Alex Ibru: There Goeth A Man
By Reuben Abati
"The song is ended, but the melody lingers on…" (Irving Berlin)
"How old are you?"
"Then, you are not too young. Why do they say you are young? I'll give you the job. And I am the one giving you the job, not anyone else. I won't disturb you. I believe you understand the company's philosophy. If you do a good job, I'll promote you and stand by you".
"Thank you, sir"
"The only thing I ask of you is don't quarrel with anybody. If you have any issues that bother you, tell my wife. If she cannot solve the problem, come directly to me."
That was Mr. Ibru. He kept his word. He promoted me three times within a year; whenever there was a problem, he stood by me. A newspaper house is a hotbed of intrigues, journalists being very egoistic professionals, and those in the support services, even worse, with every little man in the corridor, an ambitious tale-bearer, within and outside the organization. After many years of experience, Alex Ibru had mastered the art of separating the false tales from the truth and so he related to his senior staff according to his own codes. Mr. Ibru, a graduate of Business Studies (something he was very proud of) was also a master of human psychology and strategic business planning.
He took his management staff very seriously, kept in constant touch, always supportive without interfering, and forever planning ahead and insisting on fidelity to company philosophy. The gain was that he built an army of fierce loyalists whose most important achievement was having worked at The Guardian. However, many of his staff misinterpreted his insistence on company philosophy. He had once taken time out to explain this subject, on one of those rare occasions when he called us upstairs to outline the philosophy of his newspaper business. A newspaper, Mr. Ibru would argue stands at the intersection between government, private sector and civil society, and its key business is to defend the powerless, to hold government accountable and to promote humanistic values. For him, the newspaper is the platform for revolutions, to dislodge hypocrisy and enthrone the truth, and to mobilize positive energies for societal renewal.
He was faithful to this creed, and regularly, he'd ask his senior staff to read "What The Guardian stands for": the newspaper's famous mission statement. He'd not give you an editorial position if he thought you had never read this statement! He was a man of many means and investments, but The Guardian was the centre piece of his passion. He encouraged us to be fearless in our writings because according to him, he did not owe anybody a penny, he was not looking for government contracts, and he was not beholden to anyone. He kept a spartan life style, and stayed away from aso ebi, owambe parties, the glitterati and the fashionista, and any form of ostentation. And because he didn't have to look behind his own shoulders, reporters and editors working at The Guardian could do their job with great confidence and independence.
Mr Ibru did not interfere in the recruitment of staff; he did not dictate what stories or editorials should be published; and because he did not dictate to us, a Guardian editor till tomorrow would readily take offence if any outsider tries to dictate how a material should be treated. "Even Mr Ibru who owns this place will not do that!", is a common refrain on the lips of editors trying to get meddlesome interlopers off their backs. And jokingly among ourselves we would add: "No be so?", one of Mr Ibru's pet phrases.
A man of great faith, he always referred to God and divine Grace. He reminded his staff at every turn, that money belongs to God. He told us we were all working for ourselves, not for him, and that we were very lucky indeed! He had set up the newspaper, he would add, as a public trust to serve the Nigerian people, and to provide opportunities for brilliant persons to realize their potentials to the fullest. The Guardian is perhaps the only newspaper with the best assurance of job security. Management restructuring was rather rare, in 28 years, the newspaper has had only three Managing Directors and four Editors. It is curious, however, that over time, many of the staff took Mr. Ibru's spirituality for granted. Believing that the company indeed belonged to them, some staff got carried away. They wanted to dictate how much they should be paid. They monitored the company cash flow as if it belonged to them personally and collectively and if the Chairman, or members of his family enjoyed any privilege, they wanted the same for themselves!
On those occasions when the Publisher asserted his rights as owner, a lot of resentment and bitterness erupted. Did he not tell us that this is God's company and that we could work here until our walking stick fails us? Yes, we know we are working in "the Lord's vineyard", but even "missionaries" would love to inherit a part of the estate. Such staff soon lost their walking sticks before they got a chance to use it! In fact, a few years ago, Mr Ibru sacked everybody, paid all entitlements and shut down the newspaper for about two months. The same aggrieved staff went to beg him to reopen the company. Always, there were happy endings. Many who left the company in a huff usually returned to ask for fresh appointments at The Guardian and Mr. Ibru always graciously took them back, without any trace of bitterness.
His contributions to Nigeria's newspaper industry are outstanding. When The Guardian arrived on the newsstands in 1983, it transformed the image of the newspaper business in the country, with its robust and detailed analysis of issues, intellectual character, innovative page planning and the sassiness of its team. The Guardian style and tradition, now a subject of enlightened scholarly interrogation, would occupy for all times, a special chapter in the history of Nigerian journalism, and the credit for that, belongs mainly to Alex Ibru.
He provided the ambience, the resources, and even more importantly, the strength of character and vision which sustained the organization through thick and thin. He was always quick to remark that the credit for the newspaper's success belongs to the staff ("you are the experts, my job is to help you, I am only God's vessel"); it is of course axiomatic that an organization is only as successful as its people. But beyond the people, there is the ownership-leadership factor. Mr Ibru was fiercely competitive; having his newspaper described as the best in the country, and his staff as the brightest, was all that he wanted, and in all seasons, The Guardian has always been lucky to have extremely dedicated staff. "I worked so hard in this place, I almost forgot to marry," a senior colleague once lamented. The good news is that in the end he did, and had enough presence of mind to father a brood!
In his last years, Mr. Ibru spoke a lot about succession and sustainability, and he worked hard at it, taking clear steps to prepare for a post-Alex Ibru era, by involving his wife and children in the business; in private conversations, he spoke endlessly about what I termed his "back up theory of business". By this, he meant that there must always be a back up for every staff, even for the Publisher, and the cleaner, so that if anyone leaves, or dies, the company remains. Now, the challenge to Mr. Ibru's successors is to sustain the tradition, to keep the fire of the enthusiasm of dedicated staff aglow, and take the newspaper to greater heights.
Illness of any sort erodes the human spirit and it is obvious why that is so. Those who loved Mr. Ibru felt every bit of pain, as they watched his struggle with debilitating illness in the last two years. His spirit was nonetheless strong. He remained active and articulate, and it could be said of him, that he faced death with sheer equanimity.
The Alex Ibru I knew was intensely political. Nigeria meant a lot to him. He read newspapers, and monitored the broadcast channels with the thirst of an insatiable knowledge-seeker. He loathed corruption of any hue and reports of it infuriated him. He never wasted any opportunity to express his concerns about the governance of Nigeria. Many may not remember his contributions in this regard but he was one of the major supporters of the Niger Delta revolution, as he insisted on equity and justice and the rights of all ethnic minorities. During the 1993 electoral crisis and the aftermath, he supported the Democratic Coalition. He had joined the Abacha Government as Minister of Internal Affairs and Vice Chair of the Provisional Ruling Council out of the conviction that change could be achieved from within the corridors of government. To show his commitment, he paid his personal aides from his pocket and he neither took a salary nor allowances. As Minister of Internal Affairs, he renovated the prisons, ensured that prisoners were better treated and championed the protection of fundamental human rights. When he felt convinced that the Abacha regime was derailing, he promptly resigned. It was a principled stand that was characteristic of him.
What followed however was a comment on the failings of the Nigerian system. In 1996, an attempt was made on his life. He narrowly escaped. But the incident left a scar. Attempts were also made to destroy The Guardian, the newspaper that was his life and passion. The military junta was vicious and cruel. "My brother warned me, you know", he said. "When I told Chief (his brother, Michael Ibru) I was going to set up a newspaper, he told me Alex, don't you try it, you want to go and get yourself killed? They'd try to kill you." Thirteen years later, Michael Ibru's admonitions proved prophetic. But Chairman, as we called him, was undeterred. He bore his scar, stoically, and urged his editors never to compromise the newspaper's standards. Five months ago, when he and President Goodluck Jonathan discussed my going to work for the President, he initially opposed the idea. But when he saw that I was determined to take a leave of absence, his last response was: "I don't want you to go. But whatever decision you take, I promise you, I will stand by you and support you." Again, he kept his word.
When friends and family gather to pay their last respects, they'd be bidding farewell to a man ahead of his society, a visionary, a philanthropist, an astute businessman, and a true newspaper man. He touched and transformed many lives and gave me and others, an opportunity to discover ourselves. He was a very kind and loving man. His exit, like his entire life and career, was not without a touch of the poetic. He gave up the ghost on November 20, on his wife, Maiden's birthday. He and Maiden are thus forever united, not by death, but love. "When a great man dies, for years the light he leaves behind him, lies on the paths of men." (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). So let it be, with Alex Uruemu Ibru. "…God seeth the sons of Israel and God knoweth… (Exodus 2: 25). Sleep well, sir.
Dr. Reuben Abati, spokesman to President Goodluck Jonathan, was Chairman, Editorial Board of The Guardian, 2001 -2011.