Tunji Bello at 60: The journalist as a public administrator


In most societies, journalists are expected to report the news, investigate wrongdoing, prescribe actions, and set the agenda for public discourse – but not directly involved in politics or public administration. They are by nature spectators and critics; only a few roll up their sleeves and jump into the fray to play the game. It is understood that the journalist and the politician have to operate in two different worlds. Is this a good thing? There is a sense in which it can be argued that in order to maintain the independence of the media it is desirable and advisable to create this stone wall.

But it also poses a dilemma: the journalist is seen as an eternal critic – an armchair critic – who is only good at pointing out the flaws of leadership, the one who would not do better if he were grappling with the same ones. responsibilities, one who only sits as a spectator spitting obscenities at those who work hard in the field. It is not uncommon for state actors to challenge journalists to cross the barrier, wear the boots, be pushed around on the ground and put into practice all the instructions they have barked from the terraces. Being a spectator-critic and a player are very different, after all.

The philosopher-king: crossing the barrier

The barrier between the state and the media is not, however, fixed. While the media must remain independent, journalists can and do cross paths as their duty requires. Journalists can do more than philosophize. To achieve his ideal nation-state, Plato considers the philosopher to be the best leader. He wrote in The Republic that “the philosophers [must] become kings … or those we now call kings [must]… To philosophize truly and adequately ”. The journalist can aspire to be the Philosopher-King. If you can sing well, or what a good song is, why stop criticizing other people’s songs?

Tunji Bello, one of those who made it through the stone wall, seemed to have prepared for it. His career since the day he hired as a journalist has always alluded to a philosopher who would do more than philosophize. Although his first degree was in political science, his journalism went far beyond the science of governing. He then obtained a Masters in International Law and Diplomacy and obtained a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) and Lawyer in Law (BL). He had a good deal of knowledge: political science, journalism, diplomacy and law. His weekly column, baptized The Republic (sounds familiar to you, doesn’t it), articulated and provoked reflections on economics, politics and political economy.

His column inspired me in many ways. He demonstrated such a deep knowledge of economics without being an economist. This motivated me to deepen my knowledge so that I could debate intelligently on specialized topics. His political analyzes of the Nigerian federation were rooted in such a conviction that even if you disagreed, you had to disagree with a plausible argument. He articulated a case for state police long before it became a major topic of public discourse. His understanding of development problems and his projections of political solutions suggested to me years ago that the philosopher was going to jump in the fray and play along.

He cut his teeth in the Concord newspapers, starting as a feature film editor, rising through the ranks to become associate editor, political editor, editor, Sunday Concorde and, finally, editor-in-chief of the main newspaper, National concord. It was then that he was editor-in-chief of Sunday Concorde that I met him in the flesh after admiring him from afar. He would later join THISDAY, where he became chairman of the editorial board and where, as editor-in-chief of The Saturday newspaper, I had the opportunity to draw, first-hand, from his immense wealth of knowledge and of experience. He took me under his wing – the lovable human being that he is – and supported me in my career path and my endeavors.

Transform by the highway

It was only a matter of time for the philosopher to become a “king” (that is, he would jump over the stone wall between the media and the state). In 2003, Bello was appointed commissioner by Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, then Governor of Lagos State. A journalist appointed commissioner is not the most surprising news in the world. This happens in Nigeria every four years and in between. But there is a portfolio reserved for them: information. The journalist is believed, or at least so it seems, to be an information and communications specialist and best suited for the job – to manage the state media and to communicate. government policies and positions to the media. Even though Bello had graduated as a lawyer, his claim to fame was journalism.

Yet Tinubu entrusted him with one of the state’s most intimidating portfolios: the environment. Lagos’ environment is one of the most difficult in the world due to poor sanitation habits, distorted physical planning, dense population, propensity for perennial flooding (being mainly below the level of the sea), uncontrolled urbanization and financial constraints. Charging a journalist with such a portfolio was either a show of faith in his abilities or an inadvertent mismatch of skills. It didn’t take officials too long to discover that an unusual “reporter” was in the seat, starting with his refusal to rush in to sign approvals. Soon he organized corrective initiatives for the environment – without being an engineer. He proposed strategies which are until today the backbone of environmental management in the State.

He will then become Secretary of the State Government (SSG) before returning as Commissioner for the Environment, his “natural” habitat, to continue to give life to a project that had been disrupted by events and opportunity. His smooth journey in public administration should be a source of inspiration for journalists who wish to do more than philosophize. Certainly, this only follows the tradition of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief SL Akintola, Chief Bisi Onabanjo and Chief Olusegun Osoba who all cut their teeth in journalism while looking head-on for the end of colonialism. . They actively sought to steer the ship of state from being a spectator-critic to being a public administrator, and they excelled in their efforts.

The poster must be Alhaji Lateef Jakande, who had done nothing but journalism before ruling Lagos State extraordinarily well between 1979 and 1983. He clearly demonstrated that the philosopher can become king. While Lagos was far from Plato’s ideal “state”, Jakande remains a shining example for journalists who aspire to bend the barrier. As Bello celebrates the 60th anniversary of his earthly stay, he demonstrated how far intellectual ability and professional excellence can take a journalist. What a politician can do, a professional journalist can do too.

This is an adapted version of my contribution to a book of essays in honor of Tunji Bello, the Lagos State Commissioner for the Environment, who is 60 today.

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