In a recent interview with the Nigerian writer, Feyi Fawehinmi, Pulitzer Prize winner and publisher of rested Next newspapers, Dele Olojede, speaks extensively about the day Dele Giwa was murdered, fleeing Nigeria, covering Rwanda genocide and winning the Pulitzer Prize.
Feyi: You won a Pulitzer in 2005 for writing 10 articles/pieces on Rwanda. Did you go to Rwanda and stay out there for a while?
Dele: Oh yeah, of course. These things as we see it in the old newspapers those days before the blogging era, you had to pound the pavement. Yeah, that was one of my several trips to Rwanda over the years since the start of the genocide itself or more accurately, since towards the end of the genocide. Because at the start of the genocide, I was busy covering the South Africa transition and their coming election that led to Mandela assuming the presidency. So I had been there as the genocide was ending and then I went back repeatedly over several years. And I never could shake the guilt that I chose to stay in South Africa at the start of the genocide rather than go to Rwanda. So I always felt a kind of special affinity to the place.
The reason for the guilt was simply that I thought that if I had gone early and was able to write with great passion what was going on, perhaps one would have persuaded the worlds to intervene much earlier and maybe hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved. So for that reason, I always went back to Rwanda. So as 2004 approached, I was Foreign Editor in New York at the time at NewsDay, I decided to assign myself. In late 2003, I returned to Rwanda to explore a number of issues that had always nagged me about the place. On the 10th anniversary of the genocide I went back there and spent nearly four months straight up reporting the stories. These were subsequently published in New York starting in May 2004.
Feyi: Did the prize change your life? What happens when someone wins a Pulitzer, do people start picking your calls?
Dele: Yeah, they start calling you, they don’t wait for you to call.
Feyi: So what were they offering you?
Dele: (Laughs) Well, people want you to talk to their board, to appear on talk shows. Because all of a sudden, they ascribe extraterrestrial intelligence to you that was not ascribed before. All of a sudden, you became the wise man who knew everything. Whether it was the World Bank calling or a corporate board calling or a university asking you to speak to their students. You start getting letters from all kinds of people across the world, including the president of your native country, and so on and so forth.
Feyi: I think President Obasanjo put out a statement at the time congratulating you.
Dele: Yes, he did. And he sent me a personal letter. And Bola Tinubu and the whole lot of them. Let’s just call it an ego inflator, it inflated your ego (laughs).
Feyi: What’s the most tempting offer someone threw at you on account of the Pulitzer?
Dele: I think it wasn’t so much a tempting offer as a whole series of thanks, caskets of thanks. And more importantly, the timing was particularly good, because that’s when I started to think about the possibility of starting NEXT in a very serious way, so it made raising money easier. Of course, it made attracting talents easier! All of those things were very positive. My daughters thought I was some kind of a genius because they saw my name everywhere, so that was pretty good.
Feyi: If we go back a bit, this is a part of you I didn’t think many people outside of journalism know, but you worked closely with Dele Giwa. At the time of NewsWatch you were very young. Dele Giwa himself was young when died, he died at the age of 39. You were 26 at the time he died?
Dele: (Cuts in) I was actually 25.
Feyi: Were you very close to him?
Dele: We were very close friends. And he was, of course, also my mentor and my boss. We were close to the point of in and out of one another’s homes. I knew all his family very well, got in trouble together, those kind of things. We were exceptionally close, that’s why it was particularly devastating.
Feyi: How did that hit you?
Dele: Well, I remember the day clearly. Sunday October 19, 1986. I had gone to play squash, I believe with Soji Akinrinade, who was also a colleague at NewsWatch at the time. I returned to my apartment in Oregun, which was not very far from the office, only to find all these messages waiting for me that something terrible had happened to Dele. So I rushed over to his house, by which time they had taken him to the hospital in Opebi, and then rushed to the hospital from there and found him on this gunny. He was already dead by then, covered with a tarp. I pulled the thing open and saw him there stark naked, with his torso completely blasted apart! What I remember most about that day was somehow this image of his left wrist, where his watch had been. The skin where the watch had been was preserved when every other thing was burnt. So you could see the image of the watch on his skin. I remember seeing that and I remember being extremely angry that day. I believe I was who drafted the official NewsWatch statement to the press, which probably accounted for this particular harshness and directness where I basically accused Babangida’s government of being behind the murder. So the next morning, they sent soldiers to NewsWatch offices and shut us down.
Feyi: So they actually shut you down after the editor had been killed?
Dele: Yes! On Monday October 20, 1986, the soldiers took over our offices on Oregun Road in Oregun, Ikeja from early in the morning. And they started arresting some of the senior editors a few days afterwards, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese and Yakubu Mohammed and so on. And one thing sort of led to the other. Because my apartment was pretty close to the offices, it sort of naturally became a gathering spot for all the writers and editors and so on. Eventually, as they were arresting the senior editors, people began to think of alternatives, about how to deal with the government.
It was around that time that the Ford Foundation came to me to say that they would pay for me to get out of the country and go to grad school at Columbia University. The person who disclosed this to me was Dr. Richard Joseph, who at the time was running Prebendal Politics. He’s a political scientist, he’s at Northwestern now. But at the time, he was running it for West Africa. So he arranged for the scholarship and Columbia gave me a place. The idea was I was going to go to Columbia for a year of grad school to cool off and then go back to Nigeria. But in the meantime, they had banned us. The book that I published on Dele Giwa with Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo had been seized from the printers, from the publishers and so on. So it became clear that I really couldn’t just go home again, at least suddenly not right away after grad school. It was from there I was hired by Newsday and my career went in a different direction.
Feyi: You were young at that time. Did you feel young or was it just a question of the newsroom was a newsroom where nobody judged you? I imagine you were the youngest then?
Dele: This is the interesting thing. I think my generation was really sort of the first time that entire set of new journalism recruits into newsrooms were those who came out with university degrees. Up until then, it was catch as catch can, and you had pulsars rising to position of reporter. So we were the smart young ones who came out of the universities almost uniformly with fistful of degrees! We were very young. There was a lot of optimism and wild energy about the country that Nigeria was going to be made right. We were fearless and we didn’t even think we were too young at all. Also, remember in Nigerian journalism, there had been a long history of people at very young age holding very responsible positions: Peter Ehanaro was 21 when he became Editor of the Daily Times in 1960 or 1961 I believe. He was 21 years old. And you remember also, people who ran the country after the first civilians had been bumped up by the military were all sorts of 28 to 32. So by the time we got to take over the newsrooms, we were quite young but it wasn’t like a big shock. Also, by the time the Dele Giwa death happened, I had kind of made my bones as they used to say in the old mafia stories, because I had done a number of things that raised my profile a little bit for a youngster, including…
Feyi: (Cuts in) You did a story on Fela, I think?
Dele: Yes, the stories that freed Fela from prison and so I did those. We were fairly confident people. We were well educated and ready to take on the challenges of reforming our country even under military rule. And you know, even in those days newspaper reporters were not completely impoverished as they are today. You could come out of the university, get a newspaper reporter’s job and be able to buy an entry level car and rent a one or two bedroom apartment on the Mainland, somewhere. So we were not really pushed into the arms of those who wished to corrupt us, even though I imagine the level of corruption occurred at the time as well.
Feyi: You left Newsday in December 2004?
Feyi: I think the Pulitzer Prize, was it announced in 2005 or 2004?
Dele: it was announced in 2005. The Pulitzer Prize is always awarded for work from the preceding year so I had already left NewsDay. It was bitter-sweet for the paper because, as you can imagine, winning a Pulitzer Prize for any newspaper was such a big deal. The whole newspaper came out to celebrate. The publisher, the editor, everybody, all down to messengers, there would be champagnes and parties and things, it was always a big moment for a newspaper!
But here was I, I had already left and they had to fly me back in from South Africa. I remember I got the news the day before the official announcement as I was walking off a golf course in George, in the Western Cape of South Africa. The phone rang and it was New York calling to say ‘You’ve got to get the flight tonight out of South Africa to get to New York on time for the announcement to come over the wires’. So they sent a car to pick up my family, they were still in New York, and brought them into the newsroom because they were quite young. So by the time I arrived after flying all night they were all already there! And the official announcement always came over the wires at precisely 3p.m, and then, of course, the whole newsroom screams and start pouring champagne and stuff like that! So yes, I had already left the paper before winning.
Feyi: Who are the two people who have influenced you as a journalist the most, in your time at Newsday and NewsWatch or generally in your career?
Dele: The first one obviously is Dele Giwa who shaped my very early career at the very early stages of my career, I came out of the University of Lagos in 1982, did a quick stop over at Radio Nigeria for like a month and then joined National Concord at the time I believe Dele Giwa was the editor of the Sunday Concord and so I fell under his influence from there very early on in my career so he shaped the early part of my career.
The second biggest influence in a direct sense would be Les Pen who was my boss at News Day for so many years until I left in 2004, also a Pulitzer prize winner himself and African American, very outspoken and a very fine mentor who took chances on people whether or not they were ready and I think he did a lot of that in my case. So those were the two most direct influencers of course there are so many other as writers and so on who sort of influenced me, even my desire to pursue journalism as a way of making a living and casing trouble in the world.
Feyi: You were one of 29 or is it 28 children?
Dele: Well it depends on when you count because you know there was attrition over the years but number 12 of 28 would be the most accurate.
Feyi: I have seen stories about growing up, you grew up in Ife, and you were sort of exposed to people like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe at a very young age, was your path in life was it set for you very early in such a way that you were always going to be a writer and nothing else?
Dele: Yes, I think I’m sort of lucky or special in that there was never any confusion as to what I wanted to do, because remember you are growing up in the sixty’s in a place like Ife, University town; all these dashing professors had moved down from Ibadan to come and set up Department of Dramatic Arts. Wole Soyinka was heading the department then and they were producing all these plays, Ola Rotimi, and so they were all there. And that was the time that the concept of tan and gown was pretty much alive, so the theatre where they were trying out of this new plays and works they were creating was actually in town, Ori Olokun theatre.
So when they were doing their rehearsals on Sundays, we would just go there and be watching them and imbibing all of these things and dreaming of being like these people. And of course, the Yoruba travelling theatre was also alive then, Baba Sala and his comedy group were always travelling from town to town performing live and Duro Oladipo and his troop were with great historical plays from the old Yoruba empire and this old man who towards the end of his life was making movies (his name escapes me now), he also was travelling with his troop, so you were exposed to all this cultural influences, and it was very clear to me that that was what I would like to do particularly I would like to write, and also the Daily Times was pretty powerful and influential at the time and you found all of these people writing columns with their picture in the Daily Times and the Sunday times and I said I want to be like these guys. So in fact by elementary school I was pretty certain that that was what I was going to do and when it became time to apply to universities I never applied for anything else other than journalism. In fact to tell you how extremist I was, I never applied for any other school than the Department of Mass communication at the University of Lagos because I wanted to go study with Professor Afe Dokubo, so I didn’t apply to Ife, I didn’t apply to Ibadan, I didn’t apply to NSUKKA, I didn’t apply for Law or Engineering, medicine; all of those things that your parents wanted you to do. So my father hardly spoke to me for three years while I was in university because as far as he was concerned, his son went into journalism.
If you didn’t study law or medicine or engineering then you are nothing. So my mother told me later which is actually very funny, when I joined Concord in 1982, the very week that I joined I had a big frontage story with my byline on the front page of the newspaper, and so as my mum recounted the story later, my dad called a couple of his friends as they usually did at the end of the day at sundown drinking a little shinarp on his veranda and playing ayo game and he showed them the newspaper he said, “I always told you this boy would make something of himself”, (laughs). So I figured at that time he had concluded maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing after all, apparently it was the first time the family name had ever appeared in prints (laughs).
Feyi: So at Concord, did you have any kind of contact with M.K.O Abiola at the time?
Dele: Oh yea, he was very much a man about the press, he had a very gospel character, fun-loving sort of guy, larger than life so we all had contact with him at various degrees, mine was not kind of a one on one thing but sort of always like in small groups or whatever, whether he invited us to his house for dinner or some ceremony that he wanted us to be, or he came into the newsroom swept in and out and his wife, Doyin who was my boss at that time, she was the Managing Director of Concord and a great friend today, also very influential figure. I think if I remember correctly the first woman to hold major editorial position of any newspaper in the country before my wife did the same.