Omoyele Sowore is the publisher of New York-based Sahara Reporters, known for its hard-hitting reporting that is keeping Nigeria’s government officias, individuals and corporations on their toes.
Recently, Mr. Sowore suddenly walked into our newsroom in Abuja. Our reporters sat down with him for an interview during which he spoke about his work and the political cum economic situation in his country.
PT: We are glad to have you here, we will just be asking you a few questions. Now just tell us briefly how Sahara Reporters operate?
Sowore: Well, I started off first as a news website about 7 years ago basically collecting information from citizens, processing them and publishing them and distributing them through our media platforms across the globe. In the last three years, it has escalated and upgraded to become a complete multimedia outlet that has an online TV and now an online radio platform and of course the important thing to mention is that it is surrounded by Internet users.
PT: Now, 7 years down the line, will you say you have achieved the original vision. How far have you come?
Sowore: To be fair to myself and everybody who has worked with me on this platform, in my estimation I have far exceeded my expectations of these platforms. I just wanted to set up a website that I could use in communicating with Nigerians, Africans and the rest of the world about happenings in sub-saharan Africa and doing so from the safety of the United States of America. I was expecting on an average, on a daily basis, of 200 or 300 people reading us and feeding back to us in giving informations but after 7 years, it’s gone way beyond that expectation. But in terms of the fulfilment of the mission, yes the site has covered a good distance but I think there’s still a few more to be done.
PT: You publish very damning reports, how are you able to ensure your safety and that of your colleagues?
Sowore: Our first mission is to make information available to people in a way they can use as they want. That mission has been fulfilled. The second aspect of our mission is to speak truth to power. And the third aspect of it, in some cases and in most cases, is to damn the consequences for as long as the people who need to benefit from it get it, they can use it. They can take it to run and that can help them redefine their power because in a lot of ways I think for a lot of people, I think the kind of information we provide and the way we provide them is their only way of fighting back the myriad of problems they are confronted with by government.
The last part of your question is about safety. Our mission is also to help ensure that citizens can turn the trajectory of fear against oppression, that people should no longer be afraid of people who are doing evil or who are stealing their commonwealth, people who are robbing them, people who are denying them their fundamental future, they should be the ones that should be afraid and that would mean by saying we are turning around the trajectory of fear.
As for how we feel safe or unsafe, I think somebody has to do what we do and when you do it, it’s not hard to understand that they come with consequences. It’s a very dangerous job as you know. All over the world, the business of telling the truth always come with consequences and a lot of safety issues but what we’ve also not done is to put the safety pin on ourselves so we do whatever we can to stay safe. But our primary or major concern is not safety, it is the delivery of our mission.
PT: How did you just walk into Premium Times? We were in shock! How did you just get here without being arrested?
Sowore: First and foremost, I’m not a criminal and I’ve said that many times. I navigate my way through the country as much as I can so I travel as much as its permissible to help me get to where I need to get to. I won’t disclose the rest of how I got here but I’m here and that’s the most importan thing and I can pretty much go anywhere I want. I take my freedom very seriously, especially the freedom of movement.
PT: That leads us to the next question. Do you consider yourself a free Nigerian in Nigeria?
Sowore: No! And I don’t think that there are Nigerians in the majority who live in Nigeria who feel free. Part of the reasons why I take the risk that I take, if you want to call it a risk, is to share in the pain, in the difficulty, in the bondage that you can be in a country where you want and love to be but not free to. I’m not the only one who is not free in Nigeria, a lot of Nigerians are not free. As I’m speaking to you today, more than 2oo females who undertook secondary education in Borno state have been held hostage by a non-state actor like Boko Haram — just a ragtag group of militants. Those ones are not free, their parents are not free. There is a sense of siege even where you are today so freedom is relative and I’m saying that nobody can claim to be free in this country for as long as this country is in bondage and is being run as an open prison.
PT: What do you think should be done? What does Nigeria and its people need to do to make the majority of its citizens to be free?
Sowore: They have to decide to be free and that has to be psychological. I am psychologically free but I’m not physically free because I cannot move as freely as I should. And then they have to decide collectively to be physically free but that’s where there’s a lot of work because people have to take away the shackles of fear. They have to stop being afraid of those in power, they have to confront them and demand that they leave so they can be free especially those who have been holding back their freedom. And talking about freedom, you are talking about a wide range of freedom. It’s not just the freedom to move but the freedom to worship, the freedom to go to school, the freedom to give and have opportunity, the freedom to hope in a country of one’s birth.
PT: You have been very critical of successive administrations. What’s your impression of the Goodluck Jonathan administration?
Sowore: In an order of successive administrations in my lifetime I think this would be the worst in terms of delivery of services, in terms of organisation, in terms of even the style of governance, in terms of transparency, in terms of economic management and of course in terms of security. So this is the worst government in my lifetime that I have seen. You would say maybe Abacha was worse but you can understand Abacha was a military dictator. Nobody voted for him. He just hijacked power and he did whatever he wanted with it. But even within that framework as you can see, the Abacha regime is actually better than the Jonathan regime and I’m sorry to say this because you could almost feel that this country was more secure during those days. The value of the naira under Abacha’s regime was higher than the value of the naira under Jonathan regime, in fact it’s double that rate now. There were perhaps even better roads, in some cases better schools, in some cases better opportunities.
PT: So you are saying even within the framework of the Abacha regime…
Sowore:(Cuts in) By the time you look at the entire corruption that Abacha perpetrated in his five years in power I guess, we are looking at 10billion dollars. Jonathan’s people stole at least 20 billion in less than 3 years from just sales of crude oil alone. If you add that to what the oil marketers or importers stole, which was 6.8 billion dollars, so you are looking already at 28 billion dollars stolen under Jonathan’s regime which is three times more than what Abacha stole during his regime. I’m not making this comparison saying that Nigerians deserve any of these leaders from Babangida to Abacha and the rest of them. I condemned successive administrations but it’s important to state that in clarifying my position as to which government is worse. This is my own statistical definition of how bad things have gone.
PT: But this government is building the airport road in Abuja. Did you not pass through the airport road? They also say they are creating jobs. Will you ever say anything good about the Jonathan registration?
Sowore: There is a difference between what the government says its doing and what we know the government is doing. For example, they claim to have created 1.5 million jobs and we have been asking for the last two months for them to provide us the sector of the economy or society where those jobs were created and nobody can give us answers. If the U.S says they have 240,000 jobs, they can tell you how many of them were from the hospitality business, academics, road construction. All of the sectors that we count, nobody can provide those sectors for you. The airport road you are talking about was awarded under Yar’adua so it’s not Jonathan that awarded the airport road that you are talking about. It’s possible that he attempted to construct such roads but none of those roads I see today exist to my understanding. They said a few months ago that they had turned around the power sector by privatising the power sector. As we speak today, you and I know that they have only invested more money in buying more darkness for the Nigerian people.
PT: The government also says it’s rebuilding the airports….
Sowore: Which airport did he build? Is it the leaking airport in Lagos where the materials that were bought were fake? And they are falling apart already. That one you can verify. You are a journalist and I don’t need to tell you these things. Theirs is a tokenistic government and governance of mediocrity that is wrapped up in propaganda. That’s not the way countries are governed. You can’t govern a country with propaganda of how many airports are under construction. You actally judge a government by how many airports they are able to construct within a reasonable period of time, within a reasonable cost in terms of resources.
PT: What do you think of Boko Haram and the way the government is handling the insurgency?
Sowore: First and foremost, I think Boko Haram is a security problem. It’s just like how the Niger Delta militancy was a security problem but this security problem doesn’t mean that they can be tackled the same way. If government does its job, it decreases the amount of people that get attracted to any kind of crime. So for as long as the Nigeria police is not doing its job and is bogged down by corruption, for as long as the Nigerian army is ill-equipped and incapable of fighting any kind of war inside and outside of Nigeria, it will be difficult to make Nigeria safe. All these problems, as small as they look, can become really really big and it’s compounded by the incompetence of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, who doesn’t have a clue how to resolve any of these problems. That’s why every small problem in this country under his regime has escalated to become a major problem. When they were extra-judicially executing Boko Haram people, we were the ones warning them that this would become a major problem. But they were calling us names because we were asking them not to kill people. They said we were sympathetic to terrorists, NO! We were just saying that if you do things the wrong way, they will haunt you in a bad way especially where you have a government that doesn’t even know how to tackle any of these problems.
PT: What do you think of the future journalism, especially in Nigeria?
Sowore: As you know, we have what you call legacy media, the old big-time guys who produce big newspapers and now there’s new media where everybody has moved to. My own genre is citizen journalism which is something that is completely different because I’m not trained for journalism. I’m just collecting and passing information based on the guarantee of the United Nations Human Rights Article 19 that allows anybody no matter who he is to exchange information. That is where I derive my own expertise and it is my fundamental rights to do what I’m doing. My own suspicion is that the old legacy journalism will have to die a natural death to feed into the new media. What I mean by natural death is that the way they do journalism in the olden days is not going to work anymore. The truth today is that, you can ask any of the big media how many newspapers they are distributing on daily basis. Probably not up to 50,000. Let’s give them 200,000 combined together. That’s the same kind of readership we can get in a breaking news within two hours when we have really big news. You should also look at the channels of distribution of news, it has changed. The idea of holding newspapers on the street with a vendor with an apron is no longer the way journalism is done anymore. So the future of citizens journalism is actually the future because the citizens themselves see news first and report them first. What we do and how we are going to become the future is that the citizens are going to be driving journalism through the use of small technological devices and finally through the entrenchment of community. The devices feed the news, the community discusses and debates and distributes the news. That’s new media, that’s the future of media.
PT: Do you consider yourself a journalist?
Sowore: No. I actually studied Geography and Planning at the University of Lagos, went to do my Masters in Public Administration at Columbia University in New York. So, I do not consider myself a journalist but you do not have to go to journalism school to be a journalist. I think anybody who is smart enough to report can be referred to as a reporter, not necessarily a journalist. Journalism is actually an old word of people who keep journals and nobody does that anymore.
PT: What’s your motivation for the things you do? You seem to be a troublemaker, giving people sleepless nights. What’s your motivation? Do you want to be appointed to government?
Sowore: I don’t think I can survive in government for one night because I have no motivation to subscribe to the kind of deceit that goes on in government. I cannot be a minister who goes to a meeting and start praising the president and claiming that things are alright when things are not. I’m the kind of person who would show up and tell Mr President you are running a bad country, this place is terrible. And they are going to hate me for it. I’m however not ruling out the possibility that I am capable of governing this country better than all these characters that are governing the country and I am serious about it but that is not to say I’m trying to position myself for political office.
PT: You now live abroad. Is there a possibility that one day you will return home to play a role in the affairs of your country?
Sowore: I’m here now and I’ve returned. You see if I don’t show up in your office, you won’t know I’m in this country. That’s one of the things that is very interesting in my lifestyle and what I do. I go in and out of Nigeria as it’s convenient for me and whenever possible. It’s not that I don’t want to confront them at the airport by travelling through the airport but I also don’t want this work to be disrupted so if it takes a few more hours to travel here, it’s ok. And that takes me back to the issue of motivation for the work I do. I just dread the fact that at my age I have to live in another country just because I want to practice my trade or to live any kind of life I consider to be an acceptable standard of life. I want to live my life here. I want to drink Nigerian water. I want to live in a house that doesn’t have walls. I want to be able to drive from Lagos to Abuja in the middle of the night without fear of being attacked or being kidnapped or being blown up by anyone. I want to have a country in which I can live and be proud of. Right now, we just have a country no one can claim to be proud of, including the people governing the country.
PT: So if your people in Ondo state ask you to run for office, what will you say to them?
Sowore: The concept of my people has been bastardised that if any group of people approached me to come and run for office, I would be shocked. I would wonder if I won a lottery. You know that concept is a scam. It’s only the corrupt elements who have stolen so much that get those kinds of invitation. The people prefer them to people like us. You know, the idea of inviting anyone who even claims to be honest, who wants to run an honest administration does not appeal to this concept of my people you just referred to. It’s like an anathema . If I want to run, I will go to my people and say ‘look! We have to fight to free this place from this buccaneers and you can imagine what will happen. They don’t invite you to that kind of war.
PT: Now just tell us, how have you been able to make Sahara Reporters sustainable?
Sowore: I have said it openly and would continue to say it because of all the new media in town, we have been the most transparent to the extent that you can google and find out how we get our funding. I started this with my own money. It was so cheap. I started Saharareporters with 20 dollars hosting the website with an individual whose server got knocked out when I had the first DDOS attack and I went to yahoo and from there it grew bigger. So I started with my own funds. I raised some little funds at the beginning from some people. And then I got foundation funding, Ford Foundation and then the foundation with link to ebay known as Omidyar Foundation. To limit the damage that can be done to our conscience and brand, we do not take government ads, we do not take from people praising people or people who want to greet others for birthdays and things like that. We focus mainly on product advertisements and ensure that whatever we are taking, we make it very clear that those cannot affect our editorial decisions.