A decade cannot yet be squeezed into the time he completed his studies at the University of Ibadan and now, but ‘Fisayo Soyombo is already an inexorable force that cannot be ignored in his sphere of influence. Though a graduate of Animal Science, his strides in journalism are indeed outstanding, if not matchless. The genesis of his professional career may be traced back to 2004 when he began writing for The Guardian. Ever since, it has been awards after awards, both home and abroad.
In 2015, he was named among 3 finalists for the Thomson Foundation Journalist Award. Twice, he has been shortlisted for the Kurt Schork Memorial Fund Awards in International Journalism. Last year alone, he claimed the top prize in the Business and Economic Reporting Category of the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Media Excellence Awards, emerged winner of the Newcomer of the Year category of the 2016 Free Press Awards, and was named the Nigerian Investigative Journalist of the Year under the much-coveted Wole Soyinka Awards for Investigative Reporting.
‘Kunle Adebajo of The Transverse, on Sunday, 14th of May 2017, met with this illustrious mind and courageous gentleman at the Oliver’s Café, Bodija, Ibadan. And the progeny of that conversation is contained in this serialised interview, casting light upon the beginnings, motivations, insights, quirks and on-going projects of Mr Soyombo.
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TT: You said you were placed into the Science Department, not I wanted to join the Science Department. What does that say about the educational system?
FS: You know, it says a lot. At that time, it wasn’t about what course was this guy best in. It was about ensuring the brilliant students were the ones who go to science classes, which shouldn’t be. In my secondary school, I was the Best Student in English Language in JSS 2. Throughout my stay, I was always one of the best students, but in JSS 2 I had an unusually high score. And it’s a very good school in Abeokuta – African Church Grammar School. You can’t name three schools in Ogun State without mentioning that school. And the teachers couldn’t see that this guy was the best in English language, but he wasn’t the best in any other course. So even if they thought he was brilliant, he should be in the department that utilises English the most.
TT: Asides Mr Jahman Anikulapo, do you have any other role models?
FS: I won’t say I have a role model. I would say Mr Jahman is my mentor. I think they are two slightly different things. No one is perfect. I try to look for the best in people and overlook the negative. Mr Jahman Anikulapo did a lot for me. I can’t talk about my journalism career without mentioning him. Abimbola Ojenike was a fine example for me on campus. And, outside campus, Jahman Anikulapo. Toyosi Ogunseye. A young Nigerian and Editor of Sunday Punch [Ogunseye], she is not that popular on the social media but I rate her as a most successful young Nigerian journalist around. She has done some exceptional stories, won awards home and abroad. She is someone who is a friend too. She has had an impressive career. She is young but, yeah, I would place her in that class of people I look up to.
TT: But within the larger polity, those who others consider as icons, you don’t have any personality you admire?
FS: I really don’t have. The first person in the larger world who inspires me, you’ll be shocked, is Critiano Ronaldo because I like the work ethic that has defined his career. Some player joined Real Madrid and thought he was going to impress everybody. I can’t remember who the player is but I read the interview. Training is 8, but this guy got there by 7 to show that he was really ready to work. He got there and met Crisitiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo had won World Best Player Award twice at that time. He had won virtually all awards in club football and he was still that dedicated to his work. So when there are people who have that kind of professionalism, that mind-set to work, they impress me. And Ronaldo is that example.
Of course, there and there, you draw inspiration from people, the quality of their work. For me, I want also people who have a moral presence, and in the polity, talk about the Nigerian landscape, I don’t know people too well. I am careful to say this person is my mentor. For example, integrity is something I value a lot in journalists and Jahman Anikulapo, I know, has that. So I can mention his name anywhere and say this person is my mentor. So basically, I really do not have too many mentors. When young, up and coming journalists say they want me to be their mentor, I tell them, I don’t need to be your mentor, you can actually mentor yourself. There are one or two things about me you think are good, pick them. Find things about me you think are bad, run away from them. That’s the way I see this.
TT: Speaking of awards, perhaps you do not have as many as Ronaldo but you definitely have a lot of feathers to your cap too. Which do you consider the peak of those achievements?
FS: The peak has to be the Free Press Award, 2016. The peak, because it’s the biggest prize money I have won in journalism. When I converted it into Naira, it was some millions. So it’s the biggest award I’ve won financially. It’s also the award that has pushed my brand the most. When I won, the calibre of people who contacted me, who wanted to associate with me on the social media, no award ever gave me that kind of interest from the public. So, yes, I would rate it as the best. Also, I met some fantastic people. Nigeria is a place where you are trying to climb the ladder and people around you are just unhappy. I’m sure of Nigeria, I don’t know if it applies in the rest of Africa. You find that a lot of people are trying to pull you down; people don’t want to support you. But, usually in the West, there is that support system. I met someone at the Free Press Awards, who I think was in her early fifties and told me, “Excuse me for a couple of minutes, I need to smoke. I know it’s bad, it’s terrible. I’m a smoker.” I said, “No, no. no, please do.” And then, two months after, I published the story on IDPS, and she told me, “Look, I need to sell this story for you.” She did all her best to sell the story in Spain, Holland, and those who were interested but turned it down did so because their policy is against publishing undercover stories. That was someone that had only known me for two months and was a chained smoker.
But come to Nigeria, you see people who hold the Bible, go to church every Sunday, and then you are doing something good, they just suddenly get envious and do not want to support you. Two different worlds. So I met quality people when I was in Netherlands. It gave me some money and some attention; attention in the sense that, “Oh this is some guy doing fantastic work.” And I tell you what, since I left The Cable in January, and I have been freelancing and consulting, there was no month that I did not make more than my salary. And this is the value of attention. So, basically, it was leveraging on the attention I had gained in the last one or two years. If I left The Cable one year into my stay there, I would have been hungry, honestly. I would have run into problem.
TT: Speaking of the strong support system in some other countries, there have been reports which give kudos to journalists in the Third World because they are able to perform despite the lack of internet, easy access to information, and genuine democracy. Do you have any comment on this? How would you compare journalism here to journalism elsewhere?
FS: They respect us, those developed countries. And that’s why some newspapers would even say don’t do undercover journalism because everything you want, you get. You want information on government spending? You simply write a letter to the appropriate quarters, and you get a response. It doesn’t happen here in Nigeria. Certain things, you can never get in Nigeria if you do not go undercover. Are you going to walk into the Customs and say that “I hear that there is corruption here;” and you expect them to say, “Yes there is”? So, they look at us here and say these are people doing real journalism. That respect is there but, beyond that, our society needs to advance, to get a point where practising journalism is easier, involves less risk and less rigour. Journalism can deliver better in that way when you don’t have to stake your life to do certain stories. There are journalists who want to do good stories but they run away because of the risk involved.
It is so bad that I have been at a training where someone from an anticorruption agency (not EFCC, not ICPC) was talking about how journalists could help to encourage transparency. At the end of his lecture, I went to him to discuss the Oil and Gas Sector. He called me aside and said, “Are you married? Stay away from that industry.” And that’s the person who minutes before was talking about journalists getting to do more investigative stories in the Oil and Gas Sector.
TT: Your perspective about Nigeria now, by virtue of your profession, should perhaps differ significantly from what you thought, say, about five years ago. What discoveries have you made about this country? Have they reinforced your optimism, or it’s the other way round?
FS: Anyone who has an idea of the workings of governance in this country can’t claim to be more optimistic about the future of this country and can’t claim to be more optimistic about her socio-political prospects. If you look at the administration under Jonathan, there was a lot of extreme mismanagement of the country’s resources. When Buhari talks about the destruction of the years, he actually isn’t saying anything new. He should actually be listened to, rather than dismissed as just whining and all that. He is saying the truth. Under Jonathan, key agencies of the government would dip their hands into the treasury of the government and take out foreign currencies, which is extremely wrong. Under Buhari; yes, slightly better, but you have key government officials who are not on speaking terms. It’s not a united government still, and then you have an ailing President. All these do not spell good for this country.
Not so say that there isn’t hope, but we can’t just get ahead of ourselves. It’s going to take a while. It’s going to take years of continuous election of the right candidates, the people who truly have the interest of this country at heart. We need to get to that point. We voted PDP out of power back in 2015, which seemed logical. But we’ve seen over the last two years that there really is no difference between APC and PDP. If I ask you now, how many PDP legislators do we have compared to APC legislators, you can’t know because they cross from time to time, from party to party. You find someone who was in PDP for decades, for twenty, fifteen years, defecting to APC. So it’s still literally the same group of people who are in power and who are ready to get into power. Look at 2019 ahead, right now who are the candidates that we can see? They are names that we’ve always known, who have either been in the system and have never been President or have always been close to the system and the Presidency. Very little to drive optimism for this country, but it doesn’t mean we are done. I don’t think our situation is irredeemable, but not so much to look forward to.
TT: So you do not see any drastic development in the nearest future?
FS: Drastic, I do not see. Gradual, yes. We are still an oil-dependent economy. We hear all the talk about agriculture, but what noticeable differences have you seen? For example, in the aspect of agriculture in Oyo state, there is a Faculty of Agriculture in Nigeria’s first university, what research capacity boost has the Federal Government given University of Ibadan because that is where it starts from. For example, in discovering new breeds of plants that are disease-resistant, drug-tolerant, and in scientific revolutions in agriculture, we are not taking concrete steps to getting to that path. So the whole idea of diversifying the economy still looks to me as talk, talk, talk rather than action. And, of course, I understand Nigeria is a very big country. The level of work you put into it doesn’t give you a large-scale output in a short time. Maybe, we need more patience to see how the government is trying to diversify the economy but for now we know that we are still an oil-dependent economy. That way, there can’t be drastic change in the quality of life that people have in this country.
Don’t miss anything, read the first part here.