Nigerian journalist, poet, and writer Tolu Ogunlesi talks about the need to build confidence in his country's media, and how social media and blogging have created new spaces for journalism in Africa.
When Nigeria's new president, Muhammadu Buhari, was recently voted in, he gave his first interview to foreign journalists. For local reporters in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, that was yet another frustrating example of local journalists being shut off from their own politicians.
Tolu Ogunlesi, two-time winner of the CNN African journalism award, is convinced that the problem stems from the local media's fundamental lack of confidence, which is damaging Africa’s image of itself.
Ogunlesi spoke to #mediadev about Nigeria's obsession with Western media, the impact of social networking and blogging on the way Africans represent themselves, and how he wants to find a place for poetry again in his busy life as a journalist.
#mediadev: Where do the problems start for journalists in African countries?
Tolu Ogunlesi: I can speak specifically about Nigeria. With Nigeria, it’s not so much censorship and state operation. Especially as a democracy, Nigeria has always had a fairly open space for journalists to work. But there are bigger issues, of capacity and talent, and training and skills development. Skills development funding is a key issue. People are not born journalists – you may be born with such skills that help you become a better journalist, but you have to learn.
Good journalism especially needs funding. Most journalists are badly paid, so they have to depend on what we call 'brown envelopes' – there are a lot of handouts from companies, which are essentially just bribes to journalists. That’s a big issue. If journalists are as important as we say they are to any society, then we cannot afford to have them as some of the least paid members of that society.
How would you characterize the differences in the media habits of Africans and Europeans?
If you take into account the differences in literacy and access to technology, and the speed of the Internet, it’s inevitable that you are going to have differences in production and consumption patterns. I don’t think there’s any newspaper in Nigeria that does 100,000 copies a day – for a population of 170 million. Much smaller countries – Germany for example, which has a population of less than half of Nigeria’s, or in the UK – weekend editions will sell a million, two million copies. We don’t have anything like that.
One reason for that is the economics of it; people can’t afford to buy newspapers. And another reason is literacy; newspapers would only be able to reach a small chunk of the population. So patterns of production and consumption are not the same as in the West.
Radio is very big. These days, social media is also becoming quite big, especially from a production point of view because for people who want to go into the media, social media allows an easy opportunity to become a blogger, a journalist. You can put stuff out on your blog, put stuff out on YouTube. Because we’ve got a huge population, you can also then tap into that huge population and get a lot of attention. There’s no doubt that media production and consumption patterns are unique to Nigeria and many African countries because of those factors.
How can journalists from other countries learn from the way African journalists work?
I think one key thing is that you have to understand your audience. The most successful media businesses are the ones that best understand their audience and adapt whatever they are doing to their audience. You find that happening again and again in Africa – whether it’s mobile money with M-Pesa in Kenya, which has become a model for the rest of the world, or whether it’s Nollywood, the film industry in Nigeria, if you look at what they have in common, they are essentially very local solutions.
The technology is of course based on Western technology but these people have almost instinctively adapted Western technology to local needs. Nollywood is a good example – small budget, a quick turnaround, it’s a very fast paced, volume-based industry. I think there are lessons in that, also for the media.
The most popular blogger in Nigeria, Linda Ikeji, has absolutely no formal training. But somehow she also has an instinctive understanding of what people want on the Internet. What she gives you is heavily focused on entertainment and gossip because these things serve as a way to draw people in, so she has done a very good job. And I have noticed that she is starting to take on some of the things that you would associate more with journalists rather than bloggers; for example there was something on her blog in the last few days where she heard a piece of news and then called to confirm it.
Blogging can be very unregulated – people essentially just put out whatever they want to put out. But I think bloggers like Linda Ikeji are also starting to see the need to then build a certain structure around what she’s doing. I think that’s the future. We are going to have a lot of people starting media businesses that focus on peculiarities of the audiences, and then building more sophistication as time goes on.
The first interviews from Muhammadu Buhari after the March 2015 electionwere given to foreign media. What can be done to change this way of thinking?
I think confidence is the most important thing, for governments, for the media themselves, and for the consumers of information on the African continent. They also need to pay more attention to local sources. There is an obsession with Western media – if Western media doesn’t say it, we don’t believe it. If Western media says it, then it must be true. We need to fundamentally change that kind of thinking.
When this happened, people in Nigeria were saying, “I don’t think that any European head of state would give their first interview to CNN or Fox News or anyone on the other side of the world…”. The media needs to build confidence in itself as a voice. Governments need to build confidence in the media and give them opportunities that Western governments would give their own media. There also needs to be a lot more sophistication in government communications. You can do a lot for local media by finding credible sources locally.
Look at statistics for example. We would say “the World Bank said…,” but all World Bank statistics for Nigeria, for example, come from the local Nigerian Office of Statistics. Somehow, when the information comes out, it just becomes “the World Bank has said this.” So across all fields, we need to build more confidence and faith in local institutions, and know that we do not completely ignore them in the conversation.
How does your work as a poet and author contrast with your journalistic work?
To be honest, I have not done a very good job of juggling both! I have not done any fiction or poetry in many months. Journalism now takes up most, if not all, of my time. Of course there are things that influence both. Sometimes a journalist needs the kind of skills that a novelist would have for things like color and background, which make a story come alive.
Sometimes a novelist needs to think like a journalist, for the what, where, when, how. So these skills feed into each other but for me it’s quite difficult to find a balance. I do mostly journalism these days and I am trying to find a way to spend more time being an artist and combining that with being a journalist.
Tolu Ogunlesi is a writer and journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria. He is the West Africa editor at The Africa Report and writes a weekly column for Nigerian newspaper, Punch. He is also a two-time winner of the CNN Multichoice African Journalism Awards.
Shora Azarnoush and Loveday Wright spoke to Tolu Ogunlesion the edges of the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, where he took part in the panel discussion: Africa as represented in the Western media: fallacies, approximations, omissions. You can watch the discussion on YouTube here.