Wednesday, September 8, 2021 3:55 pm
By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Nigeria is the burial ground of big dreams.
Dele Olojede brought great honour to Nigeria by winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting in 2005.
Thereafter Olojede dreamed big of publishing a newspaper called NEXT that aspired to break bold new ground in Nigerian journalism by paying handsome salaries, undertaking groundbreaking investigation scoops, disavowing brown envelope bribe-taking etc.
It’s cool to remember in this day and age in which the Nigerian government has banned Twitter that NEXT first appeared as a “tweet” in December 2008.
Some two weeks after the landmark tweet, the 234NEXT website went live to the celebration and happiness of progressive-minded Nigerians.
The mint-fresh print edition of NEXT then appeared on the newsstands on Sunday, January 4, 2009.
Olojede published a welcome message in the first edition thusly: “NEXT is launched now to provide news and informed opinion fairly and accurately to the Nigerian public in any land, based on the best judgment of the editors, and in a way that serves the public purpose and is compatible with the demands of an open and democratic society.”
Based in Lagos, NEXT paraded an array of tested journalists, and there was the drive to bring up new hands in Nigerian journalism unsullied by the crooked practices of the past.
NEXT – especially the Sunday broadsheet and its handful of inserts – held out so much promise for Nigerian newspapering.
After the debuting of NEXT on Sunday on January 4, 2009, the daily edition had to wait for more than six months to appear on the newsstands in August of 2009.
Olojede of course had a solid journalism background before undertaking the NEXT venture having starred at Chief MKO Abiola’s Concord newspapers, Dele Giwa-inspired Newswatch magazine, and the New York NewsDay in USA.
His winning of the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for a series of reports he wrote as the then senior correspondent for the New York NewsDay on the travails of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 stood Olojede out as a world class journalist. He rose to become the Foreign Editor of New York NewsDay.
In Olojede’s words, he “raised several million dollars from friends and more from a large local bank” to set up NEXT.
Writing as a guest columnist in the Financial Times (FT) of London on July 20, 2009, Olojede stated inter alia, “We have a country that can do much better than it is. We have a democracy that is struggling to move from form to function. And we have a press that has seen much better days and often makes itself available to the highest bidder. The deck is stacked against us. We had to pick 55 youngsters from 13,000 applicants and attempt to turn them into reporters. We are trying to run a 24-hour newsroom on diesel generators. We have some old-style newsroom editors we are seeking to convert to the digital age of constantly updated stories for the web, tweets, and blogs.”
NEXT indeed ventured into areas where angels feared to tread in the course of its stay in the Nigerian market.
Nigeria’s high and mighty goons who partook of the scandalous Halliburton bribe bazaar had no place to hide.
The newspaper published an anonymously sourced story revealing that the then President Umaru Yar’Adua was “seriously brain-damaged” and unable to govern while receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.
Yar’Adua never really returned to power and died on May 5, 2010.
NEXT obtained exclusive rights to the Nigerian documents in the whistle blower Wikileaks, and published the grimy details to the alarm of the powers-that-be.
The management wrote: “NEXT is the only organization in Nigeria with the full Wikileaks cable on Nigeria. This is the timeline of the worldwide exclusive revelations.”
NEXT’s in-your-face reporting was at odds with the advertising establishment that would not want their friends in government and the military-industrial complex to be damaged.
This spelt trouble for NEXT as much-needed advert support was withdrawn and it was forced from publishing six days a week to only on Sunday.
Olojede told The Associated Press: “In this environment, where the government still occupies a disproportionally and distortionately (sic) large role in the economy, it has a ripple effect — said or unsaid. The result is we’ve had a very tough time getting business. We have to rethink our strategy and see how we can outsmart the system that seems so stuck against us. It’s been an extraordinary adventure for us, really. We’re going to stick with it and keep poking around to see if we can make a dent in the very many problems of this country. The country definitely needs, like oxygen, an independent and honest press. … The country is not going to go anywhere if money can just determine what the public knows or doesn’t know.”
After some two-odd years NEXT shut down its print edition on Sunday, September 25, 2011.
Remarkably, one month after the shutting-down of the print edition of NEXT, on October 25, 2011, the Aspen Institute and Anne Welsh McNulty Institute trustee announced Olojede as the winner of the fourth annual $100,000 John P. McNulty Prize in recognition of his “groundbreaking work to deliver unbiased information to the Nigerian public, demand government transparency and advance journalistic standards in the country.”
To end, being an elder statesman of many a Nigerian newsroom myself, it is incumbent on me to appeal that a lot of involved parties in the NEXT project, like my publisher Toni Kan, should please bury the hatchet of chagrin.
*Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is a journalist, poet and public affairs analyst