His name has become a compelling brand in the Nigerian media circles. His face is known within and outside the shores of our land. But his persona, opinions and intentions are still an enigma even to those who have known him very closely over the years. Sam Nda-Isaiah, the chairman of LEADERSHIP Group Limited, will continue to attract more than a fair share of attention any day, anytime.
He is so many things to so many people and many of those who grew up with him have odd, bare and sometimes fascinating recollections of his childhood. Halima Abdullahi, assistant catering officer with Aminu Kano Hospital, Kano, sat on the same bench with Sam at the Katsina Road Primary School, Kaduna. Both were in Primary 5 and 10 years old. “We were the smallest pupils in the class,” she recalled. It was not his status that touched Halima’s heart but the content of his character. “I loved to play and crack jokes a lot but Sam did not like that. He was always asking me to sit down and read.”
As if she was walking down the paved footpath to the school, her voice was lit up by memories of her childhood. She said, “Sam was a very neat boy. He used to carry a white handkerchief in his pocket which he used in cleaning everything from his legs to his books and all. Everything had to be clean.”
Sam was born in Minna, Niger State, on May 1, 1962. His father Clement was in faraway Zaria editing copy at the then Nigerian Citizens Newspapers which was published by the Gaskiya Corporation. Clement was one of the first journalists of Nupe extraction to attain national prominence. “I got a telegram informing me that my wife had given birth to a baby boy,” he recalled. “It was after four months that I stopped by Minna to see Sam for the first time. I knew, even before seeing him, that God had given me a twin brother, given the news of our resemblance.”
He had barely spent a few years of his life with his mother when his paternal grandmother took him to Bauchi where his grandfather worked with the Nigerian Railway Corporation. But due to persistent malaria attacks, his grandparents returned him to Kaduna and he was immediately enrolled in school.
“I started primary school when I was not yet six. Instead of waiting till I was six as the practice was then, my father enrolled me into school so I won’t stay at home doing nothing. He walked me to the school and handed me over to the headmaster.”
Elder Ndanusa said: “I enrolled Sam at UNA School. It was a missionary school and I had taught in a branch of the school in Zaria during my early days there.” It was when Sam left UNA Elementary School that he met Halima at the Christ Church School along Katsina Road, where they both finished their elementary education. Speaking about his son’s performances in elementary school, his father said, “He was brilliant from the word go. In fact, when he went to the school, he met two other pupils who struggled for the first three positions in their classes.”
At age 10, Sam had developed the heart of a man. He had cultivated a profound sense of sympathy and concern for others. Halima recounted an experience that made her respect him so much. “I lost my father shortly before my family moved from Zaria to Kaduna. One day in school, the headmaster came to our class and read the names of those who did not pay their fees. My name was the second on the list. As my name was mentioned, I broke down and wept and that infuriated Sam a lot. He said, ‘Ha, see what this good-for-nothing man has done. This girl just lost her father. Look at how he has made her cry’. He consoled me, wiped my tears and took me home after school. He assured me that things would get better. I knew I had a friend in him after that day. He took me home three days during the week.”
At the time Sam completed elementary school, it was difficult to gain admission into the few good secondary schools in northern Nigeria. Even with his connections, his father said it was difficult to get him an admission. “He passed his common entrance examination very well but, even at that, it was not easy to get him a good school. Luckily, I was in Kaduna and I knew a lot of big people. They helped me get him an admission into Government College, Kaduna, in 1974. It was then one of the best schools in the north.”
Sam said of his admission to the college, “My father handed me over to the late Mallam Turi Muhammadu, who was then the managing director (MD) of New Nigerian Newspapers. It was Malam Turi who took me to Government College, Kaduna, because, back then, there were no private secondary schools.” One would have thought that he would feel lonely on his first day at school but this was not to be. “On the first day I took him to the school, I was wondering whether he would feel safe being in an entirely new environment and with strange people. So I went there in the evening to check on him. I thought he would be feeling lonely. Funny enough, when I got there, I saw that he was already jumping about with other boys. He is someone who quickly adapts to any condition he finds himself,” said his father.
A week after he was admitted into the college, one of his teachers administered a test and Sam would not forget how that act jolted him and his colleagues. “Though it was not funny writing that test, I did pass anyway,” he confessed.
Barnabas Omali, director of administration and finance with the Sir Ahmadu Bello Memorial Foundation, is one of the students who were admitted into Government College, Kaduna, in 1974. Omali has very remarkable memory and a great sense of detail. He listed some prominent Nigerians, who were part of the 1974 class to include Dr Kabiru Mato, Prof. Ibrahim Musa, Prof. Umar Ibrahim. Zakari Salihu, Air Commodore Jacob Adigun, Navy Commander Aminu Alimunu, Comptroller General of Customs, Mr. Abdullahi Dikko Inde, Bishop Fred Addo.
Omali said: “I was the first to arrive in the school among those of us who were admitted that year. We were over 200 students. Sam was the last student to arrive and he was the last on the roll.” Asked how he knew Sam was the last to arrive, he said, “We knew he was the last and it was verifiable. When a student was admitted into school, either as a fresh student or as transferred from another school, he was given a registration number which is maintained throughout his stay in the school. It is used as an identification number because if you have two persons with the same names, they would be distinguished by their numbers.”
Omali could recall vividly many things that happened at the college. “I remember that Sam was number 2911. If you go to the college now, it is still in the register and nobody else in the history of the college will have that number.”
Before Sam’s arrival at the college, Omali and some other fresh students had formed a small circle of friends. Samson, a young Nupe boy from Kogi, was in that circle. It was Samson who found Sam and brought him into the group. “We had a circle of friends even before Sam came into the school. As soon as we arrived, we started identifying with people of like minds and there was a Nupe classmate, Samson from Kogi State, who is now an aircraft maintenance engineer in Malaysia. It was Samson who ran into Sam and they both discovered they were Nupe. So Samson came back to report that a Nupe boy had just arrived. Of course, by that ethnic affinity, Samson drew Sam into our circle of friends.” But Sam spent more time with his books than he did with his friends. “And we tried to live with that because, as friends, there were certain things that attracted us to one another. It was therefore possible to overlook the excesses of any of our friends,” said Omali.
Adamu Sambo, president, Institute of Certified Geographers of Nigeria, was another classmate of Sam at Government College, Kaduna. Sambo cuts a picture of a very stern person but a close contact reveals his affable character. He said, “Sam was one of the best students in the college. He was a very serious student but, that notwithstanding, he participated in all kinds of social activities and was very friendly. He had a way of making people laugh no matter the situation.” While playing and making people happy, Sam was said to have also been subtly “mischievous”. “When assignments were given, he would stay back in the class to do it before going to the hostel. So, if you joined him to play and joke, you would be making a huge mistake because when the teacher calls for the assignment the next day, he would be the first to submit it. A lot of our colleagues learnt not to follow him the hard way.”
Another very interesting aspect of Sam’s character as espoused by his school mates is religious tolerance. In fact, Halima and Sambo agreed that he was not given to religious sentiments even at a very tender age. “Samuel is one person who was always saying that there was nothing like being a Christian or a Muslim. Till now, he believes that all of us serve one God. That was what he stood for in primary school and that is what he is standing for now,” said Halima. Sambo recounted his experience at the college: “The kind of upbringing we had in secondary school made us look at each other as brothers. We did not care what state each came from or what tribe or religion. Then, Muslim students were being woken up by their Christian counterparts to go and say their early morning prayers and, if you did not, you got punished. That is a Christian telling you, you must be a good Muslim. The Muslims also did the same to their Christian colleagues. There was no division along religious or ethnic affiliations.”
“I was in Class 1C with Sam,” said Kabiru Mato, head, Centre for Anti-Corruption Studies, University of Abuja. “I was in Tseodo House while Sam was in Jaja House. Fred Addo, Barnabas Omale, Sam and I were very close friends. We were the smallest in our set.” At a time it was commonplace for senior students to bully and maltreat their juniors; only very intelligent students were immune from such harsh treatments. “Senior students respected Sam because he was the best in our set but some of us didn’t enjoy such a privilege. We had to find other ways of protecting ourselves from bullies,” Mato recalled. Omali also confirmed, “He was quite a courageous person. Occasionally, he resisted attempts by senior students to bully him, and more often than not, he got away with it.”
“In terms of bullies, it was a permitted practice in the secondary school I attended. Senior students were allowed to punish junior students. It was a lifestyle we all went through. When it came to our turn, we had our own take at the practice also. It was fun,” Sam admitted. But the jolly Sam was not courageous enough to stand when the school exploded in a riot. He fled the school. His father said he escaped from the school even before the first stone was thrown by the angry students. “That day, Sam ran back home and told me students were fighting in the school. I went straight there to find out what happened. When I met the principal, he said he would not speak on the crisis until investigations were concluded. When the investigations were concluded, my son was vindicated.” Unlike Sam’s colleagues in the college, Ndanusa does not believe his son was daring as a child. Against the many courageous acts his friends attributed to him, his father still thinks otherwise. “When Sam was a kid, he was a coward,” said the old man.
According to Omali, “The students’ protest of 1978 changed a lot of things in the college, including the boarding arrangement. A lot of students were not allowed back to the school and a lot more were not admitted into the boarding house. This affected the final result of most of the students. Besides, most of us didn’t know anything about the University Matriculation Examination but Sam did. In fact, he was one of the first persons from the north who was given admission in the University of Ife, Ile-Ife.” While his father disagreed that he was courageous, the elder journalist, however, attested to the fact that his son made excellent grades in school.
Sam even confessed, “I passed all my exams. If I remember very well, I think I graduated as the best student in my secondary school. Even at that, from the first day I entered Government College, Kaduna, to the last, I took the first position. I had no fear of passing exams even though it was also clear to me that the only way to pass exams was to work hard. So I have never been afraid of exams.”
All his friends admit that Sam was not visible in the sporting arena. He was said to have occasionally played tennis when he was not burying himself in his books or doling heavy helpings of rib-cracking jokes. “Sam was not a part of everything we did, like sneaking out of school to go watch films in the town. In those days, we occasionally escaped from school to watch films at Rex and Scala Cinemas. So when I got caught at the cinema, it was like ok, Barnabas you were at Rex Cinema yesterday, and that means Fred Addo must have been there. But Sam was quite cut out, so people really knew where he could be and where he could not be. Nobody would accuse Sam of going to any of those places because he was not cut out for it.”
A lot of students from the north did not get direct admission to universities during the late 1970s and early 80s. The majority did one preliminary programme or another at either the then School of Basic Studies or the College of Advanced Studies, all located in Zaria. But Sam was an exception. “A couple of our mates went to College of Arts and Science, Zaria, and, when we arrived, we did not see Sam and there was nowhere we could contact him. So, it was towards the end of the season (1980) when he might have finished his first semester exams that he showed up in Zaria. When asked where he was, he said he was admitted to read Pharmacy at Ife. For me, that was a courageous thing to do because, having lived most of our lives here, for one to go all the way to Ife was a show of courage. I did not go beyond the north until I graduated from the university,” Barnabas Omali recalled.
Harry Odey was admitted to the University of Ife in 1979. While he stayed on the 3rd Floor, Block 3, Room 81 of the Awolowo Hall, Sam was in Room 87. He said: “We were the smallest and youngest students in the hostel. We were the only students on the floor who came in directly from secondary school, and we were also the noisiest.”
Since the university forbade students from fighting, it was possible for junior students to take their senior colleagues for a ride. Sam and his friends did not waste the opportunity. “Being the smallest in our classes,” Odey said, “we were emboldened to challenge anybody, knowing that nobody would touch us.” He said Sam was more daring and notorious in challenging people who were three times his height. “He was noted for always carrying big textbooks. So when he appears, it’s the textbooks you see first before the person carrying them. He was nicknamed Alhaji and most of those who knew him then still refer to him as Alhaji. He is very courageous and has a lot of energy. We played hard and studied hard too.”
Studying hard did pay off for “Alhaji”. He graduated from Ife as one of the best Pharmacy students in his set. He was one of the very few that did not repeat any class which was a common practice in the Faculty of Pharmacy then. He had a brief stint in the profession but that wasn’t his first love. He had developed a liking for journalism while still studying for a degree in Pharmacy, a course he took against his father’s advice. “Sam was very intelligent while in secondary school. He came out the best in Kaduna State when he wrote his school certificate. When the result came, I advised him to study Medicine but he won’t because he had earlier decided to study Pharmacy,” said the father.
Apart from growing up under a father who was a journalist, Sam might have developed a healthy knack for the profession when he did vacation jobs with the New Nigerian Newspapers. “Whenever he was on vacation, I placed him in the proofreading department of the New Nigerian,” said his father, who was then an associate editor with the paper. “I want to believe that he started picking interest in journalism from there. Even while in the University of Ife, at a stage, he was editor-in-chief of the pharmacy students’ magazine. Back then, he would come to look for adverts from pharmacy shops in Kano.”
Before his National Youth Service, Sam worked as an intern with the Minna General Hospital. He later joined Pfizer where he worked for five years before setting up a distribution firm. It was perhaps from here he decided to start a newspaper. “Some years back, Sam and some friends met to set up a newspaper. Unfortunately, one of them died and that business was abandoned. But it was still in him that he wanted to set up his own paper. Then he started LEADERSHIP Confidential,” his father said. He maintained a breezy column in Daily Trust and when he founded LEADERSHIP Newspaper Group in 2004, he transferred the column to his newspaper. It has remained one of the most incisive, authoritative and compelling columns maintained by any newspaper in Nigeria.
Back home, Sam is his father’s pally but the two would not stop disagreeing over several things. “I always disagree with my father. We always argue. But I have never been a disobedient child or a rebel. There are some things that I didn’t do as a child – things like sneaking out to go to parties or to cinemas at night. I have never tasted alcohol in my life,” said Sam.
Elder Ndanusa said he never flogged Sam or any of his children. “While he was growing up, the only incident I carried a whip was when he lost a friend and I found him running around the next morning with another friend. I followed him with a whip but I did not strike him.” Commenting on his childhood, Sam said, “I was not a disobedient person but it was very possible that I was one who was bent on doing what I wanted to do especially when I was convinced that I was doing the right thing. Of course, my parents have been very angry with me many times and perhaps have chided me. But I can’t remember being flogged. Moreover, my dad and mum didn’t keep ‘koboko’ (whip). I can’t remember one that was hung on the wall somewhere. So, flogging perhaps was out of the question. Again, up untill when I was about five years, I was with my grandmother. I am a grandparent’s child. I was the closest to my grandmother.”
Those who have had very close relationship with Sam say he is very generous and sympathetic to a fault. He is also said to be unyielding about the things he wants. While his love life is shrouded in some form of mystery, especially when he was a young man, he, however, yielded to one woman who did not take him seriously at the initial stage.
“I met Zainab in 1998. She was then working with Afri-Project, a consultant to PTF. Back then, I was also doing some works with Afri-Project. At first, she didn’t like me because she thought that I was too old for her. She even did say I was too old for her. As funny as it was, it is the truth. I was 10 years older than her. And she thought that that was a life time,” Sam recalled. But Zainab also has her own impression of their first meeting. “We used to have a lot of visitors then and I was one of the two that were placed in charge of having unwanted visitors kept out.” Sam was very lucky; he wasn’t one of the unwanted visitors. “So, I didn’t know him before I met him really and I have to explain that. One of my colleagues came to me and said someone came to her and said that he had seen me and wanted to marry me. It was hilarious. My friend and I laughed. It was very strange.”
Sam might have been a novice in what has come to be known today as “toasting” but he managed to walk up to his would-be wife after all. “One day he walked up to me and he said, ‘I’m Sam.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I know you.’ I had seen him on the corridors before. He used to come and see some of our bosses. That was the first time I met him. And we didn’t quite hit it off because I wasn’t ready to marry at that time. I was not interested at all.” But trust the resilience in Sam. He followed her even when she relocated from Abuja to Kaduna and finally got her.
Asked how he got the woman who didn’t want to marry him to succumb, he said, “I didn’t perform any magic. I only continued sticking around.”
True, Zainab agreed that Sam was 10 years older. “He was only 10 years older than me. My Dad is ten years older than my mum. So it was something I was already used to. But it was more like, he was more old-fashioned than what I was expecting to marry. He was of the old school, you know. Real old school. He loved to listen to Jazz. Then I was really into gospel music, a lot of gospel music at that time.”
Sam doesn’t give up on anything he believes in. He kept on visiting Zainab. “He grew on me. His qualities starting shinning when I started interacting with him on a daily basis,” she said. Recalling how Sam finally conquered her heart, Zainab said, “It was in 1999. I went out in the morning and, when I came back in the evening, our house help said, ‘wai kin yi bako’ meaning ‘you’ve got a visitor’. I can remember vividly. I said, ‘waye’, meaning, who’? And he went in and brought a letter that Sam had written. It was sealed. I remember because I still have that letter today at home. And the letter reads: ’Zainab long time. Just came to see if you were around’…or something like that. The date was there. It was February 14th, 1999. And so by August 14th 1999 we were married.”
And speaking about the man she calls “Sweetie”, Zainab said, “My eyes were opened and I saw that this guy was somebody who would take care of his family. How did I know that? All his siblings were living with him. It was my aunt or my mum that said that anyone who would accommodate his family in his home would take care of his wife and his children. He’s already doing it now. And he has a wicked sense of humour. He can be really funny. Right now, he seems like a very serious chap.” Sam and Zainab are today blessed with four children.
His best man, Pastor Abel Yarison, recalls with fondness the memory of Zainab’s wedding to Sam. “The wedding was conducted by Bishop Calvin and Bishop Edwin. I remember Edwin asking Sam on the church altar why he looked so serious and he said, ‘Because marriage is a serious business’.”
Abel has tremendous respect for his friend. “One of the things I know is that Sam is a man of integrity. He is a very honest man. What you see is what you get. He is forthright. That, you can’t take away from him, even when he was a single man. I am not saying this because it is going on the media. Even in private, that is what I know about him. Regardless of where he is in life, if Sam had known you from way back, he always played with you the same way. Sam never despises people. He is now relating with the great and the mighty but even when he meets people he knew years back, he relates with them the same way,” said Abel.
Sam is not new to controversy. Currently, there are speculations that he belongs to a secret society because of his penchant for wearing sparkling white clothes. Asked to speak on this, he replied with a vivacious hilarity, “They didn’t say I am a wizard? I am used to people saying things about me. I have always liked cleanness anywhere I find myself. White symbolizes purity and cleanness. Moreover, white cannot be repeatedly worn without washing. Even at this, I wear other colours, though I wear white more often. It is like an official colour for me. That is what I want to do. And I have been doing it for a long time.” He does not change his mind about anything because people think differently and that might have accounted for why people say he is stubborn and proud.
But he is not the easiest person to work for because of his very high standards. He expects people to deliver because he delivers himself. Having worked closely with him for eight months, I have come to respect the man we all call chairman in the newsroom. I have come to realise that he doesn’t want to fail at anything. He doesn’t say things and then fail to do them. I haven’t seen chairman for two days now and, as I struggle to meet the deadline on this article, I can hear him saying in the ears of my mind, “Ibanga, you have not come to tell me what you have been doing. You are not a serious person.”
You can only be a serious person to the chairman when you deliver effectively and on before the deadline. From my interactions, deviations and the lessons learnt while working for and with him, I agree totally with the testimonies of his father, his schoolmates and friends. Omali said, “Even though nobody is perfect, Sam thinks that everybody should be like him. Since he can deliver at his level, he does not see any reason why other people should not do the same.” These stories are real and part of what has made Sam Nda-Isaiah, the man he is and will always be.