When the founder of LEADERSHIP, Mr Sam Nda-Isaiah, passed away on Friday December 11, 2020; his death threw a blanket of bereavement over the Nigerian media, with many, including yours sincerely, finding it difficult to accept the reality of his demise.
The pharmacist-turned-pen maestro was an incurable dreamer and optimist. He dreamed in the day and used the night to walk his dreams. Just as he was committed to weathering storms of growing a new media outfit; he was also resolved in berthing a liberal platform where none of the voices in public discourse was left behind. The author of the ‘Last Word’ column had battled several winds of blackmails from traducers when LEADERSHIP debuted as a weekly publication in 2004.
I was headhunted from ‘The Punch’ where I had served as Chief Correspondent of the Abuja Bureau to join Nda-Isaiah’s efforts in establishing a daily newspaper in 2005. Having been introduced to the maverick publisher by Bishop Hassan Matthew Kukah sometimes in 2004, I was initially skeptical of abandoning ‘The Punch’ for yet another dark plunge of uncertainty, having experienced the dialectics of challenges trailing start-up newspaper outfits. I later found out that with Nda-Isaiah, the best way to be dissuaded of his cause was to avoid listening to him. The anti-Obasanjo publisher, as he was then popularly known, could sway anyone into buying a truckload of sand in the desert. Once convinced of the worthiness of cause or dream, Nda-Isaiah, with his hand to the plow, would never look back.
Within a week of joining LEADERSHIP, I saw the publisher in his true colours: A man consistently in a hurry to accomplish his dream anchored on full deployment of media innovations. He was never afraid to walk the lonely path of persistence and demonstrated unflinching commitments towards achieving his set dreams.
The pharmacist who strayed into the media world and made a huge success of it demonstrated an undying passion for the development of the journalism profession. For Nda-Isaiah, there were no limits for goals, as attaining a goal was only a prologue to pursuing new goals. He drove his staff almost to a point of exhaustion and demanded unfettered commitment. He was fastidious when it comes to ensuring excellence in all departments of his media outfit that later grew into an octopus. The ‘Kakaki Nupe’ was allergic to spelling errors and would almost nag endlessly when news headlines contained errors.
He once complained to me that his problem with me was my inability to sack incompetent staff. As someone on the desk, I knew the problems to be hydra-headed. Therefore, I was constantly engaged in defending erring staff. I knew that as long as I stood for them, there was no way he could sack them.
To reduce errors in the Sunday edition, he granted me approval to employ a lady to head the proof-reading desk. To test her competency, the Chairman personally sent a page for her to handle. He was livid with rage when he noticed one or two spelling errors on the page.
“Reef, you just have to sack her,” he had ordered than advised me.
I told him that it was not her fault.
“So, is it your fault?”
“Yes, it is my fault. I signed the pages and I am responsible for the entire newspaper from page 1-80. Let us give her another chance,” I pleaded.
It was good I defended her. Long after I resigned as the Executive Editor of the newspaper in 2007, she worked for many years to become the longest serving editor. If I had succumbed to Chairman’s demand, LEADERSHIP would have been denied her invaluable service.
Those who saw Nda-Isaiah as a slave driver were also oblivious of his incredible zeal to make his media organisation soar above the clouds of uncertainties. If there was anyone who worked like a slave; it was him as he was on top of all the issues, with everything revolving around him.
It was completely not true that he had the last word on the final editorial content. I recalled spiking his Ghana-Must-Go cartoons twice. Against his insistence, I published a full-page response from Sen. Florence Ita-Giwa over a story published in the Sunday edition. In another instance, I overruled him over a story I believed was not true. He would later praise me for insisting on my professional convictions.
One of my page planners was incompetent and I resolved to have him redeployed from the Sunday desk. I had requested the then General Manager, Abraham Nda-Isaiah, to transfer him from my desk.
“If you can recommend the transfer of this guy from your desk, then, the guy must really be incompetent,” I recalled the GM telling me as he minuted on my memo to the Chairman.
Somehow, the guy had got wind of the planned redeployment and became very unfriendly with me. I could feel the hatred in his eyes on my back as I walked past him on the day my intercom summoned me to the Chairman’s office.
The media entrepreneur was in high spirits and on the phone as he waved me to a seat. He pleaded with me to reconsider working with the page planner. I stood my grounds and told him that I was fed up with him.
Sounding helpless, Chairman softly spoke: “He has begged me to save his job. Why should I play God? I think we should do something to help him. He has a family to feed”.
I was adamant and refused to cave in. The page planner would later be redeployed to another department where he worked for several months. That was the humane disposition of a man who was always quick to accuse his editors of condoning staffers he often labelled as incompetent.
Sir Walter Scott’s statement that “One hour of life, crowded to the full with glorious action, and filled with noble risks, is worth whole years of those mean observances of paltry decorum” seems to sum up the life of the newspaperman, politician and advocate who was never tired of staying the course.
When in September 2018, I approached him to grant me a back page column, he was too glad to do that. He reminded me that I was still a part of the LEADERSHIP Family as he recalled my efforts in the past. Chairman also gave me approval to commence a book entitled: ‘Sam Nda-Isaiah: Nigeria’s Fiery Dream Chaser’. It was slated for public presentation during his 60th birthday. He promised sponsorship and support. He approved that I commence work on setting up an Investigation Desk for the newspaper.
The best way we all can honour the memory of this indomitable spirit called Nda-Isaiah is to ensure that his dream of providing a media platform for all voices is not allowed to die. Those who insist in seeing the human frailty in Nda-Isaiah need to ponder on the words of James Truslow Adam: “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us”.
Good night, Chairman. Your reverberating footprints on the sands of time will continue to teach us the living the timeless lesson that if we embrace the irrevocable willpower to pursue our dream, there’s no mountain we can’t climb.