Malam Mohammed Ibrahim mni, OFR, happens to be the first and so far, the only Nigerian that has superintended Nigeria’s two topmost national broadcast outfits – the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) as the Director-General/Chief Executive in tow.
The veteran broadcaster, who also doubles as the Makama Ringim, spoke with Daily Trust on Sunday, on his journey into journalism, state of the nation and other sundry issues.
If you were not a journalist, what would you have been?
I had wanted to study electrical engineering, but somehow, I went to Technical Institute Kaduna after I left Rumfa College in Kano. We did one year course for City and Guilds (C&G) London, about 26 of us sat for that programme and we all passed, and it was certain that you could get a scholarship from Northern Nigerian Government either to study in the United States or in the United Kingdom or anywhere because they were desperately in need of engineers. We finished in December and while waiting for the results, I decided to take up a temporary job.
So, I went to the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) and was employed. That is how I became a broadcaster. Three of us were employed at the same time – myself, late Brigadier-General Ibrahim Bako and Shehu Lukman, that was 1961. In 1964, they had an arrangement with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), allowing people to go on secondment from three years in the first instance. I was lucky to be selected. So, I went to the BBC initially for three years, but I ended up spending five years at the BBC. I studied Journalism as a part-time student. Then I came back to the NBC in 1969.
Then, Radio/Television in Kaduna – the Broadcasting of Northern Nigeria (BCNN) snatched me and I went over to them. Eventually, I rose to become Head of News and Current Affairs, then Deputy Managing Director. When Kano State government was setting up their own television service in 1976, they asked me to go and takeover as General Manager. In that same year, the Federal Government took over all the states television stations to form the nucleus of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). In 1978, NTA took off; they had a zonal structure. So, I was appointed as the first managing director of Kano, Kaduna and Plateau, I was one of the six zonal managing directors. In 1980, I went to the National Institute of Strategic Studies (NIPSS) in Kuru for a year, came back and was told to go and take over NTA Network News, that was in January in 1981. I was there for two years, we couldn’t go very well with the politicians, so I was deployed to Sokoto as zonal managing director. Of course, I was very happy. Then in 1985, I was redeployed back to radio to take over FRCN Kaduna as managing director. I was there from 1985, but in 1987, I was transferred to Lagos as director, corporate Affairs of FRCN. In January 1989, I was appointed as Director-General of FRCN. In January 1990, I was redeployed back to NTA as Director-General, that is where I retired in 1996.
What became of your initial ambition to study electrical engineering then?
Of course, completely forgotten, I couldn’t have continued because I had got a job which I liked. It was a new challenge, a new initiative, a new experience, so I stuck to my broadcasting career up to the end of my working life.
Having served as the DG of both radio and television, which did you cherish most?
Broadcasting is broadcasting; I initially started as a radio broadcaster. In my BBC years, I was trained as a television broadcaster, came back to radio, went back to a combined radio and television station, heading both the news and current Affairs for both radio and television. Then eventually moving on to television completely. So, it is difficult for me to say this is where my heart lies.
Most of the top operatives of both the radio and television today are people you might have directly or indirectly employed. Looking back, would you say they have lived up to your expectations?
Circumstances determine the performance of every individual. Under the military, it was much easier to run a radio or television station because chances were that you had direct access, because they were colleagues, age mates, you could sit down and discuss, agree and disagree and find the best way out. But under a political dispensation, you have a minister, who you cannot bypass, you have to deal with the minister. And of course, there are political agents, who see things differently, so that is what is making things difficult for broadcasters in public organizations. To feel free to do your job, you argue, they see it from a different angle; you tell them how things should be done, they see it from a different angle, but our main concern as broadcasters is to maintain objectivity, fairness and balance. These are three cardinal principles that any broadcasting organization should strive to imbibe. But politicians don’t like you to talk about balance, fairness, or objectivity. Once they are in government, you must see that government is never wrong, it is not possible. So, these are some of the difficulties associated with public service broadcasting outfits.
Was there any bad experience you had working under various leaders during your career?
Between April 1989 when I became DG NTA to December 1996 when I retired, I worked with six different ministers. Six ministers in seven years with varying experiences. Coincidently, I’m the only Nigerian so far who has ever headed the two organizations. But working with six ministers in seven years shows you what I was saying. So, let us leave it there.
What is your take on the poor funding of media outfits by both the governments at the centre and states?
I wouldn’t say the government made a mistake by allowing public service broadcasting outfits to run commercial services, to take adverts and so on. We were set up on the same pedestal as the BBC – as a purely public service outfit.
In the 1950s, the federal government decided that NBC should start taking advertisements. When government realized that the corporation was making some money, they reduced their funding. Take Zimbabwe for instance, it is a public service broadcasting, but it was never under-funded. South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is a public broadcasting outfit, yet they are never underfunded. BBC generates its money from television and radio licences and fees, but we don’t have them here. Government scrapped them.
Broadcasting is a very expensive business. The technology is changing every day. They pay salaries, but expanding and getting new equipment, new experiences become very difficult.
In NTA today, you would see a transmitter that has been in service for the last 30 years. In FRCN today, especially in Kaduna, you’d find a transmitter bought by Sardauna of Sokoto in 1962. So, how can you run a good broadcast organization when you are reluctant to keep up with the time to change the equipment, to improve the facilities? That is the problem with Nigerian broadcasting today, poor funding of capital projects and even training.
We used to get a lot of training opportunities from the BBC, from the ABC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Voice of America, Radio France and so on. This is apart from local courses available, especially at the Administrative Staff College of Nigeria (ASCON) and the Centre for Management Development (CMD). These days, you hardly get such opportunities for our people and the courses in management are expensive and extensive that not all radio and television stations could afford them, and the offer for free of such courses are not forthcoming any longer.
Yes, we have an NTA TV College, we have FRCN Training School, but are they really training broadcasters or something else? You cannot rise to become a manager without going through the stages to become a managerial person. You have to know how to manage funds, how to manage human beings, equipment and so on. So, these are some of the problems of broadcasting in Nigeria.
Would you say this has also led to the decline in professionalism?
Nigerians are known for cutting corners, getting people appointed into positions they cannot hold or manage, as a result, a lot of incompetence is introduced into the system. I know one particular DG who was appointed and we knew he couldn’t do it, because he didn’t have the background or managerial ability, but it was a political decision, so there was nothing anybody could do in that case, so we had to accept it.
Go for the best person, no matter what, the important thing is to manage the organization very well. What we kept telling government was ‘look, we are here to serve you, but we must operate within the rules; don’t ask us to break the rules, we wouldn’t’.
How would you describe the growth of the broadcast industry in Nigeria?
NTA had a monopoly of television service in the country since its establishment in 1976. Then in 1992, General (Ibrahim) Babangida decided to break the monopoly and introduced private radio and television stations because it was another area of creating more job opportunities for our young people. Now, the system has expanded and I think it is becoming more difficult for NBC to manage or to monitor what these stations are doing.
Take Kano State, for instance, there are over 20 private radio and television stations there and there is no way NBC can effectively monitor their outputs. So, in my view, they have to go back to the tradition of monitoring and managing broadcasting organizations by their system.
In the UK for instance, when a radio station comes for the renewal of operating licence, they invite their listeners in the areas they operate to come and tell them the weaknesses, if any, of that station; Whether they are doing what they are supposed to do? If they offer the programmes they are supposed to offer, etc. This is how to monitor, but under the current system, a young man would sit down somewhere, listen to a programme and he may not hear properly and report to NBC and they are fined, it doesn’t make sense. Of course, there are some guilty ones, who think that they are above the law, who believe they can do whatever they want and abuse balance, abuse objectivity and get away with it. The same rule that governs public service broadcasting is the same rule that governs private broadcast providers. These three key issues, balance, objectivity and fairness should be their operating words.
In all these, where do we situate the social media where many do not operate within any defined set of standard rules?
Social media is a different kettle of fish altogether. All over the world, it is a problem, there is lack of professionalism. Their main mission, like the private broadcast organizations, is to make money and they think they can commit murder and get away with it. Carrying fake news, imagining things and proclaiming it to be true, non-factual reporting, they are guilty of all these things.
They have their own way of doing things, but unfortunately, they are most unprofessional about it. I don’t know how you can control them unfortunately; it is very difficult.
How would you describe your transition from the newsroom to the palace?
Retirement came when I was prepared for it. I knew I couldn’t go beyond 1996 in service having clocked 35 years. This is despite the fact that I had not reached 60 years of age, but the rule says 60 years of age or 35 years in service, whichever comes first. So, the service years came first, and I came home. I didn’t know how to run any business. I have never attempted it because I don’t know how to, but I was quite happy staying at home, though I was lucky also that my wife was working. So, in 2001, I was appointed as the District Head to succeed my late father in Kanya Babba, and at least having additional income to my pension payment. But I must tell you I’m quite comfortable living among my community people, coming back home and doing whatever I can to help my people. I’m enjoying my retirement, that is why I’m looking healthy. I’m 80 going to 81 but people say I don’t look 80.
What is the secret behind your look, especially, your sharp memory recollection, which is not usual with people your age?
I celebrated my 80th birthday last September, so the simple truth is that, I don’t have any worries. I have never allowed anything to worry me, I can’t remember ever in my life spending sleepless nights on any issue. Once it is done, it is done. As a Muslim, I believe in fate; if it happens, it’s God’s will, if it doesn’t, it’s God’s will. So, I eat well, sleep well and I do a lot of exercise to make sure that I don’t remain idle.