As a journalist, how would you react when you are handed an open invitation to dine with the king? I mean an unexpected and unsolicited invitation to be the king’s guest? You will say that we journalists are used to it, dining and wining and carousing with those at the corridors and pavements of power. You are right, but this is of a different nature and from unexpected quarters.
It was about 8:00 pm, I had not gone to bed when my phone rang on the night of November 6, 2013. When I saw the call and knew it was from my boss, the Acting General Manager of Ebonyi State Newspaper and Publishing Corporation, Elder G.O.C. Arua, I refused to answer it, believing that the call must have been about one of those of his usual complaints that we are not meeting the deadline. But thirty minutes later, gbram-gbram the sound came. Immediately I knew it was the sound of a text message dropping. I inched closer to the phone and opened the text to know who and what it was. “You are having audience with His Excellency the Governor tomorrow by 8:30 am in his office. Please be punctual”, the SMS read, from the GM.
Like any other man, I was upbeat that I was going to interact with my governor, Chief Martin Elechi. I was happy that I was going to get, if not a political appointment (although I am not expecting any), at least a gubernatorial handshake for all the accolades I have heaped on him for the good job he is doing to uplift Ebonyians who have worn suffering and neglect like a Purple Heart, like an ornamental embellishment. I felt some measure of importance and grandeur that I was going to see the man who determines the fate of all in Ebonyi. And some sense of transcendence enveloped me.
I felt like the day Chief Emma Agu, former Senior Special Assistant on Media to erstwhile Head of Interim Government, Chief Ernest Shonekon, called me from the Presidency to expect an invitation any moment to join the President’s press crew at Aso Rock.
Of course I had every reason to be happy for the governor’s invitation. I had written so profusely on the governor, but from afar, sometimes writing dimly with pixellated binoculars, seeing only shadows. I felt, at last this was the opportunity to see the man clearly and write clearly even as I had written before.
So on the day of the invitation, I woke up feeling happy, undisturbed by any thought to the contrary. I scoured my wardrobe to get my best dress which I had never worn before. I looked myself up in the mirror and complimented myself. I looked smart on my bespoke suit with a resource control hat atop my head to complement it. And I know the governor, as a good dresser, also liked that!
By 8:30 am Ochudo time, we (the General Manager, Okey Elebe and I) drove to the Cabinet Office to see the Permanent Secretary Chief Ibe Enwo and the Commissioner for Information, Chief Chike Onwe who were to bring us to the governor’s office.
As we sauntered into the office of the Permanent Secretary to wait for the commissioner, we were greeted with words of encouragement. Chief Enwo told us that the governor was happy with us. And even when the commissioner came and said the same thing, we were in high spirits. Of course, their optimism on the governor’s favourable disposition toward us was not misplaced. We were legally set up in 1997 as a government newspaper corporation to publicize government’s activities just like any state-owned newspaper, but without any subventions to run the paper apart from drawing our salary from government, it has been very hectic keeping the paper alive up till now. Sometimes in the past, we had contributed from our pockets or borrowed to run the state government paper, publishing once in two or three months. But with the current management and our determination not to run aground and burn our fingers in the process upon the stormy gale, we now publish twice a month. It was as if we got some injections of liquid hope!
So when they assured us that Ochudo was pleased with us, we concurred and said Amen, for no father chastises his son with scorpions when he is doing well! But even upon such promises, I knew in my heart that the meeting was not going to be fun, for I have learned in my many years of practice as a journalist that hardly would a politician invite a journalist for commendation.
But even at that, with such high spirit, the General Manager quickly articulated a memo which was like a Macedonia cry, or do I call it a seven-point agenda, he hoped to give to the Governor after all the anticipated praise galore from him.
But this was never to be. By 11:30 am the Governor ushered us into his office. It was business-like, characteristic of Ochudo. There was no time for formalities or pleasantries apart from the introductions. When the governor asked who wrote this, (pointing the paper before us), “National Confab: It’s All About Failure of Leadership”, the heading of my write-up in our October edition, I told myself that I needn’t have to wet my clothes to find out that it’s raining! The governor was angry, visibly angry over the article. In that piece, I had held a view which the governor considered uncomplimentary to the President. He told me frankly that he did not know what was restraining him from sacking me. When he read the article line by line to point out some offensive words, stressing at every interlude he did not know what was restraining him from sacking me, I remembered that very first thing every journalist is taught: “facts are sacred, option is free”.
Then I told myself: the Governor is right. I had compromised; I had made what was supposed to be an opinion look like a fact. When I expressed pessimism over the President’s willingness to keep to promises, I should have stated equally, in line with the principle of balancing, that Mr President denied promising anybody or group he was running for one term.
When I heard the governor mention sacking, I was afraid, terribly afraid. My mind went to Drew Johnson of the Chattanooga Press who got fired recently for his negative Obama comments in his editorial. I remembered Fareed Zakaria of the Time Magazine and CNN anchor-man who almost lost his job for what I may consider a sleight of head. He had plagiarized an essay by Jill Lepore published in The New Yorker. But instead of a sack, he got a wrist slap in return. My mind also flashed back to Ray Ekpu, who got his reputation smeared for allegedly plagiarizing Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason”. I exclaimed in my heart: “so is this how I could have lost my job if not for the Governor’s mercy?” To reassure myself and strengthen my faith, I said to myself again: “but I am not like any of these three”, trying to play the Pharisee who went to pray and began with thanking God for not being like the other Publican.
When I came out of the Governor’s office, I was downcast, crestfallen. It was as if a six-inch nail was driven down my spine. And after the tongue-lashing, nobody even knew where the GM hid his seven point agenda memo!
Then several thoughts raced through my mind. How come the governor did not see all the accolades I had heaped on him in many of my past write-ups, like the May 29 Democracy Edition where I took his detractors to the cleaners? I asked myself. How come Ochudo, our own bridge builder and apostle of peace, did not see my acidic commentary on APC which I said was a banned substance that cannot cure our headache? What of the seven flying governors I dismissed in my previous articles as rabble-rousers and opportunists, or the encomiums I heaped on the President for giving Akanu Ibiam Airport an international status? Thoughts and more thoughts raced through my mind. It was like the case of the proverbial tortoise who used to dress daintily and pass through the father-in-law’s compound daily without the in-law seeing him but it was the day he decided to dress shabbily that the in-law saw him. To say that I was in the opposition as the governor maintained was indeed the deepest cut. I am not in opposition. How can I oppose someone appointed by God? How can I oppose a man who has brought monumental changes to the state, welding hitherto antagonistic political blocs into one through his peace initiative? Of course when Elechi entered the governorship race in 2007, I called my wife and told her: “this is the man that will change the fortunes of Ebonyians because as a founding father he understands the problems of this state”. And I have not been proved wrong.
At the end, in his magnanimous nature the governor warned me never to write ill of Mr President. On a second thought, I knew His Excellency was right because even the Holy Book enjoins us not to speak ill of those in authority but to pray for them because they are there for His pleasure.
But am I feeling bad over this encounter? Not at all. Journalism is one kind profession that if you escape the bullets in the war front, there are many of them waiting for you even in peace time. He has forgiven me and I am grateful.
By this, he was telling me, like the woman caught in adultery, to go and sin no more. But not only will I go and sin no more, I will go to river Jordan and dip myself seven times like Naaman, to make sure that no stain of sin is seen in me. And if I have the opportunity, I will go to him and say, like David before Prophet Nathan: “I have sinned”, or turn back, like one of the healed ten lepers and go say to Ochudo, “Thank you, I am born again.”