‘Ordinary’ Ahmed Isah: Meet the fiery man who is shaking Abuja up with ‘Brekete’ (YNaija Long Read)
by Eromo Egbejule
One man and his select army of fellow minded people are shaking things up in Abuja.
It is 8:35am on a dusty Friday morning in Mpape Hills, Abuja and a restive crowd—all men—from the Apo Mechanic community gathers outside the premises of Crowther Love FM, 104.5. They look nervous but resolute as they protest the 72-hour ultimatum given by the Federal Capital Territory administration to move out ahead of a planned demolition exercise. They are seeking audience with the Brekete Family Show crew.
It is a statement of the level of trust they and thousands of other residents of Abuja and its environs, have reposed in the brand (which claims to be Nigeria’s only reality radio talk magazine show) who have taken it upon themselves to champion the cause of the oppressed in society, or to be as their motto screams, ‘the voice of the voiceless”.
“By being truthful and honest is how people have come to trust us”, explains Ordinary Ahmed, the presenter, who his website describes as “a man that seen everything”. “I don’t collect money from anybody for what I am doing. I’m enjoying what I’m doing; if you listen to the radio, [you see that] we bring up a case and it is solved in a week or less.”
Produced independently by Isah’s Infomercial Media International, the show first started in 2009 on Kiss FM Abuja, after he stopped presenting the now rested syndicated radio talk show, ‘Oga Driver’, a pidgin language show. Brekete Family Show’s working formula is pretty simple; it profiles cases of individuals being victimised or oppressed and then proceeds to advocate on their behalf, investigates the issues at hand and finds a concrete solution. Representatives of hitherto unknown government agencies have also been brought on-air intermittently to educate Nigerians on their roles.
Forty-something-year-old Isah is no stranger to poverty as he grew up poor, and he decided early in his career to make himself—together with his legion of contacts—available to help the underprivileged, regardless of religious, ethnic, or social affiliations because, ”I know what it means to be assisted when you need assistance. If someone is thirsty and you give that person three spoons of water to quench the thirst, it has more value than giving that person one drum of water after one week,” he told me.
Everyone seems to know him in Abuja; from two young men on the ground floor of one of the busy plazas that litter Garki, where one of his offices (the other is in Wuse II) is (“Nwanne ke bu hembelembeh?” One asks the other), to the cab man who took this reporter there and even the ‘big men’ he is forever challenging. The eyes of the elderly cabbie transporting me to his offices lit up with pride at the mention of an appointment with him. “He stands up to the government, for the ordinary people; to save anyone being oppressed by a ‘big man’. People sabi am well for this Abuja.”
Abuja-based blogger, Zainab Hong, describes the change agent as “fearless, outspoken, bluntly truthful and charismatic”. Writer and usually hard-to-please critic, Gimba Kakanda is a fan too. “I haven’t met him, but I really like him,” he gushes. “He’s doing a wonderful job!”
In his typical standalone fashion, Ahmed disagrees. “I don’t have a biography,” he tells a guest in the studio, as they go over some documents. “I am nobody.” His phone is constantly ringing, his drab ringtone punctuating our conversation frequently, as in defiance. His fashion sense is drab too; his white jacket the only exception to the uniformity of his matching blue shirt, blue jeans and blue shoes.
“I’m not doing anything special,” he bellows at this reporter, his voice a few decibels higher than that of a vibrating loudspeaker. He is an impassioned speaker throughout the interview, his voice rising like a boat caught in high tide. “It is just that in a country like Nigeria, it is an unusual thing,” he continues. “Somebody crying to you, you listen to the person, you now think of the right channel to channel the case and then you follow up. That is all I have been doing. If I have money, I support with money. If I don’t have money, I stay.”
From Mpape with Love?
The threats and incidents of assault he has experienced over the past couple of years point to the contrary. He refuses to speculate on perceived enemies, attributing his escapes to divine protection and comparing himself to controversial former chairman, Pension Reform Task Team (PRTT), Abdul Rasheed Maina. “This is a society where the wrong has been going on for a very long time,” he laments. “And the bad people will not allow you to just come and change things overnight when they have been thriving or perhaps succeeding from that.”
“Why do they want to kill Abdul Rasheed Maina, [is it not] because he has been able to uncover their secrets?” he asks, almost rhetorically.
On one occasion in April 2013, he was followed by two SUVs when returning from a function he had attended in Maitama. It is reported that he escaped by driving right into the Inspector General of Police’s house. An hour later, he continued on his way, allegedly refusing the police escorts offered him for security; the vehicles were on his heels again a few minutes later, but as the story goes, he managed to escape again and get home.
There have been other attempts to silence him too.
Nduesoh Ogar is a 21-year-old National Youth Service Corps member with one of the many government parastatals in the city. Her boss, a devout Brekete fan, listens on his way to work every morning and recounted to her in 2013 how Isah had been beaten to the point of death after been locked up in a police cell on the orders of a top-ranking customs official. “He went asking questions, that’s why,” she says, by way of explanation.
But Isah remains unperturbed, telling me, “The little time I have on earth, I am going to make an impact on my generation of people. If I die tomorrow because of what I am doing, [I have] no regrets.”
Power to the people
Cases brought to him range from the mildly desperate to the spectacularly depressing.
Only last week, a widow sought his assistance in retrieving her deceased spouse’s entitlements from the Nigerian Customs Service, where he had worked till his death four years ago. Calls were made and the lingering case is set to be resolved in no time, as the NCS is presently processing the required amount.
“Someone will serve this country for thirty-something years, put in his youthfulness and everything, only to get to a stage of retirement and then the country will tell you , the same organisation you served will tell you his/her file is missing. Is that not an insult to an elder statesman?” he laments.
“It is in Nigeria that a senator will take a one-way traffic against the normal traffic, such a senator should be removed for heaven’s sake but no, they would rather flog people and if you, an ordinary person decides to take advantage to follow suit, they get you arrested. A Governor’s convoy will kill somebody in Nigeria and nobody cares. Is Nigeria just for a few people?”
Isah the Honourable
For many, the graduation from human rights activism to politics is only natural, as the trust of the masses is a valuable campaign tool in running for elective
offices in the land, available for barter. Governors Kayode Fayemi and Adams Oshiomole of Ekiti and Edo states respectively are two politicians who have transited smoothly from carrying placards and mobilising their colleagues to attending state executive council meetings, but Ahmed Isa is neither swayed nor persuaded by arguments within the polity that government critics get into politics to hasten the much sought-after change.
He clarifies: “He [Oshiomole] is a human rights activist, I am not an activist. I am a humanitarianist [sic]. Activists stay where they are. I am not a human rights activist, no! What I do goes beyond just human rights.”
“If you want to join the team of changing Nigeria for the better and you feel your joining politics will enhance the process, you do. I am a human being and I, Ordinary Ahmed Isa will never go into politics. Even you nominate me for an appointment; I will never take till I die. I will observe from afar and give people a voice.”
“I overheard some people one time saying what I am doing has some political undertone; that I am doing this to build some political clout for myself. As it is now, if I should come out to say I am vying for the senatorial position in FCT, even if I am going to contest with President Goodluck Jonathan, I will dust him but I will never go for it.”
Ahmad Isah is also unflinching in his refusal to align with other progressives in the struggle for awareness of citizen rights and a push for justice. “I only know myself,” he says.
The Book of Isah
In March 2013, the programme went on an enforced leave of absence, for three weeks. On its return, the station manager, Mr Sam Akpan quelled rumours of complicity and conspiracy by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) in yanking it off-air. He explained that the producer – who evaded questions on the issue during this interview – had previously refused to sign an undertaking not to use uncouth language on air, a violation of the NBC code.
On the surface though, the Brekete lingua seems more hilarious and crude than racy. Two examples will suffice here; sexual intercourse is termed O-m-o-n-y-o-h and while ‘small’ is interpreted as ‘k-u-r-u-b-e-t-e’, ‘talk’ is ‘v-w-a-n-o-r. Defecation gets a makeover, as one can euphemistically claim to “dey read newspaper under tree”.
“I created it,” he announces, his voice rising again. “Having realised the fact that anything you see in this world is someone else’s creation and I believe there is nothing any other human being can do on earth that I cannot do better.”
Isah and his disciples
On the wall of the reception is a notice in bold Calibri font: “Please note that volunteering with us is without pay, allowances or monetary compensation of any kind.” With over 22, 000 likes on his Facebook page, there is a scramble to volunteer for the show and the task of picking them is no easy one. Some have gone on to use his platform to extort money from people and were immediately dropped – a fact that he indirectly admits in a roundabout way, without giving details – from the crew.
His receptionist, an undergraduate in one of the tertiary institutions in the North, chatting excitedly on the phone to a schoolmate about her work in one of the partitions in the studio, is one of the few volunteers on his team, who have passed his rigorous screening tests.
Is everyone on his team a volunteer? “No,” he counters. “I have realised some of the mistakes I have made in the past. Now, I have staff, no volunteer but I am going to get volunteers later. Presently, we have just a few lawyers that are volunteer lawyers; they do pro bono cases for people.”
His staff seem to hang on to his every word; his flow of authority wafting across the room in a like the breeze from an air conditioner. His comrades have traits of the same arrogance: “Wait for me to call you,” one says to someone else on the phone. “I won’t pick your call again if you call me before I call you when I’m ready. It’s that simple.”
He avoids questions darting to his private life, steering us back to his crusade like a preacher eager to preach the word of salvation. Once however, he lets his guard slip, on the question of having his children become his disciples. “I am a disciplinarian. Even if my children do not grow up to become humanitarian like me, they would be highly disciplined. I am a disciplinarian to the core. That does not make me a saint. I misbehave once in a while. I am a human being. I am not an angel. I am not a saint.”
The Isa Empire
He wants to build an empire and expand the show’s reach to other parts of Nigeria to effect nationwide transformation.
In the course of this interview, a techie from House on the Rock is setting up a Teradek Cube—worth a whopping N650,000—for live internet streaming. It is a step further in actualizing his dream of returning Brekete Family to TV (and mobile) screens, after his broadcast initially on DaarSAT and a free-to-air channel – had to be cut, because of lack of funding. He is prepared to resume, but only when he has money, he says.
His public speaking pays for producing the show, he says. “I am a public speaker, I am a professional talker. I am an anchor person and MC, I anchor events and that is where I get the money that I use to pay even the radio station.”
Adverts are scrutinized before they get on the show; those that contradict its ideals get turned down. On the other hand, “You can bring a good advert and we won’t even ask you to pay money if it will impact on human lives. If it will develop the masses, we will allow you to have it on the platform free of charge.”
Even donors are to be screened too.
“I have to know what the organization is donating me for. You don’t say because I need money, you bring money and I embrace it, no.”
Not even the almighty United Nations will be exempt from scrutiny or given a free pass, in the event of a hypothetical offer. “United Nations will not give any country money without attaching a particular agenda to it. I know of a country that said they are going to support me with money but I should subtly promote gay rights, I insulted the idiot that called me.”
It is no surprise then that his stance on the new anti-gay law is unequivocal: “Every sane human being would be in support of it. We are Africans. We have culture; we have tradition. We don’t just behave like animals. Can you dare say to your mum, ‘Mummy, you are lying?’ That is not true, your mouth go swell up. We are Africans. We have culture; rich culture and tradition and values. We are not like the whites that live their lives like animals.”
Some might dismiss this as tattle-tale and label him a noisemaker, but the hundreds who he has assisted in the search for retribution and the thousands more yearning to hear the greatness in him every morning of the week, swear that Ordinary Ahmed is this generation’s saviour.
The odds are that they are perfectly right.
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