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INTERVIEW: I’ve no regrets paying tribute to Abba Kyari, says Simon Kolawole

TheCable, Nigeria’s independent online newspaper, marked its sixth anniversary on April 29, 2020. In this interview with eelive.ng, Simon Kolawole, Founder and CEO of Cable Newspaper Ltd, speaks on the journey so far, the challenges facing the media in Nigeria and his relationship with Abba Kyari, the late chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari.


eelive.ng: You recently wrote a tribute to Mallam Abba Kyari, the late Chief of Staff to President Buhari, and you came under attack, with some questioning your personal reputation and professional integrity. Were you surprised by the reactions?

Kolawole: All my adult life, I have never sought anybody’s validation of my integrity or reputation. In my experience, those who are quick to attack other people’s integrity are usually the ones who don’t have any integrity. They think everybody else is like them. I always write from the integrity of my heart. Whatever anybody thinks thereafter is their own opinion. It is called freedom of speech. Before I wrote the Kyari tribute, I knew what I was up against. I knew they would unleash the attack dogs on me, the same dogs they sent after Abba Kyari since 2017. Unfortunately, these people don’t know the person they are dealing with. I am the worst human being you can orchestrate attacks against. Why? I don’t care. I can’t be intimidated.

Once I am convinced that I wrote from the integrity of my heart and my conscience is clear to God, the rest is irrelevant. I would be miserable if I fail to write because I am afraid some people would come after me. That would be a disaster. I know people who shied away from eulogising Kyari because of the way the attack dogs came after me, Waziri Adio and Olusegun Adeniyi after our tributes. They are afraid of social media-based professors and twitter warriors. I am man enough to stand up with my chest out. I would hate myself the day I chicken out of my convictions because of fear of attacks. That is not the man my grandmother brought me up to be.

I have been writing my THISDAY column since June 2003. If I can be intimidated or blackmailed, I would have run away years ago. You can imagine the number of attacks I get every week over my viewpoints, especially on restructuring and ethno-religious harmony. In any case, I knew the Kyari tribute would hit them hard. They hated Kyari and they wanted everybody else to join them in hating him. I have a very independent mind. I don’t go with the flow. I search things out by myself. I don’t engage in mass lynching. I’m never afraid to be different. Anybody who knows me very well will tell you that about me.

Ironically, I did not read any of those attacks against me. It was people that were calling me and forwarding them to me. Some went to the extent of summarising them so that I could have an idea of the bitterness. I always had a good laugh. They are still attacking Kyari in his grave as if they too won’t die one day. All souls must taste death. Many of those denigrating him will not attain half the height Kyari reached in his lifetime. Most of the people who demonised Kyari did not know him. They believed all the attacks that were orchestrated against him. This is one of the things I wrote in my tribute that made the sponsors of the attacks go wild. The attack machinery has now been sent after my humble self. They have proved me right. They were depressed when the Economist, Financial Times, Africa Confidential, the US government and the UK government eulogised Kyari. These are not frivolous or emotional institutions. They knew the real Abba Kyari.

A simple textual and discourse analysis of these attacks against me will reveal widespread similarities. This shows not only that the attack dogs are singing from the same hymn book but also that there is someone clearly coordinating and orchestrating things. They are not even smart enough to hide their hands. I know those unleashing the dogs and they know that I know them. Their goal is to sustain the narrative in which they invested so much resources and energy to create against a man who is now dead. Not even his death, which they celebrated, can assuage them. To them, anyone who challenges their preferred narrative is an enemy, deserving of the same orchestration they deployed against Kyari. I wrote just one article and they have replied with about 46 rejoinders as at the last count. It’s an industry!

eelive.ng: Popular opinion remains that Abba Kyari was a bad influence on Buhari and was responsible for everything that was wrong with his government. Your article appears to suggest otherwise. Did you know him that well?

Kolawole: I knew Kyari as far back as 2010. He even invited me to be the spokesman of Buhari’s presidential campaign in 2011 but I explained to him that I was not interested in politics. The position was later given to Chief Yinka Odumakin. After the election, which Buhari lost, Kyari joined the editorial board of THISDAY. I was the editor of THISDAY then. We had a warm relationship. He used to send me books. He became Chief of Staff to Buhari in 2015, five years after our paths crossed. Our relationship continued. It was a professional and intellectual relationship. It was not financial or transactional. I could tell him my mind without any fear of falling out of favour. I can’t claim to know him that much, but we were close enough for him to take me as a confidant and friend.

One thing I know is that too much power was attributed to him. It was an urban legend. He was portrayed as a monster and a media narrative was built around that image, and it was nurtured consistently and persistently. Everything was blamed on him. When somebody is being blamed for everything that is bad, commonsense tells you to begin to suspect that there is an agenda. And I can understand why. Every leader has a gatekeeper. If you are the gatekeeper and you are doing your job well, there is no way some people will not demonise you. If everybody is praising the gatekeeper, something is not going well. An effective gatekeeper must be hated in some quarters.

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Sadly, Kyari, for reasons best known to him, refused to officially address the orchestrated accusations or even sue his accusers. Not one shred of evidence was produced against him. All his accusers did was to just make allegations, and you know Nigerians would believe anything negative you say about somebody in government, especially if you pin it on corruption. That is our collective psyche, until you have become a victim yourself. He told me the full story in our private conversations and I found them believable. I also crosschecked with other sources. Yet, he insisted everything he told me was for my ears only, not for me to defend him or publish. Despite the fact that we could have written a lot of exclusives from his explanations, we chose to respect his decision to keep quiet. I must confess it was painful not reporting those stories, but off-the-record briefing and confidentiality are canons of journalism ethics.

What hurt his traducers about my tribute is the fact that I said now that Kyari is dead, let us see if they would take over the presidency as they had been day-dreaming. That statement touched a raw nerve and I knew it. A senior journalist called me and said, ‘Simon, I like your tribute but be prepared for attacks.’

eelive.ng: But some critics believe your tribute was not balanced, that you should have written about Kyari’s failings and shortcomings too. Do you accept that?

Kolawole: You know we have a lot of journalists today who don’t understand journalism. A tribute is not an obituary or a story. A tribute is a eulogy. It is a personal commentary. It is not neutral. A tribute is written to celebrate somebody. An obituary is a feature, which is supposedly neutral or dispassionate or balanced. What I wrote was a tribute, published in a personal opinion column. I have written glowing tributes to several Nigerians who died — Prof Dora Akunyili, Chief Sunday Awoniyi, Dr Alex Ekwueme, Mr Oronto Douglas, Mr Stephen Keshi and Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu. Nobody tried to teach me how to write tributes then. But because they hate Kyari, they want to redefine the meaning of tribute and force it down my throat. I am laughing in Yagba.

I am not saying people should not disagree with me. Nobody is above criticism. People should feel free to disagree. I also disagree with people. In fact, we can get a very healthy debate out of this. People should just not stray from decency and decorum and begin to defame me. That one has legal consequences. If they don’t like my tribute, they should write their own. It is a free world. But they should please not legislate for me on how a tribute should be written. That I will not accept. As they say on social media, is it your tribute?

eelive.ng: One critic said you breached journalism ethics by being too close to a news subject and failing to write what you know about the alleged MTN bribery scandal. What would you say to that?

Kolawole: It is part of what I am saying: people who don’t know journalism trying to teach journalism. I have practised journalism for 27 years. I have never been jobless for one day. I didn’t come to journalism by accident or out of joblessness or as a last resort. I set out to be a journalist. I collected JAMB form and filled “mass communication” in all three choices. I scaled the highly competitive process to be able to study mass comm. Only four direct entry students were given admission in my set. I was taught not just the best in the craft of journalism but also its laws and ethics. I studied at the University of Lagos. I took a whole course on ethics. I was not just taught ethics; I have taken the pains with keeping myself educated about the different schools of thought and their positions on journalism ethics. So, it is laughable when people who know little about ethics begin to pontificate recklessly.

Let me start from the basics. I have known Waziri Adio, the Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), since 1989. That is going to 31 years. He is like a blood brother to me. Because he was appointed the ES of NEITI, I should stop picking his calls? If he buys me a book, I should reject it? I have known Lanre Issa-Onilu, the National Publicity Secretary of APC, since 1987. That is 33 years. We met at the Kwara State Polytechnic where we wrote our A’Levels together. Am I supposed to delete his number the moment he entered government? I have known President Muhammadu Buhari personally since February 2001. That is 19 years. We used to meet or talk on the phone regularly. If he calls me today, I should not pick? If he invites me for dinner, I should say no? This is absolutely ridiculous.

It is very ridiculous to think someone can bribe me simply because we exchange books. The journalism code of ethics does not say I should unfriend my friends. It says I can have a arms-length relationship with them as potential news sources and know where to draw the line and how to crosscheck whatever they tell me from other sources. I always did this.

Those saying I breached journalism ethics by not reporting what Kyari told me in confidence about the MTN settlement also fall into this category. They don’t know there is something called off-the-record briefing and they claim to be teachers of ethical journalism. Confidentiality is a global practice. If the subject says, ‘I am briefing you for your information only’, you have to respect the confidentiality. If you can’t keep it off-the-record, tell the source straightaway so that he does not go any further. There is nothing in the Code of Ethics that says you should betray trust. In fact, our Code of Ethics at TheCable is very clear: if you breach an off-the-record agreement, the punishment is instant dismissal. The Code of Ethics of the Nigeria Union of Journalists is very clear too: off-the-record is off-the-record. All over the world, journalists will protect their sources even with their lives!

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Still on the MTN matter, if Kyari had told me he collected a bribe and I covered it up, that would have been a different matter. You could be talking about national interest there. But he said he didn’t collect any bribe. He said he was not even on the committee that resolved the issue. He said he didn’t know if they collected a bribe or not. So what ethical code did I breach? Maybe I should have invented a story that he took a bribe and denied to me? Or I should go and look for the names of the committee members and write recklessly and sadistically that they collected a bribe, even without producing any evidence to support my claim? I am not that kind of journalist. I am ready to defend whatever I report if it becomes a court case. I am not a reckless reporter.

I think the problem with many of these chaps is that they are confusing journalism with activism. I am a journalist, a professional journalist. I am not an activist. I am not just a journalist, I am a development journalist. I went to school to study journalism and I also hold a graduate degree in governance and development. I have taken leadership courses at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Yale University. I was a Mo Ibrahim Fellow in Governance for Development at the University of London. I didn’t go to this length in order to start running people down without evidence. I am not an adversarial journalist. I seek to build, not to destroy. I take no joy in pulling people down.

I am very much interested in constructively engaging with political authorities to help birth good governance and good public policies. If you notice, when people are saying there is ‘casting down’, I am saying there is ‘lifting up’. When they say Nigeria should break up, I say there are other options to consider. When they say Nigeria is finished, I say let’s try good leadership before we give up. A lot of people are irritated by these views and that is their right. It is the path I have chosen in life. If you want to be an activist journalist, as some people love to call themselves, good luck to you but please don’t legislate for me. Continue along your path and let me continue on my own path.

What type of ethical journalism convicts someone based on one-sided allegation from leaked but incomplete documents or so-called trusted sources that are not agenda-neutral, sources that are not ready to go on record? What kind of journalism takes allegations not proven beyond reasonable doubt as gospel truth? Not the journalism I was taught. For those of them that really studied journalism in proper schools and not serving as political or ethnic propaganda outlets, I would like to have a proper debate with them on the principles, the mechanics, the theories, the laws and the ethics of journalism. I am game. I have no business with agenda-pushers, bigots and some of these emergency journalists. One funny character was lecturing me about journalism without even respecting the elementary boundaries of defamation. Funny characters!

Some journalists have allowed themselves to be brainwashed by some so-called activists, so much so they have come to think that anybody in government is their enemy and they should never talk to them or relate with them. It is that bad. A good journalist should have sources everywhere, not just in NGOs. Even these so-called activists are not agenda-neutral. Some of them are hiding behind NGO work and human rights to push personal agenda which they pass off as national interest.

Unfortunately for some journalists, activists will be the highest level of contacts they will ever have in their entire careers. So, they are confounded when they realise that a journalist of my standing has access to a chief of staff. They cannot believe it. They are overwhelmed. They begin to write poor-quality opinions which they pass off as stories or analyses on ethics. What they don’t know is that I have access to almost every former president or head of state of this country. We talk on the phone. We meet and exchange ideas if there is an opportunity. How can I be a journalist all my life and all I can boast of is that I can only call civil society activists? I should know more people and have sources in every walk of life. In advanced countries, senior journalists have direct access to the highest authorities, and they get confidential briefing which they will never disclose. Some go to their graves with those secrets. I don’t owe anybody any apologies for my professionalism. I did not set out in my career to please everybody. I cannot please everybody. I am not jollof rice!

eelive.ng: A critic said you were hoping to get government appointment and that must have informed the glowing tribute you wrote on Kyari…

Kolawole: I have been turning down appointments since January 2000. Some of the positions I have turned down in my life are positions people will kill for. Political appointments mean nothing to me. I am very content. I am content with the impact I am making in my chosen fields. And by the way, is it that difficult to get a political appointment in Nigeria? You need to write a tribute to Kyari in order to get an appointment? Now, look at the contradiction: their paymasters said Kyari was more powerful than Buhari, that Kyari made all the appointments. Why then would it be hard for Kyari to give me an appointment? Why would I wait to be begging for appointment after his death? These guys are trying to send Bovi out of business. Sadly, they are low-grade comedians. Bovi is world-class.

eelive: Would you say you regret writing the tribute?

Kolawole: You may not believe this but most of the feedback I got was positive. I mean overwhelmingly positive. At least 80 percent of those who called me or sent me chats and SMS said ‘Thank you, Simon, I never knew this part of Kyari’ among other comments. Even if they had condemned it, I would still not be moved. I wrote from the point of conviction. I didn’t write so that people can clap for me. I have no regrets paying tribute to Kyari. I am not saying he was perfect or didn’t have any blemish. In any case, there is no human being born of a woman who is perfect. Of course, there were unproven allegations against him in the media. None went to the court of law. Accusations are very easy to make, especially without concrete evidence. I have been a journalist long enough to know how stories are planted to pursue an agenda. Nonetheless, I would do that tribute again and again. It is one of the best tributes I have ever written. I have been wondering: if my simple tribute to Kyari pained these people so much that they are bitter and depressed, what would they do if I wrote a whole book on him? As Fela sang, “If you like, e good/If you no like, you hang/If you hang you go die/You go die for nothing.”

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eelive.ng: Let us talk about TheCable online newspaper. It is six years old. How has the experience been?

Kolawole: I tell my team members all the time that in all my years in journalism, I have never learnt as much as I have done since we launched TheCable in 2014. I started practising journalism in 1993. I had worked in probably nine media houses before starting TheCable. My last job was as editor of THISDAY, a job I did for five years. That should be one of the toughest jobs in the world because of the standards expected of you. But we started TheCable online newspaper and I discovered a new world. News breaks by the minute and you have to be on top of it. There are probably 10,000 websites you are competing with, although most of them are not professional. But you have to be on top of your game. That was a major challenge.

We also faced the challenge of finance at the beginning. We discovered that advertisers behaved differently online — they were more interested in quantity of traffic rather than the quality. This drives many websites into click-baiting sensationalism, fake news and porn. Advertisers were offering peanuts. If you didn’t accept, there were a thousand others that would gladly do. We set out to offer quality journalism. We had a full complement of staff. It was not a one-man show. We had offices in Lagos and Abuja. We were not aggregators. We generated original contents and did real investigative stories. So, our cost structure was different. We were fortunate that some advertisers realised what we were up to from day one and bought into the vision immediately. We were never in danger financially, but our initial projections were not on target.

eelive.ng: You must have had low moments. Can you share with us?

Kolawole: The lowest moment was when we reported that Professor Wole Soyinka made some racist comments against the Igbo. It was completely false. This was in 2015. When my attention was drawn to the story and I read it, I knew Soyinka would never say such a thing. It was completely out of character. When the editor explained what happened to me, I knew we had fallen into a trap. It was a teachable moment for us. We retracted and apologised. It was the honourable and professional thing to do. You don’t see much of that in this space these days. You see these platforms and their writers digging in or moving on after unjustly tarnishing others.

I wrote a personal letter of apology to Soyinka and he graciously replied, even cracking a joke in the process. The Soyinka incident was a turning point for the team. My guys now realised TheCable was taken seriously more than they assumed. Many other websites and newspapers reported the same story but only TheCable was picked out. It was a terrible experience but it turned out to be a defining moment: we started fact-checking our stories more rigorously. We have made more mistakes, of course, but they are genuine mistakes, not motivated by hatred or malice or out of pushing somebody’s agenda. Journalists make mistakes, even with the most rigorous systems, because they are human. In fact, some publications have a section named ‘Our Errors’. The right thing to do is put systems in place to minimise errors and swiftly and clearly correct them when they happen. That is the professional approach. We keep striving for perfection. That is our target.

eelive.ng: There have been happy moments too, isn’t it?

Kolawole: We’ve had numerous. We’ve broken big stories, had big exclusives and won awards. There are people that wait for a story to appear in TheCable before they believe it. I find that most gratifying. In the last one year or so, we have broken massive stories. I remember we broke the story that former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar had been issued with the US visa and we also reported that he had arrived in the US. Many people doubted us initially and tried to cast aspersion on the stories. We reported that there was a plot to remove Justice Walter Onnoghen as the chief justice of Nigeria. We were spot on. When he resigned, we also broke the story.

The planned deposition of Alhaji Muhammadu Sanusi II as Emir of Kano was first reported by TheCable. Months later, Governor Abdullahi Ganduje set the machinery in motion. We have also won a number of local and international awards. We are trusted and quoted by local and foreign media. Much older and better resourced traditional newspapers have reused stories broken by TheCable, with credit. These are big positives for us. Fisayo Soyombo, the pioneer of TheCable, has been nominated for the International Journalist of the Year award following his undercover work in Ikoyi prisons. The two other nominees are from the BBC and Sky News. For TheCable to be on the same list with BBC and Sky is a great compliment. We are exceedingly grateful to God.

eelive.ng: Back to the issue of finance, there is this belief that you have survived so far because you receive foreign door funding. Is that true?

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Kolawole: Foreign donors do not fund businesses. They fund non-for-profit bodies. Cable Newspaper Ltd (CNL) is a business concern so it is impossible to receive foreign donation. But there is the Cable Newspaper Journalism Foundation (CNJF) which is not-for-profit. CNL and CNJF are different legal entities. The foundation has received grants from donors such as the MacArthur Foundation and the UK Department for International Development. CNJF is into journalism training/mentorship as well as funding investigative journalism. CNL benefits from these two aspects of CNJF programmes. But CNL and CNJF are completely different, legally and operationally. TheCable is sustained largely by adverts from companies that value the quality of our stories and the quality of the readership.

eelive.ng: Do you believe the printed newspaper still has a future?

Kolawole: I was brought up as a newspaper man and that is an emotional thing for me. I want the printed newspaper to survive. I believe it will survive, no matter how tough. I can’t imagine a world without the printed newspaper! The current economics are not good but something tells me no matter how harsh the situation is, the industry will not die. The news of the death of newspapers is always exaggerated, right from the time radio came on board through the various deployment of cutting-edge technology for journalistic purposes. This may be the biggest existential challenge to newspapers yet, but the industry will adapt, and business will continue.

This report is published with permission from eelive.ng.

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