By Kemi Yesufu, Abuja
Without a doubt, Moji Makanjuola is one of the finest broadcast journalists the country has ever produced. She has the Midas touch when it comes to news casting, compering high profile events and reporting. But for this remarkable lady who is bowing out of the National Television Authority (NTA) after 35 years of meritorious service, she will choose health reporting over the glamorous aspects of her career.
The ace broadcaster is the founding head of the Health Desk of the NTA and for 25 years she churned out reports that made her a respected and authoritative voice in both broadcast journalism and the health sector. In this interview, the former president of the National Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ) talked about her career, family and why she is looking forward to life after the NTA without fear. Known for being frank, Makanjuola opened up on her rumoured ambition to be Director-General of the NTA just as she spoke about her book aptly titled Health Journalism: A Journey with Moji Makanjuola. Excerpts:
You seem prepared for life outside the NTA. You already have a memoir. What should people expect from the book?
I wouldn’t say it’s my memoir. It is an account of my experiences as a health correspondent. This is the path that God has put in place for me and I intend to follow it. I am going to be a health correspondent for life. I worked on the book for five years and when you read it, you will see that I chronicled all that took place during my career as a health reporter. The book shows how it all started with the NTA setting up a (Health) department to where I am today. I am leaving as the longest serving head of a department in the NTA. So, at the core of my book is the call for specialisation in the area of reportage. I particularly feel that those in charge of the health beat should specialise because when you report health, you largely deal with issues that are intimate. It deals with lives. On what to expect in the book, readers, especially young reporters, will find all they need to be good at reporting health. You will also find information about healthy living, which I must say is important in the world we live in. If I am to describe my book in a nutshell, I would say that it is about the positive use of developmental journalism.
Why did it take you five years to write the book?
Yes, five years is a long time. But you are on the beat, so, you know how demanding reporting can be. My case was peculiar in the sense that I was doing a whole lot at the same time. I am a producer, newscaster and reporter. In television, you sit in with the producer; you conceptualise how you want the report presented. You don’t just give him the report and walk away. Again, you know that as a health reporter, you don’t sit in your office to analyse what is happening in the sector or doing event journalism. In most cases, you travel to see things yourself. This is why I wrote certain portions of the book during my trips. It was challenging making out time for the book, but I had two people I call brothers of mine, who ensured that I completed my book. They are Abubakar Jimoh, the spokesman of NAFDAC and Dr. Ali Agon. They kept pushing me and urging me on. I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I dictated portions of the book when I could, wrote when I could and today, I have something to present to the public. Mr. Jimoh actually wanted me to present the book on my 50th birthday but I wasn’t ready at that time. I guess God’s time is the best, because now I am ready to present the book.
Did you write the book like famous names in the West do by bringing in the sacrifices their family members made towards their success?
No. As I mentioned earlier, the book isn’t a memoir. Rather, it is based on work experience. In fact, the book can be used for research. Some may even call it the result of an academic exercise that can be used by researchers. My book can also act as a source of inspiration to young reporters. But I understand why you asked this question because family is very important to us all, especially the women. For me, family is everything. When a female professional has a family, she must appropriate time for her husband and children. You family is not a target or an assignment that you can work on and drop into the finished folder when you are through. Taking care of your family is a lifelong affair. This is why I keep saying that female journalists sacrifice a whole lot to succeed on the job. Just like her male counterpart, female reporters work long hours and even when they are resting, they are thinking of the next big idea that will result in a good story. It therefore takes the grace of God and a high level of commitment for female journalists to balance work and their roles as homemakers. It, however, is a task that must be done and done very well.
Why did you accept to cover health despite it not being regarded as one of the rewarding beats in newsrooms here in Nigeria?
I feel extremely gratified that you asked this question because a number of people went around saying that I was making so much money and this is why I stuck to the health beat as if my life depends on it. For me and other dedicated health reporters, we are passionate about what we do. You can’t travel round Nigeria like I have and witnessed the level of vulnerability among our people without becoming passionate about development. If you have milk of kindness in you, you will take up the challenge of being the voice of the voiceless after seeing the state most people live in. You will work tirelessly to get the people in charge to take solutions to places where the people are bogged down by problems government can solve. Health reportage is quite consuming because it has to do with human lives. I became so involved in health reporting that my colleagues in the NTA call me “Dr. Moji.” They come to me when they need advice or when they are ill. I am not a doctor so I direct them to hospitals where they can get the best of care or advice. As they say, the health beat isn’t lucrative but it is fulfilling and engaging. It is the kind of beat that you sit back to review some of the things you have done and you get a sense of fulfillment because you have contributed to the development of your country. I would like to advice the younger reporters that God compensates those who bring about positive change to society. I didn’t cover the so-called lucrative beats but God compensated me a great deal. I gave my all to this job and in several ways God has been wonderful. My kids are well-behaved. They live far from home but I never had reason to worry about their conduct. Neither have I been asked to come clear up a messy situation they were involved in. People have given me gifts that though unsolicited are heartwarming. People have showed me love and respect because of what I do and this gives me confidence as I move into the future.
How would you describe leaving the NTA? Is it with loud cheers or you are leaving the service with the commonly expressed fear of life after work?
I guess it is someone like you and the people out there who should say whether I am leaving the NTA with loud cheers. I gave the NTA the very best of me. But I must say, I have no fear about my future. It is not my style to walk in fear. I have never looked into the future in fear. And you know that I have showed that I produce and present and I will continue with them though I will no longer be on the payroll of the NTA. I am a television person; it is all the life I know. So, I will continue to run my shows as long as God gives me life and as long as Nigerians don’t get tired of my face. I probably will not present the news anymore unless the NTA asks me to after I retire but my shows will go on.
You are a newscaster, reporter and compere. Which would you say is your favourite role?
I will pick reporting any day. Reporting allows me to be just me. I don’t need make-up when I am out there reporting. While on the beat I just write my story without worrying about how I look or what people think about my dressing. When you are casting the news you have to be all masqueraded, as I like to say. But all I need are clean clothes when I am on the field. The last thing on my mind when I am in a village reporting on polio is whether my gele fits my attire. I don’t need make-up or the lights to look good. The only concern I have is my getting a good copy.
Are there stories that you remember with nostalgia?
You are asking me to look through 25 years of reporting. I have quite a number of reports that stand out for me. But I will focus on stories that come to mind easily. There is a story I did about a community health worker in Jigawa State who refused to vaccinate his beautiful daughter and she progressively got paralysed. It took me a long time to get the story off my mind. In fact, I still think about it. The girl’s father despite having a bit of knowledge on healthcare refused to take his child for vaccination. All she needed was a few drops of Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) and she wouldn’t have suffered irreversible paralysis. Just maybe if the father of the child had read or watched any form of media advocacy on the OPV, that beautiful girl would not be paralysed today. The second story that still resonates in my mind is the one on the kerosene explosion that happened in Abuja in 1997. I made trips to the Gwagwalada Hospital to follow up the story on the explosion. I have never seen anything as devastating as the effects of the explosion. I saw a pregnant woman with 75 percent of her body covered with burns. Sensitive parts of her body were also affected by the fire. It really was a tough assignment. But I kept going to the hospital until I was sure that we had gotten government attention and relevant government agencies were doing what they needed to do to ameliorate the suffering of the people. One more thing that stuck with me is my visits to patients with spinal cord injury. It is not something you forget.
What were the challenges you faced as a health reporter?
There were challenges. First, none of us health correspondents is a doctor or a scientist. Yet, you have to interpret what the doctors and scientists say. Of course, with time you get accustomed to the terminologies and the issues in the sector but you still have to present it in a way that viewers can easily understand. What I will pick as the greatest challenge for health correspondents is that the media and society at large do not see healthcare as a developmental issue. And because of this, media houses pay little attention to health reports. In the print media, health stories hardly make the cover. Editors tuck health stories in the third or fourth page. They only use health stories on the front page when there is an epidemic. It is the same thing with the electronic media. Health stories hardly make it into the first segment of the news. We as media men have to understand that the development of a country is strongly tied to a healthy populace. Journalists must lead the call for an effective and efficient management of the health sector as the foundation for development. Nevertheless, I have to say that things have improved greatly when it comes to health reporting. There is hardly any media house that doesn’t have a health desk. The quality of health reporters has improved greatly. We now have reporters who are committed though we still have people who do event reporting. Then there is the issue of reporters juggling two or three beats. But I must say that I am happy with how seriously some health reporters take their duties.
Majority of Nigerians patronise government hospitals and they complain about the country’s healthcare delivery system. There are also not many good remarks on the work ethics as well as the expertise of workers of government-run health institutions. As a member of staff of the NTA, how many times did you battle with your conscience when it came to presenting the situation as it is?
As you rightly noted, I had a moral burden to speak the truth and at the same time present what government is doing to make things better. I had a way of presenting the true situation. I never lied for government. If a hospital isn’t well equipped there is no way I can lie about it. I remember when health reporters travelled around the country with the then Minister of Health, Professor Eyitayo Lambo; we saw government health institutions with different stories. We saw primary healthcare hospitals that were at their lowest ebb. Even if I worked in the Aso Rock Villa, I would still have reported what I saw on ground during those trips. Yes, there were times I wished I could use stronger words to describe what I’d seen as a reporter, so I relied on my pictures. And pictures don’t lie. I presented my stories in a truthful yet mature manner which earned me the respect of ministers and other top government officials who manage the health sector. I also must say that NTA has been good to me by allowing me to go to town with informed and well-investigated reports. Yet again, I must add that I was given a free hand by my bosses, because they knew that I fully understood the role of the NTA as an agency that promotes peace and unity in the country.
There are many people who aren’t comfortable with how journalists relate closely with people in power. You have closely interacted with top government functionaries. What is your response to those who have asked whether journalists can be trusted owing to their proximity to power?
Sure, journalists should be trusted. Journalists understand the workings of government and even the intrigues that play out, so they give the public information from an informed perspective. Sometimes, it is not the minister or the governor or the president that doesn’t do his job. It is their subordinates that fail to carry out their responsibility. If you have watched my shows, you will see that I always insist on people carrying out the work for which they are paid. I have never been the kind that seeks popularity among top civil servants. I happen to be one of those who believe in the uniqueness of being a journalist. A journalist might have a cordial relationship with a big oga or madam in government but he/she will still report the problems with the agency the “big” person is in charge of. I have “brushed” my friends and they called to complain. At such moments, I tell them to put things right and I will be the same person to tell the world that things are better in this or that place. This is how I operated all through my career. I earned respect by being professional.
Have you lost friends over stories they found uncomplimentary?
Well, you know that the media wields a lot of power and influence, so people don’t like to have journalists as permanent enemies. Ironically, there are people who become friends with journalists after they wrote negative stories about them. Journalists understand how dynamic relationships can be when it comes to how people react to stories. For me, I might be your friend but I draw the line between friendship and professionalism. My friendship with people ends where my professional calling starts.
What was your greatest achievement in your 35 years of service?
I would say it is the establishment of a vibrant health desk that is respected by the editorial board of the NTA. I was a sickly child, so more than anything, I am happy to be alive, healthy and celebrating as I retire from service with an unblemished record.
Now that you are leaving, is there a subject or an area you wished you had focused on more?
I wish I had done more about promoting synergy among the three levels of government. The Federal Government enacts policies, but do they tally with the aspirations of states and local councils? With my NGO, I will be focusing on why states and local councils have failed to run good health systems. We need to start building confidence in the health systems in the rural areas. It will amaze you that people in the rural areas prefer to consult with native doctors rather than health workers. The health centre is the fall-back option in most cases.
What is your future like after NTA?
I have created an NGO called the International Society for Media and Public Health. We will be doing a lot of capacity building for journalists. I will be doing a whole lot of advocacy on specialisation in health reporting. As I said earlier, I will still be running my programmes on the NTA. Many viewers are familiar with these programmes, The Bridges and Health Reports. I definitely will be involved in the media but not as much as before. I need to spend more time with my family after years of their supporting my career. I am looking forward to being my own master.
Is politics in the cards for you?
I am not a politician. I am too straightforward for politics. I don’t see a future in politics.
Commentators have often blamed the country’s slow growth rate on individuals like you who can make a difference, yet shy away from contesting for public office.
I am a very spiritual person. I just want to place my future in the hands of God. If He wants me to contest for office, He will make a way for me. But speaking realistically, I don’t have the kind of money needed to contest for elections in Nigeria. Again, I come from Kwara State but I have never participated in politics in the state. Yes, my people honoured me with a big title. I can work for my community based on this. I can even work in any capacity government deems fit. Mine is a life of service but I don’t see myself contesting for elections.
A national daily reported that you are among the leading candidates for the post of Director-General of NTA. Is this job one of the ways you are willing to serve the country?
I don’t know where they got their story from. Nobody asked me for my resume and this is the first thing government asks for if you are being considered for an appointment. I must confess that these kinds of stories make me sad. People have written all kinds of things about me despite the fact that we are colleagues. People say dogs don’t eat dogs but my case is the opposite. My colleagues have written stories that are untrue about me. Maybe, they write these stories out of envy…. Yes, I am close to the First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan and their speculation of my name being shortlisted for the NTA job is based on this. I don’t have any apology for my being close to the First Lady. I knew Dame Patience Jonathan years before she became the First Lady. And for as long as we both live, I will maintain my relationship with her. If it is God’s wish that I be appointed as Director-General of NTA, I will be appointed. And I will put in my best like I have always done. But right now I am happy with my plans for the future, they might be simple but I am satisfied with what I have set my mind on.
Do your plans include becoming a grandmother?
Yes. I’ve told my daughters many times that I am ready to be a grandma. And they have promised that they will soon make me one.
What are the things that make you happy?
I am a homemaker. When I get home I leave all the NTA work and glamour behind and I am just mother and wife. Then my children are a consistent ray of joy. They have been the most wonderful children any mother can ask for. My children care about what I eat, what I wear and my work. I am so blessed with them. I am also lucky with a husband who is my friend and my lover. Thirty years on and we are still in love.
After years of marriage and 35 years in public service, what has life taught you?
I have learnt to be tolerant. I also learnt to be cautious. Things aren’t the way they seem. As women, we need to be cautious. Female journalists need to be particularly cautious because people think that we are available, while we are not. We are just driven and enthusiastic professionals who want to do the job even better as the men. Generally speaking, we also need to be cautious about how wicked people can be to others. The depth of wickedness in the world is unimaginable.