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Year of writing

I always wanted to write a book about the Daily Trust, to situate the paper within the journalistic, political and intellectual histories of northern Nigeria in…

I always wanted to write a book about the Daily Trust, to situate the paper within the journalistic, political and intellectual histories of northern Nigeria in the first quarter of the 21st century Nigeria and the world. To, so to speak, tell the story of the paper as a journalistic institution, and of its readers as a people, within the wider contexts of Nigerian and global society. After all, didn’t Benedict Anderson say that the chief function of a newspaper is to form a people out of individuals so many they would not otherwise know each other?

A book about a newspaper is thus inevitably about its readers, about the values and issues they hold dear and why, and about their trials and triumphs within a given context of place and time. What form and content such a book would take are quite clear in mind right now, to bring the paper’s audience and their expectations right to the heart of it, for example, or to relearn the managerial acumen that informs the paper’s growth and success, or yet to retell the battles it won and lost both at home and away within Nigeria’s combustible politics.

All of these, and more, are good reasons enough for such a book, even in a Nigeria where the barest concerns of the moment tend to trump those of posterity which writing, and its flipside reading, both elicit. So, today, it is simply worth recalling how long this idea has been running in my mind and how often I had laughed at and to myself about whether it could ever get done.

The idea started, I think, in 2006, when, still an undergraduate, I attended the first “International Conference on Communication, Media and Popular Culture in Northern Nigeria”, organised by the Department of Mass Communication, Bayero University Kano (BUK), my alma mater. It was a memorable event, and to date, it remains one of the most engaging academic conferences I have ever attended.

I am not sure if other editions of that conference have followed, but that one has been etched in my mind precisely because of the idea of a book it sparked, which has only grown stronger as I received more academic and professional training and have grown more mature intellectually.

The late Professor Mike Egbon, of the same department, delivered the keynote address in which he repeatedly posed the question, the effect that, why has there not been a private newspaper out of northern Nigeria that stood the test of time? He compared media development in northern and southern Nigeria, and his verdict came down heavily on the former. He talked about the failures of The Democrat, The Reporter, Citizen, Hotline, Analyst, and even the New Nigerian, and asked how and why they mostly failed. Other speakers at the event spoke along similar lines and identified some of the reasons why northern Nigeria was basically the graveyard of newspapers.

But as they spoke, my mind was racing. If northern Nigeria were such an unfertile soil for newspapers, I thought, why was Daily Trust doing well and looking set to endure? Did it not make more academic sense to ask why this particular one was doing well and looked set to continue to do well rather than asking why many before it failed? Was the Daily Trust doing well where others had not because democracy in Nigeria was also doing well at the time?

I posed these questions directly to Professor Egbon, to the applause of the conference audience, and his response only intensified my curiosity. And when a few months later it was time to select a topic for my final year research project, I chose “Democracy and Newspaper Development in Northern Nigeria: A Case Study of Daily Trust (1998-2006)”, and to my delight, it was approved.

Undergraduates have a funny and amateur way of framing research topics—always a case study of something—and in retrospect, this sounds no less funny and amateur to me now. But completing that project not only helped to hone in my research and writing skills, but also provided me with the opportunity to meet with and interview some of the heavyweights in Nigerian journalism at the time like Mohammed Haruna, Kabiru Yusuf, Bilkisu Yusuf, Sam Nda-Isiah, Gausu Ahmad, Al Bashir, among several others.

Travelling between Kano, Kaduna and Abuja to interview all these people for what was no more than an undergraduate research project was fun too, but also quite elevating. I received gifts of books and money—which helped with my transport costs—and most importantly, I still remember some of the enriching discussions we had. I learned quite a bit about journalism in northern Nigeria and its political and social functions from the interviews, but also from the literature, most notably Turi Muhammadu’s Courage and Conviction – New Nigerian: The First Twenty Years (gifted me by Mohammed Haruna) and Mathew Hassan Kukah’s Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria.

As you might have guessed, this was a difficult project for an undergraduate student, but my then supervisor, the late Professor Balarabe Maikaba thought it was well worth the effort, and I remain forever grateful for his guidance because that training simply made a researcher out of me, even though we had many difficult moments and didn’t always agree on the work. But at the time, and in the specific context of that work about media development in northern Nigeria, I thought that three things were happening concurrently in Nigerian journalism and politics that merited a deeper investigation.

First, Daily Trust was growing and growing fast. In 2006, it was eight years since its inception, and during that short time, it had transformed from a weekly to a daily, added the weekend titles and was already doing stuff like the annual Daily Trust Dialogue that impacted the national political scene. It was also fervently cherished and trusted by its readers, among them myself, my brothers and most of the people I knew. It was, in that sense at least, already defying the supposed gravity of newspaper journalism in the northern region.

But the industry as a whole was growing rapidly, too. Everywhere in the country, newspapers and other media outlets were springing up: The Sun, Nation, Leadership, Sahara Reporters, National Interest, Daily Independent, Next, People’s Daily, Compass, and so on, not to mention the many broadcast media that also came up. Some petered off as quickly as they came up, of course, but many have managed to survive to this day as advertising revenue flowed in from banks, telecom companies and from just the operation of democratic politics. THISDAY, for example, founded only three years before Trust had grown into a mammoth newspaper by then, with an array of must-read columnists from Monday to Sunday, and was also hosting former US presidents and secretaries of state at its annual events.

Perhaps, the dozen or so years between 2000 and 2012 were the peak of Nigerian legacy media, in both professional journalistic and political-economic terms. It was also a special period for Nigerian democracy. For one, it was the longest stretch of uninterrupted democratic development in Nigeria as the Fourth Republic, today, has seen more than double the years of the first, second and third republics combined. And it was worth checking how all these impacted the media environment, and in turn, were impacted by the media.

But those, of course, were the formative thoughts of nearly 20 years ago. Quite a bit of water has since passed under the bridge: for me, for the paper, for its readers, and for the national and global society within which we all find ourselves. And if all goes well, it should be worth checking more seriously now.

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