The news of the death of Sam Nda-Isaiah, Publisher of the Abuja- based Leadership Group of Newspapers, on Saturday, December 12, 2020, hit me like claps of thunder. And left me frozen and speechless for minutes. I choose to call the dinner we had together, five days before his death, my last supper with Sam. It was at the Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos.
I was not alone at that dinner with him that Monday of December 7, 2020. At the dinner, not quite planned, were Uncle Sam, the backbone of the Newspapers Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria, NPAN, and Publisher of the Vanguard Group of Newspapers, Ray Ekpu, an invaluable Veteran of the Pen profession, the new NPAN President, Founder and Chairman of the Daily Trust Group of Newspapers, Malam Kabiru Yusuf and, Gbenga Adefaye, the boss at Uncle Sam’s Vanguard Newspapers who Uncle Sam, fondly calls “My Oga”.
It was a meeting-turned dinner. The Annual General Meeting, AGM, of the NPAN was scheduled for the next day, Tuesday, December 8. But Uncle Sam, our boss, who protects NPAN like mother-hen, had summoned a few of us to what we jokingly, like politicians, termed “a caucus meeting.” He fixed that meeting just to make sure that the AGM, which would usher in a new NPAN Executive would be smooth. He always does that.
Ten years ago when I was elected the General Secretary by acclamation, a position I held until this December 8, Uncle Sam had sent Ekpu to my office to talk me into accepting the position. But this time, Uncle Sam wanted an expanded consultation, perhaps, because of the times we are in. The fortunes of the Media Industry, have gone from bad, to worse, to worst. The Industry is depressed. Practitioners are just there, barely surviving. Many are losing interest. Some are dancing to the tune of the big pipers who hide somewhere to dictate the tune.
A couple of Media Associations have lost their voices. The vibrancy of yesteryears is fast receding. It is like the Media has been conquered. So, Uncle Sam wanted to make sure that at the AGM, we’ll speak with one voice. No rancor. No political pollution. Acclamation is better, he emphasised. The NPAN must lead, and give the Media a strong voice, and fight its battles. Ekpu was in Uyo when Uncle Sam summoned him.
This was Sunday, December 6. His flight back to Lagos was for 4.00pm, Monday. I was in Owerri. My flight was for 5.00pm, Monday. All earlier flights were booked full, no thanks to our disgraceful dangerous roads, particularly in the South-east.
The problem is not just the bad roads. You have to contend with kidnappers and armed robbers and a number of wayward herdsmen. Aviation operators know, and exploit our misfortune to the limit. So, flights to, and from the South-east are usually fully booked. The cost out of this world. Ekpu told me the meeting was for 5.00pm. We had to act fast. When Uncle Sam summons you, you have to pull all stops. We did. By 5.00am, Monday, I hit the road from Owerri to Lagos.
I was nervous because I had assured my family and a very close friend of mine that I was not going to dare the road. The last time I did from Lagos, because I had an emergency in Owerri, I arrived Owerri by 11.00pm, atimes veering into bushes, to the shock and anger of my family and friends. This day then, none of them knew I was on the road. When my friend called at about 9.00am, and heard my driver warning another motorist who almost hit us, the question was:
“Where are you? Did you disobey me?” I lied. “How could I? Am I crazy? I’m going to the market to buy vegetables to take back to Lagos.” Truth is: by that time, I had just gone past Benin by-pass! I was at Ore when Ekpu called to say he had managed to get a 1.00pm flight. The road was kind to me. I arrived Lagos by 2.00pm, beating Ekpu who got stuck between the Lagos Airport and Ikeja to it. Uncle Sam was waiting, stretched out on Kabiru Yusuf’s bed in his (Yusuf’s) Sheraton room.
But Ekpu and I were hungry, having not eaten all day. We all opted to go to the Restaurant for dinner. We had barely sat down when Sam NdaIsaiah joined us.Sam ate, very well, healthy. As we ate, he regaled us with exclusive, off-record, inside gists from Abuja. We were, at once, stunned, shocked and depressed at some of the exclusives.
Things are indeed bad, perhaps, worse than we thought. Sam should know. Aside from being a Publisher, he was also a Politician of the APC stock. In 2014, Sam took part in the APC Presidential Primary, challenging President Buhari with great zeal and seriousness. That did not affect their relationship when Buhari won, and eventually became the President. Sam had access to him, and to almost, all the Powersthat-be in Abuja.
He was an insider. After we had had a hearty laughter over some of Sam’s gists, Uncle Sam called the meeting to order. We began to put down names against offices. A Christian from Niger State, Sam was very passionate about the North. If anybody was in doubt, he confirmed it that evening, as we now converted our Sheraton restaurant table to our meeting venue. He began to canvass, strongly, to our bewilderment, that the NPAN Headquarters be moved from Lagos to Abuja.
Why Lagos, he asked? Abuja is the FCT. And we have a number of newspapers Headquartered there? Why should I come to Lagos to meet with Lai Mohammed, when I have free access to him in Abuja? Why should we be coming to Lagos all the time? Not entirely true. NPAN had held meetings, a number of times, at the posh Headquarters of both the Daily Trust and Leadership.
Calm, cool and collected, Kabiru Yusuf, who we all knew was the in-coming President, listened with a mild smile playing around his lips. A deep man, Yusuf is always like that. And he is patient. He ought to have been the President since six years ago. But each time, members insisted that the Nduka Obaigbena-led Executive should continue, and achieve the many set targets. Obaigbena has tremendous reach. That Executive served for an unprecedented ten years. For the number of years Obaigbena was President, I was General Secretary. Sam was my Assistant, until 2014 when he fully embraced politics, and became a Presidential aspirant under the APC. The Publisher of Blueprint, Abuja based, Mohammed Idris Abuja based, took over from him, and became my assistant. Sam used to tease me, “Comfort, I am your assistant now.
When I become Nigeria’s President, the table will turn. I will appoint you as one of my Assistants.” So that evening at Sheraton, Sam argued forcefully that Mohammed Idris, steps in as my successor. We tried to suggest somebody else, since the General Secretary runs the Secretariat and, with the Treasurer, signs the cheques.
I was asked if I was interested in continuing. I said no, since it would be against the NPAN constitution. Other people, based in Lagos, were suggested, but Sam wouldn’t budge. He was like that. He always held to his conviction. At the AGM on Tuesday, he quickly nominated Idris, ignoring a minor change on the list that emerged that morning for which he called me to oppose as soon as he heard. The cheques can be signed by the Deputy President and the Treasurer, he told me.
I was convinced. So, another acclamation. When it came to the post of the Publicity Secretary, Sam nominated somebody else, after the first nomination. Ekpu, who was our own INEC Chairman, decided to put it to vote. Sam’s candidate lost. We had a good laugh, but the candidate was compensated, by acclamation, with another position. I have told this long story just to prove that Sam was not an unhealthy dying man at the time we were together either at the “caucus” meeting, or at the AGM. He was his usual lively, flamboyant, vociferous and, atimes, brash self
. He argued, forcefully, as usual. But let me quickly add that at Sheraton, I noticed his face was kind of puffy, especially, the cheek area. I noticed he was not as smart while walking, as usual. He had also put on more weight than usual. But I put these down to three things. We are all aging. The COVID-19 lockdown made many of us to put on weight.
And, Sam always had a problem with gout. Nothing life threatening. Sam knew how to enjoy himself. He did that to the fullest. He enjoyed travelling to the Caribbean. He was conscious of his health. At the AGM, he sat by me. When I complained that I needed to take a look at my health, he quickly directed me to a hospital in Dubai, wrote the name down for me, and said “I patrionise them. They are very good.” You can then imagine my shock, at about 4.00am, Saturday, when I read, online, that Sam was gone. It was unbelievable, So, I sat up until 6.00am when I called Kabiru Yusuf, our new President. “Presido, is this a joke about Sam?
I asked, almost in a whisper. When he confirmed, and said he was getting ready to go and visit the family, I lost it. Sam Nda-Isaiah was many things rolled into one. A family man. A Pharmacist. A Publisher. A Columnist. A Politician. A serial entrepreneur. A patriot. He was Chairman of a number of companies. The suddenness of his death diminishes me as a human being. It’s frightening. And it confirms that we are just like fruits before God. He plucks anyone of us when He chooses to. I shall miss Sam’s robust arguments. May his soul rest in peace.
– Obi is the Editor-inChief/CEO of The Source (Magazine)