Sam Nda-Isaiah knew how to walk this proverbial tightrope of journalism. The only problem was that for the most part, he was capable of looking his own friends straight in the eye while poking his pen in their eyes with a smile and an overdose of politeness. He loved his country though. He was passionate about Nigeria. He wanted the best for this troubled society and its people.
Sam Nda-Isaiah, our friend and colleague who died the other day, aged 58, will certainly be remembered as one of the major contributors to the practice and promotion of the journalism profession in Nigeria, in the last moments of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century, with his craft, writings, enterprise and involvement in the politics of the trade. His death was sudden and shocking. A few days earlier, he had been actively involved in the activities of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), precisely at the change of guards ceremony which led to the emergence of a new executive in charge of the association. The communique issued at the end of that NPAN meeting talked about the need for the Nigerian government to take allegations of a second wave of the COVID-19 more seriously, and begin to make arrangements for the procurement, the distribution of vaccines in Nigeria and the inoculation of our over 200 million vulnerable population.
Days later, it was reported that Sam Nda-Isaiah had succumbed to COVID-19, and had gone the way of ancestors. Some close associates insist that his death had nothing to do with COVID-19. Whatever it was, his death is an affirmation of the ugliness of the year 2020, an annus horribilis, in which lives are being cut short by a virulent, mutating and vicious pathogen called COVID-19 and other afflictions. It is true that many have survived, but millions have also died. The world was taken back to a century earlier to the Spanish Flu of 1918 – 1920, a bad case of history repeating itself as a tragedy. Sam’s death was most painful because he was a man full of life, energy, ideas, passion and promise. In the same week that he died, he attended the NPAN meeting, chaired a Board meeting at his company’s headquarters, and was in the middle of the formation of new projects. And he died… If death had wanted money, we could have given him, if death wanted kolanuts, we could have littered his path with the biggest kolanuts from our great grandfather’s barn; but death, the greedy, grim reaper, rejected both money and kolanuts and took our beloved most worthy brother instead…and now we mourn. We mourn.
Sam Nda-Isaiah was a shining light in our community; that is the literary and intellectual eco-system. He was the publisher of the Leadership newspapers, an influential newspaper, which literally grew from grass to grace. It was a great pleasure and a delight indeed to have been able to relate with, and engage Sam Nda-Isaiah in the course of my assignment as President Goodluck Jonathan’s media adviser and spokesman. But I knew Sam Nda-Isaiah long before then. I met him through his writings before I met him in person. Writers are often led by their own words and thoughts: They unlock doors which may be forever invisible with their turns of phrase; they connect with souls that they may never even meet in physical spaces. Their words can cause revolutions across minds, across generations and yet their only touch with that vast space are the words that they spoke or wrote.
Sam Nda-Isaiah first came into major public reckoning as a columnist, and editorial board member at the Daily Trust newspaper, whose founder is now the president of the NPAN, and whose inauguration he attended as one of his last minute activities. To say that he wrote brilliant columns is to create a new cliché. Of course, he did. Sam Nda-Isaiah’s columns titled “Last Word” and “Ear Shot” were compelling reads. They brought him to national attention. Sam Nda-Isaiah’s career path was all the more interesting and remarkable because he was originally a Pharmacist. He studied Pharmacy at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife. For a while, he worked as a Pharmacist, during his National Youth Service Year at the Ekiti General Hospital, and later at the Kano Specialist Hospital; the General Hospital, Minna; and at Pfizer Products Limited. Journalism would eventually become his calling and the defining vocation of his life.
Sam Nda-Isaiah built the paper with the force of his own industry, ideas, and connections within the Northern establishment. He was a fearless, aggressive and say-it-as-it-is writer. He took on everyone and any one. He paid close attention to the governance process and did not spare any fool in the corridors of power. Everything in the Leadership newspaper was purposeful.
Persons who are privy to his background would not be surprised. His father, Clement Nda-Isaiah was a journalist in the 1970s. He was, at a point, sports editor at the New Nigerian newspaper. As a secondary school student, Sam Nda-Isaiah was often dropped off to join his father at the New Nigerian newspaper premises after closing from school. Any surprise then that the son of a journalist who went to study Pharmacy eventually ended up as a journalist, publisher and media entrepreneur? At the Obafemi Awolowo University, his interest in journalism and public affairs was notable. He was Editor of The Pharmacist, a departmental magazine. He later sustained his interest in public affairs by writing for the Daily Trust, the platform that brought him into public reckoning.
His most compelling outing in this regard was his publication, in 2004, of his collection of writings in the Daily Trust. The Book was titled Nigeria: Full Disclosure: Selected Writings on Governance, Democracy and Statecraft, May 1999 – March 2004 by Sam Nda-Isaiah. It effectively put a fence around his public commentaries up to that point, but it was also a major event on the cultural calendar. Sam was able to attract the high and mighty in society to the book presentation. From the event, he reportedly made a sum of N17 million, which became the seed money for the rejuvenation of his own newspaper, Leadership, which he had founded in 2001. Leadership newspaper then was a very modest, subscription-only effort, not more than a few pages of straggly newsprint, but a popular offering all the same because it was an outright, left-wing anti-Obasanjo newspaper. Day after day, one edition after another, Sam Nda-Isaiah’s newspaper drew blood literally as it highlighted the shortcomings of the Obasanjo administration across ministries, departments and agencies of government, and the policy spectrum.
The newspaper pandered to popular sentiments. The launch of the book in 2004 and the gain of N17 million gave the newspaper project a new bump and verve. In those days, N17 million was a lot of money. Many other columnists would follow in Sam Nda-Isaiah’s footsteps and publish collections of their writings. It was the political season and you could make as much money as possible if you had the right connections. In Sam Nda-Isaiah’s case, that singular event, that is the publication of a selection of his writings, promoted him and gave him the platform that he needed to scale up. In 2004, his project, the Leadership newspaper, grew into a big enterprise and a major contribution to popular culture, journalism and ideas. In terms of focus and mission statement, the reader was told: “We shall stand up for good governance. We shall defend the interests of the Nigerian state even against its leaders and we shall raise our pen at all times in defence of what is right. These are the values by which we intend to be assessed.”
Sam Nda-Isaiah built the paper with the force of his own industry, ideas, and connections within the Northern establishment. He was a fearless, aggressive and say-it-as-it-is writer. He took on everyone and any one. He paid close attention to the governance process and did not spare any fool in the corridors of power. Everything in the Leadership newspaper was purposeful. In the past, we used to complain about a tradition of newspapering in the North, which supported the Islamic religion and the Northern aristocracy, and hence offered, perhaps with the notable exception in this regard of Citizen magazine, a tendentious form of journalism which played the usual Nigerian game. Leadership newspaper was slightly different in its early beginnings. It was avant-garde and the market responded accordingly, as the newspaper attracted attention and respect. Sam Nda-Isaiah recruited some of the best hands in the business, including Azu Ishiekwene, a former editor of The PUNCH newspaper and a gifted master of the prose who helped to further raise the newspaper’s quality of delivery across board. In later years, however, I observed that the newspaper became somewhat tainted with Sam’s partisan politics. But that is another story.
I hold the view that Sam’s partisan politics affected and conditioned his political views and relationships. It would be wrong, however, to question his engagement with the country of his birth at the level of both ideas and action. It was a choice he made which should be respected. In 2015, this was his campaign slogan: “It is Time for Big Ideas.” Indeed Nigeria needs “Big ideas.”
Newspapering was Sam’s passion nonetheless. He would later branch out into other businesses and investments: manufacturing, telecommunications, hospitality, agriculture, and real estate. There was this upscale eatery close to where I lived in Asokoro, Abuja. Banana Republic. I was shocked to discover that it was owned by Sam. I couldn’t make the connection between Sam Nda-Isaiah, the writer/publisher and Sam, the curator of a pepper soup, suya and Chinese/African swallow joint. His energy was boundless. His appetite was large. His talent was huge. He was a prototypical renaissance character. He was either chairman or member of many boards, and over the years, he built the Leadership newspaper into a group of companies. He pursued entrepreneurship and leadership opportunities with great enthusiasm, and with equal, if not a bigger appetite, he pursued knowledge, acquiring multiple academic degrees. Media ownership is a form of power, and with that power comes influence, privileges and attention. Sam Nda-Isaiah did not shy away from the latter. He took an active interest in community leadership. He was not only involved in the politics of the newspaper industry, he also took chieftaincy titles.
In 2011, he was honoured with the title of Kakaki Nupe. In 2012, he became the Aare Baaroyin of Akure. In 2013, he was made the Uguwmba Ndigbo by the Igbo community in Abuja. He was also Jakadan Potiskum. Sam was a bridge-builder. He had friends across the country and all aisles. In 2015, he ran for the presidency of Nigeria during the primary election on the platform of the All Progressives Congress. He lost to General Muhammadu Buhari, who later went on to win the 2015 Presidential election in one of the most historic elections in Nigeria. Incidentally, way back in 2003, he was the head of General Buhari’s presidential publicity campaign committee. I hold the view that Sam’s partisan politics affected and conditioned his political views and relationships. It would be wrong, however, to question his engagement with the country of his birth at the level of both ideas and action. It was a choice he made which should be respected. In 2015, this was his campaign slogan: “It is Time for Big Ideas.” Indeed Nigeria needs “Big ideas.” New ideas. A new way of thinking and being.
As presidential spokesperson and media adviser, I had cause to visit his office, and invite him to meetings with the president at the Villa. President Goodluck Jonathan always told me that he was his friend. This was regularly confirmed by other members of the president’s team. Occasionally, the president would ask after him, and if we had any meetings with editors at the Villa, at House 7 especially, he was always one of those media chiefs who would stay behind and have a one-on-one with the president. But that never stopped Sam Nda-Isaiah from criticising the Jonathan administration. Each time he attacked the government, either in the Features pages of his newspaper or through one notorious editorial cartoon called “Ghana Must Go”, people who knew that he had direct access to President Jonathan would ask: “Is this man still our friend? Is he our friend?” People in the corridors of power often make the mistake of thinking that they could make friends out of journalists. Nigerian journalists are like Nigerian policemen. They don’t really have friends. They are governed by the pressure of the breaking news. What you don’t want a third party to hear, don’t confide in a journalist. If it is newsworthy, they will tell the story. They will analyse it. They will tell the public, and defend the people’s right to know. The same journalists however will go to every length to protect you if you are their primary source. Every good journalist knows the basic rule: You are only as good as your sources and you are not obliged to unmask them.
Sam Nda-Isaiah knew how to walk this proverbial tightrope of journalism. The only problem was that for the most part, he was capable of looking his own friends straight in the eye while poking his pen in their eyes with a smile and an overdose of politeness. He loved his country though. He was passionate about Nigeria. He wanted the best for this troubled society and its people. He was a patriot. He was internationally acclaimed for his accomplishments. What remains is how to sustain his legacy. Many other lives drew oxygen from his, and now that he is no more, the best way to preserve his memory is to ensure that his various contributions are kept alive – “For God and country”.
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.