The Restless Professor at 60!

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Nduka Obaigbena

When the chairman ARISE/THISDAY, Mr Nduka Obaigbena clocked 50 on 14th July, 2009, I was at that period spokesman to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. A few days before the birthday, I asked the then THISDAY editor, Mr Simon Kolawole (currently the publisher of TheCable) to give me the back page for that day and he obliged. As he marks 60 this coming Sunday, I republish the tribute with minimal editing to reflect the new age.

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Following the sale of the Benue Cement Company (BBC) to Alhaji Aliko Dangote in November 2000, some prominent Tiv people came out publicly to oppose the transaction conducted by the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), then headed by Mallam Nasir el-Rufai (the current Governor of Kaduna State). In his reaction, el-Rufai said the opposition to the sale was on account of Dangote’s ethnicity and religion. At THISDAY, some of us considered the statement unnecessarily provocative, especially from someone handling a rather sensitive assignment. And the editorial board decided to intervene to caution el-Rufai.

The editorial was written and submitted, but when we opened THISDAY on the day it was supposed to be published, it had disappeared! The then editorial page editor, Mr Waziri Adio (current Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, NIETI), was angry and had hot exchange with the then editor, Mr Victor Ifijeh, (the current Managing Director of ‘The Nation’ newspaper whose THISDAY newsroom nickname was ‘Kabila’).

While Ifijeh accepted responsibility for pulling the editorial on grounds that “the views conflicted with THISDAY’s stand on privatization”, some of us suspected that he might have acted on some “order from above”. But we needed to be sure of what we were dealing with. Even though I had written my column for that week on a different topic, I decided to drop it and wrote another one on the el-Rufai/BPE issue, taking into account all the excuses given by Ifijeh for pulling the editorial. On Thursday, my back page (VERDICT) column also disappeared from THISDAY!

Quite naturally, Waziri and I did not keep quiet about our feelings. A few days later, the chairman, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, who had been out of the country returned and, as usual, called a meeting of the Board of Editors. The session over, Waziri said: “Chairman, Segun and I have an issue to discuss with you and Mr. Ifijeh but we want other people to excuse us”. To this, Obaigbena replied: “This is a newspaper house, whatever issues you want to raise, let’s discuss them here and now.”

With that, Waziri began: “Well, if you want it that way. What we want to discuss has to do with your hypocrisy and double-standard. Every day we criticise President Olusegun Obasanjo. That is fair to you. Most of us are Yoruba, yet we risk our lives by attacking the excesses of OPC (Oodua Peoples Congress) and you also have no problem with that. But now that we touch your friend, Nasir el-Rufai, you are pulling editorials and personal columns.” The session that followed was very stormy as we practically put our employer in the dock in the presence of other editors.

About an hour after the meeting ended, Obaigbena came to my office and locked the door. Looking remorseful, he said: “You set me up for humiliation. If you had waited, I would have explained to the two of you why the editorial and your column were pulled.” He explained that even though he and el-Rufai were indeed good friends, they just had a serious disagreement on an issue and if the editorial had come out at that particular period, there was no way he would convince el-Rufai that he was not the one using THISDAY to fight back. He added that since we felt so strongly about the issue, he had directed that the editorial and my column be published. He insisted there were no untouchables in THISDAY. He also reiterated the conclusion earlier reached at the meeting that except for cases of libel, no editor has the authority to remove the back-page column, which is the opinion of the writer.

That Waziri and I could get away with that seeming insubordination is an immense affirmation of the uniquely liberal spirit of a boss blessed with a trail-blazing management style and what Robert Kegan calls a self-transforming mind. Also, we could do what we did to Obaigbena that day without any fear of repercussion simply because he had taken the trouble to create and nurture an environment for independent thinking by leading, mentoring, coaching and developing our latent talents and giving us a platform to stand up for whatever we believe in.

Dale Dauten, author of ‘The Max Strategy’, says that success comes from the combination of trust, energy, talent and an overall passion for what one is doing and that we should all experience a “gifted boss” at least once in our lives. Obaigbena has all those attributes in excess and is also able to be that unique boss with the knack for creating first-rate employees: young men and women he can teach and trust; ambitious people who can respond to guidance rather than only to constant supervision or micro-management. That explains why today he has been able to help many talented former employees to excel and grow into top performers in different fields of human endeavour.

With that disposition for pushing the limits and inspiring others to do same, he has made a lot of difference in our society. Even his most implacable foes will readily admit that Obaigbena helped in no small measure to raise the bar for Nigerian journalism by doing what many previously considered impossible. He introduced colour printing in Nigerian newspapers at a time most people derided it as a passing fad. Today, every newspaper has gone colour. He elevated column writing and put personal opinion on the back page. (Now people start reading newspapers from the back). He pioneered paper-less (Computerized) newsroom in which every reporter would file reports electronically. And he followed in the tradition of the late M.K.O Abiola by creating comfortable lifestyle for editors! These are facts.

At THISDAY, Obaigbena enjoys holding meeting with editors which most of us deride (we call it holding court, without his knowledge, of course) because, it could go on for hours and most often distracts us from our work. But looking back, I can understand him better now because implementation becomes easier if everyone participated in decision-making process. That way, everyone would own and support rather than undermine the efforts. (At THISDAY, there is no decision that doesn’t involve the Board of Editors- including sidelines like awards, musical and fashion shows that have little to do with mainstream journalism and in which some of us were completely disinterested!)

The benefit of working for a man like Obaigbena goes beyond his generosity of spirit to his infectious anything-is-possible disposition which compels you to give your best at every point in time knowing there are endless possibilities out there. And because he pushed himself as much, if not more than he pushed others, he is a great to work for. What makes him particularly unique in a newspaper environment where the publisher’s indecision (as we say) is final is that he likes building consensus on issues even when he has superior arguments. Obaigbena is also a great listener, ever attentive to the views of subordinates so that by the time he takes a decision, he would have improved so much on your ideas that you wonder how he could have seen farther than you did when he had only a few moments to think about what you probably spent hours conceiving.

In four decades of active working life, Obaigbena has confirmed the thesis of John Maxwell that leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts, “it’s about one life influencing another” because he has helped to fire the imaginations of many young men and women who now live their dreams. Interestingly, this he has done for more than four decades now, yet he is just 60. Quite remarkable!

Many of those who know the ‘Chairman’ well would have heard the story about how the University of Ibadan professor who supervised his birth was clairvoyant enough to see in the baby something so unique that he told Obaigbena’s parents to name him Professor, a name that was put in his birth certificate. In the field of journalism today, he has more than earned that name. But this is a restless Professor, one who is constantly searching for new grounds to break, not just in journalism, but also in other spheres as well.

Such has been the magnitude of Obaigbena’s achievements in his chosen field that the much-respected publisher of Vanguard Newspaper, Mr. Sam Amuka Pemu (Uncle Sam), who holds a postgraduate status among Nigeria journalists, affectionately calls him ‘The Superstar’ without any hint of hyperbole. And as he clocks 60 on Sunday, here’s wishing my brother, boss and friend, Nduka Professor Obaigbena – journalism trail-blazer, showbiz impresario, generous spirit, colourful genius and restless superstar – a happy and memorable birthday.