Farewell To The Chairman And Champion Of Big Ideas

By Ayo Akanji

Those at the top are not always ogres, as this writer finds out. Bosses are human, too. I first met the Chairman, as we fondly called him, as a young, energetic lad, freshly out of NYSC and trying to navigate myself around the political climate of Nigeria, while seeking to expand my educational qualifications—coming from an academic background, my dad prodded me towards concluding my PhD before clocking 30. While my foster dad, Professor Shiekh Abdullah, a showering pride in the ivory tower, represented a mark of excellence of the noble profession and wanted nothing short for me.

I grew up reading dozens of African pre-independence and post-independence political books in my dad’s library and profoundly admired the art of politicking. I got influenced by them but had zero chance of having a grip on this dynamic game, until providence came my way, via a call from Mustapha Sheikh Abdullah, intimating me of a meeting with a certain presidential aspirant from the yet to be registered All Progressives Congress, the APC. The negotiation birthing the coalition merger was still in progress even though Chairman was of the Congress for Progressives Change, CPC bloc. I had to dash out from Zaria to Abuja, telling my dad I’d be back in the evening of the same day; that never happened. It was late 2014 and Chairman was having a press conference to announce his intention to run for the office of President. I had no idea what to expect when we attended. 

I had painted the mental image of the conventional Nigerian big man as one who is unapproachable, patronising and distant. The Chairman was the stark opposite: I asked him a question in the course of the press conference bordering on policy continuation and if he would continue with a performing minister from the opposition party, as the coalition was trying to wrestle power from the People’s Democratic Party candidate, then President Goodluck Jonathan. He responded in the affirmative and referenced President Obama’s retention of a republican, Robert Gates, as Secretary of Defense when he assumed the office of the American President. He then went on to ask Hajiya Rabi Gambari, a confidant of his, to inform me to wait behind and see him after. Unknown to him, we had come in a group to pitch some ideas for his campaign. When we met, we discussed issues bordering on national and international politics, the use of digital media in the campaign, Howard Dean’s experience using social media to campaign, his inability to harness his online popularity into offline support and how President Obama rejiggered the playbook to win the election. 

Chairman was vast.

Summarily, the team and I got hired to run the digital unit of his presidential campaign on the spot. That is how he operated: extremely spontaneous! We ran a diligent online campaign, and I am so proud of everyone who worked on the Sam4Nigeria team, coordinated by the then able Chief of Staff, Malam Abdul Gombe. 

That is how the quartet of us – Bashir Ahmad as Personal Assistant to the President on New Media, Ahmed Sidi, Johannes Tobi Wojuola of the Presidential Media Team and myself cut our teeth into Nigeria’s political landscape as it were, David Chinda came in afterwards and proved to be a reliable policy wonk. 

Before the presidential primaries, a bond was signed among the five presidential aspirants, noting that should whoever among them win the primaries, everyone would collapse his structure and support the victor. The then General Muhammadu Buhari emerged victorious. Thus, Sam Nda-Isaiah, Alh Atiku Abubakar, Senator Rochas Okorocha and former Kano State Governor, Rabiu Musa Kwankoso all collapsed their structures and assets and handed them to the winner. 

The Chairman nominated us, more or less rookies, to join the media directorate of the Presidential Campaign Council, which included media linchpins such as Garba Shehu, Dele Alake, Niyi Akinsiju, Barrister Aliyu Abdullahi, Laureata Onoche, Dr Chidia Maduakwe, Susan Henshaw, Abubakar Usman Sidiq, Gloria Adgbon, Seye Adebayo, Ayobami Oyalowo, Chukwudi Enekwechi, Paul Ibe to mention but a few.  

We once accompanied him on a visit to the then Presidential Candidate of the APC at Buhari’s private residence at Aso Drive; there we met many of the current kitchen cabinet members. On sighting the current Presidential Spox, Mallam Garba Shehu, but then Director of Communications for the campaign council, the Chairman motioned towards him and handed Ahmed Sidi and me to him saying “these are now your boys”. When he went in to see the Presidential candidate, he asked that we join him and again introduced us, stating that these were the young “chaps” who ran my digital campaign; the General seemed impressed. We were star-struck as that was the first time we had ever come close to the people’s General—this is who the Chairman was, he went all out for his kins, he was one of a kind.

This reality was aptly captured in the President’s tribute when he noted that he had lost a “friend and ally”. Facts only. 

While other media houses had more or less entered into a conspiracy of silence during the CNN-led propagation of alternative facts of the initial peaceful but later hijacked EndSARS protests, Leadership Newspaper seemed to be the lone ranger in the battle for truth. She published a patriotic editorial, titled “CNN, Don’t Mess With Nigeria”, calling out CNN’s bluff. 

Chairman was a nationalist to the core and an incurable optimist in the greatness of Nigeria, he never bothered about your creed but rather was interested in what you brought to the table; indeed his motto was: “For God And Country.” His ringtone was the Nigerian National anthem, his email read “SamofNigeria,” he prided so much in Nigeria; he was an ambassador at large, now lost to the cold hands of death.

Chairman was a serial entrepreneur, whose tradecraft was top-tier. We always marvelled at his unassuming posture yet ingenious mien. This is our collective loss, and we take solace in the fact that Chairman lived an impactful life and the certainty that he is in a better place. 

I remember when I first saw Chairman, he initiated the conversation by extending his hand and said “Hi! I am Sam.” 

His handshake was firm and strong. He spoke with confidence and charisma. He reminded me so much of the “king of all kings” in the Hong Kong movies I’ve seen, walking into a room and making heads turn. As time went by, I began to know him better and what he valued the most: people. To him, his employees were like his family. He made it clearly known that everyone plays an important role.

“Don’t work for me. Work with me.” Those words still ring in my ears today. He did his best to pull everyone together to build the team and make everyone feel a sense of ownership. The saying “Work is like a marriage” has some truth to it. There has to be elements of respect, trust, commitment and reasonable expectations. When it doesn’t work out, people quit.

No matter how disappointed he was at times, he was always optimistic. “It’s OK to leave and see the world. But you are always welcomed to come back.” That was what he said. He has taught me the importance of family, too. His fatherly demeanour immediately sprung out whenever he talked about his lovely daughters.

 He was also a boss who said, “If you need my help in any way, please let me know,” and he meant it. He would go to any length to achieve a request you made to him. He was willing to listen and never short of wise advice and opinions. He never, ever cut short a conversation with a “listen!”, even when he disagreed. One session with him could easily take up to two hours or even more, but they were always informative. He was a walking encyclopedia; he gave us stories you rarely could get from anywhere, and yet they were so rich and insightful. His understanding of Nigeria’s political history, its geopolitics, and key actors was mind-boggling — this we would miss sorely. One wonders how he had such a repository of knowledge. 

Generally, people think that bosses are cold and unapproachable, and conveniently equate them to emotionless robots. It is so easy to make a sweeping judgement of all bosses. However, if we take the time to stand in their shoes, we might probably understand why.

I remember once I followed him for a meeting. It was a long day. It never crossed my mind that bosses do get tired! Only when I saw him dozing off in the car did it strike me that, yes, he was human after all!

He had his share of mood swings. It was never his style to vent his anger and frustration on any of us. He was also one who was never afraid to admit his mistakes. That is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength, courage and responsibility.

This year will be the 6th year that I have worked with him, and with the level of confidence he reposed in me, it felt like we had known each other for over a decade. When I first started, I was just a fresh, young graduate. He had seen me through very critical stages of my life.

Chairman was an avid reader. Whenever he returned from a trip abroad, he brought back dozens of books. His study was where Tobi and I used as pass time over most weekends. So rich is the library that we found it hard to leave and most times returned home in the wee hours. 

The Chairman departed without an announcement, leaving us still young and volatile; but personally, I feel so blessed that I had worked with one of the best bosses in the world. I have learned priceless lessons from him. I have learnt the import of loyalty, which shall never depart me until I breathe my last breath. 

I had planned to see him, alongside Mohammed Bankole, a week before his demise—Bankole is a young and budding entrepreneur who is a poultry farmer that has now delved into real estate, he wanted to market his project to Chairman, but providence never permitted him to. 

On the night of his demise, Bashir had called Shamsudeen, whom we both shared the same room at about 4 am to announce the very shattering news. Ironically I had thought of Chairman randomly the previous night, without having an idea that this news would be broken to me the next morning. The room was extremely cold, yet I woke up to a shirt drenched in sweat; perhaps it was the sign. I sprung up and prayed it was all a dream, alas it wasn’t, Chairman had left us. 

Life is, indeed, transient. I vividly remember how he was telling us about the lunch he had with the late Chief of Staff to President, Malam Abba Kyari of blessed memory before he left for Germany and also how they were hopeful Malam Abba would make it out while he was undergoing medical treatment in Lagos. Perhaps the reason why a tweet by Babafemi Oretuyi keeps resonating. He tweeted on his handle @opetuyii :”#Flashback: A photo of @SamNdaIsaiah & Malam Isa Funtua at the burial of Malam Abba Kyari on April 18 2020. 3 months later, Isa Funtua died, & a bit above 3 months later, Nda-Isaiah died. All of them, Muhammadu Buhari’s right hand men, indeed 2020, has been one hell of a ride. RIP to them”. 

Adieu Chairman, indeed a formidable backbone is gone — we are grateful for the opportunities you gave us, and our thoughts and prayers are with your lovely wife, Zainab Nda-Isiah, kids, the Nda-Isaiah clan, praying God gives mama the strength to handle this. I still fervently remember your dance with her on your birthday. It is with a heavy and broken heart that I pen this tribute. Until we meet again, be rest assured that the marathon continues as you smile at us, Chairman. 

Your legacy would forever remain deep inside our hearts. Thank you for being a great leader and friend. 

Akanji is a foreign policy analyst and writes from Abuja

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