By Joseph Ushigiale
Last Sunday, as my colleague, Tokunbo Adedoja and I, joined other well wishers on the aisle leading to the pulpit at The Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina where our Chairman, Prince Nduka Obaigbena held a thanksgiving service to mark his 60th birthday, we took notice of a cross section of a multitude of individuals from diverse backgrounds who converged on the church that morning to honour a man described with so many superlative words.
So much has already been documented by his allies, former and present staff, partners and friends about the qualities and extreme humanity of our Chairman. After the Monday meltdown at Eko Hotel and Suites which featured American singer, Toni Braxton our own Wizkid and Tiwa Savage entertaining guests who were on hand to felicitate with the man of the moment; I considered it equally auspicious and believe I would be doing myself a great disservice not to give my own testimony in this few lines in appreciation of a man who transformed my life in many positives ways up to this moment.
As a young boy growing up with my parents, my father told me to read very hard to become a lawyer. I had no reason to question him because in my eyes, my father was everything to me. I revered him not for nothing but the fact that he told me he never attended any formal education, yet he could read and write through the benevolence of a Sierra Leonian maid who taught him the ABC alphabets and words formation.
Later on, he was to justify his position by informing me that he sensed that there could be trouble with his brothers (my Uncles)after he may have passed over lands which we had in abundance. He therefore wanted me to train as a lawyer for the battle ahead. Part of my training drawn up by my father was that, everyday after work by 4pm, he would bring me two newspapers: Daily Times and Nigeria Chronicle where I was to concentrate on judicicial matters more to get acquainted with how lawyers argue their cases and also the justification given by judges for arriving at a particular ruling.
I was religiously keeping to my reading routine until an incident completely changed my world view forever. One evening after work, I noticed that my father brought home a new publication with him that day adding to the usual two. As he dropped them on the table, I was very curious and wanted to see what it was. It turned out to be a copy of Time or Newsweek magazine. I noticed that the publication was smaller in size and decided to flip through.
The moment I opened the page, behold there was this dashing young man immaculately dressed in, I think, either a Tuxedo or a well cut suit on the preface to cover of the magazine and the editor went on to introduce him as Nduka Obaigbena, Africa’s representative of the magazine. My eyes remained transfixed on the young man for a very long time.
Right from that moment, with a teen’s view, I started mirroring myself in that image and prayed that one day I could also be like this gentleman. However, 22 years later, what I could only describe as the God’s factor manifested, my dream came through I joined THISDAY as a correspondent in Ebonyi.
As I was living my dream working for THISDAY, one day as I was filing a story from Abakaliki, the Ebonyi state capital my station then when, the fax suddenly stopped. I was puzzled and wondered what must have paused the fax; then a voice bellowed from the other end: Hello? I picked up the receiver and introduced myself. It was chairman at the other end and the short conversation ensued.
Chairman: What’s your name?
Me: Joseph Ushigiale sir
Chairman: Are you the one who just filed this story?
Me: Yes sir
Chairman: Are you a staff?
Me: No sir
Chairman: Come to Lagos and see me tomorrow.
Me: Thank you sir
My joy was indescribable, in fact I was on cloud eleven if ever there is anything like that. That night, I rushed down to Ifesinachi Luxury park and booked a ticket for Lagos. I arrived Lagos the following morning and headed straight to Toyin Street. When I arrived there, I was told to wait. After a while, chairman arrived and I went to introduce myself. He said I should wait for editors to resume and by 2 pm when most of them arrived, he called a small meeting and after a bit of paper work, my employment letter was ready. I collected it and headed back to Abakaliki the same night.
To show the milk of human kindness in him, one day all correspondents were summoned to Lagos for a retreat. During this time, he took time to discuss our problems with us and took immediate action to solve those problems. For instance, some of us who had not been paid for about a year got cheques for one year salaries, approvals were given for us to rent offices, and equip them with faxes and fixed lines as they were then.
After about four years sojourn in Ebonyi state, one day, I received a memo informing me I have been transferred to Lagos. But before heading to Lagos, we were to go for a retreat in our office in Abuja. When I arrived, I was making my way to the venue when Chairman suddenly drove in and his vehicle stopped right by where I was. He alighted and patted my shoulder and said he heard I was protesting my posting to Lagos? I said no, if I was, I would not be in Abuja to which he said: “do you want to be a big fish in a pond? I think you have paid your dues in Ebonyi and we feel you should come to Lagos where you rightly belong.” I agreed with him and we moved on.
On getting to Lagos, I had no accommodation and had to check in into an hotel pending when I would get a permanent place. But on weekends, I was always bored and would stroll to the office as early as 9am where I would be browsing the internet and researching some stories. One Sunday morning, Chairman was passing by and he saw me sitting behind the desk and beckoned on me. I walked to him and he asked me why I was always hanging around the office. I told him I had no accommodation, he summoned the late Mr. Egbo to see him immediately. When Egbo came he directed him to allocate a flat in the staff quarters then located on Femi Kila Street, off Ago Palace Way to me. Thus, I became neighbor with then Saturday Editor, Steve Nwosu etc.
In the run- up to 2003 elections, I decided to run for chairman of my local government council in Obanliku. I approached my friend photojournalist, Sunday Aghaeze now Special Assistant and presidential photographer to take a good portrait of me and then got one of our planners to design an all gloss poster to kickstart the campaign. All done, I decided to display the poster first on our notice board. Barely few hours after the poster went public, Chairman walked into the newsroom saw it and sent for me.
When he saw me he started laughing and asked if truly I wanted to run for office of chairman? I answered in the affirmative, he now asked who my sponsor was? I said my people asked me to come and run. He laughed again and said fine, he will allow me to go for a month and do the primary election if I succeeded, I should let him know if I did not, I should come back to work.
So I left, got there, failed to clinch the ticket and returned about a month or so later. When he saw me in the newsroom, he beckoned at me to come. I narrated all that transpired and how I was schemed out. He said not to worry, that it was a good learning process for me and coined the word ‘failed chairman’ for me.
Two years later, I received a call from Donald Duke then governor of Cross River state, he said he wanted to see me over a magazine project THISDAY was anchoring for the state to project Tinapa and his other tourism initiatives. The meeting crystalized into my appointment as his Chief Press Secretary from 2005 – 2007. It needs to be documented that before then, even as my governor, I never met Mr. Duke. When I was announced as Chief Press Secretary, I called chairman and the first thing he said was congratulations, go to the office, tell Ifijeh to prepare you for your new assignment in Calabar and so it was.
On the afternoon of May 29, 2007, I received a curious phone call from chairman. We were in the middle of Duke’s valedictory speech at the U J Esuene Stadium when the call came in. I picked the call and there was chairman from the other end asking me what was going on? I told him we were at the stadium where the governor was reading his valedictory speech. He now asked me what were my plans afterward? I managed to say that I wanted to rest for a month and return to THISDAY. He said good and that once I was in Lagos, I should call him.
Now my curiosity over this call found answers some years later when the former National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) late Mr. John Odey got his personal assistant to look for me. I was then in London at the University of Greenwich for a year’s fellowship programme. Somehow, I was contacted that the Minister for Information wanted to see me immediately and the person who delivered the message said it was very urgent.
I booked a flight and flew to Abuja that night arriving in the morning. I was in his office by 10am. Few minutes later, I was ushered in to see the Minister. He started by saying he was looking frantically for me and wondered why all my lines were not reachable. I apologized and told him where I was. He now said, for the loss I had suffered previously, he wanted to compensate me with a top media job which the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had zoned to Nigeria.
I asked him why was it a compensation? He then went on to narrate to me how the late President Umaru Yar’Adua had sought his input to appoint a media person to work with him. He gave him my name as a candidate from the party nominated by him, but Yar’Adua decided to run it through our chairman with whom they were working closely on media matters. Chairman, according to Odey, insisted that I was far too junior and that most editors and media owners would not be comfortable working with me and went ahead to nominate his own candidate for the position.
I thanked Odey for the information and also informed him that I had three months to the end of my programme and since one of the requirements was the possession of a Masters degree, I was not qualified at that point. So I returned to London to complete my programme.
I have taken time to chronicle my own experience with a man of style, class, candour and unparalleled intellect who has continued to be a strong inspirational force to me. You may like or hate him but it must be agreed that, given his antecedents, he recognises raw talents, taps them, nurtures and grooms them to become stars as he sits back to watch them perform on the world stage. Without a doubt, he is a man of great courage and can do spirit who sees no obstacles and who believes that where there’s a will there’s always a way
He recognises gender and diversity in his decision making. Times were when THISDAY had pan-Nigeria employees. A natural leader who is fair but firm, although sometimes very ruthless when you step out of turn. But largely he has perfected the carrot and stick approach to growing his media empire. He has also succeeded in entrenching a succession plan for his editors to ensure no one sits tight and to give other young Turks the opportunity to shine too.
He is a gifted good man of extraordinary talent and a great inspiration to those who want to excel and be the best in whatever they want to be. He leads by example and times without number demonstrated that, in any challenge confronting you, look more for the inherent opportunity.
A very spontaneous workaholic and unpredictable leader who believes so much in his ideas and has been able to convince others to key into his vision effortlessly. Chairman’s ideas are quite unique to him and he alone knows the team to choose for implementation as you can see in the portfolio of his accomplished projects. He possesses an infectious personality and his presence kind of lights up or animates any gathering you find him. Obaigbena comes across as an extraordinary salesman and brand persona who is enormously gifted with the power of the garb or spoken word, he’s a modern griot who speaks as the spirit gives him utterance.
On stage last Monday night, we all saw how he gifted each person with a fitting sobriquet. He virtually thinks on his feet. I recall a story Tokunbo Awoshakin once told me some years ago of how chairman pulled him out of Port Harcourt where he was at the time and asked him to accompany him to the State House in Abuja. Not knowing exactly why he was on the trip, he just went along only for him to be introduced as the Washington Bureau Chief to Abdulsalami Abubakar.
At 60, even with his accomplishments, as we look forward to celebrating another 60 years of his life, I believe the Ideas man’ is still work in progress as the children confirmed that he’s always telling them. We agree with him as we look forward to THISDAY and Arise group going global and be quoted on the stock exchange. We also look forward to the formation of a THISDAY media institute for the training of journalists. The institute when established, should be accredited and capable of awarding certificates, diplomas and degrees. Happy birthday to the Ideas man.