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 2011, a piece he had written as a Youth Corps member got him nominated for the Investigative Reporter Category of the Nigeria Media Merit Awards. In 2015, he was named among 3 finalists for the Thomson Foundation Journalist Award for his three-part series covering Liberia’s recovery from the Ebola Virus Disease and the government’s mismanagement of donor funds. Last year (July, 2016), he was shortlisted, for the second time in three years, for the Kurt Schork Memorial Fund Awards in International Journalism.
Two months after, he claimed the top prize in the Business and Economic Reporting Category of the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Media Excellence Awards for his story: ‘Undercover Investigation: Nigeria’s Customs of Corruption, Bribery and Forgery.’ And barely a month after, he also emerged winner of the Newcomer of the Year category of the 2016 Free Press Awards for his investigative story, ‘Forgotten Soldiers’ – a five-part series exploring the agony of soldiers battling with the Boko Haram menace. And then in December, Mr Soyombo 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.
TT: What motivates you as an investigative journalist? Why do you do what you do?
FS: Investigative journalism for me is a passion. I hate injustice a lot. I can’t stand it. Investigative journalism helps me to seek justice for people who are suffering, who are poor, who are not deemed as important in the national equation. It helps me to speak for people. It helps me to pursue my dream of advancing the society. It also helps me to chase excellence. I want to be excellent in what I do; I do not just want to be a passer-by in the world of journalism. Journalism is my passion. It is something I do seven days a week, so I cannot afford to do it and not make an impact. For me, the drive is to advance society, to speak for people and, of course, to do excellently well.
TT: Some have argued that no matter how much you write about the ills in the society, you will still not be able to change much in the society. How would you react to this?
FS: You are correct. You won’t change so much, which means you change a little. And minimal change is something to start with. Let’s face it; we are never going to wake up one day and find the world to be as we’ve always dreamt, but we can get as close as possible to that dream if we all try. Yes, it’s true that we won’t change so much but I have had experiences where I succeeded in changing a little. I did a story on soldiers and there was one particular soldier whom the army gave prosthesis. Someone who was on crutches got prosthesis and could live his life mechanically because of a story I wrote. One life is really important, and that is something.
TT: No doubt, many of your stories involved a lot of risk. At a time, you travelled to Liberia during the Ebola crisis to do a report on how donations to the country were managed. Of course, you have also been to some of the most dangerous places in the country, the North-eastern region especially; and even among men with guns such as Custom Officials. That takes a lot of courage. Where do you get it from? Is it spiritual, or do you have material [i.e. physical] motives behind them?
FS: Number one, there is no material motive. Maybe, you can say my passion for excellence in what I do, and I do not think that is materialistic. I do not think anyone, even if you are a cleaner, shouldn’t set out to be excellent. If you are a shoemaker, try to be the best. Other than that, where do I get the courage? There is a saying that courage is not the absence of fear, but the understanding that something else is more important than fear. It’s not like, when I take on those assignments, my heart doesn’t pump. And what do I do? I pray. I am not a pastor. I do not consider myself a perfect example of what a Christian should be, but I don’t have any skeleton in my cupboard other than “in the name of Jesus.” And I call on it whenever I embark on these trips.
I do get to points where I am really fearful. But once I have started something, I don’t look back. The last time I went to Bornu state, on the day I was to travel, my boss called me to say, “Have you heard? Two bomb blasts in Bornu state. Are you sure you want to travel?” I said, “Sir, I’m at the airport already. I can’t turn back.” And I went. So, it is just the understanding that some things are more important than fear. As I always say, death is everywhere. We all want to live long, but we will all die. I know someone who sat in front of his shop, and a trailer lost control, ran into him and he died. So I tell myself, fear cannot determine the things I do. It shouldn’t be a factor in the equation. Once I am sure something is worth pursuing, I am not going to allow fear to stop me. And I hope for the best, to go for every trip and return.
TT: Most likely, it is not all the stories you’ve conceived that you eventually got to work on due to one factor or the other. Do you mind sharing some of them with us? And how do you get money to make all these stories a reality? Is it always from the media house, or there are other independent sources?
FS: I’ll share just one with you. When Ebola broke out in Lagos, you know the first Isolation Centre at Yaba that the Lagos State Government established for the victims? I wanted to go there. It was in 2014, a few months after The Cable was launched. I was the Editor, and my job was to publish stories daily, read what others have written and get them in the best possible shape for our readers. So it was hard. From the incident management team, the head directed me to the Commissioner for Health. The Commissioner for Health ran away to avoid me. I wanted to go inside that Isolation Ward and tell the story of what it was like for Ebola to be treated.
In fact, I’d spoken to a doctor-friend of mine on how I would arrange the protective gear. There was a risk of me contracting the virus, but I was set. I just wanted the Lagos State authorities to grant me permission to be able to say this was how victims were fighting for their lives, and this was how medical personnel were working hard, staking their lives for Ebola to be suppressed. But somehow, the key officials in the Lagos state government managed to frustrate me. And also, my schedule at The Cable meant it didn’t come to pass. If there’s one story I wanted to do and I didn’t do, and when I remember, I just wish I did, it’s that story.
Then you asked about funding as well. Sometimes, I do it myself because all some stories take me is legwork, driving to and fro, from one place to another. And I did all that with my money. I went to Plateau State in 2013 to investigate the inter-ethnic killings, and a German foundation gave me pittance, about 100,000 Naira. And I added about 150,000 Naira. Eventually I spent something close to 300,000 Naira, but I had just 100,000 in support. I knew that I just wanted to get the story out. For “Forgotten Soldiers”, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting gave me half a million. The Executive Director saw the proposal, liked it and said this is something we should do. For my last IDP story, it was The Cable that funded it.
The most interesting one, however, was BudgIt. When I wanted to travel to Liberia, BudgIt wanted to pay some guys in Liberia to get them some field information, field statistics relating to the management of the virus. But then I saw a press release that nurses were protesting, so I knew there had to be a bigger story. For nurses who fought for the eradication of the virus to be owed, I was sure something must have gone down wrong with the management of the funds. So I told my contact at BudgIt, “look don’t pay that guy. Rather than pay the guy, fly me to Liberia. I will give you the report you want and I will do my story.” So it was like a trade-off. I went there, wrote the BudgIt report, sent it to them, came back and wrote my own story.
TT: What is the origin of your passion for writing? Was it during childhood – that early – or it started with your internship at The Guardian?
FS: It was that early. My first shot at writing a novel, for example, was when I was in JSS 1 or 2. I started the novel, finished it, picked it up again in SS 1 or 2 and tried to write. I had titled it, “Whose Fault?” It was the story of a family where the dad wasn’t available, the mom didn’t train the children and the children turned out to be criminals. But I almost bungled that dream. I was placed in the Sciences in secondary school, so I was forced to retrace my steps. There used to be two competitions for secondary school students then, and I am sure they still exist. One was ANCOPSS (All Nigerian Conference for Principals of Secondary Schools). In my school, we did the quiz and 20 of us were selected. I am sure I was not in the top 15. But for the essay, when I got to SS 1, I won each time from SS1 to 3. For SS 2 and 3, in the state, I was 2nd. So I thought, “If I was a 2nd prize winner in the state in essay writing, and in quiz I couldn’t even enter into the top 15 in my school, what was I doing in the sciences?” That for me was the defining moment of saying I would pursue writing because that was what I was best in.
After school, I went to UNAAB and, from there, gained admission to UI. I said, “Let me just come to UI to make a first class.” I filled Agriculture on my UTME form. I got to UI, and in 100 level, there is this guy called Laz Ude Eze, the Editor-in-Chief of Mellanby Press. Then, he convinced me to join the press after I participated in a debate between stale students and fresh students. He walked up to me and said I should join the press. I told him, “Look, I am in UI for a first class. Let me get a good CGPA in 100 Level and then I can join the press in 200 Level.” He made a statement that made me change my mind. He said, “If you join the press in 200 Level, those who are not as good as you will be ahead of you, and you won’t like it.” And the moment I joined the press, after the end of 100 Level, I interned at The Guardian. After the internship, my Editor at The Guardian, Mr Jahman Anikulapo, stayed in touch and encouraged me. So, that’s how I got into journalism. But it started from Junior Secondary School.