Driven to Change His Society: The Politics of Nduka Obaigbena

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that the ambitions of many employees of THISDAY Newspapers are fired by the best intentions of the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Prince Nduka Obaigbena, that everyone should be given a chance to reach his full potential

This is the 60th birthday of Prince Nduka Obaigbena, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of THISDAY Newspapers and Chairman of ARISE News and he has dedicated it to the celebration of God’s grace in his life. That span of life has accommodated an extraordinary latitude to support the excess ambitions of many personalities whose path have crossed with his. Seldom do these meetings take place by calculation. Often, the encounters happen by chance. Through an unexplained working of Providence, which he calls ‘God’s grace’, Obaigbena is not only being celebrated for doing well for himself, his fame is also being announced by a respectable number of high-fliers in the Nigerian polity who owe their success to him.

The impressive assortment captures both the direct and vicarious participation of Obaigbena in politics, policy enactment and governance in Nigeria, since he first ventured into the public space with a groundbreaking publication, THISWEEK, 33 years ago. For instance, at the third edition of the THISDAY Health Policy Dialogue held in collaboration with the World Bank in Abuja last year, the Bretton Woods institution pledged to support Nigeria’s Basic Healthcare Provisions Fund with USD20 million thanks to the initiative by Obaigbena. An elated Vice President Yemi Osinbajo commended THISDAY for the Health Policy Dialogue, saying it provided the platform to hold states accountable for the funding of primary health care services in Nigeria.

Long before it became a norm, Obaigbena led THISDAY to perform a core function of the media, ‘holding government accountable to the people’, for which it carries the overhyped nomenclature of Fourth Estate of the Realm. Through a series of town hall meetings across the country, the media establishment seeks to raise the consciousness of the people to participate actively in governance. While embarking on this altruistic assignment, top editors of the Newspaper miraculously escaped a plane crash in Maiduguri in January 2001. THISDAY has been the target of religious extremists for expressing liberal views. Its staff had to go into hiding following a Fatwa pronounced on her in the aftermath of the 2002 Miss World debacle. Offices of the Newspaper was substantially destroyed by suspected Boko Haram insurgents in yet another ugly episode of reprisal against THIDAY’s editorial direction. The subsequent reparation paid by government was later adjudged to have come from funds meant for arms purchase by the Office of the National Security Adviser and the Publisher was forced to make a refund of some monies to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

But these unpleasant incidents have not dissuaded Obaigbena from an enduring drive to seek a better society. In 2006, the media organisation continued to play an activist role. Ahead of the 2007 national elections, THISDAY hosted a townhall meeting which was broadcast live on the Nigerian television network, NTA, and the African Independent Television (AIT). Planned on the broad theme, ‘Agenda 2007: From Reforms to Action’, the conference tackled four specific issues of Governance, Corruption, Reforms and the Economy, and Securing Nigeria’s Democracy.

In an era of enormous and continuous change, ‘THISDAY was conceived to change the vision about Nigeria,’ Obaigbena tells a team of journalists on the eve of his birthday. In doing this, he put politics first and uses business to drive the process. “My niche has always been politics, business and back of the book.”

Each building block from the Obaigbena vision has a unique story that says much about where he is coming from and where he hopes to be. “I got into politics reluctantly but I left soon after. It is not worth it. When you say, ‘hello’, you pay, when they say, ‘hello’, you pay twice. That is, when you go greet someone, you pay, when they come to your house to visit you, you pay, you pay twice. The day I decided to leave politics, I got home and met people waiting for me in my bedroom; because there was no space to sit again so they sat in my bedroom; I drove them out of my house.” He was apparently recounting his experience in the failed bid to become a senator. His choice to play at the level of a federal legislator in the Upper Chamber of the National Assembly is a pointer to his love for stimulating debates and refreshing discourse, which he has sustained through various conclaves hosted by THISDAY. He shared more of his political experience. “I went to the constitutional conference, I was elected fully and it was a great event. Before then I was with NRC at the strategic level, NRC and SDP made me secretary of the NRC-SDP joint committee. I have seen it all. I was still into politics then from the side because being close to Babangida and co, I was into politics and was the Special Adviser to the then Chairman of the National Republican Convention (NRC).”

With the prevailing cloud of witnesses of his involvement (even through surrogates), is it possible for him to leave politics? Obaigbena was an active participant at the 1995 Constitutional Conference. He also played a key role in the Nigeria Political Reform in 2005 and the Nigerian National Conference in 2014. His new understanding of engagement with issues of governance and policy formulation appeals more to expanding the tentacles of his local network and going global. While he may not be directly involved in politics, his acolytes are everywhere. At the moment, the spokespersons for the two major political parties in Nigeria, Mallam Lanre Issa-Onilu of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Mr. Kola Ologbodiyan of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) are products of the THISDAY ‘School of Politics’. Before them, Olusegun Adeniyi had been a presidential spokesman to late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Though Dr. Reuben Abati assumed the role of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s mouthpiece from The Guardian, it is believed that he was recommended for that designation by Obaigbena who realised the wisdom in not having persons from THISDAY back-to-back serving in that office. Spreading his sphere of influence wider beyond his immediate employees became an expedient decision. Mr. Ike Abonyi, spokesperson for the Chairman of the PDP, Prince Uche Secondus is a former employee of THISDAY. Similarly, Mr. Tunde Rahman, who used to edit one of the titles of THISDAY plays the same role for the National Leader of the APC, Senator Bola Tinubu. In that league also are the likes of Mr. Yusuph Olaniyonu, spokesperson of the immediate past Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki and the late Imam Imam, who looked after the image of the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, who is now the Chief Executive of Sokoto State. Mr. Joseph Ushigiale whose current designation is Managing Editor of THISDAY Newspapers, previously served former Governor Donald Duke of Cross River State as Chief Press Secretary. The present Editor of THISDAY, Mr. Bolaji Adebiyi was at the centre of driving presidential communication for two former presidents. If the lines had fallen in pleasant places for Abati, today he would have been Deputy Governor of Ogun State. It’s the same case of tarrying hope for Dele Momodu who found the confidence to vie for the office of President of Nigeria.

Fired by an aspiration to be the best, employees of THISDAY demonstrate everywhere they go that it is possible to grab the best of Obaigbena’s intentions, that everyone should be given a chance to reach his full potential. In comparison to other media establishments, THISDAY is a perfect enabler for self-realisation and growth. A few examples will suffice, Ms Ijeoma Nwogwugwu, MD of ARISE News has the distinguished record of being second lady, following Doyin Abiola, to edit a major national daily. A hint of her pervading influence in the Nigerian polity could be measured from the number of governors and captains of industry who attended her mother’s funeral. In the spirit of free enterprise which he openly professes, Obaigbena is known to encourage the prosperity of his staff. He proudly shows off the good life enjoyed by the likes of Ruth Osime, Funke Aboyade (SAN), Mrs. May Agbamuche-Mbu, Shaka Momodu, Eniola Bello, Gbenga Oni-Olusola, Olawale Olaleye, Jude Igbanoi, Victor Ifijeh, Lanre Alfred, Sunday Aghaeze and Ayodele Aminu; many of them coming from hitherto obscure backgrounds to hit the limelight made possible by exposure from the THISDAY brand.

Not many will disagree with the notion that, more than any other media establishment, THISDAY has been a veritable recruitment ground for headhunters looking for the perfect-fit for sundry roles in government and the private sector. It seems that their strength and experience far outweigh other considerations. The financial sector boasts of shining former THISDAY staff like Dr. Ayo Teriba and Lawson Omokhodion among others.

Mr. Tunji Bello, the immediate past Secretary to the Lagos State Government has the distinction, so far, of being the former THISDAY employee who occupied the highest position in government. Mr. Malachy Agbo who was on the Business Desk of THISDAY today serves as a local government chairman in Enugu State. The Newspaper has produced a distinguished list of former states executive council members like Oma Djebah in Delta State, Emmanuel Bello in Taraba State and Yusuph Olaniyonu in Ogun State. Arguably, there is no other media establishment in Nigeria that has supplied as many personnel to shape policy and governance in Nigeria as THISDAY!

From the compilation of his didactic articles originally published in THISDAY, Olusegun Adeniyi has reaped a reach harvest as an author, while also becoming increasingly known as a much sought after speaker. The same can be said of Mr. Simon Kolawole, publisher of Nigeria’s leading internet newspaper, The Cable. The maturity of his writing and the pungency in his thoughts pattern were shaped while serving at THISDAY. Today, Simon Kolawole LIVE! is definitely one of the most read columnists in Nigeria. Sharing that distinction as a publisher of note is Mr. Dan Akpovwa, another former employee of THISDAY who is doing well with his Abuja Inquirer. Another ex-THISDAY who occupies a high-ranking office is Mr. Waziri Adio, Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (NEITI).

Having played on the international political and business turf from a younger age, Obaigbena constantly brings world leaders like former American President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell to Nigeria to promote a discourse that will harvest ideas meant to shape and influence the policy thrust in the different states and the federal government. Adept in the use of social cum political power, the publisher of THISDAY understands the authority in opening his platform to influencers and opinion moulders like Governor Nasir El-Rufai, Dr. Alex Otti, Prof. Charles Soludo, Prof. Wole Soyinka, HRH Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and Comrade Issa Aremu among others as regular or occasional contributors. The immediate past President of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Alhaji Waheed Odusile has an indelible past tied to THISDAY, while the existing President of the NUJ, Comrade Chris Isiguzo is head of the Newspaper’s bureau in Enugu. Obaigbena himself holds the exalted office of President of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigerian (NPAN) and also leads the Nigeria Press Organisation, a combination of the NUJ, NPAN and the Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE).

By changing tactics from direct engagement in politics to inspiring positive change in his society, by largely working the levers of his media empire, Obaigbena may be adopting the arguments in ‘The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be’ by Moisés Naím, The book discusses the decline of power in established leaders and institutions. Naim argues that real power may not be in the hands of politicians anymore, but has been transferred to the fingertips of media barons and philanthropists like Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch. Anyone who can you can shape and influence public opinion, can as well have politicians, be they as high up as presidents and governors, eating out of his hands. This direction of thinking appears to have been concretized with the establishment of ARISE News, the broadcast arm of Obaigbena’s growing media empire. “The TV station and the newspaper are getting stronger; with that combination you can take over the world,” he says self-assuredly to the interviewers. Dominating his sphere of influence may demand several kicks on the field of play. Eventually, with eyes on the ball, Obaigbena is primed to score a winning goal!