Mr. Steve Ekiri-Mekiriuwa Ashien is the Publisher of Ika Weekly Newspaper, a community newspaper in Agbor, Delta State, which has weathered through enormous challenges and has now emerged as a virile and reliable source of news within the two local governments of Ika Nation; Ika South and Ika Northeast Local Government Areas respectively. After the formal celebration of his 70th birthday, Mr. Williams Eghebi and Anita Aleh, cornered him for a chat. What was intended to be a very short encounter, turned out robust and insightful.
Congrats on your birthday anniversary, Mr. Ashien.
What was your early life like?
Ashien: I finished my primary school in 1960. English and Mathematics were my best subjects. My father really helped a lot, though he did not go to school, he wanted his children to acquire formal education. That was why, anytime we came back from school or from the farm, as the case may be, he made sure that my brother and I were always reading. That was how my reading culture was built. When I finished my primary school at Ewuru, I was asked to go to Warri in 1961 to join my sister. When I got there, there was nothing to do. I took the Common Entrance Examination into Hussey College, Warri but there was no money to fulfill the dream. I thus became a newspaper vendor and I started selling newspapers in Warri. Thereafter, I went to Lagos thinking I could get opportunities but came back to Warri. Later on, I was taken to an Ibo man to learn how to sell books. The luck I had was that my master, Patrick Offor, who owned a bookshop, also had a building materials section. I was divinely fortunate to be taken to the bookshop, named PORAS Bookshop and not the building materials section.
So, when I got to the bookshop, at the Warri Main Market, as a rural boy, I found Warri too urbanized for me. At this period, there were very few secondary schools and universities in the country. People were then studying through tuitions, such as Rapid Result College (RCC). As a result, a lot of people were coming to the bookshop to buy books. At this time, Nigeria was changing from British Economy and Government to West African Economy and Government. While there were a lot of books on British Government and British Economy, there were very few books on West African Economy and Government. So, people would come to me and tell me: “O boy, I am doing my Cambridge through RCC. Which book on so and so, subject will be good for me?” In response, I would say: “If you buy such and such a book, it will help you.” In six months time, the results would be out, and the people who bought books from me, would come to thank me for recommending such good books that helped them to pass their examination. It therefore dawned on me that I had to be an avid reader, so that I, being a farmer’s, son would not only be able to interact with the city boys, but as well be able to continually recommend books for them. So, I had to study the overview of almost every book in the bookshop, to enable me to talk about the books to people and to market them effectively. This action on my part, gave my master’s bookshop a high edge in the book selling business, because I was interacting on the same level with the book buyers and recommending books for them. Whenever such people buy books from me and pass their exams, they usually come back to thank me for helping them. This helped me to become friendly with my customers. In 1966, after completing my apprenticeship, I opened my own bookshop, named Stephen Ashien Bookstore in Warri Main Market. However, circumstances dictated that I should relocate to Agbor in 1967.
Mr. Ashien, what made you relocate to Agbor?
I finished my apprenticeship in 1966, a year before the outbreak of the Civil War. Like I said, I had already established my bookshop, just one year before the war broke out. The hostilities did not exempt anybody of Ika extraction. The owners of Warri –the Itsekiris, Ijaws and Urhobos did not differentiate the people of Agbor from the Igbo people. Thus, the hostile soldiers were directed to both the Igbo and Ika people, as they were seen as the same.
My case was particularly worse, because even the Agbor people who were living in Warri, as well as my Ijaw and Urhobo friends did not know that I was from Agbor. This was so because it was almost unheard of that an Agbor boy was a house help to an Igbo trader and was learning a trade. That was why and how relocated Agbor in 1967.
When I came back to Agbor, I started the Central Bookshop, which was situated at No. 29 Old Lagos/Asaba Road, Agbor. From the bookshop business, I ventured into the tissue paper industry, because from my youth, I had always thought of what to do and how to do something that will create jobs for people. So, I had a lot of things in mind. First, I had wanted to be producing audio cartridges and toilet paper. I therefore travelled to Germany, France and Holland, to explore the possibilities of both ventures. I got in contact with a German firm who wanted to partner with me to produce cassettes instead of cartridges. I had thought that cartridges were the best we can produce because that was what was in vogue in Nigeria then, while the German firm was more futuristic, preferring cassettes. The cartridge cassette was common in Nigeria. We could not partner as a result of this difference. I then concentrated on the tissue paper business. From there, I established a garbage cleaning company; Ben Clean, which was the first waste disposal outfit in town.
I owned the tissue paper manufacturing company in partnership with another investor; late Chief Alfred Nzemeke. Prior to 1984, we were going to Aba to buy Jumbo reels. I became very friendly with a Chinese, Mr. M. K. Chin and both of us nurtured the idea of turning Agbor into an industrialized town. Firstly, instead of going to Aba to buy Jumbo reels, we decided to start producing reels here in Agbor. We decided to make use of bamboos and elephant grasses to produce toilet paper and other kinds of papers. Central Industries Limited used to import Jumbo reels, until trade restrictions forced it to start buying the Jumbo reels from Aba. However, Mr. Chin withdrew, thus making it impossible for us to continue in the big way we wanted to go about it. However, late Dr. Orewa showed interest in the venture, and I had to travel with him about twice to Europe to look for machines that we would use for the manufacturing of the papers like what was obtainable at Aba. Sadly we could not find one. We were then forced to buy fairly used ones through Mr. Chin from China for $250,000 (Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dollars). It was at that point that late Dr. Orewa, seeing that the factory was going to be a big one, suggested that other investors should be allowed to join us. That is how people like late Dr. Orewa himself, his junior brother, late Clement Orewa, Mr. John Ehikwe (now Chief Elder John Ehikwe), Sir Emma Afambu, Barr. J. B. Onwubuya and others came on board with little contributions. Of course, the company went down because some of the Directors, who knew nothing about paper manufacturing, later sidelined and outsmarted me. (Details of this I hope to make public when by God’s grace I will write my autobiography).
What motivated you to establish Ika Weekly Newspaper?
While at Ewuru, producing toilet papers, my head was full of ideas due to my numerous travels, much reading and meeting wonderful people. So, while there, Mr. Chin and I wanted to bring tricycles to Nigeria. He told me that in the near future, tricycles will be needed in Nigeria. Mr. Chin imported some of them from China and gave me three samples to bring to Agbor. Mr. Chin and I were at the verge of starting an assembly plant here in Agbor for the tricycle when things started going bad for me.
Now on what motivated my establishing Ika Weekly Newspaper. One fateful day, I thought to myself: “what can I do to ensure that people will know what is going on in Ika community”? Then I decided to start collecting news and then, producing them with a cyclostyling machine which consisted of typing into what is called ‘stencil’. After we typed it, we would staple it and tried to market it to people but it did not work because it did not look good. It was at this point that the idea came to me that we can do it like the other newspapers. This was in 1989. Mr. Loverage Okwuidegbe, who is presently a lecturer at the College of Education, Agbor, was the founding editor. However, the venture did not work out as the Newspaper folded up after sixteen (weeks) editions, because at this point I had gone totally bankrupt. Several factors such as poor management, multitasking and primarily government policies, sounded the death bell of the ventures. Even in the case of the tissue paper manufacturing business, negative government policies, constituted the major cause of its downfall.
The newspaper was discontinued after sixteen publications. What made you to return to Ika Weekly Newspaper?
In between the sixteen weeks that we published the newspaper, I was trying a lot of things. This was because the paper was not selling in Ika. So, I tried to change it to Anioma Weekly, for wider coverage and patronage. However, the paper eventually closed down. From 1996-2007, I did not have anything doing, life was very difficult for me. I only rented an office and was printing books for people, which also did not work. My bank statement was disastrous and I was indebted to so many people. A lot of things were going through my mind. The final idea was to go back to Ika Weekly. However, the problem was now how to go back to it; I knew it was going to be very costly and I had no money. When the urge became overwhelming, I had to sell the land that I had then, and I realized Three Hundred Thousand Naira (N300,000.00). Meanwhile, the money lenders were on my neck, and some were bringing fetish substances (jujus), all to cajole me into paying my debts. The situation was really bad for me. I thank God it is all over. Doggedly, I paid off little of my indebtedness and immediately started Ika Weekly Newspaper with the balance money. The sale of the land took place sometime around February 2007 and I started Ika Weekly Newspaper in the very first week of April, 2007.
As at this time, nobody would talk to me or even freely give me One Thousand Naira. This was because, everybody around me believe that I was completely finished. Only a few people like Chief Elder John Ehikwe and my friend, Chief John Okenebirhie, an Urhobo man, who lives in Warri stood by me through thick and thin.
What is your assessment of Ika Weekly Newspaper?
It is a wonderful and a God ordained venture. Through the newspaper, some people are able to put food on their table. Through the paper, some people are getting to know about Ika nation. These are the things that give me joy. From the newspaper business, I was able to pay my debts. I am satisfied with my job, because I am doing what I love to do; reading and writing.
What’s responsible for the newspaper house hiring four editors within a year?
People’s expectation of Ashien and Ika Weekly Newspaper is very high. People, who work here, expect to be paid very high. They expect to make plenty of money. However, our salary here is very low. The high expectation of the editors regarding their salary is what is responsible for the high labour mobility. They just feel that they are being paid less than what they ought to be paid.
Newspaper business is very demanding and it is exposed to many challenges. Have you encountered any?
When I started the business in 2007, the challenges were overly gigantic. Firstly, there was the problem of low finance. There was also the fact that the community did not know what I was doing; the community had never seen a community newspaper and they had never seen a paper with coloured prints. When it first came out, people wrote it off. Furthermore, there were rumours from several quarters that Ashien was not only a poor man, but that he was also a chronic debtor. This was one of the biggest problems because people were afraid that if they pay money, mostly for advert, Ashien will run away with their money.
Nevertheless, my present challenge is that people want to come to Ika Weekly, get their eyes opened, get to know many important people through it and then, they feel that they can do what Ashien is doing. However, my greatest heartache in this business for now is that the poor standard of education that is currently in existence is terribly shocking. A graduate does not know the difference between ‘been’ and ‘being’, ‘having’ and ‘haven’. They write so badly, to the extent that readers often times call me to complain about the bad writings.
Can you compare the nature of Ika Weekly Newspaper as at 1989 and Ika Weekly Newspaper of today?
The 1989 Ika Weekly newspaper model was more professional than what is obtainable today. Today’s paper is focused on its marketability. I have invested a lot of technicality into the present Ika Weekly Newspaper in order for it to survive. All my efforts are geared towards making sure that Ika Weekly Newspaper remains on the newsstand. Even though I try to balance professionalism with marketability, the marketability is more important. This is because; the business must be profitable, if it is to be sustainable. Since the conception of Ika Weekly, more than seven community newspapers have come up in Ika Land. However, none of them survived, while Ika Weekly has remained standing, due to my innovative ideas and the special grace of God.
If I decide to do it completely professional, we will be out of business. For example: when I increased the cover price from #200 to #250, some persons called me to complain, saying that they will not buy the paper anymore because of the increase. I told them that it will be very kind of them to stop buying the papers. I explicitly told them that if they wish me well, they should continue to buy the paper at the rate of #250. You cannot expect me to sell my newspaper at the same rate, when I am now buying papers at the rate of #5000, which previously, I was buying at the rate of #2500. I will not be able to pay my staff if I don’t think of profit.
You do not look your age. What’s the magic?
It is difficult for me to answer that question. The normal thing I will say is that: it is the grace of God and not due to any personal effort on my part. However, from my youth, I decided to abstain from anything that would be injurious to me such as alcohol as I would rather use such money to help people because when I was young, I looked at my environment and saw how poor my background was. When I left Ewuru for Warri, I saw something entirely different, which made me resolve to do anything that I could help change my environment and a lot of things around me.
What has been your greatest achievement thus far?
My greatest achievement is that I have a strong relationship with God. My depressing years brought me much closer to God. My relationship with God has been helping me a lot and so, I advise people to have good relationship with God, because there is nothing God cannot do. If he could change my situation, he can change the situation of anybody. If I had deviated from the narrow way that leads to life, perhaps it would have been a different story. Another thing that I would like to say is that; right from my youth, I have always had the urge to create employment and to help people to put food on their table. I have never liked to do things just because people are doing them; I abhor ‘follow follow.’ The fact that people are hearing of Ika Nation through Ika Weekly Newspaper is a source of immense joy to me.
A book on you, which had contributions from friends and kinsmen, was presented during your birthday anniversary. How did you feel reading the comments?
Most of such books are usually written after the demise of the individual. I am grateful to the contributors and happy with what they said about me, though those were not only what I wanted. I had wanted people to criticise me also, not just only the good aspect of me.
Why was your wife not one of the contributors?
She helped with the compilation. We actually wanted to hear from outsiders. Again, both of us are on the mountain and thought it wise to be mere observers.
In the last six years, you have become more cheerful both in appearance and discussion? What is responsible?
I became rich in my early twenties. With the money I possessed then, I had friends cutting across all levels. I travelled far and wide. It was, when I became bankrupt, most of my friends and relatives that I helped ran away from me. I discovered that all those things we labour for are mere mirage. As early as 1971, I had a car and a driver driving me and I had built a very beautiful house that people were coming to copy and admire the design. Despite that early achievement, I am a tenant in a 2-bedroom apartment today, and I am much happier. I have found that our needs are not the same as our wants. We will be happier, if we pay more attention to our needs. They are the basic things of life and they are actually few, while our wants are very many and there are not the basic things of life.
Also, partly because of my new found happiness. My wife has been very supportive. In short, she is a gift from God to wipe away my pains and shame and she is contributing immensely to the running of Ika Weekly Newspaper. And of course, like I said, my cheerful nature is attributable to my close relationship with God.
What is the future of your newspaper considering the advent of social media in information dissemination?
Our newspaper has good future. In many foreign countries, several community newspapers have gone under due to the emergence of new age media. We are working hard to ensure we do not suffer from this upsurge of social media challenges. I have let my staff know of these challenges. However, our social media presence is already there as we have set up our website. Very soon, our ICT department will come on board fully. My major worry is actually the immense decline of reading culture in Ika land, especially among the younger generation.
Considering your age, don’t you think it is too demanding to remain the chief executive?
It is a matter of the ‘spirit is willing but the body is weak’. When I was a bookseller, my former hard working wife and I use to go to Onitsha, carrying cartons of books to sell and come back at 10pm. I cannot do that anymore. For now, I will do what my body is capable of doing.
What plans do have for succession?
The present generation is not ready to wait. They want to succeed very fast even if it requires cutting corners. I brought somebody into my business. The person ended up duping me. Although, I am working hard towards ensuring that my legacy and Ika Weekly Newspaper outlive me, I cannot reveal to you at the moment, how I intend to achieve it.
You seem to have huge support for Dr. Isioma Okobah, Hon. Victor Nwokolo and Governor Okowa. Why?
Yes I do, though I have never been a politician since I am a very strong critic. I support whoever that is doing well or has done well. My support for Dr. Mrs. Isioma Okobah is as a result of her way of doing things. Until her emergence into politics, those representing us would just tell us that Aso Rock has mandated them to represent us. When she came, I expressed my anger on the way Ika politicians behave. She promised to play by the rules. I offered to package her and that she must pay for the services. She obliged. People complained about my support for her but my answer was that Ika Weekly Newspaper is my personal business and that I have a right to support whoever I feel is worthy of my support. My greatest joy is that, though she failed, her entrance into politics changed the face of politics in Ika Nation. Her legacy remains and it is the reason I have huge admiration for her. I thank God we have remained close till date as she is a star and a go getter.
Regarding Hon. Victor Nwokolo, I raise my thumb for him because, of all the people that have represented us in all positions. To me, he remains the best, in terms of attracting projects. This is why I support him. I want anybody to prove me wrong if any of our representatives has beaten his record in Ika nation in terms of attracting projects. Although due to his gentle nature he does make noise about the projects. The problem people say they have with him is that he does not speak in the House.
Ika Weekly Newspaper is for the people of Ika nation. It is for everybody. When anybody does well, we publish. When they do not do what is right, we also publish. We are an umpire; we do not take sides with anybody; as that is the ethics of the profession.
What is your message to Ika people?
The unity of Ika nation is my greatest desire because Ika people are very unique. We should therefore explore this uniqueness.
What do you think Gov. Okowa should do before 2019 to change perception some people have about him?
My greatest interest and desire is to see Okowa come back in 2019. This is because he is my kinsman and he is like a junior brother to me. Both of us and others have no other home than Ika nation and I know he will listen to us as I know that he is a good listener. We must build Ika Nation not only for this generation but also for the generation unborn. We will talk to him to respond to the sensitive challenges and development of Ika Nation. He is a human being and as such exposed to mistakes. My message to him is that he should use his position to unite Ika Nation. One way to do this is to be fair in all he does. If he does this, posterity will celebrate him.
With the political disparity notably between Agbor and Owa, do you think they can be united?
Of course it is possible. For now, the governor is in the best position to bring about this much needed unity. I am doing my very best using Ika Weekly Newspaper, and I expect His Excellency to do the same if not even better.