Sam Nda-Isaiah: And Our Paths Crossed, By Hassan Gimba

I first met Sam face to face in March 2013. He had the idea for in-depth coverage of states beyond “The governor said…” with which state reporters inundated their newsrooms. Yobe State was of particular interest to him. So he reached out to me through a friend, Hassan Maina Kaina of the Hausa Service of the Voice of America.
He might have known about me through my write-ups in various national dailies. Our parts would have crossed in 2008, but it didn’t. I was publishing Pen Watch (now rested) having shifted base from agrarian Yobe – where I had a newspaper, the Informant (and Mafadi) – to cosmopolitan Abuja. The Informant was a local, bilingual tabloid focusing on the North East. I set up an office at AMAC Plaza, opposite Heritage House, Wuse Zone 4.
I started printing with Daily Trust, but after realising Heritage House printed cheaper, I decided to cut cost and print with my neighbours. LEADERSHIP newspaper, which did not have a press at the time, publish there also. But it had a particular advantage. Whatever work was in line for printing would be dropped for it. Nothing could change that arrangement.
Therefore, while we might have known each other by reputation, he was the more accomplished.
It was that fateful day that brought us together. After the formalities of introductions by Kaina, we discussed happenings in the nation and world at large. He never talked about foreign lands the way our been-to do.
When he talked about them, it was on how they achieved what they have achieved and how Nigeria could key in, how we could replicate, how we have better advantages, etc. In discussions, whatever the topic, his main concern was Nigeria, Nigeria and Nigeria. Its sorry state and the absence of quality leadership were of great concern to him. You get the impression that if he could take the mantle of leadership by fiat from those destroying his country, he would. He was so disappointed with the quality of leadership the nation had. At another time some months after this meeting, he told me of one of the presidential candidates “who went to the Church of Satan in the USA just to get power”.
As if he knew he hadn’t the luxury of time on earth, he was a man in a hurry to leave a mark that subsequent generations would look back at and immortalise his name. He was in a hurry to build a reputation, build businesses, build people, and build Nigeria. Perhaps had he joined the army, our history books might have a chapter for “I General Sam,….”
Our discussions, therefore, did not centre on employment but Nigeria. He sounded me out on many issues, and I got the feeling we were assessing ourselves. He never turned any discussion into a competition of who knew better or who will come out tops. No. He told you his mind and expected you to do the same. Mentally you assess each other’s contributions and instead of feeling “defeated” or “victorious”, you come out more knowledgeable and full.
More knowledgeable due to hearing a perspective you never thought of; full of conviction if he considered your views on point. I think Sam was satisfied with what he saw in me. He sent for the then editor, Shu’aib Shu’aib, and told him to get me a desk, telling him I would be a Special Correspondent. For two months, that was what I was. In that capacity, I wrote about what he wanted and more. Despite a colleague undeservedly adding his name to my bye line, I alone wrote a strong exclusive cover story on how Boko Haram insurgents finance their operations.
Within this period, Sam, who I started calling Chairman, like everyone else, after my name entered his payroll, started Friday LEADERSHIP. It was the first of its kind in the country. Tailored after the best tabloids in Europe and the USA, he wanted Friday LEADERSHIP to help the reader unwind after a hectic week. On May 24, 2013, it took off with Baba El-Nafaty as its first editor and Pembi Stevens, his deputy. Some of its staff were William Orji, Production Editor, while Bode Gbadegbo, Adah Abah and late Paul Chiama were reporters. They were the pillars that anchored unique stories after unique stories. Later Kanayo Jubal, Andrew Essien, Hauwa Mahmud, and one Loretta came on board with Offiong taking over production from Orji when the latter moved over to The Authority newspaper.
The pathfinder publication immediately became accepted by the reading public, and sales soared. Were LEADERSHIP a quoted enterprise on the Nigeria Stock Exchange, its share price would have tripled.
One evening about two months after its birth, I was summoned to the office by Mr Azubuike Ishiekwene, fondly called Mr Azu by all. He was the Group Managing Director, GMD. I met him with Mrs Chinyere Adegbulugbe, the LEADERSHIP’s “discipline prefect”. Thus, she was nicknamed due to her strictness in whipping every staff into line – a disciplined way of life that left LEADERSHIP after her unceremonious departure.
Anyone conversant with LEADERSHIP knew that in most cases when Azu talked, it was only the voice of Jacob, but the hand was that of Esau. Sam was the Esau. That was the extent of the relationship between them; a relationship of trust and mutual respect, of taking the brunt or softening it for the other. Many staffers that feared contact with the charismatic and affable but fear-inducing Chairman preferred going through Azu for anything.
He sounded me regarding taking over the Friday title’s editorship as the pioneer editor was retiring to pursue other interests. He said my short stay there had shown my capacity and leadership qualities and that management believed that I could take the title up a notch or two. I acknowledged the honour and accepted the offer. He then briefed me on the title’s philosophy and what my target was.
I went through all this to show who Chairman was. Once he saw capability in you, that’s all, no matter what any person would say. Many who had been at LEADERSHIP newspaper were surprised or shocked. Not knowing my antecedents, having not started my career in Abuja, Kaduna or Kano, many thought a rookie had come. Some derisively said “a Malam from Yobe”, they questioned his sense of judgement, not knowing I was Kaduna based Today newspaper’s first Borno State correspondent in 1991.
For the seven months I left (between 2014 and 2015) to serve as spokesman for the minister of science and technology, Dr Abdu Bulama, the paper went through at least five editors. After May 2015, I did not return because I didn’t want those lining themselves for editorship to think I had returned to block them.
Chairman was worried but could not call me. All through our relationship, he somehow viewed me with respect and someone a bit semi-independent. So he went through Dr Adamu Fika, the Waziri of Fika. He was the one that called me and asked: “Hassan, you don’t want to go back to LEADERSHIP?” I said I wanted to, and then he said, “Okay, call Sam and tell him you are coming back”. And that was how I returned for a second stint.
He gave us all the support to introduce a potpourri of contents according to the paper’s philosophy. We tinkered with the masthead and cover designs to make it look more pleasing to the eye. What in earlier editions looked like LEADERSHIP Friday was changed to highlight more on Friday, making it read as Friday LEADERSHIP. The publication went on to become a world-beater. It was the toast of vendors, a reader’s delight and an advertiser’s preferred outlet. It was selling more than all the titles put together per week, except for the Monday edition that sold like hotcake because of Sam’s back-page column, the Last Word.
But as everything with a beginning must indeed have an end, my romance with Friday LEADERSHIP came to an end on June 21, 2016. I was promoted to Assistant Managing Editor, tasked with providing contents for all the titles. However, I remain the publication’s longest-serving editor and the only one to be its editor twice.
That he contested for the presidency because of his love for Nigeria was not in doubt. Did he believe he would win? Yes, and we can forgive him for that. Politicians are incurable optimists. Moreover, many things happen in Nigeria that gives a contestant the belief that he has already won. A whole village can come out and be shouting “sai kayi!” (you must win) at his motorcade and he will believe that village was his. But after the vote count, he may end up getting nothing there. And this is even after the village head would have told him: “We have been waiting for people like you to come out”.
Therefore, Sam believed he could be president. And he was prepared for it. Like all contestants, he thought the people he wanted to lead understood him and believed in him and what he had to offer. We, his employees, did our best where we could. I could remember I commissioned Hausa musicians from Kano to do a song for him. I gave him a copy of the CD plate in one of our Northern Publishers Forum meetings at Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja. I also recall calling Aliyu Mustaphan Sokoto of VoA Hausa and protested when he did his programme (Tsaka Mai Wuya) with representatives of four of the All Peoples Congress minus that of Sam. He gave his reasons and promised to repeat it with the five representatives, which he did, and requested that Sam send his representative’s contact. I called the Chairman at around 6.40 am after this discussion and relayed to him what had happened. That may be the reason he specifically requested that I (though someone else later did it), instead of any of the reporters, write the story he syndicated to various national dailies of Bashir Tofa’s interview in which he mentioned the APC’s five aspirants and declared them all better than the incumbent.
As courageous as he was, taking risks head-on and making forays into uncharted waters, Sam was a man like any other man. He could be confused or frustrated or afraid of what he did not know. Anytime an editor signs off, usually between 1 and 2 am, he awaits Chairman’s call with bated breath. One only relaxes with the approach of sunset.
There was a story Friday LEADERSHIP did on former presidents entitled Exclusive Club of Former Presidents. In it, General Yakubu Gowon was mentioned as owning a house in Abuja. At about 3 pm that Friday a call came to me from Azu asking me to come to the office pronto. Chairman wanted to see me.
When I arrived, he was with Azu in his office, and he blurted out, “Who, who told you that, that Gowon has a house in, in Abuja?” Before I could answer that, he asked: “Who wrote the story?” I just kept mute and assumed a blank face. Whatever he said and did to squeeze a word out of me fell on deaf ears. I became temporarily deaf and dumb. I thought it would amount to a betrayal to tell him who anchored the story. Again, I could not say I did not read the story because I signed the pages. My silence was, therefore, indicative of me taking responsibility. He just looked at me and blurted out, “I am very, very afraid of you. I am very, very afraid of you.” I was laughing within me as Azu told me to go. He followed me out of Chairman’s office, and we went into his. He gently asked who had written the story, and I told him.
Again, it is when you come close to Chairman that you can understand Sam, the man. He was a man filled with empathy. I realised that almost 50 per cent of the LEADERSHIP staff were there for many reasons other than merit. I used to liken the organisation to a charity foundation. You found widows of friends and family who may have no means of livelihood having a lifeline there. Some were orphans trying to get their footing. And you can even meet some downright unserious characters but with huge responsibilities on their shoulders. And he did not care from where you came or what religion you professed. If you were in need, when you found it tough to survive, Sam, the man, would give you a hand.
Many times he would refer people who wanted the world to hear their views to me. He didn’t care what your opinions were as long they were not divisive, pitting one tribe or religion against the other. Many budding writers came to me through him, and we encouraged them by polishing their write-ups and publishing them. They grew in confidence and belief in themselves.
I have written a book that may be presented to the public next year if God pleases. In the acknowledgement, I spoke about him and intended inviting him to deliver an address at the occasion. That can no longer be. Death has made sure of that. No one can fight off death when it comes calling. Had it been otherwise, even death would have ‘feared’ before coming for a man like Sam now. Some people believe that those that God loves die young. In any case, at 58, Sam had achieved what a majority of humankind may not achieve were they to live till 88. May his good soul rest in peace. Adieu, Sam, the man.
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