The death of Sam Nda-Isaiah, like the death of any man, has left a profound impact on those he left behind to contemplate its mystery, what at the death of Princess Diana, Time famous essayist Lance Morrow, penned as one poignant moment of universal outpouring of love and communion, from the family of man.
At the death of his mother, 16th century essayist Samuel Johnson presented one of his thought provoking narratives-Rasselas, the Prince of Abbyssinia. It was the story of a prince who, tired of the opulence and beauty of a palace-Happy Valley, desired the ordinariness life offered elsewhere. He left Happy Valley to become a shepherd, a priest and a fisherman at different times but sooner than later realized that each station of life also is betrothed with humdrum and atrophy, which the individual must deal with if he must get to his destination.
When his friend Hon Bethel Nnaemeka Amadi passed on, Sam Nda-Isaiah cried. Amadi had walked into his house to announce his private pain of hosting a terminal disease. By his narrative, he was thoroughly humbled and shocked that except he told you, his face or demeanor showed no hint of a dying man. Nda-Isaiah left Abuja and flew into Owerri for Amadi’s funeral. When he walked into the church and saw Amadi’s coffin, his tears knew no bounds. Then came the death of another kinsman-Abba Kyari who this reporter shared ideas with on the editorial board of Thisday. The world knew he was a victim of Covid19.
Governor El Rufai another member of that distinguished editorial board battled Covid19 infection but was lucky to announce his recovery. These two people were friends of Nda-Isaiah and given his study of herbs and knowledge of vitamins, it is strange to hear people close to him say he never believed there was anything called Covid. What this suggests is that he did not observe the protocols of Covid19 like many of us who laugh at others whether in church or in a public gathering, for wearing masks or avoiding a hug. Since he is not alive to tell exactly what he felt about what Trump calls the “China Virus,” his non-belief could not have been a solidarity show with China, a country that was attracting a huge pharmaceutical investment to Nigeria in collaboration with Nda-Isaiah’s pharmaceutical company. One only hopes the dream lives, given how much Nda-Isaiah labored to give the Peoples Republic of China maximum and positive exposure in the country.
Sometime in February 2019, Sam Nda_Isaiah was his bubbly self criss- crossing between Niger State and Abuja to perform his civic rights of voting as a patriotic Nigerian and good party man. This reporter was due to meet him but the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was about to pronounce a shift in its schedule for the nationwide elections. That was our second scheduled meeting, the first in 2012 when he was about to clock fifty. As part of his birthday gift from his friend and self-professed role model Nduka Obaigbena, I was mandated as Thisday editor Nation’s Capital to handle the interview. We met in his office and he looked resplendent in his white caftan. Informally, the chat was on as we discussed life style, his tutelage in journalism at the New Nigeria Newspapers where his father rose to become a managing editor. Here was a Pharmarcy student at the University of Ife doing his vacation job at the NN newspaper each time he was on holiday. He went further to practice the art of writing and magazine production from the university as the editor of the departmental magazine.
We discussed books and he did not hide his fascination for the written word. Part of the fun he derived each time he travelled was the purchase of books at the airports, hotels and bookstores. We discussed food nutrients and vitamins as well as herbs. It was therefore saddening to discover that despite all the huge investments in the knowledge and art of good health, he passed on so rudely with no knock on his door.
In our second meeting we sat out and he said he would have a formal discussion with me after my meeting with Azu Ishiekwene but the mission was already obvious: you have been chosen to lead the Leadership Group which goes beyond the newspapers to other companies under the group. It was mind boggling at first but it told you how the mind of the man functioned, his ambition and reach as he quietly admitted you to his private universe. I saw his huge library and the books imported from numerous travels. His conversations and references to these books including all the familiar tabloids and broadsheets left in me deep impressions of a well read man.
Those earlier meetings and conversations became the format for subsequent meetings. On a normal day, Chairman, as he was addressed, was fun to be with but the ladder he set for himself always tormented him, reminding you his volcanic eruptions could only be cultured or tamed if you got it right. There is no argument that Leadership has lived up to the expectation of readers and can raise its head as one of the top flight newspapers in the country. In the north of the country, both Leadership and Daily Trust dominate the newsstands and while Daily Trust has rebranded itself as a national paper with a subtle leaning for Islamic, not northern issues, Leadership remains Nigeria’s most influential newspaper.
Every Sunday morning I left church, I quietly walked into his reception and study section of his home at the Ministers Hill in Abuja. He knew I would be around to browse the networks and get an update on what was trending on the world scene. CNN and Bloomberg were his favourite networks and Donald Trump expectedly was the ever looming subject while Bloomberg fascinated him with figures and statistics for those interested in business news. When awake, he would pause CNN and focus on Bloomberg with an explanatory footnote: “The Leadership television must be heavy on figures and statistics. It should be able to carry African business on the wings and interpret business ideas for investors while providing a platform of learning for upcoming whiz kids.” I nodded.
It was time to go through the titles from Friday to Sunday and critique the publications preparatory for the week. Oftentimes he would be snoozing sonorously; a hypnotic angelic gaze shone on his face, like a powdered six months old deep asleep and unencumbered by earthly worries. Sometimes the snooze shifted to his “full body electric shiatsu massage chair recliner, with its built-in heat therapy air massage system, stretch vibrator, all on a mystic Sunday morning when the faithful were coming home from service with the closing hymn: “Through the love of God our saviour, all will be well,” still making a lull on their souls. Expectedly, his own lull would go on and on and the meditation was so compelling I would leave, offering to give him a shout much later in the evening. He would wake up and aske where I was and request I come back to the house about 10 or 11 pm.
With the chairman, just like the other chairman and his mentor, Nduka Obaigbena, time and space become a synthesis of continuity and reflection of thoughts and ideas. Morning starts when the body is ready for it. The chat would shift to the courtyard where the mother would be doing her rounds with mother and son in a dialogue that deepened their unique relationship. Next he tended to his domestic animals if he was not buying new ones. Surprisingly the bull dogs that formed part of his security outfit were hardly found in the premises and work place. During those nightshifts the high and mighty visited and we feasted on fruits and water. Once his wife Zainab joined us. I asked if it was true she was once a Muslim now a Christian convert. His face glowed: “Yes but she was alreadt a Christian when I met her.” Just once we had dinner together at the home of the Chinese ambassador discussing the final details of the Abuja Beijing Conference. When we returned everyone left and I stayed behind, to review his expectations from my inputs moving forward.
On such moments you had to have your notes or be written off as unserious. Azu Ishiekwene had warned Sam could be a good guy but had that side of his being that was irascible. Of course we had our serious arguments when he insisted Igbo leaders had lost their mojo of asking for the Presidency in 2023 when they secretly and openly identify with Nnamdi Kanu and the Independent People Of Biafra (IPOB). I reminded him that while Biafra as a civil war was not ideal, Biafra’s promise of a land of milk and honey even in Nigeria cannot be wished away. Its tenets and promises, I insisted, were similar to the Aburi Accord which was discarded as soon as the participants left Aburi Ghana. I leaned towards fiscal federalism pre-1966 or Confederation as the answer to Nigeria’s problems. He would not hear anything IPOB.
. Chairman may not have been terrible but going into politics in 2013 after he had built a successful and competitive newspaper house, left him in tatters. He came back to behold a media house that has been plunged into debt with unpaid salaries mounting, a backlog of four years by 2019. He had the bullying side every employer has and as an advert broker who criss-crossed towns and villages in search of those to patronize him in the early days of Leadership and its newsletter-the Leadership Confidential, he hardly suffered fools gladly if he found one.
Every Christmas season when Eru, the king masquerade appears at the village square for the final dance, everything heightens to a crescendo. The appearance is a re-enactment of the return of the kindred spirits, of ancestors gone by. The dance must be regal, the beat pulsating and the cheerleaders response tumultuous. Okwuma the other kindred spirit dances with pride assuring ordinary mortals that the way to immortality is not cheap. As the crowd responds to its skillful dance steps, it builds its personality to that of the Jackal headed masquerade in Ben Okri’s The Famished Land, with eyes that keep starring at us and a height so tall that adults strained their necks to see his face .
In spite of that no one could describe this “fantastic creature of totemic significance.”. Indeed no one knew it. He is retreating proudly as mere mortals, the spectators, full of extraordinary expectations, urge for more. God forbid if a kindred spirit, tired and famished, mutates to a clay footed god and collapses before its fanatics only to expose himself a mere mortal, coated and addressed as a borrowed vest.
Yes when witches and wizards travel at night, they are enabled by borrowed vests whether as brooms, batsthey or captured humans. They do so with rules and if out of carelessness or unguarded euphoria, ignore the rules, you may find them by the roadside, collapsed and surrounded by their weakened vests. This is not Sam Nda-Isaiah’s forte as a kindred spirit
He has retreated and danced home with his beats playing on. Let the music play on you can say. Nda-Isaiah lived his life in the family of man. He was both Muslim and Christian, both northern and federalist. He did not live with a borrowed vest. In spite of his sins, he was a true Nigerian. May his soul rest in peace.