by Fisayo Soyombo
IT was nearly a decade ago. I was only a 100-level student of Agriculture but I had suddenly been thrust into The Guardian’snewsroom on a two-month internship.
“This small man with big tie, I just hope you can write,” a middle-aged man addressed me smilingly on one of my first days. “I hope your writing ability is half as good as the quality of your tie. In fact, I cannot wait to read your first story.”
“It would be such a big disaster if after harassing me with all your big ties, you cannot write,” he said to me another time, wearing a wide grin.
Mr. Jahman Oladejo Anikulapo, as I soon found his name to be, was Editor of The Guardian on Sunday – the desk to which I had been deployed. (And as events eventually played out, this was the man I would later owe my media career to.) But he was more than an editor.
He not only edited your works, he called you into his office to dutifully point out your errors to you. That, I suppose, is the hallmark of a teacher. Every Friday, from his pocket, he gave all interns, male or female – whom he knew were only remunerated with a transport allowance – some money for the weekend; that’s a father. (In the end, it wasn’t the worth of the cash that mattered but the beauty and sincerity of the underlying intention.) There were times he called interns into his office to advise them on personal matters; that’s an uncle. And occasionally, he took time off his constricted work schedule to – like a friend would – exchange banters with interns and other staff.
With a full-page story and several news clippings in my file, I ended my internship two months later a very grateful boy – grateful to Jahman Anikulapo. But I never knew the extent of gratitude I would exude towards him until the following year, when the Group News Editor of the defunct Comet Newspaper denied me just four weeks in the newsroom. The Guardian had, in actual fact, approved my second internship stint, but it would not take off until another four weeks. That was too long a break for me, so I tried Comet. Its management approved the training but a defiant Group News Editor would have none of it. My offence: I was attempting to “cut corners” and enter the media through the “backdoor” because journalism was not my academic discipline. A letter of introduction from a campus press organisation made no difference, too. “Well, everyone cannot be a Jahman,” I consoled myself. “Not everyone gives a young knowledge-thirsty boy a chance at life!”
I was back again at The Guardian for my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). That one full year under Jahman’s supervision formed the foundation of my career, as my boss was the quintessential editor. Day and night he worked and toiled, and many times I wondered if he was human or machine, if he was mortal or immortal. He read nearly every word that graced the paper, and he was the only editor in the newsroom who always literally jumped from his office to the graphics room to personally design the newspaper’s pages. He didn’t need to preach hard work to me or anyone else; he simply exemplified and embodied it.
Jahman was that editor who motivated all his staff, even in the littlest manners. One of such examples: on one of the many occasions when I passed the night inside The Guardian newsroom just to beat the deadline for submission of stories, my editor was exiting the newsroom when he sighted me at a far corner and walked up to me. It was some minutes after 11pm.
“You don’t have to sleep inside the newsroom, Soyombo,” he said, his right arm nestling on my left shoulder. “Here, have the key to my office. When you’re tired, you can go in, switch on the air conditioner and sleep on the sofa. My fridge is not locked and there are drinks in it.”
As Editor of The Guardian on Sunday – a post he willfully relinquished (just a day before his 50th birthday) after 10 years in the saddle and 26 years in the newsroom – he was loved by all standards of the word; beyond the usual workplace mutual respect or camaraderie, or subordinate sycophancy. And that was because he earned it, because he maintained a bond with his people – the lowliest of them, even. The security men could enter his office, the women at the canteen, the typists, and the lower-cadre staff. And on Saturdays, the busiest days for the Sunday desk, a visitor would think a party was ongoing, because Jahman ensured that there were drinks and chops for everyone to thaw production-day tensions.
All these qualities helped him to raise a fairly stable editorial team. In mid-2009, some seven or eight months after the advent of the now-rested NEXT Newspapers, I asked Tope Templer Olaiya, a senior back at the University of Ibadan whom I came to know during our internship days, why he was not ditching The Guardian where he was only a stringer at the time for a better earning at NEXT.
“You see, Soyombo, I am not freaked by the rush to NEXT,” he answered calmly, assuredly. “To have Jahman Anikulapo as Editor is the best that can happen to a young man’s career. I want to continue working under his supervision, so I’m staying.” Less than two years after, Templer would go on to become one of the mainstays of the Sunday desk of The Guardian.
As Jahman was good to Templer and me, so he was to everyone he encountered. And Armsfree Ajanaku Onomo, unarguably one of the cleverest writers in The Guardian’s employ, would readily agree with this. Of his Editor, he once told me: “One can never fault Jahman on fairness. Never!”
On and on, anyone could write on him, and even the smartest, most concise raconteur would have the trouble of his life winding down a novel on this talented and most multi-faceted consummate professional. So how do I summarise the Jahman who’s celebrating the golden jubilee of his birth as I write these words? A tireless, indefatigable hard worker who’s striven all his life to be the best there is to be; a graceful soul with a large heart for everyone around him, his subordinates especially; a boss who will not, in anyway, muffle a subordinate’s progress – one quality I find so utterly un-Nigerian; and a man who has achieved all the successes anyone anywhere in the world could ever hope to achieve, for the simple reason that through his painstaking contributions to the careers of several young people, he has succeeded in replicating and reproducing himself, in following up his own modest successes with worthy successors.
The only danger for such successors is that having worked with Jahman, they must now have to deal with the catastrophic temptation of benchmarking future bosses against his standards. Yet, there can only be very few people like Jahman. And I know so: in my still-fledgling but fatefully itinerant media career, I am yet to meet another!
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Fisayo Soyombo