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In this second part of his extensive interview with Feyi Fawehinmi, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Dele Olojede, speaks on why NEXT newspapers, which he started in 2008 with a grand vision to beam the light for cleaning up and straightening Nigeria through investigative journalism, could not have survived; and why, in spite of the stifling political environment, he believes Nigeria can still be redeemed and transformed.
Feyi: After the Pulitzer you went back to South Africa, then you decided you wanted to do something in Nigeria. What was the key driver for this? Do you think you were over confident?
Dele: Possibly. And I suppose without being over confident you couldn’t try something truly substantial, because the sheer scale of the difficulty would scare you into not doing anything. So I think it was probably a good thing that I didn’t fully appreciate beforehand all the obstacles that one would face and all the consequences of the action that one was taking, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it at all.
But to answer the question more directly, I had never wanted anything in my life other than to contribute in some fashion to making the country a good place you could be very proud of. That you were born there, came from there and your ancestors were from there. As I said to you, even when we were very young reporters at age 21, 22, 23, 24 in Lagos, we felt we were on a mission to change the country and we were free to challenge people. Remember all the fight between the Guardian and the Buhari – Idiagbon regime and all my friends who were put in detention for a while? So we were never afraid of these guys. We felt it was our country and we were going to change it.
So I always had that in me. In fact, I had always had the idea, given the circumstances of my departure from the country, that one day I was going to come back to this place and we were going to attempt to do this all over again. So that was always there. But then, of course, it went into hibernation. For years, I didn’t think much of it. I was travelling and working all over the world, I was busy and enjoying my work and starting a family and raising children. It was only when it became clear to me that I was being thought of as one of the potential successors to my old boss in New York, Tony Maro, who was the editor of the paper, and I was kind of going to be put in line of succession as number two or three or whatever, that I began to seriously think if I get into this track where I’m running a major American newspaper, I will never go back home again.
And so I began to look for ways of exiting. And part of that exit strategy was just to take myself out of the newsroom for a while. Which is why I assigned myself to go to Rwanda on the 10th anniversary of the genocide to do those stories, so that those who did accept to step into the succession could be freed without being constantly second guessed as to whether Dele was going to jump in or not. And so, after all this was all done, I then decided to take the buyout at the end of 2004.
So I always knew I was going to try and do something. The exact shape of it was not clear to me and it was only after I had left the paper that I decided ‘why don’t we go try to do a newspaper sort of similar to NewsDay?’ except that it would be more self-consciously an anti-corruption investigative newspaper. And the idea behind it was that we were going to one, demonstrate to the country, a country that was so infernally corrupt, we were going to demonstrate that it was possible to have an institution that ran properly, that was not based on corruption, that was in fact impenetrable, which we achieved.
I think to the great pride of all the people who worked at NEXT, nobody could accuse us of being even remotely suspected of being involved in any corrupt practice. So I wanted to demonstrate that, first of all, that it was possible, and hopefully a lot more people would try it in their own spheres.
We wanted to deny any Nigerian the opportunity to say only if they’d known! So we are going to show you what’s going on and we hope that by arming the citizen with factual incontrovertible information, they would take it and use it to act for the betterment of their own country. Now, that was a big assumption that turned out to be false! But that’s what we were attempting at the time.
Feyi: All the while you were abroad, I Imagine you kept contact with people in Nigeria?
Dele: Yeah. I kept contact with a relatively small number of people in Nigeria. Mostly professional colleagues who were also close and, of course, family and so on. So, I kept in touch but not in an intense way. Remember, I had set out for an adventure. This newspaper in New York was sending me all over the world, living and covering big events: the end of Apartheid and the rise of Mandela in South Africa; genocide in Rwanda; famine in Somalia; covering Asia, the transition in China; the handover of Hong Kong; economic collapse in East Asia; going to Japan; South Korea; India nuclear standoff with Pakistan; all of those things, elections in the Philippines!
It was a very full professional life that I was having, so I didn’t have much of a room for Nigeria at the time. Let’s just say that it was in the back of my mind. I was a bit alienated from it because I really resented (what happened) to Dele Giwa and the fact that the people who killed him seemed to be getting away with it. For a number of years, I didn’t want to hear anything about Nigeria at all. It was only much later, as you ripen, Shakespeare might have put it. Once you start achieving ripeness, then you have a more textured sense of life, and it was that period I slowly began to emotionally and intellectually reconnect with my country.
Feyi: In a way, not knowing much about Nigeria or keeping Nigeria at the back of your mind meant that you could go in boldly. I guess if you had all the information ahead of time, you probably won’t have done it?
Dele: I wouldn’t have, I am very clear about that. (laughs)
Feyi: Where did you raise more money from? From abroad or from Nigeria?
Dele: I made a fateful decision, in retrospect, a questionable decision. I decided this was something that was going to be done by Nigerians themselves. I wanted us to be sure that we could do it on our own. So I decided, even though it would have been the easier option for me, given my deep and wide networks in North America and in Europe and Asia, to raise money for a thing like this, and given my stature and my reputation and so on, it would have been much easier to raise money from outside the country. But I deliberately wanted only Nigerian money.
And I think I may have been unduly influenced by Gandhi, who wanted to show that Indians could do it for themselves and asked his European friends to take kind of like a back seat in the struggle for their independence.
So I raised money only from Nigerians. Word of mouth from five people, some of whom I knew before, some of whom were introduced by close friends who recommended them highly. And they all agreed to invest, no questions asked. So I’m very grateful to them for that, even though things didn’t end as well as we had hoped that it might. So I will say that, in retrospect, I think that proved to be a strategic error, even though emotionally satisfying as it was.
So when we inevitably ran into financial trouble, it was difficult to rely on the people who had been there from the beginning because of all these external pressure, mainly political and fairly quite brazen, a blackmail against the shareholders. So that’s why I said that it turned out to have been strategically an error, because foreign money would have been impervious to this kind of pressures.
Feyi: In terms of the operation of NEXT, you had 13,000 applications and you picked 90 out of them. You ran a 24-hour newsroom, I believe that would have involved diesel generators nonstop?
Feyi: I remember someone telling me you started off importing the papers to print?
Feyi: All of these things, did you go in too big?
Dele: I think the obvious answer is yes. You may or may not know that, actually, our first professionally produced news item was published on Twitter. We were probably one of the first news organizations on earth to publish directly on Twitter. Twitter was totally in its infancy and I think our first news item went out on Twitter on December 2, 2008 if I remember correctly. It was either December 2 or December 4. And so, two weeks after that, we launched our website.
And roughly two weeks after that on January 4, 2009, the first print edition of the weekend paper, NEXT on Sunday broadsheet, was published. So for the first couple of months, because our printing presses were not yet ready, we were printing these newspapers in London and then air-freighting them to Nigeria.
Now, this was all very exciting and extremely high quality and so on, but clearly, it was not going to be financially sustainable. So I suppose in that sense, we were very poor business men! We were excellent newspapermen but very poor businessmen.
So I always tell people that of our two main missions: to affect the direction of the country in a positive way by creating an environment where corruption was impermissible in any way; we were uproariously successful. But we failed dramatically on the sustainability ambition, something that was created to last.
Our second big strategic error was ever to have gone into print. First strategic error, in hindsight, was raising only Nigerian money, because I wanted to show that Nigerians can do this by themselves without anyone else. The second one was going into print.
If we had stopped at two to three months, we in all likelihood would still be alive and well today. And the reasons for this are several. One, we took a $10 million loan from First Bank to build a new printing plant in Lagos and to import like a one year supply of newsprint. So basically, your inventory was humongous, because you couldn’t guarantee an efficient way of getting in your newsprint and as a daily newspaper, you can’t afford not to come out on a particular day. So we had to spend lots of money upfront to import one year’s worth of newsprint and ink and plates and things like that. We had suppliers in Holland who published their own newspaper, their own inventory was four days. Ours was 365! So you can imagine the competitive disadvantage we were in. So it meant we were spending a lot of money upfront and we had taken this big loan from First Bank to do it.
Number two, once we got deep into our mission, which was really very big scale investigations, and going after everyone, it meant we were susceptible to pressure on several fronts because we had a printed newspaper. One was the distribution chain. They basically sabotaged the distribution channel. They would bribe distributors to accept our papers thereby making sure we actually spent the money to produce them, and then hide them under tables and destroy them or never give them to vendors! So they were hitting you on the distribution, on the cost of producing the paper, and more crucially, they were hitting you on your main source of revenue of advertising.
Because advertisers, they were already scared of us because of the things we were doing. But then they had an out by saying well, ‘we cannot see your paper in the streets anywhere’. So there was at least a minimally plausible reason why they were withholding advertisers, even though we knew the main reason was because they were being pressured, not only by the government but also by a number of key business people with whom they did business.
Adenuga was a prime example of that. Because we had done this big story about Adenuga refusing to pay any type of taxes, and by his own admission owing N100 billion in unpaid taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. That was unaudited, if they’d audited it, you could probably safely say that he was owing five times that amount. Now, the revenue agency, having failed to persuade him to pay, then eventually just got mad and they went and shut down his headquarters building and issued a press statement saying they shut all the offices of Nigeria’s second wealthiest businessman. And not a single newspaper, radio station, TV, including government-owned radio station would touch the story! In other words, a private citizen was able to block the government of Nigeria from announcing an action that was taken by its own agency!
Feyi: We are talking about $600 million. NEXT found out that he was owing $600 million in taxes?
Dele: Yes, unaudited. Just by the one that he admitted he was owing! Nobody touched it except NEXT. And all through the night, as we were producing the paper, he was sending intermediaries to me throughout until about 2a.m in the morning that we should kill the story. We said we were not in the business of killing stories and that the best we could do for him was to give him a chance to state his own side. He refused and we refused, so we had a stalemate.
By Monday morning, he had pulled all the ads of Glo and everything from NEXT! And of course anyone who does business with Glo or with any part of his empire who advertised with NEXT was now in trouble. So these were the ways they were able to put pressure on us.
And of course from the political side, I think we started focusing on the oil industry, which is kind of our heart of darkness in Nigeria. When we wrote a series of stories about Rilwan Lukman who was then Minister of Oil under Yar’Adua, establishing, documenting the fact that the Oil Minister was also in the oil business for his own gain, with the companies which he was invested, doing business with the Ministry of Oil of which he was minister. We thought this would create such an uproar in the country and the Senate, and House of Reps would go crazy, the unions, students, whatever. But it sank like stone!
I remember the headline very well: “Oil Minister is in the Oil business”. We thought this was such a scandal. The Nigerians, they just shrugged! It was then the first time I began to realize we may be in serious trouble at NEXT, that our operating assumptions may be completely false. That was the first time the first seeds of doubt began to creep into me. Then we got closer and closer into the oil business.
By that time we’d done the stories that basically forced the political system to follow the constitution and allow Jonathan to become President. Because it’s been totally blocked by then and some cabal in the Presidency was running the country and pretending that it was President Yar’Adua from his sick bed who was doing it. We basically established that the guy had long been brain dead and he wasn’t coming back to run any country.
Feyi: That was a big story. It was the peak of journalism in Nigeria. I remember that story, when it came out, there was no just denying it, there was no way for them to deny it without actually stating if he’s not brain dead, was he half brain dead, quarter brain dead…
Dele: Yeah. I remember very clearly when this thing came out, even some of my directors, these were guys who were all very excited, very proud about the work NEXT was doing. But even this one shook everybody, so they called me, “Are you sure about this?” Because everybody knew if this wasn’t true this was trouble. So I just said to them, I said: “Guys, let us agree when it comes to making money and so on, you guys are better than me. When it comes to this journalism business, I think you have to take my lead; that we know what we are doing. And all
I would say is this, if somebody tells what we have done was false, tell them to produce the President. The people would like to see him”. I said in fact, nobody would be happier than us if they produced him hale and hearty. And of course, we knew they couldn’t! We had researched this to a till so we knew the guy was gone and wasn’t coming back. And of course, that was exactly what happened.
In hindsight, that was the peak of NEXT. After that, even though we began to do a series of truly extraordinary investigations into Diezani Alison-Madueke’s Ministry of Petroleum and all the fraud they were committing, we had video, we had audio, we had source documents. we published the whole thing, that was the final death nail to NEXT!
Because they realized then, after sending intermediaries to offer me an ungodly amount of bribe and we’d laughed them out of the room, they then decided these guys were not reasonable. So they pulled the plug!
They blackmailed First Bank and so on. First Bank reneged on our agreement for to us repay the loan. They pulled the loan, advertisers fled and we were basically isolated and the writing was on the wall that we could no longer sustain the enterprise. So that’s how we slowly now bled to death over the course of 2011.
Feyi: So I have a friend who knows you and he likes you a lot. One thing he told me was, he said: “Dele is a great guy, he’s an amazing journalist, but he needs a kick-ass operations guy behind him”.
Dele: Ok, correct.
Feyi: If you had an operations guy who was basically looking after the books, making sure this show stays on the road, how would that have worked? At what point would you have clashed with that person? It’s good to say, quote and unquote, you were just a journalist, you didn’t worry about what your stories were doing to the bottom line of the company. Would you say it would have worked, say if you had somebody looking after the business and then you focused on the journalism?
Dele: There’s a very honest and direct answer to that. The person probably would have kept us alive an extra six months, but the fundamental incompatibility of our mission with making money would have remained.
Remember a newspaper makes money from two ways. One, it advertised and depending on the news organization, it could be 60-80% of your revenue from advertising; the remainder from your selling the paper itself. Fundamentally, that’s how a newspaper makes money. Now, the sources of those two things, or at least the principal chunk of your revenue, advertising, was the political and the business elites that were so infernally corrupt and which we were going after. So that would have remained. Whoever was running the business, and the good thing was that my investors, they all still say till today that I did warn them from the beginning exactly what I was trying to do with this paper. So they were not misled in anyway.