Today, our mentor, Tunji Oseni would have been 80. Being in the celestial realm, he is not around to celebrate the event with family, friends, and associates. As we join his family to offer prayers for the continued repose of his soul, let us spare a thought for some of those qualities that stood Oseni out as a distinguished journalist and quintessential gentleman. By so doing, we will be sustaining a conversation of the past with the present to guide the future.
Tunji Oseni was an educated mind who symbolised the best in us. Educated at Baptist Boys High School, Abeokuta, he showed early interest in journalism by writing for his school magazine, “The Trumpeter”.
He later studied Mass Communication at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, transferring to the University of Lagos when the civil war made Nsukka too hot for academic life. He earned a postgraduate diploma in International Relations at the University of Ife and a Master’s in Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. Armed with these credentials he gave a cumulative service of 36 years to the media, working in print (Daily Sketch, Sunday Times, The Comet and Anchor), news agency (OPECNA) and broadcasting (Voice of Nigeria) as a reporter, writer, columnist, editor, editor-in-chief, administrator (Daily Times) and trainer (Tosen Associates). His last job was as a reputation manager (Senior Special Assistant, Media) to President Olusegun Obasanjo.
In all these roles, he came across as committed and principled. There was no denying that in his heart, he breathed journalism, lived journalism, and died with the best interests of the profession in his heart. This commitment is best remembered through his work, “Media All the Way”, which he was working on when his earthly journey ended on November 29, 2004. In fulfillment of his wish, that 577-page book, a great testament to his professional versatility, was posthumously presented on January 5, 2005, his 62nd birthday, by Diamond Publications. His other published works included his 1998 work, “The Media, Transition and Nigeria” being proceedings of a seminar of the same title organised by him, and “Hosting 140th Anniversary of the Nigerian Press” (2000), which he co-edited with Lanre Idowu.
He was one of the earliest people to promote media criticism as a genre of Nigerian journalism through the creation of “Caught Out: A critical look at the Nigerian Press”, a well followed column in the Sunday Times written by Lade Bonuola when Oseni edited the paper in the 70s.
Oseni has been celebrated as one of Africa’s renowned public intellectuals. An intellectual is someone who brings rigour to thought, who is fastidious about facts, and whose analysis is grounded in facts. The challenge of that is to ensure that knowledge underpins everything journalists put out as communicators. As his own story shows, he believed in formal education but also supported continuous self-improvement through reading and research to play the role of a public watchdog creditably.
A believer in the Press as a strong pillar of democracy and development, he argued that a vigilant press should uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people. He rightly understood that for journalism to attract and retain bright and young entrants it must foster a sense of future hope among them and develop a sense of self-reliance among veterans. He frowned at any attempt to glorify the unethical or demean the standing of journalists.
He didn’t just talk about it. He worked to remove temptations that propelled it by initiating a scheme which later became known as the Nigerian Media Foundation Endowment Fund. His idea in 1991 was to “start a scheme under the auspices of the Nigeria Union of Journalists into which all practising journalists will contribute an agreed sum…. Journalists will have to demonstrate by their own total involvement, and contribution that they want the scheme to succeed.”
The Fund was launched on October 13, 1992. N33 million (how much is that today?) was collected at the launch. To date, there is no satisfactory explanation of how the money realised was utilised despite Mr. Oseni’s regular exhortations to the Sani Zorro administration to do so. Succeeding NUJ administrations have not shown enough sincerity to educate members and indeed the public on why journalists should be trusted in future with similar schemes. The real need for having the Fund remains sadly unmet. That is a tragic disservice to the memory of Oseni who dreamt the need for it. It is important to come to terms with the past so that we can forge ahead with the future with journalists’ interests being uppermost in our hearts.
Oseni’s decency and modesty are loud reminders that journalists are no more than mediators of reality for the public. Journalists are not newsmakers; just interpreters of the world around us. Their strength then should be in the respect their work commands; in expanding frontiers of understanding, in having a healthy regard for the other person’s point of view. Not in unnecessary self-importance.
A life of commitment, decency and principles is one that stands out the giant from the Lilliputian. Oseni struck the press as a giant because he approximated the best in us. He said the right things on our behalf. In asking us to carry ourselves with dignity he knew that impressions open the lock into the mind. A shabbily dressed and hungry looking journalist conveys the impression of an untidy mind, who cannot be trusted with information and who would put stomach considerations above everything else. In being decent, we pay tribute to our persons as to the other person.
In his last newspaper article, “Let’s set Nigeria a-GOG”, published October 1, 2004, Oseni captured the attributes of a gentleman: decency, integrity, selflessness, non-violence, strength of character, respect for principle, fair-mindedness, dependence on hard work, keeping to one’s words and quiet disposition as opposed to unrestrained noise making. He called for the emergence of more of such tribesmen.
” Oftentimes, the gentleman is mistakenly perceived in Nigeria as a weak person given to not forcing his way through in a situation in which only force yields results. To believe in the non persuasive approach is itself a weakness, especially in the democratic era which we have been operating. It is no weakness to be respectful of the other human being who has as much stake in the country as the leader and who put the democratically elected leader in place in the first instance.” Adding: “I am so convinced that in every state of Nigeria, we have gentlemen of merit. They may have been pushed aside by what the on-going “carry-go” requires that they have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. But now we have seen enough of the damage done by the non-gentlemen that we have to whittle their number or cause such improvements on them that they retrace their steps.”
Tragically, ungentlemanly conduct still reigns in the land. The garrulous strut as if they own the land; the meek and humble are trampled upon in clear disregard for what the holy books say. In still thinking about Nigeria on his sick bed, barely two months to his transition, Oseni demonstrated his concern for the future, his abiding interest in public affairs—where it was and where it ought to be. Without principles, without decency, and without people of honour and valour to promote them, society will hardly renew itself. Oseni demonstrated that he was a man who lived to assure a better tomorrow.
Oseni sponsored the Editorial Writing category of the Diamond Awards for Media Excellence until his home call in 2004. In partnership with his family, the prize remains a treasured one by Nigerian newspapers.
Until we learn to respect due process and accord primacy of place to the time-tested values of decency, diligence, honour, and integrity, progress will elude the land. Until we are ready to hold people accountable for their actions and inactions in office, Nigeria will continue to settle for second-best in a lot of cases. In a land with few authentic heroes, the nation needs to celebrate the exploits of our good ambassadors such as Tunji Oseni, fnge. May his soul continue to rest well!
• Portions of this article have been previously published by the author