By Job Osazuwa
A journalist, human rights activist and author is quietly bringing smiles into the wrinkled, trauma-filled faces of children and widows of deceased journalists in Nigeria. His name is Richard Akinnola.
Touched by the need to ameliorate the agony, pain and suffering that widows and children of journalists often go through when their breadwinners are no more, Mr. Akinnola set up an organisation – Richard Akinnola Foundation. The non-governmental organisation is meant to cater to the needs of the dependants of departed journalists that did not leave enough property behind for their immediate family members. The NGO, founded in April 2010, has been able to quietly dish out millions of naira to many widows and children of journalists across the country.
Recently, N600, 000 was disbursed to six families of late journalists to enable them continue with their lives after the demise of their breadwinners. Indeed, the rare philanthropic gesture displayed by this humble but irrepressible journalist has always ignited an indescribable joy among those who benefit from the largesse.
The reporter sought Akinnola out recently, tracing him to an eatery in Ikeja, Lagos. Dressed in a casual T-shirt, a pair of shorts and tennis shoes, Akinnola looked more like an athlete on his way from the gym. He told the reporter that he established the foundation when he discovered that apart from the fact that most journalists are not well remunerated, many media outfits don’t also pay salaries at the right time. Akinnola, who has practised journalism for over three decades, regretted that many media practitioners struggle very hard to meet up with their basic responsibilities.
He noted that when the same practitioners were abruptly sent to early graves, the fate that would befall their dependants could only be imagined. He observed that aside from the initial outpouring of emotions from colleagues and friends of the departed journalist, his widow and children were soon forgotten and left alone to face life’s daunting challenges.
He said it was quite unfortunate that most journalists don’t take good care of their health while they always cite job exigencies. According to the veteran, journalists always work tirelessly to meet up with their companies’ deadline. He said he was cocksure that over 60 per cent of practising journalists have high blood pressure and other similar life-threatening ailments.
“To make life really worth living for the widows and children of journalists is the reason we established this foundation. Since 2010, we have been empowering widows financially, which they could use to start some small-scale businesses while others could use the money to pay house rent. We started by giving them N50, 000 and we later raised it to N100, 000. The target is for us to give them N250, 000 per family.
“When we gave N100, 000 to Mrs Ogundeji, the widow of the departed Photo Editor of Daily Newswatch Newspaper, Tunde Ogundeji, she was so excited and later confessed to us that the money came at the right time. We discovered that shortly after her husband died, their landlord evicted them from their apartment. She and her children had to squat in a church. The money we gave her was like manna from heaven. There are so many other widows and their children who go through similar ordeal.”
Some colleagues, friends and others who know the founder of the foundation have described him as sent by God to rescue those departed journalists’ dependants from the effect of the vacuum created by the death of their benefactor. Such demise had unarguably plunged many families into abject poverty.
According to Akinnola, who is also the director of Media Law Centre in Lagos, the N600, 000 he gave out this year was specifically to educate the deceased’s children. It will continue as an annual largesse for the chosen families, as long as God gives him the wherewithal to implement it, he stated.
“Apart from assisting them financially, I felt that the most challenging thing they face is how to educate their children. Therefore, I decided to institutionalise the initiative and then run it as an education scholarship on a yearly basis. We started this year, and for now, it will be one person per affected family to benefit from the scholarship. Six families benefited from the first batch. There is going to be a second batch. l am trusting God to get enough money to execute the project in a few months from now,” Akinnola said.
The beneficiaries are sourced from different parts of the country, cutting across tribe and religion, whose departed loved ones had practised either in the print or electronic medium.
When asked who and who qualify for the charity, Akinnola explained that the door was open to any affected family. But he noted that only those that lost their loved ones in recent years are given priority for now. He said there were many families that lost their breadwinners years ago, regretting that the foundation lacks the financial muscle to cater to such.
Hear him: “There are so many of them that I am not aware of. But we only consider those ones that happened in the last five years. There is also an issue that came up recently. Someone asked me the fate of a female journalist who loses a husband who is not in the industry. My mind never really went there. Then, I consulted people on what to do. From the reactions I got, those widowers are going to be incorporated into the scheme of things so that they can also benefit from the package.”
He said there were other beneficiaries who were not announced. Those are the people that are in critical and urgent need. He explained further that he was into the philanthropic quest not because he is a multi-millionaire but due to his passion to lighten the burden of widows and their children.
“For example, last December, there was a woman who was facing a particular challenge that I had to send some money to. And it was a great relief for her and her children. That one is outside what the foundation is doing,” he said.
He said as long as he lives and God gives him the grace, he would continue to deep his hands into his pocket to brighten the lives of the widows and their children.
On how he has been able pursue the huge task so far, he said: “It is a question of sacrifice. It is not as if one has so much resources. One has to deny oneself of certain things to be able to meet other people’s needs. Again, it is all about the passion that one has towards a particular cause. And once you have a passion for something, you can go out of your comfort zone to actualise that goal; just to make other people comfortable.
“For now, it is just a personal effort to touch these sets of people positively. I am believing in God that with time, some other people will key into it and support this initiative.”
However, he said it has not been easy for him to sustain the initiative, explaining that a lot of his personal needs had been sacrificed to keep the work going.
“Yes, it is quite challenging because one has to use ones personal resources to keep the foundation alive. This first phase, we had only ten families that benefited. There are still other five widows that the NGO was unable to cater for, who requires another N500, 000. But we believe that with time, things will get better and more people will be able to benefit,” he said.
He also spoke on the poor remuneration that most media outfits pay their employees. He said though the media industry is capital intensive, some employers were buoyant enough to pay regular and substantial salary.
“Some of the employers just decide not to pay their workers, not because of the economic distress. Some just take it as a tradition to owe their staff. I know there are some media houses that are buoyant in terms of income; by way of adverts they get and other patronage. Yet, they just have the habit of not paying their staff who labour for the same company.”
He described it as a criminal offence for companies to deny their staff salaries, noting that such dishonest attitude could only be displayed in Nigeria. He lamented that so many things have been taken for granted in the country and in Africa.
Akinnola tasked the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) to discuss with media owners for them to have mandatory fortnightly checks on the health status of every journalist.
“You can’t just treat your workers disdainfully. In so many countries, you dare not try it. Whoever has worked is entitled to his pay at the end of the month. Yes, I know there are media houses that struggle to pay because of the general economic crisis. One will understand that such companies are in genuine crisis.”
Having spent 34 years in the media industry, Akinnola has gladly trained and mentored many journalists and written many books. He’s not happy, though, with the lazy attitude displayed by some journalists. He pointed out that they don’t also work towards improving their professional enhancement.
He said: “So many journalists are so lazy these days. Some of them don’t even read their stories after they might have been worked on by different line editors and get published. Journalism is so dynamic and requires self-development. This same thing applies to the law and medicine professions because things keep changing. If you are a professional in these areas, you need to keep updating yourself in terms of knowledge. For example, the law of privacy in the media as we had it 15 years ago is no longer what it is today. With due respect to many media houses, that is why the level of output from some of them is appalling.”
He advised journalists to expand their horizons in terms of legitimate income that will not necessarily impact negatively on the ethics of the profession, especially on divided loyalty. He stated that there are different institutions outside Nigeria that journalists could explore and earn some stipend at the end of the day. He called on others to continue to improve themselves through international study centres established by different foreign foundations.
Akinnola added that tapping such opportunities would cushion the ugly effect of the meagre remuneration in the industry.