A Nigerian newspaper that dared to expose the truth and corruption of its powerful elite

Laureate
Dele Olojede
Venture
NEXT
Program
McNulty Prize
Location
Lagos, Nigeria
McNULTY PRIZE WINNER

This is part of a series of leadership case studies featuring McNulty Prize Laureates.


“Perhaps the biggest obstacle to progress in Nigeria is the abiding cynicism of the people,” says Dele Olojede. “They’ve been disappointed and hard done by for so long that they no longer believe. So they turn to the churches and the mosques and to prophets of doom and bearers of unfounded good tidings – and their condition worsens, because they are not facing up to the very hard and necessary facts of daily life, which they have to engage with in order to improve.”


Dele has made it his life’s work to face up to facts, and to encourage everyone else to do the same.

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He became a journalist inspired, he says, by the environment in which he came of age. Nigeria then was an optimistic, post-independence garden of creativity. He grew up in a university town where thought leaders like Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe congregated. His father subscribed to three daily newspapers, and the young Dele was dazzled by the glamour of columnists’ picture bylines. He never, he says, had any interest in being anything else.

But by the time Dele was getting his own picture bylines, Nigeria had changed. It had been overtaken by what economists call the ‘resource curse’ — the paradox that developing countries with an abundance of natural reserves see worse economic growth than countries without natural resources. Graft among the politically connected was out of control, the circumstances of ordinary people’s lives were increasingly straitened, and there was no apparent limit to what those in power would do to protect their position.

“They sent a letter bomb to my editor and he was killed. He was a close friend. That triggered a series of events,” says Dele. “I issued a press statement accusing the military dictatorship of being behind the killing, and it became prudent to leave.” A timely Ford Foundation Scholars grant for Columbia University’s School of Journalism meant Dele was able to do just that. “So I left Nigeria as a 26-year-young hotshot journalist crusading against evil.”

Left Lagos on a Ford Foundation Scholars grant for Columbia University’s School of Journalism in 1987.

On staff of New York Newsday for more than 16 years, holding senior positions including foreign editor.

In 2005, became the first African to win the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage out of Rwanda in the wake of the genocide.

In 2008, started Timbuktu Media, publisher of NEXT, an independent investigative newspaper and website in Lagos, and of a forthcoming pan-African media platform.

One thing led to another, and Dele ended up forging his career in the US, rather than Nigeria. It was a stellar career which included, amongst other awards, a Pulitzer Prize. In time, it became clear that Dele was on a trajectory that was leading swiftly to the editor’s desk.

Though the years had passed, that 26-year-old crusading journalist was still alive; and Dele couldn’t warm to the idea of a desk job. His heart was still longing to make a difference in Nigeria. “I have deep familial and community relationships in Nigeria; I was always conscious that people I really care about were being held hostage by the corruption that was ruining the country. I love this place, I love these people, and my heart was bleeding at the suffering.

“In the end, it’s love that kept the dream alive.”

It was time to step away, to go back to Nigeria, says Dele, “to try and do the only thing I could reasonably competently do, which was to create an avenue for public conversation through a new organization which would be immune to the pressures of political and other corruption, and that would make life and the conditions under which Nigerians live very clear to them, so that no one would be able to claim that they didn’t know what was going on.” He wanted, in other words, to reintroduce the independent press to Nigeria, and thus to change the environment, through changing the discourse.

Our aim is to arm the citizen with information so she will make better decisions. We want leaders to think twice before acting, knowing we are paying attention.

— Dele Olojede

At the time he joined the Africa Leadership Initiative (ALI), a part of the Aspen Global Leadership Network (AGLN), however, Dele was still “slightly lacking” in courage and determination. “I do enjoy the good life, and Nigeria is not cushy.”  It was the ALI experience that gave Dele the final push. “The way the Aspen Fellowship program is structured allows one to develop very deep and meaningful relationships. When you make undertakings, you make them to the Fellows as well as to yourself; and the idea of not following through becomes abhorrent because you value their respect.”

Secondly, Dele says, through the AGLN “you’re dealing with a network of extraordinary people, bright, inventive, creative people, and just talking to them fires you up with new perspectives on what you’re doing, and makes you want to do it.”

What Dele wanted to do, required him to build a media group right from the foundations. A printing works needed to be built; and journalists needed to be trained. From an application pool of more than 13,000, Dele selected 90 candidates. None of them had ever known a graft-free world. Establishing a set of values consistent with independent reporting was critical. “In order to ‘convert’ our staff, I had to make it clear that I was going to sacrifice personally and heavily. Neither my wife nor I took a pay check for five years.

“But in less time than I had thought, we started getting reports back that always, when the brown envelopes started getting handed out, the NEXT reporter would stand up and leave. “I felt we had already succeeded.” 

90
Journalists selected from an application pool of over 13,000.
2 Million
Unique visitors per month within three months of launching.
1st
Nigeria is ranked the world’s most corrupt country in a 2016 US News report.

Apparently fearless, NEXT went to places that other news outlets simply would not. The team exposed the fact that Nigerian legislators are the world’s most highly paid and least effective; and it contextualized that information in terms of the salaries of ordinary civil servants like police and teachers. It exposed Nigeria’s richest tycoon for “forgetting” to pay tax for five years: he himself estimated he was US$600m in arrears. The authorities were embarrassed into reacting, the first time the apparent immunity of the rich and powerful was so publicly breached. NEXT precipitated a change in government by exposing that then-President Umaru Yar’Adua was brain dead, while the nation was being assured he would be returning to office. The team also broke the Haliburton scandal, which revealed that the oil company had bribed almost the entire Nigerian political elite.

It did not take long before the establishment began to fight back.

One powerful weapon was isolation. Important stories NEXT broke were ignored by other media, even though NEXT – unusually for news organizations, which default to protecting exclusivity – offered to share source documents. Other media simply lacked the courage to report the facts that angered powerful people. It was also common for top newspaper editors to be on the payrolls of the powerful.

As NEXT continued to expose government graft, pressure escalated. “Our fatal strategic mistake was to launch a print product, instead of keeping it to online,” Dele reflects now. Any newspaper business model relies mostly on advertising revenue to pay costs, supported by sales of the product – and circulation figures, in turn, determine how much a newspaper can charge for advertising space. There are multiple points of sabotage, and the Nigerian establishment took advantage of all of them.

“I misunderstood the sheer difficulty of running a clean business in the Nigerian environment,” says Dele. “If you don’t come from a position of real strength, the temptation to succumb is exceedingly high. You’re seen as an unreasonable person if you don’t hand out or accept bribes.

“For instance, when our newsprint arrived at the port, the customs team expected their usual bribes to release it – which of course we refused to pay. So they delayed releasing it. There is a penalty of US$1,000 for every day you leave your goods at port. It took us about 90 days to get our paper released.”

As the pressure mounted, Dele began to rue his decision to raise his start-up capital in Nigeria: “My investors were in jeopardy. The government squeezed them, and many bailed out.” Advertising income, similarly, was pulled as advertisers feared the consequences of aligning themselves with NEXT’s position on government and other corruption.

With NEXT foundering, and Nigeria apparently turning its back on him, Dele was in deep distress which culminated when Dele ultimately had no choice but to close down NEXT.

“Failure will be different for everyone, but for me it was profoundly destabilizing,” he says. “There was intense frustration and anger that I had sacrificed everything, including my family’s finances, exposed myself to danger, strained family relationships – and after all that I still had to shut down. It took me a long while to internalize that even incremental change, small changes, count.

“Some of those who worked for NEXT understood, but others became angry and personal. They felt betrayed by the fact that I had not made NEXT work. I dealt with it by becoming generous: I knew the anger came from a place of deep disappointment – I had led them to believe that we could change the country. I absorbed the abuse.

“But that takes its toll. It’s traumatic.

“I lost interest in everything. For more than three years, I was just not up for anything else, no matter how attractive it was.”

You can’t guarantee that you will succeed, but you must guarantee that you will give it your all.

— Dele Olojede

In late 2015, emerging from his state of listlessness and “dabbling,” Dele began to ask himself the what-next question. “If I live as long as my father, who died in his 90s, that means I will live for another 35 years,” he says. “How would I want to spend that time?”

Dele is circling back to his first love. Instead of the intensely particular focus on Nigeria, he is instead actively working on a platform for long-form writing on the broader African world, for which some of the best writers anywhere will be corralled into service. The platform, tentatively called ‘Afar,’ signals a sense of perspective, as if from a distance, and is also a nod to the Afar Depression in the Ethiopian highlands, where the earliest hominid remains known have been found.

It has been more than five years since NEXT folded. With hindsight, we asked Dele, was it worth it?

“It was a financial devastating, emotionally draining experience,” he says “but at the same time, I now appreciate that we made a difference. There are those young people that we trained and inspired and grew – I am very proud of what they have added to the landscape of the country. Everywhere you turn they are there, raising their voices and making a difference. So yes, it was worth it – we showed people there are ways of being other than the swamp atmosphere. They are carrying the torch.”

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