By Louis Odion, FNGE
The Samuel we read in the Holy Bible was a transformational figure in the Old Testament. Through him finally came kings to shepherd the nation of Israel after Joshua. The miracle child of Hannah was ordained to administer divine oath on God’s anointed.
Conversely, the Samuel we encountered in Nigeria’s media space in the past two decades was no less imbued with fierce crusader – if not ecumenical – spirit.
Whether in journalism, which he adopted as profession outside his training in pharmacy, or partisan politics, which he ventured into in the twilight of Goodluck Jonathan’s much troubled administration, Samuel Nda-Isiah was indeed the curator of the “big ideas” to heal society and fix a broken nation.
The Kakaki of Nupe truly stuttered acutely, but there was never a clutter in his words – whether spoken or written, deployed vigorously in defense of his convictions or country. With him, there was nothing like perching conveniently on the fence in literal or literary terms. As powerfully expressed in his writings, he never quibbled or equivocated as to leave a doubt where he stood in the hour of national dilemma or a moral crisis.
His boundless energy was forever marshaled in evangelizing any cause he embraced or in pursuit of any target he set for himself. Those who interacted with him at the board meeting of NPAN (Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria) just last Tuesday in Lagos attested he was still his ebullient and humorous self. Two days later, he would preside over another board meeting at Leadership headquarters in Abuja to fashion new strategy to grow the stable’s new offering called “National Economy” in the months ahead.
So, nothing prepared anyone for the looming thunderbolt, the eclipse that suddenly unfolded barely twenty hours later. The news jolted like lightning, just after Friday midnight. Suspecting another social media hoax, I quickly dialed my brother, Azu (Ishiekwene), whose relationship with the Leadership publisher had grown from official to filial in the course of his five-year engagement as Group Managing Director of the company.
“Impossible!,” Azu’s screamed in a voice made groggy apparently by rudely aborted sleep. “We exchanged text messages only yesterday!!”
He hung up abruptly, promising to speak directly with the family and revert to me.
The next few moments indeed felt like eternity. Surreal. Or, was I in the middle of a bad dream? Still fresh was the grave of another senior professional colleague, Muyiwa Daniel. (The ace sportswriter had just been interred few hours earlier in Lagos.) To say nothing about three other recent monumental passages of Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, Pa Bisi Lawrence and Sonnie Asuelimen.
I pinched myself hard, hoping to awake from some nightmare. The resultant pain erased all doubts, caressing me with the icily cold hand of reality.
Just then Azu called back and, alas, confirmed the sad news.
Later around 1 am, I called Chief Segun Osoba, our media patriarch and legendary sleuth of the night. Sounding distraught over an earlier tragedy that had befallen the Ojora family, Aremo Osoba thought I was calling to offer fresh facts on the quinquagenarian (Dapo) who had just reportedly died of gunshot wounds in Lagos. Like Azu, the former Ogun governor and NPAN patron reeled in shock.
What he must have found shattering was the suddenness. Aremo Osoba recalled that there was no foreboding whatsoever only three days earlier when NPAN met in Lagos to elect Trust chairman, Mallam Kabiru Yusuf, as new president after Mr. Nduka Obaigbena: “Sam didn’t show any sign of illness. He looked robust and was his usual ebullient self.”
Though I had long encountered his writings, I finally got the chance to meet with the Leadership chairman in flesh in 2006 while we both vacationed in Central London. We met at the home of our mutual friend, Barister Jimoh Ibrahim. For two weeks, we interacted daily and gisted on political happenings back home.
He had a quick smile, made more infectious by a square jaw and throaty laugher.
I recall each time he came from an outing, he always carried a duffel bag laden with latest books harvested from bookshops across London, betraying a chronic addiction to books.
He eventually returned to Nigeria before me. Thereafter, we drew closer back home. When news broke I had resigned as Sun editor in 2008, he graciously invited me to transfer my column to Leadership. I could not oblige him because I already made commitment to The Nation pending the take-off of the newspaper project I was working on – National Life newspapers. He didn’t feel offended.
When I later accepted offer to be Edo Information Commissioner in 2011, he was also most supportive. When news of my resignation broke in 2015, Sam called to congratulate me and, again, invited me to write for Leadership. Again, I told him I could not abandon my family at The Nation. He showed understanding.
In his own tribute, Kawu Modibbo stated that Sam was ever loyal to his friends, in fair or foul weather. I attest to that. What should be added is that he was also generous to a fault both in spirit and material terms.
Nothing illustrates this better than his relationship with Azu. In our clime, most employers and their employees often part in bitterness. But Azu and Sam drew even closer after the former resigned as Group Managing Director of Leadership in 2015 at the expiration of a five-year contract. Initially, the Chairman would not let go, offering more incentives. But he finally capitulated when Azu explained that at 50, he felt a compelling need to do his own thing.
He was most supportive in the setting up of The Interview and when Azu invited him to the celebration of the first anniversary of the monthly in September 2016 at the Yar’Adua Centre, Sam not only attended the pre-event gala night, he was effusive in praise when invited to make comments at the main event: “To tell you how gifted and competent Azu is, you only need to take a copy of Leadership before he became our Group Managing Director in 2010 and what the paper looked like in 2015 when he left us.”
It is a measure of that special bond, the mutual trust between them that Azu is the only one I know who could call and veto the Chairman’s editorial decisions from outside till Sam drew his last breath on Friday.
It is a mark of his character that Sam had pitched camp with Buhari way back in 2003 as the main opposition figure when it was most unprofitable. Through the agency of his weekly column in Daily Trust, he was most unsparing of the Obasanjo administration. That crusade would, in fact, assume more militancy with the founding of Leadership in 2005.
It is always more materially rewarding to flirt with the ruling party. But with the overtly adversarial slant of his editorial policy, Sam obviously disdained the presiding PDP while keeping faith with the opposition. His somewhat radical posture is proudly justified as exertion for “God and Country” proclaimed loudly by Leadership as its corporate mantra.
The patriotic streak to this can, for instance, be seen in the newspaper’s epic front-page editorial entitled “Donald Trump Is A Danger To Nigeria’s Democracy” published on the eve (November 3) of now historic U.S. 2020 polls. As could be deduced from the title, it was an acerbic put-down of the anti-democratic showing of the American leader. Very much like the sort of grenades Sam normally hurled on a good day.
Indeed, the said editorial would seem to have caused some disquiet at the State Department judging by the alacrity with which the head of the Abuja Consulate sought audience with Leadership board of editors immediately.
After the team from the US embassy had been ushered to their seats in the boardroom of Leadership’s corporate headquarters in Abuja three days later, Sam was still relentless. I have it on good authority that the Leadership chairman shunned diplomatic niceties that day and told his guests to their faces that Trump was setting a bad example for democracy in Nigeria and, by extension, Africa.
In seeking audience with Leadership, it was clear the US team came on a charm offensive. But the smartly dressed visitors however soon found themselves in an awkward situation of having to defend and explain that the strength of America’s democratic institutions would prevail over the perceived aberrant eccentricity of an individual.
But for once, those who used to lecture us on the best democracy practices were made to admit they too had fallen short of the high standards they often mouthed.
No one could have given a better expression to a pan-Africanist perspective to the unfolding Washington farce.
Doubtless, Sam parlayed his unique talent to the propagation of his somewhat strong views and the defense of his country.
• Mr. Odion is Senior Technical Assistant on Media to the President.