I first thought it was a joke until Fisayo Soyombo confirmed it himself. “It’s true. I’m in hiding,” he had said when asked to confirm if it was true that Nigeria’s security agencies were hunting for him. If anything happens to Soyombo, we are to be blamed for it! Thought it is an after-thought, the statement by the Controller General of the Nigeria Correctional Service, Ja’afaru Ahmed, that NCS has set up a high powered panel to immediately commence full investigations into the matter in order to establish the authenticity of the report, identify and bring the culprits to book if found guilty of the allegations. This is just as Ahmed said the service has no intention of arresting or harassing the journalist over his findings. In Nigeria, we condemn those with good intents and commend those with questionable characters.
Soyombo’s travail is the aftermath of an exposé he did on the workings of the Nigeria Prisons Service (Nigeria Correctional Service) in its raw state. Dubbed by many as an unusual journalism, it is groundbreaking in the history of investigative journalism in Nigeria. But I am not surprised the exposé came from Soyombo. Beginning from the moment of arrest by the police to the point of release by the prison, he experienced hell on earth. He was arraigned in court and eventually remanded in prison.
And just like before, everybody has decided to keep quiet. It has not even received the kind of attention I had thought. Everybody, whether directly or indirectly, is a victim of Nigeria’s bastardized system. Rather than for those in position of authority to take action, they are going after someone who has decided to save them from the mess. We fail to remember that anyone, whether or not highly placed, would be affected by the injustices in the high places one day.
It will never enjoy the attention it should because it is not Big Brother Naija, a reality TV show that just ended. It is not a football match between Barcelona and Manchester City. It is an investigation of a Nigerian system by a Nigerian journalist. It isn’t the sex-for-marks expose by Kiki Mordi of the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, on the randy University of Lagos, UNILAG, lecturer. Just like every other event, this too will pass! But is it the best of times to be called a Nigerian? Can we, in our right senses, blame those who have lost faith in the system and relocated or are relocating? Late Chinua Achebe was a prophet. He said there was a country. Was there even a country? Or should we call it a mere geographical expression like late Obafemi Awolowo described it?
Soyombo, who was billed to speak on fake news at Goathe Institut yesterday could not make it as he had to run for his dear life. Devastated by the investigation, especially the second part, there are plans to arrest him. If arrested, he would be sued for ‘espionage’; I wouldn’t know what that means. This is for risking his life to unearth the drug abuse, sodomy, bribery, pimping, cash-and-carry operations at Ikoyi Prisons. That was the second of a three-part investigative series. He had last week released the first part which revealed bribery, bail for sale, how innocent civilians are jailed and criminals recycled in Lagos police station.
To achieve this, Soyombo had to take grave risks. For two weeks, he moved from police cell to Ikoyi Prison, just to track corruption in Nigeria’s criminal justice system. At a point, he would have paid the ultimate price. Discovering a camera on him, an official of the Ikoyi Prison, Sunkanmi, sent for a cane and ordered him to remove his shirt and trousers, leaving only his singlet and boxer briefs.
“Then he descends on me. Three rounds of beating: the first with several lashes of the cane searing straight into my skin and leaving me with blood and blisters; the second in similar pattern, with my hands cuffed behind my back; and the last with a thick stick targeting the interior and exterior joints of my ankles, knees, hips, elbows and shoulders. Still, I refused to disclose that I’m a journalist. By enduring the beating, I succeeded in buying myself at least another 24 hours of understudying the corruption seeping through the different layers of prison operations. Bearing the pain was worth it in the end; someone needed to expose the scale of criminal corruption going on in that prison,” Soyombo had explained in the second part of the story.
I am sad. Soyombo and others are coming up at a time we had thought investigative journalism is dead in Nigeria. Weeks back when BBC published its expose on the randy UNILAG lecturer, people were quick to lambast the Nigerian media. But now that a Nigerian has come forward with an award-winning investigative piece, we have become dumb. It is not that this is the first time a journalist would be threatened and harassed. Another wonderful investigative journalist, Mojeed Alabi, was beaten and matcheted by thugs loyal to a former top Nigeria political office holder. His sin: he exposed how capital project by the federal government in Ilobu, headquarters of Irepodun local government of Osun State, was declared ‘concluded’ when it has not even reached reasonable stage. It happened to me, almost two years ago. I had written and published a story on www.oyoinsight.com on late chairman of the National Union of Road Transport Workers, NURTW, in Oyo State, Alhaji Taofeek Fele. He was reported dead on social media. Being someone close to the leadership of the union, I made some calls and was made to know that he was only sick and not dead. I reported it. But unknown to me, I had offended him. He didn’t want anything to be reported about his sickness. The police launched a search for me, tracking for three days before I was apprehended around Mokola on November 27, 2017 and whisked away to the Oyo State Police Command at Eleyele. I was taken to the Anti-kidnapping Section. Fele, as he was fondly called, later came with his retinue of aides, obviously thinking they were coming to meet a huge and known personality. We later settled the matter, warning them against collecting any money for bail from me. I was later told Fele wasn’t interested in my arrest but that the policemen acted in order to ‘impress’ him. “They are on his payroll,” one of them told me. But I wasn’t surprised.
But is Fisayo new to controversies and threats? In a recent interview, he had explained how, in 2013, he went to Plateau State to find out the cause of the unrest there. For five days, in 2015, he travelled to Liberia to see how the country was recovering from its Ebola crisis. He succeeded in establishing that a lot of corruption took place during that time. While many were dying and the whole world was sympathising with them, some of the officials there were embezzling funds. Also in 2015, he investigated corruption among Customs officials at Nigerian ports, discovering that the average Nigerian trying to do import business is exploited by the corrupt officials at the ports. In 2016, he went to the North-East to investigate the abandonment of soldiers who sustained injuries while fighting against Boko Haram. The Army had claimed they did not abandon them, yet some were lying in the hospital for six months or more. He went undercover to two hospitals. One is at the cantonment in Maiduguri, which was where freshly wounded soldiers were taken to. He also went to the 44 Military Hospital in Kaduna, which was where the most serious cases were taken to. He saw a soldier who had been blinded for over two years and they kept telling him they were waiting for directives to fly him out of the country. A fragment of grenade hit him in the eye in 2014 and ever since he had been abandoned there, all in the name of directives. In 2016, the eye was still plastered. Initially, the Army authorities denied, but they later went to the hospital to settle some of the cases. There was an impact, a positive response from the Army after the story. Later in 2016, he went to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in the North-East where he was able to establish the fact that there was so much corruption going on in the management of the foodstuffs of the IDPs by the people who should pity those in severe hardship. The camp officials either sold or diverted the food for personal use. That is Soyombo for you.
His stories have had impact on society. For instance, after his exposè on Customs the Customs boss directed officials to declare their assets. I don’t even think he can be detached from journalism. The three times he worked from the desk, it didn’t take long before he resigned. He is a field person. Asked in a recent interview why he is never afraid of threat to his life. His answer: “Cowards die many times before their death and the courageous die but once. I know someone who sat in front of his shop and a car hit him there and he died. If that is one way to die, why should the fear of death stop someone from pursuing one’s passion. I know why I’m doing this and I know that one of the reasons I do this is to make the lives of certain people better. If it’s worth the risk, why relent?
“As an investigative journalist, you are around risk, and the biggest of it is death, bodily harm, threats and many others. I have not experienced serious cases of threat, minus the Army saying I practise subversion, minus someone calling me after the Customs story to say he would deal with me. What I try to do is to balance, prove and show evidence that this is not made up,” he said.
Soyombo is not the type of journalist who goes after money. He is quick to see stories everywhere, anywhere. His nose is very sharp. Not even his background would deter him. Through him, I learnt that if you create value, what you would eat come for you; I am not even talking about bribe.
“The start is often hard. I’ve had my rough moments. For instance, my first job after NYSC, I was owed. At some point, my shirts were getting torn, usually at the elbow. I would wear them under my suit, and my colleagues occasionally wondered why I was always suited up even in periods of power outage. They’d go “Fisayo, remove your suit now, aren’t you hot?” And I’ll be like “never mind”.
I remember interviewing the late Chief Olusegun Olusola, Nigeria’s longest-serving ambassador to Ethiopia, in 2009. I got to his estate but couldn’t locate his house. I recharged my phone with the last N100 on me so I could call him for further directions. At the end of the interview, the man did not even offer me water much less money. And there was no way in the world I was going to ask. What he gave me was his book, ‘The Village Headmaster’. So I had to walk more than two hours from his house to mine. I had all those experiences but I’ve always felt if you work very hard, and while working hard to learn how to work really smart, then you will be fine eventually. If you combine the two, and you’re diligent, you read widely, write as often as you can, you look at the leading lights of your industry, track the stories they are writing, the papers they edit and you pray for God’s grace and wisdom, then you will be fine. I’m not a pastor, but I understand the place of God,” he added in the interview.
So, it goes beyond the statement by the CG of NCS; something drastic must be done to nip the criminalities going on in the bud.
Akinola is Chief Content Creator at www.oyoinsight.com. He writes via [email protected]