Sometime in 2004, the then Guardian managing director Emeka Izeze called one of his trusted reporters by his nickname: “Shakespeare, can you reach out to Nduka Obaigbena and get a damn good story crafted in flowing prose?” The Guardian on Saturday was re-packaging its content as a people oriented weekend title. The reporter had just done what everyone felt deserved a hand clap, a day in the life of a chief executive, a profile of Leo Stan Ekeh, the Zinox Computers founder, and has anyone bothered to profile Obaigbena whose journalism sojourn has blazed the trail since the 1980s, the man who exemplifies the glamour and idealism of modern journalism?
I drove to the penthouse overlooking the Apapa Quays past mid-night. The beauty of the sea shone like a thousand stars as the orange lights from the port descended on the waters like a Christmas tree at dawn. Obaigbena who I later got to know had the pet name of Professor at birth and Jala at the University of Benin, was waiting in the stately furnished office to receive his late night visitor. That was after several failed schedules one of which was to be in Jo’Burg South Africa. The idea was for the reporter to have an overview of Obaigbena’s new baby THISDAY South Africa, a broadsheet designed in conservative style, and looking every inch a classy impression away from the status quo, the old guard of the South African print media.
That night, Obaigbena was expecting his South African visitor whom he asked to drive straight to the office, after which we would all have breakfast at Sheraton Hotel Ikeja, offering the visitor an opportunity to see Lagos at night. He did not show up before the reporter took his bow.
For two hours the discussion focused on how lean returns were for local media practitioners whereas in South Africa earnings compared favourably well with global rates. Were THISDAY South Africa a successful venture, it probably would have helped change the returns of publishers back home but it went under faced with financial distress and a hostile competition. Obaigbena as we would learn later went on with his life and being a sportsman on the move, contemplated other possibilities, a track record that easily qualifies him as a man living a thousand lives in a life time.
A year or two later, Victor Ifijeh sent an SOS to the reporter, the publisher or chairman as he is known among his staff, has asked him to get in touch with me and offer a job of deputy editor of the Saturday title. Of course over the years all those who passed through THISDAY weave him in different garbs. He wears a pair of overalls that describe him in the image of Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel with the magical powers of appearance and disappearance, being generally good to all. He is the super hero of modern journalism. At least he told me how he performed one such feat when Abacha came looking for him. The details for security purposes would be lost in obscurity. The superhero in his first incarnation when he turned 50 went to schools to distribute computers and gave out scholarships. This time around, he has promised many good deeds which are currently under implementation. The list goes on and on.
The narrative so far gives you an idea of the character in question, a hard working professional who is largely ruled by intuition and a desire to add value to the status quo. In doing this he has over the years become the pace setter of new ideas and innovations in Nigerian journalism. First was the transformation of THISDAY to an all colour newspaper in 1997, two years after it was launched January 22, 1995. Once, the idea of a wrap-around was unheard of by most media houses but as the years went by, the majority of the media houses joined the wrap around club what with increasing cost and declining revenue of newspaper business. Again Obaigbena who was largely criticized by his colleagues has become the pioneer of how to make money in media business and remain afloat in trying times.
Is he resilient in spite of the odds? May be he is. His fellow travellers will tell you once at Ikeja the old office of the newspaper, the company was garnisheed and the bailiff was in town to lock its premises carting away its valuables. Obaigbena like Napoleon Bournaparte who was found in the heat of war cooling off at some quiet end of the battle front, was having a sip of a drink at a shop down the road, and told the boys production would be completed at a nearby premise or hotel. I had seen him doing same when THISDAY was engulfed by fire, marshaling orders on rescue efforts to arrest the fiery conflagration with Efe by his side. You can call him a never say die.
THISDAY South Africa was rested but Obaigbena was undaunted as he over the years was involved in one bold project or the other-a media store, ARISE magazine, Style, THIDAY Awards, ARISE Fashion et al and more rewarding in recent times-Arisenews television which finally berthed in Lagos after a bold attempt to come centre stage in both London and New York. One Sunday morning in 2013 while still in Somerset New Jersey, Obaigbena asked this reporter to come over to his New York Palace Hotel in the heart of Manhattan for a tour of Arisenews television. I took the train from New Brunswick to Penn Station and in less than two hours we were on our way to 401 Street, 5th Avenue where Arisenews majestically occupied two floors with all the state of the art studio supporting the huge staff network that kept the newsroom alive even as the new baby struggled to overcome its teething problems. The tempo of reporting the black world to the world and the rest of the world to the black race was vibrant and eclectic in London, Jo’burg and Lagos. Each time this reporter was at the White House to cover Obama’s address to White House reporters, Arise took its stand and over time remained the darling of the black audience especially in the coverage of issues affecting black communities, winning awards in the industry.
Obaigbena commands the respect of the staff both white and coloured and you could feel the convivial air among professionals at work with mutual respect and understanding for each other. Those who came for audition as newscasters or interview as reporters and correspondents were willing to be on the queue for another day if the response was in the negative. And it felt good to know my fellow Nigerian was taking charge out there in the Big Apple receiving Nigerian dignitaries and ensuring the big boys of the American media whether in New York or Washington were around to drill them and get the right response on events and issues affecting the polity.
The media connection was there in the university probably honed at Government College Ughelli where Obaigbena had his Higher School Certificate education. Ughelli was an institution patterned after Britain’s prestigious Eton College and expectedly the students whether in the sciences or arts were made to appreciate classics and all aspects of the arts as a liberal study. At the university he joined some of the literary clubs such as Okike, founded by Chinua Achebe, that honed his vision for the written word. Early in the day he was already cartooning Leke Leke for the defunct Bendel owned New Nigeria newspaper. He later teamed up with the editor of the paper who had left New Nigerian to start a new publication, what was to be a learning curve for Obaigbena who vigorously was on the marketing beat for the outfit, leaving one year after to pick a job with Newsweek magazine in London. His experiences with Newsweek and later Time where he did media packaging prepared him for the founding of THISWEEK magazine at a time magazines were flourishing in the nation’s media market. When the magazine was rested, Obaigbena got involved in politics. Apart from interacting with politicians given his calling as a journalist, Obaigbena once had a shot on the Senate and one remembers his Senatorial duel with Chris Okolie publisher of Newbreed and The President in the 1990s.
The history of modern Nigerian journalism would be incomplete without Obaigbena who though did not have a formal journalism training has become a walking question mark in re-writing the rules and practice of the profession.
Three hearty cheers to you Jala and keep making hay while your sun shines..