Daniel Iworiso-Markson cut his teeth in journalism in Radio Nigeria 2 Lagos – the first FM radio station in Nigeria – as a teenager, where he wrote over a hundred drama scripts for the radio station and the national head office of Radio Nigeria.
Markson, the immediate past commissioner for information and orientation, Bayelsa State, was previously the chief press secretary to the former Bayelsa State governor, Seriake Dickson. But after the stint in government, he has now returned to his first love – journalism and public relations practice. In this interview with Saturday Sun, Markson recalls his poor upbringing and near-death experiences growing up in the slum of Ajegunle, his heyday in journalism and his contrasting experiences in government. Markson, who turns 50 tomorrow, June 14, 2020, says the special day doesn’t call for celebrations in the face of the hardship being experienced by many in Nigeria. However, his life journey from a bread hawker in Ajegunle to a media manager and owner, as he explains, is a breakaway tale from the fringe.
What inspired you to go into journalism?
I grew up appreciating the fine prints, particularly coming from very literary minds I respected a great deal. As young as I was then, probably at the age of seven, my father and my mother would say that I took keen interest in reading newspapers. I am talking about the early 1970s. Back in those days, we had very great columnists that I admired, and I read them a lot. Ken Saro-Wiwa was one; he used to write in Sunday Times. He had a picture of a pipe –he smoked pipe –on his column. I took interest in him. I read not just journalism but literary writings.
Saro-Wiwa was also a writer. Did he influence you, too, in that aspect?
O yes. In Radio Nigeria, I must have written over a 100 drama scripts. I went to Radio Nigeria immediately after secondary school, around 1987/88. I started out with Radio Nigeria 2- it was the first FM station in Nigeria. Of course, at that time, the liberalisation of radio stations had yet to take place. Radio Nigeria 2, Lagos, was at 45 Martins Street in the heart of Lagos, where you had Balogun Market. Unfortunately, that edifice got burnt, and it moved to Radio Nigeria headquarters at Ikoyi, Lagos. But during my time at Radio Nigeria 2, I also traversed Radio Nigeria, Ikoyi. I was writing for all the drama series, both at the headquarters and my own station, Radio Nigeria 2.
A number of renowned artists, like Joe Garuba of blessed memory and Funso Adeolu, were all part of the cast of the radio script that I was writing. It was fun for me as a young man to find these heavyweights acting out my scripts on air. It was really fun. At that time, we were doing handwriting –there were no computers –if not, those works would have been published by now, because I was very prolific. All of that, perhaps, explained it all in what I turned out to be today.
What do you consider the turning point of your career as a journalist?
The turning point was coming to serve my state, Bayelsa, first as the chief press secretary to the governor in 2012 and, later, as commissioner for information and orientation, and I did that for eight years, unbroken, without anybody sacking me. And the job that we do is so sensitive and delicate. It has the highest number of causalities. In actual fact, I am the longest serving CPS in Bayelsa State. Those before me didn’t last up to two years. As I keep saying, the job of a media aide is not an easy one; it is a very tasking one. Those who are in a hurry to want to serve as media aide to any chief executive in whatever level should be prepared.
Managing information at that level is very critical, and your managing information in a very volatile political environment like ours is not a tea party; it’s not a job for everybody. You must be at your A-game all the time. I barely slept. It’s now that I am out of government that I can afford six-hour sleep. At that time, sleep was a luxury. I could not afford to sleep for two-three hours in a single day, because you never knew where the information would come from, especially in an environment like ours where the social media, particularly the online media, and where everybody is a journalist; where everybody has an opinion. You just had to be on top of the situation, and I had a boss –Governor Seriake Dickson, a very resourceful person. Before any news broke out, you would be surprised that he had seen it before you, whether about him or the government. He is a voracious reader. How do you cope with such a boss? That means you have to be ahead of him; otherwise, you will be caught hands down. That really put me on the edge. While others would say they worked 8 am to 5 pm, mine was round the clock. There was no closing time for me.
How do you feel at 50?
Well, I feel good. Some may say I am still relatively young, but it has been a long journey. You know the trajectory of life could be unpredictable. So, at this time, I appreciate the important thing that one is alive despite the vagaries of life. We can’t take that for granted, especially in our clime. At 50, I feel really glad; I feel a deep sense of gratitude and optimism, and I think, some fun. I recognise it’s a milestone. Yes, I am turning 50, but there is no celebration; there is no need to celebrate, because, to be honest with you, there are more people out there who are going through extreme poverty, and their governments do not care about that. We have governments –I am not referring to one person –I haven’t seen any government that is concerned about the general wellbeing of the people. They always say so, but it is not so in practice. Therefore, what hope really do we have as a people? So, turning 50, I am just counting myself as one of the lucky few – lucky in the sense that I am alive. It’s a miracle to turn 50 in Nigeria of today, especially when you see that our health institution is nothing to write home about. If you look around you, there is nothing to beat your chest about and be proud of. Nothing is working in Nigeria.
What has life taught you this far with this milestone you have achieved?
That would be a mix of many things. Life is a battle of all sorts. I think life is not just a feeling but a choice. Your choices will count so much in life. You have to prepare; you have to be patient; you have to be focused and then you take your chance when it comes. This is why some people believe life is a residue of design. I agree with this notion. You know; you prepare very well for some projected attainments, projected heights and expectations, etcetera. You may make your expectations fulfilled, but, in some other instances, you may flounder. I believe preparation counts in life, but when I link up with my Christian faith as my life experience has shown, everything then revolves around God, our maker and whose critical role leads to fulfillment. You find out that the best prepared man may not necessarily get to the top. Yet, I have to say that life could, at times, be unfair, very unfair. So, I think we should just try to make every moment count and always remember that good things don’t come easy. Life has also taught me that there are some lessons and situations we simply cannot learn until we face them in the journey of life.
Let’s go back to when you were a child. How was it like growing up?
My childhood was very tough. I grew up in Ajegunle. I came from a very humble background. My parents were poor. Sometimes you wonder why life could be so unfair to some people. You could imagine growing up in Ajegunle. My father was a civil servant. Ajegunle was not a place life would hold any meaning for you. So, we had to really struggle, fight our way out of poverty. A lot of that also took the grace of God to be able to accomplish what I did. Growing up was tough, but I believe that God had a hand it in it. Unfortunately, there are still so many people who are still there, unable to climb out of the poverty.
You had any role model growing up?
Interestingly, my father was my role model. He left my community, Opume, in Ogbia Local Government. Former President Goodluck Jonathan and I are from the same local government. My father left Opume to look for greener pastures, and it took him a week to get to Lagos, in the early 50s. I salute his courage, because he could have remained in the village, and his life would have amounted to nothing. He didn’t want his life, perhaps, to be like that of his father, who never left his village and died in the village in poverty. He got to Lagos and started out at the very basic level, and, by dint of hard work, ended up as a manager in NEPA. Now, I look at his life, and I see sheer courage, resilience. You won’t call him a rich man, but he was comfortable to the extent that he could raise his family at a time. So, for a long time, I looked up to him as my role model. Till today, I still see him as my role model. To a large extent, I see a lot of him in me; that I need to defy the odds. It doesn’t matter the circumstance you find yourself, you can make something out of your life, if only you are courageous, determined and willing to go the extra mile to persevere.
What did Ajegunle teach you?
Ajegunle taught me how to survive on the streets. I won’t trade that experience for anything in the world. If I have to go back in time, I would like to go back to Ajegunle, because a lot of the life lessons I learnt growing up in Ajegunle are what have made me who I am today. In Ajegunle, I was out on the streets. My children can’t even walk across the streets in Lagos today, because my heart would be in my mouth. To a large extent, that spirit of survival, that never-say-die spirit to push against all odds and to be something in life is, perhaps, the greatest lesson I learnt in Ajegunle. In Ajegunle, we were involved in street fights, because you had to fight your way through. We helped our mothers to hawk bread and “ice water,” and there was nowhere we didn’t go to hawk our wares, and, in the process, you would meet with all kinds of characters, yet, being able to resist everything and stand on your own. Of course, there were also the bad gangs around, but you didn’t want to be a disappointment to your parents; so you had to resist them and still live among them and defy all their antics and come out of it.
I give God all the glory because of some of those near-death experiences we faced. Anybody, who hated your guts, as we see happen today, could have shouted, “Ole! Ole!” and you would be lynched straightaway. Sometimes, when I relive those experiences, I ask myself: “How did I survive all this?” Looking back in time, God had a hand in it tremendously, and I feel grateful and honoured.
Back to your days in government, which you left recently, what are your recollections in the tour of duty that lasted eight years?
I must tell you it was a lesson of a life time. You know before I was elevated to the rank of commissioner, I was the chief press secretary to the governor. I wish to thank my boss, Governor Seriake Dickson, for finding me worthy to have been so appointed from SSA (Media) to CPS and later commissioner. I think I went into the government well prepared, and I did my best. But managing government information is not really easy. It is a 24/7 job that will task you immensely. I am talking about managing about 200 journalists and other crucial publics without which your desire and, indeed, your major responsibility of getting favourable publicity for your boss and the government may not be possible. You know, besides the press corps, which covers the Government House as correspondents, I had to contend with the multitude of about 200 journalists from the local newspapers. In government, events are happening at a high pace and you have to be on top of it all, otherwise, your job could be on the line. It is tough. From managing how policies and programmes are presented to the public to ensure the buy-in, the various interest groups agitating for one thing or the other, the task of getting the Press Unit working to meet deadlines in order for our stories to be in the media on a daily basis, managing so many unfounded stories about the government, particularly on social media, and so many other issues. I must tell you, it was tough.
But I think the most challenging was the political environment, which, like elsewhere, is always in motion with alternative views on how things should be as against what the government was doing, even when the government had a superior knowledge of affairs and actually in the right direction. I think there is an issue here, especially with regard to some members of the elite formation, who probably felt a sense of loss of whatever entitlement they were getting before the Restoration Government came on board, which in effect, came with a number of reforms which changed the old order of how government was being run compared with what the governor represented and in line with convictions on what should be the new template of his administration vis-à-vis his contract with the people. I think that was the issue.
Having been in government for this long, are you considering running for office someday?
Well, man is a political animal, if I may borrow from Aristotle. By virtue of my position in government, I actually participated actively in politics and the elections while it lasted. But, candidly, politics or running for office is not on the card for me now. I have other areas of interest to pursue. Frankly, running for office is a tall order in the context of our politics in the country. Let’s look at the future and see what it brings.
So, what’s next?
I am in a transition stage right now. Since I left office, I’ve returned to my PR practice. You know that’s what I was doing before I went into public service. I have set up an online news outfit, FirstNews, which will be launched on June 14th to coincide with my 50th birthday. I will also rally my friends and associates to launch the Robert Sunday Iworiso Foundation as my modest effort of giving back. The foundation is named after my late father with focus on education and empowerment. Yes, the memoir I talked about earlier will also be released to the public. I think it is a practical handbook which will be good for undergraduates in mass communication departments in our tertiary institutions.
It teaches practical lessons on how to manage government information in diverse spheres, which also applies to organisations and institutions. You come across specific strategies, which you will never find in any text books, because they are from practical perspectives. Ultimately, I intend to retire from active practice to the classroom as a teacher. That’s why I have enrolled for a PhD programme at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I believe with a PhD in Public Relations, having bagged a Master’s degree in the same discipline, coupled with my rich experience on the field, both in private and public practice, will be added edge and advantage in my quest to mentor up and coming professionals in the field of Mass Communication.
How do you relax?
(Laughs) I can’t think of any relaxation routine, because, fortunately enough, work is now relaxation for me. I will give you an example. The Covid-19 lockdown was like a death sentence for me because of having to stay indoors without going anywhere. My people were saying it was supposed to be a good time for me to relax. It was tough.
You don’t have hobbies?
I do a lot of reading. Now, I am a golf player. I actually started, and I am enjoying it big time. I am more inclined to play golf at every given opportunity. But, before golf, I played long tennis. I also played football. Now, I am more inclined towards golf. Perhaps, I am going to use it as my retirement game.
What’s your best dress code?
Usually, I like being casual. I am not a formal person.
Really? But I used to see you with a hat in public places?
Yes, that was a result of my position in government, because I just followed after my boss, who wanted to represent the Ijaw culture. Being the spokesman of government, I also needed to reflect that. So, it became part and parcel of my dress code. But, in normal times, I dress casually.
If you were asked to relive your life as a child, what would you have done differently?
Well, it’s a good thing you asked this question. I believe that people of my generation have been unfairly treated by the Nigerian nation. I wish I was born in the Nigeria of the 1940s, because life at that time, going by the stories we have been told, compared to what we are experiencing now –in terms of the values and respect for one another –was better. There is a deep ethnic divide: anywhere you go to in this country, they want to find out where you are from. I think that’s the bane of our development as a nation. We preach one Nigeria through our lips, but, deep down in our hearts, we are ethnic jingoists, and this division among us has cost us dearly. People are not given positions on merit but by virtue of where they come from. In 21st century Nigeria, we are still talking about whether we should have an Igbo president or a Yoruba president or a Hausa president. For me, none of that matters. We should be talking about the quality of the individual. So, I feel very disappointed in Nigeria of today. Even among the younger generation, I see a lot of that, and we begin to ask if there is any hope for Nigeria. I feel sorry for the generations coming behind us.