Nduka Obaigbena at 60

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TUESDAY WITH  BY REUBEN ABATI 

On Sunday, July 14, Nduka Obaigbena, the publisher of THISDAY newspaper, and founder/chairman of the Arise News Media group turned 60. Friends, family, associates and the top rank of the Nigerian elite including the Vice President, state governors and captains of industry turned up en masse to mark the occasion at a Thanksgiving Service held at the Cathedral Church of Christ in Marina, Lagos. The celebration continued with a luncheon at the Sky Lounge of the Eko Hotels and Suites. A grand celebration was held at the same Hotel on Monday evening. Nduka Obaigbena deserves all the accolades that have been showered on him.

When he turned 50, 10 years ago, I thought that was the most impressive celebration I had ever seen, but 10 years later, the entire city practically stood still to celebrate a man of great impact and consequence. From the President to the supplier of newsprint and the vendor on the street, we have concrete evidence of the essence of the man we call “The Duke”, “Publisher” or simply “Chairman.” Whenever the story of Nigeria’s media industry in the 20th and 21st centuries is written there is no doubt that Obaigbena will occupy a place of respect, praise and admiration in the narrative. He wields in the Nigerian media industry and even beyond, such influence and impact, not because he has been a two-time President of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) but because of his contributions to the development of the industry, his commitment, his entrepreneurship and his innovativeness.

His life is an interesting epic about determination, hard work, creativity, and the ability to think out of the box. He is certainly not a theoretician; no, he is rather a man of direct action, impulsive and intuitive may be but merciless, exact and determined in the pursuit of defined goals, which oftentimes may be overshadowed by his own restlessness. He is essentially an artist, creatively imaginative with a pragmatic turn of mind. We are talking about a man whose unorthodox methods have produced admirable results and whose style is a catalyst for industry-wide innovation. He started quite early. He was in his twenties, barely 25, when he decided to venture into the business of publishing a news magazine. He called it ThisWeek. Every one had their doubts. The industry was dominated by the big names of the profession. The only thing Obaigbena had done at the time, was may be earning a small notoriety as a witty newspaper cartoonist. He was not one of the big boys. He did not have a recognizable family name, not even a fat bank account in his name. Nobody gave him a chance.

But he would soon end up as a major discovery in the media industry. He put to work his major assets: his ability to identify talents and provide a liberal, friendly environment for the flowering of talent. He put together a team comprising some of the best and brightest in the media, and what happened? Every week, ThisWeek churned out some really wacky reports and stories in well-tuned prose. The market noticed. Other players in the market also noticed that a new kid on the block was beginning to shake the table. Obaigbena likes to shake tables through innovation and ideas. But the business model behind ThisWeek fell off the table. Ill-advised tampering with the exchange rate by the military authorities and poor management decisions combined to frustrate the project. ThisWeek was printed every week in London and couriered back to Nigeria. It was not sustainable.

But that was not the end for Obaigbena who had now carved a niche for himself. His next major move, after a brief period away from the turbulence, was the announcement of the publication of THISDAY newspaper. This was received with a mixture of doubt, skepticism and outright contempt.

I recall that many in the industry predicted the early demise of THISDAY. “That young man has not learnt his lesson with the failure of ThisWeek?” “What does he think this business is all about?” For 10 years, the pessimists kept prophesying the early end of THISDAY newspaper. Their prophecies failed. THISDAY was introduced at a time when there was a gap in the media industry – the National Concord, The Guardian, The Punch were under siege on account of military repression. THISDAY filled the gap, focusing mainly on politics, business and lifestyle, breaking fresh stories and commentaries authored by skilled and ambitious journalists. Obaigbena had cleverly recruited seasoned journalists who had become jobless because of the proscription of those three newspapers. This is why till today, THISDAY offers a mixture of The Punch, National Concord and The Guardian. By the time these newspapers were de-proscribed, THISDAY had become well established in the market.

But there was a lot more at the level of innovation. At a time, computers were considered best suited for fraudsters involved in internet scam, and the notorious 419, Obaigbena “forced” his reporters and technicians to start using the computer. Once upon a time in this country, media managers resisted the introduction of the computer, and the production team boasted about their ability to set typefaces using the old Goss machine. Obaigbena was one of the first, if not the first publisher, to move quickly to the 21st century. He digitalized his newsroom and gave laptops to his reporters. He insisted that his reporters must move to the next level or ship out. It looked like tyranny then, but today, there is no journalist anywhere in Nigeria who would consider the computer an instrument of punishment. The Guardian is the first newspaper to introduce colour in its masthead: the blue colour- but Obaigbena moved beyond the mast head and started full colour printing at a time that was considered impossible in Nigeria. There were complaints about cost and the recklessness of a young publisher whose target market was the young and the stylish who do not necessarily read. But the innovation soon became standard practice in the Nigerian press.

Obaigbena is also the first publisher to introduce simultaneous printing. The circulation department of newspapers in Nigeria used to be a source of nightmare for everyone. The circulation department set the deadlines more or less. They used to dictate when the newspaper must go to bed. If the newspaper was not ready at a particular time, it would not be able to reach the market. They exercised a kind of authority that was irritating to those who had to look for the stories, process them and put the paper together. When Obaigbena’s THISDAY introduced simultaneous printing, other publishers followed his lead. Before then, Chief MKO Abiola, publisher of the then National Concord had set up Concord Bulk which was meant to be a central circulation system for all newspaper houses. It was modelled after a similar infrastructure in the United States but ego, rivalry, competition, politics and mischief stood in the way and the Abiola initiative failed. THISDAY set up printing presses in Lagos, Abuja and Agbor. The game changed.

The back page of the Nigerian newspaper used to be the traditional space for sports news and reports. Obaigbena moved sports to inside back page and introduced back page commentary. It was as if he had committed an abomination. There was a loud scream across newsrooms. But the back page came to stay. Today, many newspapers in Nigeria are doing exactly the same thing. The back page of THISDAY where I now write this column every Tuesday has endured over the years. The pioneers are Obaigbena himself, Olusegun Adeniyi, Amanze Obi, Victor Ifijeh, Eniola Bello, Louis Odion and Ijeoma Nwogwugwu. Obaigbena has been able to create new brands on this page – and also use the platform of the newspaper to create an emergent generation of ace reporters and analysts. The biggest achievement of a newspaper is to create its own team and ambassadors. For many years, the Daily Times, The Guardian, Vanguard, Punch were the leaders in this regard. THISDAY soon became an award-winning newspaper in its own right and can also now boast of an alumni association working in other newsrooms and in other professions.

At 60, Nduka Obaigbena can look back and beat his chest, and then look around him with satisfaction that he has been able to make a mark and turn something that he enjoys doing into a legacy and a source of life-long fulfilment. He is like a fireplace from which others have tapped light and he has been most generous in allowing access to his space and resources. The point must be made that his influence goes beyond Nigeria. He has endeavored with varying degrees of success to set up media operations in South Africa, New York, and the United Kingdom. He learnt some bitter lessons in South Africa but whatever challenges he may have faced as an entrepreneur form part of the totality of his essence: in this regard, his capacity to fail and rise again and move on to greater accomplishments.

I referred earlier to his restlessness. After THISDAY, he established the Arise Magazine, he set up the Arise Fashion Week, he dabbled into events management, setting up an events centre in Lagos and Abuja, he organized concerts – the THISDAY Music Festival- bringing some of the topmost musicians in the world to Nigeria, from Jay Z to Chris Brown, Kelly Rowlands and Beyonce. He would also bring world leaders to Nigeria to speak: Presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, Vicente Fox, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Condi Rice. He has on his Rolodex some of the most powerful people in Nigeria and the world across industries. In the fashion world, he is a friend of the inimitable Naomi Campbell. In journalism, he has partnered with some of the most influential media houses in the world. In leadership, he has had cause to engage some of the world’s great leaders. The 25-year-old who came to Lagos after university in Benin is now one of the big boys of Nigeria!

The Obaigbena that I know is not like the photographs that you see of him. He is a resilient spirit, a dogged fighter. This is perhaps the source of his staying power in the turbulent arena of Nigerian business and politics. He actually once ventured into politics on the platform of the National Republican Convention (NRC) but he fled and has since not looked back. He thinks Nigerian politics is dirty even if he has many friends in politics, and his media outfits focus on politics as a primary subject. He didn’t enjoy being a politician at all. He thinks politicians and the electorate are just interested in money and when you give them money, they are likely to ask for more money. When I told him I wanted to run as Deputy Governor in Ogun State during the 2019 general election, his key advice was that I must not borrow money from anybody, and that I must not sell anything that belongs to me. He insisted – his friend, Chike Ogeah was there – that politics is a casino. You can put in everything you have and you may not win. I won’t say he is right or wrong. I guess in Nigerian politics when you win, you lose; when you lose you win. But that is another topic entirely.

As a businessman, Obaigbena has also had his travails. He had cause to run away from the country when the General Sani Abacha government marked him out as an enemy of the state. Under Abacha, any one who published anything critical of the state or expressed a progressive idea or was seen to be supporting the progressive cause was a target for humiliation, assassination or economic destruction. Obaigbena’s employees have taken him to court or called him out for non-payment of their salaries. Company properties have been fifa-ed or a lien placed on company accounts. Terrorists, particularly the Boko Haram, have bombed the Abuja office of THISDAY, destroying the property. The Muslim Ummah once placed a fatwa on the head of a THISDAY reporter. Ms. Isioma Daniel was accused of writing something sacrilegious. The lady had to leave Nigeria. There have been cases as well of THISDAY staff dying under mysterious circumstances.

If Obaigbena looks back, he will definitely see a lot and recall a lot. But through thick and thin, whatever may be the depth of the difficulty, he has demonstrated an uncommon strength of character. I like the fact that he stands by his team. Even when a staff abuses him and walks away, when the same staff returns to him for help or seek to return to the company, he takes them back, he supports them. He doesn’t throw people away. At Arise News, the TV Channel where I am an anchor, when he threatens to sack anybody, the people just laugh. They will say behind his back: “don’t mind him, he will not do it and if he sacks you, after a few days he will start worrying about how you will survive without a job, the worst he will do is to surcharge you.”

The same staff know of course that he does not take nonsense and he cannot be held to ransom. He does not consider anybody indispensable. He believes he can turn any talented person into a star and he is very proud of the fact that many of the superstars in Nigerian journalism and politics today once worked with him. What he has achieved in the print media, he wants to replicate in the broadcast industry. Arise News under his watch, is beginning to rise. Many of the young talents who joined the team and could not even ad-lib or read the teleprompter a few months ago, are now beginning to sound like experts, young producers are beginning to offer opinion about best production practices…

I cannot predict what Obaigbena plans to do next. It must be something in his head. But he is that kind of person who stumbles on a dream and insists on translating it into reality in 24 hours if possible and he expects the people around him to fall in line and make it happen. He is very aggressive with his ideas and dreams. But he is also above all, a very pleasant, kind-hearted fellow. We admire him for all that he has done and achieved and the inspiration that flows from his anointed example. But now that he has turned 60, please, he must begin to leave some special legacies for younger men like us, especially those beautiful, pepper dem, ladies who flock around him like bees around nectar… Hen hen. Congratulations, Chairman.