Tony Momoh: Titan of Times

Dr Femi Ajayi, a protege of Prince Tony Momoh, former Science Editor member of Daily Times Editorial Board and DG NDLEA in this piece paid a befitting tribute to the former Information Minister and politician who passed on recently…

The news flash of Prince Tony Momoh’s transition to luminous heights, as he himself would have described his own passage to immortality, was a rude shock to me. Though I was conscious of his being an octogenarian as well as aware of the great and impactful life that he lived, I still feel a personal sense of monumental loss because he was undoubtedly my destiny helper, having been used by the ever-dependable benevolent God and divine providence to kick-start my brief but eventful journalism career. And I am left with regrets that I did not celebrate him sufficiently while he was with us on this side of eternity. Perhaps I feared out of misguided self-righteousness that it was professionally inappropriate and that it would have smacked of self-serving predatory sycophancy for me to valorize the unassuming Prince when he was obviously in a vantage position to be a catalyst to my journalistic career.

Probably out of misguided modesty, I believed that it would amount to currying favour or meaningless hero-worshipping to catalogue the numerous virtues of this sober and highly reflective quite achiever. The unvarnished truth is that it was difficult, if not impossible, to tell the truth of Tony Momoh’s good nature, practical fairness, sense of social equity and natural justice as well as his genius and great accomplishments while he was still alive and in a position to influence things without sounding sycophantic. While I appreciated him in several forums and on many platforms, I feel like I did not venerate him as much as he deserved as one of my destiny helpers.

I acknowledge the brief and few privileged moments that I spent in the company and presence of Prince Tony Momoh, the ever-busy voracious reader and prolific writer, was intellectually edifying, professionally rewarding, soul-lifting and spiritually elevating. Tony Momoh was an obligate and natural philosopher, a journalist’s journalist, a writer’s writer, a mentor of mentors and a multivalent and all-round professional in whose presence your genius and intellectual pretensions was sure to be rebuked by his superior wit, native wisdom, and infectious candour. At the untimely death of my biological father, Chief E.B. Ajayi, which occurred during the early stage of my journalism career, Tony Momoh told me matter-of-factly that I should brace up to face my life with courage and conviction while my other senior colleagues were profusely consoling me. He philosophically posited that everything that happens to a man (seemingly good or bad) happens to him for his own good and that whatever we go through grows us. It was the Auchi Prince’s distinctive way of interpreting the scriptural saying: “All things work together for good for those who love God and who are called according to his purpose.”

Where is that Tony Momoh’s boy? That was typical Mr. Kola Ojo and Sam Ogwa, the News Editors of Daily Times at the time, both of blessed memory now. You would think they didn’t know my name. My Daily Times career had started with an unusual drama with me presenting a letter of appointment signed by the great and no-nonsense Prince Tony Momoh designating me a Senior Journalist, which the News Editors obviously considered bogus for a fresh graduate from the Times Newspaper Training Centre (TNTC) much later re-christened Times Journalism Institute. What does Senior Journalist mean, they censoriously inquired?

I had received my employment letter from the big man himself, after waiting for over six months for the automatic appointment that I expected because it was the tradition to give automatic employment to the Best Graduation Student of the TNTC. He gave me the marching order to report to the Science Editor, who was functioning from the Features Desk then and the News Editors, but he said that he expected me to be contributing both news reports and feature materials. My flamboyant title initially attracted both envy and mocking remarks to me in the newsroom as some old hands they wondered what this Tony Boy would contribute to the great Daily Times.

I remembered one sub-editor who was saying it loudly to my hearing: Tony has come with his “training schoolboys” again. I initially felt some hostility from both sub-editors, fellow reporters, and newsroom pool typists, which I partly attributed to the outlandish designation in my appointment letter. However, all the open hostility evaporated after the “red-letter-day” trashing of a story from an important assignment that I attended at the instance of Prince Tony Momoh. Being good in typewriting, I usually type my stories, but I gave this unique and obviously high priority story to one of the typists because it was important to type it before the daily news conference and because I had two other stories to type. Not being used to me giving him stories for typing, the typist did not only refuse to type the story, he threw it in the trash can. The next day the story which contained the major issue of the assignment I covered was missing from the Daily Times, but the subsidiary stories that I typed myself were published. So, Prince Momoh came majestically to the newsroom with obvious anger to the newsroom. How did you miss the big news about the event that were published by The Guardian and the Punch newspapers? I explained that I didn’t know why the story was not used but that I wrote it. We immediately and eventually traced the story to the trash can of one of the typists, who claimed self-righteously that it was given to him for typing by that boy on attachment (pointing to me!). The old typist, having gotten to Daily Times before I went to the journalistic school, obviously considered it audacious for me to ask him to type a story, though that was the job for which he was earning his pay packet.

Tony Momoh, in his characteristic bluntness, told all the typists that while he would encourage me to type most of my stories the way I usually do, they should not repeat the mistake of “refusing to type the good and meaningful stories that he expects me to write” judging from my academic exploits at the TNTC. To whom much is given, and much confidence is reposed, much is expected. I later became the darling of the news editors, sub-editors, and cub reporters whose jobs were simplified by my story rewriting skills and my readiness to take up any writing assignment. Through the mentoring of Tony Momoh and the patient nurturing of Chris Nnoli (the Science Editor) and Farouk Mohammed, and the later honing of my skills under the tutelage of the polished advocate and practitioner of elevated language, Onyema Ugochukwu, I eventually became a prolific science reporter and features writer after thoroughly learning the art of effectively communicating technical subjects to non-technical audiences. Throughout my rather brief but fruitful and fulfilling journalism career, I remained Tony Momoh’s boy and protégé in the eyes of those who knew about my rather dramatic entrance to Daily Times for he did not merely give me the job but made sure I got the space to practice my art and craft. The rest, according to the popular cliché of storytellers, is history.

The crafting of my preferred headline for this tribute, The Transition of a Titan of Times, is obviously reductionist and hugely limiting. It does not do justice to the much larger coast of the departed sage, given the fact that Tony Momoh’s journalistic professional influence transcended the Daily Times, the foremost surviving newspaper conglomerate then, and because of the spread of his mentees and protégés across all the major and minor newspapers and magazines in the country. Tony Momoh was not just a well-known and accomplished newspaper manager and journalism icon; he would equally be remembered for his dogged efforts to make journalism a respected profession that is free of quacks and fakes. He was at one time the Chairman of the Board that accredited trained and practicing journalists and he supported several initiatives to encourage journalists to practice the profession with honour, ethics, and excellence through the giving of awards to media houses and professionals who are adjudged to be exceptional and deserving of recognition.

Moreover, given the versatility of Prince Tony Momoh, he was not just a journalism icon but also a legal luminary who would forever be remembered for his titanic legal battles with law makers and authorities to safeguard press freedom and the right of journalists to protect their source of information. He encrusted both his journalism and legal careers in gold when he took the Nigerian Senate to court for trying to pressurize a journalist to reveal his source of information and in a landmark case he successfully secured the right of journalists to protect their source of information and asserted the duty of the journalist to make government accountable to the people through their reportorial and watchdog roles as detailed in his book, “News of the Forgotten” and enunciated in the Nigerian Constitution.

The urbane but pragmatic Tony Momoh was not one to shy away from politics that some intellectuals and self-righteous professionals regard as a dirty profession. He opined, rightly in my view, that wise and good people who refuse to participate in politics, or totally shun involvement in the election of political leaders as well as the sacred trust of ensuring good governance, do themselves and the society incalculable harm through their gross neglect and misguided self-righteousness. Prince Momoh said the idiot that the self-conceited wise man refuses to campaign against and vote out of power would willy-nilly continue to rule him and dictate his future. For those who would vote for the wrong people because of tribal loyalty, religious reasons, ethnic considerations, and other primordial sentiments he believed, like Mahatma Ghandi, that “if there is an idiot in power, it means those who elected him are well represented”! Thus, he advocated that all who rightly or wrongly consider themselves as good, wise, and capable for the sacred duty of governance should be involved as of right and as a duty.

Tony Momoh was an apostle of politics without bitterness, not for him the win-at-all-costs or the do-or-die duel approach to political engagements. He passionately counselled whoever cared to listen that the essence of leadership, like life itself, is service to humanity, value addition, improving the social condition of individuals and transforming societies to support human welfare. It is a fact of history that Prince Tony Momoh believed in Muhammadu Buhari and that he (Momoh) worked with Buhari and was Chairman of the CPC, the party under which Buhari contested to be President of Nigeria three times and failed to achieve his ambition.

The tenacious Tony stood by Buhari and was one of the architects of the amalgam of parties that became the Alliance of Progressives Congress (APC). The usually perceptive Prince, in one moment of hubristic historicism, confidently told Nigerians that in General Buhari they had a messiah and true leader who will turn Nigeria’s fortune around and he categorically said, “Nigerians should stone us (leaders of APC) if we fail to perform”! Momoh probably thought he could predict the trajectory of political events and see into the future to know which seeds will bear fruits and which ones would not. When it became obvious that Buhari might not be the long-awaited political Messiah and does not have the magic wand to end our national misery of insecurity, disunity, and poverty in the midst of plenty, the late Prince of Auchi, as a man of principles, still continued to hope and remained steadfast in his support for Buhari. But while others continued to defend the indefensible policies and political acts of Buhari, Prince Momoh adopted a wait-and-see posture. While he did not recant his political gaffe and seemingly suicidal statement to Nigerians “to stone us if we fail to deliver,” he maintained dignified silence.

The departed sage and wise man by all standard must have realized his fallibility and inability, like other mortals, to accurately predict tomorrow. He must have ruefully reflected that the bests of human beings are at best human, mere mortals that are unpredictable, fickle, and undependable, not worth guaranteeing with one’s life and blood. Tony Momoh reminds me of the concept of the looking glass self: we tend to see ourselves in others. Tony Momoh was a principled, even-handed, fair, and just man who saw good in every creature of God. This is the only way to explain Tony Momoh’s endorsement of Buhari despite his (Buhari’s) known anti-media proclivity and anti-democratic past. The Auchi Prince, like most other well-meaning Nigerians, must have truly believed that Buhari was a born-again democrat hence Tony Momoh’s candid and unabashed endorsement.

I would not forget how he helped me to develop my journalistic skills by asking me to cover special events, write supplements, draft speeches, do excerpts of lengthy articles for publication as well as book reviews, and sometimes draft official speeches. He did not tolerate lazy and unserious people and did not suffer fools gladly. He was known to have cancelled many badly written editorials and one-sided unbalanced news reports and asked the authors to begin again to produce something better, highly elevated, and more publishable. There was a time he made me to re-write a special supplement he was interested in five times before he said it was passable and deserved a place in the great Daily Times. An efficient and effective manager of men, materials, and monetary resources, Tony Momoh espoused the perspective that “you must not just aim to be right but must draw the bow with all your might and sight and meticulously set your target to ensure you hit the bull’s eye”. He was impressed with my diversifying the pages of the Science Desk from a weekly Science Times page to four full-fledged specialized pages, one each for Science and Technology Times, AgroTimes, Health Times, and Conservation Times that were published on different days in the Daily Times. I can almost say that the old Daily Times enjoyed its most robust and finest hours of science reporting during my tenure, all because of the positive motivations of Prince Tony Momoh and the editorial guidance of Chief Onyema Ugochukwu.

I still remember and cherish his many wise cracks and words that deserved to be cast on marble. I would never forget what he once told me, and some young journalists like me, that he (Tony Momoh) had “the rare and fortunate privilege of belonging to two demanding professions: Journalism, where it is a crime to demand fees for your reportorial services from a customer; and Law (legal practice), where it is almost a crime not to seek fees and reward for your legal services”! Not many people realized the professional bond that I had with Prince Tony Momoh. He himself probably did not realize that I saw him as God’s outstretched arm that assisted and guided my journalistic destiny. I believe that Tony Momoh’s intervention in my life was divinely orchestrated and directed.

But I regretted that he was saddened and disappointed by my premature departure from journalism and Daily Times to take up a job at the United Nations as an Information Officer. He believed I had the talents, drive and passion to make a successful career in journalism and told me pointedly when we met at any official United Nations event, where he was Special Guest, that I was “one of his brightest boys that he and journalism lost to the rat race for a living wage.” He said he thought I was enjoying my job as Science Editor and Member of Editorial Board of Daily Times? I replied with a dose of sarcasm that I was enjoying my job as a journalist but that I was not enjoying my paltry take-home (income) that could not take me home! The departed sage was obviously not pleased by my unceremonious departure from Daily Times, especially as I did not think it wise to warn him about my exit before it became a reality. The reason I did not inform him was that I feared he would convince me to stay even when it was obvious to me that it was time for me to move on to more fruitful and fulfilling engagements.

After some time when I believed time must have healed the wound of my betrayal, I tried to make up for my professional infidelity and the betrayal of his kind mentoring by leaving Daily Times prematurely. I was getting in touch with him and briefing him about my professional exploits at the United Nations. How I was trying to make the United Nations system a household name in Nigeria by writing scores of op-ed articles on the work of the United Nations. How I wrote a well-accepted book, “Reporting the United Nations: A Handbook for Journalists(1996), but the departed sage seemed to think that my leaving Daily Times was a blunder and the abortion of a bright career.

However, when I informed him that I had completed a four-year doctoral program at Walden University, United States and that I have earned my Ph.D. He sent me a congratulatory message saying that it was better late than never and reminded me that “the next great job is for the qualified man”! He remarked joyfully that it was heartwarming that public office has not dampened my quest for knowledge and scholarship. Unfortunately, the advent of COVID-19 prevented me from visiting him with the good excuse of showing him my certificate when I was actually longing for his company, for the wise cracks, the profound thoughts, spiritually ennobling insights, sublime statements, and words of wisdom that are guaranteed in his presence. Until recently, I enjoyed his inimitable style and the rich sense of humour anytime he contributed perspectives and messages on the Daily Times Alumni WhatsApp forum, which later became a Telegram platform. I was therefore shocked and dismayed when I learnt from online sources that the Titan of Times has transited.

All the same, the great Tony Momoh, who was a living legend of journalism and legal luminary amongst us till January 31st, 2021, has gone to meet his maker. However, his memories will remain and endure with us because he has carved his love in our hearts. This rare gem and gift of God to Nigeria lived a good life and touched many lives. Tony Momoh needs no epitaph to guard a name that would be venerated in any society where selfless service and purposeful leadership are cherished. Let marble crumble and let mortar set, Tony has transited to luminous heights!

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