By Paul Ejime*
Prince Tony Momoh, who transited this world on Monday, 1st February 2021 would be remembered for his illustrious service and outstanding contributions to journalism and the reform of Nigeria’s information sector.
Prince Momoh served as Editor of Nigeria’s flagship publication, the Daily Times Group for several years, the first to be appointed to that position through a rigorous competitive process.
It was not coincidental that Prince Momoh was fondly called the “Newsroom Headmaster.” As General Manager, Times Publications Department, in Lagos, he mentored a crop of journalists for various media organizations in Nigeria. With his management colleagues, he also laid emphasis on the training and business development of the Daily Times, one of the few publications quoted at the London Stock Exchange then.
Prince Momoh also served as President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors and later as Information Minister (1986-90), under the military regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. During his ministerial tenure, Prince Momoh authored a series of his famous “Letters to My Countrymen,” with which he communicated government policies to the citizens. The Information Ministry under his watch, hosted the 1987 National Policy Conference at Topo, Badagry, which outcome revolutionized the information industry, and midwifed the evolution of Private Broadcasting organizations in Nigeria.
Prince Momoh equally deployed his qualification as a lawyer to push the boundaries of press freedom. He took the Nigerian Parliament to court in 1982 and won the legal battle affirming that a journalist reserves the right not to disclose the source of his/her information. In a separate case, the Court of Appeal later modified that lower court’s ruling to hold that an information source could be disclosed in certain cases, but this has not been tested, legally.
In politics, the Auchi-born Prince from Edo State, will be remembered as Chair of the now defunct Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), one of the political associations that merged to form Nigeria’s ruling All Progressive Congress (APC).
Prince Momoh was both fearless with his pen as he was courageous in his outspokenness.
During the early days of the APC administration in 2016, Prince Momoh had without prompting asked Nigerians to “stone us,” politicians, if the government failed to deliver within two years.
It is said that in politics, anything goes. The jury may still be out on that statement, but many who knew Prince Momoh, the professional journalist, believed that he probably spoke as a “non-professional politician!”
Until his death, Prince Momoh was the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman, Governing Council of the University of Jos, in Nigeria’s Middle-belt region.
Several decades after he had left office as Information Minister, this writer* was opportune to sit next to Prince Momoh in 2017 at the first Anniversary Lecture in honour of one of his relatives, Prof. Abubakar Momoh, the late Director General of The Electoral Institute, the research and training arm of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
I seized the opportunity to remind and again appreciate the former Minister for using his good offices to facilitate my joining the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) from the French News Agency, AFP in the late 1980s. With Dr Richard Ikiebe his Special Assistant taking charge, and the intervention of my lawyer uncle, Chief George Uwechue (SAN), Prince Momoh ensured that a dispute between my AFP Bureau Chief, Christopher Pala and myself, did not degenerate into a Franco-Nigerian diplomatic row.
Pala, a young Haiti-born American journalist was on his first official assignment outside Europe to head the AFP Lagos Bureau. As expected, he came full of an air and the usual European stereotypical mindset about Africa, the “Dark Continent,” defined by wars, poverty, hunger and all the negatives from the blurred lenses of several Western media.
I was Pala’s deputy, and we had issues over editorial judgements, particularly his condescending portrayal of Nigeria in his despatches. An example was a story he filed suggesting that Nigerians were eating dog meat due to economic hardship. I empathized with his ignorance and in this case, tried my best to explain to him that dog meat is a delicacy among some tribes in Nigeria.
But the last straw that broke the camel’s back was regarding a story from the interview which the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi had granted me on Nigeria’s sensitive relations with Libya.
I submitted the story from the interview to Pala, but in his version, he gave the copy a slant that did not reflect what transpired at the interview. I protested and demanded that he either changed the story or removed my by-line from the copy.
The issue escalated and the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Ministry of Information stepped in.
This was at a time when the Babangida regime enjoyed excellent diplomatic relations with France. (The Nigerian leader chose Paris for his ‘radiculopathy’ surgery)! To his eternal credit, Minister Momoh handled the matter astutely and with great professionalism. Pala and I were invited to the Minister’s office and he was subsequently eased out of Nigeria without any diplomatic incident, while I moved on to NAN.
Prince Momoh, a great writer and author of several publications would have been 82 in April. He hailed from a family of great intellectuals, and rich African culture and tradition. He would be sorely missed.
May his soul rest in perfect peace. Amen!
*Paul Ejime, a journalist, author, and former War Correspondent, is a Consultant to International Organizations, on Corporate Communications, Media, Elections & a Global Affairs Analyst.