Patrick Dele Cole: The Consummate Newspaperman At 80, By Abdu Rafiu
Although he has straddled every visible sphere of human endeavour, from being a university lecturer, to a politician, a businessman and a diplomat, there is none that has afforded him opportunity to be in his elements than journalism — as a debater, as a writer and as a newspaper administrator. Today, Dr. Cole is a by-word in the newspaper industry and the Nigerian society as a whole.
The one and only one whom we call P.D. Cole — scholar, public servant, newspaper administrator, diplomat, discussant, author, politician and businessman is 80. Dr. Patrick Dele Cole turned 80 years on Tuesday, August 4. He came visibly into public consciousness and reckoning in 1975 when he was appointed a non-executive director of the Daily Times. Upon his return into the country after his education at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, where he took his doctorate degree and was a fellow for three years, and simultaneously did a stint as well at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, he went into the civil service. He was in the Cabinet Office and a star member of the Obasanjo Think Tank. It was when at the Cabinet Office, with his star beaming rays, that he was picked and appointed a director of the Daily Times to represent government interest on the Board.
At that time, the administration of Murtala Mohammed had, in a fit of rampaging vengefulness, compulsorily acquired the controlling shares of 60 per cent in the Daily Times, a hugely successful newspaper empire, the biggest in Africa South of the Sahara, through government-owned NICON Insurance. In a reckless act of misguided patriotism, the administration also took over the New Nigerian, an editorially vibrant, fearless and well-written newspaper, and ruined it. The Daily Times had campaigned that Mohammed should be thrown out of Gowon’s administration, and he got removed. It was part of the running battle for a corruption-free Nigeria that the Daily Times had with the Gowon administration, such that the government closed down the newspaper on November 5, 1969 and on the 12th of the same month, had Babatunde Jose; his deputy, Leban Namme; Henry Odukomaiya, editor of the Daily Times and Segun Osoba, editor of Lagos Weekend, locked up. Yet, it was the government itself that had called on the press to join hands with it in the war against corruption.
The acquisition of the controlling shares in the media empire by the federal military government led to the premature exit of Alhaji Babatunde Jose, the chairman/managing director of the group. It was in the wake of the ensuing crisis that Dr. Patrick Dele Cole came into the saddle. His first assignment was to restore the much needed peace and harmony in the company. This did not take time as he was soon discovered to be a fantastic negotiator. For him the credo was the triumph of reasoning. He kept the structure he met and revitalised this or that layer of it where necessary.
Dr. Cole was the first in Nigeria to set up an editorial board patterned after what obtained in the United States. The board was saddled with preoccupying itself with worrying about formulating opinions for the newspaper from day to day. In most Commonwealth countries, Nigeria included, what had hitherto obtained was the British system in which the editor chaired a meeting of his features writers to bang out editorials regularly. The features editor was the chief leader writer. Two names readily come to mind in this high office, Novelist Nkem Nwankwo (deputy editor, editorial) and Dr. Doyin Abiola (nee Aboaba, features editor). All that changed with the coming of Dr. Cole. He brought in Dr. Stanley Macebuh, an exceedingly bright and debonair liberal thinker as chairman of the editorial board. With the new arrangement, the chairman of the editorial board became the chief leader writer.
…Dr. Cole disappointed everybody; he formed a rampart of defence around Daily Times and its editors. The newspaper grew in stature and its tone still stringent. Indeed, as if to reassure the staff, he left Tunji Oseni and Achike Okafor, his deputy, to run their editorials without recourse to the editorial board, and Tony Momoh could rework the editorial in his paper as he deemed fit.
But there was a storm following a circular, which paid scant attention to the Nigerian newspaper law. The circular precluded editors from making inputs into the draft editorial or altering or removing any word from it, once it had been agreed to by the editorial board. The law governing publishing in Nigeria gives responsibility of the content of a newspaper to the editor. The editors, led by Tunji Oseni and Dipo Ajayi acting for Tony Momoh, editor of the Daily Times who was on vacation, resisted the circular. In the end, with the intervention of Lateef Jakande, the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) president, the matter was resolved in favour of the editors. They were to have the last say and must concur with the views and any other item in their papers, and clean it up – if they wished to – in accordance with the country’s newspaper law. This did not diminish Dr. Cole’s stature or his authority in any way.
The coming of the two – Cole and Macebuh – gave the Daily Times added intellectual prestige. There had been a large gathering of intellectuals there as a result of a deliberate policy enunciated by Alhaji Jose in his human capital development programme, and to raise the tone of the paper. So successful was the introduction of the editorial board at the Daily Times that there is hardly any newspaper in Nigeria today that does not have one. The credit goes to Dr. Cole. A humble fellow, Dr. Cole regarded the experience as a learning process; and fast he did learn, so much that he was loved by all. In his pronouncements and in carriage there was a note of sincerity in him, which resonated well with the rank and file in the organisation. In no time, he dispersed the misapprehension that the government had planted him there to muffle the freedom voice of the Daily Times. Indeed, it was believed that editorials would, from time to time, come in from Dodan Barracks, especially given the combustible relationship between the newspaper and the government. On the contrary, Dr. Cole disappointed everybody; he formed a rampart of defence around Daily Times and its editors. The newspaper grew in stature and its tone still stringent. Indeed, as if to reassure the staff, he left Tunji Oseni and Achike Okafor, his deputy, to run their editorials without recourse to the editorial board, and Tony Momoh could rework the editorial in his paper as he deemed fit.
One Saturday, in the course of the preparation of Sunday Times, a call came to Tunji Oseni from a ranking government functionary. The official said they had been looking for Dr. Cole but could not link up with him. He was being sought to stop the lead story on Nigeria Airways that they heard was in preparation against the following day. Oseni said he was not going to pull the report out. There was a long argument. Oseni was reported to a higher authority; he was adamant still; he was going to publish his story. And he did. To everybody’s chagrin and surprise, Dr. Cole emerged and he backed his editors. No one in the organisation saw him as a civil servant in a newspaper house any more, but as a decent newspaper manager who regarded only the readers of the Daily Times as his boss. He was at the Senate together with Tony Momoh to defend the Daily Times and the editor who had challenged the Senate’s power to summon him in court.
He submitted himself to scrutiny by staff. Ace cartoonist, Josy Ajiboye, poked fun at him, drawing him peeping from his second floor office in his accustomed Oxford Street suit, puffing away at his cigar, while flood had overtaken the whole premises. He saw the cartoon as a wake-up call to do something about flooding at Kakawa.
He submitted himself to scrutiny by staff. Ace cartoonist, Josy Ajiboye, poked fun at him, drawing him peeping from his second floor office in his accustomed Oxford Street suit, puffing away at his cigar, while flood had overtaken the whole premises. He saw the cartoon as a wake-up call to do something about flooding at Kakawa. Dr. Cole continued with the human capital development of the company he inherited. Many members of staff were sent overseas for studies and training. A team was also sent to Britain to understudy the workings of web offset machines that the company was installing at its new site at Ikeja. It was to his credit that the Daily Times moved to the new site in Agidingbi. He pushed hard to get the dream realised. Features such as “Grapevine”, “Literary Reviews”, “Page 7” and the “Caught-Out” column by Ladbone were introduced, even if all may not have been his ideas (“Caught Out” was Tunji Oseni’s idea, for instance), and they flourished under his watch and as a result of the editorial freedom he gave to his editors. The freedom he permitted his editors may have been source of joy and an assurance to the nation, of the continued flourish of the Daily Times; but it was an irritation to the new power at the helms, the Shehu Shagari administration. No sooner had the government settled down than it disbanded Dr. Cole’s formidable team.
He was later to lend his weight to the emergence of The Guardian, for which Segun Osoba chose the editor and Dr. Cole endorsed the recommendation, for example. While stories were being gathered, he went through the file to make sure they were in conformity with standard features of the quality newspaper that the proprietors envisaged. He joined in the trip for the purchase of machines for the paper, where the vendors saw him as a hard-nosed negotiator.
One of the intellectuals around the Obasanjo administration, Dr. Cole was later to be appointed Nigeria’s ambassador to Brazil in the life of the administration. Although he has straddled every visible sphere of human endeavour, from being a university lecturer, to a politician, a businessman and a diplomat, there is none that has afforded him opportunity to be in his elements than journalism — as a debater, as a writer and as a newspaper administrator. Today, Dr. Cole is a by-word in the newspaper industry and the Nigerian society as a whole.
Abdu Rafiu writes from Lagos.