From theatre stage to media space: Interrogating vocational odyssey of Yemi Ogunbiyi at 70 – Part 1
This essay attempts an examination of the variegated professional career of Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, one of the most prominent shapers of contemporary media practice in Nigeria and his contributions to Nigerian theatre scholarship; literary criticism and new journalism in Nigeria. It traces his vocational origins as a theatre scholar and practitioner, through his venture into journalism, as an innovator and seasoned administrator in two of Nigeria’s largest newspaper conglomerates in their time, Guardian Newspapers Limited and the Daily Times of Nigeria Plc, and his more recent endeavours in public relations, advertising and publishing.
It is not unexpected that contemporary engagers of the Yemi Ogunbiyi phenomenon will most readily define him within the context of his most recent endeavours in advertising, public relations and publishing. This will be most fitting for a man who has devoted the better part of the last three decades in the challenging terrains of these variegated, albeit mutually compatible vocations.
For the avoidance of doubt, about 25 years ago, Ogunbiyi launched into advertising and public relations, when he established Tanus Communications Ltd, to compete in a market hitherto dominated by much older brands in the industry. With pre-existing labels such as Lintas Ltd; Insight Communications Ltd; SO and U Ltd, and similar outfits, already setting the pace in the sector, Ogunbiyi’s creation was without doubt, a neophyte.
Ogunbiyi’s Tanus Communications, which began operations May 1992, started less than five months after his exit from the Daily Times of Nigeria Plc, where he had functioned as Chief Executive for almost three years. Followers of his media odyssey, which began at the turn of the 1980s with the establishment of The Guardian, had, presumably looked forward to the extension and continuation of his career in journalism, the profession which had brought him so much fame and goodwill in the preceding years. His foray into these extensions of the mass media, without doubt, elicited confoundment from many.
Not too many remember, however, that Ogunbiyi actually began his illustrious professional career, which has spanned the better part of the past five decades, in the theatre. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Ibadan in 1971; attended the New York University, Brooklyn for graduate studies and received a Master of Arts and Doctorate Degrees, respectively, between 1972 and 1976. His Doctorate thesis, supervised by the American scholar, Richard Schechecner, was based on film criticism. He subsequently returned to Nigeria to take up a lectureship appointment at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University).
As he turned 70, April 13, 2017, however, it became germane to interrogate the career and enterprise of this scholar, former university teacher, journalist, administrator, public relations doyen and publisher, to properly situate his contributions to these professions and to national development. This is critical so that salient aspects of these endeavours are not casually subsumed under the canopy of his most recent ventures in the Nigerian business and commercial sector.
Ogunbiyi’s vocational origins are resident in the finest traditions of the academia, his ideological affiliation and scholastic temperament distinctly of the left-wing Marxian hue, without genuflections. He thus found good company in the Department of Literature of “Unife”, (the abbreviation by which the University of Ife was popularly known), with colleagues like the venerated Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, and the younger Biodun Jeyifo, the fiery critic and theorist; Kole Omotoso, the prolific novelist and literary documentarian and the highly respected oral literature scholar, Godini Gabriel Darah.
Ogunbiyi joined Soyinka, Omotoso, Femi Osofisan, Dapo Adelugba, Rasheed Onikoyi, Joel Adedeji and Femi Johnson, on the cast of the film adaptation of Kongi’s Harvest, written by Soyinka and co-directed by Soyinka and the African American film director, Ossie Davies, during those years preceding the eventual blossoming of a film and television sub-culture in the University of Ife. It was not any surprise therefore, that following the re-configuration of the Department of Literature and the subsequent establishment of the Department of Dramatic Arts in 1977, Ogunbiyi was one of the very first members of the academic staff to be redeployed to the new creation, to join Soyinka.
Ahmed Yerima in his keynote address at the Third Edition of the Ife International Film Festival, November 29 to December 2, 2012, notes the foundational role played by Ogunbiyi in the development of a film and television curriculum for the University of Ife: “Film and Television did not come into the Department of Dramatic Arts curriculum until 1978, when the degree programme was started…. The Ife curriculum was greatly inspired by Yemi Ogunbiyi (who) was seconded from the Department of Literature to assist Soyinka in setting up the Department of Dramatic Arts…. Ogunbiyi’s background in film gave birth to the course which was titled ‘Film and Television’.”
Against the backdrop of his endeavours in film and indeed his facial resemblance to the revered African American film actor, Richard Roundtree, who was a household name in the 1970s and whose stage alias was “Shaft”, Ogunbiyi was equally nicknamed Shaft by his numerous contemporaries and friends. He later proved to be the critical shaft of many organisations and initiatives in which he was involved, over time.
In 1981, Ogunbiyi released the seminal work: Drama and Theatre In Nigeria: A Critical Source Book. The volume which was edited by him, is an assemblage of rigorously researched academic essays by some of the most formidable names in dramatic criticism. These include Soyinka, Jeyifo, Ossie Onuora Enekwe, MJC Echeruo, Ola Rotimi, Dapo Adelugba, Ulli Beier and Ebun Clark. The work remains an invaluable resource material for teachers, students, researchers and enthusiasts alike, in the generational evolution and multicultural dimensions of drama and theatre in Nigeria, as envisioned by Ogunbiyi in the preface to the book. There he defines his motivation for the volume as one informed by the need to:
“…Readily make available those essays which are not quite accessible to students of African theatre history in our universities and colleges. It would also promote a serious starting point for the much needed re-evaluation of Nigerian drama and theatre.”
Side by side with his teaching pre-occupation, Ogunbiyi also teamed up with Jeyifo to co-found Positive Review, a journal of society and culture in Black Africa. The journal encapsulated the thoughts and ideals of a generation of left-inclined creative writers and scholars, including Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie, Odia Ofeimun and other more familiar names at the time. Ogunbiyi rose to the position of Senior Lecturer and Acting Head of the Department of Dramatic Arts, before he joined the Editorial Board of The Guardian newspapers on an initial one-year sabbatical, at the inception of the newspaper, in 1983.
Recounting his first meeting with the founder and pioneer publisher of The Guardian, Alex Uruemu Ibru, in a December 12, 2011 tribute, Ogunbiyi says: “I recall clearly my first meeting with Mr. Alex Ibru. It was in June of 1983. After months of prodding from Dr. Stanley Macebuh to join the nascent team at The Guardian, I accepted his offer to visit the premises of the organisation at Rutam House. And as was the tradition in those days, Dr. Macebuh took me to see Mr. Ibru first. Coming from Ife, with my heavy dose of latent left wing biases, I was not sure that I wanted to meet Mr. Ibru just yet. The meeting turned out to be brief…” Ogunbiyi subsequently agreed to join the Editorial Board of The Guardian, the intellectual engine room of the organisation.
In The Whole Truth (2004), a compendium of selected editorials of The Guardian from 1983 to 2003, edited by Reuben Abati, Ogunbiyi is listed in the top ten bracket of 72 full time members of the board; visiting members and consultants alike, among some of the most highly regarded names in the media industry. His colleagues included contemporaries from the academia like Macebuh, Onwuchekwa Jemie, Chinweizu, Osofisan, Herbert Ekwe Ekwe and core media professionals like Sully Abu, Sonala Olumhense and Lade Bonuola. Whereas his primary editorial brief consisted of generating editorial topics, canvassing them at regular sittings of the board, drafting editorials and sustaining regular op-ed contributions to the newspapers, the creatively restless and expansively-minded Ogunbiyi spawned several editorial novelties.
Consistent with his primary commitment to the development of criticism and the growth of creative writing, Ogunbiyi, in response to the challenge and encouragement of Macebuh, initiated the Guardian Literary Series, GLS, in conjunction with Osofisan. The objective was to create a public platform for the appreciation of Nigeria’s very rich literary tradition. In his foreword to Perspectives on Nigerian Literature: 1700 to the Present, Volume One (1988), a collection of some of the essays published in the Guardian Literary Series, Macebuh notes that: “The Guardian Literary Series began as an experiment. Creative writing in Nigeria had a long history. But only a few older writers were sufficiently well-known and this was mainly because most of their major works had been published before the economic slump of the late 1980s….
“The idea at The Guardian, initiated primarily by Yemi Ogunbiyi and Femi Osofisan, was to step in where book publishing companies could not and offer on a weekly basis in our newspaper, a series of critical appraisals of Nigerian writers.”
Ogunbiyi corroborates Macebuh in his preface to the second volume of the publication, Perspectives on Nigerian Literature: 1700 to the Present, Volume Two (1988), when he says: “It was quite clear from the inception of The Guardian as a serious daily newspaper in July 1983, that sooner or later, the newspaper would have to participate in the effort to help “popularise” our vibrant literature.
“It was clear to the founding fathers that the literary pages of a serious national newspaper, had an abiding duty to participate, initiate and even stir up debate in the all-important area of literature and culture. In a broad sense, that was the objective for starting the Guardian Literary Series.”
Giants in literary criticism who contributed to the project included Wole Soyinka, Abiola Irele, Dan Izevbaye, Isidore Okpewho, Biodun Jeyifo, Akinwunmi Isola, Ernest Emenyonu, Sam Asein, Chidi Amuta, Femi Osofisan, Olu Obafemi, Catherine Acholonu, Ibrahim Yaro Yahaya and Adebayo Williams.
Ogunbiyi equally initiated a series of exclusive interviews with world leaders, which added diversity to the regular buffet of the editorial content of The Guardian. He interviewed Presidents, Heads of State and Prime Ministers like: Shimon Peres of Israel; Muammar Gaddaffi of Libya; Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso; Julius Nyerere of Tanzania; Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
Reminiscing on his interview with Gaddaffi which he undertook with the founder of The Guardian, Ogunbiyi recalls: “By far the most bizarre of our trips was our encounter with Col Gaddaffi. We had arrived on a Saturday for a scheduled Sunday appointment with the “Leader” as he was fondly called in all of Libya. At breakfast the next morning, officials from the President’s office came for us, politely chauffeured us to the airport and flew us out without prior knowledge of our destination, to Benghazi, for what we were assured was to be a prompt interview with Col. Gaddaffi… With the private jet that flew us neatly parked at a nearby aerodrome, we ended up spending three days in Benghazi, in near seclusion, without our bags or change of clothing…. The publisher never accompanied me to another interview!”
Upon completion of his one year sabbatical, Ibru brought a lot of pressure to bear on Ogunbiyi and subsequently appointed him Controller, Office of the Publisher in 1985. In a manner of speaking, he became something of the Chief of Staff to the Publisher. Not long after, he was elevated to the Board of Directors as Executive Director, Public Affairs and Marketing from January 1986 to February 1989. In this capacity, he superintended over the Circulation, Transport and Advertisement Departments, the commercial and operational tripod of the newspaper.
On March 1, 1989, Ogunbiyi was appointed Managing Director of the Daily Times of Nigeria Plc, to replace Olusegun Osoba, who had just completed a five-year stint on the job. If Ogunbiyi’s six-year sojourn in The Guardian enabled him to learn the ropes of newspaper administration and management, his appointment as Chief Executive of the Daily Times was an opportunity to put into practice the aggregate experience garnered and the lessons learnt. It has indeed been argued that there is perhaps no chief executive of the Daily Times, after the iconic Alhaji Babatunde Jose, who impacted as much on the organisation, as Yemi Ogunbiyi.
The Daily Times of Nigeria Plc was a humongous conglomerate with almost a dozen diverse subsidiaries, notably: Times Publications Division, TPD, (Publisher of the Daily Times and a host of other publications); Nigerpack Ltd; Times Press Ltd; Times Books Ltd; Times Leisure Services Ltd, (organisers of the annual Miss Nigeria Beauty Pageant); Naira Investments; Naira Properties Ltd; Pilgrims Books Ltd and Times Journalism Institute, TJI. The organisation equally owned 80 per cent stakes in the London based West Africa Magazine, which had a complement of Nigerian and foreign personnel alike.
Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary defines a Shaft among others, as a “rotating rod that transmits motion”. If Ogunbiyi’s longstanding nickname was thought to be just another alias, his exertions at the Daily Times lent credence to the appropriateness of the name, as he proved to be the engine room that drove development in the organisation.
Niyi Osundare’s impressions of the Times before the Ogunbiyi era in the Daily Times as espoused in Dialogue With My Country, (2011), was extremely scathing. In his essay titled: The Ogunbiyi Phenomenon, Osundare says: “I stopped reading the Times in June 1980 (yes, I am very sure of the date!) I stopped because what before then was the undisputed flagship of Nigerian print journalism had sunk to such an abysmal level of sycophancy and depravity that it soiled even the hands of groundnut sellers whose unpleasant job it was to use its unsold bundles to wrap their ware. Truth rapidly took on a pale, partisan hue. The Times became a pamphlet in which the time-serving gladiators and opportunists of the Second Republic daily stroked their afflicted egos. Rational thought and a genuinely national discourse took leave of its pages. Obituary advertisements took over, bringing in tons of cheap naira, but systematically killing our national dialogue. What used to be a national dialogue became a national insult.”
Ogunbiyi took up the gauntlet and resolved to reverse the trend. Recognising the fact that his vision for a radical turnaround of the fortunes of the organisation could only be steered by a very solid human resource base, Ogunbiyi began the immediate re-organisation of the manpower content of the organisation.
• Olusunle, poet, journalist and public relations practitioner, is a member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE; the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA and the Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals of Nigeria, ACSPN.