Obaigbena@60: The Glitz, the Glam and the Gloom

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Nduka Obaigbena

Eddy Odivwri

I have read so many things: great and pricey comments on my boss, Mr Nduka Obaigbena, whose 60thbirthday bash took place a forthnightago. One of the comments on him described him as an elephant, and that no one can comprehensively describe an elephant with clinical accuracy; implying that you can only describe the part you see, feel or relate with. Nothing can be truer for a man who is somewhere between an enigma and a phenomenon. In all however, the tilt is salutary and euphoric for a man who seems to have blazed a trail well ahead of his peers and age. The stories told of him indicate that Prince Nduka Obaigbena had been great and remarkable from infancy.

For a man who interfaces with hundreds of people across board, it is to be expected that not everybody would have the same experience and narrative about the man. That chimes well with the Elephant-status theory about Obaigbena.

So, for me, he is a man full of glamour, influence, charm, charisma, super intelligence, large heart etc., but also has a manageable dose of the oddities.

It will be an anomaly for one to work closely with Mr Obaigbenaand not have a strong opinion about him.

I will share a few experiences.

In 1997, sometime around September of that year, I had just joined THISDAY from The Guardian at the time. The main office of the paper was tucked away in some awkward street in Ikeja. But because of THISDAY, suddenly that street (is it Yinusa or something like that) became like the middle point of Ikeja. It was a bubbling street. The publisher was a lot younger, energetic and somewhat rhapsodic at the time. The THISDAY staff at the time was more like a family. The bonding was strong. Then one evening, the Publisher just saw me in the news room and asked me to follow him. I did. We ended up in his office where he pointed at a heap of flowery red rug, and asked me to take it all. His kinsman, who was like his P.A at the time, Ogannah, who was standing nearby could not believe his ears: that the rug has been dashed away to me. Till date, Ogannah, now the publisher of the America-based online newspaper, THE WILL still harasses me about“our rug”. That rug upgraded the character and class of my sitting room and got the place ready for my wife who came in few months after.It served me many years after.

Some of the stories told of the Publisher had said so much about his many firsts in the practice of journalism in Nigeria. One of the firsts that have not quite been celebrated is the fact that THISDAYwas the first newspaper which liberalised the tradition of giving even reporters official cars, at a time that even title editors in many Houses do not have official cars.

I was a beneficiary. It was an in-thing to be given a brand new car at the time. It shut up our personal and professional ego.

The cars had been brought and distributed in batches. THISDAY was full of young men and ladies, each bursting with zeal and prospect. I am sure I had been left out in the first two or so batches, and some of my colleagues were already making some snide remarks about why I hadn’t been given an official car. The cars were SCORPIO SUVs, that looked somewhat husky. But it was all the same a prized “jeep”. One day, my phone rang and it was, I think Gbenga Oni-Olusola, then Managing Editor. His message: “Publisher said you should be given the Black Scorpio Jeep”. The black colour was the preferred. Many had either the green, wine or the silver-coloured brands.

That was the first time I ever drove a “tear-rubbber”, as brand new cars are called. I indeed had to tear the nylon off the seats after I had ensured that as many people as possible had witnessed that it was no Tokunboh.

Few years later ( April 2009), another brand new car (Kia Sportage) was allocated

A couple of other times, the Publisher will , most impulsively, dash me a few items, one still in my drawer is a hard-cover executivefile.

But I soon got into trouble.

Sometime in year 2001, a pack of journalists had broken out of THISDAY, in less than comely circumstances, to form another paper, The group was led by Ide Eguabor, a former top manager in THISDAY. They formed the rival paper called National Interest. The paper had debuted with some sparks and appreciable content. Then one evening, news filtered in that Admiral Augustus Aikhomu (former Vice President), now late, was to be stopped from travelling to London aboard British Airways. I was despatched to go cover the incident, should it happen. The flight was for about 11.30pm. I got to the airport to meet Ide Eguabor himself, representing his National Interest. We were the only reporters waiting for the event. We waited till 1100pm. Intermittently, Mr Eguaborwill step away from where we were, speaking their native Edo language with some unknown persons. At 11.45pm there was no sign of Aikhomu anywhere in the departure lounge. We made enquiries but nobody would confirm anything. Eguabor said something like Aikhomu no longer going to fly that night. Perhaps I was naïve. I believed him. I couldn’t get the office to brief them on the development.

With no car and heading into midnight, I left the airport for my house, believing too that Eguaborwas also leaving. The next morning, National Interest led with the story: Obasanjo Bars Aikhomu from Travelling Out”.

As it were, THISDAY missed the story. I was the culprit.

I knew the fire of trouble had been stoked. The Publisher, was understandably mad at me. He had ordered my sack. He was furious. When he later saw me that evening, his eyes blazed with red anger. It was bad enough that we missed the story, it was doubly vexatious that a rival paper, which he described as a “certain periodical” got the story. There was some ego to it. In a fit of anger, he gave me three options: either resign, be transferred to Warri or move over to Pre-press (Production desk) I opted for the latter. And for about five or so months, I was sequestered in the production unit, headed by a great,fatherly senior colleague, NajeemJimoh, and late Morooph Ali..

Later that year, on December 23, the then Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Chief Bola Ige was killed in his own House at Bodija, Ibadan. I think the publisher reckoned that I had served the punishment enough and was looking for how to “free” me. So he sent me to Ibadan to cover the story, along with Dan Ukana, a photo journalist. It was a major national event. We remained in Ibadan till the minister was buried in January 2002.

Impressed with the back-to-back coverage of the event, I was literally taken from prison to presidency when the publisher graciously transferred me to Abuja as the Bureau Chief at the Presidential Villa, Aso Rock.. And that changed the narrative.

Years later, I got into another trouble. As the Editorial Page Editor, I had erroneously, if not mysteriously, published an offensive article written by one Max Uba, of blessed memory. The piece was an attack on the Imo State government, which at the time had just supported THISDAY in one of its events. Again, I was suspended. I was now taking my good rest at home, when one morning at about 9.30am, my phone rang. It was the publisher. “Urhobo man, where are you?” he bellowed. “I’m at home sir”, I replied. “Dress up and meet me up at the Aero hanger”, he instructed. Pronto, I got ready and headed to the airport from my Ikotun home at the time. I got there to find that a chartered private jet was waiting. He and my mentor and boss, EmekaIzeze, then Managing Director of The Guardian Newspaper, who I think had spoken to Publisher on my behalf, along with some other man, were all waiting for me to come. I was to accompany them to the funeral of Chief Ibru’s mother in Ughelli, Delta State. We flew to Warri and drove on to Ughelli for the funeral service. That was the end of the ire. He never made reference to my “sins” anymore.

I have shared these stories to further confirm that Mr Obaigbena has a good and large heart, even as he does not suffer fools gladly.

Indeed, to relate and work with him,successfully, such a person must graduate from the school of patience and wisdom.

And that brings me to the tons of toxic things said about him. I am by no means about defending him, but enough to say some of the criticisms are narrow and tweaked. Yes, I confirm staff salaries are anything but regular, but I do not think it is done from a punitive mindset. He sure has his drawbacks as every mortal does. I shall come back to this later Obaigbena is no angel. Angels are not publishers. In fact angels don’t live in the same hemisphere with us.

I read about the tales of death of former staff members implying that many of the deaths could have been avoided if salaries were promptly paid. That is not absolutely true.

I recall the case of my late immediate boss, Mr Godwin Agbroko, then the Chairman of the Editorial Board. As Editorial Page Editor, I was the secretary of the Board. It is sad and painful given the way Agbroko was killed. But it is wrong to attribute it to issue of salary. Yes, he may have waited for salary on that fateful day, but death is like a knell. It will come when it will come. That couldn’t have been the first time Agbroko waited for salaries to be paid. He couldn’t even have been the only person who so waited. But he got way-laid and shot on the Idaleko bridge by unknown persons, when he was just less that seven minutes from his home. The killers knew his route and waited for him.

Those who cite this case, as evidence of Obaigbena’s I-don’t- care-attitude, do not add thatObaigbena not only footed the bill of his funeral, he also built him a bungalow, where he was buried in his native Agbarho town. The building project was supervised by Emmanuel Efeni, still in the employ of THISDAY/ARISE TV. What’s more, the publisher also released to the family, the official car in which Agbroko was shot.

As said, it is sad he got killed on the street. Even in the face of all the money in the world, death still strikes.

He is a political entrepreneur, who never jokes with his business and could crush any and every obstacle to his target.

But that he has a good heart is not in doubt.

When in 2015, I launched my book, I had sought his support and made him the Chief Guest of Honour. We discussed the cover and content of the book. But he did not show up at the launch. Days later he tried to explain it away when he said it was he who encouraged my then state governor, Dr Emmanuel Uduaghanto attend the launch. I did not believe him, but merely nodded it off.

All said, I join many others in rejoicing with the man they call The Duke, whose folksmen call Professor, a happy birthday, and many more years of service to humanity and in good health.