NDUKA AT 60: ‘There is a Method to The Madness’

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Prince Nduka Obaigbena

Ayo Arowolo, Editor at Large and Chief of Staff to the Chairman of THISDAY and Arise Group, Prince Nduka Obaigbena, synthesizes the impressions of friends and associates with his own personal encounters to attempt a description of the personae of ‘The Duke’, as friends often call him. Excerpts:

Here is a big poser: who among his associates, friends, partners, old school boys, staff, whatever description can say he or she truly understands who Prince Nduka Obaigbena, the man his friends call the Duke, the one his staff call Chairman, the man who his colleagues call the ‘Jagaban’ of the media industry is? The plain answer: None!

Indeed, trying to describe this prince of Owa Kingdom in Delta State is like calling out blindfolded men to feel an elephant, and on that basis, asking them to step out to describe who an elephant is. You can only describe the part you touch. So is it with Prince Obaigbena.

In the past one week, I have interviewed more than 25 of the people we can describe as Friends of Nduka Obaigbena (FoNO) on the sideline of a short documentary we are putting together to celebrate his 60th birthday. What was evident was that you could not pigeonhole this enigmatic man into a single description. Impossible!

Eniola Bello, Managing Director, THISDAY, and one of the foundation staff of THISDAY, says ‘Nduka is a crazy fellow positively’; Professor Pat Utomi (needs no introduction) calls him a ‘bulldozer’, while Eileen Shaiyen, Nduka’s childhood friend, says he is ‘persistently courageous’; Dele Momodu, his first editor at Thisday calls him ‘Mr. Connectivity’; Otunba Niyi Adebayo regards him as ‘tenacious’;Tunde Lemo, former CBN Governor thinks he is ‘ miracle worker of the media’; Prince Tony Momoh regards him as ‘cerebral’; Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information says the Duke is ‘incredible’; Funke Egbemode, President of the Nigeria Guild of Editor sees him as ‘ the innovative man of the media’;Tunji Bello, former chairman of THISDAY Editorial Board says he is a ‘ restless innovator’; Dr. Alimi Abdulrasak, Nduka’s friend of 40 years coined these words to describe him:’ versatility and strength in the face of all opposition’; Dr. Alim Abubakre, Chair of Texem, UK, believes he is a ‘bold innovator’; Senator Lanre Tejuosho regards him as ‘a fiercely loyal person’, Lanre Arogundade, says Nduka is ‘enigmatic’; Dare Babarinsa thinks he is a ‘dynamite’;Okagbue Aduba, Thisday’s foundation Managing editor, says the publisher is ‘non conformist ‘; Tim Kayode Akano, CEO of New Horizon Systems Solution, a passionate fan Nduka says the chairman ‘ has the resilience of the Japanese, the creativity of the Americans, the wisdom of the British and the strength of the Chinese’. One man, a thousand impressions.

And guess this! His daughter, Efe Obaigbena, in an interview with me three days say ago says the only one word that can describe her Dad is ‘powerful’.
One man; a thousand impressions! You can only say what you know about him, not that you know him.
I have been with THISDAY for 10 broken years (1996-1999). I will call this period Acts 1; and (2014 till date), which I will describe as Acts 2. What I have discovered in those 10 years is that Mr. Obaigbena runs a unique hands on training programme which I can describe as ‘mentoring by fire and observations.’
Let me volunteer some of the offerings of this unique training system. One, the training programme has neither manual nor curriculum: you generate one by yourself! Two, there is no barrier to entry, neither is there one for exit: you show up when you choose and you fade out of the system either when you are tired, or you have accomplished your desire. The good news, however, is that no matter how you leave the training programme, you are welcome any time again by the undesignated Lead Coach. Three, there is no graduation time table: you choose one for yourself!

In my second coming to THISDAY, I once asked Kayode Komolafe (we call him KK), the Deputy Managing Director of THISDAY, to share with me the rules for dealing with the Chairman whom I had erroneously thought I understood. KK’s reply was simple: there is no primer, you generate one by yourself and you watch the man regularly for instructions and woe betides you if you misread him. Not only will he blow the whistle once you cross the red lines ( visible only to him!!!) ; he can also wield the big stick which ranges from surcharges that could be more than your year salary to a suspension without a clue on when to resume!
Of all of us, I would say only Eni B, our Managing Director, can be said to have some proprietary interpretations of some of the rules. Eni B is like a palm reader when it comes to interpreting the nuances of ‘the main man’.

Let me share few personal encounters. Acts 1, scene1: About a year after I had joined THISDAY through Victor Ifijeh, the then editor of the newspaper and now Managing Director of The Nation, I got a call from the Chairman instructing me to travel to Abuja to conduct interviews with both the former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Mr. Paul Ogwuma and ex-Minister for Finance, Chief Anthony Ani. He assured me that he had arranged the interviews and both men were waiting for me in Abuja.

In Abuja, I went straight to the CBN’s office with my tape recorder already prepared for a great interview. To my surprise when I asked Tony Ede who was the image-maker for CBN for the venue of the interview, his reply sent shock waves into my system: ‘which interview?’ No interview was arranged! But a greater dilemma was that the Chairman had already announced in the newspaper that the interviews would be coming out in few days’ time. I used all the tricks in my bag to persuade Tony to make the interview happen. He did and the interview was conducted around 7p.m. in the CBN office.

The following morning, I headed for the Finance Minister’s office. I had suspected I was going to encounter the same scenario. After waiting for about four hours in the Minister’s office, I was eventually ushered into his office and without wasting time, I dished out my request. His reply: “Nduka!!! He did not arrange anything.” Well, whether he arranged it or not, the issue was that I must not return to Lagos without the interview. The minister offered a suggestion: ‘can you follow me to the house?’ Of course! The interview was conducted around 10 p.m. in his house.

Missions accomplished. I returned to Lagos immediately after the interviews, and I just reasoned there was no point accosting the Chairman.
Mentoring lesson: How you get an interview appointment is immaterial. Just get the job done; no complaint.

Acts 1 Scene 2: One evening shortly after we had completed a special section we were handling for Time Magazine, part of the reasons I was sent to conduct those interviews, the Chairman called me one cool evening and asked me to show up in his house. On getting there, he simply asked if I had a British visa to which I replied in the affirmative. The next statement from him sent me into confusion.

“You are travelling to London this evening.” I was in his house around 4 p.m. Like Moses in the Bible I tried to explain to him that I was not prepared, I did not even come with my suit. Not to worry, he rushed upstairs and brought one suit and asked me to try it on. To cut the story short, that was how I found myself heading for the airport. I had to inform my pregnant wife about the development on my way to the airport. And what was the mission? To undergo a training programme with the Financial Times of London. And that marked the beginning of a confusing three-week odyssey in London.

I arrived at the FT’s office, ready for the training. I went straight to the Training Manager’s office and I told him my mission. The blank expression in his face suggested to me that I might be in deep trouble. The truth: there was no training programme arranged. I decided to go the office of Michael Holman, FT’s Africa Editor then whom I knew very closely, and asked if he knew there was a training programme. ‘Nothing of such’, said Holman.

I was in deep dilemma. My wife was due for delivery in about two weeks, and there I was in the middle of nowhere. Exasperated, I called the Chairman and told him my experience; and casually, he just told me to search anywhere in London where they offered training programmes in Quirk Express. I found one, and tried to give him feedback. He refused to pick his calls. More delimma. I was running out of cash. Thank goodness, Chief Dele Momodu (Bob Dee), Publisher of Ovation and senior colleague at the National Concord Newspapers, who was aware of this situation asked me to come to the Ovation office where he interpreted accurately what was going on.
He just asked me a question. “Did you do anything good for the Chairman recently?” I told him of the successful special section we did with Time. His advice: “If I were you, I would ignore the Chairman and enjoy myself. He simply wants to say thank you for a job well done.”

More than that, he gave me an offer to move to his house while I joined him at the Ovation office for the time the Chairman would get back to me. I spent three weeks with Bob Dee. We hit the street and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. Thanks to Bob Dee.

One evening, I just got a call from the Chairman who informed me that my wife had just delivered. Apart from sending cash to my wife, he also wired 2,000 Pound Sterling to me through our London representative, Ogoh Nakpodia.

Mentoring lessons: Not all acts of gratitude need to be expressed in words; but in whichever way they come, enjoy them anyway.

Act 2 Scene 1: Sometime in 2016, the Chairman asked me to process my US visa and that was done immediately. Shortly after that, he scheduled me for a series of training programme that would take place in three to four states in the United States of America. After my training in Denver, Colorado on Digital Revenue Transformation, organised by International Newspapers Marketing Association (INMA), I headed straight for New York to cover the World Bank event. Eventually, I ended up in Boston, Massachusetts.

Two weeks over, I decided to extend it by one more week just to feel the US after a long break and also to rest a bit. I created by own itinerary without informing the Chairman. I was in Atlanta on my way to Forthworth to pay a surprise visit to Dr. Mike Murddock, who became my friend after I met him through Bishop David Oyedepo, the Presiding Bishop of the Living Faith Church. Interestingly, I got to know that Pastor Sam Adeyemi of Daystar Christian Center was also in Atlanta at the same time. He wanted to come to my location, but I asked that he give me his US office address and I would be there. I eventually went to meet him and after chatting, I rebooked my trip to Forthworth.

On way to my friend’s place where I was staying, I got a call from the Chairman who simply issued an instruction: “Meet me at home (Nigeria!!!) by 4 p.m. tomorrow.” I tried to explain; he cut off the phone and he remained unreachable thereafter. My e-mail was not replied. I understood what could follow. I just called the travel agents handling my trips to cancel the rest of the journey, and I came back on a forced return trip to Lagos. And you know the shocking thing? Back in Nigeria and in his house as instructed, when I asked him for the urgent assignment, he simply continued his work. No assignment whatsoever!!!

Mentoring lesson: Only the boss has a handle on the rules, and he can change them anytime even in the middle of the game!. And your job? Fall in line!
Simon Kolawole (SK), founder of The Cable, the fast growing online newspaper and deputy editor of Financial Standard when I was the CEO who, incidentally, was former Editor at THISDAY gave me what has turned out primer for ‘surviving in the fire at THISDAY. When I shared with him the concerns from my friends who felt my temperament did not match that of the person I was working with , SK issued this short advice: ‘Sir, ignore the bones, but eat the fish anyway; ignore the stones but eat the rice anyway’. I wrote it with gold in my heart. I discovered that what I make out of THISDAY has nothing to do with the man; by with how I interpret the experience.
Wasiri Adio, a former colleague at THISDAY and Executive Secretary of NEITI talks about the generosity of the Chairman in his powerful article a few days ago. That is correct! The Chairman can be generous to a fault. Even though I had a taste of that generosity in my first coming at THISDAY, the expression of that virtue came this time around like a drama.

Sometime in May 2014, I was on my way to a top hotel in Ikoyi, Lagos, to keep an appointment. I just got an inspiration to call the Chairman since we had not seen for some years. His phone rang off. But shortly as I was approaching my destination which was just about two minutes from his house, he called back asking where I was. He asked if I could see him at home and I agreed. After the meeting, the person I was having a meeting with who happens to know the Chairman very well offered to drop me off in front of his house.

Once he sighted me, he just started a casual conversation that went like this: ‘Why are you not in journalism? You are wasting your talents. Is it that you don’t want to practise again or what?’ One thing led to another; but once he sensed that I would not mind coming back to journalism and rejoining THISDAY, he placed a call to the MD and dictated some instructions to him. Immediately, he called his driver and asked him to take me to Apapa. Once in the MD’s office, he just executed the content of the instructions from the Chairman: I was given a brand new SUV Jeep, same day; a driver same day; allocated an office space on the executive floor same day; and an employment contract was drafted and signed same day. Everything happened at a dizzying pace so much that I did not know how to interpret it except to say that there was the hand of God in this.

To me, serving as his Chief of Staff and Editor at Large, I could say that the Chairman is a very focused personality, and cannot allow anything to stand in the way of whatever he wants to achieve. Not many people were aware that at the last Arise Fashion Week, organised by THISDAY STYLE, the Chairman was actually on drips, and was supposed to be in the hospital. He discharged himself with the drips in his ‘agbada’ to enable him to flag off the event. He simply collapsed on his bed after the event to the extent that he could not recognise few of us that were with him in the hotel room.
So, what shall I say to the Chairman as he celebrates his 60th birthday? An author once said that any man who is indifferent to sudden triumphs and unexpected tragedies, he who is not moved by those two impostors, to him belongs the earth and its fullness. That is the class to which Mr. Nduka Obaigbena belongs.
Two weeks ago during an interview I had with him in his house, preparatory to a book some friends are putting together to mark the 25th anniversary of THISDAY, I deliberately asked him to explain why he seemed to enjoy creating chaos and confusion where there should be none: His answer: “My friend, there is a method to what you people call madness.”

Can anyone argue that?
Happy birthday, Chairman.
Ayo Arowolo is the Editor at Large/Chief of Staff to Chairman, THISDAY and Arise Group.