The passage of Malam Ismaila Isa, one-time president of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, chairman of the Governing Council of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, and a visible and voluble presence in the corridors of power continues to elicit public interest following the renaming of the NIJ House in his honour.
A statement issued July 22, barely 48 hours after Isa’s transition, by the Nigerian Press Organisation—an industry umbrella for the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, Nigerian Guild of Editors, and Nigeria Union of Journalists—announced the decision to rename the NIJ House in Victoria Island as Ismaila Isa House.
Signed by Nduka Obaigbena, president of NPAN and NPO, the statement anchored the honour on Isa’s “untiring contributions to the development of Journalism and Freedom of the Press in Nigeria and around the world after a life of dedicated service to Nigeria that spanned politics, business and media”. Obaigbena said of Isa: “His contributions to the development of journalism are innumerable: including, but not limited to his co-founding of DemocratNewspapers; presidency of the NPAN at a time of national crises, and later a life patron; services to the international Press Institute where he served on the global board; contributions to journalism education as Chairman of the Governing Council of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, ETC, ETC.”
The attendant reactions raise the issue: what, when, and how is an honour due?
Steve Osuji, the columnist with the Nation, was the first to convey the disbelief at the honour. He expressed“doubts and scepticism that media leaders in Nigeria sat and reached a consensus to hoist Funtua on our rooftop as the poster boy of Nigeria’s media.” And if they did, he saw the move as “nothing short of hara-kiri, (the) self-immolation of the media establishment in Nigeria… a shame indeed.”
Reviewing the NPO’s reasons for honouring Isa, Osuji saw nothing of outstanding value, denouncing Isa’s alleged co-founding of The Democrat as no big deal and “all other so-called achievements tagged to late Funtua mere honorifics many of which were opportunistic conferment.”
Bola Bolawole, editor of The Punch, in the heady days of the military dictatorship in the 90s, toed Osuji’s path.“It was hasty,” he said. “At best, the decision was the personal opinion of the individuals purportedly speaking for and or acting for the organisations in question.” He recalled his interaction with Isa, saying when Isa had an opportunity to speak for the media in the face of persecution, he chose to grandstand before government officials and try to browbeat him from seeking an answer to his tough question on why the Punch was shut down. Bolawole vowed: “This is one honour not deserved – and it will not stand. It shall be reversed. And someone worthy of the honour shall receive it. Certainly not Malam Ismaila Isa Funtua.”
The Guardian columnist, Abdu Rafiu, was not “persuaded that the justification adduced is cogent and unassailable,” submitting that “sufficient consultation was not done for a consensus among stakeholders on a matter as crucial as whose flag should be hoisted on the NIJ building.” He described as “unfortunate that NPO will open itself to charges of not being able to tell opportunism, calculation from true service.” After going on a historical excursion of the origins of the 49-year old NIJ, the land allocation, and building of the NIJ House and the main campus of the school in Ogba, Rafiu suggested seven names that could have merited the honour of having the NIJ House named after them: Lateef Jakande, Babatunde Jose, Sam Amuka, Adamu Ciroma, Maman Daura, Turi Muhamadu, and Ajibola Ogunshola. He questioned Isa’s marketed credentials “as a fighter for press freedom and as a board member of IPI around the world,” decrying the role that his Democratplayed in supporting the assault on The Guardian in the 90s.
“In 1994, his newspaper, The Democratspearheaded a campaign for government clampdown on The Guardian. Joined by Today newspaper founded by Abadina (Abidina) Coomasie, the Democrat also pressed for the sack of Mr Alex Ibru, publisher of TheGuardian from Abacha’s government. In an editorial titled ‘Ibru, Time to Go,’ TheDemocrat (July 14) claimed that TheGuardian“ propagates a sectional agenda that is a little to the east today and a bit more to the west tomorrow, but decidedly anti-north every day. On August 15, Sani Abacha heeding the call closed down The Guardian for one year. It was not to return to the newsstands until October 1st 1995.”
Rafiu’s position is curiously at variance with the position of the Guild of Editors, which, in a July 22nd statement had described Isa as “a forthright and bold patriot who deployed his defunct newspaper, The Democrat to foster national unity, promote free speech and engender a culture of high ethical standard in journalism.”
Rafiu rightly also challenged the claim that Ismaila Isa was a co-founder of The Democrat. “The paper’s first coming (1983) was through the collaborative efforts of Alhaji Ahmed Joda, Philip Asiodu, and Shehu Malami. About five years later they were joined by (Umaru) Shinkaffi, and Ismaila Isa as his representative. Funtua soon gained increasing influence and became a dominant figure and publisher of TheDemocrat. For some years he was curiously president of the NPAN without a newspaper.” Rafiu avers that “Anyone after whom the NIJ is to be named should be an icon, a role model for the industry; he should be a hero, convincingly seen as one with banners without stain. The renaming of NIJ House must be reversed.”
One columnist with a markedly different tune is Ray Ekpu, general secretary during Isa’s NPAN presidency and his successor as president. Ekpu confirms, perhaps unwittingly, the element of blackmail in Isa’s 1995 ascendancy of the NPAN presidency in Kaduna when Moshood Abiola, the predecessor, was detained by General Sani Abacha as a fallout of the annulled June 12, 1993 elections and Abiola’s failed effort to reclaim his mandate. It was a time there was clamour for a northern NPAN president and Isa got elected following threats that if he was not elected, the publishers stood the risk of being hurt or the NPAN breaking up.
Between 1995 and 2002 when Isa relinquished the NPAN presidency, Ekpu conveys the picture of Isa as an active president who led the struggle to resist the inclusion of a Mass media commission in the Abacha constitution and the subsequent effort under General Abdulsalami Abubakar to get the Press Council Decree amended, only for it to wear an uglier head as revealed in the hastily cobbled Decree 60 of 1999.
“The NPO rejected it and filed a case in court against it. We won the case a few years ago (2010) which rendered the Press Council moribund. This case was initiated under Isa’s activist leadership. For a man who no longer had a newspaper of his own, his activism for press freedom was very, very admirable. Every inch of the way he fought against the diktats of anti-press authoritarianism. He didn’t think we should just sit and be cooing like a pair of doves when we had a duty to do battle for the industry,” Ekpu said.
The partnership worked well that Ekpu, Isa, and Uncle Sam Amuka later worked together to get Ekpu elected as Isa’s successor to checkmate the ambitions of Chief Ajibola Ogunshola and Chief Sunny Odogwu. “Isa’s role in the media architecture,” Ekpu says, “is probably more pronounced in his exertions on behalf of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism.” Along the line, the yearly subvention given by the NPAN to the NIJ dried up; the emergence of many mass communication courses in universities and polytechnics made NIJ’s short term certificate programmes no longer appealing. There was restiveness within the student population. The NPAN and the NIJ management had differences of opinion on how to address the problem. The situation worsened to the extent that the NPAN had to de-market the school by withdrawing a lot of privileges such as free advertisement and internship opportunities to students. Eventually, the institute buckled. The NPAN triumphed and the process of rebuilding brought out Isa’s networking and fundraising skills to bail the NIJ out.
The first step, according to Ekpu, was to have NIJ accredited for National Diploma and Higher National Diploma. Having become chairman of the NIJ governing council, Isa led the drive. “Sam Amuka and I had to head to Abuja regularly for meetings with the Minister of Education and his officials with Isa doing the leg work for those meetings. The then Provost, Dr. Elizabeth Ikem was the one doing the Kaduna route for meetings with the National Board for Technical Education (NBTE) officials. Now the Institute has full accreditation but it wasn’t a stroll in the park.”
Ekpu says “One of Isa’s most important contributions to the NIJ whose Board Chairman he was until he died is the NIJ House now fittingly renamed after him. When we were doing the remodelling and refurbishing of the NIJ House in Victoria Island, we got stuck because of lack of funds. It was Isa who got one financial institution to contribute N200 Million to the Institute. That enabled us to complete it in style.”
In addition to the testimonies of the NGE, Osuji, Bolawole, Rafiu, and Ekpu, and my personal records, I also spoke to Nduka Obaigbena, president of the NPO and NPAN. Is there something he knows that the public is missing? Obaigbena does not understand the controversy. “It is a commercial property formerly known as NIJ House that we have renamed Ismaila Isa House, not the NIJ itself. The building had been left to die. Isa raised the money himself and rebuilt it without a dime from the NIJ. As chairman of the NIJ (governing council), he employed his resources and contacts to help the institution. We were not hasty in announcing the rechristening. We consulted the elected leaders of the NPO members. No one objected.”
It is true that Malam Ismaila Isa made some contributions to the Nigerian media in the last three decades. Having taken over The Democrat in 1988 after the paper’s first coming (1983-1985), Isa built his way into relevance. From his debut at the IPI Congress in 1992 to his ascension of the NPAN presidency in 1995, he touted his northern credentials and access to the corridors of power to become a noticeable presence in the media space. Even when he had ceased to be a publisher in 1999, his hold on the association was mesmerizing enough that he stayed in office illegally (?) for another three years. His befuddling chairmanship of the NIJ governing council for over 23 years was without precedence. Under him, the provision of the constitution that a sitting NPAN president would chair the governing council was amended to read any of the NPAN’s five nominees to the council. It is difficult not to see it as self-serving as only death separated him from the NIJ council chairmanship.
Was it appropriate to seek to honour him for his contributions? Yes. Was renaming the NIJ House the appropriate honour? No. Was the speed to carry out the name change suspicious? Yes. Luckily, there is precedence in this business of naming monuments after achievers. The main building of the NIJ in Ogba is named after Lateef Jakande, the visionary who established the institute. The library there is named after Hassan Adamu in gratitude for financing its construction in 1996. In the case of the NIJ House, Isa facilitated the renovation, leveraging on his contacts as a businessman and actor in the corridors of power. Did he do it opportunistically in anticipation of the honour?
Knowing that he built on the earlier efforts of others, it would have been prudent to retain the name, NIJ House, and find some other means of honouring Isa. Displacing the NIJ name from the building is a big deal for those who hold the media and its ambassadors high as barometers of public conscience and morality that in every respect must be above board. Obaigbena’s argument that the NIJ House is merely a commercial property and not the powerhouse of ideas at Ogba misses this point about NIJ’s significance to media practice. You cannot divorce the property from the value the parent body represents. It remains a major indigenous initiative in enhancing media training and professionalism. When things ran well, NIJ House was the cash cow for the institution. It promises to be so again, flying its corporate banner in Victoria Island—Nigeria’s business haven; so who is more deserving of the honour—the founding father whose vision has shaped it to date, the media patrons whose critical support nurtured the school to prominence over the years, or the questionably-credentialed latter-day interventionists who have also rekindled hope of a brighter future?
All have some claims, but prioritizing them through reasoned debate around well-enunciated parameters would have been more assuring that the final recipients of the honour are deserving. The haste to choose Isa is concerning enough to make one doubt the extent and quality of consultations carried out even within the NPO member-associations in 48 hours. It smacks no more than a predetermined mission to force a fait accompli. Left to me, I would retain the name, NIJ House, and name each of the four floors in the building after a media icon, thereby stretching the appeal of the property.
I close with an insight into my personal interactions with Malam Isa. I first met him in 1999 at his Bulet Construction office in Abuja and last saw him on January 20, 2020, at the 25th anniversary of Thisday. Although he often came across as standoffish and blunt in speech, he could be charming. Our 1999 meeting was when Media Review sought his input on the issue of tweaking the law establishing the Nigerian Press Council. That year, he was also the chairman at the 8th presentation of the Diamond Awards for Media Excellence (DAME) in 1999. He also supported a DAME category for one of the three years agreed with him. He refused to continue when we did not consent to his request to change the category for another which already had an existing sponsor. He was a man who was used to having his way and was indulged for a long time, which may well be what is still playing out in death by his acolytes.
May Malam Isa’s soul rest well as the NPO improves its communication with its critical audiences! Isa’s antecedents are not enough to cast him solely as an unassailable media hero whose name should replace the NIJ House.
Idowu is editor-in-chief of Media Review and a trustee of the DAME Awards.