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Olu – eclipse of a star

Olu – eclipse of a star

It was a raining day in August 1993 when Olu Gordon walked into the offices of Concord Times on Pademba Road, Freetown.  He wiped his face frantically to steer away rivulets of raindrops as he asked to meet with the ‘boys’ managing the newspaper. We certainly needed friends then, having been the butt of intense media attacks by some colleagues who argued that, as foreigners, we should not have been given a license to publish a newspaper. (Photo: the late Olu Gordon)

Olu had just arrived from the United Kingdom and that, to our anticipated relief, must shape a cosmopolitan worldview. When we started talking, his British accent, his eloquence and, might I add, his handsomeness, made him an instant hit. At the time, Olu had only flakes of gray hair that gave him an urban, distinguished look. There was the charming smile, the guttural laughter, and the penetrative eyes – all foretold we were dealing with a visionary. As we ate into the conversation, it became clear he didn’t belong in the class of those who dreamt our extinction; it was clear he was a friend for Olu was genuine in his admiration for what we were doing even as he encouraged us to look to the sky, as that was where our limits laid.

That meeting lasted an hour. With practiced aplomb, we (Tony Hesmart and myself) recounted the history of lives, and our vision for the newspaper. We hoped to be the difference in journalism practice and had only just created the scaffold for a newspaper that should appeal to various segments of the population, we said.

As we spoke, Olu smiled and nodded. With hindsight, I think he was impressed more by our precociousness rather than our determined exuberance to solve the world’s problems. He had read, meticulously, copies of the Concord Times and his suggestions for improvement were instructive. As he provided pieces of advice, Tony and I scribbled frantically like cub reporters because we did not want to miss out on anything.

We were great friends for many years. We paid him occasional visits to hear his thoughts on developments in the country and to learn a thing or two about journalism. I thought Olu was far more effective as a warrior than as a peacemaker; far more potent in times of socio-political and economic upheavals than in times of peace.

Olu provides for me a veritable case study on activism journalism (I call it combat journalism), which is not just about advocacy. During crisis periods, when the will of the people is being subverted, combat journalists, at great risks to their lives, provide a much-needed fulcrum upon which to effect positive social change. For di People’s Paul Kamara was shot in the cause of his fight for a better Sierra Leone and Bunting Davies was jailed many times while advocating for multi-party democracy.

Ironically, after the APC was overthrown in 1992, Bunting Davies’ New Shaft was on death bed. The jury is still out on For di People after the dawn of multiparty democracy.

Usually, when the circumstances under which combat journalists attain celebrity status no longer exist, it is as though their professional arteries have been cut off. Inevitably, these consciences of the nation become disoriented, hardly able to redefine their role within the framework of the new realities. In my view, this encapsulates the evolution of Olu’s ideals and his ideas for a better Sierra Leone . It didn’t bother him that he could be the last man standing in the vicious battle against particularly the political class. His ‘Peep’ column and later Peep newspaper were weapons with which he lacerated the elite. Because he did not profess clear-cut political ideology, he was difficult to pigeonhole.

Take for example his vehement opposition to the NPRC which was mistaken by the SLPP as a tacit support for the incoming Tejan Kabbah’s administration; his opposition to the SLPP mistaken as support for the APC; lately, he put the APC  government on the firing line.  But Olu also fought a personal battle, the battle to free himself of all vestiges of immoral conduct in a society that appeared insensitive to crooked activities. Consequently, he could not be rich, he could not take political jobs, and he could not blackmail big businesses for monetary gains. His mission was to disembowel the bloated cant. This was also his passion.

Olu was never afraid to make enemies, even of his friends. “Editor in Bulgur Fracas”, was a front page banner headline in his newspaper some day in 1999. My photo was by that story. The report stated that I had gone to fight over bulgur in some community. I had been beaten by an angry mob and was being treated by doctors. At the time of the story, I was in The Gambia. There were a few things I thought were wrong with this story, professionally and morally. First, I thought attempts weren’t made to crosscheck the facts. Second, I wondered why Olu would go at length to unsettle someone who called him a “godfather”. This singular incident reshaped my relationship with him for years. I was at pains to reconcile myself with a now distorted view of someone I considered one of the best minds around. I thereafter began to see a stained canvass on which Olu’s thoughts were painted.

Making enemies did not appear to bother him; indeed, this was his strength for he cared more about Sierra Leone . For him, the collective aspirations of the people were more important than individual interest, as it was in my case. The bulgur story was probably not malicious (he may have received bitty information about a bulgur incident and someone may have said the guy looked like Kingsley). Olu may have concluded that showing top journalists in their true colors was a patriotic duty. I since realized this was a man who craved to stop a galloping train with bare hands, a guy with a penchant for looking into the armpit of a celebrated dancing maiden just to point at the dirt in it.

Olu was all gray when I saw him last year and he walked with a subdued jauntiness. He appeared weighed down by the vicissitudes of the struggle for a better country.  He looked older but wiser. His wittiness was intact, and so was that same smile. He still managed to poke some fun at the vagaries of life.

It is not clear Olu died convinced we will remember his contributions. I am not sure anyone talks about Bunting Davies, Sam Tumoe, Shiaka Massaquoi, Sam Tumoe, etc. any more. What about Sam Metzger and his contributions to journalism? Oh, Rowland Martins. James Oguoguo who was murdered by the rebels after he fought gallantly with his pen. Who really cares about people like Oswald Hanciles, Umaru Fofana, David Tam Baryoh and others who continue to be committed to their profession and to the country?

Tears may flow in torrents at funerals, cries may sound like earthquake, tributes may be reeled out – these are all hollow rituals, ceremonies whose memories disappear as quickly as the morning dew.  My pain really is that we may never appreciate the worth of Olu because we have not appreciated those who left before him, as we are not appreciating those who are making the sacrifices today. My hope is that our best citizens do not rethink their role in the society, and that we are able to encourage them to live up to the creed: “the land that we love, our Sierra Leone.”

I don’t know if there is any good time to die, but I do know there is a good time not to die. This is not a good time for Olu to die. This is a star that’s just been eclipsed.

So sad!

By Kingsley Lington

Kingsley Lington is former editor, Concord Times newspaper.

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