Sunny Ojeagbase: Journalist and entrepreneur at 70- Ehi Braimah
As 2021 beckons, we must remain thankful for the gift of life as it has pleased God to spare our lives. We also need His grace to march triumphantly and confidently into the New Year and pursue our goals including the ones we could not achieve in 2020. So when Pastor (Dr) Emmanuel Sunny Ojeagbase, popularly known as S.O., turned 70 years old on December 31, 2020, the last day of the year of the pandemic, there is every reason to thank God.
S.O. is the Executive Chairman, Complete Communications Limited and Success Attitude Development Centre (SADC), publishers of Complete Sports and Success Digest respectively. But he is also many things rolled into one: distinguished journalist and entrepreneur, husband, father, grandfather, writer, author, thinker, peak performance coach, philosopher, philanthropist, humanist, motivational speaker, strategist, wealth builder, life and business coach, net-preneur and mentor.
Three scores and ten years is a remarkable milestone and it calls for appreciation and celebration, especially when we consider the impact of life’s daily struggles on our mental and physical health. Life has become short and brutish. It is often said that life begins at 40 but if you are lucky to hit 70 in a fast changing and unpredictable world, you must be highly favoured by our Creator because His promise is that we shall fulfill all our days. Show me one person who does not wish for good health and long life and I will tell you why the Earth rotates on its axis every 24 hours causing day and night.
Long before I met S.O. – or Publisher as we also call him — for the first time, I enjoyed his sports stories. There was also something extra-special about the way he designed the sports pages of The Concord and later The Guardian. He was group sports editor of both titles. The page planning and the overall look and feel of the sports pages seduced his readers and gave them visual orgasm. The headlines to the stories as well as the font types and sizes and placement showed that S.O. was – and still is – good at his craft. The sports pages were purely works of art, thus giving the readers full value for their money.
At that time, the popular Olympia typewriters were in vogue. They were used to type stories on off cuts from newsprints after writing in long hand – there were no computers! The graphic artist worked on the pages after the typesetters had sent in the materials. What readers found and paid for at the newsstands was the product of lithographic printing. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then.
The trend-setting sports editor would later quit The Guardian under controversial circumstances in 1984 when he was 34 years old — barely 18 months after joining the newspaper. He had travelled to the United States to cover the Summer Olympics which held in Los Angeles from July 28 – August 12, 1984. It marked the second time Los Angeles was hosting the Games, the first being in 1932. S.O. sent his letter of resignation from LA to his employers at Rutam House, Isolo and never returned to The Guardian. Subsequently, he decided to go solo and founded Sports Souvenir, Nigeria’s first all-sport weekly newspaper, with a seed capital of N6,500, an inspiring story that he shares all the time.
Apart from the LA Games, S.O. has covered so many other international sporting events from football to athletics and tennis. In 1987, he covered the U-20 World Cup in Chile. The youth team included enfant terrible Etim Esin, Willie Okpara as goalie and Adeolu Adekola who was a student of Psychology at the University of Lagos. It was a complete team with Coach Chris Udemezue in charge. Nigerians were confident the team will do well, but in our very first game, Brazil walloped us 4 – 0.
S.O. drew inspiration mostly from newspapers and football magazines published in the UK. He bought copies of The Sun, The Guardian, Shoot! and Match at the international airport in Ikeja, Lagos and studied them as if he was preparing for an examination. He wanted Complete Football to be a treasure for football fans, and he sacrificed everything he had.
But it can be disappointing when the result of all the hard work is poor sales after spending to your last kobo. This was the situation with one of the early editions of Complete Football – the expected harvest was poor. That was how the idea of publishing a title not related to sports began to form in S.O’s mind in 1987. As usual, he nurtured the idea and launched Climax magazine in 1989.
As an undergraduate, I looked forward to the day I would meet S.O and tell him he was a fantastic writer and story teller. I was also going to tell him that he was a great inspiration to many young admirers like me because of the content and design of his sports pages. I waited patiently. In the summer of 1987, I ran into Souleman Foudjah at the Benin Centre of the FA Cup. Foudjah was an Executive Director of Complete Communications Limited (CCL), publishers of Sports Souvenir and Complete Football while S.O. was Publisher/Editor-in-Chief. Foudjah was on duty in Benin as a referee and our conversation continued at Benin Motel Plaza which was busy with footballers and match officials.
I told Foudjah I would like to work as a sportswriter for Sports Souvenir. I was actually fascinated by how the paper was packaged and presented. He promised to speak to S.O. and deliver my message. I followed up with a telephone call by dialing 01-524220, an analogue number belonging to CCL that has a special place in my memory bank. There was no internet, mobile phone or social media at that time. When digital telephone lines became active, the number changed to 01-4524220.
To my greatest surprise, it was S.O. himself that answered the call. Eventually, I received a letter inviting me to Lagos. I met with S.O. and returned to Benin. He assured me that I will get the job I asked for in spite of my mathematics background since I was passionate about writing sports. I added that I loved journalism because of him and other prominent journalists.
What I cannot tell is if he saw the burning desire in my body and the spark in my eyes to not only work for the sports publishing company but to also write like him. He was the master as he was way ahead of his colleagues in my own reckoning. One way or the other, I knew I had to prove myself. I wrote a few stories from Benin but I knew I could write better under S.O’s mentorship. Without knowing it, he inspired me to take interest in sports writing and as a student at the University of Benin, I started my sports writing career at The Observer in Benin City. Akido Shittu, who was the sports editor at the time, was gracious enough to publish my articles.
Ten years ago, I penned the following as part of my tribute to mark S.O.’s 60th birthday. S.O said this to me in 1987: “‘We are re-structuring and you need to be patient. We intend to rest Sports Souvenir (SS) and only Complete Football will be our source of income. You will be on a stipend of N50 a week (meaning N200 a month) until we are in a position to regularise your appointment’. S.O. was only being frank and straight to the point, so what he said did not really bother me because as a youth corps member, I was earning N200 a month. I was also not married, so my needs were very limited. I said to myself, ‘take the offer, it’s a great opportunity, I will survive.’”
By October 1988, I landed in Lagos to start work as a trainee sports writer. I must have jumped the queue as I did not wait for too long after my national youth service to find a job. Every morning, I resumed at the Okota office of Sports Souvenir and Complete Football feeling cool with myself; it was a chance of a lifetime and it felt like winning a jackpot. I was also going to meet the famous footballer and prolific writer, Segun Odegbami. He was also a member of the CCL team.
I did not need a godfather – I did not have one anyway — neither did I use any long leg; I only followed my heart and S.O. gave me the opportunity. I have not looked back since then. I’m truly grateful to him. What most young people lack today are mentors to point the way forward for them. Right from that first encounter, S.O. has remained a mentor and coach till this day. This relationship extended to family ties and a strong bond which we both treasure and guard jealously.
It was at CCL that I met Mumini Alao as a fresh graduate of Mass Communications from the University of Lagos. We have remained friends, brothers and colleagues since then and by the special grace of God and Mumini’s commitment, diligence, professionalism, sincerity and hard work, he is the group managing director of Complete Communications Limited. Alao bagged his PhD degree this year from the University of Lagos although he is yet to “wash” it for me. It is not his fault; blame it on coronavirus and lockdown restrictions. I also met Lydia Oyekanmi (nee Ojeagbase) in the admin department and Damian Ohajunwa who is now based in Cape Town – he was in the advert department. Later, Samm Audu joined the team all the way from Kaduna.
As a rookie reporter and JJC (Johnny Just Come) in Lagos, I learnt the ropes quickly. I worked as proof reader, sub-editor, production assistant and writer. I also found my way from Ogba to Okota and back daily on molue, the popular yellow buses in Lagos. From being a squatter, I rented a one room apartment in Ikeja with a N1,000 loan from S.O. The re-structuring S.O. referred to was setting up Climax, a trend-setting soft-sell magazine, beaming its searchlight on celebrities and top Lagos socialites.
There was Moji Danisa, Ekerete Udoh, Al Humphrey Onyanabo, Lanre Ijaola, Femi Akintunde-Johnson (FAJ) and a host of other staff. I was drafted here as reporter, and then moved up as assistant editor, general editor and deputy editor. I wrote a column known as “Bowling the Night” before being assigned as editor of International Soccer Review. After three and half years, I moved on to take up other responsibilities.
S.O. writes in flowing elegant prose that you cannot ignore. His language is lucid, sublime and precise with compelling narratives. S.O. takes his readers on a journey when he writes without leaving them behind. His journalism career flourished because he wanted to be the best. That is actually S.O’s standard operating procedure for all his ventures; he does not like cutting corners. He trained and developed himself by applying goal setting techniques mixed with a strong determination to succeed.
Our Publisher is kind, gracious and God fearing. “Publisher has a pleasing personality,” reminisced Franklin Ilaboya, his first cousin. S.O hails from Uzebba in Owan West local government area in Edo State where Ilaboya — who is also a sports writer and politician — is Chairman of the council.
Ilaboya worked with S.O. at the Guardian when Lade Bonuola, associate editor at the time, hired him fresh from school as the first proof reader of the newspaper way back in November 1982 although it was in February 1983 the Guardian entered the newspaper market. “I never thought I would ever work in the media industry but S.O. influenced my career and I’m glad he did,” Ilaboya continued, as he paid glowing tributes to our birthday celebrant. “God used S.O. to put me where I am today. I learnt a lot from him and, through his constant encouragement, I became a better person.”
According to Ilaboya, S.O fights like a Trojan due to his unflagging spirit, adding that he fights “physically, mentally and spiritually.” It is true; I can confirm that S.O does not go down without a fight. This may be due to his training as a soldier – S.O. was in the Nigerian Army before he branched out into journalism.
Lydia, S.O.’s younger sister, told me her life’s story will be incomplete without acknowledging her big brother’s role who is also her father and mentor. “God raised him as a divine helper for me and my other siblings long before I got married to Engr Olatunji Oyekanmi. He watched me grow and nurtured me,” Lydia enthused, obviously excited as we spoke on the phone. “My senior brother has always been a family man who cared for everyone. I want him to know he has a large place in my heart and it will always be so – he means so much to me and my family; we are like Jonathan and David in the Bible.”
I can testify that S.O. is a family man. This was also what I wrote 10 years ago to celebrate him: “Family ties between the Ojeagbases and my family have been very strong. Every December 31, my family practically relocates to the Okota home of S.O. for his birthday. We share the same values, namely: hard work, integrity, sustaining a Christian family, creating wealth, supporting entrepreneurs and promoting a knowledge economy. Apart from being God parents to our children, S.O. and his wife also mentor me and my wife on a regular basis.
“When I had a crisis with my business associate not too long ago, Daddy and Mummy S.O. were there for me and my family, supporting us with prayers. Whether in trying times or during occasions of joy, S.O. and his wife have never turned their backs on us. My wife shares fellowship at Okota with members of Mother of Nations Intercessory Group co-ordinated by Pastor (Mrs.) Esther Ojeagbase. They have also taken a keen interest in our business and support us all the way. S.O. was my first employer in Lagos, but today, one of his daughters, Blessing, works in my company.”
The Doyen of sports publishing in Nigeria is also a life/business coach and wealth builder. At the Success Attitude Development Centre (SADC) founder in 1995, S.O. and his wife are preachers and teachers through various seminars. I was privileged to have been invited to speak on different occasions. You can learn more about SADC’s activities through their publication, Success Digest!
In 1996, S.O. invited me and other young professionals to join him and his wife to support his dream of establishing the Success Digest Enterprise Awards (SDEA). It gives me great joy to note that I served on that committee for over 15 years and we hosted the awards back to back on a yearly basis. We recognised and honoured over 120 enterprising Nigerians during the period for providing employment and creating value for our economy.
For the 32 years that I have known S.O., his wife, Esther, has been a rock solid partner and soul mate. They bond together as honest and sincere lovebirds giving a new meaning to romance, the type we read in Mills & Boon series. She is always supportive and prayerful. My wife and I admire her and S.O. as a great couple and role model.
I usually take S.O. into confidence when I’m on to something new. That was how I sent him a proposal on Entertainment Express, a weekly publication that focused on the wave-making entertainment industry. S.O. loved the idea and invited Mike Awoyinfa and the late Dimgba Igwe to join us (CCL and Neo Media & Marketing) as promoters of the project and we registered Express Multimedia Limited owned by three partners.
Entertainment Express made its debut on Friday July 1, 2011 and it was published every Friday. Six months later, on Sunday December 4, 2011, we added Sunday Express published every Sunday. After about four years, the paper was rested because digital media had changed the way news was consumed. Our investment of over N80 million went down the drain – that is the life of entrepreneurs; win some, lose some.
Sometime in May this year, I told S.O. was I was compiling all my articles written during the lockdown into a book titled, “My Lockdown Diary: Reflections on Nigeria and COVID-19 Pandemic.” When I asked him to write the Foreword to the book, he gladly accepted to do it. Once again, I’m grateful as it was my first book.
As we celebrate this great mind at 70, let us thank God for his life. Here is a man who keeps overcoming one adversity after the other — S.O. must be a cat with nine lives. With good people like him, the world can become a better place. Sometimes, S.O. is largely misunderstood for staying true to his principles.
Because of his humble background, he believes in the humanity that thrives and spreads success, happiness, love and kindness. S.O. also believes that the keys to a successful life are rooted in hard work, perseverance and the fear of God. I salute his courage and vision for big ideas. S.O. is a risk taker and man of ideas; he is never afraid of taking on new challenges.
My family and colleagues rejoice with S.O. and his family on the auspicious occasion of his 70th birthday, and may the glory of God continue to manifest in his life for profound fulfillment. Congratulations sir and happy birthday!
Braimah is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Naija Times