Friday, 24 March 2023 03:15

Louis Odion: The matter of ‘Capacity’ - Azu Ishiekwene

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Sometimes it feels like we have been childhood friends. That we have known each other forever. For over 30 years since our paths crossed, I can’t remember how many times I’ve called him “Louis,” much less “Louis Osaretin Odion.” 

Even now, it feels awkward to write it. I call him by the name that the closest circle of his friends has come to know and call him for nearly three decades: “Capacity!” 

And that’s what he calls me too, even though he retains the proprietary right to the moniker. He earned it from the odysseys of a life of sailing against the wind when many of his mates walked a road paved with comfort and relative safety. 

His struggles through early school life in Ikare Akoko, Ondo State (where his parents stayed after leaving Edo, then Bendel State), his decision to set forth early to fend for himself and make his own luck by accepting and applying himself even in lowly jobs, and his abiding faith in a future that rewards hard work and diligence all combined to toughen his resilience. 

These experiences have done at least two things for him. One they have given him wisdom beyond his years. It sometimes feels like he was 50 long ago. And two, his experiences have not only benefited him, they have also strengthened his shoulder for many who would lean on him along life’s journey. 

I’ve been one of them. Even though Capacity started out first as a stenographer in Concord newspapers in the early 1990s, we didn’t know each other well until he began to make editorial contributions to the Op-ed pages and later, the back page of what was then one of Nigeria’s most prestigious newspapers.

It was a matter of sheer serendipity and generosity of heart that Tunji Bello, the Group Political Editor of Concord at the time spotted Capacity, encouraged him to get a university degree and later redeployed him from secretarial duties to the editorial department of Concord. But I still didn’t know Capacity well enough at the time.

We began to bond more closely around 1995 when he moved to ThisDay, after the closure of Concord and following Sani Abacha’s assault on the press, and particularly on MKO Abiola who was detained unto death after he won the 1993 presidential election.  

At ThisDay, Capacity started a weekly column, “Bottomline”, which soon became a national must read. Week after week, he brought to bear on his commentary a rare quality of insight and fearlessness which kept his growing fan base locked in and the political elite on edge. 

Capacity was a columnist that other columnists had to read, especially on politics and current affairs. One particular article in 2002 bears recalling. Entitled, “Before the Babangida candidacy”, Capacity had taken on a faceless writer whose article was published in ThisDay, promoting the candidacy of military president Ibrahim Babangida.  

After claiming he had stepped aside, Babangida was obviously still toying with the idea of running for the presidency exactly 10 years after he annulled the June 12 1993 election and was forced out by General Abacha. 

In his usual bang-on-the-nail style, Capacity hammered the hack writer saying that even if the devil had tempted Babangida and he couldn’t summon the will to say no, he ought to have borrowed the sense of shame to resist it.

Two prominent pro-Babangida acolytes and public intellectuals descended on Capacity in a co-authored rejoinder. They attacked his motive, insisting that Babangida was exactly what a broken, wounded country needed. Then the fireworks began. The June 12 faithful-in-residence at ThisDay led by Bello, Kayode Komolafe, Sam Omatseye and Waziri Adio, launched a counterattack. 

For me as Editor of Saturday PUNCH at the time, and a columnist too, it was riveting punditry and entertainment. I recall Bello accusing the two pro-Babangida public intellectuals who were in their fifties at the time, of “ganging up to silence a ‘small boy’!” 

I was later informed that ThisDay Chairman and Publisher, Nduka Obaigbena, was obliged to call a truce, which also effectively signaled the end of the editorial road for the pro-Babangida merchants hoping to deploy the newspaper in the service of their principal. 

This fearless quality of attacking injustice or hubris which he showed early in his career remains the hallmark of his journalism. We sometimes joke that it is a carry-over from his unfinished career as an amateur boxer. Anyone who knows Capacity knows he doesn’t choose his battles carelessly. He is a fighter you would rather have in your corner.

My interest in his work and our bond deepened after he left ThisDay as Deputy Editor and joined SUN in 2002 as the first Editor of its Sunday title. To be a title editor in SUN on the watch of the exceptional Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe, ex-Concord staff members and SUN top guns who made Weekend Concord a soar away brand, was quite a task. 

As Editor of a weekend newspaper myself, I watched Sunday SUN initially struggle to define its identity – a cross between a wannabe red top and something a bit more serious. And then, as Capacity grew into the job, the brand slowly pulled away to become one of the most authoritative newspapers for political interviews and consequential stories. It forced me to reset Saturday PUNCH. I think my friend and Sunday PUNCH Editor at the time, Remi Ibitola, also did the same.

But it was not until after Capacity’s tour of duty at SUN and later, National Life (where he was Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief), that we became really close. 

As MD/Editor-In-Chief, he was now straddling the delicate and often potentially hazardous line between business and editorial survival of the new title. It’s not what you find in journalism textbooks. Well-funded newspaper companies abroad are protected from such miseries, too. Their editorial departments are walled off from the business side of the operations. 

In a typical newspaper organisation in Nigeria, however, the MD/Editor-In-Chief is – or has to be – an expert at everything from circulation to advertising and from editorial content to digital marketing, if he or she really wants the business to survive. 

As Controller at the time, I was also involved in the business aspects of newspaper operations at PUNCH. It was while Capacity was trying to find his footing not as an editorial man, this time, but also as a business manager, that he began to knock on my door more often, to compare notes. 

Later, we worked together on a few entrepreneurial ventures, one or two of which we got our fingers burnt, but all of which only further deepened our bond of friendship.

When he accepted to work as Commissioner of Information in his home state, Edo, under Governor Adams Oshiomhole, he did so with great reluctance. Capacity has no patience for bureaucracy, the worst kind of which is the mainstay of public service in Nigeria. Even though his job as a journalist has forced him in the public eye, he remains an intensely private man. 

Above everything else, accepting the job meant dividing his time and attention between Lagos and Benin, perhaps for eight straight years? He was concerned about the effect of the job on his mother whom he remains deeply fond of, and also his young family. 

Yet never one for half measures, once he took the job, he took it, at a great personal cost. He brought to his office extraordinary goodwill, professionalism and competence, for which he earned great respect and admiration. 

I used to tease him that he is one of the few public officers who drove around without a police orderly, even though he had one, and quite often spent his own money to run the office.

Outsiders who didn’t understand his misery hardly flinched from pressing their demands, mostly financial, on the “Honourable Commissioner” to “do something.” He tried but when he had had enough, he resigned voluntarily mid-way into Oshiomhole’s second term in 2015 and in spite of pressure to stay on.

His appointment in August 2019 as Senior Technical Assistant on Media to the President (under the office of the Vice President), is well known. But positions have never been what binds us. At core, we share a deep, filial bond for family, profession, faith and justice. 

Capacity has an extraordinary network of friends and contacts across age, tribal and occupational lines whose loyalty and friendship he covets. Still, he maintains that space, which Germans call lebensraum, that allows him to enjoy the respect, loyalty and confidence of friends, and yet keep his privacy.

If as Andrew Marr says, every editor needs an editor, Capacity is mine. He has been for as long as I can remember. He is often among my last “gatekeepers,” adding insight, challenging arguments and re-drafting awkward sentences.

And the owl that he is, I’ve sent my articles to him week after week for the last over 20 years, and have gone to bed only to wake up to his feedback in the morning. This is one of the very few editions I won’t share with him before press. I can’t be grateful enough for his labours of friendship in good times and in bad.

Since he insists that he is just 50, I’ll have to accept. But by my reckoning, which of course is not just a number, he has gifts far, far beyond his years!

** Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP


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