Sam and I: Tribute to Late Sam Nda-Isaiah


Bashir Yusuf Ibrahim

Iarrived Sam’s house at 4.10 pm on Friday, 4th December 2020 for a scheduled meeting. The meeting was to start at 4.00 pm so I was not surprised when I found Alh Bashir Othman Tofa, a stickler for keeping time who came in for the meeting from Kano, already there. By 4.30 pm everyone in attendance was seated. Sam had hosted these meetings virtually every quarter, without fail, for nearly six years. The meeting went fine, as usual – the deep and impassioned discussions about how to make Nigeria better, the banter, the meal, the frustrations. There was nothing to suggest this was going to be my last encounter with the man I had come to consider my non biological brother.

I met Sam through a mutual friend, late Salihijo Ahmad, the indefatigable director and professional face of the consultancy firm, Afri-Projects Consortium. My first encounter with Sam defined the nature of our relationship over the next 25 years, beginning with the silent and frustrating struggle to convince Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (Rtd) to join politics and run for President based on his track record in public office up to that point. For a full year, we tried and failed. During one of our unsuccessful pitches, the general had expressed his total dislike for politics and politicians. He told us, with a tinge of bitterness, how he watched a former governor of Kano State during the Second Republic insult Mallam Aminu Kano on national television. He was not going to be part of a community of unprincipled opportunist. Years down the line, the general capitulated and Sam played a key and visible role in his political career.

Eventually, Sam and I discovered we had another passion in common – the media. This discovery came through another struggle to convince another retired general, Olusegun Obasanjo, to join politics and run for President. Soon after the government of General Abdussalami Abubakar declared amnesty for Obasanjo and, later, announced his release from prison we determined, if we could not get Buhari to run for President, we could try our luck with Obasanjo, who had suddenly and unexpectedly become available. As Head of State, Obasanjo had an impressive track record. We were also of the firm conviction the international network he had painstakingly forged since leaving office and his experience in prison had prepared him further for the job. Nigeria had been through difficult times with the international community during late General Abacha’s five years in office and was just emerging from a pariah State status.

To pursue our Obasanjo-for-President agenda, we created a shadowy group, The New Millennium Collective, and saturated the public space with newspaper advertorials calling on Obasanjo to, once again, offer himself for national service. We placed one advertorial after another, every other week, in three strategically selected newspapers. Sam and I took turns writing the text of those advertorials while the two other members of the group would sit with us to tone down the rhetoric. Our media offensive was so effective Obasanjo had to, at one point, address the press to disown the group. He was right. Other than members of the Collective and our advert placement agent, no one else knew, until now, who was sponsoring those advertorials. With Sam’s departure, all members of the group, except this writer, are now no longer alive. The other two members, Salihijo Ahmed and Usman Gidado, passed on in 1999 and 2000 respectively.

It will come as a shock to many that Sam had canvassed for Obasanjo to be President of Nigeria, particularly considering he built his career as a columnist tearing former President Obasanjo and his government apart. Sam threw himself to a cause without minding the consequences, once he was convinced it was the right thing to do. He believed in Obasanjo’s capacity to turn Nigeria around and did what he could to make it happen. Once he became deeply disappointed early in the life of the administration, because of what he perceived as Obasanjo’s sectional and prebendal politics, no one doubted where he stood at that point. He did not approve of my accepting the offer to be President Obasanjo’s Special Assistant but he did not make much fuss about it either. He told me he trusted my judgement but I suspected he was just being polite.

Our Obasanjo-for-President campaign led Sam and I to start a media business. We incorporated a company, Blueprints Consortium, with Sam as Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer and I as Executive Director/Editor-in-Chief. Sam was to run the business side while I was to run the practice side. Both Salihijo Ahmad and Usman Gidado became shareholders, with the latter doubling as Director. We made the late Abba Kyari, who was then Managing Director of United Bank for Africa, Chairman of the Board of Directors. Abba Kyari was to later become Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari until he passed on in May last year.

We flew in and engaged the services of Mr. Gertings a Briton and veteran of the newspaper business, who had earlier set up Nation House Press and The Sentinel newspaper in Kaduna, to recruit the production staff and help set up the production line. His mandate was to create a system whereby we could produce the newspapers centrally with 75% national and 25% local content while printing simultaneously in six different cities across Nigeria – without owning a press. We employed the late Jibril Bala Mohammed, a professor of Mass Communication from University of Maiduguri, to lead our recruitment drive on the journalism side and train the new staff on the lofty ethics of journalism. His mandate was to recruit only fresh hands without direct experience in the Nigerian media industry. We also employed an IT consultant, Musa Chadi, to design and set up the IT infrastructure. We set out to build an ambitious media business starting with a newsletter, then a group of newspapers and later networks of radio, terrestrial and satellite television, in that order. Sam and big ideas were inseparable.

Blueprints Consortium started fairly well, with a subscription-only newsletter. Blueprint Confidential was launched into the market early in 1999 with a promise to deliver unmatched, in-depth local analyses and privileged ‘intelligence-grade’ information about Nigeria. We promoted it aggressively using, mostly, privileged personal contacts and channels. We also ran adverts in the international media, including Financial Times and The Economist. CNN International ran it three times a day, for two weeks. Before long, we had reputable financial institutions, state governments, embassies, international organizations such as Africa Development Bank, World Bank, European Union and highly influential individuals among our subscribers.

However, just as we were riding high on the euphoria of our success, tragedy struck. We lost two of our shareholders to the cold hand of death within roughly six months of each other. It would not have been so devastating if they were just our shareholders. In the end, it was a devastating blow from which our ambitious project never recovered. With the benefit of hindsight, we could have handled the tragedy much better than we did. I felt gratified watching Sam put in so much effort to build Leadership using practically the same model. I would often share my personal views with him on how to make the Leadership stable better. I once called and brought his attention to a spelling error in a headline. The word ‘disease’ was spelt as ‘desease’. He promised to make the sub-editor pay with 50% of his salary. He was such a hard taskmaster.

Sometime in 2011 after the general elections, Alhaji Sule Hamma, former Director-General of The Buhari Organization and coordinator of Buhari’s presidential campaign in three consecutive elections and I had a discussion about Sam, his patriotism, his passion and the fact that he was never beholden to sentiment or prejudice of the usual Nigerian variety. As Nupe, Sam never saw himself as a minority like most others do; as Christian, most of Sam’s closest friends and associates were Muslim; he obtained his undergraduate degree, not in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria but in University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University. Sam was intelligent, a goal-getter, reliable and trustworthy. We wondered why Sam could not be groomed for a major political role in Nigeria’s future. I remember the discussion took place over lunch on a Friday because, as long as we were both in town, Alh Sule Hamma and I had lunch every Friday since I became his neighbour in 1999, a tradition we kept alive now for 21 years.

The following Friday while I was at Alhaji Sule Hamma’s house, Mallam Abba Kyari came visiting at about 4.30 pm and met us discussing Sam. It was on this day the three of us decided to promote Sam’s profile and push his political career as far as was practically possible, without him knowing, and see how far we could go with our new product. We tasked Mallam Abba Kyari to link up with and draft other critical stakeholders, such as Sam’s benefactor, General T.Y. Danjuma, Mallam Adamu Ciroma, General Aliyu Gusau, Mallam Mamman Daura, etc. Essentially, we made Sam a political project behind his back and made Mallam Abba Kyari project coordinator. We did not set out to make Sam the President of Nigeria because we had no such power but we thought, with some push and the buy-in of critical stakeholders, Sam would go far and, eventually, be an asset to Nigeria.

The first opportunity to unveil our product came on Sam’s 50th Birthday. Mallam Abba Kyari went to work and put the event together. A number of Nigeria’s top political leaders were there. If I recall correctly, there were three former military Heads of State on the high table – Generals Buhari, Babangida and Abdussalaami Abubakar. There were also other leading politicians from all the nooks and crannies of Nigerian. I don’t recall if Abba Kyari spoke at the occasion but I was given 10 minutes to address the gathering. When Sam’s turn to speak came, he broke down in tears barely two minutes into his address. It was shortly after Sam attempted to run for President in 2015 that I took it upon myself to visit him in his office and inform him of the project. I told him he threw his hat into the ring too early. I noticed moisture building up in his eyes as he admitted he had always suspected someone, somewhere, was giving his political career a nudge.

On 26th September this year Sam and I set out from Abuja to Kaduna by road early in the morning to attend an usual meeting. Our convey comprised of members of the group we named Friends of Democracy. The Southern Kaduna crisis had boiled over with Muslims and Christians in the area resuming hostilities, often involving arson and loss of life. The FoD, for short, perceived a breakdown of trust between a section of the community in the area on the one hand and the state and federal authorities on the other. After months of silent and painstaking diplomacy, the two adversaries agreed to submit themselves to mediation and possible reconciliation to be facilitated by Friends of Democracy. This trip in particular was to attend the second meeting as both Sam and I had missed the first meeting. When Sam’s time came to speak at the occasion, he came down hard on both sides but he came down harder on the Christian community. On our way back, he was the one who told the driver to find a suitable place and park to enable me say my early evening prayer. I was trying not to expose us to the risk of possible kidnapping but vintage Sam did not care.

I said this before in a separate tribute but I believe it bears repeating. Sam was courageous and never took the easy way out. He was generous, reliable and the closest you could find to a total and unapologetic Nigerian. Sam was a ferocious reader. That was probably why he wrote so well for a scientist. He believed Nigeria deserves better and went to great length to put forward an alternative vision of Nigeria through his writings and activism. He spared no one and was afraid of no power when it came to articulating his vision and to defending what he perceived as the best interest of Nigeria. His last published masterpiece, a scathing Leadership editorial titled CNN Don’t Mess With Nigeria, was a case in point. Sam was by no means perfect but he was the type of imperfect Nigeria needs badly at this point in its miserable existence. I will miss you badly Sam.
–––Ibrahim writes from Abuja.