Multiple award-winning investigative journalist, ’Fisayo Soyombo, shares with TOBI AWORINDE some pivotal moments in his career
You are a celebrated journalist with accolades at home and abroad. How did your journalism journey begin?
The defining moment of my (journalism) journey was the end of my first semester in 100 Level at the University of Ibadan. I had been active as a campus journalist for a semester and I thoroughly loved the experience. I wrote roughly five to six articles per week because I was a member of Mellanby Hall Press Organisation, which published articles on a press board twice a week, and the Union of Campus Journalists, which published weekly. In those four months, I’d seen journalism as a tool for speaking up for the voiceless and fighting for good causes. But I was studying for a degree in Agriculture, eventually majoring in Animal Science. So, at the end of that semester, while other students went home, I stayed back and had a series of conversations with myself about what I wanted to do for a career. I stayed back in school for the entire two-week break, alone in my room, re-examining my life. In that solitude, I picked journalism over academics. I resolved I would become a journalist. So, I decided that, going forward, journalism would be a priority over Agriculture whenever there was a clash, with the exception of Continuous Assessment Tests and exams.
If it was so easy for you to choose journalism over Agriculture, why did you apply to study Agric in the first place?
I should never have been in the sciences in the first place. For the majority of my years at the African Church Grammar School, Ita-Iyalode, Abeokuta (Ogun State), I was the best student in English (language). But in the general quiz, I was no way near the best. I wasn’t even in the top 20. I think I had no business being in the sciences, to be honest. But my teachers put me in the sciences at the start of SS1 and, you know, students used to erroneously think the best of them should be in the sciences and the rest, Arts and Commercial (classes). However, because I thoroughly enjoyed Agriculture, I filled it as my first and second choice course when I took the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination. So, to answer your question, I wasn’t particularly drawn to it (Agric) by anything; I just enjoyed Agric classes in secondary school. I loved it in the university, too. And I have fond memories, particularly of my final-year project on sheep. Anyone who wants to raise sheep on a low budget can see me. Raising sheep on the leaves of Leucaena leucocephala, Enterolobium cyclocarpum and Gliricidia sepium and a few more things were part of my final-year thesis.
What do you consider your biggest asset as an investigative journalist?
I’ll say my mental strength and grit. I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer when chasing a story. Whenever I meet a brick wall, I try again, again and again until I get results. I’ve never considered myself the finest writer or best journalist around, but I really don’t think anyone will beat me when it comes to grit. I’ve worked seven days a week for more than 16 years; I’m not tired yet and I hope that doesn’t happen anytime soon. Every day, I find new ways of motivating myself for the rigorous work that journalism is.
Many of your investigative works are quite gutsy. Is your family worried about your safety?
Yes, my family are — although some of them are more worried than others. All the people in my personal life are. But something the police-prison story of 2019 did for me is that my family and I finally had a conversation about the risks of my work. I did everything to hide that story from them but then they heard the news of my planned arrest, so, we finally had to discuss it. They gave me conditions to fulfill if my work must continue and I have fulfilled them. Of bigger importance, they finally accepted that working for a better society is my number one purpose in life. They’ve accepted that this is who I am and there’s no point trying to discourage me now.
How much of family support do you have for the work you do?
I have it 100 per cent. Yes, they’re afraid for me. I see it in their eyes sometimes even when they do not say it, but my dad always says “a truthful person shall not be put to shame”.
Have you ever undertaken any story that resulted in a disappointment for you?
So far, no. And long may that continue!
What is your scariest moment ever in journalism?
Monday, December 10, 2013. I was traversing some of the most interiorly located villages in Plateau State to investigate years of ethnocentric killings. I was there for 10 days but on that particular day, I went to a village called Rawurum, where assailants had killed a five-month old baby by placing a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. It was a long trip but I’m guessing the bike rider missed the way because we spent a total of 2 hours 14 minutes on the road; my legs became stiff and my knees felt like they were going to crumble. Nightfall was approaching when we left Rawurum. The attacks were usually in the evening, so we knew we had to make it back to Jos quickly. The rider sped all through the journey and on top of it, temperature was nearing the freezing point; the Plateau harmattan was quite unforgiving. My body was going stone cold and for once I wondered if I would survive. I knew if I lost concentration for half a second I would fall off that bike. So, I started to pray. There hasn’t been a time yet that I’ve called on God in the line of duty and He didn’t answer me. So, here I am, alive.
What is your writing process like?
It is actually writing and rewriting. I learnt the latter in 2011 while working for Mr Taiwo Obe, better known in the industry as T.O. He sent me a quote that read something like: “The beauty of writing is in rewriting.” Since then, I learnt to write, rewrite, rewrite and rewrite. There’s always a marked difference between my first and final drafts.
What are the most important qualities of a great story?
As an investigative journalist, I’ll say the first quality of a great story is the public interest. What does the public stand to gain with this story? How does it advance their cause? After that, then we can talk about depth, originality, creativity and quality of writing.
What do you say to aspiring journalists who see the job almost as a death wish, especially in Nigeria?
I’ll tell them ‘living’ itself is a death wish, especially if you’re based in Nigeria. Death is everywhere. How many times have Lagosians been driving in their private cars or in buses only for a container to fall from Ojuelegba Bridge and crush them? None of the victims was a journalist. People die in road accidents or get killed by armed robbers and kidnappers. People suffer cardiac arrests and they’re gone in a matter of minutes — people who haven’t come any close to journalism. By the way, journalism is not the only dangerous profession; it’s not even the most dangerous. If you thought Medicine wasn’t dangerous, imagine how many doctors have died courtesy of their COVID-19 work. Imagine how many roadside sweepers have been swept away by hit-and-run drivers. So, my advice to aspiring journalists is, whatever you’re convinced should be done, go ahead and do it.
What is your biggest reward ever?
The soldier who got prosthesis from the Army after my Forgotten Soldiers series of June 2016. No financial reward or any other form of recognition can trump the joy I felt when I saw him walk in October 2016, taking care of himself and assisting his wife, who had just put to bed. But I want this to change soon; I think I’ve waited long enough for that story that will give me a greater fulfilment in terms of its impact in lessening the pains of someone or increasing their joy.
How important are awards to the career of a journalist?
They are important but, to be honest, they aren’t the most important. It’s the impact. No award should rank close to the impact of seeing your work spark change or at least trigger a robust conversation about change. Awards are a means to an end; not an end itself. Awards are there to give you audience, credibility, respect and trust; you then use all these as platforms for bigger impacts. So, for me, awards are important only to the extent to which they can be used to press for the greater public good.
Journalism is evolving; what new tools and skills must a journalist acquire to stay relevant?
I think the biggest of them is dynamism. Dynamism covers all the skills a journalist needs now or in the future. You cannot be rigid. You have to be open to new methods of doing things. There will never be a substitute for brilliant writing and powerful storytelling, but who would have known 10 years ago that a platform like Twitter would be crucial to taking stories to the audience today? We’re in an era when journalists can’t afford to be bothered with just writing. At the end of today, nobody wants to write for themselves alone, so self-cultivation of a social media audience is important these days. Multimedia skills (are important) too. Every journalist should have soft video editing skills, for example. This generation prefers video to text, so even print journalists must learn to infuse visual materials into their text-based stories.
Did the COVID-19 pandemic take a toll on your work?
Oh yes, it did. The lockdown was announced a few days before I was to publish a train station corruption story. The trains had stopped operating, so the immediacy value of the story was gone because people weren’t using the train; they couldn’t connect with the story. Also, because my work is typically field-based and the nation was practically shut, I had no choice but to suspend all pending investigations. Still I utilised the time on my hands by reporting issues around the pandemic, uncovering suppressed truth and giving vent to muffled voices.
You were editor of TheCable between April 2014 and January 2017. Why did you choose to leave what some would argue was your career peak?
I had an amazing time at TheCable but I don’t think I was at my peak. You must have said that because I had a good year in 2016, recognition-wise. 2020 felt like a reenactment of 2016 but on a bigger scale. So, if you asked me, I’d say my peak so far was 2020.
Also, I’m a better journalist today than I was in 2017 — because I’ve edited two more newspapers with different structures and funding models; I’ve immersed myself in field investigations and I am now stepping into management. Generally, I loved my time at TheCable, although it wasn’t always easy because it was some gruelling work. However, if you survive at TheCable, then you can survive anywhere else, whether that is BBC, CNN or Reuters. I chose to leave because I desperately needed to be back on the field, which is my first love.
A lot of journalists end up in the political space as press secretaries and special advisers. Have you ever been at that crossroads?
Oh yes, I’ve been there but I won’t say “crossroads” because the decisions were pretty easy for me to make. I’ve had the opportunity to be spokesman for a presidential aspirant and a sitting governor. In both cases, I said, “No, thanks”. In this moment, it’s hundred per cent not a job for me. In the future, there’s only one per cent chance I’ll take such a job. I love journalism so much that it would take an extraordinary change-making opportunity for me to say yes. And let’s be honest, if APC or PDP invites you into politics as a spokesman, what change can you make? You only get to fill your pocket and hobnob with power. Things like that mean nothing to me.
You were recently criticised for your tweets reporting the death of the late Senator Abiola Ajimobi from COVID-19 complications days before it was confirmed by his family, with some saying it was insensitive. Looking back, do you have any second thoughts?
Those who drove the initial social media backlash said if the death happened at the time I said it did, he would be buried within 24 hours. The family announced his death on a Thursday but didn’t inter him until Sunday. The truth came out in the end, didn’t it? Those who want to accept the truth will accept it; those who don’t, will not. I cannot change that.
But what I like to add is the public-interest value of my tweets on Ajimobi. It may interest you to know that the late former governor died without knowing he had been officially announced as the acting National Chairman of the ruling party. When the announcement was made, he was not just in a coma but also on life support. It was therefore shocking that a statement released on his behalf claimed he had assumed office and in fact quoted him to have said: “We should therefore let peace continue to reign until we call the NEC meeting and take a position on the way forward.” As of that time, he was in a coma, on life support and could not have made the remarks attributed to him. By virtue of those developments, his health had become a matter of public interest. Reporting it was simply about probity, accountability and decency in a political space dominated by a powerful ruling party that deceptively implied that the newly-appointed chairman was alive and well. How is this any different from what many of us attacked the PDP for in its handling of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s death?
You are entering a highly competitive space as an online publisher. How do you plan to distinguish yourself from other competitors?
The simple fact is there’s little competition. Apart from investigative work, the Foundation for Investigative Journalism focuses on reporting social injustices. We’re a niche paper; I’m not quite sure there’s any online newspaper in Nigeria today that focuses solely on reporting social injustices. So, we’re not here to compete with The PUNCH, The Guardian or TheCable. We just want to be the voice that people seek out when they’ve been wronged and they need justice.
The President said he was disgusted by the coverage of the #EndSARS protests by some foreign media. What are your thoughts on the coverage?
The President cannot cherry-pick what the media should report. There are many story themes from the #EndSARs protests. If CNN decides to focus on the deaths and injuries to protesters on October 20, nobody can begrudge them. Of course, it doesn’t invalidate other themes, such as the killing of some policemen by hoodlums or the vandalism of public and private businesses and institutions. To the unhappy political class, don’t do what you don’t want the media to report. If the government, police and the army do not want the media to report the killing of protesters, then don’t kill any protester! It’s that simple.