Fellow Nigerians, please let me confess that this is a topic that is very much after my heart. I have been a full time journalist since May 1988. Since then I have practised in Africa and Europe. And I have sustained a cross-breed between hard-sell and soft-sell, what is definitely a difficult marriage. It has made it possible for me to traverse all the continents, and travel to far-flung places, in search of incredible adventure, great stories and colourful pictures. It has, without any shade of doubt, given me all the fame, daily bread and relative influence. I have met Presidents and Royals, and interacted with many regular folks at home and abroad.
On the streets of China, Dubai, Australia, India, Europe, Africa and America, I have been stopped by complete strangers who wanted to applaud my modest contribution to modern journalism in Nigeria and beyond. And to those who know me and my extraordinary passion, I love my job and would not trade it for any other. Though I did not attend any formal school of journalism, I believe the media naturally runs through my veins, and I’m proud to say that no other career would have provided me this rare privilege to explore the world of politics, business, showbiz and advocacy. But that’s where it all ends.
Ordinarily, you would have expected this type of job to earn me and my colleagues some mega-fortunes and your expectations would not have been misplaced. Some things in life were always supposed to go hand-in-hand and every man should be able to make a treasure as a reward for hard work as it is in America, a country where many young celebrities live the lifestyle of the rich and famous. But not in our own clime where the harder you work the lesser you earn. You can be super famous but still be reduced to living the life of squalor and penury. If you are the principled type, you are likely to be scorned at by those who should appreciate your selflessness. Why should you attempt to be a good man when it pays here to be the exact opposite of a Saint?
Everywhere I go I get the impression that fans expect me to be a man of wealth like Dr Mike Adenuga Jnr., Alhaji Aliko Dangote or Mr. Tony Elumelu. Every day of my life, I receive mails or phone calls from members of family, friends, and even complete strangers, asking me for impossible favours. I always feel their deep-rooted resentment, and absolute disappointment, anytime I said no to their often desperate requests. According to their theory, I’m a successful journalist. To make matters worse for me, I was also a Presidential candidate. In our neck of the wood, politicians are supposed to have free access to easy money. And they have seen me with the movers and shakers of society. I’m inclined to suspect that any time they saw me with Presidents and Billionaires; it was as if I wore some glue in my palm and grabbed all the wealth from them. They failed to understand the fact that part of my job was to establish and maintain important contacts; to have the keys to many doors, and be able to penetrate most impregnable homes and offices.
Someone from my mother’s village recently asked me for thousands of dollars to pay for school fees. I rang him up personally to explain why I won’t be able to help him. And told him I had my own financial difficulties as a result of many pressing commitments and engagements. His response was that he didn’t believe I won’t be able to give him anything. I knew it was a total waste trying to persuade someone who had convinced himself that I was a rich man in the Nigerian parlance.
There was an extended member of family who wanted to travel to the United States to explore business opportunities and pleaded with me to buy him a ticket after he purportedly got his visa. He promised never to ask me for another favour in this life if I can just settle him this once and for all. This particular man did not give me any chance to sermonise. At a stage, I began to feel guilty even if I knew I was going to hurt my own cash-flow by this act of benevolence. The money requested was eventually delivered to him after so much harassment and, obviously, to my own detriment.
The man soon disappeared from my radar and for months I wondered what had happened to him. One day, he phoned me out of the blues and from a country code that showed clearly that the caller was in Cote d’Ivoire, or using a number from there. I asked what he was doing in Abidjan and the long story started. Some fraudsters had sold him a dummy of a visa and he was told for that type of visa he could only fly to America by doing a merry-go-round through the West Coast. Of course he was arrested by the authorities and hauled into the Ivorian detention. By the time he regained his freedom, he was too shy to return to Nigeria where he had told all his friends and family members he was on a trip to America. I have had too many of such encounters to report here.
There was never a day that passed without people asking for all manner of favours, from the frivolous to the sublime. I had learnt how to talk to those in need of one help or the other, by applying the injunctions of Chief Moshood Abiola who used to admonish that “you must always have kind words for those who need us even when it is difficult and impossible to help them.” I realised that it was not always such a simple task. More often than not, you are expected to be the last hope of the masses and must be able to solve all problems. The assumption that you have the money, regardless of the reality on ground, fuels the tenacity of the asker. Many of my colleagues have faced this dilemma at different times because society expects so much from us without caring to find out our own predicament.
The business of journalism is almost a thankless one in Nigeria. More often than not, the journalist is viewed as an omnipotent Dracula who should fight the battles of society while others sit in the comfort of their homes. He’s also expected to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But despite his gallant efforts, the journalist is probably the poorest professional in our country. The students I taught at A ’level in 1982 are now heading big Corporations and earning what some of us can only dream of. The journalist on his part has to contend with the vagaries of life. If he’s in print journalism today his fortunes must be dwindling.
Readership is shrinking by the day. Purchasing power is also evaporating. Advertisers are crying. Newspaper vendors are drying up under the scorching sun. It has become too difficult to sustain high print runs. Not more than five newspapers are in the top league. In a country of over 150 million people the combined circulation of newspapers and magazines are far less than one million copies. The reporter is writing stories he’s not sure anyone would read. Unsold copies are piling up everywhere. Most of it would be used ultimately to wrap roast corns, plantains and groundnuts. It is tragic.
Magazines are the worst hit. The reason is very simple. Magazines can only come as a weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, bi-monthly and perhaps quarterly. There are too many magazines on parade doing almost the same things. Internet publishing is on the rise with so many websites and blogs. This incursion has killed the news-worthiness of most magazines. Celebrity journalism is however on the rise. This genre thrives on gossip, fashion and lifestyle. They are extremely popular with hi-society but it is doubtful if their revenue is commensurate to their popularity.
Those who cover events have their own peculiar problems. Celebrants would spend millions on purchasing fabrics, jewellery, shoes and bags, venues, exotic foods and expensive wines and champagnes. They would pay heavily for the services of musicians, comedians and masters of ceremony but would conveniently forget the journalist who would expose the beautiful events to the world. It amazes me why such people don’t consider events reporting as a service and business venture.
The electronic media has its own frustrations very similar to that of the print media. It is totally dependent on heavy duty equipment. In a country with no electricity, it is almost certain that all television and radio houses must permanently depend on generators and diesel. There are probably less than 50 companies in Nigeria that can run real and aggressive advertising campaigns. Even at that the advertising companies have to wait on their own clients. While the media houses wait on the Advertising Agencies. It is indeed a rat race. At the end of the day the journalist as a member of society must find means to pay his bills. A masquerade, after-all, is a human being.
These days, many of our friends are forced to become emergency public relations consultants to politicians, businessmen and showbiz personalities. In desperation, some may turn to blackmailing important members of society. Some publications that sell less than 2,000 copies are mostly respected in government circles. Their publishers usually gain easy access to government houses. They are the dons at press conferences. They attend every dinner hosted by Governors, Ministers and even the President. Can you really blame them? They have studied our queer society and have come to the conclusion that a bully only respects a bully. If our leaders would not respect good people they must be consumed by bad people. That is why they often fall victim of fake journalists and tricksters.
In the fallout of this hullabaloo, it is our noble profession that suffers. And in a country where all institutions are collapsing, the Executive, Legislature, and the Judiciary, we cannot afford to kill the fourth estate of the realm because it is the last hope of the common man. If and when that happens, all we need to do is remember to switch off the lights and blow our candles and say goodnight to an unusual country and its unfortunate people.