In 2004, he breezed in into the Accra newsroom of The Sun. There he stood, Omoyele Sowore, the intrepid publisher of New York-based Sahara Reporters, the sharp-shooting news website that exposes malfeasance in high places. For over two hours, SHOLA OSHUNKEYE, MUSA JIBRIL and HARRIET OKYERE grilled the man regarded by those in power as an enfant terrible of the new media.
Four years later, Sowore has thrown his hat in the ring for the 2019 Presidential election. Some of the views he expressed back then come into reckoning as politicking gradually gain momentum. Here is an extract from the encounter.
Don’t you nurse a secret fear that someone might one day put a bullet in your head, given the kind of stories you do?
I wouldn’t have done my first story if I was afraid of death. I think I overcame fear when I was a university undergraduate.
What future do you see for the Nigerian youths?
I believe there is a new consciousness happening through social media, where there is some kind of youth engagement. When we first posted our stories on Facebook, people chased us away. They said Facebook is not for activism, it’s not for views against the government. They said ‘we are here to enjoy ourselves, date and make friends, don’t come and poison this social space.’ Today, it has become one of the most powerful tools for fighting the government. Armchair activists who otherwise are afraid to go out can at least send a tweet. They can make a Facebook update that eventually, in terms of aggregation, would help put pressure on the government.
But we need to go beyond that. I think the youth somehow will find their voice again. The best objective condition that can mobilize people is the way the government is conducting itself today. I am seeing that happening. People are angry in the north, in the south, in the west, in the east, about the way the government is conducting the affairs of the state.
Do you think the anger is sufficient enough to trigger our own ‘Arab’ Spring?
It is possible. It needs just one more component––an arrowhead, a leadership that is very resilient and can work underground to mobilize people and reach out across all barriers to the youth because the word ‘youth’ is no longer attributed to students alone. Now you have a very virile youth in Nigeria that transcends the campuses. I am seeing some form of organization happening on social media. People are talking. They are having lateral and vertical discussions. People are discussing beyond religion and ethnicity. People are trying to overcome the divisive tendencies that make this thing impossible.
Don’t you have fears that you can do stories about government officials who may not forgive you easily?
I have come to the conclusion that I have offended enough people to last me for the rest of my life. I do not expect any government official that is indicted, ousted or disgraced for the kind of stories we have done to forgive me. It is not the government official that needs to forgive me––it is the people of Nigeria that need to forgive these government officials because of the kind of the economic, social and political crimes that they commit against 180 million people. I am completely not worried. They are the one who should be watching their back.
But I understand that when people do the kind of work that I do, it comes with consequences.
I prepared myself for it a long time ago that anything can happen to me in the course of this job. The same thing can happen to anyone of you who is in the (news) business. Maybe in terms of scale of offence, I offend a wide range of powerful people. If the society becomes so jaundiced that every idiot that gets offended for committing a crime can come after the person who is telling the truth, then, nobody in the media business is safe, including those of you who offend “small people.” If someone succeeds in taking me out of circulation today, it is not going to prevent another person, who is equally stubborn or even more determined than myself from starting another blog or a website or a media platform that will confront government more frontally that how it is done today.
What will be the right price to buy you?
None. I have been doing this since 2007. With all sense of modesty, I have done some of the biggest stories in Nigeria. I have lost count. I can also tell you that I have been approached several times to sell out for what anybody could have considered to be the right price. But I refused.
Maybe the price wasn’t right enough?
Who determines the right price? If I am not available to be sold, then, there is no price to be paid. If there is no commodity, you cannot have a price. When you begin to negotiate, you have commoditized yourself and, they can start bidding for you until they reach the right price. I am not a commodity. I refused to make myself available or to be commoditized.
Can you swear that you have never taken a bribe?
I have said it before: if anybody has ever given me a bribe to do what I am doing, they should locate The Sun and grant an interview, and reveal how the transaction went, including the account numbers they paid into. I am very comfortable with my poverty.
How did you get some of your stories without violating basic journalistic ethics?
One of the things that help me to bypass this encumbrance that you call journalistic ethics is to say upfront that ‘I am not a journalist.’ As a result, I have not even attempted or tried to subscribe to journalism as it is practised today. I am a Nigerian citizen by birth and I exercise my right to communicate with others for the sake of my well-being and of the others. The first point of entrance into journalism is the Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Right which allows anybody to freely communicate, which is what I do using the social media, the new media. The fact that I haven’t been to journalism school doesn’t preclude me from being called a journalist– –I like the term ‘journalist’ but I don’t aspire to be one. I just aspire to be a citizen first, who is a reporter. Citizen journalism is a new phenomenon that is redefining journalism today. Journalism has changed from what it used to be. Journalism is the oldest profession in the world–
No. It was journalists who discovered prostitutes and reported it. It was somebody who told the world these women are doing this somewhere. If you want to turn it the other way round, you would say that journalists are prostitutes, anyway.
Because they hop into bed with anybody to get their information–
So, you will hop into beds to get your information?
No. I just told you I am not a journalist.
But you also described yourself as a reporter?
Yes, but what I do is that I use citizens, including journalists, to report events. Anybody, including journalists, can report events for us. So, there is a mutual connection between us and the mainstream legacy media, but it is very important to state that I do not have their limitations.
Don’t you think the so-called journalistic ethics will make your package better?
I agree. That is to the extent that I am playing in your field. You are journalists. You are bound by journalistic ethics. I came from a new area of journalism. You are the one putting me in a corner by calling me a journalist. What I do is not within the boundaries of what you are used to. That is what citizen journalism is about. That is what the new media is about. I am a journalist of the era of Twitter and Facebook––social media.
If you die today, what would be your regret?
It would be that probably I didn’t do enough.