Chief Dipo Onabanjo, 75, was a photojournalist with the Daily Times of Nigeria in the 1950s when the profession was not popular. He shares some of his time on the job and life experiences with Ademola Olonilua
What influenced your decision to become a photojournalist at a time when the profession was unpopular?
When I was in school, there was a man called Shittu who worked with the Daily Express. At the time I knew him, I was in the boarding school at Ijebu Ode but I always saw him whenever I came to Lagos for my holidays. Anytime this man went to work, I always noticed the way he carried his camera bag passionately and the next day, I would see the photographs he took on the pages of the newspapers with his by-line. I became very fascinated and I promised myself that when I left school, I would become a photojournalist like that man.
At a point in my life, I met a man who worked in the Daily Times of Nigeria, Ajibade Thomas, and he handled a page called Saturday Highlife for the newspaper; so whenever they had an event, he would ask me to accompany them so that I could take good photographs. All this while, I was still in school but every time I sent my photographs to the Daily Times as a freelance photojournalist, they were always published and this made me very happy seeing my photographs and name on the pages of the newspaper. When I left school, I applied to a news agency, International News Agency and was employed. I worked there for a while before I left the organisation for the Daily Sketch newspaper.
After working for the Daily Sketch briefly, I left the newspaper house for the Daily Times. I gained employment at the Daily Times in 1972 through Chief Olusegun Osoba and when I got to the Daily Times, within three months they began to send me to high priority events because my photographs were always rated as the best. When I joined the Daily Times, I met about 15 photographers but within three months, I was ranked higher than those I met in the organisation. Fortunately for me, there was a coup in Cotonou, so Osoba asked me to cover the events happening there. I was able to get good photographs and when I returned to Nigeria, I remember that he gave the photograph’s by-line, ‘the man at the hotspot.’ I remember the events vividly because it was Mathieu Kerekou that was the head of state at the time in Porto-Novo. As a photojournalist, I was able to meet him.
How were you able to meet the head of state as a ‘photographer’ from Nigeria?
What actually happened was that Kerekou invited some journalists from Paris to interview him, so I joined them. The security officials thought I was part of the team from Paris and they allowed me into the venue. I joined them while they were interviewing Kerekou and I was able to get the best photographs.
During the coup, they had damaged some parts of the state house and some menial workers were fixing the damaged places so after we had finished the interview with Kerekou, I put my camera under my cloth and disguised as one of the menial workers. I carried some building blocks with them so that I could take some outside shots before I left. I got into the country with a dispatch rider on a motorcycle. The man was afraid because the border was closed, so we had to enter the country through the bush path at Idi Iroko. After I had taken good pictures, I found a way to give them to my dispatch rider who brought them straight to Lagos for publication.
There was no internet while you were an active photojournalist, describe how the job was in those days.
In my time, we did not have digital cameras or the internet, so what we did was to have dispatch riders who moved around in a brand of motorcycle called, Vespa. We would take pictures, write the captions of the photographs and give them to these dispatch riders who would either help us deliver the film to the newspaper office or develop the pictures before delivering them to the office.
When you informed your parents that you wanted to be a ‘photographer’, how did they react?
My mother wanted me to become a lawyer due to my outspoken nature. Even as a pupil, I was an outspoken radical. I was so popular when I was in secondary school that I was known by both my seniors and the principal. I was given the nickname, ‘the man that runs the town.’ I was very popular when I was in Ijebu Ode Commercial School. My mother was so convinced that when I left the school, I would study law but I was not interested in that profession because I was so much in love with photography. I felt that it was my calling. Being a rascal, I left the house when my parents did not want me to become a photojournalist.
How long were you away from home?
I left home for about three years and lived with some friends. I was able to survive on my own for those three years because I was working with Daily Times as a freelance photojournalist; so I had money to take care of myself. I was very happy with my job that the camera became a part of my life.
I also had an elder sister who gave me the task of recovering her debts from people, so instead of me to give her the money I recovered, I used the money to buy a new camera at Kingsway, Lagos. It was a Kodak camera.
Did you ever take a picture that almost cost you your life?
There is no assignment I was ever given that made me fear for my life because I always loved to be where there was a problem. For instance, I covered several coups within and outside Nigeria. I remember an assignment I covered in London which was about a hostage situation. I was there for about a week with the London Police expecting that the assailants would give up but they did not. I slept on the street with the police in London waiting patiently so that when the assailants finally gave up, I would be able to take pictures for the Daily Times.
But during your time, the cameras were big, how were you able to conceal them while taking pictures?
Yes, the cameras were very big and this always made me encounter problems with the police and the law enforcement agents. Anytime they caught me taking pictures where I was not supposed to, they always seized my cameras so I was always forced to struggle with them. On some occasions, they would leave me and other times, I would be locked up in the cell but at the end of the day, they would release me. They would also seize my camera, then release it after some days. Being that I have always been a rascal, I was always at alert, so whenever I took sensitive pictures, I would remove the film and hide it somewhere. That is why they always released my camera after some days of inspecting it.
I always tell the modern day photojournalists that in anything they do, they have to apply wisdom and stay focused. You have to eliminate the fear factor because whenever you are afraid, you cannot take good pictures. A fearful photojournalist cannot be good at his job. Also, you do not think before taking a good photograph because while deliberating, you could miss a good action photograph. Take the shot before you think if you want to be a good photojournalist.
Also, your dressing would give you the respect you deserve. As a photojournalist, I was always the best-dressed person in any gathering. I did not only wear the best clothes but also the best shoes. I spent money on my clothing and this made it difficult for people to know that I was just a photojournalist at events. People often thought that photographers were school drop-outs but with the way I dressed, I was often mistaken for a doctor or a lawyer. There were times I even dressed better than the people that invited me to the event.
You later went to London and New York to enhance your craft. Is it right to assume that you were born with a silver spoon?
I was born into a well-to-do family. The Onabanjo family in Ijebu Ode is where we had the first governor of Ogun State. My father was a managing director of CFAO, Kano, and my mother was from a royal family as well. My parents did not want me to become a photojournalist but I really loved the job, so I went for my passion.
At what point in your life did they accept you as a photojournalist?
It was when they witnessed the progress in my career that they accepted me as a photojournalist. They saw my pictures and by-lines in the Daily Times because my work was either on the front or back page of the newspaper which was the leading newspaper in the nation at the time. When it came to photographs, my pictures dominated the Daily Times and that is how I became popular. I was also charged with covering sensitive and important assignments. I disliked going to press conferences, instead, I loved going to where there was trouble or violence, places I could get good action pictures.
Did you ever get injured in the line of duty?
I never got injured but I was locked up in the cell several times. I had been harassed by the police several times but at the end of the day, we all became friends.
Taking a trip down memory lane; what are some of the fond memories you have while growing up in Ijebu Ode?
I remember that as a youth, I was very rascally. I had various nicknames and one of them was Lagos Boy because I was born in Lagos but had to go to Ijebu Ode for schooling. It was so obvious that I was from Lagos because I did not act like the boys from Ijebu Ode. My rascality made me popular.
Does it mean that you were flogged a lot by your parents as a boy because of your rascality?
I was not beaten by my mother that much because I did not stay with her for long. During my primary school, my mother took me to a teacher’s house to stay there because of my education. The teacher was so kind to me and he kept me busy with homework and house chores. All through the period, I was in primary school, I was quiet. It was when I got into the boarding house that my rascality unfolded. The only person that could caution me was the house master but he loved me because he was also a rascal as a young boy, so we could easily relate with each other. I was also a favourite among my seniors because I was popular and they were also rascals, so we were birds of the same feather.
You have the physique of an athlete. Were you into any sport as a youth?
I played football when I was in secondary school. In fact, as a member of the Island Club and Lagos Country Club, there was a day we had a match between the Island Club and the Lagos Country Club. I played for the Lagos Country Club and I was on the same team with the former governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola.
Did you ever consider making football a career especially as the sport is now a lucrative career?
No, I never considered that option for two reasons. First, I was so much in love with photography that I did not eye any other profession. Also, no one ever envisaged that football would be the money-spinning sport that it is today. During my youthful days, the society saw people that played football as rascals without any future ambition; it was rare to see a gentle boy play football at that time. This was in the 1950s.
With the demands that come with the job, how were you able to raise a family?
As a photographer, women love you, especially if you are good because whenever you take good photographs of them, they tend to want to be your friend. So I met some women who had children for me but at the end of the day, I later married the woman who is my wife till date. She is like a mother to me and she has been taking care of me for over 30 years.
Like you said women love photographers, how were you able to cope with the women that swamped around you?
I had the time to spend with them and they always followed me to events and assignments. At the time, what was in vogue was the Vespa motorcycle and whoever had one could be likened to a person who has an SUV today. I had a Vespa and the ladies always wanted to be with me because they would sit down at the back of the Vespa. They loved going to parties.
Also, I was attached to most of the presidents during that time. If a lady saw a young man taking the picture of presidents and heads of state, she would definitely be interested in the guy. I was attached to the likes of Tafawa Balewa who was the prime minister. It was when I was covering the activities of Tafawa Balewa that I met the first woman who had a child for me. She was the sister of the minister of information. Can you believe that a photographer can have a relationship with a minister’s sister? It was possible because I was attached to the president.
We learnt that at a point, Nnamdi Azikiwe ordered your arrest and you were almost sent to jail. What exactly happened?
I was at a swimming pool at Onikan when I spotted the Prime Minister in a vehicle driving himself without a police escort. I was surprised and curious, so I followed him. I picked up my camera, because I never went anywhere without it, mounted a Vespa motorcycle and followed him. When he got to the governor’s house in Marina, the security guard opened the gate for him and also allowed me into the compound because they thought I was with the prime minister. The governor, Nnamdi Azikiwe, came out to welcome Tafawa Balewa and it was at that point he saw me. Immediately Azikiwe sent for his press secretary, A.K Disu, and told him to call the police to arrest me. I won’t forget that day.
I was arrested and taken to Sangros police station and was charged to court the next day for trespassing. While I was in detention, I found a way to send a message to the editor of Daily Times, Alhaji Odun Ewu. This was in 1962 before the civil war. However, before the news got to the editor, I had already been charged to court before one Chief Magistrate Agbabiaka. The lawyer who represented me was a very smart one and he argued that I was not trespassing because where I was arrested was a government house and not Nnamdi Azikiwe’s private house thus, that made it a public space. The lawyer argued that as a journalist, I had the right to be there and do my job and that was how I was discharged and acquainted. That incident made me very popular because Daily Times published the story and it was also broadcast on the BBC; that was in 1962.
Of all the coups you have covered, which do you consider to be the most memorable?
They are all memorable moments for me. Let me start with the coup of Kerekou in Cotonou and how I was able to get good pictures. I covered Jerry Rawlings’ coup in 1979 in Ghana. When I got to Ghana, it was in my presence that they killed General Ignatius Acheampong. I was the one that covered his execution; he was executed at about 5 o clock in the morning. Rawlings did not announce the time he would be executed but I was privileged enough to get the information.
When Rawlings took over the government, I was asked to go to Ghana from the office. When I got to the border between Togo and Ghana, it had been close, so I had to take my car through the bush path into Aflao, Ghana. When I got into Ghana, I was stopped by policemen who queried me about how I got into their country as the border was closed. I had to lie to them that I was going to Togo from Ghana and when I saw that the border was closed, I had to return to Ghana. That was how I was allowed into the country. I got to Accra late in the night and lodged in a hotel, Penthouse Hotel, close to the presidential lodge. No sooner had I lodged into the hotel that information got to Rawlings that there was a Nigerian journalist in town, so he sent his friend who was a doctor to spy on me. When I knew that I was being monitored, I made sure I took good photographs of Rawlings when he was entering and exiting the presidential lodge. Then I would send them to Lagos and they would be published. The Ghanaian embassy would buy copies of the newspaper and send it to Rawlings who in return loved the pictures. I also made it a habit to go to the bar in the hotel and make fake phone calls to Nigeria praising Rawlings and saying things like, ‘we need a president like Rawlings in Nigeria.’ His spies always gave him these feedbacks so eventually he sent for me. I went to his house, we took photographs together and we became friends. That was in 1979.
Of all the photographs you took during your career, which would you say is the most memorable one?
There are many and I love all the photographs I had taken so much. Like I said earlier, I always loved to be in the hotspot of any incident to take pictures. There were times I had covered some incidents and while I was taking pictures, bullets were flying all over but I had to do the job. I could have been killed but God preserved me.
With all you said you have been through in life, did you ever imagine you would live up to 75 years on earth?
I never believed that I could live up to 75 years. When I celebrated my 70th birthday, I said it in the church that I could not believe that I could spend seven decades on earth because I had escaped death by the whiskers many times on the job. I am a man with a lion heart. I was never afraid all through the time I was working. I remember a time I covered an assignment with Ray Ekpu and I asked him to secure me in the booth of my car to take good pictures.
We worked in the Sunday Times together and there was a time we went for an assignment in Cotonou and as we got into our hotel room, we were locked up by their secret police. Later, their president asked them to release us but we needed to take the photograph of the building we were locked in for publication in Daily Times the next day. In order to take the picture, I had to tell Ray Ekpu to secure me in the booth, drive to the place we were locked up, then park the car with the rear view facing the building and that was how I was able to take the picture of the building. I was taking the photographs from the booth.
What are your thoughts on the growth of photojournalism in Nigeria?
In those days, we had good editors who knew the stories that made good news. They also knew the photographs that made good news. We were also in the job because of the passion and not for the money. Although the salary was intact, we never did the job for monetary gains. We also had editors that inspired their reporters and always backed their reporters especially when they ran into trouble with the police or any other law enforcement agents. I am sorry to say but editors of nowadays, most of these editors are gentlemen and they do not have an iota of rascality in them. A journalist has to be a rascal because if you are not a rascal, you cannot get what you want. You have to mingle with the criminals, drunkards, dredges of the society as well as the upwardly mobile. That is how you get the scoops, but not every journalist has that trait anymore.
So far at 75 years, do you have any regrets?
I do not have any cause to regret anything that happened in my life. If not for the fact that I have a little problem with my eyes, I would love to die as a photojournalist. I was diagnosed with glaucoma.
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