This morning in Abuja, one of the most remarkable phenomena to happen in the history of the Nigerian media – Sam Nda-Isaiah – is going to celebrate his 50th birthday. A high-profile event is scheduled to take place at the International Conference Centre in Garki.
Much as I resisted commenting on the event in spite of prodding from a couple of friends, I found the urge to say this little bit on the person and personality of the Chairman of Leadership Group Limited irresistible. Reason: my impressions of the man are both exhilarating and painful, having known him at close range – probably more than many of those who consider themselves his closest associates – for all the eight years that LEADERSHIP newspaper has been in existence. I own the onerous record of being the longest serving editor of LEADERSHIP (which he insists we write in capital letters, no italics). I was editor of the paper as a weekly from 2004 to January 2006 just when it was going daily, and editor of the daily (except for a few months) from 2007 to 2010 when, on my own volition, I made him to appoint another editor and I was moved up as Editorial Director. Our paths first crossed in 2004, shortly after LEADERSHIP had come on stream as a weekly.
A friend of mine, Badamasi Burji, phoned me from Sokoto where he had gone to meet Governor Bafarawa and said he had met with Nda-Isaiah at the governor’s waiting room and that he had told him he was looking for an editor for LEADERSHIP. The first editor, Audee Giwa, had absconded after a bitter disagreement with the publisher. At that time, just about three issues of the paper had been published. Burji said he had recommended me to Nda-Isaiah and the latter was looking forward to our discussing the possibility of my taking up an offer of editor. I was lazing about in Kaduna at the time, trying to figure out what to do with my life, after an egregious encounter at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, where I had worked as deputy to the director, Jacquiline W. Farris. I told Burji that I had since made up my mind not to work for anyone again. Burji insisted that I meet with Nda-Isaiah and hear his side; if I didn’t like it, I could back out.
Now, Sam Nda-Isaiah is a very persuasive person. He could make almost anyone work for him. Not surprisingly, he became my boss just a few days later after Burji and I had met with him at the LEADERSHIP offices in Abuja. In fact, the very day I met with him to discuss my terms of employment he did not allow me to leave the premises before I wrote the editorial comment for the following week’s edition of the paper. I had already started working! I also penned my bio data and dropped my photograph for an announcement of the big catch. Sam Nda-Isaiah (whose name is taboo at LEADERSHIP, but Chairman to all and sundry) does his things both in a big way and in a much organised manner; you could see that from the preparations for today’s event!
For the following seven years I would remain his staffer, nay editor of his pet daily, except in 2006 when I left to start a paper of our own with some friends. When our paper collapsed by the end of the year, Nda-Isaiah re-engaged me as the Chairman of the Editorial Board in early 2007. Within a month or two he reappointed me the editor of the daily.
Working with Nda-Isaiah is an experience that would last anyone a lifetime. You learn a lot. He is a tough instructor, the kind you find only in military formations. First, he throws you into a grinder of the high standard he always sets for anything. He makes it clear to you the goal he wants to achieve, and then pushes – nay, lashes – you towards it: tongue-lashing, mostly. But he would make it appear as if, beyond using his censorious tongue, he is about to hit out physically at you. Many who experience Chairman from afar would be deceived by his chummy disposition. Yes, outside of work, he is one of the nicest creatures on Planet Earth. He is good natured, witty, and even comical. His jokes can evoke bellyaching, rib-cracking laughter. And he exudes this trait very strongly in his column, The Last Word, which he has amazingly never failed to write, come rain come shine. Refer also to ‘Ghana Must Go,’ the back page cartoon whose dialogue he unfailingly produces.
Where work is concerned, however, the story is different. Nda-Isaiah always pushes the envelope to the extent that he makes some staffers feel worthless about themselves. This way, he is misunderstood by many who feel that they should be patted on the back, even if not rewarded, for their hard work instead of being ‘dressed down.’ But to those of us who understood him well, we knew that his obsession with excellence was behind his mercilessly keeping staffers’ noses to the grindstone. A friend of mine who went AWOL after a telephone exchange with Chairman over a one word misspelling in a 2,000-word piece way back in 2005 when we were producing LEADERSHIP as a weekly told me: “Ibrahim, I just had to leave in order to retain my sanity. This man who just began journalism last year tended to make me question my capacity as a journalist after I have put almost a decade into it.”
I know many staffers who left LEADERSHIP without resigning, some in order to get even with Chairman. Surprisingly, some – including my friend who vamoosed in 2005 – would return to the newspaper company and resume work, and resume their disagreement with the publisher. Chairman’s legendary temper is responsible for the reason his paper has the highest tally of editors among the established dailies. It made him to take wrong turns in such appointments on some occasions, which proved costly in terms of maintaining finesse and even image-wise. I think he has a low opinion for many who work for him. Not surprisingly, in his anniversary interview published in the Sunday Trust and in the column he wrote in LEADERSHIP on his milestone yesterday, I waited with bated breath to see where he would credit his staff, past and or present, with some of his accomplishments. Disappointingly, there was none. It was all like Napoleon or Churchill winning the war alone.
Many consider me as one of the greatest “survivors” of the LEADERSHIP mill. They ask: how did you do it? How did you cope with the man’s temperament? Yes, I was one of the few Chairman respected and clearly tried not to bark at. The secret, I think, was that I was able to meet the basic standard of excellence he set for his editors and combine that with a thick skin. I was also passionate about our newspaper being able to confront the competition in every way possible. I waded through his temper, ego and meddlesomeness in editorial matters by matching all those with my own passion for excellence. Of course, we had our big differences, but somehow we were able to condone each other at a level that we could work together as boss and hireling.
One good thing I learned from Chairman is that you can be censorious and remain detached from some of the base instincts that afflict the average Nigerian, i.e. tribal and religious sentiments. Forget about what anyone might have told you, the truth is that even if you accuse Chairman of so many other things, you cannot catch him being sectional in those base sentiments. He is one of the most detribalised Nigerians I’ve ever seen. Indeed, I daresay he cares very much about what afflicts the Muslim community. In LEADERSHIP he always wants to see good things about Muslims. His paper gives more space to Islam on Fridays than the more established Muslim-owned newspapers do. And any day the Islam pages were not published he would be the first person to take me up on it.
What pains him, therefore, is the vain attempt by some to associate him with religious or tribal sectionalism. I know people who tried to bring him down using those base sentiments, all to no avail. I wouldn’t say his morals for money are perfect; in fact, on this I know very little. But Chairman is a good Christian because, to the best knowledge of some of us that think we know him well, he is hardly involved in many of the un-Christian vices that others wallow in, including booze, women, gambling and lies.
One point that needs to be raised here, perhaps, is Nda-Isaiah’s sense of patriotism. He loves Nigeria to an extent that sometimes his vision is clouded by what some regard as his self-centredness. What you read in his columns encapsulates his innermost thinking. He is a dogged anti-corruption fighter, and he fights those that try to suffer Nigeria even if they feel that they ought to enjoy his protection. LEADERSHIP once did a front-page comment on the anti-Muslim killings in Plateau state, insisting that Governor Jonah Jang should be blamed for them. During a meeting of the Editorial Board, Chairman (who is not a member but pops in at the meeting occasionally) spurned some in the organisation who argued against writing the editorial because they saw themselves as Christian representatives first and Nigerians second. The editorial, written by a devoted Christian, was so trenchant on Jang’s divisive manipulations that the state government had to complain to the publisher. Instead of trying to extricate himself out of the mess, Chairman did a follow-up in his column and said worse things.
I left LEADERSHIP last year when I thought that after serving as Editor, Divisional Director and Editorial Director, during which the weight of the Editorial Department fell on me, the job no longer held any new excitement for me. I had become like a director in a ministry of information. The handwriting on the wall also said my time there was up. Besides, a friend of mine had pestered me for years to come and let’s establish a weekly newspaper. Chairman indicated that he did not want me to leave, and appointed a committee headed by the Managing Director, Mr. Azubuike Ishiekwene, to dissuade me. When I was leaving, Chairman instructed that I should go with my official car and be paid a parting gift of one million naira, as well as given a letter of commendation for my contribution to the growth of the company. For that I was very grateful. Thus, I became the only editor of the daily that didn’t leave after a bitter disagreement with the big man.
The story of Sam Nda-Isaiah cannot be written in a small space like this. It should be a voluminous book. The story should be able to explore much more than I have done here. Even here, I skipped so many things. The short of it is that Chairman is a phenomenon in spite of his foibles. His ability to found a newspaper from scratch and build it into a success in a hostile environment such as Nigeria’s, which discourages the germination of anything close to LEADERSHIP, is wondrous. Today, LEADERSHIP is a force to reckon with in Nigeria. In fact, the feeling within and out of LEADERSHIP is that if Nda-Isaiah had concentrated on his newspaper business only, without veering into fields like buying a hotel in South Africa, establishing an expensive school in Abuja, co-owning an amusement park, book publishing, etc., as well as tolerating and adequately rewarding hardworking staff, LEADERSHIP would have become a bigger sensation. But then his restlessness, which defines his character, would not let him. He will always remain a Sam Nda-Isaiah. Trying to make him anything else would be futile. My prayer for him, therefore, is to witness another 50 years in good health, strength and happy increase. Whether you like him or not, he is very good news to our part of the globe.
Published in Blueprint newspaper on May 1, 2012