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Who owns New Nigerian? FG or Northern state govts?

Muhammadu Haruna is a big time journalist, distinguished columnist and former Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of New Nigerian Newspaper.He spoke to BASHIR ADEFAKA in Kaduna, recently. Excerpts:

HOW was it growing up?

I was born in Ibadan some 59 years ago.  I am going to be 59 on the 22nd of September this year.  But I grew up in Kano.  My grandmother brought me up,  myself and a cousin of mine who retired as a Major General and a Commander, Garrison of Armour in Bauchi.

We grew up in Kano, attended primary school in Kano and then I did my secondary school in Bida, which is my hometown. I started my primary school in 1957 and then went to Government College, Bida in 1965, finished  in 1969 and then went to School of Basic Studies. We were the second set in School of Basic Studies of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria , and of course after that, I went for what was then called Government.

Not political science then.  It was under the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in those famous days of Dr. Bala Usman, Dr. Patrick Wilmot, Mahmud Tukur the late who was one of the early chairmen of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).  When I finished and after my NYSC, it was like almost natural that I started working with the New Nigerian Newspaper.

Journalism as a career. What was the attraction?

I just loved the printing word.  I used to read newspapers or anything and I think virtually all my secondary school days. I don’t think I ever came second in English Language.

You edited the paper.

•Muhammadu Haruna: Those envious of Osoba were who invited Obasanjo to take over Daily Times and remove Babatunde Ajose.

I edited it but in acting capacity. There was a problem with the substantive editor, Mallam Ibrahim Sulaiman.  At that point , I was about the most senior graduate because there were others who were by far my senior in the sense that some of them were even pioneer staff of the New Nigerian.

People like Stephen Bamigbele, who was the  News Editor.  They were my seniors.  At that time, should I say the trend which the late Babatunde Jose started recruiting graduates to edit Daily Times had cut across all the other newspapers, and so I was appointed to act as editor.

I would have been confirmed but we had lots and lots of prolems eventually. But I acted all together for about 10 months.  I was not confirmed because the authority then thought I was too strong headed. We had all sorts of crises at that time.

I probably remember there was this famous thing by Umaru Dikko who said the NPN (National Party of Nigeria) was not for sale when Abiola tried to contest for the chairmanship of the party.  I happened to be the editor at that time and there were things they wanted me to publish and I said I was not going to publish them because they were libelous against Abiola.

And of course, I had my own column and then we had some problems with the then Governor of Niger State, who is now the Emir of Suleja. All these put together, they thought I wasn’t the right person to edit the paper and in the end, I was not confirmed.

Instead, Dan Agbese, who is now with the NewsWatch was appointed substantive editor.  By the time, he was appointed to come back as substantive editor. He was Secretary to the Government of the then Benue State.  I was then made his deputy.

How did you become the MD of New Nigerian?

I think perseverance.  And may be sheer luck. Some of us on the management of the paper, the MD used to call us young Turks because we were like the engine room; we sat down, discussed issues and then we got assigned to write editorials and then, of course, to pursue stories, to do interviews and so on and so forth.

I remember one of the series of the interviews I did, which was one of the high points of my professional career.  There was a series of interviews ahead of the Constituent Assembly: I interviewed people like Mallam Ciroma himself, Dr. Olusola Saraki, Aminu Kano and so on and so forth.

It was a series that was very, very popular in those days. So, we were there and by the time I became the editor, virtually all of them had left, which is what I meant by perseverance.  Some of them left to join Daily Times, The Guardian and so on and so forth.

Of course, I was approached also by the management of  The Guardian when they had just established.  Also, one of the people I admired most in the profession, Sam Amuka – your Chairman – he was with Punch at that time; of course, he approached me.  But all these approaches I shunned.  I declined because I just felt that New Nigerian was where I wanted to be.  That was how I got it.  I mean, I was just lucky.

The paper then and today, what are your regrets and what are your consolations?
It’s like a reflection of the entire society.  Nigeria of today is not like Nigeria of yesterday.

Unfortunately, it is for the worse, not for the better.  So, I feel very sad when I see the New Nigerian, vibrant as it was in those days, I mean it was one of the most powerful, acceptable, most literate editorials; the famous one-inch column in front of the newspaper that said it all.

Can you imagine some of the headlines of those editorials and just in a few words they said everything: One of them like the “Bitter price of sugar” when the price of sugar was increased.

It was highly literate and at the same time it was very profound. I remember one of the editorials, in fact, it’s always my favourite that New Nigerian wrote in those days, which predicted exactly what has been happening in our lives these days.

And the title I think was “Oil money: honour or poison?” and it said 20 years down the line, it would appear that the oil would become like poison to Nigeria.  That is exactly what it is today.

It’s one of the most accurate, one of the most prophetic editorials that any newspaper in this country has written. Because it said we were getting our priorities wrong.  Instead of investing massively in agriculture, in industry, we were investing in cultural events, sports.

Not that those are not important but instead of more substantive things, we were investing in entertainment and that the result would be chaos 20 years down the line.

I think that editorial would have been in the 1970s or so but it wasn’t even up to 20 years when things started unraveling just like it’s predicted because our leaders didn’t get their priorities right.  Priorities were upside down and all that.

So, the New Nigerian of today doesn’t seem to have that insight.  Even the quality of printing; and this is no disrespect to the management because the current management, they’ve been doing their best that for a long time. It’s a miracle that they are even publishing at all.

Because they get promises from their owners and those promises are hardly ever redeemed. Part of the problems why they are in the situation they are is that there is even the kind of confusion as to the ownership of the newspaper.  Right now, it is not clear whether it is owned by the Federal Government or by the state governments and that is a very awkward (what is the better word?) position to be.

When you don’t even know who your owners are. At one time, of course, when Babangida came and started this privatization, they hid behind the schedule: Those government companies to be privatized, those to be commercialized and New Nigerian at a point in time was to be privatized.

Then, during Obasanjo’s time, they removed it from the privatization schedule and got it back to commercialization.  Whereas Daily Times was allowed to be privatized and BPE under Nasir el-Rufai at that time reclaimed the newspaper’s liability; like pension and so on and then put it in the market and, I would say, virtually sold it for a sum.

Because the guy who bought it, I don’t know how much he bought it, but I’m sure it wasn’t for the true value, especially given their history. So, New Nigerian didn’t get that luck because, of course, the thing had been removed from privatization to commercialization.

They didn’t have the good luck of having that liability taken away, especially pension, which is their biggest liability.  And then there was this ding-dong: Obasanjo said okay, you governors, take it back and the governors said, okay we will take it back but these are the liabilities.

Now, incidentally it was ceased by the Federal Government during Obasanjo time and that’s another story all together.  Felix Adenaike that you interviewed must have told you the circumstances with the Daily Times.

Yes, he told me about how Obasanjo killed the Daily Times.

I am not trying to say it was Obasanjo that killed the Daily Times.  In fact, it was some of the professionals, some of the editors and managers in Daily Times who invited Obasanjo to come and take it over because they fell out with Babatunde Jose.  They had their disagreement.

They felt Babatunde Jose appointed Segun Osoba as the Editor while some of them believed that they were by far more qualified than Segun.  So, they reported Babatunde Jose to the government and said if the government wanted to really go on, they had to remove Jose as the MD.  That otherwise, he would use the Daily Times against them.

That he is so powerful and al that.  So, that was the cause.

Anyway, I digressed.  The thing was that Obasanjo didn’t privatise New Nigerian and the governors said when you took it over you didn’t pay any compensation; now you should pay that at least let’s do some arithmetic and see how much you should give us and then you can hand it over to us and then we will privatise. Now, that was not done up till this moment that I’m talking to you.

Of course, there have been some moves: The Northern governors themselves appointed Alhaji Aliko Mohammed, they set up a panel under him to look at the company; its operations, its assets and liabilities and recommend what to do with it.

He came up with a report, which said look, take away the liability just like they did with the Daily Times and sell the New Nigerian.  Up till now, it hasn’t been done. And so you have a situation where the MD spends three-quarters of his time running around, trying to get promises that the governors have made.  So, he has very little time to run the paper.

In that circumstance, it’s even a miracle that the paper is still publishing because it’s still on the street.  Whereas, you know very well that Daily Times is tactically dead and buried.

But don’t you think the New Nigerian should be taken out of being what people call Northernised outlook?

It is one of those things I always quarrel with my colleagues for.  There is no newspaper that doesn’t have an identity.  The New Nigerian, when Sardauna published it, he did it purposely to project a good image of his region.

At that time, you remember, all the regions had their own newspapers: The West had Sketch, the East had what eventually became Daily Star, Mid-West had Observer and of course the Federal Government initially had Post, which of course died specifically because of so much interference in its management by the Federal Government.

So, you can see that it’s even positive thing for New Nigerian.  In spite of all that, it is the only one left standing now.  The Sketch is dead, Observer is dead, Star is dead long time ago.

It is only the New Nigerian that is still standing. That should be a compliment to the management.  At least, they have an identity and that identity is still being respected.

Did New Nigerian suffer government interference as Daily Times?

No,  I don’t think New Nigerian suffered what Daily Times suffered because, somehow, to the credit of the pioneer indigenous editor and Managing Director of the New Nigerian, Mallam Adamu Ciroma, Mallam Mamman Daura and eventually Mallam Muhammad, they charted a kind of independent course for the paper.

Even though it was a kind of indigenous situation but the paper was owned by the government and we were also critical of government when there was the need to be critical.

I can give you a hundred and one instances of such cases but one that readily comes to mind is during the Civil War.  The Biafran Airforce flew over Kaduna and bombed the Airport.

The New Nigerian wanted to publish that story but the Governor at that time, may his soul rest in peace, Hassan Kastina, said no, you can’t publish that because it would cause panic.  And Mallam Adamu Ciroma said no. If we don’t publish it, our credibility will be at stake.

He said everybody heard the bomb and so the following day, people would want to know the details.  And then they went ahead and published. Of course, there was a lot of noise but in the end, nobody suffered.

And in the end, even the Federal Government came to thank the New Nigerian for publishing that story because when the Biafran propaganda machine now started making claims that Nigerians were bombing them, one of the pieces evidence that the authorities could show was the publication of New Nigerian and they said okay, you started it.

So, there was no way a newspaper that behaved that way would end up the way the Daily Times did.  And during this period that I wasn’t confirmed, of course, by that time Adamu Ciroma was gone, Mamman Daura was gone and Mallam Ture was gone, but that tradition still so much held on so much so that the authorities themselves didn’t interfere too much because they knew that you had your own self respect.

Whereas, the exact opposite was the Daily Times.  This was something that never, never happened in the New Nigerian.  And you can see, in spite of all the hard times, it is still publishing.

Because people in authority were more on your side than they were with Daily Times.
Absolutely not.  People forget that Mamman Daura was detained.  During my time, my editor, Innocent Okpara Dike, was picked up because of one publication, which was even an advert, and I had to go and tell them that, as the MD, I was responsible for it and I was detained for a week.  That was me as the Managing Director of the New Nigerian.

Whose government was doing all that to you?

The government of Ibrahim Babangida.  As I was saying, it is not as if we had two heads at the New Nigerian.  It’s just that they established the tradition of independence, of not allowing government to interfere with their operations, with their editorial judgement and that held on, I think, for a long time.

And of course by the time the trio of Adamu Ciroma, Mamman Daura and Ture left, things were not as it used to be, the management was not as self as it used to be but still, you cannot begin to compare it with what happened in the Daily Times.

Where do you think Nigeria is headed?

Right now, we are in such a state of confusion that I don’t know exactly where we are headed.  My only consolation is that we’d seen threats probably worse than what is even happening now and somehow, the country has survived.  We had the Civil War; prior to that Civil War you would never have imagined that Nigeria would be back as one.

We survived that. Of course, every election, there are fears that Nigeria will split, we would break up and then the elections would come, they would go, Nigeria is still around.

And of course, I won’t deny, things are getting worse and worse.  It could reach a point of no return but my hope is that we would never reach that point. And you can see the dangers already in all the debates of zoning.

It’s very annoying that elderly people like Obasanjo would make a promise, make a deal written in black and white and then he will deny that such things exist!  I don’t know what his motive is, but certainly he cannot be patriotic for him to deny such a thing.

Of course, he has record of that.  In 1998, he had a deal, he said he never signed any deal with anybody.  He wanted third term, everybody knew, he was campaigning hard for it.

One of the people closest to him, the Governor of Nasarawa (at that time), Abdullahi Adamu, even said it recently and that was the very gentleman thing for somebody to do.

He said yes, I supported third term and I had my good reason for it.  But the man you supported is denying that he never wanted it; he is even swearing to God that he never wanted it.

The same thing he did in Yorubaland; he created the Yoruba Elders Forum so as to create division in Yoruba land and the Yoruba Elders Forum was fighting the Afenifere.

Eventually, he managed to persuade the Afenifere people, using his usual divide and rule tactic, that I have to come for my second term and all your governors will remain intact if you just work for me as President.

Obasanjo made all those promises, and of course they (Afenifere) now started campaigning for him saying, “for presidency we want umbrella but for governorship…”

And the people of course became confused that ah, if this guy is as bad as he is said to be, why is Afenifere campaigning for him?

So, he got his presidency and then sacked all the governors.  Now you can see this is somebody who has never, never ever fullfilled his promise and when you have leaders like that, obviously you are heading for trouble in a country like Nigeria.

People who will strike a bargain and once the other side fulfills his own, they will now renege on their own and that is all this zoning thing is about. Personally, I have always been against zoning but honour demands that if you strike a deal, if you make a pledge, you redeem it.


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