Reviving New Nigerian
At a time the media industry was still nursing the pains inflicted by the death of Daily Times, it was discovered that its sister publication, New Nigerian, is facing a similar fate. In an interview published recently by Vanguard, former Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of the New Nigerian Newspaper and a prominent stakeholder in the media industry, Alh. Mohammed Haruna, called on the Federal Government to be unambiguous on the ownership of the paper and ensure its survival.
The Federal Government responded by setting up a Presidential Committee to work out modalities to reposition the Kaduna-based newspaper company. Incumbent Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of New Nigerian, Alhaji Abdulrahman Tukur, who is also a member of the Presidential Committee set up by the Vice President, Arc. Namadi Sambo, spoke on how the paper can be saved in an interview with BASHIR ADEFAKA, in Kaduna, last week. Excerpts:
The New Nigerian, which you head, is a major concern talking about media development in Nigeria. Why did you hide your problem when you know it was dangerous to do so?
It is not as if we have problems and are trying to keep silent about them. The entire country has problem. New Nigerian is part of the country and so we cannot say we don’t have problems.
If you look at it from the perspective that New Nigerian is supposed to have been better than it is now, that could be a problem. We are on the street everyday and we circulate nationwide. We are still being patronised by quite a number of institutions: private and public.
Can’t you do better than what you have on ground now?
It is true that we can do better and we are working towards that. We are getting the attention of the government, that is, our owners.
The New Nigerian was established in 1966 by the then Northern Regional Government under Sir Ahmadu Bello, the late Sardauna of Sokoto as ’Voice of the North,’ to tell the truth about the North to the world and to tell the truth about the world to the North.
As time went on, the Federal Military Government, under Gen. Murtala Muhammed’s regime, in 1976, decided to take over New Nigerian and some other institutions. They decided to take over New Nigerian and run it as a Federal Government parastatal. It has been under the Federal Government for almost 30 years up until 2006 when the government under Chief Olusegun Obasanjo decided to hand it back to the 19 Northern States’ governors.
What informed that decision?
The reason being that when the privatisation exercise of the Federal Government came up in 2006, New Nigerian was slated to be part of the establishments to be privatised. That was when some of the Northern governors raised objection that it’s an establishment owned by the Northern Regional Government and that it was taken over by the Federal Government without any compensation.
They were even arguing that the Federal Government did not own New Nigerian and so, how can you sell something you don’t own? That was when a little controversy came up and the Federal Government decided to hand over the New Nigerian back to the Northern governors.
What then followed?
After that hand over, it was realised that New Nigerian had quite a number of liabilities; just like many other parastatals. It was not peculiar to only New Nigerian. There are quite a number of liabilities in terms of pension, gratuities.
There were so many salary increases that were effected by the Federal Government, which New Nigerian could not effect immediately because of lack of fund and that resulted in a number of arrears.
So, these are the liabilities that hindered the full handing over and taking over by the Federal Government to the Northern states’ governors. The Federal Government was insisting that New Nigerian should be handed over to the Northern governors without talking about its assets and liabilities. But the Northern governors were insisting that, no, the Federal Government should be able to offset all the liabilities incurred when it was in charge of New Nigerian before the handing over; whereas the Northern states’ governors should now take over from that period.
In fact, this is the essence of a committee recently set up by Vice President, Namadi Sambo. The Vice President himself is conversant with the problems of New Nigerian. One, he was governor of one of the states that own New Nigerian.
There were times some years back when New Nigerian was of concern particularly to Kaduna State Government. When there were crises in Kaduna State, particularly in the early 2000, and then this issue of unpaid pensions, unpaid salaries kept on becoming a sort of security threat, the state government was so concerned that if anything happened to the New Nigerian, it might as well affect the entire society. That was why the Kaduna State Government was so particular about the issue New Nigerian and it was so passionate about it.
In fact, Namadi was one of the few governors selected to form a committee that would pursue the issue of New Nigerian’s liabilities with the Federal Government. And incidentally that issue was in the office of the Vice President, who was then Goodluck Jonathan as the Chairman of Privatisation Council of National Economic Council. So, the issue of New Nigerian was under the Office of the Vice President. Now, Sambo is the vice president and he is conversant with the issues affecting New Nigerian and what the government needed to do.
If he knew what the government needed to do, why did he not take a step until Vanguard’s publication of Mohammed Haruna’s interview on who really owns the New Nigerian?
We cannot precisely say he had not done anything. You know how government works. You cannot enter an office today and start taking decisions on everything that you know. There are procedures: certain things will have to take precedence over others. He may have been working behind the scene, people would not know.
But what happened after the Vanguard’s interview was for him to call for the establishment of a committee to now harmonise the issue of New Nigerian. Even that committee, if you look at the terms of reference and what the committee wants to do, you would know that it is not just an abrupt thing that he did. He must have worked underground.
Because there was submission by the Bureau for Public Enterprises, BPE, on the issue of New Nigerian.
There was another submission by consortium of consultants called BDL; they were engaged by the Northern states’ governors to see how they could privatise New Nigerian. There was another submission by management of the New Nigerian Newspaper on the issue of liabilities because without offsetting those liabilities, there is no way an establishment can be privatised. No company will attract investors if it has liabilities. So, first and foremost, the issue of liabilities has to be settled.
How do you view perception that the move might flop as the two weeks given to the committee by the Federal Government to report have elapsed, it’s about the fifth week now?
I don’t think so. I am part of that committee established by the Vice President and all the committee needed to do was to do a thorough job because the issues involved are issues of money: payment to people and to other establishments. So, care has to be taken in such a way that you do the job thoroughly to minimise problems that may arise.
You are talking of pension arrears for people who have worked in that company all their lives and were not paid pensions for almost 70 months, 80 months and so on. There were so many salary increases that were either not effected or effected late and then all these amount to arrears. There were so many allowances that were not paid or delayed and that would attract arrears.
So, even this issue of harmonisation like the BPE made its own submission based on the 2006 report when it was about to commence the privatisation of New Nigerian. Then the BDL did their own submission in March this year, 2010, and there is almost four years difference. The figure will definitely change. The New Nigerian management did their own submission around August when the committee was established and those three months would have to be incorporated.
The committee is now trying to harmonise and to look at all other issues that relate to New Nigerian so that when this report is submitted, whoever is looking at that report will not have problems implementing it. So, it is better to take time and do a thorough job than rush up things that will raise more questions than answers.
But I assure you, very soon, the committee, which is almost concluding its report, will submit it to the Federal Government.
What is the best option to save the company: commercialisation or privatisation?
First and foremost, I would want its liabilities to be settled. Once you are able to offset this liability, you will attract investors so much that even the owners themselves may have a rethink over whether to sell it or not.
The company has a lot of potentials, good name and goodwill from people in this country and so, letting it go like that under privatisation may be a little difficult for them.
After offsetting this liability, what the company needs most is recapitalisation, depending on the decision of the government. If the government, either Federal or Northern states, want to take over the place and run it, they should then run it as a full commercial entity, provide enough capital for it and retool the place because there are so many machines that need to be updated.
We are in a changing world now and so we need to go with time. If we had complete re-tooling in place, constitute a board of directors, re-engineer the management and then give them target to run the place as a purely business entity and produce result within a given time, I think that will be the best.
And it will be the best way to ensure the survival of Sardauna’s legacy, whom we revere so much in the North because he did quite a lot for this part of the country one of which was the establishment of New Nigerian Newspaper. By sustaining New Nigerian, you will go along way sustaining the legacy of one of the founding fathers of this country, our revered Sardauna of Sokoto.
What if they privatise and sell it like Daily Times?
We are not hoping for that and we are not praying that the fate that befell our sister company, Daily Times, should befall New Nigerian. If it does, we will all cry. We wouldn’t want to see an establishment such as New Nigerian being wasted. New Nigerian Newspaper is still the leading paper in the North and it can do much better than it is doing today.
We have proof now that newspaper industry can survive in the North. We have seen quite a number of newspapers now established by young and vibrant business-oriented people and these papers are making waves now in the whole country not just in the North. So, nothing stops the New Nigerian from excelling in the whole country if the right thing is done to fine-tune and make some little adjustments here and there. New Nigerian has the potentials to lead all the newspapers in the country.
Don’t you think that the Northern outlook of the paper could affect its viability?
It depends on the way you look at it. Everybody knows that New Nigerian was established by Northern Regional Government. The orientation has always been Northern-based. It is a national newspaper, which has Northern orientation. And you don’t have to be national to be accepted nationally.
Let me give you an example, even when this paper was purely run by the Northern Regional Government, it was one newspaper that Chief Obafemi Awolowo would never miss. Because the essence is, if you have a base and you are established in a particular place, then whoever wants to do business with that Constituency must do business with you.
You see, the Law is a very important entity in this country and if you have a newspaper that is widely accepted in the North, that is more respected in the North, that airs the views and aspirations of the North, then whoever is interested in knowing the North or doing business with the North will have no option than to patronise you.
I don’t see, therefore, why it is a problem for New Nigerian to still maintain its identity as a Northern-based newspaper, with focus on the North without necessarily neglecting other parts of not only Nigeria but also the world.
While we wait for the Federal Government, what is hindering the 19 states’ governors from finding palliative measures?
Well, you may excuse them because the right thing was not done at the right time. Probably, if the Federal Government, like it is trying to do now, had done what was expected of it, to say, ‘we are handing over the company on a clean bill to you; whatever happens, if you are able to sustain it, the credit goes to you; if you fail, then you should be blamed for it’ the attitude would have been different.
To hand over a company in crisis to a number of people; 19 of them, the tendency is for that business to become what is described as “anybody’s business,” which is usually “nobody’s business.”
But by the time you do the right thing, offset the liability, whatever had accrued as liability during your tenure, offset it and then bring these people together and hand over the organisation on a clean bill, even if some of them are not ready to continue the ownership, they can sit and at least there are some that are more interested than the others.
And those interested can now buy the other states’ shares and then continue to run it because, there are actually some who are up and doing in trying to see that New Nigerian survives while others don’t feel that they should be responsible for funding the organisation that was run by Federal Government for 30 years. When they finish this exercise, things will take shape.