Ayodeji Adeyemi was who you could term a beleaguered journalist before he won the 2009 CNN African journalist of the year award in the sports category. Gist from the mill had it that his employers were just about to drop a sack bomb on him when a call from CNN altered the course of his destiny. I was there sitting by him when that call came through – as he began to stomp and jump, our newsroom became deadly and deathly silent, ostensibly from the unimagined transformation of someone so close to the gallows but now an instant celebrity.
And from that moment, Ayodeji became CNN property. His employers toasted him, his colleagues envied this moment of stardom for someone already written off, and we could all feel the thriller build up, from the kind of preparations that CNN carried out till he mounted the stairs in South Africa and picked up the coveted award – they called and e-mailed him frequently, and whenever they could not reach him, they called some of his colleagues. The most important thing I want to say here is that the CNN had a well oiled machine that sustained the euphoria that that call initiated.
Well, not so for our local CNN – the ‘prestigious’ Nigeria Media Merit Awards, NMMA. If Ayodeji [like any other journo] had put in a story for any of the NMMA categories and was nominated, all he would have got is a ‘prestigious’ letter lumping him with all the other nominees. From thereon, instead of the ‘prestige’ that the organisers promised, his blood pressure would have started hitting the rooftops, not out of excitement but with anxiety. Yearly, as soon as nominees get their letters, a pall of unpreparedness seems to kidnap the organisers. This year’s was no exception. For example, when the event billed to take place in Enugu was postponed the first time, everyone thought that the organisers were taking time to tidy up. But that was not the case. In fact, the awards ceremony had to be postponed a second time because organisers realized, oh, too late in the evening that Enugu was a venue for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup that Nigeria was hosting.
With this write-up, I intend to demonstrate how the NMMA and their organizers mistreated us. I want to talk about it because I hope they would read my story and improve and try to treat other journalists who may be fortunate to be nominees next year with the respect they deserve, at least as nominees. I am not in the least intimidated by the prospect that if I write what I want to write now, I may be blacklisted and probably barred or witch-hunted in subsequent awards. If they want to do that, it would be unfortunate. Journalists are notorious for telling truth to people in power. If that be the case, then I fear not intimidation, blacklisting or witch-hunting by telling the truth to those who arrange for us to be honoured for telling the truth.
When I got a call from my former editor in TELL that I was an NMMA nominee a lot of things passed through my mind. Yes, [I thought], this was going to be a good opportunity to hobnob with former colleagues in TELL Magazine and in the industry. Some from TELL had been harassing and traducing me that I resigned from TELL because I had already reached professional menopause. I wanted to stand before them, eyeball to eyeball and tell them no, it is morning yet on creation day. And in truth, because I had never won any awards in my short career in mainstream journalism, I thought [again], that it might likely happen here. But I began to be a little jittery with the stories I began to hear about the NMMA. In hushed tones, some said there was a scam involved, that the organisers usually went cap in hand to and genuflecting before government officials to collect the monies that were used to organize the ceremonies. According to these hushed baritones, a sizable chunk of the monies went into the pockets of the organisers, with just a cheap laptop, a gold-plated trophy and the publicity going to the journalist and his medium.
Of course I waved these aside as spurious and as rumour. If you consider that such giants in the industry like Tony Momoh, Alade Odunewu and Segun Olusola were unlikely to allow their reputations be dragged into such sleaze, you would understand why I relaxed. But there was a little problem. The bulk of the journalists nominated were Lagos-based, while I lived in Abuja along with a host of others. The programme that was sent to us all by Lekan Bolaji, ‘project coordinator’, and Oritsesolagbone, ‘project executive’, said that the planes would take off from Lagos to Enugu. What about those who do not live in Lagos but are NIGERIAN journalists?
Through Stella Sawyerr, I got in touch with Anayochukwu Agbo, senior editor with TELL Magazine. According to him, NMMA had never made arrangements for journalists outside Lagos, the onus being on them to get to the venue of the NMMA awards however. Through Sawyerr once more, I tried to get in touch with the organisers to find out if arrangements were being made for nominees from without Lagos. I couldn’t reach any of them. I called at all the airlines at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja and I will not discuss what stress and trauma that that experience put me through.
So I decided to make my own arrangements since the NMMA Trust had nothing in store for those of us outside Lagos. You know what? After I managed to arrange to go to Enugu by road, I got gist that arrangements were now just being made for journalists in Abuja. I tried to confirm this with Lekan Bolaji, but the worthy was not forthcoming with any meaningful information. When at last I managed to squeeze something out of him, he said I should relax because he was surely going to get in touch with me before long. This was less than 24 hours to the NMMA award event in Enugu.
Fours hours to the event, I did not hear from Bolaji Lekan. Eighteen hours earlier I had gone ahead to cancel my other arrangement with the transport company I had made on my own. They refunded a quarter of what I had paid as fare. By this time, however, I had unpacked my bags and gone to my office in Abuja to do something reasonable with myself. Therefore, when Sawyerr told me again, less than two hours to the ceremonies, that I had been booked along with some other persons on an Arik flight bound for Enugu, you could bet that I had already had it up to my epiglottis.
I was not consoled by the kind of things I heard happened at Enugu. I heard the governor stood everyone up. I also head that senior media people either refused to show up or felt slighted and walked out of the award hall. I will quote from Funke Adetutu, assistant editor and columnist with BusinessDay. Hear her: the sate governor was to add salt to injury when he refused to show up at the award night. We were told by Ambassador Segun Olusola that the governor was suffering from food poisoning which he contracted while on one of the campaign tours for the local government elections. It was really sad. If the governor could not make the event, does that also preclude his deputy from representing him?’
She said the ‘state governor was to add salt to injury’, because several other things were already sour even before the governor stood everyone up. Most journalists told me afterwards that their hearts were in their mouths all through the flight from Lagos to Enugu because of the funny noises from the plane. When they eventually landed, most of them were famished but there was no food until several hours later on. At a point on the tour, I heard that they were refused entry to a ‘historic site’ in Enugu.
Olayinka Oyegbile, associate editor with NEXT who was also there said he had no words with which to describe the manner a profession he loves so much was insulted and debased. He said the 2009 NMMA Awards were a ‘sham’, short of adding an ‘e’ to that word. ‘Until the NMMA award is self-sustaining or driven by pri
vate investors, it will continue to suffer such insults from government officials. The administrators mainly depend on governors and government officials to host the event when companies or private people could do it better. But since that ‘free’ money comes, they prefer to cheapen it [the awards] that way’, he said.
What more can one say?