Even his contemporaries regard Jahman Anikulapo as one of the best in a dying breed of journalists in Nigeria. A seasoned and very principled professional, especially in a climate where poor remuneration is an alibi to engage in unethical practices, Jahman is a beacon of light. When he clocked 50 in January – which coincided with his retirement as Editor of the Guardian On Sunday – many people saw it as a veritable opportunity to celebrate him. Actor, Activist, Arts Aficionado, Cultural Advocate and Journalist per excellence, Jahman is indeed a rare breed in a society grappling with many issues. In this exclusive interview with Sam Umukoro in Lagos, Nigeria; Jahman, for the first time, opens up like never before. He is not just an interviewer’s delight, but surely a reader’s delight as well. Enjoy!
Sam Umukoro Interview: When you clocked 50, it almost seemed as if everyone was falling over themselves to celebrate you with different events. Being publicity shy and avoiding any kind of unnecessary celebration that does not promote the arts, how did you feel?
Jahman Anikulapo: It was really very humbling that you clock 50 and everybody seemed to be interested in celebrating you one way or the other. I have always avoided having any sort of celebration, but when it came, I had actually planned something else for my 50th birthday and one of them was that I would have left the Guardian Newspapers by then.
Also, I thought about escaping somewhere to an island. I also planned organising an arts event, where I was going to put all my books, music and experiences, then invite a few friends for drinks and everybody disappears into their works.
But, like they say in table tennis, I was short served, because we started the celebration like two weeks before my actual birthday, so there was no way I could have run away. It was very humbling, for everything that people claimed I had done for anybody, I think I was born to do them.
I don’t see it as taking any extra effort to work with and mentor people, always organize and put them in some kind of framework that helps our collective humanity. It was very special for people to come out during that time for my 50thbirthday. But as they say the voice of the people is the voice of God… I could just say that I felt really humbled, honoured, favored and I think there was the mighty hand of God in everything that happened.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You are also a very good actor and have been involved in stage productions. How then did you become a journalist?
Jahman Anikulapo: I studied theatre arts and excelled as an actor, but then I also did dramatic theory and literary criticisms. I featured in three television drama, as well as in Tade Ogidan’s series, one of which became the film,Hostages. I could have taken acting as a career but during the Ajo festival, where we performed all these plays and kept struggling, sleeping in mosquito infested areas just to produce these plays, people didn’t even believe in what we were doing at that time and nobody was really writing about what we were doing.
People like Toyin Akinosho, who later also became a journalist, was my contemporary, as we were both actors in the Ajo series of plays. So we thought we should also be writing about ourselves. We wrote and pasted on the walls or sent to newspaper houses and sometimes it got published. That was where journalism came in.
Before then, I used to write for the dramatic society and debating society in my secondary school. When I got to the university, I had the option of dramatic theory and literary criticisms and went for it. I was also fortunate to meet Dapo Adelugba, who is the best professor of dramatic theory and literary criticism. He urged us to write, and review a play or movie everyday. Over time, my writing was shaped by all these experiences, I think that’s why I ended up in journalism..
By the time I graduated, Ben Tomoloju, whom I had a very close relationship with and who used to work with the PUNCH, had moved to the Guardian. Ben was the very first person to start up an arts desk. He also trained and recruited people to report the arts, not because it was simply a job, but also for the love of it. And at that time, I was being paid to write for radio, in a production called ‘Literature and Society’. When I moved to the Guardian, he told me to harness my talents on the arts desk, and it was the only arts desk at the time, anyway. That was how I went into arts journalism in the Guardian.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Some journalists who have risen to the zenith of their profession usually make the transition to public relations. Why didn’t you?
Jahman Anikulapo: My entry into journalism was more like a spiritual move for me. I also thought that the artists were under reported and under-appreciated. One of the things I decided to do was find a way we, as journalists, could properly position the artists as people who were making major contributions to the society, just as well as the politicians, parliamentarians, bankers and so on. So I thought that, just as I learned from my masters, my intervention will probably help to position the artists. It’s a continuous struggle, I’m not sure we have realized their worth yet, but I know that someday this society will rise up and begin to understand and appreciate them. They are like visionaries and leaders of thought in the society.
I think one of the basic problems of Nigeria is that we are spiritually undernourished. I don’t mean spiritualism in terms of religion, but in terms of what nurtures our beings, what can drag people out of depression and lift them up to some levels of happiness and elevate humanity. This society cannot grow until they begin to accord creativity and artists their due.
Sam Umukoro Interview: From a renowned arts editor, you became the Sunday editor of one of the most powerful newspapers in Nigeria. Would you say you also made money as an editor; did you get these much talked about ‘brown envelopes’?
Jahman Anikulapo:: I will say that I am rich in terms of ideas and probably the sum total of what came out to be as a result of my determination. But if we talk in monetary terms, I’d say I’m lucky and maybe also because I come from a relatively stable background and didn’t really have to struggle for money. However, my own personal philosophy was not to be too attached to wealth. I once rejected a house my father gave me when I graduated from the university.
As for brown envelopes, there were temptations. I could see it happening around me, but I tried to insulate myself. I spent 10 years as an editor and made it a policy that I was not going to meet any serving political officer, but at the end of every year, they would bring gifts and all those kinds of things. Sometimes there was no way you could even reject them; and before you know it, other people working with you have appropriated it, even though it came in your name… I told myself that I just wanted to be a reporter and build a career, but I was being idealistic. Then if I didn’t leave that post, the Guardian will not have another arts editor. So I had to leave and became the Sunday Editor. Being an editor exposes to you to a lot, and you had to meet with politicians.
All the same, I think I was systematically lucky that I just kept myself glued to my desk and was busy with so many other things. I was also producing arts events, organising for CORA, my own organisation C.A.C, I had so many distractions. So when some people say every Sunday they meet in one former governor’s office, I never had to go there. I was always at the beer parlour where artistes will be performing, that was a positive distraction because I didn’t have any reason to be so connected to any politician.
You won’t believe that I never toured any state in Nigeria since I became an editor, until recently. It’s only now that I am out of the newsroom I am beginning to discover these places. I have gathered wealth in terms of the relationship I have built. People, including artistes, come to me and claim that I have touched them in some way, through my writings or works.
I have good friends who are not necessarily politicians, but whenever I tell them about a problem, they will help me solve it. Maybe if I had some stack of money stored up somewhere in the bank, I will probably misbehave, not be sitting here talking to you, marry wives, build houses and start running after tenants. Today, I don’t have to bother about that; rather I will run after people who took my books (laughing).
Sam Umukoro Interview: As a strong advocate of arts and culture, what do you think is wrong with Nigeria’s policy when it comes to culture?
Jahman Anikulapo: I think if there is ever a most apt description of philistinism, it is Nigeria because other name of Nigeria is philistinism. This is because many don’t understand or appreciate beauty and creativity.
People don’t appreciate the art; we are not ready to appreciate it. In fact, when we blame the government and people in authority for not appreciating the art, we also have to blame the Nigerian people. How much investments are Nigerians willing to put on the arts? If you were to ask people to pay N100 for an arts show, you will have issues. But most can afford to buy N800 worth of pepper soup and a bottle of beer for like N600. If you know that thing gives you joy, why won’t you want to invest in it? That is why I generalize by saying the other name for Nigeria is philistinism.
Also, the government does not appreciate the arts because the people who run the government are from us. These are the people who believe if you are not wearing big agbada, you are not a big man; it is a wrong philosophy when people believe that it is the physical appearance that defines the essence. We don’t deal with essence, but we deal with, let me to use the word, ‘physicality’. The people we voted into government do not appreciate beauty.
I cannot understand a country of this size, that continues to have issues with unity and nation building, and it does not occur to us that arts is the first thing that could be used. We don’t have a cultural policy in Nigeria, a policy that guides us to say ‘look if you are an artist, this is the way we expect you to behave, or that if you want to sponsor the arts, this is the way we think we can appreciate the arts. Corporate Nigeria can wake up and give N80 million to one person and say that they are our ambassador… bring a reality TV star, pay her so much money to come to Nigeria, she appears for 20 minutes and then goes away. The money spent on that person is enough to even set up arts structures…
Like I tell people, I started my career writing on the birth of cultural policy 1987/88, up till now the cultural policy has not been realized. That’s why sometimes when I review my career; I say I am a failure because of that particular issue. The only thing that has been realised is having a ministry of culture and tourism, what about the other things, like having endowment funds?
We just lost Fatai Rolling Dollar, previously Sam Loco Efe, among others. An endowment fund, which is like a welfare scheme, would have helped these arts practitioners.
We are running a cultural industry without a cultural policy and having no endowment fund is like a country having no constitution. So why will you blame anybody who wakes up and will just bring anybody from anywhere and pay them so much money…? Because there’s no policy to regulate.
We are not saying, don’t bring the Beyoncé’s of this world, but if you bring Beyoncé for two million dollars, you must drop N200 million into the endowment fund’s account to be used to ensure that the artistes here continue to produce, but they will not do it.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Considering the artiste is so dependent on foreign or corporate sponsorship, how do you find the space for critical and alternative voices in the arts?
Jahman Anikulapo: In fact you just validated what I was saying. We cannot leave the corporate sponsorship of the arts in the hands of individual corporations, because if that happens, they will come back to dictate to you. But if there is a national policy which directs them to pay some amount into this endowment fund, say if you make a profit of N100 million, you must drop N1 million – like a state policy for protection, the state now becomes the interface between the artists and the corporate world. This is because the corporate world is shylock, they are like sharks.
The state protects you with that policy. That’s what happens in America. When Obama faced that problem during his first tenure, he told the republicans that they could touch any other thing, except the budgets for arts and education.
So the state actually exists to protect you, the policy should decide that artistes have to be protected so that they will be able to do their work and no one can tamper with them in the performance of their job because they do not have money.
The state should have an endowment fund for the arts, so that the space for alternative voices will always be there. England, through the British Council, give a lot of money to their artistes, but it does not stop them from talking, America and Australia will never stop their artistes, because they are critical voices. The state could come later to say, we don’t like what you are doing, but they will never muffle the voice, because the state allows you to do what you want to do.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Having left the Guardian, what is your plan in the next five years?
Jahman Anikulapo: When I was leaving the Guardian, I told myself that I really wanted to rest. That’s why I used the word ‘retirement’, and people were like, ‘how will you retire at the age of 50?’ But I really wanted to retire from the newsroom. I wanted to maintain my sanity because the newsroom that I had grown into, had changed; it was no longer the newsroom that encouraged the freedom of expression and thought. Capitalism had come in, the owners of the newspaper started asking why you were being critical of this and publishing this or that? That was not the newsroom I was used to. So I thought it was just better that I stayed out.
So when I said retirement, I meant in the sense that I wanted to rest from the newsroom and live my other life; organising programs, doing things around the arts, and having freedom to do other things. I’m still resting, but I do a lot of consultancy work for people, sampling the ground, and trying to decide the next phase of my life, because the only place I have ever worked is the Guardian. I worked there for 25 years. So I need to now sit down, review my 25 years and create another plan.
In all of my 25 years working in the Guardian, I never met the owner on a one-on-one basis. I think it is remarkable, that I worked with someone who never said I should come and defend what I wrote. In fact whenever we spoke, it was more about production rather than, ‘what are you publishing?’ I was also lucky to work with a good managing director, who never tried controlling what I published. I know what happens in other newspaper organisations. That’s why I’m taking a total break from the newsroom because I don’t see any other newsroom that would adopt that kind of thing. They did not interfere in what we were doing,
But then, I saw that the new school journalism was changing, and the Guardiancannot insulate itself, it had to change because it was a new management, new consciousness and business environment. So things have to change and I didn’t want to be a stumbling block; it is just honorable to let other people who could accept these kind of things. I believed that it was better I just made a clean break from what I thought the new school was now representing.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Considering that you worked with the same organization for 25 years, as well as your history as a journalist and cultural advocate, what does loyalty mean to you?
Jahman Anikulapo: For me, loyalty for me is everything. I believe that the only reason we connect is because we have something to share; it may be as little as a speck of dust, but there was a reason for the connection. There are billions of people in the world, that’s why I feel pained when I am betrayed by people whom I believe that I was really connected to.
People believe I know everybody, but I have a very closed circle of friends and that loyalty means a lot to me. People have hurt me before, just like I may have hurt some people in some ways, but it was never deliberate. The only thing that I see there is just connectedness, I don’t go to church, although I talk about spirituality a lot, because I believe that beneath loyalty is spiritualism, that we are connected at the soul.
Back then, I saw the vision driving the Guardian then and thought that I could be part of it and create my own universe. And I was able to do that. When I deal with people, I look at the universe surrounding us and believe that I can make my connections within it. I am also a very reserved person and take a lot of time to reflect on things. I’m surrounded by my books and music, so when I come out and connect with people, I take it very seriously; loyalty is actually everything to me. I don’t joke with it. My best friend, Toyin, will tell you that I defend that loyalty thing.
Sam Umukoro Interview: A female reader of the SUI website wanted me to ask this question. Hear her: she says women like you easily, that they flock around you’…
Jahman Anikulapo: Have you seen them? (Laughing)
Sam Umukoro Interview: So she is wondering why you are not married or have you been married before?
Jahman Anikulapo: I was… well, let me not say I was married, I attempted what they called marriage. I have had relationship that could be said to look like marriage, but there was the pressure of needs, our needs were very different. So I could see those needs and they needed to be settled. I think we quarreled over things that would have never have crossed my mind, like what kind of car and house we would have. If you see where I live, you will wonder whether I was ever an editor in Guardian but I am comfortable in my little environment, a place that is my sanctuary… I tell people many of our people go into corruption because of societal pressure.
Yes, I understand the pressures of having children and meeting their needs, I could have been in that picture… what if I had more than one son and a girl? What if I had three kids who had to go to secondary school at the same time, wont I be under pressure?
Will I live on my salary or have to sell the pages that I was editing? …So I understand why people do these things. I don’t have those pressures, only at a minor level, maybe that’s why I can continue to claim I am me. I try to maintain myself because I don’t have those pressures; marriage for me was supposed to be peaceful, maybe later in my life. I’m 50 now and don’t feel the need for it at the moment. It doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings, a girlfriend or whatever, but it doesn’t come at a cost to me.
I don’t think it is in my DNA to maintain a spousal relationship, because we could be in the home and I would just be in my own world and want my partner to be in hers, but she would want to cross into my world… I attempted it, it lasted two odd years and I thought then, ‘I’ve had enough’. So we called a family conference and resolved it. We have common interests in our son; just like with the mother of my daughter, we have the same common interest in our daughter.
Sam Umukoro Interview: After half a century of being a rebel swinging against the tide, how have you been able to maintain your sanity?
Jahman Anikulapo: I say it is a very easy thing to do; just stay insulated from the general madness, like the question about being an editor and making money, I knew the things that I could have done… That post is a very powerful post; all you need do is to put up something to harass them. I know people who are doing it, even publishers but I kept on telling myself that, ‘God, that is not where I want to be…’
It is in the DNA of this society to kill your dream. and many of the people who occupy this space that we call Nigeria, they were brought into your reckoning to kill you and your dream, you are not supposed to flower, the only thing you can do is to cut them off
I have a way of just drawing a circle and cut off everything else. Also, I am lucky that I also operate in the arts. I am around music and creativity. Like I once told someone, if I was probably a civil servant, doing 8am – 5pm, it would have been different and I may not have been engaged in any critical thinking, but more occupied with the thought of simply going to work and earning my salary. So I think my sanity has been well shaped and refined for me by my involvement in the arts. That solves the problem for me