When Malam Turi Muhammadu took over from Malam Mamman Daura as editor of the New Nigerian in 1973, a few people felt that he would find it hard to fill his predecessor’s intellectual boots. Indeed, Malam Mamman’s breadth of knowledge and his prose were nonpareil.
But Malam Turi not only fitted in well with his less-detached candour and disarming intellectual honesty, he worked very hard to justify the appointment. For me, Malam Turi remains the best boss I have ever had, though I have been fortunate to have had many.
On one occasion, in 1973, I was to go to Kaduna Airport, then a hotbed of controversial press statements by visiting dignitaries.
Malam Turi saw me early in the morning on my way to the airport. When I was leaving much later in the evening, he commended me on the story which was the lead for the following day (the particular story eludes my memory) and added that he hoped I would always work that hard. And, all through his term as editor and later managing director, he showed a personal interest in my work and whatever personal challenges I was facing.
Only a few months ago, while reminiscing about Turi Muhammadu’s role in my life, I was showing a mutual friend in my office (Professor Ibrahim Gambari) the number of books bought for me by Malam Turi. So indulgent of my love for biographies and memoirs was he that he bought for me at least 15 books. Though his resources were not ample, he ensured that I got copies of all the books written by Henry Kissinger and Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, the respected Egyptian journalist, as well as others too numerous to mention. And what did he require of me?
All he asked of me was that I write reviews of the books for the New Nigerian. This incentive, which arose from a kind heart, was one that I lapped with relish. But, more to the point, even after he stopped being my boss in 1980, he continued to bring books to me, and he would stop casually at my office and say something like, “I know you like to read memoirs, so I bought you this when I was in London three months ago.” When I related these events to the aforesaid Gambari, he remarked that Malam Turi was not only my boss but my mentor. Nothing could be more apt.
For much of his time as editor and later managing director, he had a routine with me. Whenever both of us were in Kaduna on Friday afternoon, I would drive him in my car to the Sultan Bello Mosque for Jumaat, after which I went to collect my wife from where she was teaching in Kawo. His dependable driver, Samuel (also late), would collect him from the mosque.
But, for me, the highlight was Sunday evening. I would give him a lift home, but not without the obligatory stop at the magazine shop at Hamdala Hotel where, courtesy of my obliging passenger, I would get a copy each of the London Sunday Times, The Observer, The Economist and Time magazine.
His generosity of spirit caught me off guard on several occasions. In 1983, three years after he had left as managing director of the newspaper, he called at my office in Lagos where I was general manager of the Lagos operations. He informed me of his intention to vie for the Senate on the platform of the then ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in Bida his hometown. He said he faced a “formidable opponent” in the person of Dr Jerry Gana (as he then was).
And when I alluded to my long-term friendship with his opponent, he casually remarked, “Yes, but you will support your boss.” Malam Turi lost the Senate race. He came back to remind me to ensure that I congratulated Dr. Jerry Gana because he deserved his victory. What a remarkable man!
Malam Turi could be expressive. An argument with him could become heated. For a group of us whom he believed were closet leftists, he gave the nickname “The Red Brigades”. Though the New Nigerian did not have a formal editorial board in my time, leading articles were debated among us (Sully Abu, Mohammed Haruna, Musa Shafii, A.B. Ahmed and myself). When debates got too heated, he would drop a wisecrack and peel into his inimitably long laughter.
In the past few years, I saw less of him, but phone calls were not lacking. When the trusty Musa Shafii called many months ago to inform me that Malam Turi’s health had deteriorated, I promptly called to wish him well. His voice belied the pain he was going through. He was courteous, warm and solicitous, asking after my family and our mutual friends such as Yakubu Mohammed, a former Lagos managing editor of the New Nigerian and a founding editor at Newswatch.
Absent was any hint of self-pity; rather, he and his wife were generous in commending me for asking after his welfare. During the last Ramadan, we spoke and he sounded in good mood. He called me on Thursday, September 16, 2010, with a request that I send him a copy of a supplement on Nigeria which the Financial Times intended to publish at the end of this month.
For a man who asked so little of me, I was glad to help. So, I set about ensuring that I could at least lay my hand on a copy to send to him by courier. Little did I realise that that call would turn out to be his last to me: he passed away the following night. I end my tribute with this quote from Charlotte Perkins Gilman:”Death? Why this fuss about death. Use your imagination. Try to visualise a world without death… Death is the essential condition of life, not an evil.”
Baiye was on the editorial staff of the New Nigerian, 1973-1984