Let me wish my mentor,Malam Garba Shehu, media aide to President Muhammadu Buhari a happy birthday as he turns sixty (60) on November 27. I doubt, very much, if there would be any fanfare to mark this milestone. Ten years ago, when he turned fifty (50), to my knowledge, there wasn’t any beating of drums to mark his entry into the “golden” club, at least, not in the public space. I am not too sure this time, it would be any different.
Certainly three “scores” is momentous. I pray to Almighty Allah (SWT) to increase him in good health and wisdom.
To many people, Shehu is just another “spokesman”. This, indeed, has been his main turf in the last twenty years or so. Before his foray into the difficult terrain of Public Relations and managing the image of politicians these past two decades, he had been a brilliant journalist, media manager and communications teacher. Long before he spoke for Atiku Abubakar and now President Buhari, he had been the image maker of Aluminum Smelter Company (ALSCON) in the twilight of the 90s.
Further back in history, he was once a reporter with the NTA before crossing over to the Triumph newspapers in kano, his home state, where he was, at various times, editor of all the titles before exiting as Managing Director /Editor -in-Chief around 1998 at 39 or there about.
Shehu was destined for the top in his chosen path, which is journalism and PR. He made marks in both fields. As a newspaper editor and media manager, he was brilliant and a visionary. He had a keen eye for both talents and details. Thanks to his vision, he constituted a world class editorial Board whose membership was drawn from the academia, the intelligentsia, the business community and top notch technocrats.
The Board used to meet every Monday. I was the youngest member. It had my former college principal, the no nonsense Ado Gwaram. There was also Malam Ibrahim Muazzam of the political science department of Bayero University (BUK) and Marxist Ibrahim Bello Kano of English department. Foremost economist, Kassim Musa Bichi, Dr Hafiz Wali, former DG of National Teachers Institute (NTI), Nuuman Habib, sociologist and journalist and a host of others.
I christened the weekly rendezvous the “Monday School”. I learned more and developed the confidence to engage even my tutors without being disrespectful.
Shehu also helped recruit or head hunt young promising reporters regardless of creed or status. In the newsroom of the Triumph, wholly owned by government of Kano state were Nigerians from across cultures. There were many voices on the editorial board and the newsroom but Shehu was able to “distill” the tower of babel and produce a paper whose views were respected and its stories often quoted by foreign media. I recall one instance when I was the News editor; the coverage of the June 12, 1993 debacle that earned the paper rave reviews by the Lanre Idowu edited Media Review Magazine. Other times, the BBC and VOA will quote stories from the Triumph as their trusted reference. As government paper under military regime, Shehu found a way of telling truth to power without appearing belligerent.
One day in 1994,the then Commissioner of Information late Bashir Karaye accompanied a visiting military governor of the neighboring state of Katsina. After a tour of the company, the visitors sat down for a chat and as unit heads, we all had a question or two to ask but the Commissioner was throwing his weight trying to control the flow until Shehu stamped his feet on the ground and made it clear that it was “our show”. The visitor backed down.
Shehu was “encyclopedic”. No subject was Greek to him. Politics, Economics, Sports, Entertainment, you name it, Shehu was at home discussing. I have seen him engage intellectual power houses at close quarters. In 1991,I was nominated to attend a workshop organized by the Centre of Democratic Studies (CDS) in Conjunction with the Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE). I was still wet behind the ears. Alhaji Wada Maida was then the President of the Guild.I saw Shehu taking on Late Professor Omu Omoruiyi, the Director -General (DG) to task throwing up different alternatives and postulating different theories concerning the Transition Programme of the administration at the time.
In between running a newspaper with a few hot heads like me,he found time to teach undergraduate and post graduate courses in the Mass Communications department of BUK. In my formative years in journalism, Shehu taught me many lessons in management .I learned from him early that knowledge is power and it’s the best guarantor to ascend the ladder. Once, during the general staff meeting, he pointedly said that “ability” not seniority in age was the consideration in promotion.
“This is not gerontocracy” he said and rested the contrived agitation in the company that “greenhorns” were becoming line editors.
Shehu matured early. He became Managing Director of the Triumph at thirty three (33) and President of the Guild of Editors at thirty seven (37). Clearly he was gifted. He had a way with people. He is quick witted, always ready with a sharp one liner. Among his peers, when excited, he has a patented throaty laughter. Among his subordinates, he projects a tough exterior but deep down he really is a nice guy. Once,he assembled all of us in editorial management and chastised us for being “too nice”. The title editors were quiet. But not hot headed me who retorted “you are the nicest of them all”. He challenged me to give an instance and I did. The following week, a reporter did the unthinkable-he assaulted his unit head after being queried for dereliction of duties. He was dismissed at the recommendation of a disciplinary committee.
I met Shehu 30 years ago. I didn’t know him from Adam. He was then editor of the TRIUMPH. It was a chance meeting. One day, I accompanied a classmate Abdullahi Mohammed Doki to see a relative of his, called Muktar Magaji who had taken up a job there, a year earlier. Magaji was a brilliant student of Mass Communications. He was editor of the campus newspaper at the time called Bayero Beacon. The dream of every Communication undergraduate was to edit the Beacon back in the day.
On the way out, we bumped into Shehu in the corridor apparently on a mission. There was a hurried introduction by Magaji. Shehu acknowledged without breaking his pace as he headed upstairs probably to meet with the Managing Director.
A year later, I came looking for a job. Armed with nothing but my NYSC discharge certificate and photo copies of a couple of published articles in especially the Guardian and the Sunday Triumph, Magaji convinced me to meet with Shehu. I did. It was very brief. All he asked was if I had “written” any articles in the past. He took a bird’s eye view of my “prized” article in the Guardian on Sunday when Amma Ogan was editor under the weekly “Campus Experience” column. I think that helped made up his mind to persuade Management to give me an offer.
In the mid 80s, getting published in the Guardian as a student was huge. In the whole of Bayero University, only a few of us were that lucky to have met the high linguistic standards of the Guardian. There was a taciturn guy called Ibrahim Mohammed Sheme who blazed the trail in writing for the Guardian. He got paid the princely sum of one hundred naira (N100). I followed suit.
From that moment, Shehu ran from pillar to post until I got the job despite a suffocating embargo on employment nationwide by the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida.
Within weeks, I was employed as Features Writer and member of the editorial board, thus began my career as a reporter with Shehu as my mentor.
Before I left the Triumph, I had been everything except Managing Director. I edited the Weekly broad sheet Sunday paper intermittently for five years, removed thrice by the powers that be. The first time was by Shehu himself. At the time, I heard later, I was still not ripe to be editor. I was 29.
Years later, after my sojourn as the pioneer Group Politics editor of Daily Independent,ThisDay both in Lagos and Editor of Abuja based Leadership newspaper, Shehu came looking for me to head the management of Peoples Daily. He convinced me that I had what it took to run it. I was Chief Operating officer for a record six years.
The Triumph of the 80s and early 90s produced brilliant journalists like Kabiru Yusuf, Chairman of Daily Trust, late Rufai Ibrahim, the only northerner to edit the Guardian, Saleh Mari Maina, the first editor of Thisday, Sani Zorro, who was an editor in African Concord International Magazine, Late Hajiya Bilkisu Yusuf and several others.
Once again, happy birthday sir! May your days be long. Thank you. We are here because you were there !
Ali M. Ali writes from 1st Avenue, Gwarinpa, Abuja.