On June 9, this year I got a pithy, snappy message from the publisher of Vanguard newspaper, Mr. Sam Amuka, also known as Sad Sam, aka Uncle Sam. It was a polite command from this journalism’s generalissimo.
“This Saturday, 13th June, is my birthday. And I don’t celebrate birthdays. So, for me, on Saturday, No ceremonies, No publicity, No noises,” he said. It wasn’t because of the prohibition of large gatherings that COVID-19 has imposed on us that he sent out the message. That is just the way the man is. It is not even because, having worked in the media for more than six decades, he has had a surfeit of publicity and, therefore, is bored by it at the age of 85 years. It is just that this man is a humble, publicity-shy and self-effacing person. Pure and simple. I am sure he does have a throaty laugh when he sees publicity seekers struggle to get their names and photographs into his newspaper. At the same time he does understand that most human beings are essentially egocentric, some of them egocentric almost to the point of paranoia. Therefore, the quest for attention, for public-endorsement and self-validation and for public adolation will continue to be man’s everlasting hunting ground.
Sam Amuka is very, very different, refreshingly different, particularly when you recognise that Nigerian citizens are largely hero-worshipping, attention-seeking and title-chasing human beings. Despite his directive, those of us who are his foot-soldiers believe he deserves, in spite of his humility, all the attention we can give him for all the battles he has fought for our industry and our country over the years. To fail to acknowledge his exertions would be an act of ingratitude, an unpardonable transgression and an unforgiveable dereliction of duty. That is the only way to encourage people like him to continue to work for a country, which had so much promise at independence but which has now gone into a holding period, the future of which is very, very uncertain.
In 1995, there was a conference of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN) in Kaduna. A new executive was to be elected at that conference to take over from the one that was led by Chief M.K.O. Abiola, the publisher of the Concord newspapers, who was in prison arising from his declaration of himself as President of Nigeria, based on the results of the June 12, 1993, election. A group within the NPAN thought no new executive should be elected since the NPAN president was in detention. Another group thought the election must be held since Abiola was not incarcerated because of what he did for the NPAN, and since his term had expired and the association needed to continue to function. The two camps were at daggers drawn. Those who supported Mr. Ismaila Isa, publisher of the Democrat, who was expected to become the new NPAN president, threatened to break up the association. It was a flesh-cutting row that threatened the very existence of the association. We had to find a midway solution that would pacify the two warring groups. Sam Amuka, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, publisher of Champion newspapers, and I came up with the proposal that a high-powered team should be set up to fight for Abiola’s release while the meeting should elect its officers who will bear the burden of pushing the committee to get Abiola freed. That was how the breeze that was likely to knife the lungs of the NPAN was blocked. Ismaila Isa became president and I general secretary of the NPAN, thanks to the wisdom of Amuka, Iwuanyanwu and a few other persons at the conference. I was general secretary at a time the industry was in crisis. General Sani Abacha had proposed a National Mass Media Commission and Press Court, which, if enshrined in the Constitution, would be a major hinderance to the practice of journalism. We needed to find a way of dealing with the problem. Amuka said to me that I must see myself as the think tank of the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO) and always prepare a communiqué from home to be distributed at meetings. The NPO is made up of Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and NPAN. At that time, the three groups were holding joint meetings under the NPO umbrella to find ways of dealing with the threat to the journalism profession posed by the Abacha regime. I found Amuka’s advice very, very invaluable. He emphasised, “just draft a communiqué before you come for the meeting. When you distribute it, we will quickly cross the t’s and dot the i’s and go away. If we waste too much time here, Abacha’s men will just come and pack all of us into jail and the media will be doomed.”
I kept strictly to his advice and our meetings never lasted for long. We escaped being carted like cattle into jail because of the wise words of Uncle Sam Amuka. When the Punch newspaper was shut by the Abacha regime, Ismaila Isa requested that Uncle Sam and a few other NPAN members should join him in Abuja so that we could plead for the re-opening of the paper. We trooped down to Abuja and got the Head of State’s approval to unpadlock the paper. On our return our plane couldn’t land in Lagos because of inclement weather. It was diverted to Ibadan, where we crashlanded. We came back to Lagos by road from Ibadan. In Lagos, we learnt that some Punch executives were saying that they did not send anyone to go and beg the government on their behalf as a matter of principle. I was furious because I know that a boxer who is badly beaten may choose, out of self-pride, not to surrender. His corner men may decide to throw in the towel to save him from further punishment. That was the role that we played, the role of sympathetic corner men. Amuka saw that I was unhappy with the reaction from the Punch. He just told me that there was nothing to worry about, that we had done what we had to do as a responsible organisation that cared about its members. When the Guardian was also shut down during Abacha’s tenure Uncle Sam was willing to play the role of a trouble-shooter. Alex Ibru, Guardian publisher, called me one day and said that Abacha was ready to reopen The Guardian. He told me that he told Abacha that he would bring a retinue of his top executives for the meeting but Abacha told him that he only wanted three people who had been bothering him about reopening The Guardian: Ismaila Isa, Sam Amuka and Ray Ekpu. Ibru’s call to me was to request that the three of us should, please, accompany him to see Abacha. I spoke to Isa and Amuka. Of course, they readily agreed. Speaking to them was like preaching to the converted. We all trooped down to Abuja and Abacha released his hold on the paper that same day. When Isa was going to complete his term as NPAN president in 2002, Amuka asked me whether I wanted to contest for the presidency of the association. I told him I was not interested. There were two other publishers who were ready to contest for the office, both of them insurance experts: Chief Ajibola Ogunshola of the Punch and Chief Sonny Odogwu of The Post Express. Amuka decided to support Ogunshola. Considering the bitter battle that Amuka had with Chief Olu Aboderin with whom he co-founded the Punch, some people were surprised that he pitched his tent with Ogunshola, instead of with his fellow Niger Deltan, Odogwu. I wasn’t surprised because I knew he believed that Ogunshola would do a better job for the association than Odogwu who was not fully involved in the nitty-gritty of publishing. Then some people approached me to join the race with the view that I would be in a better position to coordinate the NPO to deal with the lingering issues of press freedom, apart from issues of advertising and product marketing, which I had handled as general secretary. I yielded. When I sought Amuka’s support he told me that he was in Ogunshola’s corner. I respected his position. But amazingly, he did not stop his staff from voting for me. I won the election and then we experienced the bawling winds of discontent in the aftermath of the election. He stood by me and we stabilised the association. In the last two decades or so, he has been a strong supporter of a stable and progressive Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ). The institute, which was started as a continuing education centre many years ago, ceased to meet the changing needs of the new generation of journalists who wanted to acquire at the end of their training certificates that did not have a limited value. The institute had to be shut down after a series of student protests, while we commenced the push for certification by the Federal Ministry of Education and the NBTE. While the provost, Dr. Elizabeth Ikem, was making regular trips to NBTE’s office in Kaduna, Ismaila Isa, Sam Amuka and I made regular trips to the Ministry of Education, Abuja. With the support of other leaders of the industry such as Dr. Doyin Abiola, Felix Adenaike, Ajibola Ogunshola, etc, the institute got accredited for OND and HND certificate courses. Amuka is still a member of the governing board of the institute while Ismaila Isa remains the chairman. Many people of Amuka’s achievements and age would not allow themselves to be bothered with attendance at board meetings of the NIJ. Amuka’s dedication to the institute is unparalled. So is Isa’s commitment to the progress of the institution.
We have had, from time to time, a river of grievances either in the NGE or in the NPAN. On each occasion that any of the media organisations is in the flux of controversy or there is a major issue that is a threat to press freedom, Amuka, this soft and silk-spoken man, has always been the go-to person. His lifelong devotion to journalism is unequalled; his loyalty to the profession is incontestable; his consistency in fighting for propriety in professional practice is undeniable. Those attributes are his essential magic, his drawing power, the reason that some of us in the profession have had to cling on to him like a limpet. He doesn’t ask for respect, respect comes to him naturally; there are those who ask for it but never get it because they do not deserve it. Amuka deserves respect, he doesn’t ask for it but he gets it because his activities speak for him. He is small in size but in terms of influence he packs a punch. He has a high dose of disarming warmth, a self-deprecating sense of humour. He is a modest man who lives modestly even though he can afford to live in fashionable flamboyance if he wanted. If Uncle Sam does not want to attend an event to which he was invited he would simply say, “Tell them that I died yesterday.” They don’t make them like this anymore.