In an exclusive interview with The Paradigm, Mr. Omoyele Sowore, publisher of SaharaReporters revealed never before seen information about himself and his platform. He informed The Paradigm about his childhood and what drove him into activism, his foray into the United States of America, his issues with embattled Senate President Bukola Saraki, Stella Oduah and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Mr. Sowore does not see himself has having “made it big” and says he has no car or house and struggles to pay his bill like everyone else.
The Paradigm: First of all, thank you for having this time with us. People want to know the man behind Sahara Reporters? What are your motivations? Why do you do what you do? Is the website solely owned by you?
Omoyele Sowore: I am motivated by the desire to exchange information with others. I am naturally opposed to maintaining the status quo, especially where the status quo is unjust. I love to shake things up. So it was a great moment when the Internet offered me the tool to bring about an interactive mass media platform for Nigerians and other Africans. Governments—I mean, shady governments—hate the interaction between citizens. We’ve accomplished that task of creating interaction and massive engagement using a wide variety of tools on the Internet including those of disruptive technology.
To your question about ownership, I founded SaharaReporters but it is owned by all of its users, contributors and writers.
Omoyele Sowore: On Christmas Eve in 1980, when I was 10 years old, I was woken up when the Nigerian police force invaded my village over a marketplace dispute. Our people were humiliated, abused and raped that night. The next day more police came and lined up people they suspected of participating in the melee the day before. They hit one of the fathers of the suspects in the village and his tooth fell out. I was angry, but couldn’t do anything about it. But that was the day I decided I would fight back against the federal republic of injustice.
The Paradigm: Could you give us a quick story of how you started and how you made it big?
Omoyele Sowore: I hate to claim that I have made it big. It is a jargon that I think belongs to the hip-hop scene. I am not rich. Like everyone else here, I am struggling to pay my bills. I have nothing to my name. No houses, no cars, no airplanes. And to be honest, I do not want to have any of these luxuries. So, if you are talking about impact, I will humbly leave that to history.
The Paradigm: There seems to be some controversy as regards your migration to the US? How true is it that you were running away from those who threatened to kill you?
Omoyele Sowore: I came to the US in February 1999. Before coming to US, I was well known in activist circles. I waited until the military had been defeated before I left. However, I had health issues that I needed to deal with because of the attack on my person at the University of Lagos in 1994 as well as eight detentions under some of the most harrowing conditions. And these detentions came with torture at the hands of the SSS, the police and the Air Force in Lagos and then Yola [in Adamawa State] after I had completed my NYSC. All of these took a toll on my health. These were well documented. After checking into a Center for treatment of torture victims in New York, I decided to stay in the US. There was no controversy about it. A simple Google search would show you my full story.
The Paradigm: Is it true that you once had lead poisoning injected into you?
Omoyele Sowore: I was injected with an unknown substance at UNILAG during an attack sponsored by the government against us [student union leaders] when I was the President of Students’ Union Government at the University of Lagos. I was admitted into the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) for treatment of my physical injuries. On the fifth day the doctors showed me a syringe they said was recovered from the scene of the attack. They wanted to test to find out what it contained. That same night I had to flee LUTH with the help of the Chief Security Officer, one great fellow named “Lawal”. He said the police had come to get me. I was dressed as though I was a dead person being wheeled to the morgue. Lawal took me to his house that night and I used his official telephone to call my aunt in FESTAC Town. When the family heard my voice they were surprised because the police had told my dad earlier in the day that I was dead. That was how my treatment ended abruptly at LUTH. Meanwhile they arrested all the other student leaders, tortured them, and charged them with armed robbery. They wanted to kill me.
When I arrived in the US, I was tested for lead and HIV, just to rule out any possibility that I was carrying any deadly element or virus. I was cleared and have since moved on to better things.
The Paradigm: Tell us how the attack on campus happened?
Omoyele Sowore: As I just explained, I was attacked by campus gangs sponsored to eliminate student leaders opposed to the military. The University of Lagos Student Union had some of the most fearless and, I’d say, vibrant student leaders in Nigeria during the reign of Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha.
The Paradigm: Did you finish your degree in UNILAG?
Omoyele Sowore: I finished at UNILAG. I went on to serve in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in Yola. They followed me there, got me arrested, detained, and tortured. And when I was released they seized my NYSC certificate. When I arrived in the US, I requested for my transcript after I applied to do a Masters at Columbia University in New York. I was surprised when I saw a copy my transcript. UNILAG claimed I graduated in 1993, but they didn’t release my results until 1995.
The Paradigm: What was your course of study?
Omoyele Sowore: I studied Geography and Planning in the faculty of Environmental Sciences. I majored in Ground Water hydrology.
The Paradigm: Have you added any other qualification?
Omoyele Sowore: Yes, a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Columbia University in New York. I graduated in 2003 with a concentration in “Law and Public Policy.”
The Paradigm: So, are you a trained journalist or not? How did you start writing?
Omoyele Sowore: I am not a journalist. It is my fundamental right to communicate freely with others. And you don’t require professional training as a journalist to do so.
The Paradigm: Have any of your sources been unmasked or exposed?
Omoyele Sowore: None that I know of.
The Paradigm: Talking about the administration of Goodluck Jonathan, you were instrumental in bringing corrupt appointees under the regime to public shame and even the outright rejection the former president at the polls. Any regret doing this?
Omoyele Sowore: Not that I did this alone, but I was also instrumental in helping Mr. Goodluck Jonathan to come to power when the “Yar’Adua Cabal” swore they would stop him from assuming office. We deployed every arsenal at our disposal to reveal that then President Umaru Yar’Adua was absolutely incapacitated, and could no longer discharge the duties of his office. In this way, we helped create the momentum that enabled Jonathan to assume presidential power. When Mr. Jonathan began to betray his oath of office and to undermine the interests of the Nigerian people, it was our duty to document all of that. I do not regret any of those acts.
The Paradigm: Looking back, do you think you could have done some things better?
Omoyele Sowore: I wish I had started earlier than this. Could you imagine if we had a platform like this since 1990?
The Paradigm: One of your sworn enemies in the Jonathan administration was Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. She has accused SaharaReporters of bias. How true is it?
Omoyele Sowore: I don’t have any sworn enemies that I am aware of, but I have to make a confession. I am one of the young people who had a good knowledge of the way the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) operate. I was lucky to be schooled by the likes of Femi Falana, Bamidele Aturu, Chima Ubani, Gbenga Olawepo, and several others, including the inimitable Gani Fawehinmi (who I should admit wasn’t much of a socialist). These activists exposed the workings of the World Bank and their lackeys to us way before Joseph Stiglitz won the Nobel Prize for saying the same thing or before John Perkins wrote his bestseller, The Economic Hit Man. I knew from the onset that Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala was a fluke. Unknown to many, she is one of the longest serving government officials in Nigeria in the last 16 years Mrs. Iweala has been a recurring government decimal. She supervised the ruin of the Nigerian economy; she supported everything that is bad for us. But her biggest flaw is that she hates taking responsibility for her actions. She loves scaring people; she’s a crybaby and a bully. I detested those attributes about her. She will use anything she can find to blackmail anyone that confronts her. I wasn’t scared of her, she didn’t intimidate me, and she didn’t like that. But she was an absolute failure. That’s why the US would not even touch when she wrongly claimed that she was the leading candidate for the World Bank presidency job.
The Paradigm: You are not running a personal vendetta against her?
Omoyele Sowore: A vendetta against her? No! It was our duty to expose how the policies she championed were hurting the economic and social interests of Nigeria, period. She hates anyone who challenges her fake credentials. You imagine a situation where the World Bank won’t even want her near their president’s office, after she had been used to con Nigeria into making huge nebulous debt payments.
The Paradigm: There are some stories you ran that were not exactly the way you reported them. Do you get worried when such things happen? How do you correct them or make amends?
The Paradigm: There is the issue of ethics, which has always been a source of concern for journalists who feel threatened by the rise of new media. How do you create balance in your stories and how you report them?
Omoyele Sowore: I personally feel that the repetitive echo of “ethics” is sometimes a red herring. Often, the reason the so-called professional, mainstream media are losing out is that they have failed in delivering on their (ethical) promise to society. Some of the self-styled “ethical” journalists are embedded within the corrupt system that has weakened African nations. Some of the greatest violators of “ethics” are those complaining and whining about ethics. The public may be growing tired of so-called ethical journalists who are no longer reporting real news. The public is now increasingly reaching out to those who can deliver on the radical need for sharing significant, critical information.
The Paradigm: Still talking about ethics. During the inauguration of President Muhammadu Buhari, one of the most popular presenters on SaharaTV named Adeola, hounded President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. She asked him when he was going to seat down. Some critics found that exchange very disturbing. Do you think ‘anything goes’ is the new rule of the game, or when is too far, too far?
Omoyele Sowore: I think the confrontation between our Adeola and President Mugabe was one of the best things to happen to journalism in a long time. The people of Zimbabwe were most excited about the unbelievable, decisive, dynamic and courageous reporting that took place in Abuja. It was revolutionary and that’s what journalism ought to be about. I witnessed the event, and encouraged from the rear. Adeola asked the most important question that any serious reporter ought to ask Mugabe. As you’re aware, Mugabe’s physical health has begun to deteriorate lately. He has been unable to walk unaided, and has read old scripts at the Zimbabwean parliament. Apart from being an amazing reportorial moment, the encounter with Mugabe was a historical moment. I hope we can repeat it.
The Paradigm: During the difficult days of President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, you often traveled into Nigeria despite the fact that the country’s security apparatchik was looking to take you down. How did you do it?
Omoyele Sowore: I wasn’t afraid of President Goodluck Jonathan or any of his officials, but it was a necessity on our part to preserve our operations. So, I did create an underground airport in the West African region.
The Paradigm: Stella Oduah, a former Minister of Aviation in the Jonathan administration SaharaReporters exposed as being corrupt, now seats as a senator of the Federal Republic. Don’t you feel, sometimes, that the exercise of exposing corruption is an exercise in futility, seeing the weaknesses or ineffectiveness of our justice system? It seems that criminals are guaranteed freedom if they steal a lot, but only the poor pay for their crimes?
Omoyele Sowore: I’d disagree slightly. Sometimes we don’t realize that some of what we do as part of an activist media has historical reverberation and futuristic impact and relevance. Part of the effects of our work will be felt in the future. In fact, some of us who are in the trenches may not get to see the full impact of the work we do. To comment specifically on Stella Oduah, I can assure you that she has hardly rested since sneaking her way into the Senate. She is still very much running from one court to another, shopping for corrupt judges to offer her some relief by subverting the course of justice. She may succeed in the short run, but in the long term, a lot of judges—even corrupt ones—are feeling the heat. They are realizing that they are under the searchlight from us and other conscientious media groups and anti-corruption groups and individuals. So the culture of impunity is, even if ever slowly, on the decline. That trend will continue, if enlightened members of society do our jobs in a principled, conscientious way.
The Paradigm: What is your advice to new appointees under the new government of Muhammadu Buhari?
Omoyele Sowore: I do not advise people in government. I have never met Buhari before in my life. I have spoken to him for interviews, but I am not interested in advising him. A man who runs for the Presidency should know what to do, and what he wants his appointees to do. My own job is different.
The Paradigm: Since the new president came on board, SaharaReporters has been soft on him. Is it that there is no dirt to report with all his activities and appointees so far?
Omoyele Sowore: Not true. Perhaps, you have not done your research. We’ve been on Buhari’s case. We have been scrutinizing his appointments, providing a robust platform for people to take him on. We have challenged him via articles, reports and cartoons about his style of governance. We came up with the story about one of his appointees having a fake doctorate degree. We reported on his wife’s desire to be “First Lady” at all cost. We called him out on the quote in Washington, DC where he said he would favor regions that voted for him more. We revealed that the Warri Refinery wasn’t working under him—and now it has shut down. You’ve probably not being reading our website.
The Paradigm: Immediately President Buhari won the March 28th election, some corporate hawks like Aliko Dangote, Femi Otedola and other shady businessmen started gathering around him. What is your admonition to the new administration?
Omoyele Sowore: Again, I must restate that we are not in the business of advising the Buhari government. I hope you saw our story about Femi Otedola not paying his debt to the Pipelines and Products Marketing Company (PPMC) since 2006, right?
The Paradigm: Do you have any major sponsor or backer?
Omoyele Sowore: I started SaharaReporters using my personal savings. Also, we keep receiving backing from socially conscious investors like Omidyar Network. Before them, we received funds from Ford Foundation. The rest of our revenues comes from advertising.
The Paradigm: The common norm in the Nigerian online media industry is for people to blackmail organizations and people for adverts, favors or some financial reward. What can be done to put a stop to this?
Omoyele Sowore: We are not a blogging regulatory agency. If people don’t want to be blackmailed, they should stop courting blackmailers. We have heard so many of these stories. But many of those who claimed they were being blackmailed were themselves shady characters. But I can tell you this: ultimately, those who set up websites to blackmail people or organizations for cash will be doomed. The browsing public can sense when a website is designed to blackmail and scam.
The Paradigm: Some bloggers are presently facing the justice system for allegedly writing a false story against a bank MD. Do you think the police are right to have charged these bloggers to court? Doesn’t it negate freedom of speech?
Omoyele Sowore: For me, the problem is that they [bloggers] were arrested accused of this nebulous “cybercrime” offense and then were simply detained. They were denied an opportunity to face their accuser(s) in court. It appears that the bank MD in question just went up to a judge and paid for prison cells to keep the bloggers away. It is a form of judicial travesty. Some bank MDs have been known to loot their banks, and they’ve never spent a week in prison. It is really sad that you can purchase justice (or injustice) in the black market like this.
The Paradigm: Senator Bukola Saraki emerged the President of the Senate against the wishes of his party and without the blessings of President Buhari. Do you think his election should be allowed to stand?
Omoyele Sowore: I am not a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC). My position on Bukola Saraki stems from his corrupt activities, which SaharaReporters has covered for several years now. Mr. Saraki ranks as one of Nigeria’s biggest thieves, and he has evaded justice for so long.
The Paradigm: Senator Saraki’s camp has also accused SaharaReporters of bias. Do you have any personal issues against him?
Omoyele Sowore: In a sense, I have a personal moral issue with anybody whose greed and looting have contributed to Nigeria’s backwardness and degradation. I think it is honestly unfair that former Governor James Ibori is in jail for laundering monies stolen from his state and Saraki is walking free after stealing so much from his father’s defunct bank and from Kwara State. It is unjust. All members of Senator Saraki’s camp know he is a very big thief. The records are there for all to see. It is the reason Saraki may not be able to declare his assets as of 2007. He was richer than most people according to his assets declaration form we obtained.
The Paradigm: What is your view on how vigorous the anti-corruption war has been under the current regime?
Omoyele Sowore: I am very worried that the anti-corruption fight is neither well organized nor well institutionalized. It is akin to former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Oputa Panel, which had more entertainment value than any visible substance. President Buhari’s anti-corruption war makes good copy for newspaper reporting, but few big-name corrupt suspects have been hurled before the courts. It is just all hearsay. And of what value is the anti-corruption war in which no one is really hurt?
The Paradigm: Are you planning to relocate to Nigeria anytime soon?
Omoyele Sowore: I keep saying that I never left Nigeria and Nigeria never left me. You are looking for a big announcement that I have relocated when in fact we bump into each other on the streets of Lagos all the time.
The Paradigm: Thank you for talking to The Paradigm.
Omoyele Sowore: You’re welcome. Have a marvelous day.
- The Paradigm