It is by now public knowledge that Mr Sam Amuka Pemu, journalist, columnist, Founder/Publisher of Vanguard Newspaper and life patron of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), does not celebrate birthdays and does not like publicity. In a tribute to mark his 85th birthday in 2020, Ray Ekpu, veteran journalist of Newswatch fame, recalled a short message this “Journalism’s generalissimo” had sent him on June 9 of that year, thus: “This Saturday 13th June is my birthday. And I don’t celebrate birthdays. So for me, on Saturday No ceremonies, No publicity, No noises.”
But that has not prevented those who have drunk from the inexhaustible fountain of knowledge of a man many know simply as Uncle Sam – and they are innumerable – from falling into the temptation to always want to roll out the drums in celebration of this leading light in Nigerian journalism today, as Nduka Obaigbena, media mogul and Publisher of ThisDay Newspaper and Founder of AriseTV, once described him. Every year on his birthday, tributes rain unsolicited. The reason, as Ekpu puts it, is that “those of us who are his foot-soldiers believe he deserves, in spite of his humility, all the attention we can give him for all the battles he has fought for our industry and our country over the years. To fail to acknowledge his exertions would be an act of ingratitude, an unpardonable transgression and an unforgivable dereliction of duty.”
That was why in 2015, media experts and industry chiefs gathered at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Victoria Island, Lagos to mark Uncle Sam’s 80th birthday with the launch of a book Voices from Within: Essays on Nigerian Journalism in Honour of Sam Amuka, as well as a lecture on ‘Today’s Newsroom, Tomorrow’s Newspaper: How to Survive and Thrive in the Internet Age’. The organisers rightly said the event was a tribute to Amuka’s role and place in the media for which many Nigerian journalists, both old and young, are endeared to him. Uncle Sam was present at the event, and that was enough reason for the editor of the book, Lanre Idowu, to thank God that the celebrant showed up because Uncle Sam had objected to the celebration, reasoning that it was inappropriate to celebrate when many media organisations could not pay salaries.
Born June 13, 1935 in Sapele, present-day Delta State of Nigeria, Samson Oruru Amuka-Pemu worked with the Daily Times Group, where he served as Editor of the Sunday Times, before joining forces with his friend, the late Olu Aboderin, to found The Punch, which describes itself as the most widely read newspaper in Nigeria, in 1971. A misunderstanding between the two co-founders led to Amuka’s exit from The Punch and the establishment, in 1983/84, of Vanguard Newspaper, of which he is the Publisher.
He has been variously described as a quintessential journalist, inimitable writer, celebrated editor, successful publisher, upright, transparently honest, brutally frank, charming, warm, friendly, easy-going, soft and silk-spoken, an icon, a father, a role model, the oldest practicing media professional in Nigeria today. Former President Muhammadu Buhari called him “talented gentleman of the press” and “legendary Sam Amuka” who, through his column “Sad Sam”, provided readers fulfilment and mental satisfaction.
Books like Voices from Within: Essays on Nigerian Journalism in Honour of Sam Amuka, edited by Lanre Idowu, For Sam: A Collection of Contemporary Thoughts, by Jimi Disu, and From 1939 to the Vanguard of Modern Journalism, by Kola Muslim Animasaun, a former chairman of Editorial Board at Vanguard, pay tribute to Uncle Sam’s immense contributions to the growth of journalism in Nigeria.
As he turned 88 on Tuesday, the governor of his home state of Delta, Sheriff Oborevwori, called him “our father, leader and elder statesman of inestimable value” whose contributions to the Nigerian press are indelible and amply demonstrated, not only in the growth of his newspaper, but also on his ethical positions on issues of corruption, good governance and the rule of law.
“Over the years, you have given yourself to the cause of reshaping the dynamics of journalism in Nigeria with your incisive editorials, accurate news publications and balanced reporting and for this, we owe you an enduring debt of gratitude,” the governor said in a statement by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr Festus Ahon.
But it is Ray Ekpu’s words in his tribute to Uncle Sam in 2020 that have remained etched on the walls of my memory: “His life-long devotion to journalism is unequalled; his loyalty to the profession is incontestable; his consistency in fighting for propriety in professional practice is undeniable. Those attributes are his essential magic, his drawing power, the reason that some of us in the profession have had to cling on to him like a limpet.”
Here are 88 hearty cheers to the doyen. May your light continue to shine brighter!