TURI MUHAMMAD was Editor and (later) MD of New Nigerian Newspaper Limited. A few years after retiring from the services of the company, he published a book on it. Titled Courage and Conviction – New Nigerian: The First Twenty Years (2000), the book gives the inside story of the company, the secret of editing and managing a media outfit. This interview was conducted by SUMAILA UMAISHA just before the publication of the book.
When and how did you join the New Nigerian Newspapers?
Turi Muhammadu: It all began when I was a second year student at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Precisely, it was during the 1967/68 academic session. While discussing with one of my lecturers, Dr. J. A. Ballard, he said, “Turi, you have a style of writing that can do well in journalism. Are you interested in writing for the New Nigerian?” I said yes, and he promised to talk to Malam Adamu Ciroma, the then Editor of the paper. He said Malam Adamu was his student at the Ibadan University. And three weeks later, he said he had seen Malam Adamu and that he said I should start right away by contributing articles, especially book reviews. And I started writing even before I met Malam Adamu Ciroma. Then at the end of the academic year when I came to Kaduna to see him, he commended me and offered me a temporary job for the three months that the university would be on vacation.
I was teaching in Teachers’ College, Mubi before I went to ABU to further my education. The plan was that after my course, I would then go back to my work as a better teacher. But this was not to be, because at the end of the three months with the New Nigerian, the Managing Director, Mr. Charles Sharp, appreciated my contribution so much that he honoured me with a plaque on which he asked me to come and join the company 0’1 a permanent basis after my degree course. And so, two days after my final examination, June 11, 1969, I went to see Malam Adamu, who had then become the Managing Director following the retirement of Mr. Sharp. Immediately I entered his office, he handed me my letter of appointment. That’s how I joined the New Nigerian.
What did you study in ABU, Zaria?
I read History. But I took Government and Economics as subsidiary subjects. One of the courses in Government was Government and Politics of African States. This was where I met Dr. Ballard.
Why didn’t you read journalism, since you were talented in the subject?
At that time, I wasn’t interested in journalism. Though I was very much interested in newspapers. I collected newspapers a lot, even now I still have some copies I bought while I was at Barewa College, Zaria in 1959. But I wasn’t interested in becoming a journalist. And in any case, there wasn’t a course in journalism in the ABU then.
So it means all the Northern journalists then weren’t trained journalists?
That is correct. For instance, Malam Adamu Ciroma and his successor, Malam Mammn Daura” and myself were not trained journalists. We just used our common sense and fortunately, we got it right.
But some believe that untrained journalists are the bane of the profession?
I think it is going too far to say they are the bane of journalism. New Nigerian is a good example of an exception. It was run by untrained journalists. Yet it was as good, if not better than many newspapers in the 1960s and 70s. It all depends on the background and general character of the journalist – you need a well educated person and a good mixer.
Let’s get back to your appointment. What was your first appointment in the New Nigerian?
It was Executive Assistant to the Managing Director. So I was working directly under Malam Adamu Ciroma. At the same time, I worked in all the departments in the company, spending three months in each department. And I worked hand-in-hand with the workers so that by the time I got to the Editor’s desk I knew virtually everything about each department.
What was your next position?
I served as Executive Assistant to the Managing Director for one year and then I was sent to Waterloo Lutheran University, Ontario, Canada, for a nine-month course in Business Administration. The programme was a special Canadian government aid to developing countries. There were five of us from Nigeria.
You got this opportunity barely a year of your being in the company while those who were there before you didn’t get it. What is the secret?
New Nigerian had its own training scheme. Staff were sent to various courses at home and abroad. It just happened that there was this Canadian assisted course and I was qualified for it and the management applied on my behalf. It was not that I was singled out for such favours.
When you came back from the course, what next?
I became Marketing Manager in charge of sales of the newspapers all over the country. I did the job for one year. And I really felt fulfilled because the circulation increased vastly under my management.
What was the circulation?
About 100,000 copies daily. Now, after this post, I became Managing Editor, Lagos, in 1972. This was the time the company set up a second press in Lagos so that we can print simultaneously in Kaduna and Lagos. Since the New Nigerian was established in 1966, there was the problem of how the paper could be sold in the South on the same day of publication. Various strategies were considered including editioning, and finally the management of the company decided to set up the Lagos press. The Northern State Governments which owned the company backed the idea and supplied the funds for the project. The project was successful and I think to date, the New Nigerian is the only paper that has tried to publish in two locations simultaneously in Nigeria or even in the whole of Africa.
Are you aware that the Lagos press in now shut down?
So I hear. But I hope it is a temporary suspension. I believe when the company’s resources become more buoyant, it will be re-opened. The re-establishment is important because the press in Lagos made an impact. Our circulation more than doubled in Lagos when we began printing there. And that helped to counter the negative publications against the North by the Southern media.
Talking about countering the Southern media; do you think the New Nigerian can do that with complete success?
I don’t think so. In fact, the New Nigerian being federal government owned can’t play that role any more. Remember. We were able to achieve some success during our own time largely because it was owned by Northern states: We were seen as a Northern paper and we were defending the North then without necessarily being subjective in our views. We were national in our approach and it worked. For instance, when I was Managing Editor, Lagos, there was a move to stop the British Airways from landing in Kano. They were to land only in Lagos because British government denied Nigeria Airways the same facilities to land in London and Manchester. We saw that this retaliatory measure would work against the interest of the people travelling from the North because they had to go to Lagos before travelling abroad. So we wrote an editorial on November 17, 1973, entitled “Solution looking for a problem” pointing out the futility and stupidity of the move by the Nigeria Airways and the idea of restricting British Airways to Lagos was cancelled. Apart from this, we also addressed other issues such as the quota system of admission into federal universities and revenue allocation formula. We advocated policies that would address imbalance in all the sections of our national life and those policies are still being operated today.
From the Managing Editor, Lagos to which post?
To the post of Editor in January 1974. That time, Malam Adamu Ciroma had retired and Malam Mamman Daura had become the MD.
As Editor, what were your most exciting events?
As Editor of New Nigerian, everyday was interesting. All sorts of events were taking place. But I think the most crucial was the change of the government by General Murtala Muhammed in 1975 and later the assassination of Murtala. Incidentally, we published the picture of the coup announcer, Col. Joe Garba, on our from page of the northern edition the very day Gowon’s ouster was announced by him. What happened was that the previous day, Friday, the news-editor came to my office in the evening to ask for a photo graph to be used as a caption story picture on the front page. And as we were deciding on which picture to use, some pictures were brought to us from the transport office. So we went through the collection and found the picture of Joe Garba in which he was inspecting the passing out parade of NYSC members in Lagos. We thought it was catchy, so we published it. Not knowing that he would announce a coup on the radio the following morning. I was not amused since I could have been arrested if the coup had failed.
In terms of an exciting job, what I remember most was the editorial we wrote on the release of the last batch of Biafran soldiers. Announcing their release, the government spokesman said there were no more political poisoners in the country. But we wrote an editorial saying there were still political prisoners and appealed to the government to release them. We didn’t give names or the prison where they were, because, honestly speaking we didn’t know. All we knew was that there were some remnants of the supporters of NEPU and supporters of J. S. Tarka from Benue State, (UMBC) still in Kaduna prison. General Gowon was said to have been worried about the editorial and he asked the prison authorities to check whether there were indeed political prisoners left as claimed by the New Nigerian.
Both the prison officers and the intelligence came to report to him that there were none left. So the Supreme Headquarters sent soldiers to the Managing Editor in Lagos to give the names of the alleged political prisoners. Alhaji Tukur said he was not the editor of the paper so they better ask the editor in Kaduna. So on a Saturday morning, while I was away taking my sick dog to the veterinary clinic, the police called at my house to see to it that I either give the names or be taken in. When my wife told me on my return, I decided to wait for their second visit. Fortunately, late Salisu Daura, who was the then Head of CID in Kaduna police headquarters intervened. He told the police not to arrest me and advised me to bring the names. We sent to Malam Aminu Kano to furnish us with the names since they were mostly supporters of NEPU, but he said he too didn’t know their names. We were out on our own.
But one of our reporters eventually saved the situation. He spoke to a warder in Kaduna prisons who in turn talked to a prisoner in the prisons. And at last, he got the names of all the prisoners. One morning, the reporter just walked into my office with the list of the names. They were 25 or so. The names included two prisoners who had died in prison. We took the names to the commissioner of police and even though they were not released immediately, we were left alone. Not long after that, Gowon was overthrown. Two weeks later, I took the list to the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs, Sunday Awoniyi, who was attending a conference at Zaria then. And a week later, the prisoners were released. They came to our office after the release to express their gratitude. I consider this episode one of my most exciting times as editor.
Did you have low moments as well?
As editor… not really, except when we made mistakes in reporting. The one I can easily remember was that of Miss D.M. Miller, Health Commissioner in North Central State. On her arrival by air at Kano airport, her plane had a problem. After landing, the steps got jammed and passengers had to jump down. In the process of jumping she sprained her ankle and was taken to the hospital. We got the report from our airport correspondent in Lagos. To confirm the story, I phoned Brigadier. Abba Kyari, the then Governor of North Central State. But I wasn’t able to speak with him directly; it was his ADC who took the phone. He told me to hold on, and after some minutes, he came to .say that the Governor said we should go ahead and publish the story. Now, the story I had which I relayed to the ADC was that the lady was critically ill in a hospital; on danger list. And we got the story splashed on the front page, not knowing that the woman only had a sprain. It was horrible. My telephone started ringing from home even before I got to the office. And in the office, the phone kept ringing till 9 p.m. People were calling just to say, “What a lousy editor you are. Look at what you have done.” I did not like it at all.
What did you do to correct the situation?
Nothing. What could I do?
You mean you didn’t publish an apology?
No, we were clever about that. We did a follow-up story saying the woman has now got over the sprain and she was now walking.
So you didn’t say the previous story was a lie?
(Laughter) it wasn’t a lie, it was an exaggeration (laughter) and a break in communication.
From Editor you became Managing Director. How did you get there?
Honestly, I don’t know. I only know that during my tenure as Editor, the paper did well and when Mamman Daura was retiring, he put my name forward to the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters and to the board. I never asked for it. Even the post ,of editor, I never asked for it; I was similarly proposed by my bosses.
I asked this question because right from Malam Adamu Ciroma’s time up to that of Dr. Abubakar Abdul-Rasheed, editors eventually became MDs. Was it a deliberate succession policy?
Yes, it was a deliberate policy initiated by Malam Adamu Ciroma. This fact could be deduced from his speech at the 10th anniversary of the New Nigerian in 1976 where he said when he became the editor he had to build up a team that would run the place in a way that would make the paper endure as a qualitative and respected newspaper long after he might have left the place. He said that was why he went for Mamman Daura, myself, Ibrahim Suleiman etc. And when I became MD, I also tried to build up successors like Mohammed Haruna, Yakubu Mohammed of Newswatch etc. Though some of them never became editor or MD; some have become leading journalists elsewhere.
There is a lot of difference between the role of editor and that of MD, isn’t it?
Quite a lot of difference. As editor, I didn’t care much how the company survived. I could just take pen and write what I liked; the MD was there holding the head of the snake for me while I played with the tail (laughter).
So how did you find the transition from one post to the other?
It was quite easy. But the difference is that as MD, the buck stops on your table. Every member of staff looks up to you to solve all the problems. There is excitement in the post of editor while there is more burden from the post of MD.
Yet, the post of MD can’t be said to be devoid of excitement totally. Can you remember any moment of excitement while you were MD?
The exciting moment I could remember was when the Federal Government attempted to censor the media, particularly government¬owned media. In our own case, we were instructed to first of all seek the consent of the government each time we want to publish any sensitive story. The Lagos office was to see the minister of information and in Kaduna we should see the Kaduna State Governor. I was not told this directly, it was our Managing Editor in Lagos that was briefed, so he came and told me. And 1 went round top government offices in Lagos to find an explanation to it. You see, my view was that if I should not be trusted to be sensible enough in running the place, then, there was no need for me to be there only to write a paper and show’ it to someone before publishing. I may as ‘well go away so that someone else, maybe the Minister himself, could occupy the office and write whatever he likes. I was ready to resign, but it didn’t get to that because I was assured that, that was not the intention. They said their aim was to ensure that sensitive issues were not allowed to cause tension in the country. So they advised us to be more careful in whatever we publish. This was during the time of the Shari’a crisis in the Constituent Assembly 1977/78 and student crisis resulting in deaths of five students at ABU Zaria and one in UNILAG.
Would you describe your days at the New Nigerian as good old days?
I won’t say good old days but good and exciting days, because it’s not all that old yet: it’s just 10 to 20 years ago. I would say the New Nigerian has not been on the rise in terms of influence since it was taken over by the Federal Government in 1975 shortly before I became MD. It has been declining. Apart from the attempt at censorship which I said earlier, the Federal Government never, interfered. But one knew without being told that one had to be more careful. We were conscious of the fact that we were no longer owned by a section of the country. That helped in dampening the sharpness of the newspaper and it continued to go down.
This brings us back to the question of ownership. Why did the Federal Government take over the paper?
Honestly, I don’t know. One can only give one’s views based on the various opinions that have been given on the issue. I have tried to talk to people who were part of the decision to take over the paper and Times newspaper, but they haven’t been forthcoming. However, there are two schools of thought on the matter. The first and easily acceptable is that when Murtala came to power, he was wary of the two papers, that they could sabotage his programmes. So when some sacked senior staff of Daily Times petitioned the government over their sacking by Alhaji Babatunde Jose’s management, the Federal Government saw it as an opportunity to interfere with the company and took it over by 60 per cent shares. Now, if the Federal Government stopped there, people would say it was biased and the action was an attempt to brow-beat the south. So the New Nigerian was also taken over, but in its own case, by 100 per cent. The second school of thought which I am also inclined to believe is that before Murtala came to power, the New Nigerian had become a very strong opinionated newspaper. It was influential and dictating the pace of the government. It was putting forward so many suggestions and the suggestions were implemented. Some of the suggestions included the quota system in university admission, uniform price of petroleum products, which were hitherto higher in the North, the siting of universities and refineries etc. Just before Murtala took over government, there was an issue of petition against Governor Joseph Gomwalk of Benue Plateau State by Mr. Aper Aku. We published the petition even though Gomwalk was a nominal owner of the paper, being one of the Northern state governors. When it was published, Gowon called Gomwalk to explain and after the explanation, he said he was satisfied. But the public was neither satisfied nor happy and from there, the image of Gowon’s government went down and it was eventually ousted. So there were people in government who, seeing this, thought something must be done to curb the influence of the paper if Murtala’s government was to succeed. So when the Daily Times problem came, the Federal Government saw it as an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. These were the two schools of thought, and there could be more. But definitely their reason was not that the Northern States were not taking care of it financially. Malam Adamu Ciroma, however, is of the opinion that if the Federal Government had not taken it over at the time they did, today there would have been no New Nigerian because its .finances were dwindling. Malam Adamu came to this conclusion when he examined the books of the company as Chairman of the panel to determine the fate of the ICSA and the Eastern State Interim Assets and Liability Agency (ESIALA) in August 1975.
After the take-over, did the Federal Government give subventions regularly to the company?
We were getting Federal Government subventions, at least before I left. They were about 50 per cent of our expenditure.
The company no longer gets the subvention. Do you know when and why it was stopped?
I think it was stopped just after I left in March, 1980. I don’t know why it was stopped.
It’s hard to understand why a company said to be owned by the Federal Government is not being funded by it like it does other federal government parastatals. Under what arrangement was the take-over made?
It was a hundred per cent take-over with a promise of funding. After the take-over Malam Mamman Daura and I told the government that since the company was not a profit-making organisation, we would need subsidy on a regular basis and they agreed. Every year we would go before them and they would give. I remember, when the Shagari Administration was still new and I was about to retire, I went to the Ministry of Finance and five million Naira was allocated to the company. But I understand that when it went to the National Assembly shortly after I had left, it was rejected. Probably if I had not left then or I had been invited to lobby the Assemblymen, I would have got it accepted by the Assembly through the friends I made while in the Constituent Assembly in 1977/78. Since then, .the company has not been getting subsidy but occasional grants for specific projects.
The take-over of Daily Times was 60 per cent while that of New Nigerian was 100 per cent. Why?
You know, it was military era. The Head of State was also the Commander-in -Chief and the governors were his vassals. He just gave them order and that was all. It was government to government, that is why there was no compensation. But in the case of Daily Times, it was a private company. So what they did was to increase its shares by 60 per cent and they were bought over by the government through NICON. So both New Nigerian and the Daily Times became Government parastatals under the Ministry of Information.
But even if it’s government to government, the fact is that the company was set up and sponsored by the Northern states from their respective revenue resources. Don’t you think it’s only justifiable for the federal government to have bought it rather than merely taking it over as it did?
Well, it makes it easier now for the Northern state governments to demand for the return of the company since it was not paid for. This is what they should do. After the states have taken it back, they can then privatise it. But I don’t think it will be fair for the Federal Government to sell the New Nigerian. You don’t sell what you don’t own. The danger of the Federal Government selling it now is that people outside the North will buy it over. And it will be a tragedy for outsiders to buy over what the Sardauna set up. Sardauna’s legacy must not be handed over to people outside the North.
What would you say were your major achievements as editor and MD of New Nigerian?
Well, it’s not for me to say, I can only pin-point some of the things we did from 1973 to 1980. During this period, the standard laid by Malam Adamu Ciroma and Mamman ])aura was maintained. We were consistent when it came to Nigerian unity. We didn’t shy away from speaking up on issues that give everyone a sense of belonging. We took a loan from Bank of the North to build Imam House and we were able to pay it back during my time. We also laid the foundation stone of Nagwamatse House during my time and Alhaji Tukur Othman completed it. I learnt these properties are not doing well now in terms of revenue generation. I hope with time they will do well. As for the newspaper circulation, we were selling about 100,000 copies daily before the transition to civil rule. During the transition put in place by Murtala, we were selling as many as 200,000 copies daily. There were times we sent to Kano alone over 40,000 copies almost all of which were sold. I feel happy that I left behind a good newspaper, a vibrant organisation and a happy work-force.
How do you see the New Nigerian of today?
I think Dr. Umar Farouk Ibrahim is determined to lift the New Nigerian up. I notice the paper is better printed now. The copies are cleaner and they are now available. About a year or two ago, one hardly gets the New Nigerian to buy. I also notice that some new columns have been introduced to enrich the paper. The news coverage is also good. I hope he will keep it up.
Why did you decide to retire from the New Nigerian?
My income from the New Nigerian was not enough to take care of my basic needs and responsibilities. That is why I left. I didn’t want to steal the company’s money and I didn’t want to use my influential position in the media to go about begging, so I left.
(c) Sumaila Umaisha.