By Azu Ishiekwene
Vanguard, like many businesses, has had difficult moments and one that I remember clearly was the exit of its iconic editor, Frank Aigbogun, in 1998.
After about seven years at the helm, Aigbogun left behind such huge pair of shoes it seemed unlikely that revered publisher, Sam Amuka, fondly called Uncle Sam, would easily find a fit.
Toye Akiyode, Aigbogun’s predecessor, had tried to steady the brand from the teething problems of its founding days. Aigbogun built rapidly on Toye’s successes and made Vanguard a household brand, especially favoured among women.
After Aigbogun’s tenure as editor, the task of his successor was not only how to consolidate the gains he had made, but also to broaden the appeal of the brand among other segments.
With The Guardian newspaper making strong strides in the South South and regional hegemony hugely in play, the Vanguard also needed to tap the ancestral roots of its publisher, Uncle Sam, and establish itself as a prominent regional brand.
The poor state of infrastructure and the business model which required every publisher to be a mini-government, owning everything from water supply to printing presses and distribution vans, did not help matters.
These were the circumstances under which Gbenga Adefaye, was appointed Editor of Vanguard. I didn’t know him well at the time. Also, since I had my own cross to bear as newly appointed Editor of Saturday PUNCH, how people at the Canal managed their storm wasn’t my cup of tea. I would later be forced to take notice and cross swords more than once – a story for another day.
Those were truly tumultuous days. The country was in the throes of military dictatorship. Being an editor didn’t only mean producing a newspaper that is commercially successful; it also meant providing a platform that echoed the frustrations of the people and their rising agitation for democratic rule. This was often at the great displeasure of the powers that be.
Vanguard did not flinch. And on Adefaye’s watch, the newspaper grew in stature and reputation emerging Newspaper of the Year and Adefaye, Editor of the Year, more than once. Within a few years of his appointment, Adefaye’s performance had justified his appointment and settled anxious nerves.
His success did not happen overnight.
Back in 1985, he had shown signs of a promising career when he worked as a reporter for NTA Benin. One of the most outstanding DGs of NTA, Professor Tonnie Iredia, who supervised Adefaye in NTA at the time, once told me that Adefaye was “a very serious-minded intern, who took his assignments with dedication.”
He also worked for a brief time at Newbreed, the feisty weekly published by Chris Okolie, but it was at Vanguard that he cut a path for him as a sub-editor.
The sub is often despised and hardly thought of as a place to find editor material. Subs do the dirty job; writers get the accolades. But proprietors who are anxious about standards, especially fidelity to good English, house style and quality, know that a good sub desk is the backbone of editorial quality.
And I know more than one great editor who emerged from the sub: Henry Odukomaiya, Yakubu Mohammed, Lade Bonuola, Femi Kusa, Doyin Mahmoud, and Najeem Jimoh, to mention a few.
Before computers and robots supplanted the food chain, the sub desk was the factory that regularly produced editorial stars while getting very little, if any credit at all. It was at the Vanguard sub desk that Adefaye’s talent began to show.
If Uncle Sam had any doubts when he chose Adefaye to succeed Aigbogun, subsequent events must have cleared them. In the early late 1990s and early 2000s when the newspaper industry began to face an existential crisis what was required to stay afloat was no longer the regular editorial skill set alone.
In fact, in one of its famous cover stories, Time magazine predicted the “death” of the newspaper. Maybe it was exaggerated. What was clear, however, was that the industry was on the throes of a major crisis. Business as usual was no longer sufficient. What was required was a knack to seize the moment and steer the editorial ship in uncharted waters brought on by the seismic changes in technology.
Adefaye seemed made for exactly this moment. On his watch, Vanguard was transformed from the old bastion of cut-and-paste to cutting edge technology, making it one of the most commercially successfully digital platforms for Nigerian news. It has remained on this totem pole for years.
And Adefaye did most of this without a fuss: silent water running deep.
We were not very close until my appointment as PUNCH Editor and, later, when we both joined the Guild of Editors as members of the Standing Committee. It was here, working very close with Adefaye, that I saw, first hand, the depth of his professional commitment and benefited from his extraordinary institutional memory.
Whenever we discussed the shortcomings of the profession and the need to inspire greater public confidence by raising the standard of practice, Adefaye would take the floor and insist that until editors set personal examples, the profession was going nowhere.
The Guild was doing its best, Adefaye would say, but for the profession to regain its prestige and reputation, there was more to be done at the corporate and personal levels. And he would often lace his arguments rich anecdotes and historical examples.
When there was a vacancy after Baba Dantiye’s presidency, I had no qualms rooting for Adefaye as president of the Guild and helping to execute the “coup” that brought about his successful election.
It’s not for nothing that I call him the “high priest of the cabal”. And in my book, he remains so, many years after stepping down as two-term president of the Guild. He has excellent contacts and has managed to combine the innate stubbornness of an Ife man with the charity his Christian faith.
If there was ever an argument about who did what in journalism in the last four decades or a grey area to be cleared, you can count on Adefaye to shed the light in an encyclopedic way that almost always settles the matter.
He knows where the saints reside and where the dead bodies are buried. That’s why he is the high priest.
And long may he live!