Malam Adamu Ciroma – a man with the courage of his convictions


A little over 16 years ago, on June 10, 2002 to be precise, I wrote a syndicated piece in the New Nigerian and The Country, the now rested weekly newspaper published by DER, in which I pleaded with Malam Adamu Ciroma, then the Galadima of Fika and President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Minister of Finance, to retire from public service. The title of the piece was “Time for the Galadima to bow out.” I wrote the piece because, like many of his admirers, I was worried that his political intimacy with President Obasanjo might cost him his hard-earned reputation as a man of honour, integrity and the courage of his convictions.

At the time there were widespread public perception, right or wrong, that Malam Adamu was more a cabinet minister in name than in reality because of the way the president executed many important financial decisions behind his back through the junior minister who, like the president, was Yoruba. Second there was also the perception that the president regarded the North, which was Malam Adamu’s primary constituency, as hostile territory, if only because of the rising clamour for Shari’a in the region, something the president was opposed to.

Not least of all there was Obasanjo’s hostility to late Chief Sunday Awoniyi’s bid for the chairmanship of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) after late Chief Solomon Lar’s tenure as interim chair ended in late 2000. As everyone knew, Chief Awoniyi, a minority Northern Yoruba, and Christian to boot, was unapologetic about his Northerness which he rightly saw as not being necessarily in conflict with his unquestionable commitment to Nigeria’s unity.

Obasanjo’s ostensible reason for objecting to Awoniyi as PDP’s chair was that it was incongruous for a Yoruba man to lead the ruling party when another Yoruba was already president. But as even any political novice could see, Obasanjo didn’t want the man as chair of his party not because Awoniyi was Yoruba, but because as a man of firm convictions, Awoniyi was someone he could not easily use and dump. Besides, as a Northern Christian minority, Awoniyi’s chairmanship of the ruling party was bound to blunt the president’s use of identity politics as a political weapon to neuter the North which he perceived as hostile to his presidency.

To stop Awoniyi, money was used to buy delegates so brazenly at the party’s first post-election convention at Eagle Square, Abuja, that Malam Adamu, leading a number of Awoniyi’s friends and political associates, felt obliged to walk up to the Presidential box where Obasanjo was seated to protest the crude monetization of the contest in favour of Obasanjo’s preferred candidate, Mr. Barnabas Gemade. Predictably, the president turned deaf ears to their protests. As we all know, the little fancied Gemade won the contest. This easily enabled Obasanjo to kill the party’s internal democracy which eventually led to its implosion ahead of the last general election in 2015, an implosion which ironically led to Obasanjo’s denunciation of the party and tearing his membership card in public before the election.

My concern that Malam Adamu’s political intimacy with Obasanjo could cost him his reputation worsened when he accepted to serve as the Coordinator of Obasanjo’s second term bid. Without doubt Obasanjo was the most globally connected of Nigeria’s leaders and arguably the hardest working and one of the most intelligent. He also had the good fortune of the highest oil windfall in Nigeria’s history. However, as his first term drew to an end it became apparent that he had failed disastrously to combine his good financial fortune with his virtues of global connections, hard work and intelligence to lay a solid economic foundation for Nigeria and point it in the right direction for development and national unity.

To be sure, I never believed Malam Adamu acceptance to serve under Obasanjo was for personal aggrandizement, gauging by his antecedents. By the time he became a close political associate of Obasanjo, he had served his region and the country as a senior civil servant, as editor and managing director of New Nigerian, as Governor of the Central Bank, and as Secretary General of the ruling party and minister during the Second Republic. In each and every one of them, he left a legacy of modest living, competence, courage and integrity.

The foundation of this legacy was, of course, his career at the now rested New Nigerian.

That his experience at the New Nigerian was the defining period of his life became apparent when he served as an elected member of the 1977/78 Constituent Assembly (CA) under Obasanjo as military head of state. To date that CA has been the most qualitative in its composition and the most meticulous in the country’s history of constitution making, producing a Constitution that, for better or worse, changed the country from parliamentary democracy to presidential.

As a young reporter who covered the CA for New Nigerian, I can testify to the fact that Malam Adamu played a prominent role in shaping that Constitution. For example, ironic as it may seem for a former editor and managing director of one of the country’s most influential newspapers at the time, he led the opposition to inserting any special protection for the press in the Constitution. There was, he said during a plenary session of the CA and in opposition to modern Nigeria’s most successful and influential journalist, Alhaji Babatunde Jose who was a nominated member of the CA, enough freedom for the press in the draft. In any case, he said, you fight for your rights not wait for them to be given to you. In the end his argument prevailed in the CA.  

His forthright stance on the press at the CA, as we shall soon see, reflected not only the way he edited and managed the New Nigerian. It also formed the guiding principle of his politics and public life.

Because his New Nigerian experience laid the foundation of his political career, half of my June 10, 2002 article appealing to him to retire from public service focused on his life as a journalist. The italicized paragraphs that follow is a reproduction of the edited version of the first half of that article.         

WHEN Malam Turi Muhammadu, one-time editor and managing director of New Nigerian, decided several years ago to write the history of that once great newspaper, his working title was simply New Nigerian: The First 20 Years. Some of the people he got involved in the project thought the title was not catchy enough for the highly influential role the newspaper played in the affairs of the nation in those 20 years. As a result, several other options were considered. Eventually, the team settled for Courage and Conviction as the main title, with New Nigerian: The First 20 Years as the sub-title.

Anyone who had worked in the New Nigerian or who had been even a casual reader of the newspaper during those 20 years, will agree that those two words truly captured the essence and the spirit of the newspaper. It was a newspaper of strong convictions and on virtually each and every occasion it demonstrated the courage to stand up firmly and unequivocally for those convictions. As a result, in under two years it became the second largest circulating newspaper in the country, after the Daily Times under the much-respected late Alhaji Babatunde Jose. It also became second to none as the most influential newspaper. It was not for nothing that it was often described by its admirers and detractors alike as Nigeria’s Al-Ahram, after that great Egyptian newspaper which, under its great editor, the late Mohammad Heikal, was the Arab world’s greatest voice.

The man most credited with the rise of the New Nigerian was Malam Adamu Ciroma.

Malam Adamu came to the New Nigerian with absolutely no knowledge of newspapering. Before his appointment to the editorship of the paper, he was a civil servant, first in Kaduna and then in Lagos. As a civil servant, he was, of course, supposed to know how to manage people and his record showed he did. However, as he himself admitted in an interview for Malam Turi’s book, “I had no experience in newspaper production or editing”. In retrospect it can be said that what he lacked in journalism skills he more than made up with his management skill, his wit and his moral convictions.

As Charles Sharp, the expatriate managing director of the newspaper whom Malam Adamu served as editor and whom he succeeded as the first indigenous managing director said, “I was beginning to think we would never find the right man (for the job of editor) when someone said, I think it was Ahmed Joda, that the right man had come along. He was right. His name was Adamu Ciroma.”

According to Sharp, one John Smith, a close friend of his and a former colonial servant who had stayed on after independence, and someone whose judgement he trusted absolutely, thought highly of Malam Adamu. “A very clever chap.” Smith had reportedly said of Malam Adamu, “but a man with a mind of his own. One of the few who never toadied to the Premier, who he had a knack of upsetting. Has a tendency to wear European style clothes which was one of the things that upset the old man. I think you may well come to the conclusion that he was worth waiting for.”

“Once again, Smith’s judgement”, said Sharp, “turned out right on the mark.”

For the three years Malam Adamu served as editor from1966 and for the 5 years he served as managing director from 1969, he made the New Nigerian a must read for the common-man and the high-and-mighty alike. The list of his achievements in making the newspaper the most influential in the country is the stuff legends are made of. These included the one-inch wide editorial column that ran down the left side of the newspaper’s front page. That editorial column, which became one of paper’s trade marks, was probably the best written English in the country, so well written, that the paper’s detractors used to say it was all faxed in from London! Not only was it well-written, it anticipated, sometimes down right dictated, public policies.

There was also the inimitable Candido, one of the longest running anonymous columns, who wrote irreverently about issues and personalities, big and small, and seemed to have spies in every nook and corner of the country.

On several occasions when Malam Adamu clashed with those in authority, he always stood his grounds on point of principle. On one occasion, at the beginning of the civil war, for example, Major Hassan Usman Katsina, objected to the newspaper carrying the story of the rebel bombing of Kaduna airport because, as the then Northern Military Governor, he believed such a publication would undermine national security. Malam Adamu said the greater danger lied in censoring an event that everyone in Kaduna knew had happened. To do so, he said, would be to destroy the newspaper’s credibility and an organ without credibility is of no use to anyone. The Major remained unpersuaded but the editor went ahead and damned the consequences. The Major threatened fire and brimstone, but in the end sanity prevailed and nothing untoward happened to the editor.

On a previous occasion, Lagos had asked the New Nigerian not to publish a story on the same dubious ground of national security. This time the newspaper obliged in a uniquely creative manner. It printed a blank page and told its readers why. That bit of mischief reportedly got the Head of State, Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi Ironsi, hopping mad. However, somehow in the end no one got thrashed at the New Nigerian.

On yet another occasion when, as managing director, he clashed with Lagos over the arrest of Malam Mamman Daura, his equally capable successor as editor (and eventually as managing director), he demanded rather than pleaded for his editor’s release. “I told him (that is General Gowon as Head of State)”, Malam Adamu said when he met Gowon, “it is not possible for us in the New Nigerian to do Government biddings all the time on every issue. I am not here to beg for Mamman’s release. If you like you can set him free”. A little after this encounter, Malam Mamman was set free. But by now Malam Adamu thought he has had enough and he decided to resign.

It was therefore in the middle of all the ovation the newspaper was getting that Malam Adamu left the New Nigerian for the uncertainty of the private sector. As one special correspondent who wrote about his departure said in the New Nigerian of February 1, 1974, “Trust the man to know when to quit”.  Adamu Ciroma, he said, is one of the few who lived by the truth that it is best to quit when the ovation was loudest.

As someone who cut his journalism teeth in the New Nigerian beginning from my university days in the early seventies, and who rose to become its acting editor for nearly one year in 1980/81 and its managing director for over three years from December 1985, I was, needless to say, an admirer and a disciple of Malam Adamu.

By sheer example, he - and subsequently Malams Mamman and Turi - was largely responsible for inculcating disciple, as against mere fear, in the New Nigerian’s newsroom. Reporters and editors alike imbibed the ethos that you did the right thing because it was right and not because you were scared of the boss. So, reporters reported fairly, accurately and as objectively as possible without any Sword of Damocles dangling over their heads.

As I said a little after the beginning of this tribute to Malam Adamu, I never thought he agreed to serve under Obasanjo for personal aggrandizement. One may question the wisdom of his decision to serve under the former president, and worse, double as the man’s re-election campaign in 2002/3, but when he finally decided to quit public life long after my 2002 article in question, he left with his reputation intact as, to use the words of Malam Mamman, his successor as editor and managing director of New Nigerian, “a man of character”.

Perhaps the most obvious testimony to this was that when the man died at 84 on July 5, about fourty days ago, he did so as a man of modest means. You could hardly say that of most Nigerians who have had half, even less than half, the opportunities he had to hold public office.

May the Good Lord forgive his trespasses and reward his good works with Aljanna Firdaus.