It seems like just yesterday when I teased Sam Nda-Isaiah on his 50th birthday at the International Conference Centre, Abuja.
“Are you now a young old man, or an old young man?” I asked.
“I have to think properly before I answer you”, he said, adding, “I think there’s a catch in that question. But, Comrade, if anybody calls me an old man, I think I’ll sue the person!”
Now, Sam is beyond being old; he has joined the ancestors.
Had Sam still been with us, we would have gathered still to celebrate his 60th, possibly with a colloquium. And Sam would have ensured that the intellectual feast was empanelled by superstars from academia, politics and industry. We would have had a tall argument about the merit of some of the invitees but Sam would have animatedly listed the qualities of each listed guest. In this era of charting a new course of re-engineering our politics, the theme of the colloquium would have reflected the mood of the times.
Many people start winding down on their work schedule when they clock 60 years. Sam would have done the exact opposite. I have often asked myself in private why there was always some hint of urgency in Sam’s business activities as if, for everything concerning him, tomorrow would be too late. Now I know better.
I can’t help wondering how far the many tall dreams he discussed with me some weeks before his untimely exit, would have materialised. The farm, the radio/television complex, the endowment/foundation and other massive ideas would by now be taking shape.
The idea of the endowment came up when we both attended a Great Ife Alumni Reunion in Texas in 2014. The organisers had asked me to suggest a keynote speaker and, since Sam had long confided in me that he would be contesting the presidency of Nigeria, I thought the forum would provide a good platform for him to interrogate ideas and kick up the dust of controversies in pursuance of the ideas espoused in his manifesto.
Sam lived up to the billing. It was no secret that he was not a fan of President Jonathan, and it showed in his presentation. After the keynote address, one alumnus asked what gave Sam the temerity to think he could rule Nigeria. Sam answered that Nigerians were the easiest people to rule and that all they demanded of their government was competence. He said Nigerians were hardworking people and that the stumbling block between them and progress, most times, is the government.
Another alumnus saluted Sam’s courage but noted that he was known as a Buharist as he and General Buhari were in the same camp where he served as the publicity secretary of the Buhari campaign in 2003. “How can you compete against your senior colleague?”
Sam objected to the phrase, ‘Senior colleague’: “Please let me correct you, I was Buhari’s boy, not his colleague. Up till now, I am still his boy. But I announced my intention to contest the 2015 presidential elections before him and nothing will stop me.”
I must say that he made quite a good impression on the alumni. Of course, some of those in the audience were his former coursemates at the Faculty of Pharmacy in Ife who knew how argumentative the young boy from Minna could be. The fact that he chose Ife in the Southwest rather than any other institution in the North showed his courageous nature. He was therefore justifiably proud of the fact that he matriculated and graduated from the same university with Hon. Justice Fati Lami Abubakar, Hon. Justice Amina Augie, Brig-Gen Dominic Oneya, among other illustrious alumni.
“I was born in Minna, schooled in Kaduna and went to the University of Ife and did my Youth Service in Ekiti State. I have always seen myself as a nationalist and I understand Nigeria very well. I know what to do to unite this country. We are not yet a nation but a collection of quarrelsome people.”
Sam would have seized the opportunity of his 60th birthday to fully flesh out how the foundation he hinted at in Dallas would impact society. As a citizen without borders, it goes without saying that the foundation would have been designed to impact every part of Nigeria. I note with happiness, however, that his family have perfected plans to establish a people-friendly foundation in the name of their icon.
With Sam, dreaming big dreams was compulsive. I recall one occasion when I stopped by to see him. Abba Kyari (later Chief of Staff to President Buhari) was perched at one corner of the expansive office poring over some documents. Pleasantries over, we sank our teeth into the meat of another set of Sam’s big ideas which elicited so much argument that, at the end of the day, we agreed to disagree.
Yes, Sam would give anything for ideas. Mind you, some of his ideas appeared stupid until you checked out the bolts and nuts. Then, when you factored in the fact that Sam could sell snow to an Eskimo, you wouldn’t be in so much a hurry to dismiss his ideas.
If there’s anything Nigeria needs now, it is a set of big ideas that can help us navigate our way out of the current morass. Instead of throwing money at our problems, we should be tackling them with big ideas such as those espoused by Sam Nda-Isaiah.
Let’s consider a few of them: Sam advocated uniting Nigeria through policies that promote equity and justice so that the full potential of the country can be unleashed. The most urgent task today is to unite Nigerians behind a common purpose, not running a tribal gang-up. That is not rocket science. Those jostling to succeed President Buhari now will do well to heed this counsel.
Sam thought that we ought to wean ourselves off the fixation of looking for leaders with ‘experience’. “I find my lack of experience in government a strength because I have not been part of the rot of the past”, he said. The kind of experience required now has to do with entrepreneurial spirit, social engineering, industrialisation and food production. As the masses of the people put the current crowd of presidential aspirants under the magnifying glass, are these some of the qualities they’re looking out for?
Are we also considering the creation of a ‘soccer economy’ as Sam advocated? His words: “Soccer economies are large and provide jobs. Most importantly, a soccer economy will provide unity for Nigeria because Nigerians love football. Why are we not taking advantage of it? Do you know that the stadia you see in Europe are owned by private companies and the clubs are run by investors?”
Instead of running our soccer league professionally, our corrupt system continues churning out career leeches and middlemen whose only commitment is to serve as agents in the transfer market. We can’t be bothered that soccer is big business and that if we encourage investment in the sector, we will be providing millions of jobs all through the value chain.
Sam’s approach to governance can be so commonsensical as to appear jejune. Take the issue of housing: “In Nigeria today, we have a 17 million housing deficit.… The thing about building many houses in a country is that you are creating new jobs with them. We have to build millions of houses because of the value chain. For one million new houses you build, you are creating about 30 million new jobs because everybody will be involved: architects, engineers, mortgage providers, insurers, craft men, bankers, furniture sellers, food vendors, etc and that will create jobs.”
You must give it to Sam — he was never afraid of big ideas in tackling daunting problems. It was a natural carryover from the way he lived and ran his business. Sam would tell you he had no money but that he was thinking of buying a printing press worth hundreds of millions of Naira. He would then deploy his big ideas and knack for pairing a goal with the necessary ladder for attaining the height. And, bingo!
With Sam, it was ‘never say never’. I wish one could say the same of many of our executive masters today for whom governance is just a gravy train.
The tragedy of Sam’s untimely exit is mitigated by the legacies he left behind, not least of which is his bag of big ideas. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke for Sam when he said, “I welcome and seek your ideas, but do not bring me small ideas; bring me big ideas to match our future.”
Happy 60th birthday, Sam!
- Wole Olaoye is a Public Relations consultant and veteran journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @wole_olaoye; Instagram: woleola2021