Hassan Rilwan GMD, Focal Point Group Publisher, Sardauna Magazine; initiator, Sardauna Leadership Awards
BY KEMI YESUFU, Abuja
He took his destiny in hands very early in life. He started running one form of business or another from the early age of 14, and has not looked back ever since. He has never engaged in paid employment. Today, Zaria-born Hassan Rilwan, a 30-year-old engineer-turned-publisher, is a household name especially in the North where he ranks high among the young and upwardly mobile breed of Nigerians. Presently, he sits atop his business conglomerate as the Group Managing Director of the Focal Point Group, promoters of Focal Point Drycleaners, Focal Point Publishing Limited, Sardauna Magazine, and Focal Point Constructions Limited.
Solid as these enterprises are, it was Sardauna Magazine, a monthly leadership magazine that he founded in 2004 as a student at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, that shot him into limelight. He was about 25 years old when he plunged into publishing. Never the one to be haunted by the fear of the unknown, he seized his destiny with his two hands at an age many of his peers were still struggling to define their future. He dared to operate in a terrain where even older, more experienced and more endowed people fear to tread, publishing.
Today, his industry, courage and determination have paid off. In an industry where most publications die not too long after they hit the stands, his reputation has soared with every edition. Little wonder, few people were surprised when he instituted the Sardauna Leadership Awards, a prize coveted by a large pool of Nigerian businesses and, even, the political elite. The awards ceremony, characterized by glitz and glamour, got people talking about Rilwan with many speculating that he has powerful godfathers backing him. But in this interview, the young man, who also heads the Focal Point Group, argues that he made headway by pushing his ideas through, no matter the odds. He also spoke about the Almajari challenge in the north, which his Sardauna Media Child Destitution Foundation is combating by taking kids off the streets.
How would you describe your experience publishing Sardauna Magazine and would say you have achieved your goals publishing such a magazine?
Essentially, it has been challenging publishing a national magazine. As a journalist, you know that it is no mean feat surviving in the media industry in Nigeria. We have publications going off the newsstands as quickly as they came on and there are many who are just hanging in there. Coming back to Sardauna Magazine, I would say that despite the strides we have made, we have still not gotten to our desired destination. Our goal in Sardauna Magazine is to be the platform where purposeful leadership is promoted and monitored. But, surely, we are glad that Sardauna Magazine is still doing well in the market and it is based on our strong presence on the newsstands that we are strengthening our online reporting. We committed a lot of time and resources on our website and I guess this explains why within three months, we had 17,000 visitors. Now, we have thousands of people who look forward to us to give them news on a daily basis. In the future, I see us building on our online platform. We also are looking at going into publishing a newspaper.
What would you pick as your high point since you started publishing Sardauna Magazine?
Sure, we’ve had several high points. The first that comes to mind is when the magazine went monthly. I also had a feeling of achievement when our Sardauna Leadership Awards went annual and we were able to pull through to the fourth edition. I am particularly glad that we got better with each of the editions of the awards. Nevertheless, I believe that the Sardauna Leadership Awards still has a long way to go. I say this because our dream is to make the awards to Africa what the Nobel Prize is to the world. Till date, many Nigerians still look to the time of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Sir Ahmadu Bello as Nigeria’s golden era. So, whatever is done in their name or to immortalize their legacies must be impeccably carried out. It is not enough for my team and I to get accolades from those who have been at our awards. We want to get to a level where the Sardauna Leadership Awards is seen a seal of approval for the work its recipient has done.
We want our awards to be a credible yardstick by which the performances of public officers are judged. In 2011, we didn’t organize the award ceremony because it was an election year and we don’t stage the event on an election year. Again, in 2012, we decided not to hold the event because of the happenings that heated up the polity. We didn’t want to stage a major event while the people have so much to complain about. We felt that it wouldn’t have been such a good idea to give out awards to certain people and some others would disagree so vehemently. Leadership is at the lowest ebb in the country and we at Sardauna Magazine don’t want to be seen as endorsing leaders that majority of the people say have performed poorly. We decided to stay off the scene until things get better.
But some people might say that your decision to suspend the awards based on unsatisfactory performance by the leadership across board came a bit late. For them, some of the public office holders you gave awards didn’t deserve it. What is your take?
Honestly, I believe that our decision came at the right time. By our move, we have saved the Sardauna Leadership Awards from being degraded. As for people who say some of our awardees don’t deserve the recognition accorded them, I can accommodate their comments. This is because even the Nobel Prize has critics. There are people who at one time or the other disagreed with the choice(s) of the Nobel Committee. Many will still remember how the Nobel Committee was criticized when it awarded President Barak Obama the peace prize. Nevertheless, I must add that we picked our awardees after rigorous assessment of the work they have done. People need to understand how we pick our awardees. We conduct opinion polls and we also visit some of the states of the governors we honored to see things for ourselves. The Sardauna Awards is not a full endorsement of an individual. We could give a governor award based on just one sector or area he has done a good job. It doesn’t mean that we have said he is the best governor, overall.
By giving an individual an award, we celebrate what makes him stand out with the hope that he does more, because it must have taken thorough research for an organization to give you kudos for something you have done. Awards are supposed to trigger of self- consciousness in a public officer because for people to have noticed your good works, they must have observed you well enough to see your shortcomings too. So, a public servant who receives an award should celebrate for a few minutes and get back to work immediately. But one thing I can assure you is that nobody can question the choice of the individuals that have been awarded the Sardauna Leadership Award. I doubt if anyone would question the choice of Alhaji Nasir Arab, Col. Sani Bello (retd), Professor Emeritus Umaru Shehu, and Prince Bola Ajibola. Each of them has won the Sardauna Leadership Award. These are elder statesmen that are highly revered. I can say without a doubt that our awards are credible and it just has to be when its committee has past Sardauna Leadership awardees like Alhaji Umar Mutallab, Lateef Jakande, and Prince Bola Ajibola as members.
You just mentioned highly respected personalities as members of your award committee. How were you able to get their support and what’s the magic behind the A-list crowd that comes for your award ceremony?
The truth is that people study those they want to be associated with. If you are genuine, you are likely to get support. I am not saying that it is easy to get such calibre of personalities on board any programme. But if you are determined, you can achieve anything you set out to. Then, it is good that you have a good product. A good product sells itself with time. I remember the first edition of the Sardauna Awards had a very low turnout. But we didn’t give up. We kept on pushing until we broke through. On the number of high profile guests that come for our event, it is because of our in-house policy. We don’t give award to the representative of an awardee. If the award winner can’t make it, he/she forfeits the award.
You don’t belong to the family of the late premier. So, how were able to convince people about your using his name for your magazine?
With all sense of modesty and respect, the legacies of Sir Ahmadu Bello, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo aren’t restricted to their families. These are the founding fathers of our country. Their legacies can be celebrated by any Nigerian. If I decide, today, to use the name of Pa Awolowo for a worthy cause, I doubt if anyone will question me. The most important thing is that I am using the name of Sardauna to promote purposeful leadership and to further immortalize him. I am promoting purposeful leadership because very few in the current crop of leaders can match what our founding fathers achieved. Rather, they have destroyed the legacies of Awolowo, Azikiwe and Sardauna.
You started your magazine before the Northern Governors were able to revamp Sir Ahamdu Bello Foundation. How would you assess the programmes of the foundation?
Well, all Nigerians, especially the northerners, identify with the Sir Ahmadu Bello Foundation. Before the intervention by the governors to revamp the foundation, we started the Sardauna Media Child Destitution Foundation. I established the foundation to combat child destitution in the north. The Almajari system is a noble one. But over the years, it was abused by people who don’t have what it takes to run a proper boarding house because this is what the Almajari system is. I started out by establishing a school in Zaria where 24 street children now receive Islamic and formal education. Going back to your question, I think everyone should support any project that will immortalize the late Premier. We should emulate the values that he stood for, which is largely the development of the north. But the problem is that most of the people who are promoting the foundation aren’t like the late Premier. These men are the current problems of northern Nigeria.
What is your opinion about federal government’s move to overhaul Almajari schools?
I was a member of the ministerial committee that came up with the blueprint, which the federal government is working with now. Like many have said, our problem isn’t coming up with documented solutions; it is how we implement them. During the meetings of our committee, we were exposed to all kinds of documents. Some of them are as old as the time when the late Premier was in charge. We didn’t do something that is entirely new; we had documents proffering solution to the abuse of the Almajari system from way back. So, what we should worry about is how the committee’s submission is implemented. Yet, it is too early to analyse what the federal government is doing. We should give them more time before we begin to assess how well they have done.
Some people have said you are highly connected and this is why you get so much support from the high and mighty. Are they correct?
I don’t understand people who just write off hard work and ascribe people’s success to their being well connected. They should also ask themselves what it takes for a person to be connected. You cannot be useless to society and be connected. Nobody wants to be associated with a person who doesn’t add value to society. So, if you add value to the society, people will reckon with you. Not once or twice have people called me up to be in this or that committee without my lobbying. They call me because of my little contributions to society. I don’t go around lobbying people. Whatever people call my success has to do with my upbringing. I have to give credit to my parents for teaching me the right values. I have to tell the youths that it is not a sin to dream big so long as you are willing to work hard to achieve your dreams. My goal in life is not necessarily to be rich. My goals are to add value to society and to be a change agent.
What is the toughest thing about being a young entrepreneur?
The greatest challenge I have as an entrepreneur is managing people. As an entrepreneur, you cannot run a successful business alone; you need people to work with you. Unfortunately, people have their own ideas and you have to make them understand your own vision and there lies the challenge. But once you can get your staff to align with your vision, you will succeed.
What is your advice to young people who want to start business?
Lots of people talk about having start-up capital as being crucial. But I see a good business plan as being more important. If you have a billion naira without a business plan, you can lose your money. But if you have a good business idea, you are likely to get capital or create wealth with your idea. Also, an entrepreneur has to be determined and show a lot of perseverance.
Do you see yourself going into politics?
I feel sorry for young people who aren’t involved in politics. I think youths that aren’t involved in politics are part of the problem. Our biggest problem as youths is our non-involvement in politics. But I think this is changing. On my contesting elections, I will present myself if the circumstances show clearly that I am needed in public office. But I won’t go around seeking for the opportunity to contest for public office. Some people plan and scheme for political office but I am more of an entrepreneur; I would rather create wealth than go into politics. There is hardly anyone who goes into politics without being dented. Again, I don’t feel I have to be in public office to bring about change. So, if I must contest for public office or accept an appointment, I have to be fully convinced that I can effect the change I desire to see as a private citizen.