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Nduka Obaigbena at 60: Reading the heart of his art

Only few Nigerians have earned a national acclaim with their first names. Those who are old enough still will remember the late Nigeria’s former Head of State, General Ramat Mohammed. He was popularly known by his first name, Murtala. Even after he was assassinated in an abortive military coup in 1976, the name Murtala has remained glued to our memory.

In the media circles, and among the super elites in Nigeria, the name Nduka is a common decimal. Friends and associates also sometimes calls him the Duke or Prince. That depends on how convivial the mood around him was. But for me, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, the maverick publisher of Thisday titles and proud promoter of the ARISE TV network, has no dull moment. Ever smiling and cheerful, Nduka is a colossus by his deeds and frame, and by the capacious depth of his disruptively creative mind. His presence anywhere cannot but be noticed, felt and, indeed, cherished. Like him or not, Nduka, the Duke, has got name recognition even on the streets of capital cities in Africa!

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I recall that ten years ago, we took the ambitious decision to invite Winnie Mandela to speak at the annual Daily Trust dialogue slated for January 2010. To formalize the invite, Malam Kabiru Yusuf, then Chairman/CEO, and I decided to visit the renowned anti-apartheid women leader in her Soweto home. We were actually in South Africa for the annual retreat of the newspaper’s Board of Directors. We decided to use a stone to kill two birds! Done with the retreat in Johannesburg we took a luxury cab and headed 24 kms to Soweto, a predominant black ghetto that had played indelible roles in the bloody struggle for freedom in South Africa. As curious journalists, we engaged the cab driver, Mr. Joshua, in a chit-chat. Being himself garrulous, Joshua wanted to know a bit more about us, hence the conversation dovetailed to our national identity.

Upon realizing we were Nigerians, Joshua suddenly became so lively, and asked us rather enchantingly: “Do you know the Duke?”. Before we could process the question he had added, “Yeah, the Duke!”, with an air of certainty that suggested we ought to know the only Duke in a nation of 180 million people. Of course, the Duke he meant can only be Nduka who, at that time, I think, had experimented with the South Africa edition of ThisDay newspaper. What I found very instructive is that a cab man, Joshua, in far away South Africa has got quite positive things to say about the generosity of Nduka. To prove that he knew the man, Joshua told us, for effect, that the Duke usually  “painted the town red” whenever he was in J’burg! I’m not sure Kabiru had shared this story with Nduka before now.

I didn’t get to meet Nduka at the early stage of my journalism career. Actually when he became the publisher of ThisWeek magazine in 1986, I was on internship as a cub reporter in the Daily Times group, learning at the feat of Mr. Achike Chucks Okafor, the SUNDAY TIMES editor, and under the overall tutelage of Malam Farouk Mohammed, then editor of the Daily Times.

Even at that time, every discerning journalist was fascinated with the unique design and exciting layout of Nduka’s  ThisWeek, not to describe its exhilarating print quality. The rumour then was that the all-gloss magazine was being printed in London. But if it were true, and everything suggested it was, then that singular bold step says a lot about Nduka’s  taste for quality and obsession for excellence in whatever he does. I believe it was the sheer manifestation of this particular gusto that earned Nduka the Nigeria representative of the supplement sections for the Time and Newsweek, two reputable international news magazines, way back in the mid 1980s.

Now seen at a closer range, Nduka came across as a hyper-extrovert who occasionally displays the sartorial grace of a Prince that he is. In barely three decades, he has taken entrepreneurial journalism, or indeed journalism business, to its apogee, and arguably made a huge success of it, baring shortcomings that are human.

My first direct interaction with Nduka was on the platform of Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, NPAN, around 2011. Then I represented Daily Trust at NPAN meetings held usually at the association’s Maryland secretariat and chaired by its President, Chief Ajibola Ogunsola, a principled statesman who was then Chairman of The Punch. We became friends and the interactions blossomed when Nduka assumed the Presidency of NPAN. From then on, most meetings were held at his modest home in Ikoyi where he hosted members to sumptuous lunch, and even offered “special water” to those who cared less for ordinary water and soft drinks!

Ever since then, Nduka has chosen to call me the Ambassador. And I hope he would one day release the posting and letter of credence to give effect to that appellation. Our relationship was further cemented when his Thisday and Daily Trust engaged in business relationships that fell under my direct briefs as the head of revenue income in Daily Trust.

I am aware that Muslims elites in Nigeria are deeply suspicious of some media organizations that they accused of alleged editorial bias and subjective framing of Islam and Muslims. A media research in this regard may validate the hypothesis which can be attributed to ownership influence and the gatekeepers’ level of tolerance. But the issue is, I have not come across any of such allegations being leveled at Thisday titles. This speaks volume of Nduka’s broad mindedness, and his exceptional display of fairness in dealing with all manners of people irrespective of the diversity of tongues and tribes.

That’s why when journalists gossip about employers who cannot stand the sight of a staff wearing a nice (perhaps cheap) new dress and shoes, no one ever mentioned Nduka. In the contrary, and based on testimonials from some of his First Eleven team, Nduka cherishes such decent and smart dressing. Little wonder he is said to be happy gifting cars to his staff. The testimonials by Waziri Adio and Simon Kolawole, two of Nduka’s legion of accomplished ex-staff, is very instructive. Yet, for those who may ask the cynical question, what do you expect his loyal staff to say?, I have heard the testimonials of reliable newspaper vendors in Abuja and Lagos. They are not Nduka’s staff. According to the accounts, the “Thisday publisher” sometimes asked them to pocket the entire sales return of a day’s newspaper when he had reasons to make them happy.

As Mr Nduka Obaigbena turned 60 on July 14, he remains a personification of thought leadership in its ramifications. And what defines leadership if not the ability to identify, attract, and retain talents; the capacity to visualize an eldorado, the emotional intelligence to inspire a team and motivate them to focus on the target till a mission is accomplished. Leaders, such as Nduka Obiagbena, who have very strong personal aura and remarkably enthralling human relations also have the deft ability to re-attract lost talents, and retain them. Here is wishing Prince Nduka, the Duke of journalism and media entrepreneurship, good health and greater fulfillment of his insatiable appetite for excellence.

 

Akoshile is the Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Times.

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