BY Ezrel Paul Tabiowo
Following my alleged suspension from the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), alongside the former Chairman of the Senate Press Corps, Mr. Cosmos Ekpunobi, at a National Executive Council (NEC), meeting of the Union which held in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, I felt for a moment to let things go by refusing to dignify the leadership of the Union with a response, but circumstance has made me to change my position, hence this statement.
Just last week, I was duly informed of a plot being hatched by the Chairman and Secretary of the NUJ Abuja Council, to have me sacked as Senate Correspondent with the media organization I work for. The revelation not only got me worried about the state of affairs within the union, but also opened my eyes to the danger threatening the profession of journalism in Nigeria due to the very high level of impunity by those presently piloting the affairs of the union.
Let me state categorically that the leadership of NUJ, led by Mr. Wahab Odusile, at the National level, and Paul Ella Abechi of the FCT Council, rather than follow through with constitutional provisions and responsibilities, have chosen the path of disgrace, odium and pursuit of personal agenda, thereby ridiculing the union before the right thinking members of the public. This, I say this with every sense of responsibility, given my experience.
My pre-planned suspension from the union, alongside my senior colleague, Mr. Ekpunobi, is not only illegal but unconstitutional and not in accordance with the provisions of the NUJ constitution. Clearly, the NUJ President allowed himself to be misled and equally misled the NEC into violating provisions of Article 8 of the NUJ constitution that clearly spelt out procedure and penalty. I make bold to say that in this instance, the NUJ President was the complainant and judge in his own case and was ably aided by the Chairman of the Abuja Council, Paul Ella, who is a major player in the entire saga, but now denying as an afterthought.
If I may ask, were we given any fair hearing through an invitation to explain our own side of the story with regards to the Award saga? The obvious answer is NO. So what happens to the provisions of Article 8(1a. b, e i, ii, iv and 8 (2) i as well as Article 8 (3) (a). Clearly, our present day leaders of the Union threw away the constitution of the Union all in a bid to enthrone impunity through unconstitutional means to suspend us.
Let it be stated clearly here, that membership of the NUJ is voluntary. There is no existing law anywhere in Nigeria that makes it mandatory for a practicing journalist to be a registered member of the NUJ.
I recall vividly the incidents which led to the Award saga. In 2016, when the Senate Press Corps was in the middle of plans to host the Second Edition of its Legislative Awards, I received a call from the Chairman of the Abuja Council of the NUJ, Paul Ella Abechi, who at the time I presumed was a friend. Mr. Ella explained that we needed the approval of the leadership of the union at the National level before we could go ahead with the awards. Out of respect for the Union and its leadership, I arranged a meeting between the leadership of the Senate Press Corps and NUJ.
As Auditor of the Senate Press Corps at that time, I accompanied the then Chairman, Mr. Ekpunobi to the meeting which had in attendance the NUJ Secretary, Mr. Leman Shuaibu, who represented the National President that was away on an official assignment, and Paul Ella Abechi, the Chairman of the FCT Council.
During the meeting, we were requested to write the union attaching a list of the recipients of the awards as well as categories. Then and there, I conferred with the then Chairman of the Senate Press Corps to provide honorarium for the NUJ which Mr. Paul Ella requested for. Hours later, I personally drove to the NUJ Abuja Council Secretariat, situated at Utako District, Abuja and handed the requested letter and the sum of N100,000 to Paul Ella Abechi. The Senate Press Corps Award held without any opposition from the union.
Then came year 2017. Barely a month to the third edition of the SPC Awards, I got a call from the chairman of the NUJ FCT Council. In my usual friendly and cooperative style, I assured him that the Senate Press Corps would comply as it was done the previous year. Sounding desperate, Paul Ella Abechi demanded to see me immediately. Being a Saturday, I had no option but to invite him over to my house, a gesture which I reserve for a few close persons. He visited hours later and we had a chat about some issues in the union. To crown the discussion, he requested for financial assistance from me, a request which I granted. We drove to the banking district around the Area 2 axis, and I made a cash withdrawal of N10,000 for him.
At another instance, I was called on phone by the same Paul Ella Abechi for monetary favours. This time, the story was he had accumulated some debts from drinking with some friends at Barcelona hotel, situated at Wuse 2, Abuja. At about 8:30pm that night, I drove out to meet him and he told me the bill came to N5,000, an amount which I handed to him and left.
A week later, I got another call from Ella Abechi urging me to comply with the union’s monetary demand. I explained to him my frustrations with generating money to pay for hosting the award. Clearly, he wasn’t swayed but persisted. Being a Saturday, I told him there was no way I could come up with such an amount. I, however, drove to meet him at the Nugget Hotel at Utako, after having a series of meetings that day.
When we met, he came into my car which was parked by the hotel, and we discussed for well over 35 minutes with him. During our discussion, he said the National leadership of the NUJ had no right to meddle in the award event being organized by the Senate Press Corps. In his words which I recalled clearly, he said: “My guy, is NUJ part of it? Why will they now come and say anything?” He then advised that I deal with him directly when it comes to giving out money, and not mention details of what transpired to anyone in the Union. He also asked me to forward the names of recipients and the award categories to him, which I immediately forwarded to him.
I then gave him the sum of N20, 000 which I had in my pocket with a promise of giving the union the usual honorarium the following week. Among other discussions we had was the issue of the Union’s election slated for 2018. He confided in me the constant headaches he was getting from the Secretary of the NUJ FCT council, Rafat Salami of Voice of Nigeria, whom he described as “rebellious, two-faced and conniving”. Well, seeing how that wouldn’t solve the myriads of problems I was having from planning a huge event, I simply listened quietly to his lamentations and wished him good luck in his re-election bid.
I was, however, to receive the shocker of my life when I got a call from him on Monday, the day of the event, to be informed of a plot by the leadership at the National level to cancel the award. I immediately got on the phone with the National President to know the reason behind the decision, especially given that we already had a modality around its organization from the previous year.
During my call to the President, he told me categorically, saying: “How can you people give Senator Dino Melaye an award?” At that point, I immediately got the hint. The cancellation had nothing to do with the approval process, but more to do with the selection of the above nominee. In between, rumour was rife everywhere that the leadership of the NUJ had been bought over by a certain Governor to stop Senator Dino from being given the award. The allegations though are yet to be proven.
I pleaded endlessly with the National President, who was at the time away in Kaduna, through calls and several text messages, to stay action, pending when we meet the following day to resolves the issues raised. He refused to listen. Hours later, I saw two press statements issued by the National body and the NUJ FCT Council announcing cancellation of the event.
I got in touch immediately with the former Chairman of the Senate Press Corps, and we decided to go ahead with the event as planned. I also placed a call to all recipients and asked them to grace the occasion, which by the way was well attended by dignitaries and political figures from across the country. In the end, the event turned out a huge success. Since then, there has been a witch-hunt by NUJ to frustrate the Senate Press Corps. If anyone cares to know, the SPC was the NUJ’s target when it decided to proscribe beat associations in the country. Else, how do they explain why they focused on the Senate Press Corps alone and not others such as the State House Press Corps, FICAN and others?
I also learnt how they made attempts to ensure that I didn’t emerge as the Chairman of the SPC. All their plans still failed despite the desperate bid to impose a leader on the Senate Press Corps in Nigeria.
The proscription of beat associations, if not rescinded, will certainly open a new chapter in the regulation of journalism practice and the integrity of the profession with regards to quacks moving to take over the profession in Nigeria.
It is on record that there is a strong alliance and bilateral relationship between the Senate Press Corps of Nigeria and other Parliamentary Reporters in other West African countries, ditto for the International Parliamentary Union. While we are greatly honoured internationally, the NUJ out of personal vendetta and witch-hunt is more interested in destroying our years of hard and ceaseless professionalism.
As we speak, in the last two months, in the Senate beat alone, three of our members lost their loved ones to the cold grip of death. Where was the NUJ when these happened? How did they lend their support? Yet Unionism is all about welfare of members and not elected officials alone.
I must say that with the action of the present leadership of the Union at both the FCT and National level, I and many others have nothing to lose if we are no longer members of the Union.
I rest my case for now, believing there would be response from the Union before I and my other colleagues roll out other details that would baffle members of the Union.
Ezrel Tabiowo is the Chairman, Senate Press Corps, and staff member of the Blueprint Newspaper.