I have three accounts to render illustrating why Dame Oluremi Oyo, who died of cancer last week achieved greatness. On account of these alone, she will continue to live in the memory of a lot of Nigerians. It is significant, by the way, as noted by the President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan and the opposition leader, Atiku Abubakar that Remi, as the media fondly call her, achieved many firsts in her epic career in journalism.
On record, she was the first female president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE; the first female adviser on media to a president of Nigeria and the first of the opposite sex to have been made the Managing Director of the News Agency of Nigeria, NAN. When leaders say in their tributes that Remi broke glass ceilings to record these successes, the point they miss is that the late journalist never saw herself as being of the “lesser sex.” Remi never accepted that there was of the lesser sex, that is, if anything like that existed.
When she told her story, she used to say that she grew up a “tomboy”, playing soccer and mischief with the boys. She was a lively person who exchanged banters and sometimes physical jokes with many of us, her friends. As a journalist, a profession that is dominated by men, and women are treated as second-class citizens; a profession that is a masculine preserve that its practitioners all abide by the popular appellation of “Gentlemen of the Press”, Mrs Oyo found comfort in being with the guys, and surviving them. Women in journalism seek to do what most men think they could do best-writing children’s and women’s columns but for Remi, that space was too tiny for her. She fought to get the story, wearing her trademark jeans and low hair cut most of the times for all the years I knew her until, I guess state duties imposed requirements of formalism on her. Everything a man can do in the newsroom, Remi did it better. For the wide latitude of the freedom of expression and movement she enjoyed, I have marveled at the kind of husband she had. When she delivered Vincent Oyo to my office, a found him to be kind and understanding of his wife, investing in her the kind of trust that is today very rare among couples. They both are competent professionals, coming to form a strong family union from different ethnic and community backgrounds. They understood themselves very well.
She saw herself first as human being deserving of full recognition of her rights as a person and a thoroughbred professional. I didn’t know her to cut corners. But I will return to this shortly. God used me to make Mrs Oyo the President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE. The Guild I followed VIP journalists like NDUKA Ogbaigbena, Wada Maida, Emeka Izeze, Onyeama Ugochuku and the others to revive back in 1998 was one that had an unwritten succession plan: after completing his/her term as leader, the NGE president is succeeded by his deputy, each of whom will have come alternately form the North and the South. When I did one term of two years and signified to the Guild that I would not re-contest, a sudden uncomfortable fact became manifest: the member of the Excecutive Committee who by consensual agreement will takeover from me suddenly lost his qualification to run. The government for which he worked moved him to a job that was not journalism-related.
Before this time, Remi, the Vice-president West had endeared herself to me not only by her overarching competence but for the fact that she was the most loyal to me among members of the Executive. She never let me down on anything. I had no difficulty in drawing her out to run, with the strong backing of Biodun Oduwole who himself had been an achieving past president of the Guild.
Remi’s emergence was not without challenges, though. One of this was a a strong disputation by a powerful interest group that claimed that as a bureau chief of a foreign news agency, she wasn’t an editor and by that, she lacked the qualification to run. I and Biodun then plotted a plan by which we brought a strong media personality and lawyer, Prince Tony Mony Momoh who made sure that as chairman of the electoral committee, no corners were cut and no mischief was played by anyone to deny the Guild its first-ever and the only female president so far. My other anecdote is about our service in the Presidential Villa. Mrs Oyo served as Special Adviser to President Obasanjo on Media and I came in in the second term as Special Assistant (Media) to Vice President Atiku Abubakar.
From the start, the Second Term began on a rocky note, itself informed by the power struggles in the run-up to the elections within the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP which brought them to office. As we moved into our offices, it was clear that the pre-election crisis that nearly tore apart the relationship between the President and the Vice-president hadn’t been healed but was merely papered over. It was also clear to both Remi and I that the problems were bigger that ourselves and there was nothing we could do, as friends and aides of the combatants, to heal the rift. But what however sad about it was that this thing affected our long-standing personal relationships. Efforts by the late Stanley Macebuh, West Africa’s best columnist by reputation who at that time was a Senior Special Assistant (Communications)to bring the President’s and the Vice-president’s media teams to work together were unsuccessful; without being accusatory, thwarted by the other side.
As I wrote in a recent book, the former president never believed that bad press would come to him, and that whenever it came, it must have been orchestrated by someone. Unfortunately, we in the Vice-president’s office were always falsely accused of being behind it. One such incident was a cover story in December 2003 by The News magazine that contained a lot damning revelations on the President’s style of leadership. Two days before it was on sale, I stood in full view, engaged in a deep personal conversation with Bayo Onanuga, the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief and a friend of many years at a presidential event hosted by the NGE. We were taken note of. From what followed later, I gathered that my speaking to Bayo had been inferred to as having fed him with the content of that edition.
When I was fired by the president in a television announcement the next day, that was barely six months into the job, the FCT minister Nasir El-Rufa’i told me that he and the President’s adviser on policy, Professor Julius Ihonvbere did an investigation and discovered that my friend was behind the sack. When she heard that she was being accused of being behind this, she sought me out to explain her own innocence. She swore to me that she had no hand in it thereafter struggled very hard to be empathetic to me. I have always known her as a peacemaker and it is to underscore that quality inherent in her that I put down this narrative, not as an intention to revive an idiotic debate.
By looking ahead and not backwards, we both resolved not to be judgmental of our actions and motives and moved on as friends once again. Whenever we met, we hugged and back-slapped and enquired after family members, all of whom we remember by their individual names. Wherever there is birth, there will be death. All living things will die. That is a natural law. Remi has done her part, leaving behind strong records that will be difficult any woman in Nigeria to break.
We will remember her for this and for her life as a supportive and compassionate friend who cared to mentor many of her juniors now in leadership positions in the industry. May her soul rest in peace.