Ismaila Isa: Warrior for press freedom

Since Mr. Ismaila Isa, businessman, politician and media entrepreneur died on July 20 this year, he has received both good and bad ink in the media. Isa was from Katsina State from where President Muhummadu Buhari also hails.

Since Mr. Ismaila Isa, businessman, politician and media entrepreneur died on July 20 this year, he has received both good and bad ink in the media. Isa was from Katsina State from where President Muhummadu Buhari also hails. Both men have worked together in politics for many years. However, their relationship was solidified by the marriage of Isa’s son to Buhari’s daughter which meant that the two parents were joined together by their hips.

Isa was said to be a member of the triumvirate that allegedly ran Buhari’s Government. The other two members are Mr. Mamman Daura, Buhari’s relation and Mr. Abba Kyari, the Chief of Staff who died a couple of months ago. Kyari had been an editor of the Democrat Newspaper of which Isa was the principal founder. That is how the three formed a political triangle.

A lot of activities largely negative in the Buhari Presidency have been attributed to this triumvirate which need not delay us here since this is a tribute to someone I knew 25 years ago as a publisher. The energy in this column will therefore be expended on the titanic role that Isa played in the media terrain, not on what he did in the Buhari Presidency since I know little or nothing in that area.
His role as a member of Buhari’s kitchen cabinet is therefore not the subject of today’s exertion. Even though I had known Isa from a distance, it was not until 1995 that we got close. There was a conference of the Newspaper Proprietor’s Association of Nigeria (NPAN) in Kaduna where Isa was supposed to be elected as NPAN President to succeed Chief M.K.O Abiola. Abiola was in prison then on account of his declaration of himself as the elected President of Nigeria based on the results of the 1993 Presidential election, which was annulled by President Ibrahim Babangida. Some publishers thought it would be unfair to Abiola if a new President was elected while he was in detention. Other publishers countered that it would be unfair if the Association was allowed to wane because Abiola was in detention since he was not there because of what he did for the NPAN. Others thought the election ought to be held because Abiola’s tenure as NPAN President had already expired. One of the lousy publishers at the meeting was spitting fire and threatening that nobody would leave Kaduna alive if Isa was not elected President. Isa had to caution him over his incendiary statement. He then reviewed his statement by threatening to break up the NPAN.

Eventhough this statement was nothing but hot air we did not want the Association to find itself in the flux of controversy when there was a major Press Freedom issue to tackle: Abacha’s Mass Media Commission and Press Court. I approached Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, publisher of Champion Newspaper and Uncle Sam Amuka, publisher of Vanguard. I suggested we could hold an election and at the same time name a high-powered team to fight for Abiola’s release. Most of the publishers found this option to be an acceptable tie-breaker. With that option, an agreement was reached. Isa became President and I Secretary General. The immediate task of our Executive was to deal with the issue of mass media commission which the Head of State Sani Abacha wanted inserted in the proposed constitution.

Isa was certain that was not one of the decisions of the conference of which he was a member. Prince Tony Momoh, former editor of the Daily Times and a lawyer, drew our attention to all the land mines buried in the mass media commission. We then started holding regular meetings of the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), an organisation comprising the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), and the NPAN. Sam Amuka gave me a piece of advice that I found invaluable. He told me that as Secretary General, I should always draft a communique from home to distribute at the meeting for adoption because we didn’t need to waste a lot of time at meetings. If we spent a long time at our meetings Abacha’s goons could swoop on the place and pack us all into detention. I took his advice to heart.
I drafted a 17-point rebuttal to the proposed establishment of the Mass Media Commission and Press Court which the NPO approved under Isa’s leadership. We learnt that Isa’s name was in Abacha’s hit list but he remained unfazed. After Abacha’s death, his successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar wanted a review of the Nigerian Press Council Decree.

Isa summoned meetings of the NPO and we meticulously worked for days to produce a draft that was implementable. What came out eventually was so thoroughly doctored by civil servants that it was the very spelling of draconian. The NPO rejected it and filed a case in court against it. We won the case a few years ago 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.

At the end of Isa’s tenure as NPAN President in 2002, Amuka asked me if I wanted the job. I replied in the negative but Isa and a few other publishers thought I would be in a better position to wage the war for the sustenance of press freedom than any of the other two media entrepreneurs, Chief Ajibola Ogunsola of the Punch and Chief Sonny Odogwu of the Post Express.

Isa said he would campaign for me in the North while I would pay attention to the Southern regions. We campaigned vigorously and I won. When you win elections in Nigeria, you also have to watch out for post-election bitterness and poisonous propaganda. It came thick and swift but with the support of Isa and Amuka we were able to paper over the cracks and reduce the toxicity of the root-and-branch opposition that I faced. We were anxious to bring the Nigerian media into the international arena and save it from the icy isolation that authoritarian military regimes had driven us into.
Every year we ensured that there was a strong Nigeria journalism contingent at the International Press Institute (IPI) Conference wherever it was held. On one of the occasions we were asked to nominate someone who had contributed immensely to the development of the media in Nigeria. We had a meeting and chose Alhaji Babatunde Jose, former Managing Director of the Daily Times. When we submitted his curriculum vitae, they said it was very impressive but he could not be honoured with an award by the IPI because he had served as the chairman of the Nigerian Films Censors Board. Censorship was not an option, they said. Jose and Nigeria lost the honour. Isa was furious. I have told this story before but I don’t think that the title of that board has been changed. They probably don’t think the name of the Board matters.

Isa’s role in the media architecture is probably more pronounced in his exertions on behalf of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ). The NIJ was founded by the NPAN under Alhaji Lateef Jakande who got the IPI to invest in the institution as a continuing education centre for journalists. From its inception newspapers were paying a yearly levy for the sustenance of the institute. Somewhere along the line, the NPAN lost focus and the institution began to lose its raison de’tre as many universities started programmes in Mass Communication. The students now felt that the NIJ certificates had only limited value because they could not be used for further studies or for empowerment purposes in public or private sector organisations.

The then Director of the NIJ, an experienced journalist of many years standing, Mr. Dayo Duyile, decided to unilaterally reduce the membership of the NPAN on the board from five to two. The NPAN felt stung like a bee by this insult and moved against Duyile and his small clique. We fashioned out a battery of strategies that meant that there would be no recognition of NIJ certificates, no free adverts or publicity in NPAN media, no employment or internship for its graduates or students and no financial support from the NPAN. This ignited a revolt in the institution immediately.

The NPAN took back its school and started a rebuilding process for the institution that had been very badly managed over the years.

We then started working for its accreditation, with Isa as Chairman, for National Diploma and Higher National Diploma. 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. After we had found money from several sources to equip the radio studio, fire gutted the place.
We had to start from scratch again. One of the persons from whom Isa got financial support for the Institute was President Olusegun Obasanjo, a man who is famous for spending money sparingly. The rest of us Board members had to comb everywhere for funds to bring the Institution to a respectable standard. 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 remodeling 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. So when I read an article in which someone said that renaming the building after Isa was “a most dubious honour” I knew that the fellow had no idea what the man had done for the NIJ specifically and the press generally. The man was not an exhibitionist and most of what he did for the media was not in the laser glare of the public eye.

As someone who had worked closely with him on several risky media projects I can say our journey was the equivalent of walking through fire and swimming through ice. In the Nigerian Media firmament of the last 25 years there weren’t too many sunny scenarios but I can testify that he fought valiantly for press freedom when the need arose. I doubt if he went everywhere harassing journalists simply because his friend and in-law was the President of Nigeria. In the last five years, Isa had only called me once to complain about my column on Buhari. When he complained, I told him that he had never said anything to me on the columns that I wrote in a manner that were largely positive. I named a few of them.

And all he said was “okay, we will discuss”. We never discussed because there was really nothing to discuss. He knew that I write out of conviction, not out of hatred, or mischief and that I genuinely believe that what I write is the right thing to write based on the facts at my disposal. I may be wrong but there is no deliberate effort to be wrong. On the other hand, there is always a deliberate effort to be right. There is no deliberate effort to be unfair but there is always a deliberate effort to be fair because for me, the Fairness Doctrine is journalism’s most important doctrine in the professional and ethical codes. Even though Isa and I were close, we did not always sing from the same hymn book because we respected each other’s individuality and independence. I will miss this valiant and titanic warrior for press freedom.

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