Stanley Macebuh: A Personal Tribute

THISDAY Newspaper- Yemi Ogunbiyi

I first met Stanley Macebuh in 1966. He had just graduated from Ibadan, and had come back to King’s College, his alma mater, to teach. He taught sixth form English and I had the privilege and in retrospect, the exceeding luck of being one of his students. My memory of that period is, understandably, hazy now. But I recall him, at least once, scribbling, in his notoriously ugly handwriting, a note of approval in the column of one of my class essays, with the additional advice that I should strive for greater brevity and clarity in my writings! But Mr. Macebuh, as he then was, soon vanished from our midst as quickly as he had come, proceeding, it turned out, to Sussex University in England for a higher degree.

Then our paths crossed again in New York City some five years later. He was now teaching at the City University of New York, having taken a doctorate degree in English literature from the University of California at Berkely. I was myself studying at the time for a higher degree at New York University. It was a good time to be living around the New York area as a Nigerian. Ambassador Leslie Harriman was at United Nations as Permanent Representative, while Ambassador Deinde George manned the Consul-General’s office. Joe Okpaku’s Third Press, situated at 444 Central Park West in Manhattan, was booming with business and scores of Nigerians were studying and living in, and around the city; among them Ibrahim Gambari, George Obiozor, Tunde Adeniran, Moyibi Amoda, Walter Ofonagoro, Dele Giwa, Kayode Ojutiku, Ore Soluade, Biodun Jeyifo and others.

We all seemed to work and study hard. But we also partied hard, dissolving our nights, in the words of Wole Soyinka, “in the fumes of human self-indulgence”! Stanley was a vibrant part of that experience. He had, by now, published his highly-acclaimed work on James Baldwin, James Baldwin: A Critical Study, which remains one of the most incisive analyses on Baldwin’s works in the English language to date. He had also, by now, met his future wife, Marggie. And when they eventually got married on that cold, wintry evening of December, 1976, it was one big Nigerian party where I recall, switching roles between master of ceremonies, arranger, steward and Mr. Fix it! But it was my encounter with Stanley at the Guardian newspapers that redefined the real nature of our relationship and fostered an immutable bond of friendship that survived to the end of his life. While head-hunting for the Guardian, he made several trips to Ile-Ife, where I had returned to take up a teaching appointment. He wanted me to join the nascent team of the new outfit. After months of hesitation on my part, we struck a deal: I would spend my 1983 sabbatical leave at the Guardian and if I liked it, spend one more year and no more. That was 27 years ago! I have never gone back to my University job!! And what an experience the Guardian years turned out for me and the team of dedicated staff that Stanley had single-handedly assembled for the project. The experience and atmosphere created by Stanley’s leadership and vision at the Guardian shaped my career to date and, I am sure, those of others like me. It was not just about the razor-sharp brilliance of his fertile mind - although, I suspect that that was a part of it. It was a little bit more. It was also about his ability to gather under one roof some of the finest minds I ever had the privilege of working with (even if we were a disparate bunch of egotistical bores!!) and then getting us to passionately key into the Guardian dream as if our lives depended on it. The Guardian experience, under Stanley, was about leadership that was as self-confident as it was inspirational.

It was a delight to watch Stanley conduct editorial board conferences, twice, sometimes, three times weekly. His ability to summarise in a few minutes, several hours of intense brainstorming sessions in ways that succinctly captured the essence of the arguments put forward was sheer brilliance at its best. Usually, at the end of deliberations, with his stick of cigarette held between his fingers from a long, thin filter, his eyes darting across the smoke-filled room, he would patiently assign editorial topics to members of the team with a reminder that the Guardian’s editorial comments were far too important to be toyed with, because, in his own words, “when the Guardian says it, everyone, including the government, listens”! A serious bunch That was how seriously we took ourselves at the Guardian, under Stanley’s leadership. It did not matter what any other paper had written or said - when the Guardian says it, the government was bound to listen. Stanley said so and we believed him! Or perhaps, we believed it because Stanley said so!! Ironically, quite a number of us whom he brought to the Guardian, like he himself, had no formal training in journalism. Yet, he demanded of us seemingly unattainable standards of the rules of engagement that would have done the most seasoned of journalist or even professor of mass communications very proud.

Ever so thorough and cautious, he taught us that any good story that was worthy of the Guardian had to be well-researched, balanced, fair, well-written and presented in a manner that promoted the public good. His instinctive libertarian orientation meant that for him, a story, any story could be complex and capable of having several sides to it. One of several examples will serve to prove these points about his journalistic career.

When, I believe, in early 1985, on the eve of the introduction of new naira currencies, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, as a young Aviation correspondent, uncovered the famous 53-suitcase story, it was a big-scoop which the Guardian was eager to run with before it became stale. But we had in Buhari/Idiagbon, a brutal dictatorship which was intolerant of criticism, and since the Emir of Gwandu, who had brought in the suitcases, was the father of General Buhari’s aide-de-camp, Stanley thought, and rightly so, that we needed to be dead right about the facts of the story before publishing it.

So, one day, in the heat of the story, Stanley ‘secretly’ pulled me aside and sent me back to the airport to reconfirm the veracity of the story. And only after the then Airport Commandant of Customs, a yet-to-be-famous Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, had reconfirmed the story, were we able to fully run it. And even then, between Stanley and Lade Bonuola, who was then Executive Editor of the paper, the figures were switched to 35, instead of 53, just to be sure that we did not appear to further provoke the military leadership of the day!

Deep knowledge of classics

Stanley Macebuh was, in the finest sense of the expression, an engaging intellectual. His effortless command of the English language, derived in part, I suspect, from his sound grounding in the classics. That background imbued him with a brevity of style that was outstandingly refreshing. This background in the classics manifested itself in his writings, not just in form but also in substance. Consider, for instance, his quintessentially brilliant and crisp piece on Bola Ige after his all-night brain-storming encounter with Mr. Ige at Government House, Agodi.

Entitled Cicero of Agodi, Stanley, in this concise piece, dug deep into his knowledge of the classics, drawing implicit parallels between Mr. Ige and the ancient Roman philosopher, lawyer, orator and political theorist, Marcus Tullius Cicero.

But Stanley’s choice of the Cicero parallel may have been inspired by a less flattering consideration than was perceived by many when the piece first appeared. For instance, Cicero, whose career as a statesman was marked by inconsistencies,

was also a sensitive and impressionable personality who was prone to over-reaction in the face of crises. Obviously, Stanley saw a similarity in the careers of both Chief Ige and Cicero and explored it in a way that made an oblique statement on Chief Ige’s own equally complex and challenging political career. In other words, the choice of Cicero in the context of that piece, invoked a lot more about Chief Bola Ige than could have been said in words.

This approach encapsulates an important aspect of Stanley’s style - at once, erudite, cerebral, deep and profound.

Without question, he gave the Guardian all that he had. When he taught us to believe that the Guardian was the “flagship of the Nigerian press”, this was not for him a mere slogan or marketing gimmick. He intensely believed it, worked for it, lived it and swore by it; which was why his fractured departure from the Guardian hurt him almost beyond comprehension. It would be quite fair to argue today that after his departure from the Guardian, he never, to the end, regained the composure of the Guardian years. Indeed, that departure may have set in motion a chain of events that led to bouts of disillusionment he experienced in his later years.

Privilege of friendship

A pleasant and amiable man, his shyness masked a measure of diffidence which got mistaken, sometimes, for aloofness or even snobbishness. If he considered you bright, nothing else seemed to matter; you could get away with murder! Ever so impatient with formalities, he came across, especially in his younger years, as constantly in a hurry. Yet, he had an inherently opposite capacity to patiently listen attentively to the other side of an argument even where the point being made had been overstated.

In the end, I think he felt let down by quite a number of friends who could have helped out when he needed help, but turned their backs on him. When I spoke to him on the Thursday before his death on Sunday, he was tired and unwell, but otherwise, he was at peace with himself. He was far too polished and refined to hold anything against anyone.

He thought it far too uncongenial to blame anyone for his seeming mistakes or set-backs. He just went on with his life, taking responsibility for everything, including the things he got wrong.

Without question, Stanley Macebuh was a beautiful human being; kind, considerate and accommodating. He was unquestionably a mentor and a brother, whom I owed more than I could ever have repaid him in a lifetime. For, had he not invited me to join the Guardian team in 1983, had he not literally dragged me from my University job, my life would have been different today. Obviously, my media career would never have happened, including, of course, my memorable experience at the Daily Times.

It was an honour to have known him and a rare privilege to have been considered a close friend by him. I could never forget him. And as we commence his funeral ceremonies this week and bid him farewell, let us do so, not with pain and tears, but as Stanley would have liked, in thanksgiving, for an eventful life that made huge differences in the lives of others.


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