Those who know Jimi Disu far back probably knew him during his stint with Daily Times newspaper, Nigeria’s foremost daily at the 70’s and 80’s. But in this chat with THE INTERVIEW, he speaks on a variety of things: his early passion, the drudgery of earlier years’ newspaper production in the country, governance in Nigeria, Fela and his dreams, why he won’t go to church in Nigeria and many more. He’s an interviewer’s delight. Enjoy.
In your varied career, among other things, you were in journalism at the Daily Times in 1975. How would that time compare to journalism now?
It was very gruelling. For research, you would have to go to the library over and over again. Then, production was also more difficult. Ironically, I believe that the end product then was much better than what we have now. Let me quickly add that journalism is a calling. If you don’t have that, you won’t do it excellently. It consumes you and your mind is always on getting the truth. It is very difficult to achieve in a poverty-ridden country like ours. Journalism ought to be easier now with all the modern tools but social media has changed things. There is a bigger rush for deadlines. Standards have gone down. Back then, a newspaper was a reference point. That said, society as a whole has seen a general reduction of standards.
Would you say that the way government handles the media is effective?
I think there is a lack of understanding of modern trends in the media. They are still using 1966 tactics in 2016. The job of a government communicator, in the first instance, is to be a bridge between the government and the people. It’s not to bamboozle people; it is to let them understand government policies. It’s about tactical positioning and getting information forward, knowing what to talk about and what not to talk about. Usually, they are reactive. It is a serious business. It’s not everybody that can or should do it. I don’t believe that a fantastic journalist is automatically a good spokesperson. I was embarrassed when I heard the expression “wailing wailers” from a government spokesperson. How did we get to that level? Once elected, the president is no longer just a party member, he is OUR president. So for someone to use the term ‘wailing wailers’ is to trivialise the presidency.
Secondly, I also see that in reaction, especially at state level, once one does not like what government is doing, or you make a comment about government, you become the enemy of that administration. I have heard it said that ‘Jimi Disu is an enemy of the administration, we know him.” Many now believe that government public relations is to distribute envelopes, and information will be suppressed. I can use the Lagos State Water Corporation example of how these things can backfire. Lagos State had no water for close to one week and not one newspaper carried the story. That then told me there had been an attempt to suppress it. The best thing to have done would be to acknowledge it and put people on notice that we are having problems with water and, in the meantime, you can do this, that and the other. The story started circulating in the media and the general manager had to start apologising. It could have been avoided.
While we are on this topic, do you think Reuben Abati should have taken the job under President Jonathan? Do you think he sold out (for want of a better phrase)?
First, someone had to do it. The next thing to remember is that Jonathan was the blue-eyed boy at the time. Should he have left? Government is like a cult. You can’t just walk away. The thing to do is to make your mind up early in your career that you will not go into government. That is a decision that I have made. I understand it somewhat. Would I have taken the job? No. Did Reuben Abati do his job well? He had a bad product and a bad client.
That’s exactly what makes most people wonder why he took the job, given that he had often been critical of government.
He expressed his opinion in his column; he didn’t say that people should follow. He is not a Gani or Beko.
You are known for fearlessly expressing your opinion daily on radio. Much of it centres on our problems as a nation; the impact of past leaders and how things seem to be getting worse. Some might see this as depressing. Decade after decade, the talking points are the same. How do you keep going?
It’s a calling. The moment I put on the microphone, I’m a different person. That’s what makes me different. A lot of people do what I do; I’m not doing anything spectacular but I have a passion for what I do. This has been from an early age. I produced the school magazine in Corona Primary School. At secondary school, I joined the editorial board of the school magazine from Form 2. I was a debater. It is ingrained in me.
Do you still have hope that things will ultimately improve in Nigeria?
No. Not in my lifetime. You can’t be 60-odd years old and think that things will improve. I am getting a sense that Nigeria is too big a monster. It might not be a bad idea to have a loose centre. Just like with the whole herdsmen problem - having state police would have been useful; they won’t wait for a directive from Abuja.
You were very vocal about your support for President Buhari in the run-up to the 2015 elections. Almost a year into his presidency, the general sentiment is one of depression and despair; do you still hold the belief that he is the man for the job?
The first priority was to make sure that Jonathan did not return. I make no apologies for that. The man did not have the capacity to run the country. If you remember, I did stress at the time that Buhari was not the ultimate answer. I believe that he will be a stopgap. Then we can see if we can bring a young technocrat to handle the country. All over the world, there are young leaders. Governance has gone far beyond the regular template. Buhari’s weakness seems to be the tendency to micromanage. Leadership everywhere is about putting effective systems in place. The brief that he has is heavy. I wouldn’t touch it with a long pole.
Please share your thoughts on some topical issues of the moment when the phrases are mentioned.
Fulani Herdsmen Some people are just bandits. We are not even sure that they are Fulani. They could be from anywhere. There are people that don’t want Nigeria to work and thrive. They have forgotten that when it rains, it doesn’t only fall on one house.
Senate President’s Trial Terrible. Nasty. It has brought a whole institution into disrepute and has the whole country in a bind. Unstatesmanlike behaviour has been exhibited. It is very sad and sets such a bad example for us as a country. At that level, I would have thought that the dramatis personae would see the larger picture.
Panama Papers There are two sides. The first is the revelation. For those that are releasing it, what is their purpose? Secondly, if a lot of it is true, yes those people should be answering pertinent questions. But why is it being revealed now?
Federal Character I’m looking forward to the day when it won’t matter anymore, especially in my generation because that is what we knew.
Media The media has been compromised. I am ashamed at a lot of what happens in the media.
You have been accused of not believing in God because you are an advocate of reducing noise pollution caused by religious institutions. Would you like to clarify your stance on religion? I am a religious person but I keep my beliefs private. I am an Anglican but I will not be part of the hypocrisy and irresponsibility associated with religion. When I am in the UK, I attend service. Why? Because it’s 45 minutes with a straight communion. I have nothing against those who attend other services but it doesn’t suit me - the extra stuff like dancing and jumping up. Religion should be done with reverence. It’s a personal belief, though, and I feel fulfilled and that’s why I don’t go to church here. A lot of our worship here is based on showmanship. A lot of racketeering is going on in religion on all sides. I refuse to endorse or be part of that. If someone is knocking on my door at 5am to preach, how does he know that I haven’t been praying all night and just about to sleep? Nigerians have fallen victim to the business of religion. In those days, a reverend had a 504 and modest possessions. Faith schools were free. Now, you have people paying tithes and offerings, yet they can’t afford to send their children to those schools set up by religious institutions.
We cannot have a conversation without touching on abami eda (Fela.) You are a fanatical fan. There is a presumption that Fela fans also share his eccentricities. Would that be true about you? I’m not like him. I believed that Fela was a fantastic composer and arranger. I believe in the things that he said but don’t always think there were workable. Some of his lyrics at that time still apply today. You cannot have that kind of talent and not exhibit what the world calls eccentric. Who are we to determine who is eccentric?
You have interviewed countless people. Is there someone on your list that you wish you could have a couple of hours with? President Buhari. I wish could interview him after he has left office. Right now, any answers he gives would be doctored. I would love to spend the day with him. Maybe it would also be good to talk to Obama. I’m sure after this, I will then think of other people but those are the two for now.
In the same vein, despite your natural curiosity, is there anyone that you would definitely leave out of your list to interview? Firstly, it’s not everyone I interview that I like and, secondly, it is not everyone I like that I agree with. Adedibu (the late strongman of Ibadan, Chief Lamidi Adedibu), God rest his soul, made a good study and that is what a good journalist should look out for. My job is not to make judgements but to probe. I wish he were still alive. I miss him. To answer the question about someone that I definitely would not interview even if given the chance, I don’t want you to spoil my day by having to mention their names. It could be a failing on my part but I would hate to be in an environment with a nasty person and I wouldn’t interview them.
You are very busy with your radio programme during the week, what do you when you’re not working? My day starts at 3am. When I wake up, I start reading; my radio programme starts at 7am. I relax and have some coffee. This is where I pay tribute to my late colleague, Sly (Ojigbede, who passed away in 2015.) He always made sure that my coffee was ready. The programme runs for thirty minutes, but it takes a lot of preparation. After the programme, I come home for a snooze. I then return to my study where we are now. Then I work on my blog. I am now antisocial. I am always checking for things, even at parties. On Saturdays, I shut down. I just relax. On Sundays, if I am in the UK, I go to church.
What has been your proudest moment? That must be when I had my first child. I felt I had become a man. My biggest day of relief was when I got my degree. I was not planning to do any further studies. I will tell you why – because I am intellectually arrogant. I had already started work at Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. I knew I could write. I was very involved in student activities. I just wanted to be done. It took me five years to do a three year-degree programme. But that was then. Things have changed and I wouldn’t advise people not to get a degree and more. A bachelors’ degree now is nothing.