Sometime in 2006, in Abuja, Prince Tony Momoh and I were seated next to each other at a seminar. He was the chairman of the session, and I, the presenter. At a point, something struck me about his appearance. I looked at his hair. It was jet black, without a speck of grey. Something was not right. I had more grey hair than Prince, so I whispered to him: “Prince, this is scandalous. How can I have more grey hair than you?” He took a hard look at me, and replied: “That is because you do not manage your hair.” We both laughed.
Prince Tony Momoh, author, former editor, columnist, administrator, and subeditor; former Trustee, President, and General Secretary of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, former chairman, National Registration Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, former Information and Culture minister was a man who took himself seriously.
His final exit provides a useful opportunity to appreciate what he meant to his immediate constituency, the media, and his dear country, Nigeria. In life, Prince Momoh lent his voice to worthy issues of governance and media development. A self-assured man, he was a deep thinker who did not shy from pushing his ideas, no matter how controversial they were.
I first met him on the pages of the Daily Times when he was the editor (1976-1980). I enjoyed the paper’s Grapevine column which reminded readers of New Nigerian’s “Candido”. I also followed his struggles with the new ownership of the Times following the government’s takeover in 1975. Even as I joined the Times in 1982, I didn’t really make his acquaintance until 1986 when he was the minister of Information and Culture. Two incidents come to mind. As editor of ThisWeek magazine, I and my publisher, Nduka Obaigbena were part of the delegation of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria that visited his office on April 8, 1987, to plead for support to get the government to reopen Newswatch magazine, which had been shut by the Babangida administration following its publication of details of the Political Bureau report. At that time, the supporting decree had not been published to justify the closure and Prince Momoh candidly told us that the hawks in government were bent on closure and our best case lay only in pleading for
a short length of the closure.
On another occasion, the encounter was indirect. Prince and the late Niyi Oniororo were locked in a controversy over the authorship of one of Momoh’s many letters to his countrymen that sought to bring governance issues home to the citizenry. Oniororo was obviously a consultant to the information ministry and may have contributed some paragraphs to the letter. The story resonated with us at ThisWeek as it coincided with the controversy on a similar charge of plagiarism against Ray Ekpu levied by the duo of Dele Momodu and Kunle Ajibade, who would later become prominent names in the media. So, we decided at ThisWeek to do a cover story on the subject.
Expectedly, we contacted Momoh’s office to clarify what the problem was. Momoh’s special adviser, Richard Ikiebe tried to persuade me to accept Momoh’s line that he authored the letter. Tried as much as he did, we were not persuaded and our May 30, 1988 cover story, “Plagiarism: Guilty or not Guilty?” with the photographs of Momoh and Ray Ekpu conveyed our skepticism.
If Momoh held that against me, it was never mentioned for we were to work well together in subsequent years. We took to each other on the basis of a shared passion for standards in the media. In 1998, I assisted him in Abuja to conduct the elections of officers of the Guild of Editors.
I cite five other instances within fourteen years when he lent his good name to some of my professional efforts. In 2005, to commemorate the first anniversary of Mr. Tunji Oseni’s departure, we organized a memorial lecture, which Prince Momoh dutifully delivered. Oseni was his classmate at Nsukka and Akoka, and also his Daily Times colleague. In 2009, when I presented two books, The popular is seldom correct and Bridges of Memory, he was there on the top table to lend his moral and financial support. In 2011, he wrote the foreword to Master of His Age: The Story of Anthony Enahoro, which I edited. That year, he also contributed a chapter to the ground-breaking work, Nigerian Columnists and their Art, which I also edited. He reprised the role for my 2019 book, UNEVEN STEPS: The Story of the Nigerian Guild of Editors.
In all of these tasks, he did not need any special prompting to perform. He gladly accepted them as professional duties to support a mentee. In appreciation of his numerous contributions to the professional health of the media, we honored him with the Lifetime achievement award of the Diamond Awards for Media Excellence in 2012.
In him, the media has lost a treasured supporter who devoted his energy to raising standards. The Guild, in particular, has lost an advocate who saw their role as professional heads more critical than that of publishers or the rank and file journalists. It was not surprising that at the 2017 convention of the Guild, he donated 200 copies of the four-volume work, Nigeriana Stirling-Horden Encyclopaedia of Mass Media and Communication to the editors.
His parting advice to the media as contained in his 2019 foreword to Uneven Steps is worth restating. After establishing that Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria situates media accountability to the people, he called for a good understanding of chapter 2, which deals with “Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy”. He then urged the Guild to play its leadership role by monitoring “the operation of the Code of Conduct of the Press.” He also stressed that chapter 2 of the constitution “must be the anchor of the mass communication program in our institutions. Otherwise, we will continue to train for an unidentified market.”
It was a continuation of the mind-set that governed his tenure as information minister, which gave the industry such lasting laws that professionalized the practice of journalism, public relations, and advertising. Without a doubt, Anthony Sulaiman Macnonoh Momoh was a blessing to the media and the country. May his soul enjoy joyous activity in the celestial realm!
*Idowu is a Trustee of the Diamond Awards for Media Excellence