my own work and leave the rest to God to bless me.
SU: It is a well-known fact that the late Chief MKO Abiola was your mentor. How much impact and influence did he really have on your life and career trajectory?
DELE MOMODU: Oh, plenty, because the first job I got in Lagos in 1988 was at Concord Newspapers. Concord gave me sporadic promotions. I came in as staff writer in 1988. By February 1989, I was moved from the African Concord magazine to be one of the pioneer staff of Weekend Concord, which started in March 1989. And within two months there, I earned double promotion. From staff writer, I became literary editor. I jumped senior staff writer. Six months after, I moved from literary editor to news editor. I became number three on the Weekend Concord hierarchy; Mike Awoyinfa, Dimgba Igwe, Dele Momodu. Six months after that – exactly two years after joining Concord, I left to become the editor of Classique, which made me the highest paid editor in the whole of Nigeria by 1990. And MKO never left me. When you leave some employers, you become their enemies. But MKO and I got closer. I was able to travel with him. He was able to mentor me, give me inspiration, and support me during my wedding; before, during and after. We did so many things together. Till this day, I’m still very close to the family. In fact, the family regards me as a member of their family. Today, Abiola’s children anywhere in the world see me as their dad’s son. He announced it publicly that I was his adopted son. So that influence alone opened a lot of doors for me.
SU: Why do you think many people were very critical about the interview or pictorial excursion Ovation did on the Abachas some years ago, especially considering the close relationship you, as the publisher, had with the Abiola family, as well as what transpired between Abacha and Abiola back then?
DELE MOMODU: Ignorance. Newspapers are not operated on such sentiments. Before it was closed down, the Concord newspapers gave publicity to everybody, including Babangida who annulled the (June 12, 1993) elections. When the Abachas had their wedding and people say Ovation gave them publicity, Ovation was not the only magazine there. All other newspapers were there. So why should we not be there? It’s the job of journalists to report the good, bad and ugly. That’s our job. In fact, that particular edition, the first edition we did on Abacha, opened my eyes to a lot of things. That was the first time we sold every copy of Ovation. And when we investigated, we realised that all their friends and enemies bought it. You see, controversy sells. So, if the Abacha go to a pharmacy owned by the Abiola family or friend, they won’t sell drugs to them because they are Abachas? If they came to Lagos and go to the shopping mall, would people say that because they are the Abachas, they shouldn’t sell to them? You see, people expect journalists to be (like the) Lamb of God who take away the sins of the world. Nobody has suffered more than me for this Abiola cause. I was thrown into the dungeon. People sat down in their homes, nobody protested when I was in Alagbon Close. Abiola himself was thrown into the dungeon for four years. He was there and nothing happened, until he died. I was in exile. The first day we got into our house in London, my family and I could not even buy ordinary cutlery, no duvet in winter. You would not believe it. It was Bola Tinubu who gave me the first five hundred pounds. People don’t know. It is very easy to just sit down in your house. To run a business is different from running sentiments. Ovation is a business of its own. If anybody is doing wedding, they call. Most times, I don’t even know who is doing an event, like I’m here with you in London now. If you want to do something in London, Lagos, Ghana, Cotonou or America, you call our respective operations offices there. Am I going to say, before we agree to cover your wedding, we must find out if it is Abacha? That is not journalism. I’m sure you’ve interviewed people that you don’t even like. Let me also tell you something from being an Abiola devotee, he never trained me to be vindictive. After Babangida annulled the elections, Abiola wrote a letter to him; that, my friend, what you’ve done to me is very terrible, but despite that, we are still friends. Today, Nelson Mandela is the greatest statesman in the world. He should have killed all the people who put him in prison for 27 years when he came out. What did they do immediately? Reconciliation. Nigeria today is under perpetual tension. That tension can kill it if care is not taken. Why? Because the politicians and people are so intolerant. Everybody is abusing or against everybody. We should learn from South Africa and how to be statesmen. Without Abacha, there would have been no Ovation. I thank God that Abacha chased me out of Nigeria, if he had not, there was no way there would have been Ovation today. So who am I to challenge God? God used a bad situation to create a positive situation in my life.
SU: You are widely travelled and have worn many hats; including being a teacher, administrator, reporter, columnist, photographer, political activist, actor and hotel manager. How did all these experiences shape you and your life’s philosophy?
DELE MOMODU: The greatest exposure you can have is to be multi-faceted. I have been very fortunate that right from my young age, my best friends were always older than me; from Chief Omoboriowo, the Ooni of Ife to MKO Abiola, Mike Adenuga and Hakeem Bello-Osagie. These were all distinguished Nigerians whom I was well exposed to and they were able to influence me in many ways. I’ve realised that in life, you must be focused, consistent, and tenacious. You must never let anything hold you down. In life, some people are going to love or hate what you do, but, most importantly, the best way to punish your enemies or detractors is to remain successful. And God has been so kind to us. Definitely, going all over the world has been a great education. I’ve been to all the continents now. In fact, it is what gave me the encouragement and the confidence that I can run Ovation. Nigerians think leadership is about politics. No. Leadership is about managing people and resources. The reason why Nigeria is where it is today is that most of the people who lead us have never managed people or resources. When you see the way they mention projects in billions when they come out of their federal executive council meeting every Wednesday, you will know that these people have never done business. Anyone who has ever done business would know the value of a billion. It is a lot of money in any currency. But, Nigeria is pouring it away like rain water. We are all witnesses to what is happening in Cyprus. Nigerians believe that we can continue to spend and waste money and wouldn’t end up like Cyprus. I doubt it. One day, things would become so bad like it was in Ghana when people could not even buy soap, rice or vegetable oil. That’s my prediction if we continue wasting resources the way we are now. Everywhere else, people waste resources on infrastructure. We waste ours on intangible things; champagne, automobiles, mansions. Nigeria today parades the best Rolls Royce in Africa, on bad roads (laughs). Does it make any sense? We buy Porsche and Lamborghini, on bad roads. We build house in places where if it rains, the whole area would be flooded… I have 17 years from now before I turn 70. And I tell people, you must always count your age, when you count your age, then you count your blessings. At 53, I shouldn’t be chasing anything again. I should be building legacies, impacting knowledge, influencing generations. But what are people doing in Nigeria? At 80, they are still in politics, chasing contracts.
SU: With the many issues bedevilling the country, do you think there is still hope for Nigeria to get it right?
DELE MOMODU: My way of saying it is that hope is the last thing a man loses before he dies. There is always hope, although it is now fading for me and my generation. When Soyinka and co. said theirs was a wasted generation, I though, okay, we had a chance. Now, I’m no longer so sure that ours too would not be wasted, if it has not been wasted already; because we are getting old. But, I think the greatest problem I find, especially with the present Jonathan administration, is the way they waste money. If Jonathan tomorrow can put in place austerity measures that are genuine, not fake ones, if he can come up today and say that they should cut down the presidential fleet from about 14, I don’t know how many they have now, to two; that everybody else, after the vice president, from senate president to speakers of house of assemblies, should sell off their planes and that we are going to create an enabling environment for entrepreneurs, because there are so many bright people today who just need money, one or two million here and they would create jobs. It’s something that I know. It’s a blue print I had during my presidential campaign, that look, the N18 billion they put in the budget for that year would have provided 18,000 new millionaires. That’s the value of N18 billion. Each of the 18,000 would be able to cater for at least 10 staff. That would give you between, there are people who would get 15 to 20 staff, but an average of 10 would take over 200,000 people off the streets. So if they do that, if they can say that the national assembly budget of maybe N300 billion a year would be cut by 25 percent… There is nothing that makes a politician extraordinary that he cannot share the suffering of Nigerian. Some of that money can be pumped into creating entrepreneurs, infrastructural growth and agriculture; Nigeria would change. See what has happened in Jordan, where the King has merged portfolios and reduced the number of ministers. We don’t need all those ministers. They would say, constitutionally, you must have a minster from each state. But if our politicians were serious, they can tackle these things. You want to create more states when the ones you have cannot survive and are not viable. It’s stupidity. That means more governors, commissioners and state assemblies. Why are we throwing money away? The inability of our leaders to sacrifice their comfort zone is our biggest problems. Why can’t we do it differently so that the results would be different? This government is following the same template that has always been there. Don’t we know the results already? Failure.
SU: I know you enjoy reading. Besides that, what are your other hobbies and do you particularly follow football or have a favourite team?
DELE MOMODU: Oh, I do. I claim to follow Arsenal but I’m not crazy about teams. The thing about me is that I’ve always been a very objective person. I see football or any sports as a game and treat it as such. The same way when I watch a movie, I see people cry during movies. But I won’t cry, because I see it as a play. Maybe it is also because I’ve been an actor myself. So I’m always conscious of that. But really, my main passion is reading and writing. It’s very difficult for me to do something else. I don’t even have time to watch movies. Reading and writing takes so much of my time. And with the social media these days, you can see I’m on the phone at any given time. I would say I also love to travel. For me, it’s the best form of relaxation and education. Everywhere you go is a new experience.
SU: Considering what you’ve gone through in your journey as a journalist, would you support any of your sons to become one in the future?
DELE MOMODU: Oh, certainly. One is already showing that kind of interest, in entertainment. He sings, dances, writes and loves photography. I bought him a professional camera. He’s only 15. He went to South Africa with his school the other day and he was the school photographer. Also, when Serena and Venus Williams came to Nigeria, he went as a school photographer. So, I’m already trying to encourage him to take into photography because that is the future of journalism. More and more people are finding it difficult to read. But it’s very easy to look at pictures. So you can tell stories with pictures and this is what we do in Ovation. People are seeing that. Because the pictures are beautiful and glamorous, they see it as celebration. But it doesn’t occur to them that we are just reporting. Our job is to report.
SU: What would you want to be remembered for?
DELE MOMODU: That a man from humble beginnings worked assiduously to climb to the top and was able to use that experience to affect humanity positively. Look at Chinua Achebe now. No matter what happens, even if you forget him, you won’t forget Things Fall Apart. It’s the same way I want to be remembered. When I go away, I want people to say there was a great African publisher who was able to unite Africans through his publication. If you go to Ghana now, you would think I’m Ghanaian. A lot of people are aware of Ovation in Kenya. During the African Nations Cup in South Africa, I met a lady who said Ovation was her favourite African magazine. A few minutes before then, we were almost going to quarrel over a seat. That has been my experience everywhere I go. I went to China and thought nobody was going to know me there. It was not so. I meet Nigerians everywhere I go. Most of them stop me and call my name immediately, and say, oh, you are the Ovation man. So, we have been able to build a double brand and I pray that we can keep it going to the extent that even when I’ve gone 50, 60 years from now, people would still talk about it. People still talk about the Drum magazine till today. You don’t forget a good thing. People still talk about Fela today. I believe people will talk about Soyinka and Achebe forever, the same way people are talking about William Shakespeare. That is why when I look at our leaders, I wonder what drives them. Do you want to be remembered as one of those useless leaders or you want to be remembered like a Mahatma Gandhi, a Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Chairman Mao, or Lee Kong Chian in Singapore. That’s what drives me and that is how I would love to be remembered.
SU: You once had a public fallout with one of your closest friends, Reuben Abati. Has the relationship broken down irretrievably?
DELE MOMODU: Oh, not at all.
SU: How close are you guys now?
DELE MOMODU: Oh, we are as close as ever. He called to apologise and that was it. I was very pleased the moment he called to apologise. I would not have even responded, but for the fact that he brought my wife into it. Reuben and I met at Bola Shagaya’s son’s wedding in Abuja about last month or so. I went to greet him and his wife and he also came to my table to sit with us. It’s nothing personal. Doyin Okupe is one of my closest egbons today. The battle for Nigeria is nothing personal. It’s about the well-being of our people. You and I, if we struggle hard enough, we will be able to feed our families. What about those who have no chance of doing that? We must think and worry about the poor. My greatest joy today is that I’m touching a life wherever they sell Ovation. Out of every copy of Ovation sold, each of those agents on the road in Abuja, Lagos, Abakaliki, Onitsha, wherever, must make between N500 to N700, sometimes N1,000 – from just one copy. They have families to feed. So we are touching lives of thousands of Nigerians globally through that single magazine. And I employ Nigerians to do everything to help us promote and sustain it; because if it dies, it is not only Dele Momodu that you have killed. You have killed the dreams of thousands of people.