By Dele Momodu
Fellow Africans, please, join me in thanking God for this baby of circumstance that was born through some excruciating pain 20 years ago in the city of London. The genesis of Ovation International could only have been by divine conception. I won’t know any other way to describe it. The original idea was first ignited after my controversial exit from my high flying job as the Editor of Nigeria’s foremost celebrity journal, Classique magazine, owned by May Ellen Ezekiel Mofe-Damijo, now of blessed memory. That is a story for another day.
My first impulse was to birth my own magazine, like most journalists would. There is nothing more addictive than journalism, the reason most journalists find it inconceivable to try other trades. So, I decided it was time to challenge fate and come up with a journal that would mirror the lifestyle of the rich and famous. There were already several such publications in circulation, including Prime People, Vintage People, Fame, Today’s Choice, Climax, Quality, Classique, Poise, and so on. There was also a very popular romance magazine called Hints which was owned by Dr Ibe Kachikwu and Edited by Mr Kayode Ajala. But I felt, there was enough space for an authoritative magazine for newsmakers.
Fame had started from my apartment in Ikeja, Lagos, as the brainchild of Mayor Akinpelu, Femi Akintunde-Johnson and Kunle Bakare. Kunle Bakare was the Society Editor of Classique when I was Editor and he had moved in to stay with me. We were inseparable and it was only natural that I would be concerned about a business he and others were starting. I eventually became a Contributing Editor in Fame after I left Classique while working quietly on my own project.
Kunle Bakare had played a pivotal role in finding a title for my magazine by bringing out a Thesaurus and we searched at random for any catchy word depicting celebrity status. We came across so many but we stumbled on ovation and my reaction was spontaneous; I screamed “Ovation… loud… for a purpose…” I was excited if not delirious. That was it…
The next action was how to get the much needed funding… That is another story for a different day. I remembered my unlettered mum teaching me early in life that “money says we should never make plans in its absence”. It is the first lesson to learn in business. You can write the most brilliant plans and proposals but it would all evaporate without cash. The second lesson I learnt was the importance of pragmatism in business. You can hardly argue with a benefactor who’s willing to invest in your dream. I was too idealistic and rigid and lost out on what would have been a good and comfortable deal. My core investor had wanted me to alter a few things but I was stubborn and we could not conclude the deal. Ironically, years later, the same benefactor would become the biggest supporter of all times, and he is no other than Dr Mike Adenuga Jnr.
That was in 1992 and I had been out of job since September 1991. Mercifully, I was able to start a Public Relations outfit through the help of my friend, Mr Abdul-Lateef Kolawole Abiola, who signed me to handle the media launch of Summit Oil International. I got my next assignment from the Spirit of Africa, Dr Michael Adeniyi Agbolade Isola Adenuga, who was already controlling two banks, ETB and DEVCOM, and the first indigenous company, Consolidated Oil, to discover oil in commercial quantity. My next job was the invitation from Prince Nduka Obaigbena, the prodigiously gifted and extremely brave Publisher of the defunct Thisweek magazine, who invited me to be the pioneer Editor of Leaders & Company which metamorphosed into Thisday newspapers. I was saddled with the responsibilty of recruiting many of the core staff that started Thisday from scratch. This was in December 1992.
Everything was going smoothly until early 1993. I was in Nduka’s house one evening when word reached us that Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola had dived into the Presidential race and he was ready to run on the platform of the Social Democratic Party. As my mentor and adopted father, I plunged myself into his campaign. Nduka was tolerant of my decision despite being a member of the opposing political party, National Republican Congress Party. Chief Abiola went on a blistering campaign and eventually emerged the candidate for his party while Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa became the candidate of NRC. It was funny as Nduka and I working from the same office on Norman Williams Road in Ikoyi campaigned for different candidates.
The June 12 Presidential election was the turning point in our lives. I thought I was only on sabbatical and hoped to return to my desk after the elections but it was not meant to be. I was so involved in the Abiola saga that I soon became one of the earliest victims of the ensuing military repression and I was thrown into the gulag called Alagbon Detention centre between July and August 1993. That is a special story on its own. I was soon released after being charged before a Magistrate court in Igbosere and discharged to sin no more. But nothing could stop me from joining so many well-meaning Nigerians seeking the revalidation of the watershed election won by Abiola.
In 1994, Chief Abiola himself was arrested and kept in solitary confinement. By this time I had totally lost interest in my work at Leaders & Company and Nduka understood and appreciated my unflinching loyalty to Abiola. I was ready to throw everything into the ring. Life was hard and tough but God would always look after his own. In the midst of these conundrums, I was still able to find some odd jobs here and there.
I was fortunate to also meet the whiz kid, Mr Hakeem Belo-Osagie, through his affable cousin, Mr Ademola Adekogbe (may his soul continue to rest in peace) and Keem gave me the complicated task of sorting out the spate of media attacks against him after acquiring majority shares in Africa’s global bank, UBA. I gladly undertook this great challenge and God helped me to accomplish what was thought to be an impossible mission. Unknown to me, I was being prepared on an epic journey. I had totally perished the idea of ever publishing my own magazine. But man proposes and God disposes.
Little did I envisage a development that would change my life, and that of my family, forever. I had travelled to Abeokuta to visit former Governor Olusegun Osoba, my professional godfather. I had always prayed to be as successful as Osoba in journalism. And we shared a similar passion in politics. I was in Abeokuta overnight as we discussed late into the night. I left Abeokuta in the early hours of July 22, 1995 and headed back to Lagos. On getting to Lagos I ran into my wife on the way home and she gave me the most shocking news that some good Samaritans had come to alert and tip her off about my impending arrest by the Abacha junta. She was sternly advised to tell me to vanish into thin air immediately. The obvious look of panic and agitation on her face said it all. I turned back from that point and never entered that house again.
It was a strange journey. I never planned to live outside my beloved country. I had to go quickly into a bunker. My wonderful friends, the Orolugbagbes, took me in and kept me away from trouble. I had to plot my exit. I contacted my comrade in the struggle, Mr Tokunbo Afikuyomi, one of the smartest human beings I would ever meet. He had earlier escaped the wrath of the military by running off to London. He gave me a list of all that would be needed to make the Odysseus journey. Again, money was needed. I was fortunate to have my God-sent Spirit who took the risk of sending some money to get me out of Siberia to freedom. My friends in London, led by Prince Adedamola Aderemi and Mr Gbenga Olunloyo were also busy raising funds in readiness for my kamikaze trip. On July 25, 1995, I took the leap of faith.
My first son, Oluwapekansayemi, was barely ten months old. As I bade my wife and this innocent kid goodbye, I had to keep that straight poker face of a supposedly strong man but within me I was totally squeamish. I didn’t know if I would be caught on the way by the goons that littered everywhere at the time. I was accompanied by three extremely kind-hearted people; Captain Rotimi Seriki (God bless his departed soul), Mr Bola Orolugbagbe and Mr Kunle Bakare. I camouflaged like a farmer while they provided not only the cover for me but also sufficient distraction from me to the security guys. We managed to meander through a smugglers’ route at Seme border and crossed into Benin Republic. And then, I wept bitterly. My mind was doing some acrobatics. I didn’t know what could suddenly happen to me and spin my life around again, like a rollercoaster.
We made our way to Cotonou but I was just too scared to stay long in the very next country to Nigeria and a stone throw from Lagos. My friends left me in Cotonou and went back to Lagos while I carried on to Lome in Togo. I never felt that lonely in my life. From Lome, I found my way to Accra, Ghana and checked in at the Noga Hill hotel in Dzorwulu. It was my first contact ever with Ghana and I was very impressed with the orderliness and sanity. I will return to that some other time.
I spent three nights in Ghana planning my major move to London. I was able to purchase my flight ticket. I had traced an old Ghanaian friend, Mr Fritz Baffour who had spent time in Nigeria and was very famous. A taxi driver had led me to a joint where he said I would definitely find him and it was a happy-bitter reunion for both of us because of my predicament. Fritz accompanied me to the airport on July 28, 1995, and it was very kind of him to bid me farewell. I landed at Gatwick Airport in the early hours of July 29, 1995. Unknown to me at that moment, I would be constrained to live in London for the next three years. My wife and baby subsequently managed to escape from Nigeria through the skin of their teeth. The next challenge would be how to survive in the unpredictability of England.
The early months were good as friends and family rallied round us. We were lucky to have senior refugees ahead of us. Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Lt. General Alani Ipoola Akinrinade and Hon. Tokunbo Afikuyomi were very helpful. We enjoyed the cordiality of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Chief John Oyegun, Commodore Dan Suleiman, Chief John Oyegun, Hon. Wale Oshun, Rev. Peter Obadan, and many others. But soon it was time to face the harsh reality of living in London. We needed to find something more permanent to do.
The divine intervention would come from my much younger cousin, Mr Segun Fatoye. We had gone to his house one Sunday afternoon and spent quality time with his family. I would never know what got into him but Segun called me to a corner and asked me a question I had not been able to confront candidly: “Sir, have you decided on what you would do for a living in London…? I answered “no” and he fired another salvo. “Bros, you have to do something urgently or end up washing plates and such menial jobs.” He was that brutal. Then, he provided the solution himself: “But you were such a great journalist back home, why don’t you start something here…”
That was it but where is the money to start anything? I was practically penniless. I approached a friend, Mr Doyin Iyiola, who was a senior staff at the London office of African Concord and the African Economic Digest, owned by Chief Moshood Abiola. He agreed to work on the business plan. He also told me he had registered a company called Stallion Communications and he was ready to bring me on board. My cousin called his dad, my uncle Chief Ezekiel Olasunmoye Fatoye, and surprisingly, he blessed us with the first £10,000. Our business plan showed we needed about £150,000 to start small but that was way beyond our reach. We had a few friends chip in their bits and pieces but we ran into our first major turbulence when Mr Doyin Iyiola decided to pull out on the eve of our take off. We were badly shaken by the experience. I couldn’t blame him; he was not a risk-taker like me. He found my ideas too fanciful and flamboyant. The only option left to us was to start our own company from scratch.
Between Prince Adedamola Aderemi, Segun Fatoye and I, we regrouped and went ahead with the plans to set up Ovation International. 20 years after, there is plenty to tell about the daredevil adventures that gave rise to what is unarguably one of Africa’s biggest brands… (To be continued)