Lessons from Fani-Kayode’s ‘stupid’

The Femi Fani-Kayode experience was needless and plainly avoidable. But something tells me it won’t be the last. There is the feeling today in power circles that because of the ascendancy of the Internet and its platforms of social engagements, the press as we knew it is now impotent and could be humiliated and called stupid without consequences. The truth of the media’s undying powers should be clear in what Femi just went through. As of Friday when he went on his knees begging, he had an army of 577,541 Facebook fans and 958,000 followers on Twitter. All of them combined could not save him from the malnourished forces of the Nigerian press.

Job in the Bible was perhaps the last person who did what our brother did last Friday. For Job (42:6), it was “Therefore, I abhor myself, And repent in dust and ashes.” The lines were almost the same with those of Femi Fani-Kayode who talked himself into trouble days ago. He insulted, humiliated and shamed a poor, hapless reporter who was just doing his job. Femi sinned and, like the Biblical Job, his reputation got horrible, multiple sores. With his gift of the garb, he thought the fight was yet a walk in the park, another walkover for him, but the afflictions grew in viral condemnations. He never had it so bad. Still, with elephantine arrogance, he proceeded to play big boy with apologies. His advisors, like Job’s friends, whitewashed their advice with lies and said he should withdraw just the word ‘stupid.’ Unlike Job, he listened to them and the afflictions multiplied. His clan of boys submit to no one even when they are plainly wrong. They fight on, firing until the magazine is empty. That was what he did and it was almost too late for him. It was a war no one has ever won. The breast plate of the enemy he took on is made of chink-less steel. The media don’t back off a fight; they pursue the adversary everywhere forever until he loses all – even after he loses all. Last Friday, contrite Fani-Kayode went back to Job and repented in dust and ashes. He did what Job did and offered even more. He went down in self-deprecation and declared that he disappointed himself, disappointed his family and all who held him in high esteem. Those were very heavy words. It was a surrender in a very unnecessary war. I read his abased face and lips and said he is healed of hubris, finally. We should let him be.

The media is a prized possession of democracy. That is why it is beyond reproach even when it is wrong. There is a method to spanking the debauched lion without getting mauled. The lesson next time is: answer that crude question nicely, anyhow or pretend you didn’t hear it and answer what you think you heard. Journalists ask deliberately crude questions. They are not trained to be nice to the nice – and to anybody. The best of them milk stories with military tactics, even from their loved ones. They spring surprises and ambush anyone, tall and short, including soldiers with all their training. I have examples.

Soft-spoken Mr Mike Awoyinfa is perhaps one of the most ‘dangerous’ newspaper interviewers in Nigeria. Sometime in year 2006, he got me to arrange an interview for him with then Governor Olagunsoye Oyinlola of Osun State. The very senior editor landed in Osogbo. The session started well and was going on very well in friendly combat, dwelling on all subjects: government, governance, golf, politics and then, the governor’s years in the military. I was almost saying ‘thank God’ when Awoyinfa indicated he was asking the last question. He looked up from his jotter straight into the governor’s eyes and asked: “You are a retired General, have you killed before?” I was alarmed. It was a wicked, catch-22 question with the potential to do maximum damage. Imagine what headline Awoyinfa would cast from a ‘Yes’ answer. Imagine too what a ‘No’ response would do to the reputation and competence of a combatant soldier. I held my breath as the General responded: “Well, I cannot say. But all I know is that I fought in operations where people shot at me and I shot at them. I wouldn’t know if anyone died; all I know is that I did not die.” Awoyinfa smiled and, to my relief, drew the curtain. That was an ambush, a shot successfully deflected. It was a bend on the slope so well navigated by both sides.

If you are a politician and you don’t want to be ambushed by the press, never agree to an interview or call a press conference. They will ask questions, some very unpleasant, some probingly unanswerable. And you must answer, otherwise your refusal to respond would be written down as your final answer. And never assume it is over until it is over – remember, Femi Fani-Kayode’s nemesis in Calabar was the very last question. The last is almost always the nastiest, the most dangerous.

And never think you can bully the press by shooting your way out of a press war. You may do it and win the battle, but you will lose the war. I had personal encounters with bullies; I have colleagues who experienced them too. Most of the time, the attackers are a creation of the media. Some are persons who themselves were journalists before crossing to the palace. Some other times, they are press-indulged fellows like Femi who think they are familiar enough to be contemptuous of the media and its operatives. The media fights all of them the same blitzkrieg manner. The scarred palm trees of Ijaye are competent witnesses to the war of Ogunmola. Enemies of the press always come out of battlefield badly bruised, badly burnt – faces, fingers, all. There is no taking any prisoner, even if the enemies are media personalities. I have two examples, one personal, the other from a colleague.

Dateline was Friday, November 14, 1997 – 23 short years ago. The scene was the Government House, Akure, Ondo State. The biggest event in Nigeria for that weekend was the burial of NADECO leader, Chief Adekunle Ajasin. For the first time, NADECO and the military government were going to meet and occupy same space since their war started. It promised to be a real test of strength and that was the reason I was drafted there.

Ajasin’s burial was a state event that would climax on Saturday, November 15. On Friday, his corpse would move from Ibadan through Osun State to the place he governed so well he became a legend. I met the military administrator’s press secretary and said “Good morning sir.” My greetings got no response. What I got from the press secretary was a query.

“Where are you from?” Surprised. He was not completely unknown to me, at least, I had seen him on a number of occasions in our newsroom. As I greeted him, I guessed he also recognized me. But still, he asked that question – where are you from?

“Tribune,” I said, while realizing immediately that a possible test of will was on the way. I was right.

“I am not going to accredit you.” The man suddenly shouted at me. “You can go on publishing the rubbish you are writing. We give your paper adverts, yet you go on to attack us…I am not going to accredit you…” He vibrated with so much force that everyone around directed their gaze at us. I did a quick scan of our recent stories. What is my offence? I actually did reports critical of the militarization of the burial preparations. There were more soldiers than mourners. The regime demanded to vet the sermon which the head of the Anglican Church in Nigeria was going to deliver at the burial the following day. It asked for an advance copy. The church ignored the request. We got the story, I wrote, building into it scathing reactions from ‘NADECO’ priests who drew a line between serving God and Mammon. That was the report that riled the powerful and was making the ground quake. The press secretary was obviously under pressure but why visit the frustration on me? You don’t kill a bull because it locks horns – it exists for such. He would not accredit me, I was a NADECO reporter. I smiled. If I needed government accreditation to cover that open event, then all my years of practice were a miserable waste. My photographer would, truly, need it to navigate the crowd of soldiers there to get great shots. But, then, the smart photographer, Tommy Adegbite, had quietly got himself sorted out before joining me to meet this big man. The horse had bolted already; it was fruitless shutting the stable door. My man had his accreditation tag in his bag.

If we thought the war was over, we were mistaken. At the Owena boundary of Ondo and Osun states where Ajasin’s corpse was to be received, the big man pointed his unsmiling visage at me and demanded to know how I got there after he got us stranded in Akure. Then he saw my photographer and accused him of forging the accreditation tag. Then he unleashed soldiers in navy uniform on me and “anyone without accreditation tag.”  One of the soldiers felt his tools of death, moved towards me and announced that he knew ‘nobody’ and would “damage someone today.” What should I do? Nnamdi Azikiwe was a pioneer in newspaper journalism in Nigeria. He once sensationally warned that only the mad argues with a man who is armed with a gun. I withdrew into the car that brought me. In copious details, I took note of everything he said and did. My photographer, who called the big man boss, reminded him that “Ògá, ojú á tún ra rí (Sir, we shall meet again”). And truly, we met again. He had his way that moment. But, of course, I had the last laugh. I had great bosses in Ibadan; the most senior of them, Mr Biodun Oduwole was indeed, this big man’s great friend. My boss suspended his friendship with the press secretary and directed my editor, Mr Akin Onipede, to ensure that his feet and buttocks were held to the fire. He was charred. The details of the encounter were published in the Nigerian Tribune of Thursday, November 20, 1997, page 8. Did the government enjoy it while it lasted? I wouldn’t know. What I knew was that the press secretary felt hurt and lamented so. He was sorely sorry for himself while I enjoyed the last laugh.

Every reporter has at least a ‘bad’ story to tell. There are bullies everywhere. Never pamper them with self-degrading sorries; never allow their dragon eat up your self-worth and self-pride. If you tell them ‘sorry,’ they grin and press harder the knee. Fight, but do not fight back on their terms, like a pig. It is cool to war with them fully kitted, with knowledge and on solid moral ground.

A female colleague (now with Globacom), Modupe Olubanjo (nee Asenuga), covered Governor Kolapo Ishola of Oyo State in 1993 for the Nigerian Tribune. Then the June 12 election annulment happened to Nigeria and the country convulsed. Months of agitations and demonstrations, virulent and violent, followed. One day, Governor Ishola went to the New Gbagi market in Ibadan and addressed the traders there. He told his audience to cooperate with the Federal Military Government. My colleague wrote the report and went home. The following morning saw the story used very big and there were gasps of abomination in political circles. The June 12 candidate and the town felt betrayed and abandoned. The faux pas backfired big time for the governor and he denied ever uttering what the Tribune said he said. The dainty reporter was surrounded by government people and government forces. My colleague was pressured to say ‘sorry’ and withdraw the report. The reporter insisted the governor said so and her report was correct. Then she was expelled from the Governor’s Office and a replacement demanded. Then a face-off and a standoff followed. Her employers stood by her. Her editors, Messrs Oduwole and Folu Olamiti refused to replace her while also slamming a blackout on that governor’s activities. The governor’s press secretary later stormed Tribune House to argue the government’s case against the ‘enemy’ reporter. He lost his balls when he discovered that the fragile, petite lady had the governor taped. The audio recordings were played back for him to hear. “Is that not the governor’s voice?” He nodded and left, a sober man.

Journalists are human with zero gift of perfection. When they err, they should be told so with human voice. Public shame and humiliation will rally all media forces behind their own to the certain sorrow of the other side. That journalist you see with worn-out soles is an archive of tales, many of them of epic existential battles. He is like the eyes of the elder, they are made sunken by the troves of variegated sights they have seen. Do not add to his woes by humiliating him for asking questions.

There are useful lessons, for all sides, from the painful experience of Fani-Kayode.

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