He has been described as controversial, a political activist and his passion to see the Nigerian project work has inspired him to stand up against The Establishment in various ways most of his adult life. This also led to his founding an online news medium in a small room in Manhattan in the United States of America that has today become a household name, subscribed to by many all over the world. In a very interesting encounter The Interview had with Omoyele Sowore, founder of Sahara Reporters, he speaks about his days of student activism while at the University of Lagos, Sahara Reporters and the danger he has often had to face as he pushes on with his cause.
What was on your mind when you started Sahara Reporters in 2006?
The idea was inspired by citizen journalism that emerged out of anti-WTO (World Trade Organisation) protests in Seattle, Washingtonin the US. I was totally taken by the fact that ordinary citizens could tell riveting and powerful stories of an unfolding event that had been ignored by the mainstream media. I started thinking really hard about replicating that experience for Nigerians and Africans, but with a particular focus on corruption. Before establishing Sahara Reporters I had tried a few collaborations with others, but those efforts went nowhere.
What collaborationsand with who?
My first collaboration was with Jonathan Elendu, founder of Elendureports.com. I also sought to pitch my investigative reports to several Nigerian newspapers. One or two newspapers picked a report here and there, but the papers were mostly not interested or they were too scared to pick up the explosive reporting I was sending to them.
How did you start, especially since you did not have a journalism background?
I’ve always been a communicator, as a matter of fact. As a student union leader at the University of Lagos, I served 27,000 students. To lead that many students demands a great deal of flair for mass communication. And we did a lot of communicating. In my foray into social media, I’d say the Internet provided an opportunity to reach vastly more people. I started out during the emergence of this great technology that has disrupted the status quo. In some ways, I am by nature somebody who questions and challenges and disrupts unfair orders or systems. So everything came together very well. I also realised that when people are far away from home, living in a variety of foreign countries, they frequently yearn to know what’s happening at home. In a sense, I started by acting as a reporter to and for those kinds of people.
Share a few of your teething problems with us.
The biggest was combining my daytime job with the tasking duty of collecting news and publishing Sahara Reporters. Initially I had little support, because most of the people I approached for editorial help did not think it was a possibility. There was always the pressure to pay my bills. Also at the beginning, I got knocked out frequently via Denial of Service (DoS)attacks. And because my initial hosts were small, they frequently delisted my website from their servers. I also received a lot of legal threats and attacks. I was sued by a few people who were intent on shutting down the website
Any particular legal threat that gave you concern at those initial stages? How did you handle it?
It’s not in my nature to be really worried about legal threats, because I have always ensured that my reports were from solid sources and often backed up with documents. However, the threats of legal action couldn’t be ignored. So I had to spend considerable time looking for lawyers willing to offer pro bono defence to the website and me. Maybe it’s a bit easier to make money from online publishing now than it was 10 years ago.
Are you making money?
It is actually more difficult to make legitimate money from online media now than it was before. I make the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate earnings, because I was determined, from the beginning, to pursue only legitimate earnings. Google AdSense is paying less and less for ad inserts and other services are also paying less. Everyday, new means and formats of advertisement pop up. Direct advertisers are paying, but only if you’re willing to do their bidding. We can’t allow that to happen. There is a category of publishers that are working directly for interests or blackmailing people. I understand those kinds of publishers make a lot of money, but I consider what they do criminal, illegitimate and unethical.
During the Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan administrations, you were probably the journalist most wanted by the security agencies. Did you go out of your way to cause trouble for these governments, or you were just doing your job?
I was doing what my conscience told me was right. That’s my consistent standard. As you’d probably agree, both administrations went out of their ways to cause devastation in Nigeria. I tried at every turn to report their evil plans to Nigerians and the world. At first, many had trouble believing us, but now Nigerians know better—even though it is too late in some instances.
What/who gave you the courage to press on in spite of the Doubting Thomases you encountered at those early stages?
I believed that Nigeria, especially its future, was worth fighting for. That cause—using the resources of the emergent social media technology to expose and combat those wrecking Nigeria—seemed to me extremely important. I was determined not let the dream die. I saw the potential for a new genre of media that is at once unstoppable and disruptive to the corrupt status quo. Even so, I never envisaged that it would grow to become such a huge platform.
In your years of practice you have had many close shaves with danger, including a few with the security services under Yar’Adua and then one with Mountain on Fire. Which one do you consider your closest shave yet and why?
Every major report we have done since I started is potentially explosive, and there were seen and unseen dangers, dangers from state actors and non-state actors. But I always remained unfazed.
What specific dangers come to your mind and where were they from?
There were all forms of threats and I’d say dangers. There was a time Boko Haram included Sahara Reporters on its hit list in a video they released shortly after they bombed the This day office in Kaduna. As recently as two months ago, the Nigerian Senate sought to gag social media and specifically mentioned Sahara Reporters.
One of your biggest stories was your encounter with Gbenga Obasanjo. Your report of that encounter nearly destroyed the family of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. In the back-and-forth that followed, Gbenga said it was a private discussion he had with you. Do you regret publishing the story?
It was a life-saving story for Nigeria. Gbenga Obasanjo pretty much revealed all the characters behind the intent of his father to destroy Nigeria in his desire to have a third term in office. He also revealed the intense corruption ravaging the nation under the Obasanjo presidency. It would have been a crime against humanity on my part not to report the story. On Gbenga’s part, he took it to the next level by filing a divorce case that alleged that his father might have fathered his (Gbenga’s) kids. It was a broken family. I think the interview helped the family to confront its internal contradictions. If you thought Gbenga’s interview was bad, think of Iyabo Obasanjo’s letter to her father as the 2015 election approached. Think also about their mother’s explosive book about the former president, her ex-husband. Phew! I wish I did more interviews with members of the Obasanjo family. Their stories could become material for a soap opera someday.
Did Gbenga or any member of the family call you directly after the publication?
No, we heard from Gbenga Obasanjo’s lawyers and responded legally. When I met Gbenga on my way from Benin Republic, we did not exchange numbers. However, I emailed him after he filed an action in court against his wife, alleging a sexual relationship between his father and her. He didn’t respond to my email.
The report about [former Aviation Minister] Stella Oduah’s acquisition of two bulletproof BMW cars was another big one. Is it true that she tried to kill the story by offering you a bribe?
Stella Oduah was desperate, but there is no bribing me. The moment I had the paperwork, I never looked back!
What were the challenges you faced following the Oduah story through?
The challenge was mostly watching the former minister’s spin, which was taken up by the established media. It was despicable. However, that was the moment I convinced myself that the power of the media had shifted—away from the establishment media to the social media department. Ms. Oduah’s scandal became a test case of social media power.
Sahara Reporters is a nightmare to many, especially politicians, who often lash back against you with accusations of unethical practices. Dino Melaye is one recent example. What’s your response to Melaye and other critics of your website?
Dino Melaye exposed himself as something of a hypocrite, a man who floats with the wind. It was sad to listen to this man, who used to posture as a democratic activist, asking the Nigerian Senate to contact the US government to do something about Sahara Reporters. I couldn’t believe he was so unprincipled and ill informed.
Would you take him up on his challenge for Sahara Reporters to register with the Corporate Affairs Commission?
I heard that challenge too. How would he stop the registration from happening if we decided to register? He sounded like a former UniLag registrar who once told us at a meeting that he would ensure that we would never be allowed to register in any college around the world, if we were expelled. I was expelled twice from UniLag and was still accepted into an Ivy League university in the US to study for a Master’s degree.
Why were you expelled from UniLag?
It was purely political. The first time I was expelled was because of my participation in the Babangida Must Go/anti-SAP (Structural Adjustment Programme) protests that grounded Nigeria. The second time was after the military authorities targeted the student leadership by empowering and employing the services of cult gangs on campuses against us. It was at the height of the June 12 protests against the regime of General Sani Abacha.
Sahara Reporters has perhaps been the single, biggest source of breaking news about Nigeria, but Premium Times and The Cable, among others, appear to be challenging that position.
Do you think you’re losing ground?
I am a sucker for collaboration. If you ask the operators of these websites, I reached out to them to assist with popularising their content and brand. There are almost 200 million Nigerians; Sahara Reporters can’t possibly serve them all. You can ask from the guys at 234Next, established by Dele Olojede, about when they started. I was so excited about the brand that I started working for them underground, but Mr. Olojede seemed to hate Sahara Reporters with a passion. He bragged that he came to send us out of existence. I predicted to his people that he came to the world of print publishing at a different time and that the brand would collapse, because it was backward thinking. I never met Olojede in person.
The media has been dragged into the ongoing investigation of NSA Sambo Dasuki over the $2.1billion for arms. What are the lessons from this for the future?
It was just a matter of time before the Nigerian media was dragged into a big mess. During Yar’Adua’s Presidency, a bunch of media executives were given land in Abuja. I am told that the same happened under the administration of ex-Governor Bola Tinubu. Some media executives have become as ferocious as politicians are, in terms of their desire for primitive accumulation. The kind of material acquisition by some of these executives comes via shady outlets.
Readers’ comments in Sahara Reporters can sometimes be quite trenchant, if not libellous. Does it worry you?
You possibly haven’t read the comments in the online editions of New York Times and CNN. It is a new day in the media and commentators have created a new genre of journalism. It is the long awaited “People’s Parliament”. It has expanded the frontiers of free speech. Commentaries and the commentators who write them have become major participants in the media game. In fact, the New York Times recently devoted considerable space to celebrating its top commentators. It is hardly ever libellous, because those affected are also commenting. In fact in Nigeria, there is a lucrative cottage industry of commentators paid by politicians and public officials to tell their side, albeit anonymously. But right of reply is not a defence in libel. CNN and NYT websites impose very stringent conversation rules. I have not said that it is. However, there is a strong argument to be made that commentaries constitute some of the best tools for interacting, engaging with and responding to reports. Particular publications may have stringent rules, but commentaries and other forms of engagement with a report do not end in the commentary boxes below the stories. Readers also interact and engage as they deem fit, using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, listservs, emails and so on. It is extremely difficult to police comments and responses to reports. However, I do insist that the commentary sections are necessary. And they have become self-regulating as well. If you were to describe the impact of Sahara Reporters on journalism practice in Nigeria in two sentences, how would you put it? History knows (better). Absolutely, Sahara Reporters has become part of Nigeria and Africa’s contemporary media history. I daresay that it has become a powerful part of that history, in fact.
Did Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu or any other Nigerian politician or political party officer provide funding for Sahara Reporters at any time in the past? Is Ford Foundation still funding you?
I’ve only met Bola Tinubu once in my life, in 1999 before I left Nigeria. I’ve heard a lot about his alleged generosity, but I am not interested in his money or dole outs. I think there are many people who have made so much from him that they and others can’t believe there is anyone out there who has not collected money from him. And who is not interested in the least. I am determined to continue to stand out in this way. I always challenge anyone, I mean anyone, to release information to the public if I have ever received a kobo from Bola Tinubu in my life. Ford Foundation funded Sahara Reporters until the last general elections of 2015. Even when Reno Omokri tried to scare them by threatening to sue them on account of our expose of his shady activities, they didn’t back down. Sahara Reporters, as a cutting-edge digital medium, has recently received further funding from Omidyar Network in California.
As student union government president at the University of Lagos, you vehemently campaigned against cultism, almost at the cost of your life. How did you escape being harmed?
I was saved by the mass action of students. They came to rescue me as I was about to be killed. It was a revolution of a kind. The cult gang members ran away, even though they were armed, when they saw at least 2000 students storming the location where I was being held. They ran for dear life.
What year did this happen? Did you report it to the school authorities and the police?
It happened in March 1994. The school authorities and the military government instigated the attacks. They were behind the attacks on me and other student leaders. They arrested other student leaders and charged some of them with robbery shortly after I was attacked. The police even attempted to abduct me from the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. I had to escape from my hospital ward disguised as a dead person. I was declared wanted and then they expelled us (student leaders) along with the cult gang members. When we protested, the authorities granted us amnesty—but extended the same to the cult gang members the same day. And these were the cult gangsters who had initiated the assault on student union leaders.
Where do you want Sahara Reporters to be in the next ten years?
Sahara Reporters will be looking to expand its multimedia content, its production capability, its creativity and digital distribution of groundbreaking content across Africa and the world. Do you have any plans to go into politics any time in the future? I get asked this question frequently, but I feel like no one is more political than I am. I think the question you meant to ask is if I would ever seek elective office. I honestly don’t know. The idea that political engagement must be partisan, must be driven by a desire for material reward or even for holding office is not my thing. Unfortunately, that’s the model of political engagement that one has seen in Nigeria. We just recently led the pack of media outlets that reported to Nigerians a historical transition of power from a ruling party that had been in power for 16 years to an opposition political party. It was the first time the election results and its winner were declared by an online news platform. Our ability to do that saved the election from being rigged. We performed an important political and even moral duty.
But surely that does not rule politics out for you?
I maintain that I am currently in politics in the same sense that every politically attuned and conscious citizen is in politics. Political engagement is not limited to those who seek elective or appointive offices. I’d say, in fact, that elective or electoral politics should never be rated higher than the everyday political engagement of citizens who hold political leaders to account, who insist that their country’s affairs be transparent, who fight those whose goal is to enrich themselves at the expense of the public. In doing this kind of work, I consider myself profoundly engaged in politics.
You created a hash tag and advocated that Nigerians who have mobile phones should get an alert after each loot recovery. How would that work?
It is very simple. Let the government set up an account just like an individual savings account or a TSA for recovered funds, to be managed by the Central Bank of Nigeria. As looted funds are recovered and deposited, Nigerians who subscribe to that account get an alert. I envisage an automated process. If the account is somehow tampered with, subscribers would get an alert. If there is interest accruing to the account, we would also get an alert. I’d bet that many Nigerians would be happy to subscribe to the account voluntarily by paying a fee like N100. That subscription revenue could be used to hire a small staff to handle the website and the SMS and take care of technicalities around the account. It would be a tragedy if the plundered revenues being refunded or recovered are once again stolen.
You’re a huge fan of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. What is it about him that influenced you?
I absolutely admired Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Unfortunately, I didn’t meet him until a few years before his death. I was impressed and inspired by his many philosophical, political songs, by his activist music. I once auditioned for the musical, Fela on Broadway, produced in New York. Fela opened my mind and gave me guts when I was much younger. I used to hide to listen to Fela’s music.
Is Hilary Clinton the next US president?
It is hard to say. Americans can be very unpredictable, even weird, politically. But if Donald Trump becomes the Republican candidate, he would have to contend with Mexicans, Muslims and Blacks. He’s not going to find it an easy task. But with Americans, there are many times I’ve wondered if there were masses of educated voters or if educated people ever vote.
What’s your view on the pace of the Buhari government?
Snail speed. It appears that Buhari is not moved by speed. But Nigerians want him to hasten up quite a bit, because there are so many problems, even crises, in our countryand these are calling for attention.
Who are your role models?
Lots of ‘crazy’ people, cool people and counter-cultural people.
Are any of your children going to be like you?
I hope they don’t try to be me. If any of them does, I hope they’ll be prepared for the consequences. What areas are they showing interest in? I am letting them be who they choose to be.
Are you coming home (Nigeria) to stay any time soon?
I am always there with you, but you don’t know. Surely you don’t follow the ‘NADECO’ route! I did that for several years during the administrations of President Olusegun Obasanjo, President Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan. That was how I met Gbenga Obasanjo in December 2005.It is an interesting travel route into Nigeria. I fell in love with the route, because of its breathtaking and dynamic nature.