INTEGRITY IS HARD TO FIND AMONG NIGERIAN JOURNALISTS—FISAYO SOYOMBO

Reading Time: 21 minutes

The name Fisayo Soyombo has recently gained attention in the Nigerian Journalism circle partly because of the amazing work he did as the pioneer editor of TheCable and because of his investigative stories, which are based on matters of grave social concerns. His unexpected exit at TheCable at the end of January shocked a lot of people — but he didn’t leave without amassing a lot of awards to his name. Few of those awards include: Winner, Hans Verploeg Newcomer of the Year category of the 2016 Free Press awards, The Hague, Netherlands; Winner, Journalist of the Year (Business and Economy Reporting) in the PricewaterhouseCoopers 2016 Awards, Lagos, Nigeria; Winner, Zimeo Excellence in Journalism Awards by African Media Initiative, Nairobi, Kenya; Finalist, Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism; and Winner, Investigative Journalist of the Year, 2016 Wole Soyinka Awards for Investigative Reporting amongst a long list of others.

In this interview with THE PAGE, he spoke about journalism in Nigeria, why he left TheCable, and his plans for the future.

THE PAGE                  

In terms of standard where is the place of Nigeria in the world of Journalism?

SOYOMBO

In the world of journalism, we are not doing so badly but I think the only countries doing better than us in Africa are Kenya and South Africa, in terms of quality journalism; the kind of coverage, in-depth reporting, writing style as I see in the continent, I would say the depth of reportage I see in Kenya and South Africa supersedes what I see in Nigeria. I see that there are occasional bright spots in Nigeria. You find one journalist here with a newspaper, you will find another one with another newspaper; it is not really a national culture. Most of what we do in Nigeria is report news, we don’t do enough of looking for the story behind the story, we don’t do enough of stories that set agenda for government, we are more reactionary in our kind of journalism. It is not bad because from my own point of view, you can’t mention top three countries on the continent in terms of journalism and not include Nigeria, but if you are not the best anywhere, then it is not good enough.

In a word, I would say we are not doing too badly because if you look out for international journalism awards, you will rarely find three consecutive years of any reputable international award where Nigerians have not been honored; it shows that Nigerians, either they are based in-country or abroad, are laregly doing well.

THE PAGE

There is no doubt that you have established a name for yourself as far as journalism is concerned in Nigeria, how much has your family contributed to the man you have become today?

SOYOMBO

I haven’t established a name for myself but I think I am in the process of doing that. I don’t think I have, by my standards. But so far, the journey I have had; my family has been supportive. Initially, my dad didn’t want me to become a journalist, but he was only looking out for me because journalists are poorly paid and he thought I should be doing better than the journalists he had encountered. My mum, my number one fan tried to convince my dad. My Dad eventually saw that I was determined, because I kept on writing for newspapers and people were calling his attention to my published works. Eventually, I won him over and he started supporting me. My family supports me. When people around you believe in you, nothing is impossible for you to achieve. There is this extra mental edge it gives you.

THE PAGE

Most of your interviews have not gone without you mentioning the impact of the Union of Campus Journalists, University of Ibadan (UCJ) in your journalistic career. Do you think you will still have gone to be a journalist without taking Laz Ude Eze’s advice of joining campus journalism, despite the fact that you studied Animal Science?

SOYOMBO

If I didn’t take the Laz Ude Eze’s advice, I would still have ended up in journalism but I would not have started at the time I did. I wanted it; it’s not that I didn’t want it;I just didn’t want to start in 100 level, I wanted to have a first-class or CGPA base and then join campus journalism. Laz played a vital role in my joining the press; without him, I would have joined the press much later than I did. Without UCJ, there is no way I could have become a journalist. Coming inside UI, I just knew I wanted to write. I wrote a play in my secondary school days. So the fact that there was a structure called UCJ, it is a fundamental reason why I am in journalism. Without UCJ, I don’t think so, which is why I do say that if I am in my sleep and I get an invitation from UCJ, I’m going to respond with a yes.

THE PAGE

You once mentioned how an editor rejected you for an internship position because you were not studying anything related to journalism. So how were you able to handle rejections like these and putting yourself in that Editor’s shoe, would you have allowed an Animal Scientist in your newsroom?

SOYOMBO

Let me answer the second question first, 100% I would allow someone who left secondary school but didn’t study journalism at all through secondary school, I would give such person a chance. Take your sheet of paper, take your pen, write. If you pass and impress me, that is all. If you are studying mathematics get a sheet of paper and a pen, straight forward question, straight forward answers.

About how I handle rejections like that, something God has blessed me with is mental toughness. I decide for myself the things that are possible for me to achieve, I never allow another man decide for me. I would give you an example. In this same UI, I won’t mention the name, a man thought I was of no good at all and kept on saying it to my face. We had at the Super-Bowl Oratory Contest and on the day of the final, he came and said to me “you cannot win, it is not possible, you don’t know anything”. Of course, I didn’t win but that person is my friend on Facebook today and he has enormous respect for me and how far I’ve come over the years. So when people reject me, I see it as a challenge to make them regret rejecting me. I left the Guardian and some days ago someone called me from the Guardian and said he told his boss that look, we should never have allowed Soyombo leave. I desperately wanted to stay at TheGuardian at the time, but there was no job opening so I left.

So, in cases of rejection, like how the Comet Newspaper Editor turned me down strictly on the basis of my academic discipline, I tell myself that it is a chance to prove that I know what I am doing and to show that my success does not lie in another man’s hand. It is a chance to make that person, at the end of the day, look back and say “I should have given him a chance”.

THE PAGE

How are you able to balance between passion and survival, because many young journalists complain about not earning enough with the profession?

SOYOMBO

Passion and survival, I always say anyone who is not above average in terms of talent should not try to do journalism, because the opportunities are few and far between for the population of practitioners. The opportunities do not go round. So, if in terms of ability, you’re not more than average, do something else. If you are above average, the beginning will be rough but things will later look good. I’ve been there before… that rough patch but it’s always just a passing phase.

I don’t think there is a clash between passion and survival in journalism, I don’t think there is a need to balance. Just be sure that you are more than average. Keep develop yourself, get better every day. You may not be well-paid from the start but once your excellence starts shining through, you will get better opportunities and you will make more money, not enough to become an Aliko Dangote but enough to survive, if you are not greedy.

THE PAGE

Most of your fans believe you have recorded an unprecedented success at TheCable. Many think it is the Soyombo factor, some think it is the Kolawole factor while others think it is both. But will you attribute your success to luck, success or hard work? Talking about the role you played in the cable.

SOYOMBO

I don’t think I have achieved anything and if it has been successful, the success is based on institutional factors. My former boss, Mr. Simon Kolawole, had a vision and he was clear on how he wanted it to be implemented and then he got people. That played a role. I learnt so much from Mr. Kolawole. I always say something, my mentor, Mr. Anikulapo taught me reporting and Mr. Kolawole taught me editing. When we first started the Cable, I watched the way he treated stories. If I edited a story, there were times when he went back to change the headline and I watched. So from him, I learnt how to spot the best angles for stories, how to cast the best possile headlines. So his leadership was crucial in the opening months of TheCable.

My team members played an important role, too. So it is not just one factor, it is a combination of factors: leadership, great team members. There are also a few guys who have come and gone but institutionally, no one man can claim credit for the achievements of The Cable.

THE PAGE

So it is a combination of luck, talent and hard work.

SOYOMBO

Take luck away from it. Hard work. Go and ask anybody who was a foundation staff of TheCable, we worked our asses off. Hard work. There were Sundays — particularly in the first two years — that I worked as though they were Mondays. No, just take away luck.

THE PAGE

You have received grants for some of your investigative stories. Do you think such is important for the successful completion of such works and how do you think funds can be made available for young journalists?

SOYOMBO

Funding is fundamental to successful investigative works. It’s not like without funding, you can’t succeed in it. My story on corruption at the Customs, I didn’t need to be funded. Blood on a Plateau, which was the first investigative story I got funding for, I did it in December 2013. I got just N100,000 naira and I spent well over N200,000 on that story; I personally funded the deficit, not even my then employers. ‘Forgotten Soldiers’ was funded by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR). There are times when you, as a journalist look for stories that don’t require funding. When you do that and the output is fantastic, even the funders may search you out themselves. Journalists have to prove themselves first.

THE PAGE

While you were the editor at TheCable, you were still a regular opinion contributor to other newspapers. How were you able to balance that with your editing responsibilities?

SOYOMBO

I won’t say regular; I would say irregular. Occasionally I did, but not many times. It was tough. There was a day I worked for TheCable from morning till 11pm, and I wrote an Al Jazeera opinion overnight. It was crazy because I still had to work the following day. The night Buhari was declared President, we had done live streaming at TheCable and I had to do an analysis for Al Jazeera that same night. So it was extremely difficult, which is why I couldn’t do it regularly. Sometimes, I worked like I was punishing myself but when I want to get something done, I put in all my energy, focus, concentration into getting it done. I am a very determined person, but then I also have to thank God because without good health, you can’t do some of these things. The biggest praise should therefore be reserved for God.

THE PAGE

You leaving TheCable came as a big surprise to many people and they think you are leaving TheCable at a time you are needed the most. So, can you tell us what exactly was behind the decision of leaving the online newspaper and where should people be on the lookout for you.

SOYOMBO

I left TheCable at the end of January 2017 because I had edited it for almost three years at a very intense level. I worked morning till night, seven days a week for the bulk of my time there. I’m a professionally adventurous person, so time was always going to come for me to do some other things with my life. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do since February. At the moment, I’m working on a book on my experiences covering the insurgency in the north-east. I was the first Nigerian print/online journalist to set foot on Chibok after the 2014 abduction of close to 300 girls. I was back in Borno twice in 2016, and I stayed more than a week on each occasion. Whenever I think about how the north-east has been devastated by the insurgency, I am tempted to imagine that in another two decades, the Boko Haram insurgency would be such an important part of our history as a nation, second only to the Civil War. So I’m documenting my field experiences with particular regards to soldiers as victims of the mini-war. When I’m done with that — hopefully around May — I will return to my first love, which is investigative journalism. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time editing TheCable, but there’s nothing about this profession that I love more than field work and in-depth reporting.

THE PAGE

In an interview with International Press Foundation, you said you have your eyes on the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, are you trying to join Dele Olojede, who has been the only winner of the prize so far and what difference do you think winning that prize will make for you?

SOYOMBO

The fact that I want it does not mean I will get it because to get it, I first have to prove that I really merit it. The level of rivalry and competition is top-notch, so I need to prove that I am good enough to earn it. Also, something that is beyond my control is that I don’t even wok for an American agency and most people don’t know that only stories produced by the American media are eligible for the Pulitzer.

THE PAGE

Probably your next target now is America, right?

SOYOMBO

Not so soon. I am not yet done with Nigerian journalism. Even if I got an international offer right now, I would likely reject it. I am very clear on how I want my career to evolve and there are still certain things in the Nigerian media that have not yet clicked for me. When I get there, I might start considering moving to international countries.

THE PAGE

As a journalist, you have written a lot of opinions on Buhari’s presidency and you have even sponsored a couple of national essay contest relating to that. So at this point, what is your opinion on Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign and do you think Nigerians will send him packing come 2019?

SOYOMBO

I am always answering your second questions before the first. If he should continue this way, he won’t win in 2019. Even some of his die-hard loyalists are turning against him. About fighting corruption, I think his anti-corruption war is selective. There is a difference. People think he is hunting opposition leaders, it looks like he is going after corrupt people in PDP. But there are also corrupt people in his party; there are people in his government who have been accused of corruption. I haven’t seen that clear-cut action against those in his government charged with corruption.

I can confirm that the Forgotten Soldiers story got to Vice President Osinbajo, even though I am not sure if it got to Buhari, but still nothing has been done. In the army under his regime, there is corruption. One of Buhari’s men heads the Borno State Emergency Agency; the president has done nothing about reports of corruption in that agency. Therefore, I don’t think his anti-corruption campaign is without emotion or partisanship, I don’t think so.

THE PAGE

Based on the IDP story you just mentioned and for most, if not all, your investigative stories, you have always gotten negative comments from concerned authorities. How do you use those comments and are you not afraid that they might cause you some harm?

SOYOMBO

I take the negative comments positively because if there is corruption in the Army, I expect the beneficiaries to be angry with me. When they are angry, it validates my story. The IDP story, the reaction I got, I was just laughing. In fact their negative reaction is positive for me.

About those people coming after me, I don’t know. I always say that I won’t allow fear for my life to decide how I do my job. I have seen that death is everywhere and we will all die someday, so why not do the things you should do without thinking about harm. And before I do these stories, I actually pray to God, telling him that the reason I am doing this is for societal development and to help the voiceless. Truth is I will be here as long as God wants me to be here, because he alone is the ultimate giver and taker of life.

THE PAGE

On the issue of Internally Displaced Persons, as a journalist you have greatly exposed some of the corruption present in the administrators of our emergency agencies and the heartless diversion of charities and relief materials provided by the various agencies. Do you think the idea of helping IDP and Refugees through charity has already failed?

SOYOMBO

I don’t think it has failed because charity is still the real reason IDPs are alive in the first place. We have lots of international and national agencies doing great stuff in the North-East, so charity is still the way to go, I don’t think it has failed.

THE PAGE

Some international organizations like Hult are already advancing for social entrepreneurship as the way to solving refugee crisis, in the sense that you bring in businesses and the gains from it will be used to sponsor IDPs. Are you of this opinion too, or you think charity is simply the best?

SOYOMBO

Charity is not on the side of government alone. If you go to the average IDP camp in the North-East, you will see that it is the International agencies that are giving them blankets, foods, etc. So we cannot exactly view humanitarian interventions through the prism of government. But the idea of social enterprise has to be a combined effort, everything that will help people either directly or indirectly is welcome.

THE PAGE

Talking about the fake news on the President’s death which circulated around the social media, fake news has become one of the challenges of the 21st century media, how do you think something like this can be checked without necessarily infringing on people’s right to freedom of expression?

SOYOMBO

I don’t think they can be checked. The audience only needs to be more sophisticated in interpreting the things they read because the advent of social media has left a situation where everyone is a newsman and anyone can write anything online. But the people need to be able to define what is likely to be true from what is not.

THE PAGE

This is more about your private life. We want to know if you are in a relationship, if yes, when will you marry?

SOYOMBO

I am not in a relationship at the moment, and I am refusing to subject myself to the marriage pressure. There are people around me who won’t let me be on this marriage subject, but I don’t run my race on another man’s time. Never.

I don’t know when I will marry or if I will marry. But if I someday do, it will be that I am certain that marriage is the way to go — not that I’m owing to societal pressure. The thing with me is that I am very clear on many aspects of my life, the way I want them to turn out. So when it is time for me to marry, I will be clear with myself. If I haven’t reach that point, I won’t marry just because people are asking me to marry, knowing that they won’t be in the marriage with me.

THE PAGE

As a graduate of the University of Ibadan, you have experienced the system of education and you agree that the education sector needs a revamp or a total overhaul, were you to be appointed as a Minister of Education today, what are those things you will do to change the face of education in Nigeria?

SOYOMBO

I want to see education go beyond what happens in the class. Yes, I studied Animal Science but I my professional life has been all journalism. I have many friends in similar shoes.

I don’t have the specific steps right now because I have never imagined myself as the Minister of Education. But I know that whatever specific steps I come up with, they will be in the direction of helping students learn along the line of their passions… to enthrone a system that is flexible enough for people to switch disciplines even up till tertiary education level. I would also want a system that does not have fixed curricula to show the direction that the country needs to go, we need to tailor our curricular towards the needs of the Society. In my industry for example, I would want a course like journalistic integrity because integrity is hard to find among Nigerian journalists. It is so obvious that the media needs it, the integrity conversation is one we need to have more often starting from as early as the classroom.

THE PAGE

Lastly, your fan page is growing and many people look up to you as their role model, so what would you like to say as a word of encouragement to those who are out there?

SOYOMBO

Just try to be yourself. Identify your passion, chase it will all of your mind and vigour. Don’t let anyone say you can’t do it. If you find people offering you helping hands, fantastic. If you don’t, fine, keep moving. Your progress is not ultimately in the hands of any one man. Bit by bit, you will get there; just be yourself.

To those who look up to me as role model, I would like to remind them that I am not perfect, so if you find some things that are good about me, take them and if you find those that are not good about me, discard them. Look at the next man, too, take the good and ignore the bad. Combine all these good things together and be a better man — be a better man than that man you think is your role model!




Copyright 2017 The Page. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.thepageng.com as the source.

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