'I have almost 200 people reporting for me all over Nigeria'
By Shola Oshunkeye
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
He hit the nation's consciousness, and headlines, with his fiery activism when he led the Students Union Government of the University of Lagos, Akoka, between 1992 and 1994. Since that baptism of fire, which peaked with the relentless national and global agitation for the revalidation of the June 12, 1993 presidential vote, won by the late Bashorun M. K. O Abiola, Omoyele Sowore never looked back.
While most of his colleagues chose the glittering broad way of life, the Ondo State-born activist voted for the narrow way. He voted for a path strewn with thorns and boulders. He chose a Spartan life, a life of vigorous and sometimes aggressive action in pursuing happiness and wellness of the greatest number of the people.
For his efforts, he got arrested and detained in various jailhouses eight times. He almost died in Abacha's gulag. But he never buckled. Rather, the torture and excruciating pains of incarceration toughened him so much they became like narcotics needed to spur him to higher and more demanding levels of activism. Finally, he left Nigeria for America, not for the much-vaunted American dream but to search for channels and opportunities that would further equip him in the struggle for a better Nigeria. In the process, he founded the popular social media network, Sahara Reporters, which has become the biggest and the most popular platform for citizens' journalism for Nigerians wherever they may be on the globe. In its short span of existence, saharareporters.com has become what some people appropriately label the Wikileak of Africa.
I met Omoyele Sowore, 40, in New York, in the evening of September 5, 2010, where we both participated in a roundtable on the 2011 Nigerian general elections, alongside other speakers. After the event, organised by the Global Information Network, GIN, a non-profit organisation led by Ms. Lisa Vives, an American, Sowore, who moderated at the event, suggested we meet the next evening at a restaurant somewhere on Fulton Street, in Brooklyn, for a drink. That was where I sold the idea of an interview to him. He obliged.
During the no-holds-barred interview, days later, Sowore, an Ijaw-Apoi from Ese-Odo in Ondo State, spoke about what motivated him to found Sahara Reporters, the site's days of little beginnings, funding and operational guidelines, as well as how he and his team worked their fingers to the bones to attain the level of success that people now proudly associate with. He espoused the values of sound moral character, courage and unflinching commitment to truth as the necessary conditions for success in his chosen vocation.
Sowore also spoke on the various world exclusives which saharareporters.com has published, especially exposure of what he terms "offshore corruption" by Nigerian public officials, the protracted illness and eventual death of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, and the bitter politics of succession that the saga engendered. He, then, sensationally revealed that he has almost 200 citizens across Nigeria reporting for him. In fact, he disclosed that he has 'eyes' and 'ears' (impeccable sources) in the country's presidential palace, the Aso Rock Villa, which he said, explains the dead accuracy of most of his exclusives.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
How has it been running Sahara Reporters, because I learnt that it's not the only thing you do here in New York?
That's correct. Sahara Reporters is one of the several things I do but it's been a very interesting experience to set up an online platform for citizens to report happenings in the countries where there is a very vibrant media, I have to admit. They have done a lot of work in the past in chasing out several military governments from power but there was a gap, and that is what we are trying to fill. Which is that: there is also an emerging culture of the use of Internet and social media that gives citizens real time opportunity to report events as they happen, a chance to use our platform to report things that otherwise should not have been reported in the mainstream media.
I was actually going to ask you what actually motivated you into starting Sahara Reporters because I know you did not study either journalism or mass communication?
I did not study journalism or mass communication but I have a motivation that actually arose from, one, the journalism that I saw during the military era when I was student activist, a very powerful media in Nigeria; and I was really shocked and, later, disappointed that the media did not develop as it should beyond a certain level. It was as if they got to the peak and they crashed, especially at the time they could have had more traction, more momentum under civilian rule. But I have been a mass communicator, I have to admit, though I didn't study it. Remember, I was a student union president for several years.
That was 1992 to 1994. Each time we had to speak, we addressed a lot of people, and we issued releases on a regular basis to update students about what is happening and what we were doing from time to time. That's my idea of mass communication. Like I said, the other part of the motivation was using these new tools for mass communication and social media to solve some of Nigeria's age-long problem, which is offshore corruption. I thought the best way to confront offshore corruption was to set up an offshore concern that will track offshore corruption, which hitherto the local media have not been able to deal with either because they don't have the tools or they don't have the manpower to go after those kinds of news. I tell you, 80 percent of what is stolen out of Nigeria goes into offshore account. I started by checking on public records in the United States of public officials and that's how it started. It became bigger and bigger, and as we stand now, it's been one of the major competitors on the ground within the Nigerian media.
From what we see of Sahara Reporters, and as a professional, I see a lot of legwork in what you do. That is, you are highly mobile. You travel a lot. Even though you are based in New York your stories are not localized...
(Cuts in...) Actually one of the things that is unique about what we do is that we try to obtain evidence for every dimension of a story that we work on. It's not all the time that those evidences are provided as part of the stories, but wherever necessary, we provide the evidence.
The reason we don't put evidence in every story is that some evidence can compromise the source of a story and our first duty is to protect our source. Yes, you are right, there is a lot of legwork, there is a lot of handwork, and there is a lot of brainwork in Sahara Reporters. That brings me to the issue of funding. How do you get funded? Many people back home have made several suggestions: some said you are being funded by some powerful interest groups; some say you represent certain interests, even here in America, and all that...
It's very simple. First, I want to make it clear that when I started, it was very cheap. I was hosting Sahara Reporters at the rate of US$35 per month when I started. It didn't cost me much to actually have an online presence. I had a job also at that point, so, I was able to use my salary to pay for things. The biggest cost I incurred when I started Sahara Reporters was making international calls to Nigeria but it was also not that huge because if I bought a card and I ran out of card, I would just stop, and wait until I had money again to buy another card. But I also had a lot of goodwill at the beginning. Some friends supported me with money but it wasn't a lot of money. Like I said, it was cheap. It was when we began to grow that the cost of running Sahara Reporters became big.
Talking transparently, we have been making money from three sources: there is what they call Google Adsense, which is the most democratic way of participating in advertising. When I started, we also used to make 50 dollars every month, over time we began to make a lot more money because it is driven by traffic in usage and patronage of the website. Secondly, I also started to get some support from people through what they call PayPal, which is an open and transparent way of receiving donations from friends. But a lot of people didn't like PayPal. So, there was a setback for me on PayPal because they were afraid that the Nigerian government might somehow grab the list of my donors and then go after them.
So, they developed cold feet. The reason I was using Pay Pal was that I didn't want to receive money in a way that is through the backdoor, so that nobody comes around and blackmail me, and say, you know, I sent you a cheque for 10, 000 dollars. So, PayPal was a very open and transparent way; you have to fill in the application yourself and pay money into Sahara Reporters. If anybody turns around tomorrow and say he pays me more than I acknowledged, I can always publish the list.
That was exactly what I had in mind when I raised the issue of funding. Some people, back home, suggested that maybe you had some people funding you...
No, when it comes to PayPal, Nigeria is not on the list of people that can make donation through PayPal because of our messed up financial system. So, I had no means of collecting money from Nigeria. If I had, I would have accepted donations, but it would be donations that are limited. Like PayPal that I set up on the website, you cannot donate more than US$50 to me because I don't want to give anybody undue advantage, and I don't see how donating US$50 to Sahara Reporters can make you influence our reporters. But if I put myself in a position where somebody can donate N1million, then, I am setting myself up for undue influence. That is obvious. So, I am saying, with all sense of responsibility, that I have never received money from anybody from home; and I challenge anybody to prove that I have ever received money from anybody other than our friends in the US, Nigerians in the US, through these transparent means.
The only means of generating funds from Nigeria, which is also known to everybody, is direct advertising and that one is well known. Some banks have advertised with us. Some hotels have advertised with Sahara Reporters and the reason why we do that was that through Google Adsense anybody could put his adverts on our website for cheaper but very effective coverage. But we went back to Google, and we said, anything that is coming from Nigeria, we are not accepting because they can advertise directly. Also, as a matter of policy, we do not accept advertisement from Nigerian governments at the federal, state and local levels. We do not accept advertisement to congratulate people.
Because it is just not in our interest. We think it is too petty.
How does that affect your editorial judgment? For instance, if a governor chooses to celebrate a birthday and...
(Cuts in...) Well, we think there are enough avenues in Nigeria. The soft-sells can handle that. But the real reason we can never accept congratulatory adverts is also because, usually, people who can afford to advertise are people who are also using the public resources to do so. This is where it affects our interests. Ordinary people in Nigeria, whose interest we want to protect can hardly afford to pay N100, 000 or more to celebrate their birthday.
There was a time that we did a calculation of Sahara Reporters and I found out that the cost of advertising of greeting people on birthday and all that nonsense was more than the amount of money the government budgeted for education in a month. So, that tells you something: that we cannot, in one sense, be fighting against waste and corruption in the public service and, in another, turn around and be accepting paid advertisements from people who turned 70, who can't even tell their date of birth. This is how we have streamlined our operations with regards to advertising. I have explained to you that our lines of revenue are transparently like that. I am saying this because it's important to clarify this to people that we do not accept blood money, money from people whose only business is to steal, kill and destroy.
What are the other things you do apart from Sahara Reporters?
I do a lot of public speaking, which Sahara Reporters is gradually taking away from me. I used to be invited to speak in a lot of places and I get paid to speak about things that are happening in Nigeria in particular. I have also been a professor. I have been teaching for two years.
I teach at the School of Visual Arts in New York and also the New York College of Technology where I teach Africa, where I teach all the subjects relating to Africa, especially pre-colonial and post-colonial studies. This also takes a lot of my time. Naturally, I am just one person who cannot stay in one place. I'm too restless to stay in one place. I just have to keep doing a lot of things.
From what I have seen here in New York, you do not have a sophisticated office with the full compliment of equipment necessary for a vibrant site like yours. Could you kindly intimate us with details of the instruments that you use in processing you news items??
That is exactly the point about new media. It is no longer about the expensive office furniture or high-end, high-priced off-the-shelf devices; it is a media driven by creativity, critical thinking and unbound imagination. The gadgets used can be low-tech., need not use much office space or a staff of hundreds. With little more than a few cell phones, an Apple computer, and the wonders of the Internet, I can do what I have to do.
Your car also doubles as your mobile office. What are the instruments/equipment's that you have in there? For instance, how many telephone sets do you have in the four-wheeler?
How many laptops? etc.?
I used to have my car equipped for quick reporting but now, everything I need fits into my jacket. Last time I checked, you could actually publish a report by speaking into voice-recognition software via your cell phone. My car has become useless. The last time I used my car to report news was when Yar'Adua died. I veered into a gas (filling) station and ordered for a full thank of gas (petrol or PMS) that I didn't need so that I could break the news of Yar'Adua's death. I used to carry many cell phones, but with Google Voice you no longer need more than one Android or iPhone. Between Google and The Chinese, the world is totally re-colonized again.
Again Sahara Reporters has done some reports in the past that are almost dead accurate. How did you develop your sources? You are in New York, resident in the United States for several years now, and you seem to be on top of stories even more than some people at home. How do you swing it?
One thing you should realize is that in this modern world, and the level of precision of technology, there are no more boundaries. Which means that anybody who has information can get it across to me, the same time they will get it across to the person next to them. The latest platform that I have been fascinated with is the Blackberry chat and I have almost 200 people on my blackberry all over Nigeria.
If anything is happening, they have the opportunity of taking the photo with their blackberry and MMS it to me, and also send me a short story as a chat. They have to choose between giving it to me or giving to a journalist who they don't trust. So, the bottom line is that the integrity of the platform has helped us a lot in being able to get information before a lot of journalists at home. Also, there is the efficacy of where we operate which is purely online; which means that with little efforts and a fast Internet that I have and that is probably not available in Nigeria, I can upload accurate stories before even your dial up computer gets to pick it up on internet. So, we have the advantage of speed that is also not available in other places. But most importantly, I think it's integrity. Our integrity is our biggest asset.
Some people are not comfortable with your brand of 'adversarial' journalism. They say you just hit, hit and hit. Yet, very few of them doubt the accuracy of your dispatches.
What you see on the website is a product of a citizen-led media movement. As I have said many times, the citizens of Nigeria and Africa are an essential part of the process, meticulously sourcing and documenting the information you see on the website, the final product you call "adversarial." For too long, our citizens have been fed a bland diet of news prepared by our national and corporate elites with close ties to government. Finally, the citizens turned off the tube and started reporting their own news. Their editorial judgment, the documents they recover, the videos they send in, their insightful commentaries, have shaken up the news landscape and made commercial media watch its back.
But how do you feel about this notion about you and Sahara Reporters that you have never seen anything good in anybody in Nigeria or concerning the country?
Why are you so pessimistic about this country?
It's not true. I have challenged people to tell me what it means to see something good about a country. I think there is a misconception that our own position about being a watchdog that follows the money, Nigeria's wealth, is construed as being anti-Nigeria nation. No! The Nigerian nation is different from the Nigerian government and public officials that we target. These government officials are the reasons Nigeria has not developed, do not have good roads, do not have good health centres, and hospitals, and schools. They are the only reason why a disease that has been wiped out elsewhere on earth still exists in Nigeria, Guinea worm. Cholera is back in full force, in the 21st Century!
Those ones? I cannot, in my lifetime, accept. I cannot accept that by going after individuals that are responsible for all these things that I have listed means that I hate my country. No! I do not hate my country. I love Nigeria. I actually watch Nigeria, each time I see something good elsewhere, not only in the US but also in the neighbouring African countries, I want the same thing to be replicated in Nigeria. And it gets me angry that Nigeria is capable of providing good roads for cheaper rate, they can provide good hospitals, standard schools, they can provide all kinds of things, basic needs of the citizens, yet, they are not doing so! It beats my imagination. It also makes me angry that Nigeria does not have stable electricity when Ghana does, when Republic of Benin that we supplement and complement their electricity does. I think that is the misconception.
Even so, this misconception is limited to people who are directly at the receiving end of our kind of journalism. To me, this is an empowerment of citizens because without information people can't act. And that is what we are doing. Because the kind of information we give, the way we present them to our citizens or compatriots is such a way that it's not just the information you read, and you go and sleep. It's the kind of information that challenges you enough to act. Of course, a few people who are very lazy, who are afraid that when they read Sahara Reporters, they are forced to act, they are the ones complaining. But generally, a lot of our readers understand that this is just another new empowerment tool in town and it's challenging the status quo ante. And I made it very clear from the beginning that I am not a journalist and we are not trying to be journalists. We practice citizen journalism, it's a brand new style of journalism that has not been around for a long time and I think that is also confusing many people.
For those who are 'confused', how do you define citizen journalism?
Citizen journalism is journalism done by ordinary citizens. Citizens are the ones who experience first and foremost every event. So, the report comes through them and we process them. We are like a clearinghouse. How do we do? We are using texts, we are using photos, we are using videos, we are using electronic messages aggressively to combat our problems. So, if we get a photo, instead of carrying it through a bureaucracy of photo editor and all that, we just tell the story that the photo conveys immediately. That is it! But don't forget that the mainstream media, major media in the world, are now relying on the citizens. For example, if you go on CNN, if there is an earthquake anywhere in the world, or there is a fire somewhere, the next thing CNN is asking for is: 'Hey, is there anybody there?' 'Could you please give us the information as you know it?' What does that tell you? It tells you that even CNN has come to recognize the power of citizens to report issues accurately.
You broke quite a few stories during the late President Musa Yar'Adua's health crisis. Going by the accuracy of some of your reports on the unfortunate saga, it was as if you had a correspondent in the Aso Rock Presidential Villa, filing reports for you.
Do you have 'eyes' and 'noses' (sources) in the Villa?
We have "eyes and noses" wherever Nigerian citizens are. If you are asking me to reveal those sources, I can only tell you that some of them are in high places. As soon as we were deemed credible, many Nigerians in the halls of power eagerly became citizen reporters. I actually think a lot of people love the idea of reporting themselves.
Including Aso Rock Villa?
Including the Presidential Villa...
You once said that you had sources even inside Aso rock?
The sources have gone into the presidential jet for us.
How do you mean?
It's upgraded. We can fly with the president anywhere, we used to have sources inside Aso Rock, but under President Yar'Adua, we moved some notches up. Under Yar'Adua, we were able to have sources on his hospital bed and you won't doubt this because we were able to give accurate information. I think Yar'Adua was a test of our ability to manage sources. If there's anything that shows that Sahara Reporters have become a phenomenon, I think it is Yar'Adua's sickness. The management of his ailment and his eventual death have proven that there are no impregnable walls anymore. For us, there are no borders when it comes to sources. And I think that is why one reporter recently described us as the 'Wikileak of Africa.'
Tell me, how did you get those exclusive reports on the late president, even when he was on his deathbed in Saudi Arabia?
Sources. Sources. Sources. Come, egbon (brother), you know how this thing works now.
You don't want me to reveal my sources or do you?
No. Not at all.
Let's talk about the coverage of the controversial $50,000 bribe that the Presidency offered Pastor Tunde Bakare when he led his Save Nigeria Group, SNG, to visit President Jonathan in the Villa before the campaigns began. The fiery preacher told me that after rejecting the money that one of the President's men brought to him on the tarmac of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, he flew to Lagos, a 55-minute ride. But he said surprisingly, by the time he landed in Lagos, the story (with all its material facts) was already on Sahara Reporters. How did you swing that in less than an hour? You did it with such immediacy that only television and radio can produce.
Any affair that involves more that two people and also involves movement of cash money is never difficult news to break. Radio frequencies are obsolete today; we are using optic fibre frequency, assuming there is something like that. Honestly, Internet has made nonsense of conventional frequencies.
The same thing happened the day the president's men met some top journalists at Transcorp Hilton Hotel in Abuja as the campaigns began to peak. Sahara Reporters not only broke the story, it showed pictures of wads of money disbursed at the meeting, and some folks with bags containing their share of the money walking out of the hotel. Was your reporter there?
How did you swing it?
It is exactly the idea of "Report Yourself". When people find our kind of stories, they fulfill their duties as citizens by reporting through us.
You did another one where people accused you of doing some kind of dog-eats-dog stuff when you attacked your own constituency, the media. I'm talking about the story you ran of the meeting that some editors had with General Babangida in Minna.
I don't know what they mean. We don't have a constituency beyond the constituency of truth, and a constituency of commitment to the betterment of Nigeria and good governance. That is our constituency. If you are outside of that constituency, you have joined the people on the opposite side. And that is what the Babangida case was about. I give you an example.
I saw, today, as I am speaking to you an interview done by a CNN reporter with Babangida; and the simple question he asked him is: why did you annulled June 12 election? And Babangida was blabbing the same nonsense he's been blabbing for 17 years. 'Oh, we had security information that showed that they would have destabilized the country.' Next came the follow-up question, which says: 'But you really mean that you wanted to stabilise your country and you ended up giving the country back to Abacha?'
Do you not wonder how come our journalists are not asking those kinds of simple questions? And he (Babangida) said: Abacha stabilised Nigeria. and it became a revealing interview that got a lot more people convinced that he is a.... So I am pissed off with 40 journalists who went to visit him in the middle of the night in his house, who refused to ask those kinds of question, and turned around and signed birthday cards, wishing him good when he doesn't wish 150 million Nigerians good. So, those 40 journalists that you referred to as members of our constituency are no longer members of our constituency because they have compromised the safety of our constituency, Nigerian people.
They have compromised the integrity of the most powerful tool of checks and balances. The media, instead of acting as the fourth estate of the realm, they have become the fifth columnist from the realm. That is why it didn't make sense to me that anybody thought that we would cover up those kinds of atrocities because people who are referred to as members of our constituency committed them. In the first place, we are not dogs, so we couldn't be eating dogs. I understand the usage.
'I have never received money from anybody from home; and I challenge anybody to prove that I have ever received money from anybody other than our friends in the US, Nigerians in the US'
'The real reason we can never accept congratulatory adverts is because, usually, people who can afford to advertise are people who are also using the public resources to do so. This is where it affects our interests'