One late Wednesday morning nearly 20 years ago, a gentleman in his early 50’s walked briskly into the Newswatch newsroom. He earned a living working there by managing the nearly forty men and women who congregated there from time to time out of a collective love of the written word. But there was something about his demeanour just now that suggested he wanted to get right down to the business of the day. Before settling in his chair behind a large polished desk in front of the newsroom, he glanced around to see who was already there. Not many, he decided. Then his eyes settled on a young reporter-researcher with such intensity that the young fellow found rather unnerving for someone just entering his fourth week of employment. That reporter-researcher was me, and the older gentleman still staring, was Mike Akpan. Akpan was of average height and he had a well-proportioned body. He spoke with an Anang drawl that became more pronounced as he emphasised a point. In a word, Akpan was didactic. And he loved peanuts and tea.
“What are you working on?” he asked me, lowering himself finally into the chair. I told him I’d just finished typing a story I’d written for the “Nigeria” pages, but that I was waiting for one of the desk editors to read and form an opinion about it. At the time, I was still striving to wrap my head around the magazine’s house style which looked simple on the surface but was a somewhat perplexing mystery to penetrate. Deploying his editorial prerogative, Akpan short-circuited the process by asking to see the story. So, I gave him the four-page story. He dived straight into it, editing simultaneously as he progressed. He went as far as the third page, pausing at intervals to steal a quick look at me behind my desk. We locked eyes thrice. Not a good sign for a reporter, if you already knew how Akpan operated. Dropping his pen on his desk, he asked me to step forward. I did, bracing myself for what I suspected could be a withering rebuke.
As it turned out, Akpan had both good and bad news for me. The bad news was that the story could not be published as written. He said I was editorialising quite a lot, something like my personal opinion bled profusely into the story, scarcely the way a Newswatch story should be written; I was hired to report, to tell a story in simple declarative sentences, not to craft an opinion piece in cumulative, stylistic sentences. The good news, he concluded, was that he “fell in love” with my style personally and that he thought I was a “real talent.” For that reason, he was going to lend a hand in seeing me grow professionally. He offered me an assignment right away. “Go to the library and read all the past issues of the magazine,” he said to me. He wanted me to have a feel for the house style.
Akpan rewrote portions of the first page in the much-coveted Newswatch tradition, splitting up whole paragraphs into two or three, and fitting them neatly and seamlessly into the magazine’s house style. It was an absolutely learning experience for me. Akpan never had to do it again. In the months and several years that followed, my craft grew and Akpan’s confidence in me grew twice as much. As a mark of that confidence and of his personal humility, he requested me one day to read a cover story he’d done to see if it was well written. He said I should feel at liberty to point out errors of grammar. I was both stunned and flattered. Here was the master assuming the position of the examinee in front of his student!
Born on September 29, 1946, and died on September 29, 2014, Akpan was no run-of-the-mill journalist. He was your typical old-school editor, definitely one of the fast vanishing breed of journalists who set great store by, shall we say, the eternal verities of the noble profession, not the least of which was fair and balanced reporting. He had no patience for incoherent sentences and a narrative devoid of consideration for the other side. In Akpanese, that would translate as “defective”. He liked that word. “Your story’s defective,” he would say as he looked you in the eye.
With pen poised over your copy, Akpan began editing from the get-go. And he had you right there in the newsroom as he pored over your story. You could see his lips moving somewhat imperceptibly as he read along, and if for any reason he paused to steal a quick look at you several times before the end of the first page, then your story was probably not looking good. Suddenly, Akpan (Please let’s call him Mike; that, after all, was how we addressed him), would call your name in a manner that could be so disconcerting. Hoisting himself erect in his chair, Akpan would wax — what was that word I used? — didactic, yes, didactic, on how to approach “a story like this…”
If Mike deeply liked your writing, you could get away with murder. Mike spoiled me rotten. He handed me choice assignments and ensured I remained on beats that had me travelling out of town often, especially to the troubled Niger Delta region of the country where I had numerous interviews with Chief E. K. Clarke.
Complementing Mike’s efforts in the accounts department was Tony Awe, a handsome gentleman who headed that department as controller of finance. Awe had no hesitation approving money for my editorial trips even while occasionally denying other applications. Part of the reason, he said, was that he enjoyed reading my stories. Mike was gratified by the special treatment Awe gave me.
In addition to his humility, Mike was never obsessed with the powers that came with his position. He was sharing the front of the newsroom with two senior editors when I arrived; one to his left with his desk facing away from his colleagues and pointing towards the first window, the other to his right and facing the rest of the newsroom like Mike himself. Jossy Nkwocha, the one who sat to his right, did for lack of space. He was a suave, warm and sturdily built man who recognised a talent from afar and just as quickly, offered great encouragement and support. Immensely talented himself, Nkwocha wrote steadily and under any condition.
Chukwuemeka Gahia, who sat to Mike’s left, ostensibly did out of contemptuous disregard for his authority. Left-handed, tall, and extremely finicky, Gahia was a somewhat austere fellow who framed this rather inflated notion of himself as the “best” writer in that newsroom. He had hardly a charitable word about any of the editor’s writing capabilities and in fact clashed with Mike twice. I found his invidious inclination to put down other writers repelling. One day, Mike said to me, “I don’t know what I did to this man.”
Mike had me on the Daily Times of Nigeria beat, among others. And when one day I did a special report on the news organisation, he was so fascinated by the narrative drive, he personally took the manuscript to Dan Agbese’s office and came back a short time later to inform me that my work had been upgraded to a cover story. That would be my first.
The day the story hit the streets, Moffat Ekoriko, then a business editor and today a shining whiz kid of international journalism, grabbed me by the wrist and marched me in a soldierly fashion half-way down the corridor and back, all out of the excitement of reading the story. Months later, the story, titled Troubled Times at The Times, won the first prize in the Literature, Arts and Media category of the New Zealand-based Fletcher Challenge Paper Commonwealth Media Awards besides the Editor-in-Chief Award which Agbese had given me for it. That beat, thanks to Oga Mike, brought me other benefits well. I became very close to Peter Enahoro a.k.a. Peter Pan, who in turn introduced me to his circle of friends, among them J.P. Clarke, Chinweizu, Clackson Majomi, Sam Amuka-Pemu, all of whom visited him regularly at his official DTN residence in Ikoyi and stayed far into the night as he regaled all with stories rendered in flawless, captivating language.
Despite his kind gestures to me, Mike felt disappointed when I declined to buy into a plan he had with four of his former university classmates to set up an environmental magazine. But he soon realised he must have misjudged my sentimental attachment to Newswatch. And although he continued to promise me a vast lot if only I would come with him, he gave up finally when I told him that I preferred the almost limitless outreach of a news magazine like Newswatch to the rather restrictive narrowness of a single-issue publication that this coming venture was going to be.
Joining him to leave Newswatch, but for a different personal mission, was Nats Agbo, senior associate editor. Agbo was dark-skinned, stocky, with a warm, likable personality. Generous and possessed of a sardonic sense of humor, he loved teasing his colleagues. He was a remarkable story teller who delighted in simple, easy-flowing prose. Agbo liked waiting very close to the deadline before cranking his engine into action, at which time he wrote at white heat but betraying nothing of the stress or nervous exhaustion that came with the completion of such a feverish creative activity. Both men received a big emotional farewell party in the newsroom at which Agbese was present.
Frowning on ostentation, Mike led a life of discipline and modesty when I knew him. He was a loving father and a devoted husband who spoke greatly about his wife, and although his family lived some seven hundred miles away from him in Akwa-Ibom, he never strayed or lusted after other women as many men in the same circumstance would probably have done.
He was also a strong optimist who believed that the morrow would usher in a better day, no matter how depressing the present circumstances were. Had he lived a couple more years, Mike would have turned 70, a chronological achievement not easy to come by these days in our part of the world. He studied mass communication at the University of Lagos, graduating as the best overall student in the faculty of social science in 1978. That feat earned him the DTN prize. After a career in public relations, he went into journalism for which he was more eminently suited. I’m sure Mike died knowing that he had had a great journalistic career, most of that with Newswatch.
First broken on Facebook by Soji Akinrinade, one of Newswatch’s directors, news of Mike’s death shocked all who read it. I could almost picture their anguished countenances as they reacted in stunned disbelief. “Oga, is it true?” Tunde Asaju, the magazine’s former Abuja bureau chief, asked Akinrinade. “What a painful loss!” exclaimed Nkwocha. In a brief tribute, I said, “I’m left inconsolably sad by this. A good-natured man, Mike was my mentor in the newsroom. I learned so much at his feet.”
What you have read so far has been, at any rate, my attempt to flesh out that thumbnail tribute. Personally, I consider it but difficult, indeed impossible, not to acknowledge both the goodness and the generosity of this man. Gratitude demands it, humility compels it. Mike couldn’t have wished anything less from a former pupil. As human beings, that’s how we roll. And for those of us who sorrow over his death — family members, friends and former colleagues — it should be consoling to know that Mike lived a good life and that in death he has no one for refuge but God Himself. After all, does not the scripture say in Proverbs 14: 32 that the wicked are brought down by calamity, “but even in death the righteous have a refuge (?)” Let us therefore thank God for his life and pray to Him to grant us the strength needed to numb the pain that comes with his departure until we all meet again on the resurrection morning. Adieu, Mike!