Malam Turi Muhammadu, the former editor of the New Nigerian and, later, managing director of the newspaper company, was a titan whose role in the development of journalism in this country is being appreciated largely after his demise on September 17, 2010, aged 70. There are many such people in our communities – silent achievers who have touched the lives of a lot of people but remain uncelebrated until something grievous, such as death, has affected them.
As we have seen in the last few days, Malam Turi had touched the lives of many Nigerian journalists during his lifetime. He played a mentoring role during and after his active years in the career. From the tributes paid to him by Sam Nda-Isaiah, Mohammed Haruna, Clem Baiye, Adamu Adamu and others, one could deduce that Malam was an intellectual giant, a thoroughbred professional and a good manager of men and materiele, as well as someone who wanted the New Nigerian dream to be sustained, not only within the newspaper that he edited but also within the men and women who write for or manage other publications whose origin is in the North. Hence his interest in the people who are running or writing for those papers that share an umbilical cord, in one way or the other, with the New Nigerian, papers like Daily Trust, Leadership and Peoples Daily. I am sure many journalists working on these papers – and those still at the New Nigerian today – would attest to the fact that Malam Turi was one of the few senior citizens in this profession who cared to maintain a form of contact with them, all with the view to ensuring that they sustain a tradition of finesse and good taste in their work. Some he considered his sons and daughters in the profession, while others were his ‘grandchildren’.
I was one of such people. My path first crossed with Malam Turi’s when he personally sent for me through a handwritten note 13 years ago. I was startled and at the same time delighted that he, of all people, was the one wanting to see me. In the note, he said he had learnt that I was working on the official biography of the Hausa music icon, Alhaji Mamman Shata, and would like to tell me a few things that might prove useful. I had never met Malam Turi at the time and all my recollections about him were based on my image of him as a celebrated newspaperman; but then, of course, journalists are interested in many other vocations, and music is usually one of them. Another former managing director of the New Nigerian Newspapers Limited, Alhaji Tukur Othman, had given me a long interview, at his own behest, in which I got an insight about Shata's connection to Kaduna-based northern intellectuals such as Alhaji Sani Zangon Daura.
I met Malam at his house in the Malali area of Kaduna on the appointed day, i.e. July 22, 1997. It was a meeting I will never forget. I was struck by his humility and a desire to go out of his way to please, insisting that I should sit on the cushion seat opposite him instead of on the floor where I had first sat, legs folded, as a mark of my reverence for him. Then he arranged for a meal for both of us. I could hardly eat as I was overwhelmed by my knowledge of his track record in a field in which I was just struggling to cut my teeth and by his completely disarming nature.
In our chat, Malam showed me he had been following my career with interest. He knew I had edited Hotline magazine five years earlier, after spending some years at The Reporter, obtained a Masters in Journalism from Britain and was now working at the New Nigerian as a senior editorial staffer. Our discussion on Mamman Shata was quite revealing, too. I had thought that I knew too much about that music legend to be told anything new, especially by a Nupe man. But Malam did tell me something I had never even contemplated: the songs Shata had composed against people that offended him (zambo) were quite few compared to those that he sang for his benefactors, and that had helped his rise as the unsurpassed king of Hausa folk music. When I looked deeply, I realised that this insight was true. Malam Turi’s comments were built into the 604-page book, Shata Ikon Allah, which was published in 2006, and appropriately credited.
My subsequent relationship with Malam was on and off, largely my fault. He had wanted to see me often, but somehow I couldn’t pay regular visits to him as much as I would have loved to. My excuse was that I was maintaining two houses, one in Kaduna and the other in Kano. In retrospect, however, this defence did not hold water, and I regretted not being as close to Malam as he would like me to. I regretted not tapping enough from his huge reservoir of knowledge and wisdom, which he was ever willing to share. I was only able to visit him once in a while. And he always received me enthusiastically, asking, “Did so and so tell you my greetings to you when they came here?” Yes, they always told me, “I was in Malam Turi’s house recently, and he said I should extend his warm regards to you.” Such concern of his always worsened my sense of guilt and I would inwardly promise to return to him, like the prodigal son, in order to catch up with a chitchat we might have begun during my previous visit a long time earlier. Malam was always interested in my remaining in the journalism profession, arguing that the North needed people like me to be there. But after working for four years at the New Nigerian, where I was variously features editor, foreign editor, arts editor, secretary of the Editorial Board, and finally deputy editor, I quit. Salaries had not been paid for six months and I had begun to doubt there was any reasonable future in a career that could not feed my family. In the end, however, I made my way back to it and I’m glad I did.
Malam Turi was a decent gentleman whose dream was the development of the North. It was a pity he did not make it to the Senate after he left the NNN in 1980 and couldn’t pursue a career in politics, which he found out to be too dirty for his liking. I know that one of his big pains was the eventual collapse of the New Nigerian as an authoritative national voice from the North. Mohammed Haruna, in his tribute published in the Daily Trust on Wednesday, argued that the decline of the paper began with the departure of Turi when the subsequent managements turned the vision of its founding fathers completely upside down. I agree. Malam’s book, Courage and Conviction, was meant to convey that message by giving a clear portrait of the New Nigerian’s two decades of glory. A paper that used to print 250,000 copies daily during its apogee was, at a time, printing 2,000 copies. Even though there were sparks of attempts to recapture the glory, the pain got even worse in the last 10 years or so. The best tribute to the memory of Malam Turi (May Allah have mercy on his soul) and people like him who worked hard to give the New Nigerian a pride of place is to do whatever is necessary to put it back in shape.