By ANIETIE USEN
The ordinary librarian is concerned with the arrangement of books in the library. But Nyaknno Osso, who is 50 years today in the library profession, is not ordinary. His peers consider him extraordinary and he is. He is sold out to books, research and documentation.
Once he steps into any library, whether in Nigeria, the United Kingdom or the United States, he is not concerned about the arrangement of books, but the content of books. This is precisely what has secured him the cutting age that is rare in the annals of his profession. As a librarian, he is entirely in a class of his own, unequalled in excellence, diligence, rigour and performance.
Giwa, the legendary American-trained, Nigerian editor and co-founder of the phenomenal Newswatch Magazine, described him as “the best of the best”. Celebrated Architect, Chukwudi Eze, of the prestigious Columbia University, New York, USA, said “Osso is one of Africa’s most distinguished Librarians”. Writing about Osso recently, Taiwo Obe, a famed Nigerian journalist and founder of the Journalism Clinic, described Osso as “one of the world’s greatest librarians”. Yakubu Mohammed, former Managing Editor of Newswatch Magazine said Osso is “one man I know that is married to his profession.”
In the pre-internet age of the 80s and 90s, Osso was the veritable google, the search engine for foremost journalists in Nigeria and beyond. At his beck and call, always and unfailingly, was the specific information on when, where and what any writer ever needed to write a respected story. Ray Ekpu, famous Nigerian journalist and one-time World Editor of the Year described him as “excellent”. According to Ekpu “We call him the two-minute librarian, because he could get you what you wanted in two minutes or give you an idea of where to find it within that time frame…”
Diplomats posted to Nigeria relied on Osso’s competency to forage through Nigeria’s political, military and business elites. Said Karl Kohler, Chargé d’Affaires of the Federal Republic of Germany in June 1995: “Osso, your publication “Newswatch Who’s Who in Nigeria” is of extreme importance to the work of this embassy. Since my arrival in Lagos…I am using this book almost daily for my information.”
If Yakky, as he is fondly called by his friends, would not have the information you needed, you were likely not to find it anywhere else. He was the final bus stop for virtually every celebrated writer and journalist. For this, he was sought after, courted, lobbied and perhaps worshipped by journalists in need of instant facts and figures for the next edition of their magazines and newspapers. Not to forget, he is the editor of the award-winning Newswatch Who’s Who In Nigeria and the Who’s Who in Nigeria by the Nigerian International Biographical Centre, NIBC. Till today, what you may not find on the internet about Nigeria is likely to be in his custody.
Yet, he was and remains humble, calm, soft-spoken and quick-witted. In my books AUDACIOUS JOURNALISM and JUGGING IN THE JUNGLE (co-authored with Ray Ekpu, etal), I singled Osso out as perhaps the tool that providence employed to carve a place for me as one of the pioneer reporters in Newswatch Magazine, the exceptional magazine that Nigerian Journalism Schools may never forget.
He had just returned from a six-month tour of top media libraries in the world. It was an assignment given to him by Newswatch founders to lay a solid foundation for their dream magazine. The expedition took Osso to the New York Times in America, Economist Intelligence Unit in London, BBC Media Enquiry Services in London, British Library at Colindale, North London, Financial Times in London and Europa Publishers, across Europe. ‘
He scavenged these libraries and gathered background materials for the take off of Newswatch. It was an incredibly massive operation. When he returned, his adventure made news. Dele Giwa announced that with the treasure trove of data that Yakky gathered, Newswatch magazine was ready to take off. When I stopped over from The Punch, Mangoro, Headquarters’ where I was a Writer/Reader, to cheer up Yakky at the 62 Oregun Road, Ikeja Office of Newswatch, I was practically conscripted on the spot by Dele Giwa and Ray Ekpu into the pioneer team of the magazine.
It was from Newswatch that Osso’s fame soared to lofty heights. One day in 1988, in the course of his endless quest for information, he placed a call to the Office of Olesugun Obasanjo. At that time, Obasanjo was a former military head of State, and busy as well with a forum he set up called Africa Leadership Forum. Osso had expected a Receptionist or at best the Confidential Secretary of the big man to pick the call. Instead a shocker assailed him. This shocker was later to catapult his life into an unexpected trajectory.
Obasanjo’s Secretary was not on seat and the big man happened to be passing through the Secretary’s Office when the phone rang. He picked Osso’s call and said in his unmistakable gruffly voice, ‘I am Olusegun Obasanjo, what can I do for you?’ Said Osso, “I was rattled, but I shot my shot…and the rest is history”.
Part of the story is that this otherwise normal phone call set in motion a chain of events and decades of close relationship between Obasanjo and Osso. When Obasanjo miraculously metamorphosed from prison to palace, as president of Nigeria in 1999, he appointed Osso as the Special Assistant to the President on Library, Research and Documentation for eight years (1999- 2007). Even after Obasanjo completed his tenure as president and all his ministers and aides went their different ways, the former president refused to part with Osso. Two of them arrived Abeokuta into Obasanjo’s famous residence to begin a new life of breaking limits.
At stake was the proposal for the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library, OOPL, which Osso had floated and pursued with the zeal of Paul of Tarsus. No such library had been built anywhere in Africa. Osso visited 13 Presidential Libraries in the United States to compare notes and understudy the kind of presidential library he envisioned for Obasanjo. At the end he settled for and modeled the OOPL after the President Bill Clinton’s Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
In the process, he met Bill Clinton many times. He also met a host of world leaders including the Madiba (Nelson Mandela). In the official webpage of OOPL, Obasanjo attributes the idea of the gigantic project to Osso. The journey to the first presidential library in Africa, Obasanjo wrote “began in 1988 between myself and Mr Nyaknno Osso”. And in the third volume of his last book, My Watch, where Obasanjo dedicated a chapter to the Presidential Library, he describe Osso as “the OOPL’s man on the ground”.
With the palatial OOPL behind him, Osso returned to Abuja to build yet another library. This time an unprecedented library for Nigerians and seekers of information worldwide about the movers and shakers of Nigeria. Apart from his 13-room personal library in Abuja, stocked and stacked to the ceilings with hundreds of thousands of books, magazines and journals, he has embarked on, probably, the most challenging tasks of his shining career.
It is a one-stop, first-in-Nigeria biographical information database, built to showcase Nigeria’s achievers and heroes, home and abroad, dead or alive, dating back to 1861. A systematic and methodologically researched biographical information on Nigerians, it is by every standard a national legacy.
The aim, Osso says, is to “create an unrivalled, authentic, comprehensive and authoritative source of biographical data, which would be meticulously and continuously updated almost on a daily basis as needs arise”. Osso and his team have already collated, verified and documented in multiple formats, the biographical information of over a million distinguished Nigerians spanning over a century.
It is projected to be the Who’s Who of all times. Said Osso: “It is a celebration of the lives, times and achievements of Nigerians… This is a monumental online library, the first-in-Nigeria biographical information database that showcases our incredible and bountiful human resources”.
The project, driven by Osso’s NGO, the Biographical Legacy and Research Foundation (BLERF), has cost him a fortune. At a point he had to sell his highbrow hilltop home in Wuse 2, Abuja and opt for a modest residence in Gwaringba, just to raise N200 million he needed for the rare legacy compendium. He is not unnerved or downcast about his yeoman job. But his friends are concerned that no corporate sponsors are stepping forward to partner with BLERF.
“In a country where rich corporations are sponsoring half-nude and morality decadent programmers on cable TV, it is sad that somebody is selling his property to promote a national legacy”, Emeka Nwanne said.
“Our audited financial reports show that we’ve expended over N300million with only N2.5 million assistance from EXXONMOBIL in 2013. We are operating now on a shoestring budget as our websites are still on free, open access”, Osso said. BLERF is currently running two coordinated websites for the legacy projects.
They are www.blerf.org and womenigeria.org. It is already a home of Nigerian biographies. It is the capsule of Nigerian history. It is the unique roadmap of Nigeria’s journey from eternity to the still elusive Promised Land.
What makes this database even more potent is that it is literally and globally on our fingertips with any internet handheld device . It is the ultimate online fact book on Nigeria. In a way, this is the veritable National Library of Nigeria. And there is no doubt in my mind that the man that has made incredible sacrifices to bring about this gigantic achievement for Nigerians deserves a National honour, that is sometimes awarded to girlfriends of politicians.
Anietie Usen is a media consultant, and a former Director at the Niger Delta Development Commission(NDDC).