Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Ovation International magazine, Dele Momodu, means different things to different people. But his worst critics and the best of his admirers agree that Momodu has attained heights that can only be reached by a few. The celebrated journalist, who turns 50 in a couple of weeks, spoke with Correspondent, Kemi Yesufu on his life, work and the delicate act of balancing reporting the rich and famous with his call to activism.
The reactions over your participation in the Enough is Enough rally have been mixed. Some have said you are trying to rekindle your radical posture. Others speculate that you are preparing for an entry into politics? Why did you join the protest?
There is nothing to rekindle. Maybe for some people I stopped being radical but for me this is not the case. When there was the annulment of the June 12 elections I was among those who worked very hard to revalidate the mandate. I know what this cost me. I was sent to detention without trial in Alagbon in Ikoyi. When I came out I carried on with my activities. I went on exile when (General Sani) Abacha came after me. While on exile I started Ovation magazine. You would think that with starting Ovation, I would be scared for my business, but I wasn’t. Again I was running a programme on Radio Kudirat, which was initially Radio Freedom. My pseudo name was Salihu Elenu Eniolorunokpa. I was one of the NADECO (National Coalition for Democracy) boys meeting with the (Alani) Akinrinades and (Bola) Tinubus. I have never been found wanting in speaking up about issues that affect my country. Some people see Ovation as an elitist magazine, so they think I am elitist. My argument is simple. King Sunny Ade plays at parties, does that stop him from being a Nigerian or using his music to sing about the ills of society? Ali Baba does his comedy at big events, caterers serve food at events, and I am also selling a service like them. My service is reporting high society events through photographs. I was on the same flight to Abuja with Festus Keyamo and we were discussing the speculations about my participation in the Enough is Enough rally. He said he was surprised with the way people have been reacting to it. I think people just sit down and read motives to everything. Some have said that I want to be a minister, those who have been made ministers, have you seen any radical among them? So it does not make sense. Some other people say I want to contest for the Senate. I ask in which country or which state?
People are talking about you having political aspirations probably because of the rumour of your mounting the soapbox.
It remains a speculation. I must however say that I have the right to contest elections if I so desire. I will be 50 in less than two months. At 50 I think I am more than qualified to contest elections. If I ever contest elections it would be that I am sufficiently angry that rather than writing and shouting we should get into governance through politics and change things for the better. We have a new project called ‘It’s cool to vote’. Our national co-coordinator for the project, Ohimai Amaize, came up with the bright idea of mobilising the youth to vote. We must go out and vote. The former Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the other day that 70 per cent of Nigeria’s population are bellow the age of 30. Those who rig or vote in Nigeria are not up to 20 per cent of the population. So, if you have a truly popular candidate like MKO Abiola was and you galvanise the youth to come out and vote, you can beat any candidate in this country. This is what we are working at with the ‘It’s cool to vote’ project. If what I am doing is politicking to some people, yes, I am in politics. I will continue to make noise and speak up about who governs us. It is the decision of the generality of Nigerians that we will be playing a greater role in who governs us. Pastor Tunde Bakare, Professor Wole Soyinka, are all involved in the move to galvanise Nigerians to choose their leaders. The situation in the country is embarrassing and saddening for all of us but it is worst for those of us who travel outside the country a lot. There are countries I have been to where their cities looked like Lagos but now they have developed with everywhere looking clean and modern. They have moved from locomotive trains to fast engines. We don’t even have locomotive trains that work. So why shouldn’t I go on the streets to protest? Some say I wanted cheap popularity. For goodness sake, Ovation has given me so much popularity; I cannot be looking for added fame. The truth is people should not just sit in their homes and criticise others. Our slogan is; if you cannot join us, leave us alone. Most of the people who criticise us have never joined in any useful protest. Even if you ask them to sit at home in protest, they are the ones who will start complaining and come up with reasons why they have to leave their homes. I cannot do anything at my age for ulterior motives. Like I said earlier going to politics is my legitimate right; when I am ready I will join politics if I wish to.
Do we expect you to join politics soon?
I don’t know. I have not made up my mind yet. What I am saying is that I did not just start protesting against anti-people policies. I have a history of doing this. So if I declare that I am going into politics now, it has nothing to do with my recent participation in a protest match. I am more than qualified to contest for public office. I have paid my dues. I have travelled all the continents of the world. Everywhere I go, I meet Nigerians, so, I know their frustrations, I know their hopes and aspirations; therefore I can represent Nigeria at any level. The other day I was in South Africa to see President Jacob Zuma the same day Acting President Goodluck Jonathan visited Zuma. The South African president met with Jonathan in the office while I met him at home. So when people talk about me wanting to join politics, I wonder what is so great about the issue. There is nothing somebody in public office is doing that I can’t do as a private businessman.
Still talking about your radical background, one wonders on which of the political parties’ platform you will contest, as the general belief is that there is no party with an ideological base.
There are parties, which I can contest with. Besides, soon there will be independent candidature.
Before the Enough is Enough protest match observers were worried by the seeming docility of the youths as earlier protests were organised by people beyond their age category. Are the fears about the youth worthy of mention?
Many people saw by themselves that our match caused reverberations around the world. We took the world by storm. This is because the kind of people who participated in the match are not the kind of people you find protesting on the streets. We had among us celebrities, star actors, students, and silver spoon kids. I can tell you one thing, everyone is worried about Nigeria. We are not standing alone on this; we are not a political party or a political group. We are open to people who share the same view. Now there are others who are matching in support of President Umaru Yar’Adua. We cannot stop them because we are in a democracy. So, yes the youths can make a difference and they should be working towards this.
You will be 50 soon, are you looking forward to it?
I told my wife this morning that I am the only person who is getting to 50 and is not preparing for it. Nobody will believe that with all my much-talked about larger than life image and flamboyance even though I wear Ankara every day I am not planning anything big for my 50th. You are here in my house and can see how simple my life is, yet, some people go around saying I am one of the oppressors that show off my wealth. I am a reporter and I will remain a reporter. Even if tomorrow I become the president and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, I will remain a reporter. Trust me. I will not kill Ovation for politics.
At 50, what has life taught you?
I have learnt to be hard working and to trust in God. This is all the life I know, a life of hard work and belief in God. I was born into a poor Christian family. I did not come to Lagos until I was 28. Two years after I was the highest paid editor in the media. I was the editor of Classique magazine in 1990. This is why I say that God got me where I am today. There were other brilliant journalists in Lagos but I was the highest paid. In fact, the day I was employed at Classique, my boss, Mike Awoyinfa, drove me to their office in his car. I asked him if he was driving me away and he said no and he told me that I should take the opportunity that God has presented me with the Classique magazine job. This is something else I have learnt in life and that is, one must take opportunities as they come. It is very important that you quickly recognise opportunities and take them immediately you are presented with one.
What is your greatest achievement at 50?
It is a bit difficult for me to say. But I think that my greatest achievement is that the youths of Africa, not just Nigerians, see me as a role model. Everywhere I go in the world, Ghanaians, Senegalese, Liberians all look up to me. Last year I was made an honorary citizen of Liberia and a chief also, even before President Serlief Johnson. I was made chief in April while she was made a chief in July. I was one of the people who installed her as a chief. I am very happy that I am doing the things God has destined me to do. When my godfather and mentor MKO Abiola was doing all these things I am doing right now, travelling from country with people wanting to touch him and take pictures with him, I thought it would be impossible for any other person to do the same. You won’t believe it, during my last birthday party, which took place in Canada, that night Tuface Idibia came to perform, Majek Fashek was there and the crowd was uncontrollable. I had problems getting into the venue. At some point the Canadian police came with their patrol helicopters beaming their light down on us. People came dressed to kill; they all wanted to meet the Ovation man. At the end of day the police, fearing that things would get out of hand, asked us to leave the club. There was a lady at the airport on her way to Ethiopia. She burst into tears when she couldn’t get copies of Ovation to buy for her friends. She said if she didn’t buy Ovation for her friends they wouldn’t forgive her. Cameroonians walk up to me as I am checking out of the hotel and ask me if I am the Ovation man. I was in a country of 74,000 people the island called the Commonwealth of Dominica, I was on air during a radio interview and one Nneka called in and before I knew it 100 Nigerians gathered and they hosted me to a party. A Tanzanian designer met me at Ovation restaurant in Ghana and she spoke about how Ovation had brought life to her tailoring business because she uses the magazine as her catalogue. When you look through Ovation you hardly know the difference between a wedding in the north or south of Nigeria because everyone dresses the same these days. This is some of the things Ovation has done. In Senegal they have a particular kind of kaftan named after me. You say you want Dele Momodu and they bring a kind of kaftan I used to wear at a time and I haven’t been to this country recently. All of these I ascribe to God. So I will say my being a global citizen is my greatest achievement at 50.
Would you say you have been lucky?
Oh yes. I told you that you must have God on your side to become somebody in life. This is what I mean by being lucky. Like I said, I am not the most brilliant journalist in the country. In fact, Nigeria has some of the most fantastic journalists in the world. Yet I have achieved this much. If out of 140 million Nigerians, I am recognised all over the world, even on the streets of Abuja when I drive by in an Ovation car people wave at me with so much love. For me who was born poor, lost my father at 13 and my mother was a stark illiterate who could not speak English, I can say that God has brought me where I could not even imagine. I am not a rich man by any standard but I am highly contented. I am happy with who I am, I don’t chase after many things. I am a simple person, my friends, old and young, are welcome, my arms are open. If you are my friend, I will tell you the truth and I don’t promise what I cannot do because I know my limits. If you are a friend who is a governor, I will tell you the truth; if you like don’t allow me into your house again. Most people think that because I am the publisher of Ovation magazine, all the looters in the country are my friends. They are wrong because I am not the type who walks the corridors of power asking for one thing or the other. All I do is that someone calls me that his or her child is getting married and they want two or three pages in my magazine, I tell them how much.
Maybe this is why people say there is a conflict of interest in what you do because the rich pay to appear in your magazine yet you insist that your are radical.
Whatever I do in Ovation is strictly business. It’s just like when you open a pharmacy and you say this or that governor don’t patronise me. Ovation is a business concern. I don’t have to be close to people for them to pay for Ovation to cover their events. When you’re close to someone it means they come to your house and you go to theirs. How many big men have you seen walk in since you have been here. Bola Tinubu is my friend. He was governor of Lagos State for eight years; I was in his office only once and that was because another friend of mine, who I was in his car visited the governor. I had two options either to wait in the car or accompany him to see Tinubu. Orji Kalu was my friend before he became governor; I am an Abia chief, yet for eight years I never visited him while in office. Nigerians really don’t know me but one day they will discover who I really am.
Talking about people’s perception of your person, some have argued that you have lost your intellectual touch. Would you blame this on the kind of journalism practiced by Ovation?
You cannot have it all. The level of success God blessed me with makes it impossible for you to have everything. God cannot give me so much fame, God cannot bless me with a magazine like Ovation and you expect everyone to be happy with me. In fact, Festus Keyamo described how some Nigerians react to successful people. He said some people will just sit down in their homes and say ‘I wish I was successful like this or that person but since I am not, I get angry’. Many of the people who badmouth me don’t even know me. Do you know some people even abuse me on the internet? I don’t know what I have done to deserve such criticism. Tell me what I have published in Ovation that has not been used in any other publication in Nigeria? Oprah Winfrey appears on the cover of her magazine every month yet nobody is attacking her in America. If I try to do same people will say ‘what is wrong with Dele Momodu?’ What I am doing is not different from what Hello is doing, so why are people ‘facing me’? I took a genre of journalism, which was not common in Nigeria at that time, turned it around, Ovation was born and I thank God for how things turned out. I have not committed a crime. This is the price I have to pay for success.
You stopped your weekly column in ThisDay for some time. Now that you are back, one cannot help but ask why you stopped writing for a while?
I needed to find time to write books to celebrate my turning 50. Instead of planning an owambe party what I have done is to write books. People don’t know me. My intellectual side tells me that it is better for me to write books than to organise a party with millions of naira where some people who will eat your food yet turn around to insult you.
What kind of books have you written?
There is a compilation of my articles spanning over 20 years, which is being edited by Reuben Abati. Then there is the story of my life, which is largely a pictorial of my activities all over the world spanning 60 countries, meeting ordinary people, scientists, movers and shakers, the high and mighty, including Her Majesty the Queen of England, George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice and so many others. It is titled Born To Fly.
You have met some of the biggest names in the world. Who among these personalities made an impact on you?
It will be difficult to single out one person. But if I am to speak of three Nigerians who I find extremely unusual, first I will start with Moshood Abiola, Otunba Mike Adenuga and Chief Dehinde Fernandez. These men are gurus. These are extraordinary people, who you don’t find anyhow or anywhere. Everything I do, the way I talk, the way I do things, how I reach out to people I emulated from MKO Abiola. Some of his wives have asked me if I am sure I was not born by Moshood Abiola. Look at how I called you for the interview after your editor spoke to me about you. I said can we meet now? I am scheduled to travel to Babcock University to deliver a lecture, from there I move to Agenebode, there is a Friday meeting with Wole Soyinka from there I travel to Ghana and I end up in Monrovia on Saturday. This is how Abiola moved around the globe, the only difference is that he did his travels with his private jet. He was very rich, I am not. But I have been able to do some of the things he did with the little I have. MKO was not like the looters in government who use their power to oppress people. We were taught by Moshood Abiola to use our influence for the good of the people. All that the people in power do is to oppress the people, loot senselessly, loot unreasonably, crudely and stupidly.
Is this why you wrote in your column two weeks back that Nigeria is under a curse?
Yes we are. This is why somebody can say he built a road, commissions it, yet there are no drainages. Lovers cannot even walk on the road holding hands because there are no walkways. Students do not have something as ordinary as functioning toilets in their hostels. Our airports are the most ugly in the world; even the poorest of countries have better airports. So how can I be proud of such ugly human beings? I call them ugly because only a monster can hate his country and loot it the way these people do.
How can we break the curse?
Our slogan is ‘it is cool to vote’. It is because we don’t take interest in who governs us that Nigeria is this way. Everybody says don’t join politics, it’s a dangerous game. But we cannot continue this way. I sent my nieces and nephews to the university but they can’t find jobs. Have I solved any problem? In my entire family there is no rich man. We don’t know how to steal money.
Do you have any regrets at 50?
No I don’t. I am healthy. I am happy with the way my life turned out. I have a good wife and four sons I am proud of. My children like all my family members are well educated. We don’t have money but we place emphasis on education. One of my uncles visited me recently and he was unhappy that I don’t own a house in Lagos. I told him its people like him who caused my not owning a house. I told him, he never taught me how to steal money. So I make do with what I earn through hard work. Two of my sons attend one of the most expensive schools in the world. The school fees I pay yearly can build a house in any part of the world. But I have chosen to invest in my children’s education.
After all travels and the fame journalism has brought you, why haven’t you married more wives?
(Laughs) I told you earlier that I do not get into what I cannot afford. I cannot afford marrying more than one wife. I often tell my wife that I haven’t married another wife because I am a selfish man and I don’t need the extra burden of a second wife.
But some rich women must have offered to be your second wife?
No, I haven’t had offers. (Laughing) You know my wife is Ijebu, I have asked her if she has done something to scare women away from me. My wife is an introvert who minds her business, though some people who don’t mind their own business try to tell her tales, which she hardly listens to.
You have been called Mr. Inter-connectivity, how come about this?
I was trained by the ultimate Mr. Inter-connectivity MKO Abiola. I am only following in his footsteps. I don’t believe in blocking someone from knowing the next person because if I don’t help to make that contact, somebody else will and the glory will go to that person.
At 50 what will you like to be remembered for?
I am just beginning another phase of my life, which I will dedicate to mobilising the youths to come out and vote. When the ministers were being screened, we should have stormed the National Assembly voicing out our opinions about each of the nominees, rather, nothing happened. This is how it is done in civilised nations. Earlier you asked me about having regrets and I said I had none. But it has just come to mind that I regret not participating in politics or urging like minds to. Our absence left the way clear for the thugs who have ruled our lives, this is why I am supporting the ‘it’s cool to vote’ campaign.