FAREWELL TO A MAVERICK DREAM CHASERDanladi Ndayebo pays tribute to Sam Nda-Isaiah, publisher of Leadership Newspapers
My first encounter with Mr. Sam Ndanusa Isaiah, in the middle of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s first term as Nigeria’s President hardly left the impression that we were destined to develop a working professional relationship, or that we would come to know each other as well as we did, before his transition to the great beyond last Friday.
I was an avid reader of ‘Last Word,’ his Monday Column in the Daily Trust Newspapers and he came across as a clever, witty and intelligent writer. I was therefore excited to meet him in Minna in December, 2002 at the instance of my big brother, Dr. Abubakar Tswanya.
Mr. Sam Nda-Isaiah was a forceful, acerbic and hard-hitting crusader for social justice whose punditry on the state of the nation was the nemesis of the ruling elite. He was President Obasanjo’s tormentor-in-chief. He had declared the then president unfit to rule Nigeria. Interestingly, his damning verdict reflected the popular sentiment in the North, and because he was close to the movers and shakers in the region, his column soon became a rallying point for the search for an alternative candidate to challenge Obasanjo in the 2003 presidential poll. That was how Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign for the nation’s top job took off two years into Obasanjo’s first term as president.
So, at that first face-to-face meeting, I got the opportunity to tell him how fascinated I was with his razor-sharp, courageous and finicky assessments of government policies which were usually couched in lucid, simple but often strong opinions on those pages.
However, trouble started when I made the point that many of his articles had the imprimatur of the political establishment in the North which had had a falling out with Obasanjo and had sworn to frustrate the president’s second term bid. Sam charged at me: “Don’t be stupid! Did anyone send you to embarrass me?”. But I stood my ground, insisting that he was on a mission to discredit Obasanjo ahead of a crucial vote. That was the first time I met Sam, and I honestly thought it would be my last time.
But that disagreement marked the beginning of a robust relationship that was to last for 19 years until he breathed his last on Friday.
For almost two decades, I interacted very closely with Mr. Nda-Isaiah whom many of his present and former staff still refer to as ‘Chairman’ and learnt tremendously at his feet. In 2004, he invited me and 10 others to start LEADERSHIP Weekly after he rested its precursor, LEADERSHIP Confidential, a newsletter that enjoyed massive subscription and readership amongst the nation’s political and business elite as well as the diplomatic community.
LEADERSHIP was conceived as a media and education company with broad objectives of providing content to its consumers while investing in its staff and in responsive newsroom tools and technologies. It was in furtherance to these objectives that the publisher of LEADERSHIP offered fresh graduates the opportunity to pursue a career in journalism at the organization while learning on the job.
Winifred Ogbebor and myself were amongst the first set of rookies to benefit from this goodwill which later became institutionalized with the incorporation of AllanWoods; an education company modeled after Kaplan, a Washington Post subsidiary. At the inception of LEADERSHIP, two thorough bred journalists who helped to set up the newspaper, Uche Ezechukwu and Demola Abimboye, took us under their wings. The duo taught us the rudiments of news writing and reporting while the newspaper’s pioneer editor, Ibrahim Sheme and his successor in office, Mallam Shehu Dauda of blessed memory tutored us on the fine art of news judgment.
The big masquerade himself taught me different things but the one I found most remarkable is resilience. He taught me never to give up on anything without the last drop of my sweat. He was an incurable optimist who relentlessly pushed forward, time and time again, never letting trials keep him from believing in the good that lay ahead.
Chairman, who held the traditional title of Kakaki Nupe (the spokesman of the Nupe nation) was a metaphor for relentlessness in the pursuit of excellence and was never bereft of fresh “Big Ideas” even when he was hitting his head against a brick wall. Once he believed in anything, he threw everything he had at it. For him, nothing was impossible.
It was upon this never-say- die spirit that that LEADERSHIP was founded at a time nobody gave us a chance of survival. Chairman had no money at the time, but the proceeds from the launch of the compilation of his articles written while on the Editorial Board of Daily Trust helped us set sail on the journey. The launch of the book, entitled Nigeria: Full Disclosure, raked in about N15million.
Nobody thinking logically would ever attempt to set up a national newspaper outfit with just N15m. But then, Chairman was not thinking as other people might have. He was following the burning dream and passion in his heart.
He was a serial entrepreneur. He was never anxious by the challenges confronting his businesses, rather, he was always looking for opportunities to expand the portfolio of his investments. Unlike others who may be satisfied with triumphs in certain ventures, he saw the success of one project as building blocks for yet another venture. With him, there was no end to new boundaries to be conquered. Chairman had more than 50 registered business concerns that were up and running until he answered the call of his creator on Friday. Lesson: Don’t put your eggs in one basket.
Aside the several titles in the LEADERSHIP Newspapers stable, the pharmacist-turned- publisher, in a space of a decade, enlarged landscapes in journalism and brought exciting innovations that placed his media outfit in the prime position of national importance.
It was a reflection of his conviction that a new Nigeria was possible that he threw himself into the race for the All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential ticket in 2014. Although he lost to President Muhammadu Buhari, he helped to galvanise support for APC which went on to win the presidential election in 2015. This was the hallmark of an altruistic politician, imbued with patriotic fervour. Chairman loved the North and was passionate about Nigeria.
Don’t get me wrong. The late Nda-Isaiah was not a saint. He was human and had his weaknesses but I can attest that he did not dine with the devil. In fact, he kept the devil at a million miles length. He was a man with a very good heart who had the ability to see in people what they didn’t see in themselves; and to push them into achieving great feats.
Therefore, his demise at the age of 58 constitutes a great loss to the nation’s media industry and all those whose lives he had touched in his short but eventful life that was devoted to people-centred schemes.
While I am still trying to come to terms with the reality of his passing, my thoughts and prayers are with his mum; his wife, aunty Zainab; his kids and his siblings.
Ndayebo is a former Commissioner for Information in Niger State