The Nduka Obaigbena Phenomenon

By Simon-Kolawole

 

I recollect vividly as if it happened yesterday — the day I first had a one-on-one with Mr Nduka Obaigbena, editor-in-chief and chairman of THISDAY Newspapers. I had heard so much about him, the good and the bad, and I had always been fascinated by the good. By instinct, I focus more on the positive side of people, partly because I get inspired and partly because of my own glaring imperfections. That meeting was in August 1997. I had been offered the position of assistant editor of The Sunday Newspaper by Mr Eziuche Ubani, who was then the Sunday editor. I was to pioneer a weekly all-colour sports pull-out, named SportsXtra, along with the man who would later become my brother, friend and confidant, Emeka Enechi, now of blessed memory.

Emeka and I had just produced the first edition of SportsXtra but I kept protesting to Ubani over the remuneration. Before I knew it, I found myself sitting in front of the big man himself one evening. Calmly, he asked me what the issue was. I said I was not happy with the pay. He replied: “If you do a good job, you will get whatever you want. Do you know Waziri Adio? He is now in New York as our bureau chief, earning dollars!” I stifled a chuckle. Waziri and I had discussed over the phone the previous day and the dollar part of the story was not terribly earthshaking, but having met the publisher who welcomed me with open arms, I was disarmed. He didn’t know me, probably hadn’t heard of me and had only seen the first edition of SportsXtra. Maybe he liked it.

I would go on to become features editor, Saturday editor and, finally, editor of the daily newspaper over two spells of working with THISDAY between 1997 and 2012. As a life student of journalism, I would say the kind of influence he has had on the Nigerian newspaper landscape is definitely in a class of its own. Since 1859, the Nigerian newspaper industry has been impacted by great entrepreneurs and managers such as Henry Townsend, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Babatunde Jose, MKO Abiola, Alex Ibru, Sam Amuka-Pemu, Olu Aboderin, Segun Osoba, Stanley Macebuh and Kabir Yusuf, to name a few. In the annals of the Nigerian media, Obaigbena has by dint of creativity and foresight — as well as the force of resilience — written his name in bold.

For those who don’t know, he started publishing THISDAY in 1995 without owning a printing press. It was thought impossible to publish a daily newspaper without buying a press. That was the first time in our history. Many would soon start following in his footsteps. He brought about a switch to colour printing after many other newspapers had experimented and retreated. Those who said it was impossible soon joined the fray. He turned the back page of the newspaper to the prime location for columnists. It is now industry standard. He eliminated the practice of printing two different editions of the newspaper for the same day. Others followed. He introduced the publication of the full table of daily transactions at the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE). It is now, as it were, a law.

Whenever you see a colourful “style” section in any Nigerian newspaper today, the tribute has to go to Obaigbena, who started it all in 1997. THISDAY Style is arguably the most sought-after weekly supplement on style and fashion in any Nigerian newspaper today. He re-christened rejoinders as “Right of Reply” and that has become part of our media language, tending to suggest that it is somewhere in the Nigerian constitution. In 1998, he introduced “map painting” (as we jocularly call it) to provide at-a-glance previews of how political parties would perform in states and geo-political zones at election times. We have to give credit to whom credit is due. There must be a reason why no politician or business leader jokes with THISDAY.

In times past, Nigerian reporters submitted handwritten scripts. One day, I think in 1997 or 1998, Obaigbena announced that all reports must now be written and filed electronically. In other words, every reporter must learn how to use the computer. For me, it was not strange — I had started using the computer to write my stories as early as 1994 — but many reporters considered this to be a tall order. Obaigbena had a mantra then: “You either change or die!” Everybody at THISDAY eventually made a switch to electronic writing, even if slightly behind schedule, and this soon became the standard in Nigeria’s newsrooms. It is only fitting to describe Obaigbena as the most positively disruptive and innovative entrepreneur in the history of Nigerian media — on the basis of evidence.

For at least 13 years, I interacted very closely with Obaigbena and learnt tremendously at his feet. Obviously, several people impacted massively on my journalism career. Alhaji Mumini Alao was the one who plucked me fresh from the University of Lagos for Complete Football magazine; Mr Dapo Olorunyomi, publisher of Premium Times, took me under his wings when he was deputy editor-in-chief of TheNews/TEMPO; Mr Victor Ifijeh, MD of The Nation, tutored me on the fine art of news judgment when he was THISDAY editor; Mr Ayo Arowolo, as managing editor of Financial Standard, inspired me on visioning and inducted me into business journalism; and, of course, Waziri started celebrating my talent from our undergraduate days — long before anyone knew I existed.

However, Obaigbena taught me different things without opening his mouth. I will list just three as we celebrate his 60th birthday today. One, he taught me not to take no for an answer. In 1998, he had asked the then Abuja bureau chief, ‘Folabi Lawal, to send a document to him by the next available flight. It was evening time. In those days, there were fewer flights and none at night. When Lawal got to the airport, there was no flight again. Disappointed, he called and informed Obaigbena, who retorted: “You mean there was no flight? Not even a presidential jet?” I laughed when I heard the story. That is just the mindset of the man. Nothing is impossible. There is always a way. I have never seen him give up on anything without the last drop of his sweat. The resilience!

Two, Obaigbena believes you should never settle for second best or consolation prizes. In my early days as editor of THISDAY in 2007, there was a sensitive story we were writing that needed the obligatory balance from the other side. He asked if I had called them. I said we had spoken to the chief press secretary who said he had not been briefed. He asked: “Why call the press secretary when you can call the governor?” This altered my horizon altogether: why go through an intermediary when you can hear from the horse’s mouth? This came to shape my reportorial thinking. Always seek to get the “story behind the story” from first-line sources, even if they can’t be quoted. The Obaigbena philosophy is that you must always stand out. Don’t be part of the crowd.

Three, he has a large heart. He forgives easily. I have seen people walk out on THISDAY, abuse the hell out of him and badmouth him everywhere. Yet, they would come back years later looking for a job and he would warmly receive them back. I do not know how many employers of labour have that heart. I have heard people argue that he accepts ex-staff back because he knows the value they can add to THISDAY. Maybe that is true, but if it were that easy, how come it is not commonplace in the workplace? In some places, they would not even allow you go past reception. I have seen him recommend people for political appointments even after they had bitterly fallen out with him. One reason THISDAY was overstaffed at a point was his reluctance to render people jobless.

I need to say this. When I resigned from THISDAY in June 2012, some said I left in anger after a “cabinet” shake-up. Unknown to them, I was in Obaigbena’s house a few hours after my resignation, chatting and laughing with him. He said he did not want me to leave, but I told him I had planned my exit since 2007. As a parting gift, he gave me a new car. Two years later, he chaired the launch of TheCable, the online newspaper I founded. I insist that you don’t find many Nigerian entrepreneurs with such a spirit. It is also a fitting tribute that in a country where ethnic chauvinism is the rule, Obaigbena is one of the most open-minded Nigerians you would ever meet. He does not give a hoot about where you come from. His circle of friends is as diverse as they come.

For crying out loud, I am not trying to paint Obaigbena as perfect. He is as imperfect as the rest of the human race. I am still searching for a perfect human being and it has been difficult for me to spot one, maybe because I am not perfect enough to know a perfect person! In all, one fact will stick out eternally: Nduka Obaigbena has reshaped the Nigerian media landscape and impacted on generations of journalists. Can I ever forget how he always showed me off to his powerful friends — billionaire entrepreneurs, governors and ministers — when I was editor of THISDAY? “Meet the most powerful man in THISDAY,” he would announce. That gave me confidence and prestige in doing my job. He used to tell us: “Be the star. I just want to be your coach.” Phenomenal.

 

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