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I was a consummate media consumer who became a media professional and made good use of my knowledge of engineering

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21 August 2022
16 minutes read
I was a consummate media consumer who became a media professional and made good use of my knowledge of engineering

My name is Nsikak Augustus Essien.

I was born on 20 February 1951, the third child of Dr Augustus John Essien and Mrs Evelyn Joseph Essien. The first and second were twins. 

I am from Uruk Uso which is one of the four villages which make up Ikot Ekpene Urban as the British created it. The others are Ikot Ekpene, Abiakpo and Ikot Obot Ediong.

I bear Augustus because our tradition is that the first name is yours, the middle is your father's and the surname is the family tree or name.

I wanted to be an engineer

I was brought up by my grandmother in Amanyam in Ikot Ekpene Local Government Area because my mum was working as a civil servant in Enugu while my dad was a medical student at the University of Ibadan.

I was one of the pioneer students of free Universal Primary Education of the then Eastern Nigerian government in 1957. 

The school was called UPE School, Amanyam. I was here till 1961 when that government terminated free education because of lack of funds.

So, I finished at the Methodist Primary School, Amanyam - owned by the Methodist Church - which was fee-paying. 

Right from primary school, I had made up my mind that I would be an engineer because, besides that arithmetic came to me naturally, my paternal grandfather was a road overseer, a technician or what you could engineer today. He was one of the people who constructed the Ikot Ekpene Road in those days. From my primary school days, the only two professions I heard people talk about were engineering and medicine. 

I never heard of people doing literary stuff. 

Took after my dad in listening to radio and developed vast interest in current affairs 

Except that while in Enugu, where I went after primary school, my father, then practising medicine there, woke up every morning to tune from one radio station to the other - Radio Nigeria, BBC, VOA and all that. So, before leaving the house, he knew what was happening around the world. I took interest in that and still do it.

In fact, my vast knowledge of current national and international affairs helped me so much so that I got a scholarship to read electrical and electronics engineering at the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) from 1970 to 1976,  when the West German government, among others, decided, after the Nigerian civil war, to assist the Nigerian government towards Eastern Nigeria's recovery.  When the Germans conducted the interview, I think that all the participants for engineering performed well. So, when they added International and current affairs, that was where I beat many others. Of course, I had listened to the radio before attending the interview.

Major media consumer with faint interest in journalism

So, I had for so long been a major media consumer. 

While in the university, I never missed buying weekend papers, besides that I had a transistor radio. 

My favourite newspaper then was the Sunday Times and within it, I was attracted to columns such as "Sad Sam" (written by Sam Amuka, today the publisher of Vanguard Newspapers), and the late Allah De and Gbolabo Ogunsanwo. You cannot but love their power of expression: they were in charge of the language.

You know that Nigeria had just come out of the civil war. Biafra lost the war, but there were so many parameters in their favour before the war that we were made to believe that Biafra could not lose it. For instance, forty per cent of the Nigerian Army officers' corps were from  Eastern Nigeria.

So the interrogation of what really happened made me interested in everything beyond engineering. Even when our teachers in the faculty of engineering tried to indoctrinate us, that we must not show interest in politics, I was agitated to know a lot more of the happenings, past and present. I attended symposiums and similar intellectual events.

But, I was not writing, because no one had mentioned anything about writing to me.

However, when I had my one-year national youth service in Lagos, which was then still Nigeria's capital and I belonged to the federal NYSC - as there was then also the Lagos State NYSC - there was so much dynamism in the social atmosphere in Lagos and there was no way I could not have been part of it. Remember, 1977 was also the year of FESTAC (Second Festival of Black Arts and Culture). 

My first association with journalism was my attendance as a member of the audience of a programme at the Nigerian Television on Victoria Island called Telechat

After this, I continued trying to show interest in what you would call journalism. The only thing was that, apart from listening to radio and watching television, I did not have anybody I could call a mentor. I had even bought a television set during my youth service at the then NEPA (National Electricity Power Authority).

After youth service, I worked for about six years  at Tractor & Equipment, which was a division of UAC. We sold generators and I was an installation engineer. 

My great discovery and foray into journalism 

When I went for my postgraduate diploma in microelectronics at the University of Wales in the United Kingdom, I found out that there was so much of science in journalism. 

So, when I came back in 1981, Daily Times of Nigeria had created a consumer page as well as a science section, and I contributed to both and Onyema Ugochukwu who was editor of the Business Times and others were excited by what I wrote: they encouraged me and paid for my contributions. Every week, I had five or so published materials in the various Daily Times papers.

Ugochukwu was supposed to join The Guardian at its founding and he said I must go with him there. I told him I was not a journalist and he told me that he too was not; he was an economics graduate from my alma mater (UNN).

But Daily Times promoted him to editor of West Africa magazine (based in London, UK), so he did not go to The Guardian.

His deputy at Business Times, Stanley Egbochuku, also insisted that he would take me to start Business Concord which he was also moving to as founding editor.

Believe it or not, Concord Newspapers offered me a salary far higher than what T & E was paying me.

And, because I knew I had a whole lot to offer there - production of graphs, statistics and all that are part of engineering and mathematics - I took the job of an industrial correspondent. That was in 1983.

I would say I became a better engineer on the job.

I covered the commissioning of the refineries in Port Harcourt and Kaduna as well as that of Eleme Petrochemicals. 

I followed up on all the developments at those places, in depth.  

Movement into the editorial suite

I was, however, appointed in 1985 the deputy editor of Business Concord.

I became the editor in 1988. Egbochuku had gone to the University of Glasgow for a postgraduate course under Concord's scholarship. When he came back, he was made marketing director and from there the deputy managing director while Dr (Mrs) Doyin Abiola was managing director.

Anyhow, in 1989, M K O Abiola (Concord publisher) invited Thomson Foundation of the UK to spend two months to evaluate what we were doing at the newspapers in the group and advise on how to improve our performance.

My competitive edge

After spending one month, Thomson Foundation recommended that I should be made the editor of the National Concord, the main title in the group. Ben Onyeachonam was then the editor.

But, of course, MKO did not know me then. He asked 'who is Nsikak?' I was reporting to Doyin, his wife, who knew everything that I was doing.

What gave me an advantage was that, from engineering, I had been trained on management techniques. So, when the Thomson consultants called me for an interview - they interviewed all the editors - I gave them a four-year programme of developing Business Concord. Quite frankly, when I went into the leadership position at Business Concord, I did not see much of forward planning. I want to think that when Alhaji Babatunde Jose ran the Daily Times of Nigeria, he did not train the editors as managers, although even as he was a journalist to the core, he trained himself in management. Whereas in Europe, for instance, as I found out, the editor was the highest manager. The question of daily production of newspapers was not his task. The line editors produced the stuff while the editor was concerned more about planning the future and marketing.

MKO appointed me the daily editor on the twenty-eighth of May 1989.

In Concord then, we had the resources to get to anywhere we wanted to. MKO approved all proposals he found convincing.  So, I hit the road running and did so many things that our competition, The Guardian, could not do. So, I brought in many of the professional reporting - insurance, shipping, etc - before The Guardian did. My friend, Femi Kusa, copied from me. The only thing he did that was much, much bigger was the ICT stuff.

Because, coming from industry, I realised that the corporate people wanted exposure for marketing purposes, and they would make a whole lot of money. So, journalism was not only for the literary people.

I think that Dr Abiola was really impressed because I had had my basic values. I did not believe in the subsidy business; I wanted us to break even, and we did, and MKO announced it. 

The market was there. So was the dynamism of the economy.

Everything was on our side. 

And, MKO was there to support us fully.

We were the first daily newspaper to publish daily oil prices because then - and now - these mattered a lot to the Nigerian economy.

We also published daily foreign exchange rates, official and parallel markets, so much so that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) wrote me that it was against the law and that if I did not stop, I would be prosecuted. So, we stopped, because it is indeed unlawful to publish parallel markets' rates; it was abetting the commission of crime.

I was editor of National Concord for four years and I can say confidently that everything I did during the period was to promote ethical journalism and the business.

I was kicked upstairs as the group's General Manager (Marketing), after Concord was deproscribed, following the "June 12 Struggle" and M K O Abiola's death. 

Close brush with the authorities 

The only time I had a close brush with the authorities was over the April 1990 attempted coup d'etat.

Because, although the military had a good public relations department, they did not know that Gideon Orkar's speech which we published was on radio and all I asked the news editor to do was get it transcribed. 

We were the only paper which published the speech in full, because, of course, government responded to the coup announcement. So, I felt there was a need to publish what they responded to. In any case, the coup had failed.

The DMI (Directorate of Military Intelligence) thought that I had got the speech before it was aired. So, they came to Concord to pick me up. I was lucky that day that I did not go to the office with my official car. So the security men at the gate had told them I was not in the office. 

When a call came from the gate, it was Ben Okezie, who was my special assistant,  who picked it. When he was told that some military personnel were there with them, he told them I was not available. 

When they left, Ben (who had been a police affairs correspondent) smuggled me out of the premises.

That was how I escaped and came to my house here in Ikot Ekpene.

I returned to Lagos one week after, and the DMI had found out that the speech was allegedly written by a staff of the African Concord, Onoise Osunbor. He almost got killed for it. It was the Canadian government that smuggled him out of Nigeria. So, the thinking of the DMI was that I was part of the network but they were able to establish that there was nothing of such. But, if I had known about the coup, I would not have published the speech because it would not have made sense.

Media management mattered more to me

As GM Marketing, I was involved in media management, which was more important to me than editing a paper. Because, with all humility, I believed that I had made a name as editor of the paper.

As it were, media management remains a challenge till today.

Look at the success of the media in the United States of America and the UK, for instance, in terms of business, and look at the failure rate in Nigeria. I learnt so much from my industrial attachment with ten media organisations in the United States including one university. I spent much of the time with The New Herald in Raleigh, North Carolina. The programme was sponsored by the then United States Information Service (USIS).

MKO had many businesses before setting up Concord but he made it his greatest priority.

And Dr Abiola loved having a credible newspaper and you must give her credit for that, and we often had to go against MKO's wish.

So, as GM, I was involved with expanding all I was doing as editor of National Concord to earn revenue for the group.

Life after Concord

After my exit from the group in January 1999, I left for a political assignment in Akwa Ibom State. I was in the innermost political caucus of Governor Victor Attah, although officially I was the chairman of Akwa Ibom Newspaper Corporation, from 1999 to 2003.

In 1996, I set up the Union Communications and Publications Limited. We produce books, magazines and pamphlets for third parties. Many would expect that I should go into newspaper publishing but I did not find the atmosphere in Akwa Ibom State good enough.

I  became more of a businessman than just a journalist.

I never returned to Lagos since 1999 because I found more business opportunities here in Akwa Ibom.

My message to newspaper owners is that their editors should be business managers. They must be able to identify what would excite their audiences well enough that they would be able to pay for them. We can take a cue from the banks which changed their managers to business managers. Even in oil and gas companies you have managers being referred to as business owners. They must have a full understanding of their functions and make business cases for their expenditures.

Every head in the media organisation should be business-oriented because the media is a business.

In March 2022, the Raffia City Book Club which objective is to stimulate the reading  made me one of its Patron.

I am thankful. 

Many thanks to XL FM 106.9 Uyo for local support in Akwa Ibom State. Please visit https://xl1069.fm for an enriching radio experience.

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