Wike, Ake and the sad story of the Nigerian journalist

By Sunny Igboanugo on 27/03/2020

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I was in the centre a of major drama, some years ago. As a state correspondent of The Guardian, I was caught in the web of a very, intricate, intriguing, but interesting sequence of events that underscored the precarious situation in the minefield of half-baked, crude and sometimes non-existent political democracy which countries like Nigeria have been sentenced to suffer.

It began in the morning. I had just finished having my breakfast at a popular mama-put joint, reputed for selling the best peppered rice in the whole of that city at that time – so popular that apart from boring holes into the pockets, its clientele must suffer long hours of waiting to be served, no matter their status.

I was sitting behind my desk, picking my teeth contentedly like in that picture, which got Nigerians into frenzy recently – you know the one I’m referring – when my telephone rang. This was before the advent of the GSM, the days of NITEL. The voice at the other end, after exchanging some pleasantries, sent the message - Oga wants to see you. I needed not ask, because the oga was the governor of the state, his boss.

I asked him when the oga wanted to see me and he said that I should start coming immediately. This, I found a little bit strange, because most times I met with the governor privately, it had always been at night, when he was less busy. So, this must be special. About 20 minutes later, I was in the Government House, made straight to the Governor’s office and ushered in to see him, because he was expecting me.

Because we were well acquainted before he became governor, there was no much protocol. After a session of hearty handshaking and backslapping, we settled down on the visitor’s sofa and the discussion began. First, he tried to pick my brain on the subject matter, but fired blank, because I was genuinely ignorant of everything.

Then, he began telling me about how a former governor in the state pocketed a huge amount of money that he got as a loan for a certain legacy project for the state, but failed to perform and how the repayment burden was suffocating the state.

Who’s this person?, I was forced to ask at a point. That was when I got the shock of my life. The subject was the same man who brought him to power almost single-handedly, if not totally single-handedly. I was simply dumbfounded.

To cut the long story short, because the details are already in the making in my book, I asked him what he wanted me to do with the story. His reply was to get me to publish the details in my paper. The Guardian, at this time was at the commanding height of Nigerian newspaper industry and it was obvious why he wanted me for the job. But that was part of my job as well – to ferret out malfeasance and maladministration in government for the benefit of the society. So, I was in, despite the fact that I smelt a rat. I didn’t even ask him why he was doing it. The determination and the somewhat desperation in his countenance, rang the alarm bell.

At this point, I switched on to professional mode and played down friendship. I asked him for documents, which he promised to supply. Then, I asked him if I could quote him because I needed to attribute the story in the end. His answer was no. Haaah! Problem! I then told him that it would be quite difficult for the story to fly if I could not quote him, because of the seriousness of the matter. Of course I knew the story could still fly, if I had the documents, because I only needed to get the other side to balance it, but I wanted to quote him to make it a bang! But he refused vehemently. I then reiterated that it would be difficult. That was when he asked me for an alternative. I asked him if he could get someone of equal status that I could quote. Bang! The nickel dropped, as they say. That was the solution. He had that already. We shook hands and I returned to my office.

That evening, I got an invitation for a press briefing at home, the next morning of a former governor of the state, a mortal political enemy to the one the governor was talking about a few hours ago. I was not surprised.

The next day, when we all gathered, our host started on the same track, speaking as if the weight for the survival of the state rested solely on his shoulders.

Again, I cut the story short. Done with the event, I returned to my office, picked up my phone and called the former governor, who was by now a serving Senator in Abuja, got a load from him and did the needful. The next day, it was the lead story. Thus began, one of the most virulently and brutally fought political battles Nigeria has known in recent times – a war in which I was virtually caught in the crossfire as an enemy of the state, my sin being that I spoke to the other side, and "betrayed" a friend.

But this is not the gist. The greater one was that a friend of mine and my professional colleague, who had just then been appointed by the governor as the managing director of the state-owned newspaper became the major victim. In his bid to reposition the paper from a government bulletin to a competitor with other papers, having been snatched from another national medium, he had equally called the same Senator, to balance his story. That was his undoing, a fatal step. How could he?

His case was easy. Pronto! He was shoved out, his official car withdrawn and chased out of his official quarters the same day. To think that the Commissioner for Information, who as a colleague, ought to understand the nuances of journalism and try to mitigate the situation, was the one virtually pouring petrol into the raging fire was the big surprise.

How did we know? That evening, while I was still consoling my friend and both of us were still planning a counter, my phone rang. It was a trusted aide of the governor and my very good friend, who was quite seized of the entire situation. He was calling to tip me off that my own comeuppance was on the way.

How? The same commissioner had convinced the governor that he was going to get me out of the state and bring in a pliant reporter that would do his bidding. Pronto! The governor was said to have approved N1.5million about (about N50million today) for the project. It was a good tip that I value till date.

Our man landed at the airport afternoon of the following day and proceeded to Rutam House to execute his odious scheme. But he didn’t know that he was dealing with one of the best hands of the newspaper, who that same year, won the productivity award of the paper for the editorial department. He didn’t know that I was simply an editor’s delight as I was of the production desk, which didn’t need to drink Alabukuun to work on my stories. But he soon found out. I’ll tell you how.

Expectedly, my phone suddenly began to buzz repeatedly. Our man had commenced the job. But as he left each desk, with one salacious story no editor would want to hear about the reporter to the other, each of them wondering which Sunny he was actually talking about, simply got back to me.

Of course, I was ready on the other side to supply them with my own story, not leaving out the monetary details for effect, naturally adding my own salt, pepper, maggi, ogiri and scent-leaves to spicy it up.

Again, let me cut the story short. Our man, incidentally an ex-Flagship, like me, returned from the mission and was now counting his tea leaves. Greedy as he was, he couldn’t have spent up to N50,000 of the money he signed, ostensibly on flights, accommodation and probably man no be wood than the actual brief. But wait for it! What hit him was no less impactful than a train crushing a rodent on its track.

Instead of my letter of transfer, the governor, was to read in that week’s edition of Cocktail Circuit, a special package in The Guardian on Sunday, details, including the budget of the failed mission. It was a special package by the erudite and compelling Fred Ohwawa, the Editor of the paper at that time and one of my mentors to whom I owe a lot till this day.

Consequence - I was told that the governor was livid with anger. I believe so, because Monday after, our man was handed his letter as Special Assistant instead of Commissioner. Of course, he accepted regardless of the implication, swallowing his shame in the process, apparently in the half bread is better than none spirit. How else could the truism in message of the elders that the man chasing the fowl would continue to fall while it trots away, could have been demonstrated?

I do not recount this experience in this long essay out of itchy fingers. Rather it is to once again alert the world about the stifling, slippery and precarious nature of journalism in our peculiar world.

One of our own has fallen again into the ditch dug for Nigerian journalists by a system so skewed, so indescribably twisted that even Otuo Ogbajie, the great diviner, the vulture whose head does not lather no matter the amount of soaping, cannot fathom the way out.           

You may have heard how Vincent Ake, until a few hours ago, the General Manager of the Rivers State owned newspaper – Tide, has lost his job. He did not steal money meant for payment of workers, he did not accept brown envelope from the enemy camp. All he did was to break a story in the finest exhibition of his professional calling. He told the world that the dreaded COVID-19 disease has entered the state.

But, what would you have? Doing that has hurt the governor of the state Ezenwo Nyesom Wike. Not that the story is not true. In fact, he got it from the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), the highest authority that is dealing with the pandemic today. His offence? He did not clear with the governor, a lawyer. What does he know about journalism and the rules? Obviously he would want the world to believe that the state is impregnable to the virus. Thus, reporting the opposite was as embarrassing as it was a blow to his ego. Not after closing the borders – air, land and sea. But instead of blaming the virus, or the person that brought it in, he goes for the soft target – the journalist.

Now, in the next hour, if Ake did not plan for himself, he would be the next “hungry journalist” in the street, to be derided and harangued by a wicked society. Naturally, the governor would not bother to know that it is the application of such professionalism that would raise the profile of the paper, make it profitable and viable and ultimately reduce the demand on the coffers of the state in terms of subvention.  

Guess who handed the sack letter to the sacked GM - Paulinus Nsirim, Commissioner for Information and a fellow journalist, of course. Just like my commissioner friend was at the forefront in the bid to undo me, just as Femi Adesina, was the one who chased 80 journalists out of the Presidential Villa a few days ago, another journalist has come handy in this loathsome task as well. That’s the sad story, the dilemma of a Nigerian journalist.


Source Whirlwindnews.com

Posted on March, 27 2020

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