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. The final part in the series is contained below.
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TT: With all the mess we are facing as a country, how exactly can the writer wade in? What is the writer’s role as an agent of social engineering?
FS: The writer’s role is to never forget that he belongs to the public, that his work, he does it in public trust, that he is a custodian of the future of the public, and not to sell his soul for a pot of porridge. We have lots of brilliant writers in this country, but we have few who speak truth to power. I mean, recently, foreign currencies totalling ₦13 billion was found in a private residence, and the DG of NIA came forward to say, look, it’s our money. And I’m seeing one or two opinion columnists write that it’s because agencies of government are not working in harmony, that EFCC as an agency of government was trying to hack down NIA just the same way DSS as an agency of government wrote a report on Ibrahim Magu to the Senate saying that Magu should not be confirmed. That is absolute balderdash. You have someone keeping half the budget for an entire agency. The budget of the Nigerian Intelligence Agency for 2015 was ₦25 billion, that guy had 13 billion naira kept in a private residence, and some columnists are saying that EFCC raided a safe house of the agency. What does it tell you?
I tell people that I don’t mind if a roadside seller is corrupt. Corruption is terrible, yes, but there are grades of terrible acts. And the worst grade is for people who preach incorruptibility to be corrupt themselves. There are writers who speak against the government in public and go behind to settle their pockets or who don’t even speak against the government at all because of their pecuniary interests. And that is the class of writers and journalists that this country does not need.
TT: We got to know from one or two sources that you are presently working on a book?
TT: Can you share what it’s about?
FS: It’s a book on my experiences covering the insurgency. I’ve had an extended time in Borno and I’ve learnt one or two things on the group that I believe should be documented for posterity. I think the value of the insurgency to the history of this country can only be superseded by the Civil War. It’s been on since 2009, and after eight years we are still dealing with it. Nigerian journalists typically don’t write books. If AP or CNN sends a West African correspondent here for two years, when he’s leaving he writes a book. So I feel that this is an important piece of Nigeria’s history for the future, and I’ve been involved in it. So a book to document my experience is a thing I’ve learnt on the trade; and it is also to celebrate the heroes of the war against insurgency: soldiers particularly, but also people like the journalist who was killed; personal stories that surround the key actors, the key people who have sacrificed for this country.
For example, I met the mother of a soldier recently. The woman waited 12 years to have that boy. The boy joined the army and was killed by Boko Haram. No entitlement has been paid, the parents are suffering, the woman is gradually going blind in one of her eyes. And people don’t even know that these are the kinds of sacrifice that people pay to see the end of Boko Haram. Of course, we all know about the likes of Abu Ali. But there are many unknown Abu Alis whose stories have not been told, and I hope to do so with that book.
TT: So when should we be expecting the release?
FS: Anytime from December 2018, because it’s going to take a lot of time. I’m taking up a full-time job in June and it’s going to be intense as I see it. So combining that with writing the book will take time. Segun Adeniyi wrote ‘Against the Run of Play’ for two years, we had that election in 2015. So, I won’t do a hurried job. If I can get the quality I want out in January 2018, fantastic! But, hopefully around December 2018.
TT: Before now, the name Fisayo Soyombo has been almost synonymous with TheCable. And so, many found it difficult to grapple with your resignation from the outfit in January, earlier this year. But what next? Is it just consultancy and freelance journalism or you have some other long-term goals?
FS: I was tempted to stick with freelancing and consulting. I have a few international agencies I do stuff for – Al Jazeera, Dailymail UK, in Germany and France. I have a pending deal with The Observer of London, I have not activated it. So, it looked for me like the way to go. It may someday still be the way to go, but I have been tempted by a project that I think will be massive in one or two years to come, so I’m taking a full-time job in June.
TT: Finally, as a young person, you’ve been a source of inspiration to many who are coming behind. What message do you have for the youth? For the young man, who perhaps is still in the university, what would you say his focus should be on?
FS: I just have one challenge for young people – be sure you are better than the adults in the things you criticise them for. The blame game is a very convenient one. “Oh the elders, the older generations have ruined this country for us.” Be sure that you yourself, when you get that opportunity, you are not going to be a party to the ruin. Opportunities for young people are not even about young people getting those opportunities, they are about young people running this country in a way that is different from how the older generation did in the past. It is for young people to get the requisite experience, requisite skills and requisite values. Those are the most important of the lot. For me, the values are the ones that will determine what you do when you have the choice between stealing public funds and investing in the public. So it’s not just the skills.
Look, we have lots of brilliant people in this country. Check every field, sciences, art, we have brilliant people. Our problem is not intellect. Check, there is no journalism award in Africa, in the world, that over the past few years you don’t find a Nigerian springing up at some point in time. Check sciences, breakthroughs in the UK, you would find a Nigerian. A Nigerian was the one who led a team of doctors to remove a baby from the womb of a woman, operate her and return the baby. Intellect is not our problem. We have brilliant people. We have fantastic writers. So it’s not even most importantly about the skills, the experience; it’s the values that are usually our challenge. And that is the void that young people must seek to fill.
It is convenient for them to blame the adults now, but they are not going to be young forever. And when they get to positions of authority, the generations behind them will also blame them. I hope we don’t get to that point. I hope a few decades to come, we can say, “Oh, this is the generation that has improved this country.” And for that to happen, we need young people who invest in the development of their values. It is a conscious effort. It is easier to collect money from a politician and write half-truth for the public. It is easier because we all have bills to pay. So if there is no conscious investment in values, you can’t suddenly have them. Money is tempting. Anybody who tells you money is not tempting is joking. I have turned down cash a lot of times, and I can tell you there were times I had second thoughts and it was a conscious effort to say no. So you’re not just going to get there and find that it is that easy. It is a process of conscious investment in values that I challenge young people to have. Thank you.
Read the part 1 and 2 here