Published in the Daily Trust On Sunday (today’s edition)
Recently, the leading newspaper company in northern Nigeria, the Media Trust Limited, celebrated the 20th year of its establishment. At the well-attended event in Abuja, speeches were delivered, the glasses were clicked, awards were given to deserving contributors to the growth of Media Trust Limited, the mother company, and scintillating stories were told. It was a joyous occasion, one deserving a milestone which not every business venture in this country, not least the running of a newspaper, has attained.
It was the stories I was interested in rather than the awards and the clicking of glasses. Many of them had been told and retold before, both in the newspaper itself and at different forums. A significant forum where the story of Media Trust is documented is the book, “Journalism and Business: My Newspaper Odyssey”, authored by Alhaji Isiaq Ajibola, the founding managing director and a board member of the company, published in 2016. I read that book with interest and was astonished at its obvious effort to skip or gloss over the stories of some of the watershed events that turned the company into a successful venture. I have met people who, after reading the book, expressed a similar observation.
Such effort was replicated during at least two events the company organised to celebrate its unique success. One was the Daily Trust’s 10th anniversary special pull-out edited by Zainab Suleiman Okino 10 years ago and the other was the 20th anniversary event held on March 22, 2018. If the effort to suppress or ignore some stories did not affect me, I would have thought that the “wailers” were only being self-serving. But my own Daily Trust story is one which persuades me to believe that there are quite a number of important, albeit small, stories about the newspaper’s history out there which need to be brought back into reckoning. During those storytelling events I saw big stories made small, and vice-versa.
My Daily Trust story began from a certain day early in 1998 in the board room of the New Nigerian in Kaduna. I was the secretary of the Editorial Board which met in that room on a weekly basis to discuss current affairs, come up with ideas for the daily editorial comment and assign the chosen topics to the writers, who were the board members. My duties, apart from my regular tasks as a senior editorial staffer, involved taking minutes of the meeting, keeping tab on what each writer would write, editing the comment and producing it on the editorial page for the title editor’s approval. Of course, I also took my own topics and wrote the comments assigned to me.
As everyone in the newspaper business knows, Editorial Board members consist of staffers and non-staffers, the outsiders the paper brings in because of their special expertise. At the New Nigerian, one of such “outsiders” was Malam Kabiru A. Yusuf, erstwhile the head of southern Nigerian operation of the Kaduna-based Citizen newsmagazine. As some of the publicised Daily Trust stories say, the collapse of Citizen had rendered many of its staffers jobless and everyone was looking for a way to earn a living. Media Trust was created, as both Alhaji Ajibola and Malam Kabiru repeatedly said, as a source of livelihood for some of those affected by the fall of Citizen.
I was not part of the story of the founding of Media Trust the firm, but I was in the neglected or suppressed story of the establishment of its flagship newspaper, the Weekly Trust, which gave birth to the Daily Trust. As I said, the story started in the board room of the NNN.
One day after the weekly Editorial Board meeting, as members were shuffling out of the room, Malam Kabiru signaled to me to wait. “I want to talk to you,” he said. So I waited.
After everyone else had gone out of the room and we were the only two remaining, Malam Kabiru came over to where I sat and took a seat. In his calm, gentle manner he said, “Malam Ibrahim, the reason why I asked you to stay behind is because I wanted to tell you something. A couple of friends and I are thinking of setting up a small newspaper…,” he paused.
Instinctively, I thought he wanted to offer me a job, and I braced my mind to resist it. In those days the New Nigerian was the place to be if you were practising print journalism in the north, and I had all it took to rise to the top of the editorial section. I was growing fast as I fulfilled my ambition of working in the most important print media organisation in the region. I was loving it, and so I was not keen on quitting just yet.
Malam Kabiru took a deep breath and, as if reading my mind, continued, “I know you would not want to leave the New Nigerian now, but we could do with your advice. We are going to hold our first meeting on the establishment of the newspaper in a couple of days’ time and I would like you to attend.”
Relieved, I replied immediately, “No problem sir. I am willing to attend. When and where is the meeting going to hold?”
He mentioned a date some three days ahead and the venue. We shook hands and left the room.
Three days later I was at Maradi House, a small bungalow located on Alkali Road which served as the offices of Media Trust, an upstart public relations consultancy firm trying to find its feet in business. When I entered, I met only one person cleaning the table in a small office – Aisha Umar Yusuf, the wife of Malam Kabiru. After we exchanged pleasantries, she told me the others were yet to arrive. She took me to another room where a table and a couple of chairs had been set for the meeting.
Up till that time I did not know who the “others” were, and I didn’t ask. Soon enough, however, I found out. Apart from Malam Kabiru, the others were Isiaq Ajibola and the late Duro Irojah, a former managing director of Today, the defunt Kaduna-based weekly newspaper where Malam Kabiru had worked as editor. I cannot recall if, apart from the four of us, there was any other person. Hajiya Aisha, who was not part of the meeting, stayed in her office.
After the introductions, Malam Kabiru went ahead and laid out the plan for the establishment of the yet-to-be named newspaper. We discussed policy, content, pagination, staffing, etc. I noticed that as he spoke, Malam Kabiru kept saying, “If Allah helps us… If Allah helps us.” He justified that repeated prayer with the explanation that the newspaper was going to start on a shoestring budget.
Finally, the issue of the name to be given to the newspaper cropped up. Apparently, we were not ready for that and the meeting had stretched long. Mr Irojah advised that the issue of the name should be deferred to the next meeting so that each one of us could sleep over it and bring suggestions. So the meeting ended on that note and a date was fixed for the next one.
Days later when we resumed, three of us (Kabiru, Irojah and I) brought various names. Ajibola had apparently discussed and agreed with Malam Kabiru prior to the meeting, hence his silence on the matter.
It was Malam Kabiru’s idea that the newspaper should be christened Trust. “I think The Trust, or Nigerian Trust, or whatever Trust, is okay. The word ‘Trust’ ought to be there so that it rhymes with the name of the company,” he said enthusiastically.
I kicked against the name, arguing that it was the name of the Indian government news agency. But Malam Kabiru insisted on that name. As Alhaji Ajibola had maintained a studied silence, Mr Irojah and I gave up.
“So be it,” we agreed.
The word ‘Weekly’ was also agreed upon because the newspaper was conceived as a periodical. No one seemed to entertain the optimism of considering that the “small newspaper”, as Malam Kabiru kept calling it, would ever transform into a daily affair. I think, in retrospect, Malam Kabiru and Alhaji Ajibola themselves were simply reckoning that they wanted to float something that would hold them in the interim, before getting “something better” to do. They weren’t trying to launch a behemoth or ever thought it would become one.
And so the Weekly Trust was born in that room.
In the coming days and weeks I had more opportunities to discuss the project with Malam Kabiru. We drove together in his small red car (the one Ajibola took over later when the company started becoming buoyant after the newspaper had gone on stream), distributing letters of invitation to selected investors in Kaduna. I still have a copy of that letter. He also had a plan for me.
Once when we went to see the Rector of Kaduna Polytechnic, Dr Nuru Yakubu, a client of Media Trust’s PR business, Malam Kabiru finally asked me to join the company both as an investor and a staff. Since coming back from Cardiff after bagging a Master’s in Journalism Studies I had set up a book publishing firm, which I had told Malam Kabiru about. He suggested that I could hand over the assets of that enterprise as a form of investment and then join as a staff. I told him I needed to think about it.
To make up my mind, I consulted an elder of mine, who was in the newspaper business, for advice. He it was who persuaded me to remain at the New Nigerian where, according to him, I had better prospects. I took that advice and later told Malam Kabiru I would do whatever I could to help except to invest in Media Trust or join it as a staff.
Eventually, the Weekly Trust was launched at Arewa House in Kaduna. It was a beautiful intellectual exercise rather than the usual money-grabbing launches Nigerians were known for. The chief launcher was Malam Abubakar Gimba, the president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), for which I was, in turn, national publicity secretary at the time.
I contributed content to the Weekly Trust for years, from inception, in the form of a two-page literary column called Bookshelf. At first, I started incognito because of my affiliation to the New Nigerian, where I had been made deputy editor. But later I was identified, with my byline and photograph, as the literary editor of the Weekly Trust after I left the former. Of course, I was not a staff of Media Trust and was not being paid.
The Weekly Trust was an instant success because it struck a chord with northerners tired of the grandmotherly disposition of the government-owned New Nigerian. Malam Kabiru and Alhaji Ajibola, adjudged to be the best newspaper company managers this side of the Equator, decided to plunge into another risk by going daily. It was a risk worth taking. The military were leaving the political scene, and there was no daily newspaper located in Abuja.
When that decision was made, Malam Kabiru asked me to take up appointment as the editor of the daily. The request came through Dr Abubakar A. Rasheed of Bayero University, Kano, under whom I had worked at the NNN when he was the managing director there. I was then living partly in Kano “on my own,” i.e. working for no one but myself. Even though I expressed reservation, Dr Rasheed persuaded me to meet with Malam Kabiru.
So I drove to Kaduna on an appointed date in November 2000 and met with Malam Kabiru in his office. He explained the reason for starting a daily publication and why he wanted me to become its first editor. He mentioned the pay and some of the perquisites, as well as the period around which the paper would take off in Abuja. We agreed on the day that I would return to receive my appointment letter.
On the appointed date when I went to the office, however, I was told that Malam Kabiru was in Europe attending a conference of the International Press Institute (IPI). During the visit, I confided in the then editor of the Weekly Trust, Malam Isyaku Dikko, why I was actually there, to which he expressed surprise. He said, “But another person has been appointed as the editor of the daily. His name is Jibril Daudu.”
It was my turn to be surprised. I simply shrugged and said, “Well, if that is so, then it is one of those things. I did not invite myself to serve as editor. I had my reservations. Anyway, just tell Malam Kabiru I came even though I have dropped a note with his secretary.”
Malam Kabiru never got back to me on the issue of my appointment. I was still producing the popular literary pages for the Weekly Trust. Like its elder sister, the Daily Trust was well-received when it started and continued to grow from strength to strength. Without a serious competitor, the New Nigerian having deteriorated and sinking fast, the coast was clear. It simply ate up the New Nigerian’s market share as “the” northern newspaper.
It was not until 2004 that the Trust got any serious challenge in its market share. That was when Leadership was started as another privately-owned northern newspaper. Trust had been regarded as fearless in telling truth to power like the New Nigerian of old, but Leadership upped the ante in the real meaning of fearlessness. The publisher, Mr. Sam Nda-Isaiah, a former Daily Trust columnist, should have had ‘Fearless’ as his middle name. No, the word should be ‘Reckless’. And, if I must add, he appointed as his editor another person who could take a little share of that middle name, and that was me. Where Trust feared to tread we would jump in, sirens blaring.
Now, because it was impossible for me to continue serving as the literary editor of the Trust and at the same time as the title editor of Leadership, I gave some weeks’ notice to Malam Kabiru and the then editor of the Weekly Trust, Malam Garba Deen Muhammad, to appoint another person to handle Bookshelf. On that day Malam Kabiru instructed that I be paid some money as a token of appreciation for my contribution to the company, for which I was grateful. Odoh Diego Okenyodo took over as the editor of Bookshelf.
Now, this boring story is the one that has not been acknowledged anywhere in the big story of the Media Trust’s success. It is virtually the story of an old tyre that helped the vehicle in its uphill drive but, on the days similar old tyres were celebrated, no one remembered this one. Yes, it is the personal story of a single individual, egoistic even, but it needed to be documented even for the sake of putting a forgotten jigsaw in the big puzzle. Thank you for reading.
Ibrahim Sheme is the director of media and publicity at the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN)