INTERVIEW: How investigation into Alison-Madueke’s corruption killed NEXT newspaper — Dele Olojede

Dele Olojede

In this second part of his extensive interview  with Feyi Fawehinmi, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Dele Olojede, speaks on why NEXT newspapers, which he started in 2008 with a grand vision to beam the light for cleaning up and straightening Nigeria through investigative journalism, could not have survived; and why, in spite of the stifling political environment, he believes Nigeria can still be redeemed and transformed 

Feyi: After the Pulitzer you went back to South Africa, then you decided you wanted to do something in Nigeria. What was the key driver for this? Do you think you were over confident?

Dele: Possibly. And I suppose without being over confident you couldn’t try something truly substantial, because the sheer scale of the difficulty would scare you into not doing anything. So I think it was probably a good thing that I didn’t fully appreciate beforehand all the obstacles that one would face and all the consequences of the action that one was taking, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it at all.

But to answer the question more directly, I had never wanted anything in my life other than to contribute in some fashion to making the country a good place you could be very proud of. That you were born there, came from there and your ancestors were from there. As I said to you, even when we were very young reporters at age 21, 22, 23, 24 in Lagos, we felt we were on a mission to change the country and we were free to challenge people. Remember all the fight between the Guardian and the Buhari – Idiagbon regime and all my friends who were put in detention for a while? So we were never afraid of these guys. We felt it was our country and we were going to change it.

So I always had that in me. In fact, I had always had the idea, given the circumstances of my departure from the country, that one day I was going to come back to this place and we were going to attempt to do this all over again. So that was always there. But then, of course, it went into hibernation. For years, I didn’t think much of it. I was travelling and working all over the world, I was busy and enjoying my work and starting a family and raising children. It was only when it became clear to me that I was being thought of as one of the potential successors to my old boss in New York, Tony Maro, who was the editor of the paper, and I was kind of going to be put in line of succession as number two or three or whatever, that I began to seriously think if I get into this track where I’m running a major American newspaper, I will never go back home again.

And so I began to look for ways of exiting. And part of that exit strategy was just to take myself out of the newsroom for a while. Which is why I assigned myself to go to Rwanda on the 10th anniversary of the genocide to do those stories, so that those who did accept to step into the succession could be freed without being constantly second guessed as to whether Dele was going to jump in or not. And so, after all this was all done, I then decided to take the buyout at the end of 2004.

So I always knew I was going to try and do something. The exact shape of it was not clear to me and it was only after I had left the paper that I decided ‘why don’t we go try to do a newspaper sort of similar to NewsDay?’ except that it would be more self-consciously an anti-corruption investigative newspaper. And the idea behind it was that we were going to one, demonstrate to the country, a country that was so infernally corrupt, we were going to demonstrate that it was possible to have an institution that ran properly, that was not based on corruption, that was in fact impenetrable, which we achieved.

I think to the great pride of all the people who worked at NEXT, nobody could accuse us of being even remotely suspected of being involved in any corrupt practice. So I wanted to demonstrate that, first of all, that it was possible, and hopefully a lot more people would try it in their own spheres.

The second thing was that the country was in such bad shape that I thought that using the skills that I knew I had, which was my only serious area of strength, I could make sure that the country was very clear about its condition, that there was no room for self-deception, that people couldn’t say: ‘oh if only we’d known, we would have acted differently’.

We wanted to deny any Nigerian the opportunity to say only if they’d known! So we are going to show you what’s going on and we hope that by arming the citizen with factual incontrovertible information, they would take it and use it to act for the betterment of their own country. Now, that was a big assumption that turned out to be false! But that’s what we were attempting at the time.

Feyi: All the while you were abroad, I Imagine you kept contact with people in Nigeria?

Dele: Yeah. I kept contact with a relatively small number of people in Nigeria. Mostly professional colleagues who were also close and, of course, family and so on. So, I kept in touch but not in an intense way. Remember, I had set out for an adventure. This newspaper in New York was sending me all over the world, living and covering big events: the end of Apartheid and the rise of Mandela in South Africa; genocide in Rwanda; famine in Somalia; covering Asia, the transition in China; the handover of Hong Kong; economic collapse in East Asia; going to Japan; South Korea; India nuclear standoff with Pakistan; all of those things, elections in the Philippines!

It was a very full professional life that I was having, so I didn’t have much of a room for Nigeria at the time. Let’s just say that it was in the back of my mind.  I was a bit alienated from it because I really resented (what happened) to Dele Giwa and the fact that the people who killed him seemed to be getting away with it. For a number of years, I didn’t want to hear anything about Nigeria at all. It was only much later, as you ripen, Shakespeare might have put it. Once you start achieving ripeness, then you have a more textured sense of life, and it was that period I slowly began to emotionally and intellectually reconnect with my country.

Feyi: In a way, not knowing much about Nigeria or keeping Nigeria at the back of your mind meant that you could go in boldly. I guess if you had all the information ahead of time, you probably won’t have done it?

Dele: I wouldn’t have, I am very clear about that. (laughs)

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Feyi: Where did you raise more money from? From abroad or from Nigeria?

Dele: I made a fateful decision, in retrospect, a questionable decision. I decided this was something that was going to be done by Nigerians themselves. I wanted us to be sure that we could do it on our own. So I decided, even though it would have been the easier option for me, given my deep and wide networks in North America and in Europe and Asia, to raise money for a thing like this, and given my stature and my reputation and so on, it would have been much easier to raise money from outside the country. But I deliberately wanted only Nigerian money.

And I think I may have been unduly influenced by Gandhi, who wanted to show that Indians could do it for themselves and asked his European friends to take kind of like a back seat in the struggle for their independence.

So I raised money only from Nigerians. Word of mouth from five people, some of whom I knew before, some of whom were introduced by close friends who recommended them highly. And they all agreed to invest, no questions asked. So I’m very grateful to them for that, even though things didn’t end as well as we had hoped that it might. So I will say that, in retrospect, I think that proved to be a strategic error, even though emotionally satisfying as it was.

A strategic error in the sense that the political and business elites were able to put pressure on my investors. Since they had most of their businesses in other sectors of the economy, whether it was oil or telecoms or banking and so on, so if they couldn’t put pressure directly on me they could put pressure on them, which they went on to do. So just because you invested $200 million in NEXT doesn’t mean you want to jeopardize your $400 million investment in some oil well somewhere. So that was what they used really to, eventually, fatally wound NEXT by peeling off my investors from the enterprise.

So when we inevitably ran into financial trouble, it was difficult to rely on the people who had been there from the beginning because of all these external pressure, mainly political and fairly quite brazen, a blackmail against the shareholders. So that’s why I said that it turned out to have been strategically an error, because foreign money would have been impervious to this kind of pressures.

Feyi: In terms of the operation of NEXT, you had 13,000 applications and you picked 90 out of them. You ran a 24-hour newsroom, I believe that would have involved diesel generators nonstop?

Dele: Yes

Feyi: I remember someone telling me you started off importing the papers to print?

Dele: Yes

Feyi: All of these things, did you go in too big?

Dele: I think the obvious answer is yes. You may or may not know that, actually, our first professionally produced news item was published on Twitter. We were probably one of the first news organizations on earth to publish directly on Twitter. Twitter was totally in its infancy and I think our first news item went out on Twitter on December 2, 2008 if I remember correctly. It was either December 2 or December 4. And so, two weeks after that, we launched our website.

And roughly two weeks after that on January 4, 2009, the first print edition of the weekend paper, NEXT on Sunday broadsheet, was published. So for the first couple of months, because our printing presses were not yet ready, we were printing these newspapers in London and then air-freighting them to Nigeria.

Now, this was all very exciting and extremely high quality and so on, but clearly, it was not going to be financially sustainable. So I suppose in that sense, we were very poor business men! We were excellent newspapermen but very poor businessmen.

So I always tell people that of our two main missions: to affect the direction of the country in a positive way by creating an environment where corruption was impermissible in any way; we were uproariously successful. But we failed dramatically on the sustainability ambition, something that was created to last.

Our second big strategic error was ever to have gone into print. First strategic error, in hindsight, was raising only Nigerian money, because I wanted to show that Nigerians can do this by themselves without anyone else. The second one was going into print.

If we had stopped at two to three months, we in all likelihood would still be alive and well today. And the reasons for this are several. One, we took a $10 million loan from First Bank to build a new printing plant in Lagos and to import like a one year supply of newsprint. So basically, your inventory was humongous, because you couldn’t guarantee an efficient way of getting in your newsprint and as a daily newspaper, you can’t afford not to come out on a particular day. So we had to spend lots of money upfront to import one year’s worth of newsprint and ink and plates and things like that. We had suppliers in Holland who published their own newspaper, their own inventory was four days. Ours was 365! So you can imagine the competitive disadvantage we were in. So it meant we were spending a lot of money upfront and we had taken this big loan from First Bank to do it.

Number two, once we got deep into our mission, which was really very big scale investigations, and going after everyone, it meant we were susceptible to pressure on several fronts because we had a printed newspaper. One was the distribution chain. They basically sabotaged the distribution channel. They would bribe distributors to accept our papers thereby making sure we actually spent the money to produce them, and then hide them under tables and destroy them or never give them to vendors! So they were hitting you on the distribution, on the cost of producing the paper, and more crucially, they were hitting you on your main source of revenue of advertising.

Because advertisers, they were already scared of us because of the things we were doing. But then they had an out by saying well, ‘we cannot see your paper in the streets anywhere’. So there was at least a minimally plausible reason why they were withholding advertisers, even though we knew the main reason was because they were being pressured, not only by the government but also by a number of key business people with whom they did business.

Adenuga was a prime example of that. Because we had done this big story about Adenuga refusing to pay any type of taxes, and by his own admission owing N100 billion in unpaid taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. That was unaudited, if they’d audited it, you could probably safely say that he was owing five times that amount. Now, the revenue agency, having failed to persuade him to pay, then eventually just got mad and they went and shut down his headquarters building and issued a press statement saying they shut all the offices of Nigeria’s second wealthiest businessman. And not a single newspaper, radio station, TV, including government-owned radio station would touch the story! In other words, a private citizen was able to block the government of Nigeria from announcing an action that was taken by its own agency!

Feyi: We are talking about $600 million. NEXT found out that he was owing $600 million in taxes?

Dele: Yes, unaudited. Just by the one that he admitted he was owing! Nobody touched it except NEXT. And all through the night, as we were producing the paper, he was sending intermediaries to me throughout until about 2a.m in the morning that we should kill the story. We said we were not in the business of killing stories and that the best we could do for him was to give him a chance to state his own side. He refused and we refused, so we had a stalemate.

By Monday morning, he had pulled all the ads of Glo and everything from NEXT! And of course anyone who does business with Glo or with any part of his empire who advertised with NEXT was now in trouble. So these were the ways they were able to put pressure on us.

And of course from the political side, I think we started focusing on the oil industry, which is kind of our heart of darkness in Nigeria. When we wrote a series of stories about Rilwan Lukman who was then Minister of Oil under Yar’Adua, establishing, documenting the fact that the Oil Minister was also in the oil business for his own gain, with the companies which he was invested, doing business with the Ministry of Oil of which he was minister. We thought this would create such an uproar in the country and the Senate, and House of Reps would go crazy, the unions, students, whatever. But it sank like stone!

I remember the headline very well: “Oil Minister is in the Oil business”. We thought this was such a scandal. The Nigerians, they just shrugged! It was then the first time I began to realize we may be in serious trouble at NEXT, that our operating assumptions may be completely false. That was the first time the first seeds of doubt began to creep into me. Then we got closer and closer into the oil business.

By that time we’d done the stories that basically forced the political system to follow the constitution and allow Jonathan to become President. Because it’s been totally blocked by then and some cabal in the Presidency was running the country and pretending that it was President Yar’Adua from his sick bed who was doing it. We basically established that the guy had long been brain dead and he wasn’t coming back to run any country.

Feyi: That was a big story. It was the peak of journalism in Nigeria. I remember that story, when it came out, there was no just denying it, there was no way for them to deny it without actually stating if he’s not brain dead, was he half brain dead, quarter brain dead…

Dele: Yeah. I remember very clearly when this thing came out, even some of my directors, these were guys who were all very excited, very proud about the work NEXT was doing. But even this one shook everybody, so they called me, “Are you sure about this?” Because everybody knew if this wasn’t true this was trouble. So I just said to them, I said: “Guys, let us agree when it comes to making money and so on, you guys are better than me. When it comes to this journalism business, I think you have to take my lead; that we know what we are doing. And all

I would say is this, if somebody tells what we have done was false, tell them to produce the President. The people would like to see him”. I said in fact, nobody would be happier than us if they produced him hale and hearty. And of course, we knew they couldn’t! We had researched this to a till so we knew the guy was gone and wasn’t coming back. And of course, that was exactly what happened.

In hindsight, that was the peak of NEXT. After that, even though we began to do a series of truly extraordinary investigations into Diezani Alison-Madueke’s Ministry of Petroleum and all the fraud they were committing, we had video, we had audio, we had source documents. we published the whole thing, that was the final death nail to NEXT!

Because they realized then, after sending intermediaries to offer me an ungodly amount of bribe and we’d laughed them out of the room, they then decided these guys were not reasonable. So they pulled the plug!

They blackmailed First Bank and so on. First Bank reneged on our agreement for to us repay the loan. They pulled the loan, advertisers fled and we were basically isolated and the writing was on the wall that we could no longer sustain the enterprise. So that’s how we slowly now bled to death over the course of 2011.

Feyi: So I have a friend who knows you and he likes you a lot. One thing he told me was, he said: “Dele is a great guy, he’s an amazing journalist, but he needs a kick-ass operations guy behind him”.

Dele: Ok, correct.

Feyi: If you had an operations guy who was basically looking after the books, making sure this show stays on the road, how would that have worked? At what point would you have clashed with that person? It’s good to say, quote and unquote, you were just a journalist, you didn’t worry about what your stories were doing to the bottom line of the company. Would you say it would have worked, say if you had somebody looking after the business and then you focused on the journalism?

Dele: There’s a very honest and direct answer to that. The person probably would have kept us alive an extra six months, but the fundamental incompatibility of our mission with making money would have remained.

Remember a newspaper makes money from two ways. One, it advertised and depending on the news organization, it could be 60-80% of your revenue from advertising; the remainder from your selling the paper itself. Fundamentally, that’s how a newspaper makes money. Now, the sources of those two things, or at least the principal chunk of your revenue, advertising, was the political and the business elites that were so infernally corrupt and which we were going after. So that would have remained. Whoever was running the business, and the good thing was that my investors, they all still say till today that I did warn them from the beginning exactly what I was trying to do with this paper. So they were not misled in anyway.

Of course, talking about something and then seeing it in reality wreaking havoc everywhere is a different thing. And if you had a telecom license or an oil block or whatever, or you were running a bank, or you were chairman of a bank, of course, you would now be considering this thing you’d invested in with great repudiation, if not secretly, wishing that it would go away.

Because it was clear and present danger to your other financial interests. That was the fundamental contradiction and no amount of smart Harvard MBA management would have resolved that. It would have prevented us from making some of the sillier financial errors we made, but it wouldn’t have been able to resolve that. It was either we abandoned our mission and just did a normal Nigerian newspaper.

Yeah, in fact, we would even need more the sort of Harvard MBA types to help us. We were going to do something that by its very nature was going to make us stretch enemies every day. I don’t think there was anything you could have done about that long term. Maybe you’d survived an extra six months.

Feyi: I am very critical about Nigerian media today, the way it operates. In your view, are they cowards or are they pragmatists, having seen what you have seen?

Dele: Hmm, it’s hard for me to say simply whether they are cowards or pragmatists for this simple reason: whatever you set out to do, if you are doing that thing, then I suppose that’s fine. So my suspicion is that most of them are doing that thing that they set out to do, which is like baking bread or making widgets. They went into the newspaper business as a way to make money. The owners of those newspapers had adapted themselves to the best way they could make money in the Nigerian environment and many of them are doing it successfully. We had a different mission. So obviously, the way we handled ourselves and behaved, the way we trained our young people, the way they would stand up at a press conference when a brown envelop came out and walk out of the room which led to their being ostracized in many ways, all of those things, we knew that was the cost of what we were doing.

Now, if you were Vanguard, or Punch or something else and you have a different mission and you are following that mission, we can argue whether it’s the correct mission or not. But it seems to me that they are doing exactly what they set out to do.

Are they doing journalism in the sense that you would hope in a broken down country the media could hold up that mirror to the society? To varying degrees, some are trying more than others. But on balance, probably the answer is No! That being self-evident, because in the Nigerian media today, you can pay to put a story in the papers and you can pay to keep stories out of the paper! Everybody knows this. Remember the Adenuga story. It was the government that issued a press statement that we have closed down Adenuga’s headquarters. Nobody carried it, except NEXT. How is that possibly right? I think that answers your question right.

Feyi: There are stories going round and people talk: NEXT paid too much, they hired people who were working somewhere previously and they maybe doubled their salaries and all. Going back to what you said about the time when you were working with NewsWatch and Concord, you could afford a good life, so I can sort of see where you were coming from. But when things got bad, what was your approach to resolve it, did you cut salaries?

Dele: We tried everything. Now the house is on fire, right and it’s now crisis management. We cut salaries, we let some people go, we reduced print run, we did all the sort of classic things. But the handwriting was on the wall. If you were not making money, cutting cost was not going to get you there. But that’s basically what we were trying to do and people have different thresholds for pain. And so, there was a lot of anger and bitterness in the newsroom to some degree, as all of these things were going on while we were trying to save the paper. And in the end, we still couldn’t do it. So I have heard this accusation before: ‘Dele was profligate, he paid people too much and so on’.

For what we were trying to do, the quality of people we required and the sort of resistance, to some degree, we wanted to build in them to simply reject being given N10,000 here and there. We decided right on before we had the first person, I had HR consultants, and I said okay, here’s what we are trying to do. So for our entry level journalists, I’m not asking for an improvement over 30 years ago when I was a young reporter like them. I’m only asking roughly the same thing. If you were a qualified reporter who has gone through our process and has survived and has been hired with your university degrees and stuff like that, and our training programme, what is the payment for that person that gives them roughly what I earned when I got to Concord 30 years before? Not a penny more.

And how did we decide that? Ok, what is the entry level car? A Volkswagen Beetle or some equivalent like that. What is the rent for one bedroom apartment on the Mainland somewhere, not in a fancy neighbourhood? So this is the X amount. So if you’ve bought this car, what is your monthly note?

They worked out the whole thing and they came back to me to say it’s a $1000 a month minimally for them to even be able to approach this. And of course, we gave people health insurance. And I felt that if we were not able to do that, then maybe we shouldn’t be attempting to do this at all. We’ll just be humiliating people like every other organization there that is pauperising them and turning them into vessels for bribe taking, and so on.

So it was clear in my mind. So I said what will it cost us to do this? And they worked out the numbers. And I’m very proud of that.  I’m not ashamed, I will do it again. Maybe this time, I will raise a whole lot money to give us more runway than I did at the time, but I will do exactly the same thing again.

The fact that we are even arguing over whether you should pay people a living wage the equivalent of what people in their station used to earn 30 years before and nothing more, it shows how deranged the system is, right?  And some of these experienced so-called editors that we had hired, and we did only very few from existing newsrooms. We brought people from outside. Mostly, people like Omolara Wood and so on. We brought all of them back home and we had a few from existing newsrooms who had been vouched for repeatedly by other people. So in some particular case, we were interviewing this guy, right? He was an editor at This Day, this guy had two degrees in the University of Jos, something like 13 years’ experience. You know what he was earning at ThisDay? N30,000 a month. That’s crazy!

So when people say ‘he tripled their salary’, that’s what they are referring to. But of course, elsewhere and it’s not for me to be naming any newspaper, elsewhere, they were explicitly told that they were free to go look for money to supplement their income from their sources and the people they were covering!  But all of these things were prohibited at NEXT. In fact, it was an article of faith that our people, they did not take anything from anyone. And our young people became really proud of them! I was very proud of them, I remain proud of them. And anyone who had worked at NEXT, up until tomorrow, I am proud of the work they did.

And sometimes, it is not whether you were able to sustain it forever that matters. It is in the trying. Only those who had a bit of courage and are willing to bleed for something would take a chance. Otherwise, you can sort of muddle along, move from Yar’Adua to Jonathan to Buhari, back to somebody else and just go around in circles if you wanted to break out of it.

I was very proud that that was the path we took, that we were going to break out of it. And anything else wouldn’t have interested me. To have left a very highly successful career in a great city (laughs), to come back to Nigeria, it wouldn’t have been worth my while to do that!

Feyi: Wole Soyinka said that in his book “Itirai ni gbogbo nkan.”

Dele: Yeah, it’s all in the trying. I think it was in Ake.

Feyi: Let’s talk through the last month at NEXT. When did you know this thing was over? What was it like basically watching something you built, your dreams, watching it pretty much die?

Dele: It was very tough. It was extremely tough, especially painful because you could see how the most dedicated of your people, the young editors, the young reporters who refused to quit, some of them hadn’t been paid for a couple of months, and we were managing and pushing, people like Victor Ehikhamenor,  people like Omolara Wood, lots of them like that, who were the bitter-enders and would not surrender until all hope was gone! So it was a very tough time, a very difficult time. And of course, I was referring to people‘s threshold for pain before. I don’t blame anyone who may not have behaved absolutely impeccably, because people can only take so much pain.

But when we were going through it, there was a lot of blame game. Some of them sponsored false story. If you search for it on the internet you would probably still find it, something like Dele Olojede spent N20 million on golf and women and whisky and so on (laughs). Which is kind of funny, because anyone who was inside NEXT knew that it was only me and Amma who never drew a cent of salary in the entire five years of NEXT that even the board had to force us to recognize a certain amount of compensation so that it can be PR. But we were never ever paid a penny, because we could not bring ourselves to get paid when we were constantly scrambling to pay our staff.

But all of those kind of things, the bitterness of a grand experiment failing left a handful of people to misbehave. But as you have some distance from that time, you kind of forgive everyone. Because you know they were very good people. They sacrificed, they performed at a very high level, set new standards for the country. So if you were not absolutely perfect, I am not going to hold that against you. But it was not a pleasant time. You saw the worst and the best of people. And I will continue to be grateful to all of them, especially the bitter-enders as I call them, who until you switched off the last bulb, try to hang on and try to make it work. But it was not pleasant.

One of the most unpleasant things you can experience is when something is failing, almost like a marriage. The last years or the last months of a marriage probably for those who have gone through it, probably it’s very unpleasant. I think this must have felt like that.

Feyi: You knew it was dying but you couldn’t stop it?

Dele: Yes, exactly. You knew it was dying, you are still constantly scrambling to say if I hang on for one more day, some miraculous thing would happen. The death knell for me really was the compromising of First Bank by the Jonathan government, where they reneged on an arrangement we’d made.

We were negotiating a potential investment of $5 million in NEXT by them. I flew out to meet their board in Prague and everything and we were talking about it. And I said, “Look, there’s nothing we would like more than to do this, but it will destroy our equity if you carrying this First Bank thing on your books. There is an automatic erosion of equity, we have to solve that problem before we could invest’. So I negotiated with First Bank to say, ‘Look, you guys advertise every day in all the newspapers anyway. Just advertise every day in NEXT and over 36 months, the amounts would actually wipe out our indebtedness’, our exposure to First Bank.

And they agreed, brought their risk people in, their marketing chief, their CEO, we brought our marketing people in and we shook hands on it and they were going to draw the papers on it. In the meantime, we started doing all the Diezani stories and then First Bank stopped returning our calls. And since we could resolve that the Sorros people couldn’t come in, and so that was our last chance.

Feyi: How much were the Sorros guys going to give you?

Dele: We were negotiating for a $5 million equity investment, or a mix of equity and debt of some kind. But they said carrying the First Bank debt on your books would destroy their own equity from day one. So unless we could resolve that, they couldn’t do it.

Feyi: You set up a printing press, what’s happened to all of that?

Dele: Well, AMCON ended up taking over the loan from First Bank, so it became AMCON’s asset.  I think they sold them off or was selling them off the last time I checked. So all of those assets became AMCON’s assets, even though it was something that was saving First Bank from its own decisions. I still am quite opposed to this moral hazard that taking over bad loans meant. When a bank or any other business is making money they don’t share it with the taxpayers. Then the moment they lose money, you now come in with taxpayers’ money to rescue. It’s just wrong to me philosophically. Anyway, that’s what happened.

Feyi: How many staff did you have with you in the very end, the bitter-enders as you called them?

Dele: At the peak, we were around 199 to 200 including the staff of the printing press, administrative staff, marketing, finance and so on. Editorial of course was the bulk of it, editorial was probably like 50 to 60% of the staff and the rest was the other departments, so we peaked at about 190 or 195. At the end, we were probably down to maybe 20 people. Of course, we stopped printing long before we finally shut down and maintained a sort of a skeletal staff and I began to write letter of recommendations for people to get them a paying job elsewhere. Some people were getting married in the middle of the crisis, it was just a really tough end to an ambitious project! But again to paraphrase Wole Soyinka, it’s all in the trying. I don’t regret it at all. But I wish we were able to perpetuate it, but it was what it was.

Feyi: Personally what did this do to you, this experience, after you had shut it down?

Dele: I didn’t realize how tough it was, the sacrifice one was making. It was after the whole thing was over and I went back home to Johannesburg to my family that I realised that for the previous five years, I had not spent two straight months under the same roof with them. None! And this has great cost. Your children are growing, they are finishing high school, they’ve hardly ever seen you except you come in for quick one week and then you run back to Lagos. So that was one cost. In fact, I remember distinctly when I finally resettled back home in Johannesburg I felt that I was an outsider, as if they locked me out. I will be trying things like ‘oh there’s this fancy new restaurant I will take all of you out tonight, they will say no, we don’t want. Let’s go this at the weekend; no we don’t want it’. So I was like they’d moved on. The dog had moved into the house in my absence. And when we got the dog, the agreement was it would always stay outside, not in.

Feyi: What kind of dog?

Dele: It was a boxer called Sandy. Sandy had moved into the house and taken up her permanent space in front of the two bedrooms of my daughters! Things had changed in my absence. So finally, I was quite frustrated by this. So I called a close friend of mine, Watanan Peterson, a Thai woman and fellow fellow of the ASPEN Institute, and I said ‘Watanan, you are very wise in these ways. My family is not letting me in, not physically but emotionally; they were not letting me in. So she asked me what I had been trying to do? I said, well, I offered to take them to dinner. She says ‘No, no, no, you are doing the wrong thing. You must do the grunge work, do the dishes, take them for basketball practice and offer to take them to school in the morning.

You should do these things, that’s how you get back in your house’. So I started doing that and she turned out to be correct (laughs). I was trying to enter from above and she said, ‘you must go in from the basement, do the dishes and take them to math’s lesson and basketball practice and make the school run in the morning’! So things thawed gradually. So that was one aspect.

The other aspect on a personal level was counting the financial cost. Because, as anybody who has ever done this knows, if you were not making any income for five straight years, it destroys your next step. So there was a tremendous financial cost to the family, quite apart from anything else.

Then the third thing was, I lost interest in pretty much everything. I wasn’t interested in writing, I wasn’t interested in really working anywhere. I did a bit of consulting on the side but I was basically disinterested. So I would play golf and hang out with friends and do a bit of consulting but nothing serious. I became what I would call a dabbler. I would dabble in things but never commit to it. And this went on for nearly four years and things were rearranging themselves at the back of my mind, the subconscious kind of works. That way, until about a year and a half ago, I began to ask myself the question if I’d happen to live as long as my father did, which would give me roughly another 35 years at the time, what is the one thing I want to do for the 35 years that I will be totally committed to? And slowly, I began to head back to my first love. And so I’m kind of conceiving this project that is not totally ready for announcing, but which basically would involve long form journalism and as well as convening people around ideas that can push society forward.

But I’m sort of done with the dailies. Journalism, stay in the leads, which I had done for most of my professional life. I think my senior citizen years, my eldership I call it, should be used more contemplation of the big things that possibly overtime make few changes we have always wanted. So one of the lessons one learnt, of course, is that societies do not change on your own timetable.  You just hope it happens while you are pushing, but you can’t guarantee it. So if you take the case of the Arab Spring and when these things started, was it in Tunis or Algiers, and all these street urchins and so on, there had been apparently something like 70 self-immolations before the one that sparked. So how come it never sparked?

So wisdom allows you to understand that society won’t change on your own timetable. But it’s not an excuse for paralysis or inaction or for lack of trying. Whether or not it happens while you are tilting at it, it’s still worth the effort. Because to me, it’s what really keeps you alive. It’s what makes you feel like a person. I need to rub against something. I do not go gentle into that good night, I see myself as being engaged in anything that kind of helps societies to improve, and for our country and our continent in particular, to be a place where a child can be born and given the opportunity to flourish into a productive citizen. That’s all we ask. We are not asking that you make millionaires out of everyone; just give people a chance to live productive lives, and that’s really what I expect to spend the rest of my life doing from my own little corner as a writer and thinker and citizen.

Feyi: Yes or No. The NEXT thing, would you do this all over again?

Dele: No. A qualified no, because I think the stage of my life now is not necessarily ideal for that enterprise. What I would rather do is pull all my resources and networks to support younger people who are doing the same thing. So it’s a qualified No. The idea, yes. if I were the same age, roughly as when I started diving headlong into it, yeah, I would do it. But I think probably, it’s not the place where I will throw the little energy I have left. It requires an enormous amount of physical commitment and stamina to stay long nights day after day, not seeing your children and so on. So, it’s probably require somebody in a different stage of life, guys like you who are just around the forty cutline probably are best positioned to lead that kind of charge; even better people in their late twenties to early thirties. And I think the example of NEXT probably tells them a lot of what they should be doing and what they should not be doing.

Feyi: is Nigeria redeemable?

Dele: Yes, with a little bit of luck and lots of dedicated effort. The reason why I say yes is this, we are no worse or better than any other group of people on earth. And there have been societies that have been transformed that were in worse shape when the transformation began than what we are experiencing today, however broken we are at the moment. Remember I covered China and lived in China in the second half of the nineties. At that time, we are talking mid to late nineties, children still sat in the streets of Beijing. When Chairman Mao died in 1976, China was a completely broken country that probably accounted for three percent of global GDP or something like that. Mass impoverishment and immiseration! So it took them two years to fight it out, Gang of Four wanted to take over. Eventually they shot them, and so on, and Deng Xiaoping took over. First thing he did was to go to Guangzhou country across from Hong Kong and announced that it does not matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice. Thus began the extraordinary revival of a completely destroyed country where students were murdering their headmasters and so on. During the Cultural Revolution, it was totally broken, no economic or cultural life, it was a terribly destroyed country. China has now moved the percentage of people living in absolute poverty from something like 70% in 1990 to less than one percent today. It is possible.

India is one of the most unequal societies on earth; and they are still one of the most unequal societies on earth.  But there can be no arguing that India has not dramatically improved the lives of large numbers of its people over the last 25 years. We are not destined to be going in the other direction. So on the absolute poverty reduction stuff, Nigeria was the only one of the countries sampled by the IMF that went in the other direction; that increased the percentage of people living in absolute poverty, not reduced. So we can fix the place. It is just that this is going to be serious hard work. And I am persuaded beyond a shadow of doubt that our current system of a form of democracy in form but not in reality is not the way for us to do it.

Feyi: So what’s the way forward?

Dele: (Laughs) The way forward in my view, and it is untested and therefore subject to revision and possibly even total failure, is that you have to practice a sort of Sumo wrestling to go into the system as is now and build a movement that allows you to win the election based on terms that currently exist. And once in power, begin to take a machete to the system that we have now, like close to edge of illegality, not quite crossing it, but close to the edge of it. And until you’ve smashed all these cartels and gangs that run the country, we have no hope of reforming it. So and simply saying you have a National Assembly, Senate, House of Reps, governors, state Assemblies, commissioners, advisers and so on; that is not going to get us there. 36 states plus FCT, that’s not going to get us there. But the mechanism, the constitutional mechanisms available to us to dramatically change it are pretty minimal.

But within that, and if you are willing to fly a little bit close to the sun, you can use the current available instruments to make dramatic change and it would have to start with the states having control over its territory. The states do not have such a thing in Nigeria. It’s totally a weak state, it does not control its territory, that’s basically the truth. The levels of violence already tell us that. So the state has to be competent enough to impose itself on its own territory, has to have a monopoly of violence by hook or crook, and has to dramatically just change the very physical geography of the country in terms of the ability of people to move, the ability to move goods from one part to the other, the political institutions that are created. As a first step, you might even consider simply going into what they call these six geopolitical zones now as units of administration below the federal government, and from there just have autonomous cities and towns and villages with their mayors and so on running their own affairs under a very tightly prescribed system from the centre.

But to have that kind of centre, you really have to have built something special that seizes control through the means available to you now constitutionally; meaning elections. And it’s not as hard as people think. Because we really don’t have parties right now. We don’t. These are not parties. But people are not willing to do the work required. And to be honest, I have a bit of passion for it, but I don’t have the strength because it seems so daunting. But actually, it isn’t. So I’m hoping you guys would do this and appoint us advisors (laughs). Some informal advisors about how it can be done. But I haven’t lost hope that it can be changed at all. In fact, I think Nigeria is relatively easier to transform rather dramatically than, say a place like South Africa, where the structure are so much more entrenched and are more difficult to shift.

Feyi: Look at NEXT, look at what happened, you went in there and the whole system ganged up against you. The media for example wouldn’t take you stories, businesses pulled their adverts, the government was hostile. You look at that kind of system, it’s a very conforming system, it’s difficult to change.

Dele: However, if you find the right threads to pull, the whole thing comes crashing down relatively easily. There is no foundation there.  People have not just committed to carefully study what are the levers we should pull here to collapse this thing of its own weight. And all these people who are cowards, they don’t know anything about systems, they just do the same thing they’ve always done. So for example, the APC is structured and functioned exactly as PDP functioned, they don’t know any other way. So it require smart, inventive, energetic people to change this story line and it’s a lot easier than we think. Because the people there now are actually not worthy adversaries. Because they are too lazy, they are too mono-dimensional and all they understand is just power-wielding to make money.  There are so many ways to collapse them. But it takes a small band of extremely dedicated people willing to work day and night for years. But it may come quicker than they think. But just get started is very daunting, knowing that the first expectation is that you will fail. The second expectation is you will succeed, so much that you would not be able to have any other life other than trying to make it work afterwards.

Feyi: I agree with you that there’s no foundation, no ideology underpinning all of these, it’s almost like gangsters using force.

Dele: No, it’s not almost. It is gangsters, various gangs, some more blood thirsty than the others, some more vile than others. But basically gangs, various gangs and they are mostly interchangeable. Maybe one percent is not interchangeable. If you look at APC, it’s PDP’s people or Tinubu’s people or whatever, and then they go and recruit the PDP people who had not yet joined them to come and join them. So it’s not about anything, it’s just a simple contest for power so that you can then be the ones in charge.

What accounts for a guy like the Central Bank Governor still being in the job? It first sank to you that these people didn’t take over to reform anything. They didn’t! A guy like that is a continual rebuke on any pretences by Buhari that he is an anti-corruption crusader. A continual rebuke! So if you take another example, the oil sector. The NNPC, did they structurally change anything? They just put their own people there and now they are having their forward contracts and so on, the same way as Diezani used to have it. They just changed people back and forth. This essentially is the same class of very vernal political players. That’s what they are, with very rare exceptions. And we can count those exceptions on two hands. In other words, ten people tops. So the people who are running the country are basically, and I mean running it in terms of whether making money or exercising a particular public office where you can then use it to make money for you or for your friends and so on, tops ten thousand people. Then the rest of the country is just a shambles. And all you have to do is travel around the country to see the magnitude of what we face. So we are going through the motions. But the states actually do not exist. You have different political and business factions that are fighting over control of the resources, which is why you would have 7-8% GDP growth for like ten straight years in the early 2000s and still have fifty percent increase in the percentage of people living in absolute poverty! That does not make any sense (laughs).

And it is the only country on earth that recorded that, on earth! So when you look at that, you just know this is a thoroughly sick thing, the system does not deserve to survive. If you are going to change Nigeria and put it on a different path, you have to find a way, playing as close to the Constitution as possible, to collapse it. That’s why I used the Sumo wrestling analogy. You use the throw weight of the opponent to shift them off the mat and therefore defeat them. It’s not that you are using brute force. If you are using the force, if you are using the force of this 400 pound person charging at you, side stepping it and pushing it across and over the mat to defeat it, that is what I think we need to figure out a practical way of effecting the Sumo wrestling in our political and social life.

This interview was a podcast which was transcribed by a PREMIUM TIMES reporter. We have Feyi Fawehinmi’s permission to publish it in this format.

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