Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Mohammed Idris at 55, Blueprint at 10, by Ibrahim Sheme

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In my life, there are three people that I call Chairman, and they are related in more ways than one. First, all three happened to come from Niger State. Two of them are Nupe, so those are my “Katsina slaves”.

But all three were my masters, on a serious note. Why? They employed me at one time or the other. That is two. Thirdly, two of them held the traditional title of Kakakin Nupe, which was conferred on them, one after the other, by His Royal Highness, the Etsu Nupe, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar. The other one got his traditional title much earlier from another emirate.

Of course, you know who I am talking about: Alhaji Hassan Sani Kontagora, the Magajin Rafi, and the two Kakakis, the late Mr. Sam Nda-Isaiah and Alhaji Mohammed Idris. Now let’s continue counting.

Fourthly, all of them are media owners. Alhaji Hassan Sani Kontagora is the publisher of the long-rested Hotline newsmagazine. Mr Nda-Isaiah, the first Kakaki, was the publisher of the Leadership group of newspapers, while Idris, the second Kakaki, publishes the Blueprint newspapers consisting of a daily, a weekly in English and another weekly in Hausa called Manhaja. Idris is also the chairman of the Abuja-based We FM radio station. He is the current Secretary-General of Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN).

Fifthly, I was the editor of Hotline in 1992-1993 and in 1995, as well as the longest-serving editor of both Leadership and Blueprint at different times. I was made the editor of the former a few weeks after it was established in 2004; and I left in 2011 to serve as the first editor of the latter. Actually, I had the unique privilege of christening the three titles in the Blueprint stable as an “insider-outsider”; in the sense that while I was part of the team that started Blueprint as a weekly and later as a daily, and I was not working in the company when the weekend and the vernacular versions were created. That is proof of the confidence Chairman Idris reposed in me and I am always proud to think that I offered my services selflessly and professionally.

Sixly, the three Niger gentlemen were opposites in personal disposition towards their employees. While Kontagora and Nda-Isaiah were more hands-on managers of their businesses, the present Kakaki is kind of detached and more trusting in his senior managers to take very serious decisions. Ever so censorious, the Magajin Rafin Kontagora and the late Kakakin Nupe always wanted to know what would go into the next editions of their papers, but Idris prefers to see what is published after it has been published. On this account, all three were right but I should say that Idris is a better delight for any editor. From my bird’s view of the three situations, which I daresay I am competent to report on, Blueprint is more liberal and balanced in its reportage because of the freedom its editors enjoy.

Now I will stop counting and concentrate on my third Chairman, Alhaji Mohammed Idris, who clocked 55 years of age while his Blueprint clocked 10 years today, which is the reason for this reflective piece of writing. Unknown to many people, Idris and I have come a long way. We first met in the mid-90s when I was working at the New Nigerian Newspapers (NNN) in Kaduna and he was a media consultant in the same city, having quit his job as a university lecturer. He engaged me as one of his contacts at the NNN, someone who ensured that his public relations materials got published. I wrote some for him, including an editorial I persuaded the Editorial Board, of which I was the secretary, to run on the issue of primary education. Later, he established his own publication, called The Market, a business-oriented monthly news magazine. Though The Market actually made some inroads in the publishing arena, for me it did not clearly break into the main stream. I think the reason was its being a monthly magazine and a single-theme publication. In my view, to break through the barrier at that time, a publication ought to be the general interest type and more frequent, with some luck thrown in. Hence the success of an upstart that came onto the scene much later, i.e. the Weekly Trust.

I had made this view known to Idris a couple of times even when he moved his offices from Kaduna to Abuja, where I lived as editor of Leadership, and The Market had become a glossy, full-color affair. So, when sometime in early 2011 Idris asked me to “help” him reposition The Market I saw an opportunity to push my position forward. He was open and ready for any new ideas. I told him that the best thing to do was to rest the magazine and replace it with a general interest weekly newspaper. He bought the idea immediately and asked me to go and write a proposal for it.

I was then the Editorial Director at Leadership. I worked quietly in my spare time to come up with a dummy of a newspaper that I knew would give Leadership a run for its money. I was creating a robust, more vibrant competitor for us!

At The Market, only Chairman knew the game we were up to, the deal being that it was a total secret. As such, I never visited his office during the early planning stage; I was reporting my progress to him at his house in Asokoro, over breakfast. In the course of my work, I gave the paper the name Blueprint (chosen by Chairman out of about three names that I proposed, one of which was ‘Blitz!’). Blueprint was the name of a U.S. women’s monthly magazine that was published about a hundred years earlier and not the London-based architecture and design magazine that has been published since 1983.

When Chairman was satisfied with the progress we made, he tasked me with the new responsibility of putting together the team that would pull it off. I asked him how much he was prepared to spend. “As much as it takes,” came the answer. So, buoyed up by that assurance, I began hiring from among some Leadership staffers that had been sacked in recent times. We also sucked in the staff of The Market, such as the editor, Chamba Simeh, a former colleague of mine at NNN. In this task, I enjoyed the insight and commitment of Idris’s very loyal and hardworking General Manager, Malam Salisu Umar (the current Chief Executive Officer of the company).

At a stage during that process, which did not really take long, Alhaji Mohammed asked me: “Malam Ibrahim, why don’t you join us on this project? What are you still doing at Leadership?”

At first, I considered it a huge joke. How could I, the top editorial man at a behemoth like Leadership, climb down to a local, totally unknown upstart? It was like telling a citywise man to go back to the village!

But three things helped make up my mind. The first was Idris’s sincerity and kindness. He did not appear to me as fake. He had a quaint and disarming gentleness but a strong sense of purpose that appealed to me. The second reason was that having reached the zenith at Leadership, I did not envisage further opportunities or challenges for me there. I felt that I was vegetating. Also, a new Managing Director had been appointed above me from outside the company even though Chairman Nda-Isaiah had told everyone at a board meeting I attended that even though I was the best person for the post, he would not appoint me because I was “too gentle” – a description I regarded as grossly incorrect and diversionary. What did I have to lose by quitting? I wondered.

The third reason was even more compelling: we were going to make history. If Blueprint succeeded, our names would be written in gold in the annals of Nigerian journalism. The prospect of starting a new city in the virgin forest was a huge temptation.

Idris appeared to have a very deep pocket. The heavy investment he made was unprecedented: well-equipped offices, cars, mouth-watering housing allowances and competitive salaries – the works. Even our location in Maitama was a lure. We were able to employ some of the best hands in editorial, design, distribution and marketing. And we took them from some of the leading news organisations in the country. Above all, Chairman’s upbeat spirit was so inspiring. For him, it was not the expense but the realisation of a dream. I loved that.

Like coup plotters, we took titles for ourselves, we the main dramatis personae of the project. Idris was awarded the title Chairman (because he was chairman of the board of directors of the new company we floated, with three of us as directors/shareholders; Zainab Suleiman Okino, a big fish I had caught from the deep pond of the Daily Sun, took the title of Executive Editor.

Even though I could ask for the most high-sounding title in the editorial department, I settled for the modest, one-word one: Editor. My decision was based on the instinct that an independent newspaper reflects the vision of not only its owners but also that of its editor. I reckoned that being in the driver’s seat would afford me the opportunity to steer the paper towards the direction that we should go.

Indeed, the greatest asset that we got at that stage was the staff. They are too numerous to call by name here. Every one of them had a track record in their chosen field, and they all seemed to have a spring under their feet as if they wanted to prove something. That gave us, the managers, the fillip we needed to drive suavely, and Idris provided the fodder like there was no tomorrow.

And mother luck dey for our side o! Our preview edition was an instant hit. We were the only newspaper in northern Nigeria that reported the killing, by U.S. forces, of Osama Bin Laden – on the day that he was killed! In newspapering, you normally report what happened yesterday, but this was different. It happened coincidentally. We were supposed to go to the press with our maiden edition by 8 p.m. on May 1, but production hitches made it impossible to achieve that. I was sitting at my desk around 3 a.m., shagged out from the week’s running around, when I saw the breaking news on CNN that Bin Laden might have been killed. Only a handful of staff were around. Within the next 30 minutes, I was able to put together a new second lead story and run the photograph of the Al-Qaida leader on the front page. We went to the press around 5 a.m. At that time, the three biggest newspapers in Abuja – Daily Trust, Leadership and Peoples Daily – as well as the big guns in Lagos had all finished distribution nationwide. Only Thisday was able to murmur the killing of Bin Laden in a stop-press offering on the front page of its Abuja edition that morning. Newspaper vendors were seen brandishing Blueprint, the new kid on the block, all over the town because of the Bin Laden story even though it was supposed to be a free copy, being a preview, but they sold it like hot cake. We had to reprint as everybody was asking, “Which paper is this? Give me a copy!”

That was how we hit the ground running. The first for-sale edition carried an exclusive interview with Malam Nuhu Ribadu, a hot cake at that time due to his deathly silence following his return from exile abroad.

Our competitors were forced to stop seeing us as upstarts especially when, in the subsequent weeks, we maintained the tempo by serving the first inside stories about Boko Haram, an emerging terrorist organisation whose penchant for brutality was yet to be fully appreciated even by the security organisations. In fact, we were the paper that popularised the term ‘Boko Haram’. While the other papers were struggling with the mouthful ‘Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād’, we simply called the group by its local parlance.

We were the only paper that had direct access to the top commanders of Boko Haram, including its leader Abubakar Shekau, through our Maiduguri bureau chief, Ahmad Salkida, who had managed to earn their confidence. We broke many world-class stories, such as the news on the terrorist attacks on the Nigeria Police Force headquaters and the U.N. House in Abuja and published Shekau’s first interview as Boko Haram leader. It was only when I learned that our competitors had begun to cheekily refer to us as “that Boko Haram paper” that I told Salkida to tell Shekau and co to be sharing their stories with other media houses so that we could flow together with the crowd. That was when our local competitors and the international news agencies like AFP and Reuters began to receive press releases from Boko Haram. Much later, the terror group became even more sophisticated in developing its own propaganda materials, using social media as a very handy tool.

Across the last decade, Blueprint has passed through many phases of growth: good times, bad times. It went daily within four months due to popular demand. It threatened the position of the nearest competitors by eating voraciously into their market share. Today it has been able to become the third or the second leading newspaper out of Abuja and is arching for more accomplishments. This is all due to the incredible commitment to it by Chairman Idris and the staff of the company. The quality of its reporting is of the highest standard. Yes, it could have grown even better, in my view, if certain things had been taken care of or certain changes were made.

Blueprint is 10 years old today. It was actually first released to coincide with Chairman Idris’s 45th birthday. So it is a double celebration today.

I wish to congratulate the staff and management on this onerous milestone. I also congratulate Alhaji Mohammed Idris (who has added Malagi, his village, to his name) for his immense foresight, sense of humanity, entrepreneurship and friendship, a philanthropist and unique employer of labour, on clocking 55 years of age today. I pray to the almighty Allah to continue to bless him and his family, as well as fulfill his (always good) intentions. May God continue to build his capacity in the service of humanity? And may Blueprint climb to higher heights, amen.

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