Their brand of journalism marks them out for constant official scrutiny. The name Sahara Reporters means different things to different people. While some credit it with having changed the face of online journalism in Nigeria, others see it as precursors of a brand of confrontational in-your-face journalism which most of the later entrants have abused.
Take it or leave it, Sahara Reporters has earned a reputation as having had the courage to take on every government that has come into power since Nigeria's return to democracy 13 years ago. Some see it as having neither friends nor enemies in the dispensation of its duties, others see it as highly opinionated, but whichever shade of the argument you see it from, it has become a force to reckon with in the Nigerian media industry.
Operating from its Seventh floor office in West 29th Street in Manhattan, New York, OMOYELE SOWORE transmits both Sahara Reporters and Sahara TV, feeding a host of Nigerians with breaking news.
National Daily's Head, Special Investigation and Crime Desk, AHAOMA KANU, was at the Sahara Reporters Head office in New York and had this interview with the man behind this citizen journalism movement.
SAHARA Reporters and Sahara TV have become so huge in followership, readers and viewers that I want to ask if it is becoming a corporation.
I am uncomfortable describing what we are doing here as a corporation because it will look like we are part of a conspiracy to take away people's power by way of making profit. No, it is not a corporation but a compact platform for citizen reporters' movement; I will love to call this a media movement as opposed to being a corporation, that's the way I see it. I don't know if it's huge yet but I think it's an idea whose time has come in the sense that Nigerian citizens and by extension, African citizens, have found an alternative avenue to voice their opinions .This is what I love to call the main street media as against mainstream media. Another word that I love to use is disruptive media; it disrupts the official formal means of mass communication and gives power back to ordinary citizens to decide how their news is written, presented and told. And also, because of its interactive nature, people have a way of determining how the final news reaches the final consumers. So we find ourselves in a situation where people who otherwise are consumers of news have become producers of news.
What would you say is behind the drive?
Again, I will like to say that the time of this particular idea has come and it's just the timing first and foremost. I also don't want to ignore the fact that people made a lot of sacrifices and contributions. I said in a recent conference that part of the reason why SR was successful is because Nigeria is a bad place for governance, there are a lot of people in government who actually prefer better governance than they have. It is from these kinds of people we get information that are later processed and re-transmitted to the ordinary citizens and they take it and run. I hate when I read news and I see this all the time, the person who committed a crime is unnamed, the victim of the crime is unnamed because your news was written by lawyers. No, I want specifics; I am not afraid. In a lot of times, the issue of news reporting in a continent like Africa is not about law; it's about justice. And sometimes, in some cases, reporting news in a justifiable way will have to go beyond the boundaries of law. So, the motivation is this, I come from an activism background; I used to be a student activist in the 90s and I always wished that newspapers could do more. And when newspapers went out of business in my opinion, digital media came in.
(Cuts in) Which year did that happen in your opinion?
I don't know exactly but I will love to say that newspapers have gone to the museum and it's the best place it should be.
Can you be specific?
I think in the mid 2000s newspapers began to fade out and I say this because I know statistically today that even the best newspaper don't have more than 120,000 people subscribing to them. But if we publish a breaking news story that affects a lot of people, an investigative piece that reveals government secrets, within an hour of our publication, we can get up to 200,000 people viewing that particular story. It makes it possible for us to get up to 8 million page viewing in a month.
You studied Geography as a first degree, when did the transformation to journalism happen?
Yes I studied Geography at the University of Lagos and I will tell you that my interest was on Ground water Hydrology; if anything in this world interests me it is how to provide water to ordinary people on a regional basis. That was what I wanted to do when I graduated from the University of Lagos. When I came to the United States, I actually went to Columbia University School of International Studies to study Public Administration; my interest was to protect the interest of ordinary people by using public policy but I have never practiced any of those things. I developed interest in the media when I found out that every person can actually publish and, you didn't mention it, my first trial was with Elendu Reports. I had this guy that I had never met before, Jonathan Elendu and we started publishing. What we were doing around the world was going around the world looking for properties owned by Nigerian officials, taking the pictures of those properties and extracting from public information outlets and publish them. In fact, the person that made me popular was Orji Kalu the former Governor of Abia State then. He granted me an interview saying that Olusegun Obasanjo was very corrupt and a killer and I published it through the Guardian. The moment the news hit the stands, he (Orji Kalu) denied it; he said he never talked to Sowore, he is a strange element. That was how I started. The real coming to light of this brand of journalism was when I was travelling to Nigeria by sneaking through Benin Republic and I met Olugbenga Obasanjo. The reason we met was that he was travelling to avoid publicity in Benin Republic while I was travelling to avoid arrest; we met at the border. I had been arrested by the Customs but they did not really know who I was; they wanted to collect bribe from me for the goods that they thought was contraband. He met me and asked the Custom officers to release me. When we were discussing and I mentioned who I was, he was shocked and said, “I know you. You write those crazy things about my dad.” And I did not deny it. He then said, he love one thing we did, “when you were writing your news about my brother buying a house at Brooklyn, you said it wasn't me but the Nigeria media said it was Gbenga Obasanjo and I think you did a good job on that.” That was how we kind of merged together and he took me in his car and for four hours we talked and I published everything he told me and that changed the entire media industry in Nigeria as at 2005. By February 2006, we started publishing SR because by then, my colleague, Jonathan Elendu, had decided on a different trajectory; he wanted to become a consultant for politicians which I was not cut out for.
Let's look at the ideology behind SR, many are of the opinion that SR focuses more on the negatives while ignoring the positives, what's your take on that?
No, I disagree with that. I think that it is an excuse for mis-governance for people to talk about the negatives and positives. One thing I have always told people is that if governance is positive, you cannot make a negative version of it but if governance is negative, you cannot make a positive of it. A lot of people have fallen into the baloney that you can just put Nigeria as the giant of Africa in this fake place where you can say we are doing so well but we have no roads; we are doing so well and we have no hospitals; we are doing so well and we have no schools; we are doing so well and there is no hope, there is no infant mortality care; we can't take care of our pregnant women; we are doing so well and we have no electricity, no water. Even if you combine all these scenarios that I have just mentioned, you have to be a magician to present Nigeria in a positive way. But some few elitist young people feel that you have to present the fake and fallacious Nigeria. I am saying that that doesn't last for five seconds. One of the things that I ask for and we practice here is if somebody is going to talk about Nigeria being a fake state, a failed nation, I want it to be from a Nigerian; I don't want it to be a CNN reporter; I don't want it to be an Al-Jazeera reporter. Let it come from the mouth of Nigerians and say look we prefer and deserve a better nation and not to say that when the desirable is not available, the available becomes the desirable.
When you started this movement called SR, did you think it will get this far?
I didn't know; I was surprised. I started SR to see if I could have a platform to catch up with the rest of the world and it turned out to be the thing the rest of the world is trying to catch up with because I found our news to be headline news on CNN, BBC and you know, think about all the mainstream media; they cashed in on our breaking news. You know we had the UN building bombing of August 26th 2011 and everybody used our pictures when the reporters couldn't get there. We had the Nigerian underwear bomber, Abdumutallab and nobody knew who he was until we published his picture.
Talking about that particular incident, the underwear bomber, how did you feel seeing CNN use the picture you published of that young man?
I didn't know until I started getting calls that we were on CNN and BBC.
How did you get that picture so fast when even big media organizations in the United States could not get it?
It's very simple and I will reveal it for the first time to you today. It was a difficult but strategic decision. We have citizen reporters that we communicate with and we said to them on that day, “there is a guy who is Nigerian and has been accused of trying to bomb an airline, do you know him?” And we sent out emails to all our supporters. Someone got back and said, I went to school with him in Togo. And before we knew it, five minutes later, we got a class photograph were he appeared. We cropped out his face and put it on. Five minutes later, it was on CNN and because CNN referenced us, our website shut down because it was being accessed by so many people. So that was how it started. But don't forget that before the underwear bomber, we also had pictures of Yar Adua's son holding a gun in Aso Rock.
You have stepped on so many toes with your expository stories on corruption and corrupt government officials, are you not afraid for your life considering that some of these persons being exposed are influential and may put a prize on your head to get you assassinated even here in New York?
I have said this before, if you are ever afraid of death or assassination or threat to your life, you should never go after powerful people. I have said to myself, we have been at the receiving end of fear, intimidation, threats and danger; it is time we turn that around. And we have had a simple tool of technology, digital technology to turn that around and that's what I did. It is time that the people who are actually the consummate criminals start being afraid of the people who are being robbed, being deprived and denigrated. And that's what the tool is about for me, to turn the engine of fear on the perpetrators of fear, perpetrators of corruption and fraud. And that's why I do this. If I were to be killed today, I will be a happy man.
As a reporter that covers crime investigations, I know the essence of security, it was so easy to walk into your office here in New York; there were no guards, security doors and all that, how careful are you with your security?
I am happy you said you are a crime reporter and you investigate crime even in Nigeria. Now tell me how many bodyguards you have to protect yourself against the people you investigate? Perhaps nothing; you came here without a bodyguard too. My best bodyguard is my conscience and I have said it before, if you want to fight power, you can't afford to invest too much on bodyguards because when the chips are down bodyguards would disappear even bulletproof vest would not work. So I will say again that if they are to catch up with me, I will be a happy man that has lived a life of fulfilment. When Martin Luther King Jnr was killed, they found the heart of a 60 year old in a 39 year old body.
So many people back in Nigeria believe that you are kind of involved in some spiritual protection schemes courtesy of what you wear, do you patronize such?
No. Everything you see me wear is for African Pride. Somebody asked me one day why I wear all these things and I said because it's cheap. If I were to be wearing a golden necklace, nobody would ever ask me that; if these were gold, I would earn respect and adulations for wearing golden cowries. If I were to wear six golden cowries, everybody would love to just have a handshake with me; if my tooth were to be made of gold, people will love me. But I am saying this is made in Africa; poor people make these on the streets and I patronize them, I love them. If anybody thinks that any of these things can save you, that person is not only stupid but unscientific. I also wear a cross by the way which was given to me by a friend and the reason why I wear a cross is not because I am religious.
How religious are you?
I have no religious inclination.
Are you a Christian?
No. I was born a Christian but I do not believe in organized religion.
It is because Christianity has become part of the corporate structure of the world.
What challenges do you have running SR?
Our biggest challenge is finding funding but we are in existence because we believed that once this works, it will take care of itself. But we have been lucky to have some U.S foundations supporting our work. That has made it possible for us to expand in our influence and existence. But it is not about that, the reason we are what we are today is not because we have any form of funding but because we have legitimacy, acceptance and integrity.
Do you get any kind of support from Nigeria for your operations and talking about getting support from U.S foundations, are you not afraid they might want to influence what you do?
No, if we don't tell you who our supporting foundations are you won't even know because we make it clear to even the foundations that you cannot tell us what to do and it is based on that agreement that we exist today. So nobody tells us what to do. But for your information, we also have some Nigerian corporations and businesses that are advertising on our website and supporting our work. And we are the only one, in my view, that can tell an advertiser what is possible. For example, if anybody is advertising, we make it clear just as Fela would do in those days, your advert money has no power over our editorial policy.
Some media organizations in Nigeria somehow lost the flame of their vibrancy following the elapsing of the military regime, what will it take for SR to follow similar route?
We are not going to mellow down. People always say that maybe if we have an Eldorado we will mellow down and the question I ask is, the U.S democracy has been around for many years and people are still protesting in 2012. People still go to the World Trade Organizations to occupy. So this is what it is about; governments can never be perfect and you need a media that is always scrutinizing the government for them to do the right thing. It is my hope for as long as I am alive that SR, Sahara TV or any other platform that is created from this concern continues to hold the feet of government to fire.
Looking at what you do, you should have a big library of archives, how big is that?
I don't know but everything is online and searchable.
To what extent would you say cyber attacks have affected your operations?
Every time we upload a story, it is duplicated in several places that it is sheer waste of time to hack the main site; we keep them in different places. We have them in hard drives, soft drives and even if the attack is coming, it is temporary.
How often do these attacks come?
It has reduced in frequency by the way because it has become a waste of time for people who attack us but the most important thing for us is to keep the spirit, lethal and electronic life of SR alive and this is by pre-duplication of every story. So even if you attack us, by the time we are back online, everything is intact and that's what's important.
You have had a couple of lawsuits and have gotten out and evaded all the suits, how has these happened?
It is not by way of evasion; all the lawsuits we had have somehow come from the Nigerian government. The first person to sue us is now the Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) Dr Paul Orhii. He actually got that job because he promised the Yar Adua government that he could shut us down. We got legal support and overcame him but he is having a good life in Nigeria stealing money as the rest of them. And we went on and got sued by another individual, Emeka Ugwuonye who helped the Nigerian government sell some real estate in Washington D.C and Maryland; that case is still in play. But the interesting thing is that the Nigerian government turned against him and now they are fighting themselves. But it was originally a lawsuit initiated by the Yar Adua government. The third person that sued us was actually pushed and supported by the Nigerian Permanent Representative at the United Nations, Prof. Joy Ogwu. He got indicted by the FBI in a different case and he abandoned the case he had with us. I am just giving you all these information so you can understand that all the legal issues we have are somehow been inspired and sponsored by the Nigeria government except that of Emeka Ugwuonye who is now caught up in this complex fight against the Nigerian government and the judge has not ruled finally. It is expected that when you fight power, it fights back and we are not an exception and we expect more of these will happen. Again, we are lucky in the sense that they are coming after us with lawsuits and assassinations but I know we will get there. You must have probably read from Boko Haram when they mentioned that they would come after us but none of these will deter us because it is not about our persons; it is not about our businesses; it is not about our corporate existence, it is about an idea whose time has come. Even if they kill all of us, another set of people will emerge.
Just mentioning Boko Haram, after the group mentioned SR in one of their broadcasts, it now seems that SR has become a kind of mouthpiece for Boko Haram. Is SRs reporting of Boko Haram activities not promotional for the group?
No, I think people misconceive our position; we have always been accused of promoting Boko Haram from the government side. The first time the government went and killed the leaders of Boko Haram extra judicially, we were the first to procure the video where they killed the leader of Boko Haram and said that this is extra judicial killing and it was going to come back and bite Nigeria. So we have always said it that human rights is a separate issue from law enforcement especially extra judicial law enforcement. So we have always been accused of supporting Boko Haram, in fact we were accused of supporting Buhari but those are small, little ways of blackmailing media houses and we understand it. And then, when Boko Haram was going overboard, for us it was a human rights issue and we did take on Boko Haram as an informal or extra governmental body perpetrating human rights abuses and that's why Boko Haram came after us. So what that tells you is that even if it is between government and Boko Haram, we will take on anybody that violates human rights.
If not reporting the activities of Boko Haram helps in a way to curtail their activities, will you toe that line of thought?
No, I think reporting all sides is very important because the government has tried to do it; they tried to prevent people from reporting Boko Haram as a way of stopping their activities but it has been over one year after that line of thought prevailed in Nigeria and Boko Haram has gotten stronger. In fact, we are known to be the only people who can say this is what Boko Haram is going to do. But don't forget, it's not just Boko Haram; when MEND was the problem; we were also known to be reporting MEND because we were in touch with these guys. As a matter of fact, on the day the Independence bombing was going to take place, we were aware of it and reported that MEND said they were going to attack. So for us, it is about alerting government to its responsibilities; it is about alerting everybody that needs to know what is happening. That is more important than those jargons about patriotism and several styles of keeping the media quiet.
How do you get your sources of news as some of the breaking news you have published come on few minutes after they occur for example the plane crash involving the Taraba State governor, how do you access these sources within seconds while you are here in New York?
That is part of what I was telling you earlier; as much as you may want to think of Nigeria as a hopeless situation, there are people who want a better government; people in official circles who want a better Nigeria and somehow, they align with us and we don't know them. Sometimes some of the best reports we get comes from anonymous sources but we have a duty to verify. As you mentioned, the Taraba State governor, there are people still harassing us that we said that the man died but he didn't die but the question we asked them is, how many times in Nigeria do plane crashes and people survive? And the guys who saw them said they were dead and helpless. In fact, it was our news story that led several government organizations to go after them to try and save them. But most importantly, the question I asked one guy is, have you heard from the Taraba State governor? Has he spoken? Is he alive? Is it normal? It is almost three weeks now and we have not heard from him. Because it was the same kind of scrutiny we were subjected to when Jonathan's wife was taken to the hospital; nobody in Nigeria knew that she was even in the hospital until we mentioned it. Even when we reported it, they came back to say she was on vacation but when she sauntered into Nigeria she said, God gave me a second chance and nobody took notice of that and I will ask her what happened to your first chance?
Coming to the Yar Adua issues, I got from sources that you were in Nigeria when the late president was on admission in a hospital in Saudi Arabia and that you were in Katsina with a member of the family acting as courier for you, how true is that?
No, I wasn't in Katsina but I was in Nigeria. We were right on point and knew what was happening on a daily basis. In fact, this made it possible for us to disprove Al-Jazeera when they reported that a cousin of Yar Adua was drinking tea with him. We said to Al-Jazeera that Yar Adua could not drink tea because he was brain dead and that was exactly what happened actually. Even when Oyedepo and the rest were made to see him from a distance, we were the only group that said that they lied and it turned out that few days after he died. Even if he was alive, they just kind of extended his life span on a thread so that it allows his wife, his family and his cronies to take care of business and we kept reporting this. It is the same thing with Mrs. Jonathan. I keep asking people where is she? How come she is no longer active these days even after she came back ceremoniously?
Are you not mindful of the methods you use to expose some of the persons you write about like Yar Adua you just mentioned, you once published a caricature picture of him on his sick bed and you call government officials names on TV and so on, don't you abide by media ethics? Does it matter to you?
No. The truth is that the whole media ethics thing is a caricature itself; it's meant to cover up the truth.
Is it here in the West or back home?
Even back home; have you ever seen the ethics of performance or operation by the media in Nigeria? Most likely you will never be shown one because one does not exist. Everybody just thinks esoterically of this media ethics but what does these media ethics help you do; it helps you to cover the truth. We take it a step further by ensuring that the truth is primary to us. Sometimes people don't like it; people don't want to hear it. What I tell people is the fact that the news story is unbelievable doesn't mean that's it is not true because sometimes, we write and publish stories people can't believe and they assume that because they can't believe it, it is not true. But in 95 per cent of the time, our stories have been true. The truth is that nobody is going to come back and tell me and tell me sorry for disbelieving you and we are not looking for sorry asses; we are looking for people who understand that the media has disappointed the populace and the media cannot be left in the hands of professionals anymore.
Looking at the kind of news you publish which the Nigeria government perceive as harsh and considering the fact that you once held political office as a student at the university, do you have any political intentions?
The Nigeria government doesn't like us but we will be greatly disappointed if we are their favourite news platform. But guess what, the Nigeria government also patronizes us; they send us their press releases and their pictures. We don't advertise for government because we believe that once a government is good it needs no advertisement. We do not accept a government advert, that's our position. Remember that there was a time the president was travelling and they sent us pictures that he was travelling and wasn't travelling through Germany. We researched on the photos and discovered they were pictures taken in 2011 and they had no response to that. What it tells you is that in an attempt to understand how we operate they are part and parcel of our machinery. We get a lot of photos to their credits and they send us press releases which they were not doing in the past. But now they have accepted that the citizen journalism platform is part of governance reporting process and they are doing that. I answer to your second question; I do not have political ambitions.
Will you accept political appointment of any nature?
No. I have said it to people that there is no political appointment more powerful than being able to take the government to fire. But I will say this though in a way without bragging and without being arrogant; there is no government that is better than any of us. We can run Nigeria better than Jonathan and his bunch of cronies.
If you are asked by Nigerians to stand for elective office, will you respect such request?
There is no Nigerian that will ask you to come for office; the moment somebody takes power, they are the ones asking you to take the position because assigning positions in Nigeria does not involve the citizens and that's what we are trying to change. I keep saying that we will get to a point when Nigerians will have a say and that's why we are doing what we are doing. If Nigerians want me to run for the presidency of Nigeria and run Nigeria in the most efficient and egalitarian manner, I will do it because I am convinced that you and I are better than some of the people running the country.