Happy Sam @ 70 ! 

Last month my friend Lanre Idowu, publisher of Media Review, sent me a text on my mobile phone requesting that I write a 2,000-word article on “The columnist as salesman”. The article was supposed to be a chapter in book on journalism, Lanre and a few friends and protégés of the one and only Uncle Sam of Nigerian journalism, intended to publish in commemoration of his 70th birthday, penultimate Monday, June 13.

Lanre’s deadline was almost impossible given my other prior commitments. All the same, I accepted the invitation without the slightest hesitation. “Uncle Sam,” I replied Lanre, “is someone I will do anything for”.

In my fascination with journalism going back to my secondary school days in the late ‘60s, Sam Amuka, as a columnist, was among my top three favourites. Sunday Times, under his editorship between 1967 and 1971, was a must read, what with its right mix of information and entertainment. His own column, This Nigeria, under his pen name, Sad Sam, was simply a reader’s delight, given its combination of humour, wit and simplicity and clarity of language. Among his more memorable pieces there was this one about “The rising cost of dying” which has remained ingrained in my head. A parody of sorts of the common expression, “the rising cost of living”, the piece was a humourous dig at the habit of Nigerians, especially the rich, of spending more to bury their poorer cousins than they ever do to support them or keep them alive. More than 30 years after he wrote the piece, that foolish habit has refused to die.

As Sad Sam, Sam Amuka’s portrait with its fedora-like hat, wore a sad mien. That logo was one of the most familiar logos in the sixties. With the possible exception of the   older logos of Allah-De(Alhaj Alade Odunewu) and Peter Pan(Peter Enahoro), both of them editors of Sunday Times before Uncle Sam, his logo was perhaps the most familiar in the Nigerian press. However, even though his logo wore a sad mien and he declared himself as sad, a happier and a more easy going person than Uncle Sam was hard to imagine. This I discovered when I first met him in flesh in the late seventies when he came to Kaduna headhunting for SUNDAY PUNCH which, at the time, was the liveliest and the most entertaining newspaper in the country. Uncle Sam wanted me to move over to the newspaper at the time. His offer was hard to resist but I declined because I thought PUNCH was more entertainment than news, although I did not tell him so.

In spite of my saying no to his offer, Uncle Sam, who, like me, is small in stature, gave me two very expensive designer safari suits that became my favourite wear for many years. Not one to easily give up on his objective, he told me that his offer was open any time I changed my mind.

Uncle Sam never took life too seriously. His philosophy seemed to be to live life to the hilt and spread happiness all around him. “I am glad to note from photographs and court reports in our newspapers” he once said in his column in the middle of our civil war, “that in the heat of the national crisis people are still getting married and getting divorced. To rephrase the biblical quotation: “In the midst of death we’re in life” (Sunday Times, August 20, 1967).

Not only was Uncle Sam easy going, unlike your typical journalist who is a cynic, he was too trusting. This was to cost him dear as a partner with the late Chief Olu Aboderin in founding PUNCH.

When Uncle Sam left Sunday Times to co-found PUNCH, he did not notify his boss, Alhaji Babatunde Jose, for me the most accomplished newspaper man in Nigeria. It was therefore an angry and disappointed Jose that reluctantly let Uncle Sam go.

Not long after co-founding PUNCH, the incident of the “unknown soldiers” who burnt down Fela Anikulapo’s shrine at Yaba, Lagos, broke out. PUNCH covered it like no other paper and consequently became popular with readers. The paper never looked back thereafter.

Meantime, things were happening on the business side of the paper that Uncle Sam was totally oblivious of. He was simply too happy running a damn good paper to notice that the terms of his partnership with Chief Aboderin were being altered to his disadvantage. By the time he noticed, it was too late to cry, not least because he had unknowingly signed away much of his own shares. Such was Uncle Sam’s trusting nature.

Feeling betrayed, Uncle Sam headed to the courts for redress. It was at this point that Chief Sunday Awoniyi, who had met Uncle Sam through Chief Segun Osoba, then a rising star at Daily Times, came to Uncle Sam’s rescue. Chief Awoniyi got him a first class lawyer to examine his chances of success in his litigation. The lawyer said his case was hopeless and it was best he settled out of court.

He did so, collected what he could and, in frustration, headed to his village in the then Bendel state to farm. “I am a bushman”, he told Awoniyi and any one who cared to listen, “I’ll go back to my village to farm”. He did do some “farming”, but it was for fish out in the high seas and from Lagos not in the village.

Problem was Uncle Sam could simply not continue to live in denial – the denial that he has become too much of a newspaperman to stick with anything else. And so one fine day in December of 1983, he drove to Mopa, then in Kwara State, and told Awoniyi he would like to start another newspaper, and would the chief be his partner? To which Awoniyi said yes, and also brought aboard one or two others as shareholders, including Alhaji Shehu Ahmadu Musa, the Makama Nupe.

Opportunity, they say, knocks only once. With Uncle Sam it knocked twice. Or, more accurately, he went in search of it as someone who never says die. And so it was   that over ten years after he started the liveliest newspaper in the country in March 1973, and about six years after being frustrated out of it, he became the publisher of Vanguard. The paper first hit the streets on July 15, 1984. Today Vanguard is one of the best newspapers in the country. It is also among those with the widest circulation.

That Uncle Sam was the heart and soul of PUNCH became evident not long after he left, from the gradual decline of the paper until it became comatose. This was in the mid eighties.  For a long time the newspaper was barely present on the newsstands. However, eventually it was revived under the current chairman, Chief Ajibola Ogunsola, whose step-brother Chief Aboderin, the original co-founder, was. That revival is one of those inexplicable minor miracles of life.

 Part of the secret of Uncle Sam’s success at both PUNCH and Vanguard, as Muyiwa Adetiba, arguably the best of his journalistic godsons – Adetiba is widely credited with popularizing, if not originating, soft-sell journalism – said in a tribute to his mentor in New Age (June 13), was that Uncle Sam knew how to identify talents, delegate without abdication and he was as generous in rewarding hard work and creativity as he was harsh in punishing sloth.

At 70, Uncle Sam obviously had a lot to celebrate – as the first editor of Spear magazine in the Daily Times stable, as one of the most successful editors and columnists of Sunday Times, and as someone who succeeded twice in founding a newspaper.

But trust Uncle Sam, the ever self-effacing gentleman. When Lanre and Co. suggested a big bash to celebrate his birthday including the presentation of collection of essays in his honour, the man said, thanks, but no thanks. Most people would have grabbed this offer with both hands.

When I called his mobile phone the Saturday before his birthday to confirm if he was running away from the big bash in his honour, he was already in London. At 70, he said, with characteristic humour, what he needed was not a big bash. What he needed, he said, was to see the rest of the world since he was already in the departure lounge to the other world!

With his record in journalism, his wonderful sense of humour, his easy-going nature and how he likes to spread happiness all around him, few people can be happier than our one and only Uncle Sam, a.k.a. Sad Sam, a.k.a. Sam Amuka  as he celebrated his 70th birthday, nearly fifty of which he gave to journalism – and still counting.

Here’s  many  happy returns, Happy Sam.