African sports: Ready for critical journalists?
12.11.2002By Olukayode Thomas
Dear Colleagues, Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen, Are African sportsmen, women, administrators, coaches, sponsors and other stakeholders in the sports industry ready for critical journalists?
I will not attempt to answer this question. Rather, I will leave you to draw your conclusions, after listening to my experiences as a critical reporter between May 16, 1996 and November, 1998 with The Guardian Newspapers, the flagship of the Nigerian Media.
I was with ThisDay Newspapers between May and June, 1999 and was a Senior Sports Reporter with The Comet Newspapers between July, 1999 and March 2001.
I also freelanced with The Guardian Newspaper between April and May 2001; eventually to become a Senior Reporter at the same Guardian from April 2002 till date. I am today a nomadic journalist, thanks to my critical views.
I joined The Guardian on May 14, 1996, as a Test Candidate. My first story "Athletes, Officials, bemoan camp conditions" led to some athletes being dropped from the Atlanta '96 Olympics team. The contract of the coach of the Nigerian team, Cuban born Jorge Diaz, who spoke to me extensively was not renewed. Brown Ebewele, an athletics coach whom I also interviewed did not make team.
My sports editor then, Mr. Joseph Okujeni, gave me a brief: Go to the Olympics camp and report what you see. The result was the story: "Athletes, Officials, bemoan camp conditions". When I saw the story the next day, my joy knew no bounds.
But my joy evaporated the moment I got to the National Stadium. Jorge Diaz, the Cuban coach, failed to acknowledge my greeting. He had spoken to me off the record. Being a cub reporter, I had betrayed his confidence.
Diaz later told me, he was queried for talking to the press. He would have been sacked, but for his importance to the olympic team. But when his contract expired, it was not renewed.
My editor Mr. Okujeni received similar calls from the powers that be in sports, but unlike Diaz he was happy that at last, he had found the reporter who would be giving him the stories he wanted.
Within a couple of weeks I became a Satanic writer overnight (so called because, I had joined the league of critical writers). But like all good things, the romance between me and Okujeni broke down, no sooner as it began. Okujeni travelled to the United States for the Atlanta Olympic Games, he got a job in the US and never came back.
The line editors who took over from him are another breed of journalists. They are comfortable with press releases form the National Sport Associations and Federations, the Ministry of Sports, coaches and athletes. They are not interested in the news behind the news.
From September 1996 to January 1997, I was on my own. Although, I occasionally smuggled one or two satanic stories into the newspaper, most of my stories were routine.
The exposure of Chief Williams
Then something happened in February 1997: Chief S. B. Williams, a sport administrator died in Monte Carlo, Monaco. He was not just another sports administrator, he was the chairman of he Local Organizing Committee (LOC) of the botched Nigeria '95, World Youth Soccer Championship tagged Nigeria '95.
Then, Nigeria was a pariah nation, because of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election, acclaimed to have been won by Chief M. K. O Abiola, who later died in detention. Our Head of State then, General Sanni Abacha wanted to host the championship at all cost to warm himself to world leaders. Williams, a friend of Joao Havenlage, Sepp Blatter and Jack Warner assured Abacha that Nigeria would host the world as long as money was made available to grease the palms of FIFA officials.
Abacha made millions available to Williams, but FIFA officials at the last minute, cancelled the hosting right. Among thieves, there is honour. FIFA officials were said have withdrawn the rights because they had beneffitted immensely from Abiola, so they couldn't give Nigeria the right to host the world with in Abiola in detention.
When the right was withdrawn Abacha who had committed N5 billion was livid with rage. He set up a panel to scrutinize the book. The panel indicted Williams and other principal officials and members of the LOC.
Aware of Abacha's savage reputation, especially, when he felt betrayed, Williams talked to his legs and relocated to Monte Carlo, Monaco. When he died, the family spin doctor; one Jenkins Alumona, ensured that Williams was portrayed as a sport administrator and philanthropist.
But the father of sports journalism in Nigeria. Mr. Babatunde Oshuntolu (ESS Bee), now late, believed the truth must be told. With information and documents from Mr. Oshuntolu, I wrote on the good deeds and misdeeds of Williams.
I bypassed my line editor and gave the story to Mr. Taiwo Akerele, Production Editor for The Guardian On Saturdy, When the story was published, my line editor and colleagues who are close to Alumona were angry with me. The family and their spin doctor were equally annoyed, they even cancelled some advertisements in The Guardian.
It marked the beginning of a new chapter in my career. From that Saturday, until I left The Guardian November 1998, I contributed regularly to The Guardian On Saturday. The theft of stadium power generating set, drug scandals, misappropriation of athletes allowances and bonuses, age cheats among athletes were properly investigated.
Officials, athletes and other stakeholder in sports complained about my stories. They threatened court action on a number of occasions, but never took me to court once. Some of my colleagues never liked my stories too, but since they were sanctioned by a higher authority they could not do anything.
Right and wrong in the search for coaches
That was how I resumed my Satanic Stories every weekend. Sports administrators often harass Satanic Writers with state agents i.e the police, army and the state security service, Nigeria's equivalent of America's FBI I never experienced until November 1997.
Phillipe Trousier, the coach who ensured the Super Eagles' qualification for the France '98 World Cup was sacked by the then Sports Minister Mr. Jim Nwobodo for technical incompetence. Nigeria needed a new coach to handle the team, but it went beyond that.
Sports journalists know the politics of recruiting foreign coaches. Europeans and Latin Americans with dubious credentials are painted as world class coaches in the media. When eventually hired, he would be paid $500,000 as sign on fee, a monthly salary of $30,000. But the coach gets only a quarter. The balance ends up in the pocket of the minister and his cronies.
As a soon as Trousier was sacked, spin-doctors, in guise of reporters, inundated the sports pages with endless lists of world class coaches who will perform miracles at the world cup. They also dropped the names of renowned coaches such as Arrigo Sachi, Bobby Robson, and Johan Cruyff.
Contact with Europe then, via the telephone, fax and internet were not only epileptic, but out of the reach of ordinary reporters. But there has to be a way of exposing these lies. I contacted the Dutch Airlines, KLM, since most of the coaches whose names were being dropped were Dutch coaches while most of the Super Eagles players said to have endorsed the coaches plied their trade in Central Europe.
KLM gave me a ticket. Within three weeks, I had interviewed all the principal actors: players, players' agents coaches e.t.c. They all denied making comments credited to them. Most of the coaches denied making any contact with the Nigerian FA or Sport Ministry.
I filed my reports daily. Officials of the Sports Ministry and the Nigerian Football Association (NFA) were embarrassed. When I returned to Nigeria, the reception I got was anything, but warm.
Osita Izunazo, the personal assistant to the minister called at The Guardian with security agents. He met me at the entrance, but he didn't recognise me. I even directed him to the Sports Desk where he would find Olukayode Thomas.
When I returned to my desk 20 minutes later, he was still discussing with the editor. The Sport Editor later called me and explained his mission at The Guardian to me "all he wanted was a retraction, a sort of rejoinder."
Izunazo, very arrogant and brash, picked up from where the editor stopped. He told me he wanted a retraction of all my lies in the last three weeks, and an apology to the Honourable sports minister. He wanted to know my sponsors and my hosts in Europe.
I ignored him completely and turned to my editor. I asked him what he thought of Isunazo's ranting "Olukayode, all he wants is just a small story debunking all the gray areas."
I turned to Izunazo and said, "Mr. P.A The Guardian is a public trust, a public institution where everybody has the right to air their views. If you have anything to write, it will be published. You can even take me to court. But I Olukayode Thomas will never retract my story."
When I stood up to go, he returned to my editor and asked: "Kunle who is this brat? He even wants to walk out on me? Within seconds a shouting match began. This attracted Ms Harriet Lawrence, the then deputy-Editor, News and Features 'what is the noise about', she inquired.
Izunazo stated his position and what he wanted from me and The Guardian Ms. Lawrence didn't even wait for my story. She tongue-lashed the Sport Editor for allowing the Minister's P.A to insult The Guardian. She then turned to Izunazo "The Guardian is a public trust for everybody. You can write a rejoinder, but it is not proper for you to instruct us. Have a nice day." What would have followed, would have been arrest and detention. But luckily for me the minister was removed within weeks.
Trouble at the University Games
By now, my reputation had soared to high heavens. Officials despised me, but the larger society commended my work. To some of my colleagues, I am bad news and bad business. To a few others, I am good news, a rare breed who practices the profession the way it ought to be practiced.
In 1998 an incident happened that led to my resignation from The Guardian. The University of Lagos, was to host the Nigeria Universities Games Association (NUGA). A don facilitied my appointed into the publicity committee.
But the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) for the games was a toothless bulldog. The Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Jelili Omotola, was running a dictatorial regime. A friend of the police, the state security service etc, he ensured that all dissenting lecturers were harassed by state agents.
When The Guardian started reporting these atrocities and many others, the chairman of the publicity committee complained about my writing. When I didn't tone down my writing, he gave me the option of resigning. I told him there is no conflict between my work, and being a member of the committee. I was eventually sacked.
But within the few weeks, that I served on the committee, I had established strong contacts within the community. My reports were more critical than ever. This did not go down well with Prof. Omotola who had turned the university into his personal property.
The games' opening ceremony was a mess, the students openly demonstrated against the school authorities and Admiral Mike Akhigbe who represented the then Head of State. General Akhigbe ordered the arrests and detention of the student leaders.
The story made the front page of The Guardian On Sunday. Prof. Omotola could no longer stomach these nonsense. He sent the school's public relations officer to complain, but I did not shift ground. Later, the Director of Information, Dr. Bello met the then Editor of The Guardian who promised him that I would write a rejoinder.
The Editor's persistence that I should write a rejoinder never swayed me. Prof. Omotola later called at The Guardian. He met with the management and complained about my stories. He threatened to cancell a 10-page advertisement if I was not called to order. Some management staff such and board members argued that I should be sacked, if The Guardian should lose a huge revenue because of my indiscretion. But members of the editorial staff on the board appealed to them, noting that I am the first reporter to win an international award in the history of The Guardian.
It was resolved that I should be given another chance, to write stories that would please Prof. Omotola. But the editor's persistence never swayed me. Ehen the pressure became too much, and I started getting queried, I resigned, before they sacked me. I resigned in November 1998.
Room for Satanic stories but no pay
After my resignation from The Guardian, I didn't practice journalism for six months. I tried other trades, it never worked. I had caught the bug. Journalism is like drug addiction or prostitution. Once you are hooked, you are hooked.
In May 1999, I picked up my pen again and joined ThisDay Newspaper. Unlike The Guardian I could write any Satanic story as long as I had documents to back them. But the pulisher of ThisDay, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, is a slave driver. Despite the fact ThisDay is the second biggest newspaper in Nigeria after The Guardian, Mr. Obaigbena does not pay salaries. For about two months, my employment was neither documented, nor was I paid a cent.
So reporters, faced with hunger, had to forget about ethics. I told myself, this is not the place for me. After seven weeks of unpaid work, I left ThisDay for The Comet Newspapers.
At The Comet I handled the Sunday paper's five sports pages and wrote a page on athletics every Tuesday. At The Comet my career flourished. I wrote critical stories with the support of the management. My sports pages became a strong selling point for the Sunday paper.
Thank God, we have a democratic government, reporters could not be openly harrassed by state agents. So I had a field day doing critical and objective stories.
When Segun Odegbami, a football hero, who later became a military apologist, wanted to become the NFA Chairman I exposed his dealings with the military, especially, his role in the Abacha Must Rule Forever Campaign.
His friends and colleagues in the national team, Mr. Adokie Amaesimeka was the Attorney-General in River State when Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni rights activists were hanged by Abacha. I reminded the public of his roles. The stories put a lid on their ambition.
The dictatorial tendencies for the then Minister of Sports Mr. Damishi Sango, and his Director of Sports Development, Dr. Amos Adamu, were exposed in The Comet . Corrupt officials were not spared. My exposure of Sango's corrupt practices at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games was one of the reason why he was dropped as minister.
My colleagues were not spared of my Satanic pen as I roundly condemned their decision to give awards to those who are killing sports. Since I wrote the story "What Manner of Award" they refused to renew my identification card as a member of the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria (SWAN). I have since renounced my membership.
But like all things, my romance with The Comet did not last. The Editor-In-Chief, Mr. Femi Kusa, for reasons best known to him, does not like my face. Secondly, by December 1999, the management had stopped paying our transport claims. By the time I resigned on March 8, 2001, they were owing unpaid salaries for four months. The money is yet to be paid.
Corruption in NFA and the Nigerian Olympic Committee
After my resignation from The Comet, I freelanced for the The Guardian from April to May 2001. The paper now has a new editor Mr. Debo Adesina. My first article on my return to The Guardian led to he re-organization of the NFA.
The NFA scribe then, Mr. Tijani Ahmed Yusuf had a large section of the sporting press on his payroll. Everyday on the radio, and the television, Jo Bonfrere, the national team coach, was vilified. Nobody bothered to interview Bonfrere for his side of the story.
This lured me out of semi-retirement. On a rainy day, while the heaven poured down its blessing, Bonfrere, taciturn by nature, poured out his heart. He talked about maladministration, ticket racketeering. Visa racketeering and why he insisted on not fielding unqualified players whom officials intend to sell to European clubs as Super Eagles players.
It was a no-holds barred interview. When it was published, hell was let loose. Many people, especially my colleagues, attacked me. "Why do you want to destroy our man?"
My second story, Tourmoil in the Nigerian house of Olympics finally nailed the coffin of the Nigerian Olympic Committee. The story exposed all the corrupt practice of the olympic committee, especially, the chairman, the scribe, and other principal officers during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
Their recklessness and excessive corrupt practices ranged from visa racketeering, outright stealing of athletes allowances, collecting athletes' flight tickets and accommodation allowances even when the LOC of the games had underwritten the expenses. I was roundly condemned and attacked by NOC spin doctors, but the story was adjudged the best sports story in Nigeria last year. It won me the DAME Award (Diamond Award For Media Excellence).
The Idi Amin of athletics
I resumed journalism early this year again, April 2002, after another nine months of frustration and sitting at home.
In my absence, a lot of changes took place in sports especially athletics. The sport had the misfortune of having Dan Ngerem, a nooveau-rich and upstart as chairman. A peep into his background revealed he married the daugther of a late general. With the lady's contact, he amassed a lot of money from contracts collected in the Eastern part of Nigeria. Most of the contracts were not even executed.
Now that he is rich, he wants to be relevant and have power, and sport is a vehicle that can take him to his destination. He began by sponsoring local athletics meets in his native Owerri. He later bought his way into the local SWAN in Lagos as a patron.
He waited on the fringe for a crisis. The opportunity came when the 2001 Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) election became inconclusive. He cashed in on the crisis to become the federation's chairman. He was actually installed by his friend Pat Ekeji, the director of sports development in a Ministry of Sports. Since he became the chairman, a reign of terror compared to that of General Sani Abacha in Nigeria has been unleashed on athletes and the athletics family.
He moved the AFN Secretariat to his office. Athletes, officials, coaches and other stakeholders in sports cannot talk to the press except through him. Hidding under the guise of reforming the federation and purging it of visa racketeering and corrupt officials, Ngereen became the Idi Amin of athletics.
The sporting press looked the other way and hailed him as the new wonderboy of athletics. But athletes and other genuine lovers of track and field who saw through his tricks mail me daily and send documents that exposed his sharp practices.
I had a taste of his arrogance the first week I resumed at The Guardian. I had done a critical analysis of the situation at the federation, and posited that since Ngerem knows the principal characters behind the corrupt practices and other rackets, all he needed do was to sack them, instead of his reign of terror.
Secondly, I did athletics stories and interviewed athletes and coaches instead of the almighty Ngereem.
He ran from pillar to post trying to get in touch with me. When he failed, he called the Sports Editor, and left five numbers I must call if I needed any information on athletes and athletics. But I ignored him. Why talk to a third party, when I could talk directly to the athletes or the coaches involved?
When his efforts to stop my stories failed, he resorted to blackmail, then name calling and abuses. He tried to whip up tribal sentiment. But he failed again. He went through the books. Since I started reporting in 1996 I have never collected a cent from the Federal Ministry of Sports and the Athletics Federation of Nigeria.
Friends have advised me to seek police protection as he may send thugs after me. But a clear conscience has no fear.
Putting Adamu in perspective
The story that really tried my soul was the profile of Dr. Amos Adamu, the president of COJA, the body charged with organizing the 8th All African Games slated for Abuja, Nigeria, next year.
For 10 years, 1991-2001, Adamu was director of Sports Development in Nigeria. During this period he dragged our sports 20 years backward. In the media, Adamu was portrated as a good sports administrator, the best thing that ever happened to Nigeria sports. He has killed all forms of opposition with grafication.
When the Nigerian relay teams finished outside the medal zone at the Commonwealth Games, The Guardian Editor Mr. Debo Adesina started bemoaning the dwindling fortunes of sports in Nigeria. All the reporters around agreed with him that had Adamu killed our sports. "But each time I ask you people to do a story on the man, what you end up doing is an interview. Now, Thomas will do a story that will put the man in the right perspective." Said Mr. Adesina.
From the day I got the assignment, I was under all kinds of pressure to drop the story. From sports editors to colleagues and powerful people outside the media. They got in touch with the Sport Editor who told them it was beyond him.
The pressure shifted on to the editor the day I gave him the story. He received all sorts of calls and visits. On a particular day, he called me and said: "Olukayode, who is this man Adamu? More than 20 very important Nigerians called me today, begging me that we should drop the story. We will run the story even if the heavens will fall."
Under the pretence of touring media houses for public awareness campaign for the All African Games, Adamu visited The Guardian and met the Editor. He pleaded with the editor, who assured him that the story would not be used.
Adamu got the shock of his life when he saw my story unedited in The Guardian the following weekend. In the course of the story, I met him and interviewed him. He said he would take me to court if I dared publish anything about his past and allegations of corruption levelled against him. But till today Adamu is yet to sue.
Obstacles for Nigerian sports journalism
One could go on and on. Counting the cost of being a critical journalist in Africa is like counting the cost of being a dissident in the former USSR. In a country where there is mass poverty, the rich, no matter the source of their wealth, are worshipped by all and sundry.
In Nigeria and most parts of Africa, journalists are still floatsam and jetsam of the society. And average journalist takes home $150 a month.
In most media houses, salaries are not paid regularly, while a few don't pay at all. They expect reporters to survive on gratification. Owners of media houses in Nigeria don't see investment in the media from the point of social responsibility. This is why many journalists who would have looked at issue and personalities from a critical point fail to do so.
But it would have been more hounourable for one not to practice the profession at all, than to be a journalist and at the same time a spin doctor.
Critical journalists, like other upright people in Nigeria, are perceived as fools who failed to use the opportunities they have to make money.
Nigeria like many other Africa countries, is a closed society. Unlike Europe and America where civil servants are more accountable and open, sourcing information in Nigeria is very difficult. Media house don't encourage reporters or give them money they need to do investigative journalism. Many noble ideas that would have been pursued are abandoned because of lack of funding.
Covering international assignments like the world cup, the olympic games, the world championships e.t.c is a taboo for critical journalists in Nigeria since you have made yourself the enemy because of your critical stories. The local Olympic Committee or the scribes of National Associations or Federations will ensure that you don't get media accrediation.
Secondly the way funds are raised for financing the trip to such competitions encourage corruption. Reporters are not sponsored by their organizations. They are expected to source for sponsors.
Companies or Industries that one has written critical stories about will definitely not sponsors such a reporter. So reporters look the other way even if a company is doing the wrong thing, knowing fully well that he will go there cap-in-hand one day looking for sponsorship.
The other route open to journalists is full of land mines. One can be on the list as a government delegate, this has been the saving grace for reporters over the years. But for a reporter to be on government list, he must be a good boy of sport administrators. He must see no evil and write no evil.
It may interest this gathering to know that despite winning 22 awards and certificates from local and international organizations within the last five years, the highest by another Nigerian sports writer ever, I have not been deemed worthy of media accreditation for the olympic games or the football world cup by the Nigeria Olympic Committee.
Then there are physical and verbal attacks, threat of assassination, blackmails and so on. I have been attacked physically and verbally on many occasions, and I have been denied entry to press conferences so that I won't come and ask stupid questions.
But inspite of material poverty, denial of media accreditations and attacks, I will continue to look at issues from critical points of view until we have genuine change.
The advantages are many. I go to sleep with a clear conscience, I get commendation everywhere I go. I have been adjudged the best in my work in Nigeria and Africa on many occasions, thanks to critical views.
In conclusion, I implore journalists everywhere to make the world a better place with their work. Everything will fade away, but the deeds of good men are everlasting. I think I have answered the question. African sports: Ready for critical journalists?