The Life and Work of Ben Egbuna: Review of “A Destiny Fulfilled” – Kunle Ajibade
In A Destiny Fulfilled, Ben Egbuna renders a very detailed account of his eventful life.
He tells an intimate story of his career spanning more than thirty- five years as a broadcast journalist. He writes feelingly about his humble background, the rich culture of his people in Enugwu-Ukwu of Anambra State, his extended paternal and maternal families, his marriage to Betty, whom he met at Radio Nigeria, and the four children produced by their union. He writes about some police barracks where he lived as a boy because his father worked diligently as a sergeant in the police. He tells us his own sad but riveting stories of the Nigeria – Biafra war and his stint in the Post and Telecommunications Department.
We are told that he was at the University of Lagos between 1983 and 1984 where he studied for a diploma in Journalism. We learn that he attended Senior Executive Course 23 at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies in Kuru where he was awarded Member of the National Institute. He was also at the British Broadcasting Service training school. He writes in passing about his obligations to his church and community. Some of the memorable details in this book, with their wit and poignancy, engage the heart and mind of the reader. Many of the stories have fascinating resonances. As you would notice when you get to read this revelatory memoir, all these stories are meant to show the origins of the sterner stuff that Ben Egbuna fully displaced as a good human being and a principled Newsreel Reporter, Principal Editor, Head of Special Programmes Unit, Controller of News, Manager News, Assistant Director News, Deputy Director News, Head of the News Directorate in Radio Nigeria, Voice of Nigeria and as Director-General of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria.
Faced with immense pressures in the course of his duties, he refused to succumb to duplicity and outright brigandage. Under his watch, any time journalism was under fire, he rose stoutly to defend it, becoming many times a lone warrior in what ought to be a collective battle for truth and justice. To that extent, this memoirist popularly called Uncle Ben, or Oga Ben, managed to endow journalism with greater nobility by practising it with dignity. He does not pull any punches in this book at all— his portraits of some people he considered enemies of progress are merciless.
Born on 13 July 1949 to Peter Nnaemeka and Regina Uzoamaka Egbuna in Sapele, Delta State, where his police father was serving at the time, he was named Ndubuisi (Life is paramount) by his father and Chiedozie (God has fixed it) by his maternal grandfather. His parents’ first child, a baby girl, had died few months after her birth in 1947. Therefore, embedded in his names are solemn prayers and stoic consolations. Believing that he was an Ogbanje who had come back as a boy, they fortified him with incisions on his face. Later in life, those incisions would be one of the main reasons some girls in Benue State thought he was handsome.
In August 1949, on the day of his baptism, the German officiating priest, Mathew Walsh, of St. Patrick Catholic Church gave him Benedict after a Saint. But Ben Egbuna was not a Saint of the Benedict mould— he was a saint of a different order: a rebel with a cause. In 1953, his parents sent him to St. Anthony’s Primary School, Enugwu-Ukwu, for his kindergarten class. They brought him back to Sapele in 1955 to be enrolled at St. Patrick’s Primary School. But the school did not enrol him because the fingers of his right and then his left hands could not touch his ears. The well-tended barrack field then became a regular place for the football-loving Ndubuisi. But his parents made sure that he did not spend all his time playing. He was taught how to spell and how to count. Because his father was very diligent as an investigator and prosecutor, he was in high demand by his officers in other stations, so he and his family were subjected to incessant transfers. His industrious businesswoman mother was always badly affected since she had to start her business from the scratch in all those new places.
When his parents saw that he was speaking too much of Sapele pidgin English than Igbo, they sent him to Uncle Gibson’s place in Enugu for what the author describes as proper grooming. That grooming nearly killed him. In Enugu he could visit his maternal grandfather who doted on him; he could visit Mrs Agnes Akpamgbo— the mother of former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Mr Clement Akpamgbo— his very kind aunt, but must quickly return to Uncle Gibson’s place. Uncle Gibson was a gentle soul but his teacher wife Madam Vicky did not spare the rod. For the first time in his life, he knew what food rationing was; he learnt to wake up before the crack of dawn; he learnt that you must not report to your grandfather the punishment you received from Uncle Gibson’s wife. One day as Madam Vicky’s cane landed on the neck of Ben Egbuna, he grabbed the cane from the woman and contemplated beating the devil out of her. This heavily pregnant, imperious madam was helpless. She knew instinctively that this angry boy could kill her if she made any move. As he was about to lay his hand on the woman, he remembered his mother’s advice after he had beaten up a girl in Warri: “A real man does not display his strength on a woman.” So, he quietly left for his grandfather’s place.
After that liberation from the unbearable house of a bully and a domestic tyrant, he joined his parents in Lagos, the new station of his father. Lagos was a city he loved at first sight. He loved the sound and smell of it. The sheer energy of people impressed him. The striking freedom in the city tantalized him. This was in January 1961. In no time he too became a Lagos boy residing in the police barracks at Mushin. Here his mother, who had learnt bakery and other things at St. Monica’s College, Ogbunike in Anambra State, was running a successful bakery business and her puff-puff and bun were the favourite snacks of many people in the suburb. He and his brother, Osita, helped to sell their mother’s bread and snacks in Mushin and Ilupeju. It was in Lagos he first saw the inside of an aeroplane when his family moved to Ikeja Police Barracks. Because the white pilot of an Alitalia plane knew his father, he showed him inside the plane. He even took him to the cockpit. Like every little child, he suddenly wanted to become a pilot.
Although his maternal grandfather in Enugu had Rediffusion which received BBC programmes from London and local broadcasts from the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, his father’s compact “Bush Radio” was quite different. He fell in love with many of the programmes. His habit of fiddling with new technological inventions, even when he had little knowledge of their uses, started with his father motorbike in Lagos. The father who had just bought a Suzuki motorbike did not know how to start or ride it— he simply parked it in one corner, waiting for someone to teach him. Having seen how people cranked the engine and rode it, Ben Egbuna just went for the key one day and started the engine. That was in 1962. He would later in life drive his first car Renault 12 TL without being taught and tinker with his first personal computer with little help.
After he completed his primary education in Lagos that year, his parents decided to send him to a boarding school because he was spending too much time on football, films and music of Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Jim Reeves and the Beatles than on his studies. His father first enrolled him in Gaskiya College in Yaba, Lagos, then at Iganmode Grammar School in Ota which was then in Western Region. He was enjoying himself in this school largely because he was a football star until the Western Region Parliamentary elections in 1965. His guardian, Mr Adebuligbe, who was also the principal of the school, was involved in that election as a party agent which made him a target of attack. The father wisely withdrew him from Iganmode Grammar School and enrolled him at Lagos City College, Yaba, a school founded by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, former Premier of Eastern Region and former President of Nigeria. At Lagos City College, his talent for football did not wane. He also excelled in Fine Arts. Indeed, he began to dream of becoming another Ben Enwonwu. Inspired by Mr Uche Chukwumerije, one of the young graduate teachers in that school, he started reading a lot of novels, most especially thrillers. Chukwumerije, who taught Latin, was very popular with impressionable students because he was bright and rode a car that his father bought for him shortly after his graduation at the University of Ibadan. Like Chukwumerije, who wrote for Drum magazine, who was also head of the current affairs at the Nigerian Broadcasting Service and who was a chain smoker, he too started dreaming of becoming a writer one day, and to chain smoke, a habit for which he was well-known in Broadcasting House. He also toyed with the idea of becoming a professional footballer.
But then, the Nigeria-Biafra war between 1967 and 1970 killed or deferred the dreams of millions of Igbo. Ben Egbuna, who was supposed to write his WAEC examinations in 1966, could not do so in Lagos as he and his mother and siblings had to flee Lagos. As he witnessed many casualties of war in Aba, where he nearly got killed in his hideout, he decided one day that if he must die, it must not be like a frightened and hungry dog— he wanted to die a combatant. So, he enlisted in the Biafra Army in August 1968. His training lasted only ten weeks in 10 Battalion in Okigwe. In no time, he became an Instructor and soon an officer— a Second Lieutenant. Hundreds of recruits, who rapidly became platoon commanders, died like flies at the war front. What was the immediate reason for that? To quote Ben Egbuna: “Our troops were bearing MK4 rifles but many of them had been supplied magazines containing bullets meant for MK 3 rifles. The result was that as the battle raged, a good many of the troops were out of action because of rifle chamber blockage.”
In September 1969, he was promoted full Lieutenant. By the time the war was over in 1970, he was twenty and a half years old. He had not completed his secondary school education. He had become street-wise, no longer a pampered city boy; he had seen many corpses, experienced the brutality of war. His family, like many families on the Biafra side, was in penury. To help the family raise some income he began to use an explosive device leftover in the war to fish in the Nwangene stream. There was no way of surviving on this. So he came to Lagos and stayed with Yomi Agbebi, his friend at the Lagos City College, who took care of him and raised some money for him. His other classmates were making progress with their lives. His father’s house at 103 Ojo Road, from which he thought he could collect some accumulated 30-month rent money, was occupied by soldiers. It was a very gloomy time. In their craving for some kind of security, he and his cousin, Felix Nwosu, went desperately to seek the help of a white garment prophet in Ufuma. The man prayed for Felix and prophesied that he would be wealthy and comfortable. He prayed for Ben too and said his future would be bright and that he would be famous. As lousy as that prophet looked and behaved his predictions have come to pass. But the cynical Ben is not particularly keen to give the man credit. The rent money of his father’s house was eventually paid. The family invested part of it in a rice milling business at Otuocha and Ben Egbuna registered and wrote, at St. Michael’s Secondary School, Nimo, his West African School Certificate Examinations. In February 1971, his father was reabsorbed into the Nigeria Police Force. He was posted to the Marine Beach Police Barracks in Lagos.
The same year, Ben Egbuna, in response to a newspaper advertisement by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), applied for the post of News Assistant Trainee. While he waited for NBC’s response, he got a job at the Post and Telecommunications Department where he worked for barely two months with Mr Sola Omole before he was offered a job at the NBC or Radio Nigeria as a News Assistant Trainee. He worked his way through the ranks with passion. Although Mr Victor Badejo, the Director-General to whom he submitted his application had retired by the time he was employed, his replacement, Mr Christopher Kolade, was a consummate professional who insisted on the highest of standards. He promoted and defended professionalism, justice and equity. He was a role model to Ben Egbuna.
Mr Victor Olufemi Adefela, the head of the Current Affairs Unit, was one of his mentors. In praise of him, the author writes: “Mr Adefela was one of those who laid the foundation of my success as a broadcast journalist. He didn’t speak much but he was an effective teacher all the same. I never forget the day he invited me to his office over a news report I had written for Newsreel. When I entered his office, he suspended what he was working on, placed the elbow of his right hand on his desk and his right index finger on his nose after he passed a copy of my report to me. He asked why I took the report from the angle I did. I was thrown into confusion and just sat there speechless. I assumed I had done the wrong thing. After a while, I said to him: I am sorry, sir.” Then, Mr Adefela replied gently, telling him that he didn’t have to be sorry. “I like your lead,” he continued, “but I wanted to be sure you know what you are doing. You must learn to always explain and defend your actions.” Ben Egbuna took that admonition seriously. I
n this book, he explains and defends almost all his significant actions as a broadcast journalist. But the book is not just a personal history— it is a corporate history of broadcast journalism in Nigeria. It is also an aspect of Nigerian history. According to him the editorial meeting,in the time of Christopher Kolade, served as his first journalism classroom. It was there that he was introduced to the basic principles of journalism. In his words, “it was at the editorial meeting that the daily news operations were planned and implemented, strategies and goals set. It was at this forum that the past day’s operations were reviewed, and the bulletins and news programmes critiqued. There was freedom of expression and of thought. We were encouraged to listen to programmes, take notes, and to speak up at editorial meetings. I took serious note of criticisms not only of my productions but those of other staff, and I learned a lot from them.” By the time he went to the University of Lagos to study journalism, he was already a master of the profession.
One of the major events that he covered as a young reporter was the coup d’etat of 13 February 1976. For me, the highlight of his reporting of that tragic event in this book was how the dead drunk Colonel Bukar Dimka quickly changed his civilian clothing to the military uniform before he made the infamous broadcast in Radio Nigeria studio, imposing a dawn-to-dusk curfew after the assassination of General Murtala Muhammed. Egbuna was fortuitously in the studio that early morning when Dimka made his deranged speech. He got exclusive stories from the trial of the coup plotters and was at the Kirikiri Prison where many of them were executed. He sent a reporter to Bar Beach where the rest of the coup plotters were killed. From that moment on, no military personnel, irrespective of his rank, was allowed into Broadcasting House without approval by the Commander of the Guards Brigade.
Another major event of his career was his coverage of the preliminary agreement with Nigeria by the International Monetary Fund. This was in 1986 after the rancorous national debate on IMF loan from which the government of General Ibrahim Babangida had supposedly backed off. As soon as the story hit the airwaves, the Chief of General Staff and Second in Command to General Babangida, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, sent his Aide de Camp (ADC) and three other naval personnel to the Broadcasting House. They stormed the place. They flouted the rule put in place by the military itself: they never got any permission from the Commander of the Guards Brigade. Ben Egbuna was arrested and taken to Ebitu Ukiwe’s office. He ordered his men to lock up the journalist, believing that Egbuna had reported that the Federal Government had taken the contentious IMF loan. The arrogance of power did not allow him to differentiate between a preliminary agreement to take a loan and taking a loan. Or was Commodore Ukiwe just trying to suck up to General Babangida who soon ditched him anyway and replaced him with Commodore Augustus Aikhomu as vice-president, a title which he denied Ukiwe.
The attention of Mr Yusuf Mamman, the Chief Press Secretary to the Chief of General Staff was never called to the story before the arrest. Neither was that of Mr Tony Momoh the Minister of Information. The ADC sent Egbuna to the Police Criminal Investigation Department in Alagbon Close where he spent a long night in detention. His wife, Betty and one of his friends, Mr Soni Irabor, were looking everywhere for him. When the calm police officer in charge of CID read the short story, he did not see anything wrong with it. He briefed the Inspector General of Police who ordered Egbuna’s release.
Earlier in March 1974, the Federal Commissioner for Industries, Dr. Joseph Eyitayo Adetoro, called Mr Christopher Kolade to complain about a story attributed to him on Radio Nigeria. The report was written by Ben Egbuna. The story was about the plan by the government of General Yakubu Gowon to establish a steel production complex in Ajaokuta. The commissioner had invited Egbuna over for an interview at the Ikoyi Hotels. As he talked over lunch at the Chinese restaurant which he paid for, Egbuna put on his tape recorder. Back in the newsroom, he broke the Ajaokuta story. It was the lead story on Radio Nigeria on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The commissioner flatly denied the report. However, when Mr Christopher Kolade listened to the tape and confirmed the veracity of the story, he called the Commissioner to let him know that Radio Nigeria stood by its story. Dr Adetoro later told Egbuna that it was General Yakubu Gowon who was unhappy with the story because the report pre-empted what was going to be a major item in his budget speech in April.
He covered the Constituent Assembly and, together with his team of reporters, deployed in all strategic places all over Nigeria, covered general elections including the June 12 elections. He spoke with M.K.O. Abiola the SDP candidate who won the election but was denied victory by General Ibrahim Babangida. He also covered the annulment and its fall-outs. He refused to dignify Abimbola Davies of the Association for a Better Nigeria (ABN) with the kind of coverage he wanted. He turned down the request to report live the “Two Million Man March” jamboree in Abuja organized by General Sani Abacha’s loyalists, minions and goons, who wanted the brutal tyrant to stay on in power for life.
It was not only many domestic events he reported with competence; he reported some international stories, too, with finesse. He covered the conference of the National Food and Agriculture Organisation in Arusha, Tanzania, where he had an interesting interview with President Julius Nyerere. He covered the 1979 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Lusaka, Zambia. With the help of major General Henry Adefope, the Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, who gave him confidential daily reports of deliberations by the heads of state and governments, Egbuna’s reports were not just accurate, they were well-informed. He also covered the Zimbabwe Constitutional Talks held at Lancaster House in London. He visited East and West Germany, Japan, Chad, the Bahamas, among other places.
It was a tribute to his competence as a newshound that many of his colleagues and even bosses started calling him Oga Ben instead of Uncle Ben. Yet there were impediments put in his way by some of his bosses like Mr Patrick Obazele and Mr Taiwo Allimi. In fact, they nearly succeeded in frustrating him out of the Broadcasting House. It was the elemental hidden force that controls our futures that did not allow it to happen. Naturally, he has very scathing assessments of people like them in this book. Because his evidence is weighty, it is difficult not to agree with him. In frustration, he once contemplated going to The African Guardian magazine. But then, as a character in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It puts it, “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” He not only registered at Alliance Francaise to learn French, but he also started writing a novel with a tentative title Trump Card. This was in 1981. Macmillan Nigeria Publishers Limited accepted the manuscript and changed the title to Guerrillas in Lagos. The novel and a collection of short stories which was also accepted by Onibonoje Press are yet to see the light of day. The Egbuna children— Uchendu, Chiedozie, Chinelo and Chukwuka— should track down the manuscripts.
Voice of Nigeria, the external service of the Federal Radio Corporation (FRCN), an autonomous broadcasting unit, created 5 January 1990, to which he was deployed, was a saving grace. Here he worked with Messrs Yaya Abubakar, Tunji Oseni and Engineer G.C. Ugwu, among others, who were far more interested in journalism than office politics. With Mr Tunji Oseni, he laid the foundation of Voice of Nigeria as a news medium. Apart from the wide coverage for external consumption, he sought for and got contributions from freelancers in South Africa, Zimbabwe, the Gambia, Ethiopia, Zambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Kenya. In an interesting twist of fate, he was made the Director-General of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria by President Olusegun Obasanjo when he had already sent in his retirement notice.
As the 13th Director-General of FRCN, he worked tirelessly to raise the standard of work in the place. He was DG for twenty- one months for he was thirty five years in service on 17 April 2008. But he has a lot to show in this book as his achievements despite all the sabotage of some thieving staff, covert and overt antagonisms of some ethnic warriors and the incompetence and unremitting insults of political appointees like John Odey and Ibrahim Nakande.
In retirement, Mr Ben Egbuna ran his own outfit, Niche Media, until his death in January this year. He lived a simple and contented life.
Let me conclude with Barack Obama who once said in one of his commencement addresses: ‘Nobody gets to write your destiny but you. Your future is in your hands.” Ben Egbuna shows us precisely that with his admirable work ethic and character in A Destiny Fulfilled. I believe this memoir will stand as one of his best memorials.
– Mr Kule Ajibade, Executive Editor/Director, TheNEWS and P.M.NEWS, read this review at the public presentation of A Destiny Fulfilled on 12 August 2021 at Agip Recital Hall, Muson Centre, Lagos.