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Prof. Alfred Opubor; the first man to get his PHD in Media and Communication in Africa

Written by Rosemary Okello

Being the first man in Africa to get a PHD in communication  is not a mean feat for Prof Alfred Opubor a man who has shaped  the way communication and evelopment is taught in  the continent for the last four decades.

For him he atributes his achievement in acedeminc world of media and communication on  what he calls; “ What my grandmother taught me about communication."

In a reflective mood, Prof. Opubor, remembers vividly how one day  almost 20 years ago,  when he was invited by a group of media professionals to give a talk in Benin City. And before he proceeded with his journey he first, stopped at the family house to see his mother and his grandmother was also there. 

“I spoke to them briefly and went on to give my lecture and among other ideas, I spoke about freedom of expression and the ethics of journalism. But when he returned to the family to spend the night as always, my grandmother was curious about what I did for a living. She had gotten used to the idea that although I was referred to as Doctor, I couldn't do a thing about her cough, since I was only a doctor of books! but exactly what did I do? 

“I started to tell her about the talk I had spoken about that afternoon and I was doing quite well in my explanation.  I explained about freedom of speech, and how everyone should be allowed to say what was on his or her mind, in the interest of the family and community, and reminded her that she, and our elders, often said: "Ron ofo e tse udaju," meaning, "speaking the truth should not be regarded as insolence," a way of encouraging the young to speak fearlessly without the usual reserve that their blunt speech might offend elders. Then as I tried to explain ethics, and professionalism in journalism, I found myself stammering; the words did not flow so readily.   I could not quite find the expressions in my mother tongue to clearly explain what I had said earlier that day in English, with considerable eloquence. 

“I spoke about truth telling, about bribery and the need to be good and honest. My grandmother listened intently and greeted me warmly, invoking my praise names and those of my paternal and maternal forebears, thanking them for sparing her life so she could witness my progress and success. But that encounter set me thinking. The next time I had a chance to see my grandmother again, I had some questions for her, and I got some answers   I had been ruminating over them for a long time”. Said Prof Opubor.

According to Prof Opubor who was in the country recently to share his thoughts about the Centre of Excellence in Communication and Media Practice, an initiative of School of Journalism, Nairobi University and the media industry that his encounter with the grandmother day made him thinking, “How do you teach courage and ethical steadfast in any university in the world." 

He told the gathering, “I share these insights with you now, because I consider that African communication scholars and practitioners need to be inspired by the wisdom of our ancestors, especially our grandmothers, mothers and aunts, as we seek to anchor our discipline in those cultural foundations that will provide the validity and efficacy that we must produce in our focus on communication for social change, including communication to sustain a culture of peace in Africa”. 

In early days as a student at Ibandan University studying English and Literature in 1960s, Opubor would write short stories for newspapers and radios in Nigeria and they would get published. 

Therefore when he was a second year and was on vacation he went occasionally at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). “By the time I graduated, I had been working for three years and was automatically offered a job at the radio station.” 

He therefore started a weekly programme called “Search light” which was meant to popularise research issues from archaeology, public health, language and even media and bridge the gap between the public and the academia. 

But for someone who worked with Chinua Achebe in the same organisation, Opubor has  got some fond memories  of the man whose books have shaped the way literature is taught in the region. “Whenever I could come over for the attachment, Achebe then who was the head of programmes would welcome me,” says Opubor. 

“But when I was now settling down enjoying my work, Ford Foundation broke my romance with radio and gave me a scholarship to go and study my Masters in at the University of California where I studied linguistics and African Studies.” 

But according to him, by this time he was sure in his mind that what he needed to study was media and communication.  Therefore he did his doctorate in communications where his thesis was on understanding the structure of language as a vehicle of communication. 

“Having attained my degree in communications in 1960s was a tremendous challenge and my immediate task as to establish a link between the industry and the government owned broadcasting stations. Bu that time Nigeria had only 6 daily newspapers and I took it upon myself to support and nurture students who were studying journalism,” said Opubor.

Born in the Northern part of Nigeria and having come from a family where his mother and father were from different communities, Opubor realised at an early age the importance of communication. “I had to speak my mother’s language as well as my fathers. This was because as a child I could not play with children from side unless I knew how to communicate with them in their language, this prepared me to ask questions on how human relate”

Being a first born in a family of three boys and four girls, Opubor’s childhood propped him to work had and be an achiever.

As a professor in communicologist, Opubor's credentials read like a novel. Started his career as a broadcaster in Nigeria with degrees from the University of London, (B.A. Honours, 1961), and the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA, (M.A. 1963), he was among the first generation of students of communication as a behavioural science at Michigan State University, MSU, graduating with a doctorate degree in the new discipline in 1969.

Married in 1964, Upubor has got two children; a girl who is a journalist and owns a consulting firm in UK and a boy who works as a banker in New York.

For a man with an impressive CV, he has over the years understood what  diversity means even at family level and believes that this is the basis of journalism. How to know the other person’s truth and making it become your truth.He argues that even if the truth is universal, experience of truth is different and capturing that experience is the fundamental tool in effective communication.

This was the launching pad he needs to start re-thinking communication for development in Africa. “I single handed struggled to get as many students as possible in the University to study media and communication for me it legitimises our work to practice good journalism.

For the past three decades, Opubor has been an external supervisor in over 10 Universities in Africa and he is gratified that many of his students are leaders in their won right where some of them have won some of the coveted awards in journalism around the world.

He has over the years championed  the theory of developmental communication and went ahead to develop models for practising journalism in that area where he challenges the leaders, and the public in general on how to use information to interpret and analyse the developmental issues.

He also gives himself credit for being in the forefront in building the media and creating new models which are currently being used by many Universities to teach communication. 

But he is quick to correct that, even though people like him were offering the alternative ways on how Africans could use information to develop, as early as 1960s it was hijacked by political ambition and development and the media became the intermediary between the leaders and the people, instead of the leaders using the media to develop the people.

He therefore chose to teach geography of news with an aim of making the students analyse news headlines from each country in Africa as well as social geography on how only a small portion of the population gets represented in the news. 

Having served as assistant professor of communication at MSU, and in 1971, he became Associate Professor of Communication and Director of the African Studies Center, he says, “ When people talk about globalisation, I get the feeling that it is only Africans and others who have to be globalised. When did the American newspapers write a story about African experience?” he asked.

His experience in media and commucation also goes way back  In 1975  when he was appointed to the Professorial Chair and Headship of the Department of Mass Communication at the University of Lagos, Nigeria. There he taught generations of journalists and media professionals, and introduced post-graduate programs, until 1986.

He was also  Vice-President of the International Association for Mass Communication Research (1976-1984), he served as Chairman of the Communication Sector of the Nigerian National Commission for UNESCO,1976-1986 and was elected Rapporteur-General of UNESCO International Programme for the Development of Communication, IPDC, (1981-87). He was founding Chairman of the Board of the News Agency of Nigeria, NAN, (1979-83), and Information and Training Adviser at the Pan-African News Agency, PANA, in Dakar, Senegal (1983-86). In 1986 he established Multimedia, a private communications consulting firm in Lagos, Nigeria, focusing on media and development issues.

From 1990 to 1998 he served as Technical Adviser in Information, Education and Communication with the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, first in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, and then with the Country Support Team, CST, in Harare, Zimbabwe, covering over 20 African countries. He has also undertaken communication consultancies for FAO, ILO, SADC,WHO, UNAIDS, UNESCO,UNFPA and the World Bank.

Currently (2005), he is the Coordinator of the ADEA Working Group on Communication for Education and Development, COMED, co-sponsored by ADEA, the World Bank and the Norwegian Trust Fund for Education in Africa, located at the West African News-media and Development Centre, WANAD, in Cotonou, Republic of Benin. The COMED Program trains journalists reporting on education, communication officers of ministries of education and other stakeholders. Director of Communication for Development at the West Africa News Msdia and Development Centre (WANAD Centre), Opubor is also its Secretary-General.

But one lesson Opubor has learnt in all his years  as an academia is; “ If you don’t know where you are going, at least you should know where you are coming from,” and stresses that as journalists in Africa  are trying tow rite stories about the continent and its people, in the discourse of communication for development, the conservatiobal part of it is very important.

And this he dedicates to lessons he learnt from his grandmother, that capturing the truth for a grandmother requires wisdom. “ And it is that wisdom that gives us power because it helps to define who I am, where I start from and it gives me strength to confront other people and accept them because I accept myself.” 

He challenged the media practitioners by saying; “I have often advocated for the ethnography of communication approach. This would be a good time and place to take this agenda forward and see to what heights it might take us in our effort to understand how African societies view communication and how that knowledge may assist our efforts to place our discipline within our cultural contexts, and by so embedding it, provide us greater explanatory and applied power in our research and teaching as well as our programs of social change”


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