By Zainab Suleiman Okino
Death does not diminish its strangeness any time it comes knocking at our door. So was Sam Nda-Isaiah’s, simply known as Sam or chairman.
The media community in Nigeria was stunned at the abruptness of Sam’s passing on December 11, 2020, which threw members into mourning, and that includes me. I was particularly hard hit, because of our conversations and the appointment agreed upon prior to his last moments, as his voice did not betray a man at death’s door. It turned out that he died the same day I was billed to see him.
24 hours to his exit, on Wednesday of that same week, I put a call across to him and he said to me he was just arriving from Lagos after the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) meeting that took place the previous day. I’d want us to continue the discussion we had earlier in the year about a scholarship opportunity for my son, who is also his namesake, I explained briefly to him, in the telephone conversation. The issue centred around deferring his PhD scholarship programme for now because of coronavirus, and to focus on getting a job for him. He agreed and gave me an appointment for Thursday for us to think through it.
So, on Thursday, December 10, he sent an SMS very early in the morning to me at 3:55am and it reads: “Zainab, I forgot that I have a long meeting today at 4pm at LEADERSHIP. Let’s reschedule for Friday”. I saw the text when I woke up and replied thus “Okay, good morning chairman, till tomorrow then; same 4pm, I suppose”.
Unknown to me he took ill between Thursday and Friday night. By 4pm on Friday, I was at his gate at the plush Ministers’ quarters, to keep to the Friday appointment but his phone had been switched off, very much unlike him to give an appointment and not keep to it. I called his driver, Zidon, who politely told me oga was at a meeting and he would alert me on return to the house. You can therefore imagine my shock when I woke up to the news of his death on Saturday morning. This is the mystery of life and a poignant moment for me; a man who engaged in several activities up to the hilt was actually on the way out of the world. He had to keep his appointment with God Almighty, his creator.
Such is Sam’s life, always there for people. As I told his wife on that Saturday when we converged at their house for condolence; “Sam was your husband and father of your children, but his death diminished all of us and has left us poorer”. Here was a man who continuously made other people’s wars, his wars and could ‘fight’ for that conviction as his too. This aspect of Sam’s life was the crux of discussions on that Saturday at Sam’s house. Muhammed Idris, our chairman at Blueprint Newspaper, told of how he(Sam) ‘fought’ vehemently for him (Blueprint’s Chairman) and Malam Kabiru Yusuf, Media Trust chairman, to emerge as Secretary and President of NPAN respectively, at the Lagos meeting. In order words, Sam was always there for others and for just causes, out of conviction.
But how come, much of this benevolent part of Sam and compassion were never really highlighted; instead he was perceived as a shrewd businessman; ill-tempered, impatient and hot-headed manager of human and material resources; a boss who could hire and fire at will? I also didn’t know this part of him until about two years ago when I took another personal issue to him, and he solved the problem with ease.
I cannot blame Sam for being tough and hard beneath his incredibly soft and selfless underbelly. In business, if you are soft and lily-livered, you cannot go far or even succeed, at least in Nigeria.
Despite my recent discovery about who Sam really was, my journey with him began way back in 2002/2003 when I was Deputy Editor/Acting Editor of Weekly Trust, the precursor to Media Trust’s flagship, Daily Trust, in our Kaduna office and when he was the Publicity Secretary of The Buhari Organisation (TBO). He was the go-to-person and always handy for all our stories on APP’s side to the ruling PDP machine in government headed by Olusegun Obasanjo. By the time I came on transfer to the daily paper (Daily Trust) in August 2003, as a deputy in charge of opinions and features to Is’haq Modibbo Kawu, part of my briefs was to oversight columns including Sam’s, as well as being his colleague on the paper’s editorial board.
Much later in 2009, I decided to pitch my tent with LEADERSHIP, Sam welcomed me with open arms and made me Managing Editor, but I just knew I would not last in LEADERSHIP; I didn’t want to walk on eggshells at work, in dealing with him, considering our past relationship as acquaintances and ‘colleagues’, so I had to move on again, only a year after. In fairness to him, while working there, I never had any problem, but the relationship was fragile and the respect was mutual, part of it being his legendary respect for women, and his politeness to the opposite sex generally.
Eight years ago, during his 50th birthday ceremony the crème de le crème of the society, and northern intelligentsia, gathered to celebrate him. In my tribute to him, I wrote that Sam was an “Apostle of Business Unusual”, by which I conjured so many negative things in mind. As a matter of fact, I didn’t think of it as complimentary, but Sam seemed to like the intervention because he sent an SMS to thank me. Therefore, I was not surprised about his “big Idea concept” during his presidential campaign in 2015, another unusual approach you may say. Sam was that idealistic.
It is rather painful, that, just when I was beginning to enjoy the full compliments of Sam’s friendship, brotherly love, and tap from his inexhaustible stream of contacts, the all-knowing God ended his life and halted my good fortune streak. Adieu Sam, you were indeed a good colleague, super-efficient boss, a friend and brother. Above all, here comes another brutal reminder of our own mortality.