I started life as a technician – Yar’Adua’s ex-Press Secretary
Alhaji Sabo Sarki Mohammed was Press Secretary to former Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Major General Shehu Yar’Adua when the late Daura-born General was second-in-command in the General Olusegun Obasanjo military regime.
Alhaji Sabo Mohammed later emerged President of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations. He is currently a public relations consultant. The 71-year-old told BASHIR ADEFAKA the story of his life in Kano. Excerpts:
How was it growing up?
I was born on the 20th May, 1939. I started off at Government Technical College, Kano and by that, what I should now reveal to you is that I was originally trained to be a technician. But right from the word go, when I was at the Government Technical College, I thought that kind of profession was not for me.
I had teachers like Maitama Sule, who later became Nigeria’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations; they were very good at English and there was also another Briton, an English man in Kano Middle School before I entered Government Technical College. All of them at different times encouraged me and they were very good at English.
How did you move away from the technical to journalism?
So, in that school there was a kind of enticement: they would give you like two pounds a month. Apart from the fact that we were housed in the dormitories, you were given free food three times a day. It was that two pounds I used to enrol in correspondence schools in the United Kingdom. I enrolled in two: the Bennett College and the Rapid Result College in London.
So, gradually I passed all the in-house examinations of those colleges and I said now is time for me to do journalism. I was doing that up till the time we passed out of the technical college. It was a very lengthy course.
At the end of the technical college course, a few of us got what was then called the First Class Certificate in Technical Education. I remember one of my mates, Musa, who was very good at Arithmetic. He later became an accountant because he did other things thereafter. He passed his GCE Ordinary Level and Advanced Level, then worked his way to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
But in my own case, there wasn’t any need since there wasn’t any institution offering journalism-related courses. It was later the University of Lagos started doing it skeletally and then the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I started doing my own thing and before I finished, I had started contributing articles to the only Northern newspaper at that time, Nigerian Citizen.
It was Nigerian Citizen that metamorphosed into the New Nigerian. I was contributing and they were sending me money, one pound; sometimes five shillings, which was a lot of money.That was in 1955 because we entered the college in 1954.
This time around, I was not only contributing to Nigerian Citizen but also I started contributing to Daily Express in Lagos. That time, Daily Express was openly an Action Group newspaper. Bisi Onabanjo was the editor and Olu Adebanjo was the managing director.
How did your contributions to those newspapers earn you employment as journalist?
Gradually, I was doing those writings as a stringer until the Daily Express became interested in me and I was asked to go to Kaduna and meet their Regional Editor, Mike Olu Pearse, a Lagosian, who was a relation of one Commander Pearse of the Navy at that time. I went to meet him, he interviewed; I passed and he said oh, this is a good stuff. So, he recommended me to Mr. Olu Adebanjo, the managing director, in Lagos. Within two weeks, I was employed as a reporter.
By that employment, I became the first man from the Northern Nigeria to be employed as a reporter by Daily Express. That was 1962.
Did you face any challenge as the only Northerner working in the Lagos press at that time?
No. Look, what bosses don’t like when you are working with them is arrogance. Mine was to say ‘yes sir, yes sir’ to whatever they were saying. If they said do this, I would do. Go and buy that, I would go, and so I had no problem with my bosses because, not only that they were good but also I was being a good and humble subordinate.
But you also were in the BBC. How did you get there?
It was after I had served at Daily Express for five months that I saw an advert in the Daily Times. That advert was inserted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), London, that they were looking for young Hausa speaking journalists and broadcasters to be employed as programme assistants in the BBC African Service. I applied and forgot about it. After about three months that I had applied, I got a letter from London.
That time, it was a British national that was the head of Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) in Kano and the BBC, through the letter, said I should go to him for examinations. We were 12 candidates invited to the place.
We were asked to translate some Hausa texts into English and vice versa. After that, we were asked to do voice test whereby you would go to the microphone and you were given an old news text and then you read it as if you were broadcasting. We read text in Hausa and read another in English.
Twenty days after, another man came from London. His name was Frank Barber; he was the Head of West African Department of the BBC. He came and did another interview for us and went away. It’s like they wanted people quickly because after two weeks, three of us were employed: myself, another person from Kano, Haliru Gwarzo and there was another one, Sani Abdullahi. Then we went to London. That was how I got to BBC.
It was while I worked with BBC that I was able to attend the London School of Journalism at Park Lane in the heart of London, where I got my diploma in journalism.
Despite the plum job you had in the BBC, you still returned to Nigeria.
My engagement with the BBC was on contract and it was for three years. So, at the end of my three years contract, the Head of African Service, Mr. John Masingham, said I should extend my contract by two years.
I said no problem. But that time I heard that Nigerian Citizen Newspaper was being transformed into New Nigerian with new web-offset machine, the first to happen in Nigeria. Then I wrote to Mr. Sharp, who was the first managing director of the New Nigerian. He showed interest and said as soon as I finished with the BBC, I could come.
I said no; that doesn’t sound like a very strong response and that I wanted something immediately you said when I finished with the BBC. He said okay, I will employ you but meanwhile, go to Reading. There is a town not too far away from London called Reading. They too had started this kind of web-offset machine and they had a paper called Reading Post. So he attached me to them.
I was going there during my free time, especially weekends. I met the editor and I saw how web-offset machine was working. I did that for quite sometime and after that, when I returned to Nigeria, Mr. Sharp, the New Nigerian MD, employed me as sub-editor and later I became features editor. That time I was about 29.
And you left Nigeria for Germany?
Oh, there was a team from Voice of Germany, a radio network station in Cologne, Germany. There was a lady called Frao Tisson Houzon who was in that team. She interviewed me and I said look, I have just started with these people now.
They will say I am a ‘jack of all trades’; moving from one job to another. She said no, no, no, come and you will have the chance of attending the university over there. In short, they employed me and I went to Germany.
What was the attraction: the pay package?
Of course, the salary was more attractive than what I was earning in Nigeria. But reluctantly I went. Of all of us that went, I was the most experienced, having worked with the BBC. I was there and at the same time, processing how I could get into the university when Tanko Yakassai, who was then Commissioner for Information in Kano State, came to Germany en route the Soviet Union on official assignment. He branched in Cologne because there were six of us from Kano working in Voice of Germany.
We met with Yakassai and we talked: He already knew me very well and so he said you left the BBC for Nigeria and now you are back in Europe. He said Audu Bako, then governor of Kano State, wanted experienced people in the Ministry of Information and he said we should come.
I said look, I’m trying to study here while working and he said what else do you want to study? He said as far as this journalism profession is concerned, what you have studied is enough and you can learn further on the job. I said let me think about it and he said you think fast because if you don’t think fast, other people might come and grab the job. I said okay but I didn’t give him a firm reply.
But within two days, I got a letter from the Public Service Commission (PSC) in Kano and I said look at these people, I haven’t even known Germany enough as a young man and they are taking me back to Nigeria.
I came back and I was interviewed by PS, PSC in Kano and I was thereafter employed as Information Officer responsible for publications and public relations. I worked there for about a year or so when the governor, Audu Bako, called me to come and be his press secretary. Then I became Chief Press Secretary to the Governor and moved into the Government House.
Why did everybody or organisation want you?
I would say God. You see, my career had been interrupted a lot. Earlier on, I became close to Alhaji Tatari Ali, who was Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Information before he became the first civilian governor of Bauchi State. One day, he came to Kano and, like joke, told my boss, Governor Audu Bako and said ‘ah, this, my friend is with you?’ He said ‘look, give him to me and I will take him to Lagos. I don’t have anybody to speak Hausa to there’.
I said the governor will not accept and he said ‘look, I will talk to the governor’. He went to talk to Audu Bako. The governor was not happy and he said to me ‘look, if you want me to release you, I will not release you on secondment. Just seek transfer to the Federal Service. I did and, of course, with the help of Tatari Ali, I was transferred to the Federal Civil Service and I moved to Lagos.
And you became Press Secretary to the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters. How did it come?
In our time, all Press Secretaries would come from the Ministry of Information. Even at the state level. It is because of politics that the President or the governor picks one of his political friends to be his press secretary nowadays.
How I became General Shehu Yar’Adua’s Press Secretary is a long story but I would summarise it for the purpose of this interview. At the Federal Ministry of Information, having been employed, I was promoted as Senior Information Officer and posted to Berne. Berne is capital of Switzerland. It is a German speaking town.
I was in Berne for six years: normally, foreign posting was for three years but somehow, I was forgotten there.
I later returned to Nigeria and as soon as I came back, the Federal Director of Information, Yakubu Abdullahi, said to me, ‘Go quickly to Dodan Barracks. Yar’Adua wants a Press Secretary and we don’t have anybody now to give him except you’. That was why I said Press Secretaries were being appointed from the ministry; even the present monarch of Achalla, Igwe Alex Nwokedi, OON.
In those days, when he was appointed Press Secretary to the Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo, he was sent from the ministry. It was so because they wanted good and perfect arrangement of government information management. That was how I became Press Secretary to the Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters, Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua of blessed memory.
General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua was a great and strong General but he was also very quiet naturally, so much that, at the monthly press briefing we were doing at that time, he never denied any journalist from asking questions. He would allow you to ask your questions and he would listen attentively till you finished and he would not feel burdened to give befitting answer to each question asked.
General Yar’Adua was not talkative: he talked only when it became extremely necessary to do so and my late boss was a very intelligent military top brass. And when he became a politician, his was done in very polite manner.
He never believed in do-or-die politics, yet he won everywhere in Nigeria during the nationwide presidential primary elections that produced him Social Democratic Party (SDP) flagbearer before it was cancelled. May Allah forgive, keep and bless his soul till the day of resurrection, amen.
What kind relationship existed between the Press Secretary to the Head of State and that of the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters?
That time that I was there, Oghuefi Alex Nwokedi was already there before me and naturally, as Press Secretary to the Head of State, he was my boss and I was his deputy. In few cases when he travelled out of station, I acted for him in the Office of the Head of State but he was not travelling much except that he would go with the Head of State.
At the expiration of Obasanjo/Yar’Adua military regime, did you leave with General Yar’Adua?
After the Obasanjo/Yar’Adua military regime handed over power to the civilian regime of President Shehu Shagari, I then said I was no longer going to stay beyond necessary in the Ministry of Information. I retired as Chief Information Officer in the Ministry of Information, at a time I would have become a director in the ministry. I then went to establish Sarki Media, a public relations and advertising outfit.
How did that take you to Nigerian Institute of Public Relations where you were later elected as President?
With Sarki Media I was doing public relations. Then there was a decree, which said that you have to be a registered member of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations before you practice public relations. Many of us in Kano, 25 in number, formed ourselves into a group and we were looking for registration.
One day we held a meeting and at the end of the meeting we sent a delegation to the then President of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, Chief Alex Akinyele, to come and inaugurate us. He agreed and then came here in 1984 around December and inaugurated the Kano Chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations.
Of course there were some accreditations: some were given full membership, some were given associate and some were given affiliate. So we were members and that was how we started. I rose through the cadres to become President of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR). My success in the NIPR presidential election that produced me as President is attributable to the popular support I enjoyed from all members from across the country.
Name: Sabo Sarki Mohammed
Date of birth: May 20, 1939.
Place of birth: Kano
Present position: Public Relations