First Person

How one Nigerian newspaper took on outrage fatigue

February 5, 2024
Olojede, surrounded by staff in the NEXT newsroom shortly after the newspaper’s launch in early 2009. Courtesy Timbuktu Media

In November 2009, Nigeria’s then president, Umaru Yar’adua, left home for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. For weeks afterward, there was no news of his well-being, not even official communication on the diagnosis of his ailment. In a country where most media organizations are dependent on government patronage for sustenance, particularly in the form of advertisements, the press was largely silent. 

But, eventually, the more daring journalists began to ask questions: What exactly was wrong with the president? How much longer was he going to be away? And, since the government appeared to be carrying on without President Yar’adua, who else might be signing checks and allocating lucrative contracts in his place? 

No one volunteered any answers. Not his family, not his staff, not one of the four hundred or so members of parliament.  

In January 2010, Nigeria’s NEXT newspaper shocked the entire country with its front-page headline: “Yar’adua Is Brain Dead.” The story was in the paper’s weekend edition, an investigative piece that described intimate goings-on in Yar’adua’s life and quoted unnamed but high-profile sources. “Nigeria has effectively entered a post-Yar’adua administration era,” the report declared.

The national outrage was instant. Many Nigerians felt deceived and called for the vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, to be sworn in as acting president. No one from his Niger Delta region had ever been president of Nigeria, but so what? The law was the law, irrespective of tribal sentiments, and Nigeria’s constitution stipulated that the deputy replace an incapacitated president. 

But some Nigerians felt that NEXT was writing just for publicity and sales. Many media organizations ran reports accusing NEXT of being “irresponsible” and “sensationalist.” In print, and on radio and TV, a number of editors highlighted supposed holes in the story, and assured the public that it was definitely false. 

I  was one of the editorial staff of NEXT, which launched in December 2008. The newspaper was founded by Dele Olojede, the first African-born winner of the Pulitzer Prize for International Journalism. He was born in 1961 in southwestern Nigeria and began his career at the National Concord newspaper in Lagos. Eventually, after he became concerned that the paper’s owner was using it to advance personal political ambitions, he left. 

A few years later, Olojede moved to America for graduate studies at Columbia, then worked for New York’s Newsday, where his reports on the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. After a twenty-year career that spanned eighty-five countries across three continents, he returned to his home country to set up NEXT. “We have a country that can do much better than it is,” Olojede wrote in a 2009 Financial Times column. “We have a democracy that is struggling to move from form to function. And we have a press that has seen much better days and often makes itself available to the highest bidder.”

Olojede’s grand vision inspired a number of Nigerians in the diaspora to return home to work in the Lagos offices of NEXT. Some excellent editors from other local newspapers also joined. 

The US and UK publishing rights for my debut novel, I Do Not Come to You by Chance, had recently been sold at the time he and I met in Lagos for our first chat. I felt excited to be part of the vision to revolutionize journalism in Nigeria, to be involved in such a noble cause. And, with so many bright minds fueled by passion, the NEXT newsroom was electric. I had no previous journalism experience, but, in such great company, it was easy to learn.

It showed me a Nigeria that my educated and enlightened upbringing had blinded me to. It sparked in me a desire to find the sense in all the nonsense, to understand the inner workings of my country.

At the time NEXT launched its online platform, in December 2008, there was only one other breaking-news website in Nigeria, a nation (then) of more than 150 million people. Our newsroom was the only one run by a woman—Kadaria Ahmed, a seasoned journalist who began her career with the BBC. It was also unique, even shocking, for declining to accept payment in exchange for publishing stories. 

Nigerian journalists are known to prowl to and fro in search of anyone whose pay will inspire their pens. It is standard for brown envelopes containing cash to be handed out during press briefings. Many young journalists I meet do not have the slightest idea that this practice is unethical. Their bosses encourage it. After covering an event, they sit expectantly until the envelopes stuffed with cash arrive. The most efficient event organizers take note in advance of how many journalists to expect, and package the gifts beforehand. If you fail to meet their expectations, whatever you read or don’t read about yourself and your event will be entirely of your own making.

When the April 2002 edition of Time magazine published a story that accused a top Nigerian government official of bribing foreign reporters with $400 each, many Nigerians wondered how such a natural gesture could be misinterpreted as a bribe. Local op-ed writers alleged racism and the Western media’s habit of scavenging for bad news and savagery in Africa even where none existed. The Nigerian government explained that the $400 was simply a gift. Time’s correspondent was subsequently denied entry to Nigeria.

Nigerian journalists are famously unpaid or underpaid. Many newspapers owe salaries for months, or pay barely enough to cover decent clothes and regular meals. As the late Dora Akunyili, one of Nigeria’s former ministers, renowned for her honesty, noted in a 2010 speech, “You cannot expect a hungry journalist to shun blackmail or be fair in the presentation of facts.”  

Olojede knew that paying his reporters well was key to upholding the organization’s well-publicized ethical standards. NEXT’s staff salaries, though not astronomical, were the talk of the town. Friends rang me up to confirm that what they had heard about our salaries was true. “I wanted to pay salaries that would enable the average reporter to buy a beer for himself and a friend after work on Friday, and a small car for himself,” Olojede explained to us during an editorial meeting.

On the Monday after NEXT broke the news about Yar’adua, we heard that our supposedly brain-dead president had granted a phone interview to the BBC. We visited the BBC website and found the recording. My heart galloped with dread.

But, almost immediately after the audio began playing, we burst out laughing. This seemed to be the silliest Nigerian scam of all time! The voice in the telephone monologue presented a Nollywood quality, complete with sentences punctuated by staccato coughing. “Our president” focused mostly on the impending football match between Nigeria and Togo that evening. NEXT officially informed the public that the newspaper was sticking to its original story. Yar’adua was never again seen in public by Nigerians. 

The scoops kept coming. We reported that despite the vast majority of Nigerians living in absolute poverty, our country’s legislators were the highest-paid on the planet. We reported that a number of Nigeria’s business and political elite—including at least three former presidents—had taken bribes in the Halliburton scandal over a liquefied natural gas plant in Rivers State. “This cast of characters, charged with running the affairs of 150 million people in the heart of Africa,” the report stated, “received stacks of US dollar bills in briefcases and sometimes in bullion vans. In other cases they received their payoffs via electronic bank transfers involving such financial institutions as Citibank. In all, these eminent Nigerians accepted at least N27 billion in bribes from the oil services companies in exchange for billions of dollars in contracts.” 

Over the next few years, almost every investigative-journalism prize in Nigeria, and a number around Africa, were claimed by NEXT journalists. And, in 2011, Olojede won the $100,000 John P. McNulty Prize, in recognition of his “groundbreaking work to deliver unbiased information to the Nigerian public, demand government transparency and advance the journalistic standards in the country.” 

But not everyone was thrilled. Just after NEXT had laid to bed the weekend edition in which the Yar’adua story was published, agents of the State Security Service (SSS) attempted to burst into the newspaper’s office building and seize the papers. However, they were held at bay by police officers guarding the premises, while Olojede scrambled to phone influential Nigerians with whom he had connections. Those friends of his then contacted the right someone who contacted the right someone who called the right someone, Olojede explained to his editors subsequently. The SSS officials withdrew. 

(It was, paradoxically, proof that Nigeria was making progress. In previous eras, the whole office building and printing press would have been razed, with nothing left for us to do except speculate why or who. In 1986, Dele Giwa, the editor of another publication, Newswatch, was interviewed by SSS officials. Two days later he was killed by a mail bomb that was delivered to his house.) 

NEXT staff also suffered personalized intimidation. Shortly after a promo of one of our stories went live on Twitter, a livid top government official telephoned the journalist and advised him to prepare to be a guest of the security agencies. “What protection do you have?” the official asked. “What machinery do you have around yourself [for you] to have gone ahead with the story?” NEXT quickly publicized the threat.

When threats failed, they tried bribes. The average NEXT editor, like many of their colleagues of the same rank in other newspapers, could easily have become a multimillionaire, simply by sitting at their desk and suffocating stories. Or blackmailing protagonists. Our Abuja bureau chief once received a phone call from someone claiming to be a source with “crucial information.” They arranged to meet at a neutral location. “He repeatedly asked what could be done to ‘manage’ the situation,” Terfa Tilley-Gyado told me, “as a company he works for had been indicted in our reports on the petroleum ministry.” Suddenly, the “source” slammed a shiny briefcase on the table, unclasped it, and swung the container around to face Tilley-Gyado. “I have never seen so many dollars in my life,” Tilley-Gyado said. 

Unfortunately for the bribe-givers, Olojede had brainwashed his editors with his dream of a new Nigerian press. Weeks of intensive trainings—by experts flown in from America—and intimate meetings prior to our launch had turned us into fanatics. 

In May 2011, Nigerian journalists were bubbling with excitement. The Official Secrets Act, imposed by colonial Britain in 1911, had been overturned. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, journalists would have free access to information held by public institutions, and private institutions that utilized public funds. Government agencies now had seven days to produce requested information, and another seven days to put records together if the petition was complicated. Inspired by the US Freedom of Information Act, this legislation had been a goal of Nigerian civil-society groups since 1999, when Nigeria returned to democracy after sixteen uninterrupted years of military rule. 

“Public Information Is Set Free as FOI Becomes Law,” proclaimed a cheerful ThisDay headline. “For journalists, it’s an empowering thing,” Kunle Ajibade, publisher of Nigeria’s TheNEWS, told the Columbia Journalism Review. The Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria, in a statement, urged “Nigerians to avail themselves of the opportunities offered by the Freedom of Information Act, to enhance transparency and good governance and to work towards achieving a zero tolerance for corruption and impunity.” The Nigerian Guild of Editors stated, “By signing the FOI bill into law, the President has, more than anyone else, empowered the citizens to participate in the governance of their own affairs.… With access to information, citizens can fight corruption and…confront the few who misappropriate our resources to themselves alone.”

I observed the celebrations with amusement.  

The impression being created by the inches of editorials was that the absence of this bill was responsible for the Nigerian media’s widespread “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude to news coverage, its spectacular failure to keep the public duly informed. Many NEXT scoops were criticized by other media, which usually did not pick up or even follow up on our stories. And, as Olojede often pointed out during editorial meetings, when cautioning us against excessively congratulating ourselves: “Most of our stories have been generated from information that was already in the public domain. Real investigative journalism requires dogged digging.” In other words, many of the sensationally shocking NEXT stories about government impunity and “big man” lawlessness were actually not scoops at all. The information had simply been lying around, waiting for someone who cared to finally make use of it. 

Within months of its launch, NEXT’s Sunday broadsheet became a favorite of the Nigerian middle class, the diplomatic community, and expatriates. Not least because it contained credible information, not just invention or self-serving conversations between elites. Weeks after our website’s launch, several news organizations carried out revamps of their own sites, making them more modern and user-friendly. Similar transformations happened with their print editions, in obvious attempts to copy NEXT’s unique layout and design.  

We showed Nigerians that it was possible to read an item in a local newspaper, no matter how outlandish, and trust it wholeheartedly.  

While traveling from Lagos to Abuja in mid-2011, a Nigerian “big man” who sat beside me on the plane found out—by glaring at my BlackBerry screen before takeoff—that I was a staff member of NEXT. Loudly, he accosted me. “You work with NEXT!” Then he moaned bitterly about how a particular story in the newspaper had led him to instruct “his people” to stop giving ads to NEXT.  But, first, he had tried to negotiate with the editor in charge about the story which was to be published about the manufacturing company where he was a top management staffer. “I didn’t ask him to kill the story,” the big man told me. “I simply asked him to manage it.”

Perhaps a less provocative headline, he explained, or a less stinging choice of words. However, the editor had informed him that things worked differently at NEXT than they did at other Nigerian news organizations. For example, a completely different desk from that where a story originated had the final say on headlines and kickers. “That’s rubbish,” my airplane companion told me. At the end of my exposition, the big man shook his head in consternation. “You’re not a Nigerian,” he declared. “You’d better follow your boss and go back to America. NEXT will never survive if you people continue like this.”

Nothing about his attitude was new to me. Often, NEXT would run a story in our popular weekend edition, only to arrive at the office on Monday to meet an aggrieved marketing team. Certain big advertisers had terminated their business that morning. After our paper revealed that Nigeria’s biggest oil tycoon had “forgotten” to pay $600 million in taxes over five years, for example, NEXT instantly lost scores of advertisers. Many organizations began to distance themselves from us for fear of being seen to be supporting the enemy of their friends. And, as usual, no other newspaper did a follow-up to that story. While Nigeria had one of the highest rates of newspaper consumption in the world, established papers were paid to keep big stories off the front page. Ads bought silence. 

The paper’s distribution was sabotaged, too. The vendors’ association in Lagos insisted that it was customary for every new paper to host a party for them, and NEXT had never done this. One of the association’s top officials, we were told, said we had “insulted” them, and that they were going to “bury” our paper. It became difficult to find a copy of NEXT being sold on the streets. Hardly any newsstands displayed them. In time, NEXT’s financial woes became headlines in other newspapers. 

Within three years of its launch, NEXT was dead. On September 16, 2011, I joined the editors in our final meeting with Olojede in the Lagos office. Together, we made the heartbreaking decision to suspend the print edition of the paper, which had been in publication since January 2009. The ship was sinking. The company let go of roughly two hundred staffers, retaining only about six young journalists who would keep the digital platform running. Three months later, on December 31, 2011, the NEXT website was also shut down. 

On my last day at NEXT, I requested a private meeting with Olojede. What exactly had gone wrong? In a lengthy conversation, during which I took notes, he told me that the business side of the company had suffered from myriad startup errors. “But our biggest miscalculation was the high premium you pay for honesty in this environment,” he added. 

The media descended on Olojede after NEXT flopped. His lack of success seemed to be a validation for their inadequacies. Column inches were dedicated to celebrating his downfall and scorning his alleged belief that Nigeria could be like America. They referred to his grand vision with words like “hubris” and “arrogant.” More inches aimed to show how similar he was to the government officials whom his newspaper had criticized. 

“Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe,” Abraham Lincoln said. That might be true in his United States, but we at NEXT soon realized that arming the Nigerian public with information did not necessarily mean they would do anything with it. “Occasionally, they might,” Olojede told me. “Most of the time, they won’t.” But, he felt, “dissemination of information is an end in itself, whether people use the information or not.”

The few times our work made significant impact were exhilarating for me and my colleagues. Slaps on the back, wine and suya in the newsroom, additional oomph for the long hours and late nights. 

But that kind of impact was rare. Most NEXT scoops went no further than a Facebook or Twitter buzz, were not followed up by other newspapers or acknowledged by the government. No prosecutions or resignations occurred from the Halliburton story. 

But what could one expect of a people who were constantly faced with outrageous news after outrageous news, something to shock everywhere they looked? The sitting senator who married a fourteen-year-old. The state governor who got arrested in London with a million pounds in cash. Even if the public had decided to stir up a tornado each time an enraging item of news broke, that fresh one would have to patiently wait its turn.  

“Amnesia Nigeriana” was the easiest option—perhaps a subconscious trait, an inner recognition of the fact that we all live in times that try men’s souls: “There but for the grace of God go I.” 

When our journalists latched onto a story and just wouldn’t let go, the Nigerian public often accused us of having an ax to grind, of witch-hunting and meanness. They rumored that we were being sponsored by the CIA, or “the Americans,” and had turned Western allies in the grand plot to paint our country blacker. 

“What did Olojede say to you people that kept you all so committed?” a friend once asked me. “What kept you people working under such tough conditions?”

Olojede simply talked to us about what he believed. He showed us mental pictures of what we could achieve. Before we were employed, after we resumed, throughout the challenging times, he told us that things could change in Nigeria and that we could be part of that change. I believed him. 

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is an award-winning Nigerian journalist based in Abuja and London. She is the author of the novels I Do Not Come to You by Chance and Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree.