Dele Momodu is a journalist’s journalist. One of the close aides of the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola, Momodu is the publisher of Ovation, a popular… soft-sell magazine. The news writer became a news item recently, when it was published that he was having problems with his Ghanaian hosts. In this interview with Hazeez Balogun, the celebrated columnist pooh-poohed the reports and spoke on his new Ghana-based restaurant.
You seem to always support youth programmes…..
The Bible says that they are the salt of the world. I was once a young man. Today as we speak, I am 49 years old. This is my last year in the 40’s age bracket (laughs). I feel very happy any time I am with young people. If everyone can support the youth, then there will be a brighter future for the coming generations. The general idea is that we don’t think there is a future for the country. These young Nigerians are our future, and it is only a foolish man that will not belong to where it’s happening.
Also, I am in the entertainment industry. It is my job. I don’t do contracts, I don’t run around begging for contracts. So, I face my job squarely.
At 49 what have you gained and what have you lost?
I have gained everything, I have lost nothing. God has been very kind to me. He has been very kind to my family as well. I have good health. I have what I call an exciting job that allows me to meet people from all around the world, and there is nothing as good as being paid for what you enjoy doing. I am having a good run, I must tell you. And I give God all the thanks because He is the one who has made me who I am today.
Any regrets at all?
No. I am not that kind of person who regrets. I am the kind of person who moves on easily under any condition. I just move on. I don’t leave room for regrets. What is the use of regretting what has happened? It will not change anything. So, it’s best one just moves on. That is how I think.
How are you celebrating?
I am celebrating with my people. As you can see, I am hanging out with friends here. I came into Abuja this afternoon. Before that I was at University of Ibadan where I delivered a lecture last night. This afternoon I had to rush back to Abuja to be with Ayo Animashaun because he has been a very dear brother to me, and I am very proud of him. He had been able to put together a team which is awesome. I really admire the young man and I will always be supportive of whatever he does. So you see, I am celebrating my birthday with friends.
These days one does not know where you actually are based.
I live in four places, London, Accra, Lagos and Abuja.
Why not just settle in one place?
Well, I was told by chief Monshood Abiola never to be a local champion. I wanted a situation where I can just go anywhere to work and survive. I have tried that in London, and I was successful. I live and do business there. Same as Ghana, it is a neighbour to Nigeria and I work and live there as well. So you see, I have not just decided to stay back in my fatherland and remain a local champion. I am a citizen of the world.
After working in Concord during the Abacha era…
No, no. I had left Concord before the Gen. Sani Abacha era. Let me give you details of where I have worked for. After Concord, I went to Classique. After that, I started writing for Fame. Though then I was doing my own thing on the side. I had a PR company then. Later, we started Thisday. It was called Leaders and Company then before it became a full fledged newspaper. I was the pioneer man in charge of putting the crew together. Then Abiola went into politic,s so I joined his media campaign crew. From there, I went into detention. From there to exile.
We gather that you have a joint in Ghana where Nigerians meet
Yes, it’s a restaurant and we serve Nigerian dishes. The idea came to me some years ago. You know, when Nigerians come into Ghana, to Lapaz where I live, they usually come to visit me in my house. So, I would serve them food. One day, a governor came to visit me with his whole entourage, after I had hosted them, he sent someone to come and give me money.
I went to tell him that he should not insult me. If I could not afford to give you eba and egusi, I would not have invited you to my house. It was at that point that I decided to set up a restaurant where Nigerians in Ghana could have a feel of home. One thing about Nigerians is that they are not adventurous about food at all. They do not want to compromise with their local delights. They would rather stick to it. Where-ever we are in the world, we want our homemade food.
When I was to start it, it was not for business. Actually, it is not really a business to me. It is more of charity. A lot of times, young children, students and pupils come to Ghana on excursions. What I do most times is to host them. Sometimes they are about 80 to 100 . What it takes me to host them is more than the profit I get in a week. So, it’s not about making money. It is about helping Nigerians who are in need of their home food.
Is it true that you have problems with the Ghanaian government?
No, how can that be? I have lived on the same street with President John Kuffor for seven years and I am still there. If I had problems with the government, it will be sorted out. I was told that a paper wrote a lot untrue things about me having problems with the Ghanaian government. The thing is that some people had problems with my restaurant, they didn’t want it. But then, we are too legit to quit. We are there. So, what they have done is to frustrate the clearing of my equipment. Someone called me that a paper wrote about it, but I felt bad because I would have prefered that I was consulted first before it was written. You know me, that I am down to earth and I am not afraid to answer any question thrown at me. I am a journalist myself, so I don’t run from questions.
So what actually happened?
Nothing. What really happened is that, under the Tourism Act in Ghana, we are supposed to be exempted from paying duties on equipment. We transferred about $60,000 through the Bank of Ghana to South Africa to buy equipment because we wanted to open a 24-hour restaurant whereby when our people come in from different time zones in the world (they will be catered for). Also, we want people who go to night clubs to be able to get something to eat anytime they want. So, everything was customised for us from South Africa. When the good arrived in Ghana, we requested for our letter of exemption and we were given.
But suddenly we were told that, ‘oh, the letter we were given was wrong; that we should return it; that they would change it to the correct one. From there, it became a ding-dong affair. To be quite honest with you, I cannot explain what it was. So, we decided as law abiding citizens to go to court.
The grouse of the Bank of Ghana was that the money we transferred from Nigeria for our investment in Ghana was in Naira, and they do not recognise Naira. That, I do not understand.
They collected my money, converted it into Cedi’s, put it in a bank account, I applied that I needed some of the money, you transferred it out, now you are saying that you don’t recognise Naira. I really don’t understand that logic.
So, we are at it. The Nigerian High Commission is aware of it. Chief Musiliu Obanikoro himself knows about the issue. The truth of the matter. I don’t know if I can say that in the last government, there was a king of tension between Nigeria and Ghana and I don’t know why. Nigeria and Ghana are meant to be the closest in the whole of Africa. Some people have started insinuating that it was because I was close to Jerry Rawlings. That truth is that I am close to both of them. I live on the same road with John Kuffor.
Kuffor has appeared on the cover of Ovation more than any president in Africa. Rawlings I admire a lot, and I don’t make any bones of it.
Yes, I brought Rawlings to the country with his entire family and some people were not comfortable with it. I don’t get involved in politics. I am a reporter. It was the guvernor of Nite shift that called me and said that he wanted Jerry Rawlings for the Grand house reception in his club. So, I invited him and his family over. There was no political undertone to it. Just because some people will read meaning to it does not mean that I should not do it. When Kuffor’s son got married, Ovation covered it free of charge.
What is happening to Ovation these days
Ovation is bigger than ever. Now we are doing 204 pages every three weeks instead of four weeks like we used to do. Everybody is wondering how we have been able to do it. We have been around for 13 years, so we have stood the test of time. We now publish in both English and French. We have been mantaining an office in Cotonou in the past three years and we are still running it. That is why I said that God has been so kind to me. If God be with you, who can be against you?
Ovation will be 14 next year, what has been it’s greatest achievements?
I don’t think along the lines of anniversaries. I think in terms of continuity. You can be a Methuselah and be a useless man. You can also be a Jesus who used spent 33 years and captured the world. For me, I am proud of what we have been able to do. I am more proud that it is when you go outside the shoresof Nigeria that you will understand; that is when you will understand the work Ovation. Go to South Africa, go to Liberia. Just recently, I was made a honourary citizen of Liberia, I am not from there. If you go to Ghana today, they all appreciate our work.
When Tony Elumelu came to Ghana with President Umaru Yar’Adua for an innauguration in January, we were walking through the crowd and he said, if I contested for an election, I would win in Ghana because of the way people were screaming ‘chief, chief’ when they say me.
How were you able to be so popular among people?
It’s hard work. Last years I was in Toronto Canada and I was hosted by a Nigerian club there. Tuface came to perform for me and Majek Fashek. The Canadian police came out and chased everyone away because the crowd that wanted to see me was too much. They knew there would be a point that the crowd would be uncontrollable. So they brought helicopters and chased the people away.
It is God.