Tuesday, 8 November 2016
The great Zik of Africa!
*The day Zik didn’t die*
Posted By: Olatunji Dareon: November 08, 2016 THE NATION
Zik-gate, as my inventive Rutam House colleague Emeka Izeze called the widely circulated but false reports of the death of the legendary Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe 27 years ago this week, has got to be the most scandalous episode in Nigerian journalism history. It left mud on the faces of all of us journalists, those who proclaimed categorically that he was dead, and those who merely hinted that he might have departed.
At 85, Nigeria’s former president stood splendidly erect, and in full possession of his faculties. His voice had lost some of its resonance, but his speech was not slurred. His hearing was acute, and he could see much more clearly with the unaided eye than some people half a century younger. By some accounts, he was at the time engrossed in writing four books.
This was the man whom not just one or two newspapers but the entire Nigerian news media proclaimed dead and awaiting burial.
Rumours of Zik’s death started swirling on Wednesday, November 8, 1989, apparently triggered by enquiries from a BBC correspondent about his condition. By Friday, the rumours had gained so much traction that two newspapers published speculations about his death.
If any doubts lingered about Zik’s condition, they were dissolved by the newscast the NTA beamed to its fabled 30 million viewers the following night, almost one-half of it a moving depiction of Zik’s life and times.
The newscast, a marvelous production featuring footage and archival material that captured Zik’s illustrious career, as well as moving tributes by those who knew him well, plunged the country into mourning.
By Saturday, November 11, virtually every newspaper had the story of Zik’s reported death as front-page lead, in type size and headline vocabulary that sought to do justice to the great man’s memory. Even those newspapers that left some room for doubt still felt obliged to refer to Zik in the past tense. The obituaries were adulatory, as indeed they should be.
The Saturday papers that cared at all for sources searched no farther than Zik’s “associates,” many of whom had not seen him for several years. They cited no family sources, nor Zik’s personal physician, nor yet his protective private secretary of more than 40 years, the spectral and pleasantly disobliging figure everyone called “Mr Okolo”.
In one of the Saturday papers, a letter purporting to be Zik’s “last correspondence” bobbed up. In a fit of what can only be called misguided journalism, Sidi Ali Sirajo’s New Nigerian that was forever railing against “misguided heroism” cited not a single source for the reports that covered its entire front page.
“Zik’s death,” it pronounced sententiously, had left Nigerians “benumbed,” but apparently not before they had reached a “spontaneous consensus” that he deserved a full state funeral. The closest the paper came to naming a source for its sweeping assertions was a perfunctory reference to “political pundits.”
The first editions of the Lagos- based Sunday newspapers printed Friday night and trucked to the more distant parts of the country the following morning, carried the same news about Zik, with updates and embellishments. One enterprising Sunday newspaper even carried an editorial befitting the occasion.
At the convocation of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, in Kuru, near Jos, the assembled dignitaries reportedly observed a moment of silence in honour of Zik’s memory.
The whole thing had begun with a “letter of condolence” that Dr Kingsley Mbadiwe had sent with accustomed magniloquence to the Federal Government on the “passing” of Zik. For good measure, he also sent a copy to the NTA. That letter, plus a statement issued on behalf of the “National Committee for the Transition of Dr Azikiwe” by four prominent Nigerians, was all the NTA had relied on for its categorical pronouncement on so weighty a matter.
Out-of-work politicians saw an opening and moved in swiftly. A First Republic legislator and former stalwart of the Zikist Movement, Chief RBK Okafor, panting as if he had sprinted all the way from Nsukka to Rutam House in Lagos, narrated breathlessly how he had cradled his “beloved Zik” in his arms and how, even as his life ebbed, the great nationalist had said to him: “Chief RBK Okafor, my political son, remember that I am a Pan-Africanist and should be given a Pan-African burial,” or words to that effect.
When the tale appeared in cold print, Okafor denied it vehemently. He forgot that Ebube Wadibia, The Guardian’s resourceful and street-smart news editor, had caught him on audiotape word for word. It turned out that Okafor had not seen Zik in several years.
Nor were desperate politicos the only groups with eyes on the main chance. At the airport lounge in Lagos, a person claiming to be a doctor told a Newswatch executive with critical solemnity that he had just come away from performing the autopsy on Zik and signing the death certificate. That disclosure won him instant celebrity.
By lunchtime on Saturday November 11, reports of Zik’s death had fallen apart.
While television network news on Saturday showed Zik alive and well in his living room talking with Colonel Robert Akonobi, the military governor of Anambra State and a team of journalists, in many parts of the country the Sunday newspapers were still proclaiming solemnly and unequivocally that Zik was no more.
Zik, it turned out, had been watching the newscast at his home in Nsukka with his vivacious wife Uche, thinking that it was his birthday tribute until he heard “And may his great soul rest in peace.” Not many octogenarians would have survived this excellent example of the actionable tort that Americans call “wanton and intentional infliction of mental and emotional distress.”
What went wrong?
Dr Azikiwe was of course not the most accessible of eminent Nigerians. Still, how was it that, for more than 36 hours, the entire news media and the government’s information machinery and the security apparatus could not establish his condition?
Zik-gate showed how narrowly the news media cast their net and how vulnerable they were. It was as if they had resolved not to let the facts get in the way of a “good” story.
If they had checked and re-checked, they would have saved themselves a shameful outing that they will never quite live down.
And if a government obsessed with “national security” had swung into action with all the resources at its disposal as the rumours spread, a national embarrassment would have been averted.
Can Zik-gate happen today?
I think not. There are far more news sources, and the media have become more enterprising and sophisticated.
Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe lived on for another seven years. He said he was in no hurry to leave this beautiful planet.
Those who had declared him dead and were organising his burial died well before him.