The Pen Still Mightier

Ayodele Ale

By Ayodele Ale

Some years ago, three of us, journalists reporting for Tempo interviewed the late Chief Bola Ige in respect of his political activities after General Olusegun Obasanjo’s victory at the polls. The first set of questions sounded patronising. He had no problem with that. Then, at a stage, we started unwrapping the ‘real’ questions on his political maneuverings, the behind the scene activities and offering legal advice to Obasanjo to be able to scale the then lingering legal hurdle over the presidential election. We also asked him to confirm what we heard that the presidential election winner had already penciled him down as Minister for Power and Steel.
Chief Bola Ige was livid.

He responded to every question with abuse and curses. He kept repeating, “Whoever tells you will die in perdition.” Ige was full of what we then described in the ‘intro’ of the interview as ‘generational arrogance.’ He said emphatically that we were lily-livered and that before the age of 16, he had been at the centre stage of Nigerian politics. He declined to answer all the questions starting with the word ‘if’. “I don’t answer any question starting with if” he said.
Interview over, we left for our office. The story made the front page of Tempo. Many of our readers were angry. I could recollect that Femi Falana asked me why we had to continue with interviewing Ige despite all the vituperations and tirades. But we had a duty – to publish the news, not minding the challenges encountered and insults received.
Ige never challenged the interview. Unfolding events later confirmed some of the questions asked. Ige accepted to be a Minister in Obasanjo’s cabinet to spite his co-political travelers in Afenifere who decided to make Chief Olu Falae the presidential flag bearer of AD instead of Ige.

As a journalist with The Punch, I reported the story of a private university in Nigeria which was conducting HIV/AIDS and pregnancy tests on the graduating female students of the school. The publication coincided with the graduation of the school and it became a global issue. The Bishop of the faith-based institution who later called a ‘World Press Conference,’ used the opportunity to lambast the media. “Journalists are never found in good places, except where tragic incidences occur,” he said, before going ahead to read his prepared speech and list the achievements of the institution. I was there for a follow up story. The two questions I asked only enraged him the more, and while he was responding harshly, my recorder was rolling. A follow up story was published and on the basis of that, the story won me the Diamond Award for Media Excellence (DAME) in the HIV/AIDS category, sponsored by the US Consulate.
Interestingly, the NUC waded in and banned Nigerian higher institutions from conducting pregnancy and HIV/AIDS tests on graduating students. The NUC noted that the private universities were going beyond their boundaries and that their actions constituted infringement on the fundamental human rights of students. I was happy that the story was able to salvage the future of some students, but it could not redeem the education of some graduating female students who were expelled a year earlier on account of being ‘pregnant’ before their graduation ceremony. Many of the parents of such hapless graduating students kept mute for religious purposes and to avoid embarrassment.

Some years back, I also burrowed into the story of a messy relationship and love affairs turned sour between a former governor and his first wife. The wife, who was angry that the husband took a second wife and willed part of the estate to the young son of the younger lover was ready to spill the beans. The opportunity came when the husband died. She hijacked the corpse of the husband, denied him the opportunity of state burial and got the judgment of the court in her favour to bury the corpse in a foreign land. The reports were also hitting the front page of Saturday Punch. At a point, the woman felt uncomfortable with one of my stories. When I went to her for another follow up, she charged at me and said, “Abroad, your medium ought to be paying me for giving you good stories about my family.” She then asked in derision, “Which university did you graduate from sef?” I replied the question with another question, “The ones I attended abroad or in Nigeria?” Of course, my boldness shut her up.

I can go on and on. Journalism is a challenging profession. I passed through so many things as a journalist practicing in Nigeria. None of my stories attracted any lawsuit, and when lawyers threatened the media organisations that I reported for, I just looked at such letters as the ranting of an ant, since I had my fact and relevant documents.
If you want to practice successfully and make a mark, you have to be different by looking beyond the surface, asking probing questions and daring. Underneath that press release and media parley, there is something hidden, something salacious, something ludicrous and something dangerous that might be of greater interest and benefit to the public. According to Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) “That action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

Journalists need to know their onions, have probing mind, be ready to publish and be damned. Those who have something to hide, obviously, still fear the pen.

– Ayodele Ale is a journalist and lawyer