In sports, as in all of life, every current player was once a spectator. How do such moments feel across all of life’s endeavours? What would the next wearer of the iconic Argentinian Number 10 shirt feel when they first kick the ball for the national football team? That, in a nutshell, is the eternal challenge of all transitions, for countries, for institutions, and, well, even for a page in a newspaper.
When the history of modern Nigerian journalism is written, and this history has not been written enough, the Daily Trust newspaper would command more than a footnote. In a political economic region long dismissed as the graveyard of newspapers, this one has not only survived but has grown and grown. The managerial acumen behind this success story itself requires recounting for what can be learned from it by new generations of entrepreneurs building an enduring business of any kind from the scratch.
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So too do the political and intellectual functions the Trust papers serve, since above all, newspapers, and indeed all media, are themselves political and intellectual institutions, not like political parties, yes; but not too much unlike parliaments and the courts; certainly not unlike universities or think-tanks. But to grasp how the Trust papers have served these functions we must first cast a long but brief glance at the political and intellectual histories of Northern Nigeria as we know it today.
Three times in its history, a newspaper has emerged to help shape and define the North’s political destiny within the context of a Nigeria that is itself defined almost wholly by regional politics. The first of these newspapers was, of course, the Gaskiya Tafi Kwabo (truth trumps money), which made its first appearance in January 1939, some 90 years behind the press in southern Nigeria. Established primarily as a British propaganda organ in the Second World War, it still provided a platform for the rumblings of nationalist consciousness towards political independence with “northern characteristics”, as the argument came to be framed north side of The Niger.
Then came the New Nigerian in 1966, established by the old northern region government to “tell the story of the North to the world, and bring the story of the world to the North”, in the venerable words of its chief architect and enthusiast, the late Sardauna. Sadly, the New Nigerian lived for just two weeks before Sardauna himself was killed in the first and bloodiest of Nigeria’s numerous military coups.
Still, it told the story of the North, if not to the world, then certainly to the rest of the country. At its peak in the early to mid-1970s, and with a daily circulation of well over 300,00, the New Nigerian was the paper to read in Nigeria for its political coverage, and especially for its editorials and commentary. And for a generation, it was the training ground for nearly all of the region’s print journalists, a function served by Trust today.
But with growth comes decay, a maxim surely true for individuals, if not always true for institutions. By the early 1990s, the New Nigerian had all but petered out in political influence, if still in circulation to date. And into the political vacuum left by it stepped the Daily Trust, first in 1998 but coming of age three years later in 2001, since every decay is still followed by a renewal, even if, as is often the case, the new is something different from the decayed.
In this historical trajectory, however, Daily Trust is much different from its two progenitors in several respects. Where the publishing capital had first been in Zaria, and then Kaduna, it is now Abuja, the present seat of Nigerian politics. Where, too, its progenitors were established and still owned by governments, Daily Trust is a private enterprise. Above all, where the New Nigerian reigned at the height of ‘northern power’ in Nigerian politics, Trust had to grope its way at the twilight of this power under a vindictive president Obasanjo. And for me, it is here that the political and intellectual histories of this page are to be located.
The journalism of commentary and opinion is as vital to democracy as one of news. Where news tells us something about the world rendered in soulless facts, commentary and analysis tell us what that something might mean. It is in the opinion pages that current events are dissected, that new ideas are generated or advanced, or old ones refreshed. In fact, even journalism’s chief job of holding power to account is often better achieved through informed commentary and analysis. It is in this area that Daily Trust has trumped its predecessors the most, as it elevated its commentary journalism to a new and higher plane, evident in the prominence of its Back-page columns, not only stylistically, but also etched in the hearts and minds of its readers.
In Nigerian op-ed journalism, the stylistic innovation of placing opinion columns on the back page of a newspaper debuted on the pages of THISDAY through the columns of such writers as Dr Amanze Obi, Eniola Bello, Kayode Komolafe, Bolaji Abdullahi, Waziri Adio, and Olusegun Adeniyi. This style was quickly taken up, however, by most of the other newspapers like the Punch and Trust, and particularly those born during 1999 to date like The Sun, Nation, and Leadership. But even with a wider slate of back page columnists, those at the Trust were a pleasure for me to read, every day.
Featuring columnists in the early years like the late Wada Nas, Attahiru Jega, Mohammed Haruna, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, and Albashir, the Trust back pages soon became established with others like the late Mr Sam Nda-Isiah, Adamu Adamu, Al-Ghazali, Mr Idang Alibi, Is’haq Modibbo Kawu, Mahmud Jega, Jideofor Adibe, Dr Sanusi Abubakar, Garba Deen Mohammed, Dr Bala Mohammed, Sonala Olumhense, among several others, who have written regularly on these pages at various times in nearly a quarter-century.
My favourite of them all was the late Sam Nda-Isiah, who wrote on this same page before Mahmud Jega, who I in turn, now succeed. I really don’t know, but I don’t think I missed more than three editions of Sam Nda-Isiah’s Monday Column. There was simply no writer in any Nigerian newspaper who understood power politics under Obasanjo than Nda-Isiah. But as the depth and breadth of one’s reading is often evident in their writing, I would say, by that measure alone, that the core intellectuals in the house were always Adamu Adamu, Is’haq Modibbo Kawu, and Mahmud Jega, in no particular order.
All in all, northern Nigerians of my generation owe some intellectual debt for a bit of our political education to the writings of these people, and many others, at least towards understanding the high waters of Nigeria’s regional politics. I certainly do. And in this moment of transition, when yesterday’s spectator is today’s player, it is perhaps only fit and proper to begin by acknowledging this debt before going on to chart my own course in the vibrant tradition of commentary in this newspaper.