He has steadily built up a reputation for himself as the scourge of Nigerian politicians, a one-man crusader and an enemy of corruption. Call him a rebel with a cause and you won’t be far wrong. He treads where angels dare not with his exposé brand of writing. He and his former partner (Jonathan Elendu) of elendureports.com took Nigeria by storm in 2005 and gave the phrase investigative reporting a whole new meaning, they got tongues wagging, and many politicians diving for cover. The duo has also been compared to the Americans – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Watergate fame, but just when Nigerians were beginning to get used to their weekly fire-brand stories and investigative reports, Omoyele Sowore announced that he was disengaging from elendureports.com, thus fuelling speculations of a bust-up with Jonathan Elendu. In this rare e-interview, Omoyele Sowore opens up to Uche Nworah on his life, his mission and what really went wrong at elendureports.com
Q. Tell us a little about yourself
A. I was born in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria in a small village called “Kiribo” in Ese-Odo local government area of Ondo State. I come from a small Yoruba –speaking tribe known as “Ijaw-Apoi” (Ijaw-Apoi- because the Ijaws claim their territory or nation starts from there!). My father was a local teacher and my mum a full-time, never- retiring housewife. I come from a polygamous family, I have lots of brothers and sisters, 16 of us, – don’t ask me if I remember all their names!
Q.What was it like growing up?
A. I grew up in Nigeria, in the village in Kiribo. There was no electricity, or running water, no television heroes. No postal office. Just three missionary primary schools and policemen who constantly came to extort women on Market Days-every nine days!
Q. Did you enjoy any special privileges as a child?
A. No privileges at all, my dad told us that part of growing up disciplined, was to live in certain state of deprivation. He talked about chastity, purity and treating one’s self last. Even when I was grown enough to be on my own in the village, as the first son, he never let me have a room to myself. He loaded me up with a bunch of “snitches” that reported to him every turn I made on the bed at night. When I was 12 he taught me how to ride a motorcycle (Suzuki 100 cc.) so that I could fish at the lake for the entire family before going to school every morning!
Q. What about your educational background
A. I studied Geography and Planning at the University of Lagos from 1989 to 1995 (for six years), after being expelled twice for political reasons and because of my student activism. I did my youth service in Yola, Adamawa State from 1995-1996; I was never given a discharge certificate till date for whatever reasons. I also have a Masters degree in Public Administration from Columbia University in New York, I graduated in May 2003.
Q. Briefly tell us about your professional background (working life) both in Nigeria and abroad
A. Until I left Nigeria in 1999, I worked as a pro-democracy activist. I didn’t have a job really; I only had a career as a civil rights activist of a sort, a very dangerous career especially in our part of the world… And with that career you can’t get a day job, there were no paid jobs anyway! I currently work with the Catholic Charities in the New York tri-state area, that’s my job at the moment, my career remains the same.
Q. People have been wondering what drives and motivates you, being that journalism and writing in the Nigerian context does not fully pay the bills, who funds your various story researches which usually transcend many continents?
A. Like I said earlier, i have a day job and my internet reports are funded from my private funds, but some of the reports are also made possible by the research efforts of some patriotic Nigerians who reach out to us because of the seriousness with which we took the reports. I have a network of these great guys all over the world who I tap into from time to time. So many of the tools we use for our investigations are basically somehow available and when we need to go to the higher levels we contact these “Good Samaritans” who in turn deplore their resources to help make things happen, but let me be clear on this, I have never received any funding from any source for my work. For so long, I have been consumed with the passion to see a different nation, which I believe to be very possible. I have thrown my life into it. In terms of my balance sheet, I am operating at a deficit financially, but no one sent me to do this, so I am not complaining. I can’t forget the example set by a good friend, (Kayode Ogundamisi) who had to disguise as a “delivery man” in order to take pictures of Ibori’s Bentley in his garage in London. These are the type of commitments I have been able to tap into to make these reports possible for all Nigerians, to see what their governors and other officials do with their money.
Q. What inspired you to go into this type of ‘death-wish’ journalism, if you like?
A. If you have ever travelled throug
h any West African country you will be really pissed at Nigerian leaders, there is no basis for the current poverty and the wreckage of Nigeria, that in itself is more than enough to motivate anyone to “shoot up” Nigerian leaders. Writing exposés, as you call them is my basic method of “anger management” since I don’t have the means or motivation to nuke up our leaders. Writing became an option because I hate stories in the local media that carries clichés such as “names withheld”. I think our style of writing demystified those journalistic jargons and clichés. It was also an avenue to deliver unadulterated news report to average readers with access to the internet, though still a negligible minority.
Q. The news of the moment is your disengagement from elendureports.com, as their star writer, what do you think will be the fate of the outfit now that you have left?
A. I don’t subscribe to titles, what do you mean by a “star writer”? Most people, including you, can write better than I do. I don’t think that my departure would affect the writing skills of the people running the website. I wasn’t writing for stardom, I was writing for change, I went into writing to support my aspirations for a better Nigeria. I did not leave elendureports.com with the aim that it would collapse. I hope that it gets better; this decision had been in the pipeline for sometime. I even took a break sometime in November 2005. Principally, Jonathan (Elendu) indicated to me that he would go into political consulting in 2007 which means that the outfit will take a partisan position somehow. With due respect, I don’t believe in the current political process in Nigeria. I didn’t want to be hemmed into any political alliance which will damage my legitimate aspiration to seek freedom outside of the confines of the democratic contraption labelled as ‘democracy’ in Nigeria today, the only purpose Nigerian democracy serve is its usefulness as a tool for blackmailing Nigerians into silence. I thought it will amount to suicide to consult for or with any of the political entities in the present Nigeria without thoroughly compromising my principles. This is the principal reason for leaving, of course amongst other private concerns that I have expressed over time.
Q. Can you share with us how you met Jonathan Elendu and how both of you successfully forged an investigative writing force in so short a time?
A. The most shocking part of this is that we have never met before in person, I mean till the time I left. It was an association that emerged purely on faith (even though I am not a religious person). I met him shortly after I returned from Nigeria last year (2005). I had just conducted that “famous” interview with Governor Orji Kalu of Abia State, the one that he flatly denied that he spoke with me. Amongst the various Nigerians that e-mailed me –taking different stance, for or against- was Jonathan Elendu, he told me that he had practiced journalism for sometime and wondered if I actually interviewed Kalu. I told him yes, and that I need not lie about that. He asked if I could give him Kalu’s telephone numbers, I gave him everything. He interviewed Kalu after interviewing me. He came back later and said that he was having difficulties publishing his interviews with the outfit that he had worked with for 5 years! He was upset. I told him not worry, as we discussed he told me that he had an idea to start a website and wondered if we could partner together. I was hesitant because I didn’t know him, and hadn’t heard about him before then. But as time went on we had useful discussions and I decided to give it a try. He wanted me to have a title with his website. I declined, as I thought it was unnecessary. I decided to remain a writer, which means that I also kept my regular e-mail. I told him that I always want to have a choice to publish anywhere I wanted. That was how we started. In all fairness to him, he had maintained that he would do political consulting. But I thought we had gotten to a point where he could not be involved with working for any political candidate without compromising the work we were doing. Gradually my enthusiasm began to wane in terms of continuing to work with him. I respect his skills as a writer but I think we came to the project or enterprise together for different reasons. He sees our engagements differently, for me, I see it as a war to change Nigeria, I believe he views it as a means to further his consultancy work; we began to part ways in different directions from that point. I enjoyed every bit of our work. It has revolutionized internet publishing in Nigeria. And also it has created a sense of alternative media, it was something very fantastic!
Q. It is quite obvious that whatever model you guys used, that it worked; do you think that such a model can work again if tried by other writers/journalists and what is its longevity?
A. Definitely the model will work again, what I would like to see is a duplication or multiplication of this type of effort, when the Wright Brothers invented the airplane (please ignore my high floating comparisons here!) they never thought about huge airplanes that can take half of a city across the world. I really hope this can motivate more partnerships amongst our citizens to democratize freedom of information more quickly. We were able to help provide Nigeria’s local media with alternatives such that Reuters and BBC were no longer the only sources of credible news. The longevity of any partnership is always dependent on variables such as the ideology and philosophy of such partnerships. Part of the problem with ours was that we had so much work to do; we didn’t even think that we needed to work out a real partnership that would be guided by certain principles. The demand for our work was overwhelming!
Q. Of course people respect your personal decisions to leave elendureports.com, but at the same time they are eager to know what really went wrong between you and Jonathan Elendu? Would you say that elendureports.com compromised the original concept in any way?
A. Just like I mentioned earlier, there were no original concepts or rules of existence or engagement, we were just two ‘nice guys” who met somehow and hit it off quickly. Part of the lessons for others who may take up this type of engagement is to be clear about the concept from inception. Draw out a structure and article of engagement based upon certain principles.