Nigerian journalism revels in its rich history of legendary reporters – and even more legendary columnists.
For a rookie starting out as a columnist in a newspaper, it is indeed daunting to deign to bear the burden of extending the frontiers paved by legends such as Alade Odunewu, more popularly known as Allah-De, Peter Enahoro, aka Peter Pan, Sam Amuka-Pemu, known to teeming readers as Sad Sam, Abiodun “Ebenezer Williams” Aloba, Bisi “Aiyekooto” Onabanjo etc.
The wannabe must confront the popular fare that giants only existed in the past; that the present day is made for dwarfs perching precariously on the shoulders of giants!
In the golden age of yore, the Sunday Times, for instance, with Gbolabo Ogunsanwo as editor and star columnist had a readership of 500,000 copies.
No Nigerian newspaper today can boast of even a minute fraction of that circulation figure on the best of days; the columnist, therefore, has fewer devotees on a daily basis now.
Television, the internet, social media and sundry features of our hip and contemporary times have accounted for the diminishing power of the newspaper and concomitantly the columnist.
Even so, Nigeria’s many champions of Informed Commentary are still all the rage today, daring to build on the legacy of their forebears.
There is a measure of seamlessness in the transition of the columnists over the years. For instance, Allah-De, whom the pathfinding journalist and Nigeria’s first President Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe gave the title of “Doyen of satirical journalism”, did not leave much of a vacuum as Olatunji Dare carried on in the great tradition of satire, which the old master established with such aplomb.
This way, most of the columnists thriving today can easily be situated within the vast body of work done by the masters of yore.
The wit and elegance of expression showcased by Peter Pan can be seen in the prolific columns of Sonala Olumhense.
And younger columnists are taking after Olumhense himself in hordes to the extent that a continuum is the norm instead of a rupture.
The erudite Stanley Macebuh made a solid statement in founding The Guardian when he insisted that all columns must not be more than 800 words; to wit, any writer who could not exhaust his argument via the 800-word format is confused!
Most of the contemporary columnists boast of university education, even doctorate degrees, as opposed to the norm of the older days when secondary and in some cases primary education sufficed.
The argument is not being made here that a doctorate degree necessarily makes a columnist more informed! Or, for that matter, write well!
With the advent of the internet and ready online references such as Google and Wikipedia the modern columnist has no excuses not to get his facts right.
The sad aspect of the matter is that even with the necessary tools to make the work much easier there is still sloppiness all over the place.
Olumhense had on occasion complained of journalists who could not put two sentences together being given an entire page to fill as their columns!
Some of the columnists supposedly have enough star pull to be given the entire back page of the newspaper.
In his audacious trendsetting ways, Nduka Obaigbena, the swashbuckling publisher of the colourful THISDAY newspapers has sustained the scheme of back-page columns.
The syndicated columnist was virtually non-existent in the days of yore but today Olumhense, Mohammed Haruna, Segun Odegbami etc write well-orchestrated syndicated columns.
It would appear that today there are more columnists than reporters operating in the various Nigerian newspapers such that the papers may indeed be renamed “viewspapers” as opposed to newspapers!
There will always be the argument that the giant columnists only existed in the past, but my take is that the very best in this generation can match the very best in the past generations.
It is a fact of the march of history and civilisation that the columnists dismissed as dwarfs today will in a future age be lionised as the giants who are too big for the dwarfs of the succeeding generations.
Someday, people will look back and marvel at the exploits of the columnists of this age.
Now let’s end it all on a note of advertisement for myself, to borrow the words of Norman Mailer.
I was once employed to write a daily back-page column for a national newspaper – and I did the job.
I need to do extensive research to know if anybody else, ancient and modern, had ever been in my league of writing a daily column.