In early 1981, Barbara Lamont, a reporter at CBS News Radio, stood outside the office of her boss, the news division president, with a request. Lamont, who was forty, had worked at CBS for six years. Before that, she’d been at WNEW-TV and a round-the-clock news radio station called 1010-WINS, both in New York. She’d also written a book, City People: Dispatches from the Urban Battlefront, largely about her time covering Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and other predominantly Black neighborhoods. Lamont was worldly: born in Bermuda, she’d moved around a lot as a kid—to Montreal, Paris, London—then settled in Brooklyn in her teens, and attended Sarah Lawrence, just north of the city. She’d started her journalism career not long after the release of the Kerner Report—which had, among its observations about race in America, noted that the press failed to reflect the country’s demographic makeup. At the time, less than 5 percent of people working in news-editorial jobs were Black and less than 1 percent of editors and supervisors were Black; most of those who were counted came from the Black press. The Kerner Report urged newsrooms to integrate, but progress was painfully slow. Lamont had been part of the first wave of new hires. “I can’t say we were unhappy, though,” she recalled. “Just marking time, being passed over or ignored, making a decent wage and content just to be playing on the broader stage which was television in the eighties.” At WNEW, she’d hosted a show called Black News, which ran at one o’clock on Saturday afternoons. Networks often relegated Black journalists and other people of color to weekend slots, which became known in the industry as “ghetto hours.”
Lamont took a breath. She had made this request of her boss before: she wanted to be sent to the CBS bureau in Beijing, to work as a correspondent. In college, she had studied international law with a focus on China; after graduating, she took Mandarin courses in her spare time. Her boss knew all that, and still had turned her down. By now, though, she’d become proficient enough to feel more than ready. Besides, she was used to repeating herself, vying for coverage, waiting endlessly for her turn. Early in her tenure at CBS, she’d gone out to lunch with the foreign editor, and he’d asked if she honestly thought that, as a Black person, she could fairly report the news. “That was a perfectly normal question,” she said, recalling how she felt at the time. She earnestly assured him that she could. In retrospect, she said, “I should’ve gotten up and left the table.” Later, when calls about the Jonestown massacre came into the station, she knew it would be a significant story—“I remember telling my editor, ‘Look, not once in the history of biblical times have eight hundred Black people killed themselves’”—but it took convincing to get CBS to send a team of reporters to the scene. “There was no regard for the value of Black people in television,” she told me.
That day, Lamont wore a skirt suit and stockings. (“I was a clotheshorse,” she said.) Her hair was a cloud of deep-brown curls—which sometimes, in the sunlight, revealed hints of red. She walked into her boss’s office, sat down across from him, and made her case: CBS had recently opened a bureau in Beijing, and she was one of the only journalists on staff who spoke Mandarin. “I thought it was a logical choice,” Lamont said. Then, she remembers, her boss snickered. “He almost didn’t have to tell me no, because I knew he wouldn’t send me,” Lamont said.
She was dejected, and wanted to quit. But she went back to work. Lamont didn’t seriously consider leaving until later that year, around the holidays, when she received a call from a colleague named Randy Daniels, who told her that he, too, had hit a career wall. Daniels, who was well known among the small cohort of Black employees at CBS, had worked his way from being copy boy at the Midwest bureau to serving as a correspondent in South Africa—home to the only CBS office on the continent at the time. In 1977, exasperated with the “continuing legacy of colonialism,” as he said in an interview a few years later, he had persuaded CBS to let him open a bureau in Nairobi. But once there, he became frustrated by the way his white editors back in the United States packaged his stories. During the first two nights of the 1978 Katanga uprising, for instance, CBS introduced Daniels’s reporting by tallying the fatalities of white Europeans; not until the third night was there mention that more Africans had been murdered. “Positions of real power have been in the past, and continue to be, reserved for a network of white males who all know each other, run the industry, and occasionally allow a token number of white women to preside with them over the decision-making process,” he said in the interview. After three years, the Nairobi bureau was closed. “I met with every level of management of CBS News, both past and present, over issues that specifically relate to blacks and other minorities,” Daniels was quoted saying at the time. “When it became clear that such meetings accomplished nothing, I chose to leave and work where my ideas were wanted and needed.”
Daniels was now in New York, starting up something new: Shehu Shagari, the first president of Nigeria to have been elected under an American-style constitution, had hired him to put together a group of journalists and station workers who could help upgrade the Nigerian Television Authority, the country’s state-owned national broadcaster, to an international standard. On the phone, Daniels asked Lamont if she would be interested in joining him.
“I didn’t know Randy that well,” Lamont said. She would have to confer with her husband. Still, she was intrigued. The timing was right: her eldest son was in college and her younger son was about to start; her daughter was ten, but could visit and spend the summer in Nigeria. The job would require only a one-year contract. She’d been seeking an opportunity to go abroad. Lamont would be appointed to her most senior role yet: director of news operations. Plus: “He offered to triple my salary,” she said. “Tax free.” Lamont would go from making about thirty-five thousand dollars a year at CBS to a hundred thousand. Within a week, she gave Daniels her answer: she was in.
Over the next couple of months, Daniels assembled a team of about twenty Black journalists. “Practically all there was at the US networks,” Lamont recalled in an unpublished memoir. “We were all experienced, award-winning broadcasters: writers, reporters, editors, satellite technicians, and mid-level managers.” Many of the recruits were CBS colleagues—including Adam Clayton Powell III, a producer for the morning news. “We felt that this could be the start of the news of Africa, to be as strong and broad as the BBC but of course report Africa in a different way,” Powell told me. Daniels was met with enthusiasm at the annual conference of the National Association of Black Journalists; that year’s theme was “news of less developed countries”; he spoke on a panel. That’s how Kelley Chunn, who worked at Boston’s WBZ-TV, learned of the project. “It was a dream come true,” she said. The venture also received some press attention. Les Payne, one of the NABJ’s founders, featured it in Black Enterprise, writing, “The Nigerian venture is but a small part of that country’s effort to counter European media domination on the Continent” as well as a “dramatic and historic example of an option that increasingly is being explored by skilled black media professionals.” A recruit told Payne, “It offers an opportunity to excel in the craft.”
Daniels officially consolidated the staff under a company called Jacaranda Nigeria Limited, named after the mimosifolia tree, known for its violet flowers. Shagari committed two million dollars to fund the project for a year, with a possibility of renewal. In early 1982, Lamont went to her boss’s office to talk once more—this time about resigning from CBS. “What do you people want?” she remembers him asking. She suggested that he make her a counteroffer. “He was ominously silent,” Lamont said. That February, she was on a plane destined for Lagos.
The airport in Lagos was “crowded with bodies as far as the eye could see,” Lamont recalled, “and men with uniforms and automatic weapons everywhere.” It was hot—a fierce humid heat, like nothing any of them had experienced, intensified by the building’s glass walls. Everyone in the group became a fountain of sweat. They had been promised escorts from President Shagari’s office, but they were hard to spot. “We were swarmed with people trying to help us,” Marty Blackmore—a former military combat cameraman, who joined Jacaranda from an NBC affiliate in Kansas City—said. The group was bombarded with offers to assist them with their bags, all from unofficial airport workers hoping to make a few naira. It was a first lesson in how quickly money changes hands in Lagos.
The escorts appeared at last. The journalists and their belongings were piled into vans, headed south. On the drive, the Jacaranda team looked out at changing neighborhoods. They passed bustling markets with vendors selling food, spices, clothes, and tools under makeshift tents of polychrome umbrellas. They stopped at checkpoints, where armed guards accepted naira in exchange for breezy passage—an informal toll known as “dash.” The escorts paid. “Blind taxi drivers navigate the crowded roads,” Lamont recalled in her memoir. “Soldiers high up on jeeps whip the roofs of cars to clear a traffic jam.” Lagos is interspersed with waterways—the name of the city comes from the Portuguese word for lake. To get to their hotel, the group crossed over a bridge to Victoria Island, where metallic, geometric office towers lined the highway, part of a developing financial district. Pastel buildings and palm trees unfolded before them, the homes of government officials and wealthy businessmen, the embassies of foreign diplomats.
President Shagari put them up at the Eko Holiday Inn, a luxury hotel designed by the architect Oluwole Olumuyiwa to signify the cosmopolitan rise of Lagos, and built in 1977. Three pristine white rectangular towers came into sight—a giant accordion jutting out of a grassy field. The Eko had more than eight hundred rooms. The balconies held unobstructed views of the Gulf of Guinea—all blue, ocean and sky.
The Jacaranda team dropped off their luggage in their rooms. There was Stephanie Triplett-Sefia, a twenty-five-year-old field audio technician from Washington, DC; Bettie Davie, who had worked as an associate director with Lamont and Daniels at CBS. Another CBS alum was Lloyd Weaver, who was the great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, and traced his roots back to a village in Nigeria that he planned to visit. At least one Latino production engineer had joined the crew, too: Carlos Rodriquez, who’d worked for Sony in New York. “He identified very much as a person of color who experienced much of the same as the rest of us,” Greg Tarver, an engineer who joined Jacaranda from ABC, said. “When he saw that opportunity––being the kind of person that was very open to experiencing new things, new cultures––it was tremendously appealing to him.” Most in the group headed to bed. “When we got there everyone was tired, which blew me away,” Davie said. She and Weaver were buzzing. They ventured out and tried some street food. “I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “It wasn’t good.”
The group had arrived in Nigeria during a period of transition. Shagari, a mild-mannered former schoolteacher, had been elected a few years before, ending more than a decade of military rule and ushering in the Second Republic. Nigeria had also recently claimed status as a major oil producer, having joined the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in 1971; soon, about half of its oil was being exported to the United States. Shagari promised to invest Nigeria’s new wealth into development. Television news, he hoped, would help him spread his message and elevate the country’s global standing. In Black Enterprise, Payne had written that Shagari was, more than any past leader of Nigeria, “acutely aware of the critical role that media play in the lives of its citizens at home and in the projection of the message abroad.”
Nigeria’s political leadership had a strong history with the press. Back in the First Republic, which had lasted from 1963 to 1966, Nigeria’s president had been Nnamdi Azikiwe, the founder of the West African Pilot, at one point the country’s highest-circulation newspaper. Azikiwe, who had gone to school and worked as a journalist in the United States, modeled the Pilot after America’s Black press. “Newspapers were the only place where you could be critical of the government,” Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, a Nigerian journalist and linguist, told me. Even Nigerians who couldn’t read followed the Pilot; their friends and family read articles aloud. As Azikiwe rose in prominence as a member of Nigeria’s nationalist movement, he used the Pilot to puncture British colonial rule. The paper was instrumental in helping Nigeria achieve independence.
Azikiwe’s tenure coincided with the establishment of independent television news stations across the country. But after a coup d’état in 1966 removed him from office, the new regime consolidated those stations into a single, state-owned Nigerian Television Authority. Jacaranda was informed that, although President Shagari was hiring them to revamp the reputation of Nigerian journalism, he’d kept the NTA intact.
What that meant for the team was uncertain. “We were assured that Nigeria had a free press and no government officials would try to censor our work,” Lamont recalled. “I think we believed this, and in large part it was true. What was also true is that none of us had ever lived or worked in a military state.” Before Jacaranda had taken flight, Daniels had invited members of the group over to his brownstone, in Harlem, to outline the mission: Shagari wanted to elevate the technical standards and reporting ambition of the NTA. Yes, the NTA was government-owned, he’d said, but Shagari’s administration would ensure that the news broadcast could operate independently, with no censorship. They imagined it would be akin to PBS.
Once the group was settled, Daniels headed off to deal with Jacaranda’s administrative operations––funding, payroll––from a house he rented with his wife. Lamont was with the rest of Jacaranda as they made their way out to NTA headquarters; she would serve as the point person for news training sessions throughout the trip. On their first morning of work, the team members got dressed in the best professional clothing the humidity would permit: lightweight slacks and button-downs. Then everyone made their way down to the hotel’s restaurant for breakfast. “We were feeling excited but also apprehensive,” Davie said. “We thought, What are we going to walk into? And would we be received well? We had no idea how they would react to these so-called know-it-alls coming from America.”
A white van with blue stripes arrived to bring them over to the station, just a short ride away. The group was relieved to find that the bus was air-conditioned. Within ten minutes, they pulled into a sprawling gated campus of yellow rectangular buildings. Guards let them in. “We arrived at Network headquarters to find it occupied by battalions of soldiers, all of whom looked to be about seventeen years old, their bony fingers on Uzis, with no trigger guards,” Lamont recalled in her memoir. “Turned out they lived on the Network compound.” On a wall, they could see a sign with the NTA logo stylized as wide block letters that fit together like Tetris pieces. The N and A were brown; the T was orange. The bus parked in front of a long yellow building that stood three stories high and had a red tiled roof. The group was greeted by the network’s general manager, who began a tour around the campus.
One of the first things they passed was a lot where dozens of pieces of state-of-the-art broadcasting equipment were sitting out in the blazing sun, covered only by thin sheets of plastic. It looked like hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of technology—all of it now ruined. “What’s going on? Why’s it out here?” Davie wondered. The group was stunned. No one knew how to fix the machines when they malfunctioned, the manager explained, so when they broke, the crew would leave them outside; there was no room in the studios for idle hardware. “There were Sony salesmen charging three times what a lot of this equipment costs without showing them how to use it,” Lamont said. One of her first acts in Nigeria would be putting a stop to the orders.
The group continued on through the rest of the facilities: there was a main studio and a giant white satellite that stood almost as tall. Then they headed into a meeting room and gathered around an oblong table. The entire NTA staff was there, waiting; the crowd’s overflow extended out the door. Briefly, Daniels popped in, to make a speech and present their training plan: over the next several weeks, Jacaranda staff would embed with the NTA, joining in on their day-to-day schedules to consult on reporting, writing, filming, producing, and operating broadcast and satellite equipment. (After that, Daniels wasn’t much heard from; he didn’t reply to my calls or messages for this story, and he fell out of touch with the other people I spoke with from Jacaranda. Lamont eventually took over many of his leadership responsibilities.) Members of Jacaranda’s staff went around introducing themselves and their areas of expertise.
Triplett-Sefia clung nervously to a Y-adapter cable. “I felt a little inadequate,” she said. She had less experience than her new colleagues. Ahead of the trip, she’d studied all the audio-engineering books she could get her hands on, since she didn’t know what equipment the NTA was using. No one seemed to think twice; the staff listened to her introduction intently. Afterward, several reporters approached the Jacaranda team and shared their excitement. A few looked indifferent; this was just another day in one of the country’s better-paying jobs. As the afternoon wound to evening, and Jacaranda headed back to the hotel, Lamont formed a first impression: “We were starting from scratch.”
Training began in earnest the next day. In one of her earliest sessions, Lamont, a reporter, and some cameramen ventured out of the studio and into the city. Their destination was a courthouse. Outside, they propped up their cameras. Lamont directed the crew to take B-roll as a way to set their story up. She instructed the cameramen to take panning shots of the court’s facade. The building stretched almost ten stories tall; filming vertically required a steady hand. “Get footage of the surroundings, too,” she told them—views from across the street, and nearby trees.
“We didn’t think we were doing anything wrong,” Lamont said. Then again, the NTA had never freely posted outside of government buildings with large cameras in tow. Out of nowhere, a young soldier carrying an Uzi approached the group and yelled out to Lamont. “He said, ‘You, madam—you need to stop shooting,’” she recalled. Soon he was in their faces. Lamont tried to explain that they were staff of the NTA. That made things worse. The soldier pointed the muzzle of his gun to her neck. Time to go. The group packed up their cameras, tossed their equipment in their car, and headed back to the studio.
Lamont turned to the NTA staff. They seemed frustrated but not surprised; they knew that government buildings were always heavily patrolled by roving soldiers. “It became clear— photographing any government building was a no-no,” she said. But she wasn’t deterred. “Before I went to CBS, I was a street reporter in the South Bronx in the seventies,” she told me. “It was interesting––we were in a new country, we had to be careful, and we had to adjust.” She was still glad to be there. “Because of my personal career,” she said, “I didn’t regret it.”
There were other ways in which Jacaranda’s experience was different from what the team had expected. In the period leading up to their arrival, for instance, Daniels had promised that Jacaranda would have an opportunity to design an all-new NTA studio. Once they were in Lagos, however, “it became clear that was not going to happen in the time frame we were there for,” Tarver said. From a technical standpoint, the group would have to do the best they could with what they had—including figuring out how to add production glitz with limited resources. “Some of the more creative ways of transitioning from one scene to another, and those kinds of techniques, were emerging back in those days,” Tarver told me. They managed to add photos and videos—the ones that appear in a box over the shoulder of a newscaster—without the program typically used to generate that effect. “We described it as guerrilla television,” Tarver said. “You just make it work.” Jacaranda also introduced NTA reporters to teleprompters. “When I saw people reading the news on television, I used to think, ‘Wow, you actually remember all of that,’ because we were always looking down at a paper,” Grace Nwobodo, who was an NTA newscaster at the time, said. “All of the elements that go into making a transmission flow smoother were now there. It was more professional.”
For several months, Jacaranda trained at the main station in Lagos. Then they went to nine regional stations, staying up to eight weeks at a time. Some members of the group also traveled to the northern city of Jos, a vacation destination for Nigerians that is home to a popular wildlife park. Jos was a reprieve for Jacaranda as well. It didn’t have the intense humidity of Lagos, or the congested streets. “There was a calmness that you didn’t feel in the city,” Triplett-Sefia said. In 1980, the NTA had opened a television training college in Jos; network employees from stations all over the country were sent to improve their newsgathering and television production skills.
The college had the same yellow buildings found at NTA headquarters. A two-story U-shaped building was stationed in the middle of campus; it housed classrooms, a lecture hall, and production studios. Chunn and Triplett-Sefia were enlisted to teach classes there. “It was the first time I’d ever trained or taught in a classroom setting with fellow professionals,” Chunn said. Triplett-Sefia taught a course on how to operate switch technology. A majority of her trainees were women. “I thought it was pretty cool because people would come in and out of the classes, especially if it didn’t directly pertain to their jobs, but the women had more tenacity,” she said. Many of her students had aspirations to become directors, not just in news but entertainment, too. They were young; they had not yet become jaded by censorship and budget cuts.
They’d soon learn. Chunn guided her students through a reporting project on the city’s fire department and the challenges it faced working in the dry and arid climate of Jos. Her trainees interviewed members of the fire department about civilian hazards––many people kept fuel at home to service backup generators, but they didn’t have safe ways of storing it––and the need for better firefighter training. But when the investigation veered into Jos city leadership, and its failure to address infrastructure problems that ultimately hindered the fire department more than anything else, Chunn and her trainees faced pushback from local officials. Covering the hardships of firefighters was one thing: “We could show incompetence, because incompetence doesn’t necessarily have to be caused by corruption,” Chunn said. Reporting on the government was another matter entirely.
Even as these setbacks recurred, Jacaranda continued to work with the NTA on attempts to get more investigative stories aired and test what boundaries they could cross. Chunn remembers NTA staff discussing ideas for coverage assessing the progress of President Shagari’s five-year “Green Revolution” plan to revitalize agriculture, uncovering corruption at the highest levels, and investigating the power authority’s failure to provide stable electricity. They brought their proposals to station managers. “We would push as far as we could, but we were told no,” Chunn said.
Nevertheless, the very notion of making an attempt was thrilling to many employees of the NTA. For as long as Nwobodo had worked at the network, the news had depicted the government only in images and terms sanctioned by officials; newscasters typically thought of themselves as civil service workers. “You take everything you hear on the news with a hefty, hefty pinch of salt,” she said. A critical portrayal of a bureaucrat could result in trouble for NTA staff. Nwobodo saw colleagues lose their jobs for even subtle criticisms. “You didn’t try that,” she said. “We knew a lot of the stories that we had to read were not in the public interest. But you want a job, you want to put bread on the table, so you don’t have a choice.” The presence of the Americans inspired a different outlook. “The Jacaranda intervention was a complete eye-opener to me,” she said. “We thought, ‘We haven’t been doing this right the entire time.’”
In November, after traveling around the country, Lamont was back in Lagos. She was working on the NTA nightly national news program, which was broadcast from headquarters to all the other stations. One day, the newsroom received a call from the station in Kano, Nigeria’s second-largest city. When Jacaranda had made its training stop there, they’d learned of the Maitatsine cult—a group of Islamic militants considered to be the forerunners of Boko Haram, known to murder civilians, wreck public places, and face off with police. On the phone, Lamont was told they were at it again. Maitatsine’s followers were on a rampage in the north, starting in Maiduguri, then Kaduna. Now the group’s adherents in Kano were sacking hotels and churches and attacking civilians in their path. Lamont’s trainees in Kano went out to capture the violence on camera.
Lamont had taught the NTA cameramen in Kano how to document conflict without being detected. Most were men in their late teens and early twenties. “These were people who had not been in the business very long,” she said. “Some were just hired maybe a few months before.” Out on the scene, they followed her instructions, flattening themselves on rooftops, then shinnying down the building to safety, and setting up a satellite feed to transmit their videos to the station. “My kids had captured every bloody detail, and survived,” she said.
It took three days for the videos to reach the station in Lagos. “We were watching the satellite feed the whole time, waiting,” Lamont said. When they finally came through, she saw that hundreds of people had been killed. The staff at headquarters had about an hour to prepare a newscast in time for the national broadcast. “We just wrote a script, turned it right around, and put it up,” she said. The story ran about ten minutes. When it was over, the news team alternately cried and gave each other high fives. “It had never been done before,” Lamont said. Three minutes after the piece finished airing, the generator that powered the network’s newscast died. “Power and Lagos are two words which do not agree with each other,” she told me.
By that time, the Jacaranda crew and their trainees had come to know one another well. Tarver remembers that sometimes, at the end of working sessions, his trainees would drop by the hotel to buy Jacaranda beers. “It would be an insult not to appreciate each person’s gift, and so there were some nights I’d be sitting there with these beers lined up on the table,” he said. There were cross-cultural laughs to be had. Davie received attention from pilots while traveling from one station to the next. She credited her red hair—the unintended result of standing in the sun for too long after putting in a lightening product. Triplett-Sefia became romantically involved with a trainee; they eventually had a child.
There were also awkward moments, and painful ones. Escaping one set of racial dynamics in the United States, the members of Jacaranda found another—and they were surprised, at times, by what they had entered into. “Right away we learned that Nigerians did not understand skin color, and they certainly did not identify us as black, nor African-American,” Lamont recalled in her memoir. “‘How can you say you’re black?’ they would tease.” Lamont observed that “being black in Africa has nothing whatsoever to do with skin color”; Nigerians thought in terms of ethnic and religious groups: Yoruba, Ibo, Muslim, Christian. “All are dark-skinned folk, yet intertribal (interracial) marriage is forbidden, and a lot of deadly hate still exists among these groups, young and old.” Children passing by members of Jacaranda on the street called out “oyinbo,” a Yoruba word for a white or Europeanized foreigner. “When I learned the word, I was having to fit, like, What do you mean, ‘white’?” Davie said. “I had that revolutionary feeling of being among brothers and sisters, and they were calling us white.” Chunn called this “cultural whiplash.” Lamont told me, “It’s very hard for us, as Americans who grew up with the color of your skin being the most important thing about you, to then understand that different people with the same skin color didn’t see your color—it didn’t matter.”
The Jacaranda staff also dressed differently from their Nigerian counterparts. “People would say to us, ‘Look at your hair, look at your jeans,’” Lamont said. Blackmore stuck out in particular, wearing cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats. Their conceptions of themselves as African were repeatedly confounded by experience. “Many of the younger people were hoping to discover their true culture as descendants of West African slaves,” Lamont recalled. One day, she went on a drive with Weaver to the village his ancestors were from. They headed to the home of the chief, a descendant of the man who had sent Weaver’s family—the family of Frederick Douglass—off to slavery. Lamont parked outside and waited in the car; Weaver made his way to the door. “I don’t think they were expecting him,” she told me. “He was hoping to be welcomed like a long-lost brother.” It was a quick visit. “The chief told him in Pidgin, ‘You have five minutes to get yo’self out of here,’” Lamont recalled. Weaver returned to the car, shaken. “He never got over that encounter.”
Among the motivations for joining up with Jacaranda was having an opportunity to establish a premier news service that could effectively push back against Western narratives of Nigeria and Africa as a whole, without the baggage of American journalism’s racism. Yet the group may have underestimated how hard it would be to ever free themselves of that burden. Nigeria, they learned, had its own complicated and difficult relationship to slavery. ”We went to an area where people were rich—millionaires—because their ancestors were the ones who sold people to the British,” Davie said. “We wanted so bad to interview them, but no one would let us.” In some parts of the country, human trafficking continued; Lamont saw “teenagers on the beach in shackles being sold,” she said. “It was a big shock to us.” Back when she was just starting her career, her tryout for 1010-WINS had been an “ethnic series,” as she called it, interviewing people of color about their lives in New York. “This was back in the day when nobody ever talked to minorities or women on the air,” she said. She’d grown accustomed to the feeling that she needed to pry her way into places where she wanted to belong. In Nigeria, Lamont was no longer a rookie striving for representation. But she remained, if in a different way, an outsider.
As 1982 came to a close, Jacaranda’s contract was renewed, and the group signed on for a second year. Yet the longer they spent with their trainees, and the more stories they tried to do, only to face opposition from government officials, the clearer it seemed that their work was at odds with Shagari’s true goals. In 1983, he was headed for reelection, and his deputies passed along a message that he couldn’t risk having the NTA run certain types of stories during the campaign. Jacaranda could teach Nigerian reporters how to improve their technical presentation and navigate intimidating situations, but Lamont and her colleagues found that some things couldn’t be overcome. “It was revelatory for me,” Chunn said, “because that was the first time I really understood what kind of barriers the Nigerian journalists were facing.” Many of Jacaranda’s victories were technical, and at times it seemed as though their training was doing less to improve the strength of Nigeria’s journalism than to bolster the quality of Shagari’s propaganda. “You do wonder how much of an impact that you can have with those kinds of barriers and the concerns about repercussions,” Chunn said.
In the lead-up to the election, Shagari was in a vulnerable position. Around the time the Jacaranda crew arrived in Nigeria, a global rise in oil production had prompted a collapse in prices; the country’s visions of abundance seemed to suddenly disappear. “The oil glut and the world recession have battered Nigeria’s grand economic plans and dreams,” the New York Times reported in August 1983. Shagari, who was overseeing a relocation of the capital from Lagos to Abuja—a move meant to symbolize unity among the country’s ethnic groups—was now stuck with a dragging construction project. He also came under criticism for granting amnesty to members of the Maitatsine cult. “Nigerians see Shagari as a nice man, a gentle man but not as a particularly strong man,” a political scientist told the Times. “Essentially he has always been a bureaucratic type, a man of no great ego surrounded and constrained by men of enormous ego.”
Jacaranda was moved from the Eko Holiday Inn to an apartment complex in Ikeja, the bustling capital of Lagos State, on the mainland. It was gated and pleasant, if not as luxurious as life on Victoria Island. The group also had a new point person, Ernie, who conveyed messages that they understood to be directives from the upper management of the NTA. As the election neared, Jacaranda started to hear chatter that the military might step in to prevent Shagari from assuming a second term; Ernie gave them reason to believe that those rumors were credible. At a press conference, Shagari promised a change in his next administration: “One has to reexamine the structure with a view to improving it.” The room let out nervous laughter.
Shagari won the election—and after it was called, his opponents quickly challenged the results, claiming that there had been irregularities in the voting. The military increased its presence in Lagos. “We were all anxious to know what was supposed to happen next,” Tarver said. For a while, the group stayed home. A confrontation between dueling leaders seemed inevitable. “There were no secrets in Lagos,” Lamont told me. “We knew immediately something would happen.” She advised that people start heading home for the holidays early, until the political situation was resolved. Many did, though Lamont and a few others stayed.
By New Year’s Eve, Shagari lost his chance at reform. The military, led by General Muhammadu Buhari, removed him and his ministers from power in a swift and bloodless coup. Shagari was arrested in Abuja and sent to Lagos to be detained. Buhari took over as military head of state; four days later, he met with civil administrators. “I knew our contract would be ended,” Lamont said. Any hope of an independent press was gone.
Upon seizing power, the new military government announced that foreigners, including a reported seven thousand Americans, would not be harmed. Lamont, however, was not reassured. She knew that foreigners tended not to fare well in Nigeria––a year before, Shagari had ordered the expulsion of over two million undocumented West African immigrants. Now curfews were being imposed and the borders were closing. She arranged for plane tickets out of the country for Jacaranda’s remaining staff.
Lamont was soon the last remaining member of the Jacaranda team in Nigeria. By that point, the military transition was causing chaos at the Lagos airport––immigration officers were searching the bags of outbound travelers and arresting anyone attempting to leave the country with more than twenty naira. Lamont had about six months’ salary saved. “They would never let me out of the Lagos airport,” she said. She hired a driver to take her to Kano, where she thought she could keep under the radar and unload her cash. The parking lot of the hotel she’d stayed in during Jacaranda’s Kano training had since turned into a market; she bought ivory bracelets and paintings from renowned Nigerian artists, including Twins Seven Seven. Then she rolled up her paintings and stashed her jewels in cereal boxes, which she hid in her luggage.
She got a ticket for a 3am flight to Paris. When it came time to board, a large, wealthy businessman and his family, dogs, and dozens of bags cut in front of her to board the plane, putting her spot in jeopardy. “I went on a tirade,” Lamont told me. She turned to the nearest airport officers and started to list all the work she’d done with the NTA, throwing in some of the Pidgin she’d picked up. Finally they allowed her on the plane. Upon landing in Paris, she stayed with a relative. Then, after a stop in Milan, for a twenty-four-hour shopping spree, she was on her way back to New York.
With Jacaranda gone from the NTA, Buhari’s military government tightened its grip on the news. Members of the media were required to advertise government programs, including a “War Against Indiscipline” campaign, which sought to impose order and restraint in all facets of life. Newscasters had to wear badges that displayed the campaign’s initials. “We went back to the script,” Nwobodo said. Network managers took care to block stories that could cast a negative light on the regime; Nwobodo’s local government coverage was always rebuffed. More of her colleagues were sacked, demoted, and suspended—even over trivial gestures, like changing their tone when speaking about Buhari’s leadership.
In 1985, a military general named Ibrahim Babangida took power in yet another coup. With the economy still in turmoil, the NTA suffered cutbacks. The rise of Nollywood, the country’s now robust film and television industry, drew viewers away from the NTA’s programming by offering new entertainment options. (Weaver returned to Lagos and opened a successful production company.) By the early nineties, the NTA began to partially commercialize some of its programming in order to keep the network running. In 1992, Nigeria established the National Broadcasting Commission; private stations were soon granted licenses and “started giving the NTA a run for their money, by giving more alternative news,” Túbọ̀sún, the journalist and linguist, told me.
Still, the NTA continued to provide one of the country’s most robust news programs—and remained under the control of the government, even after military rule ended, in 1999. Buhari was eventually elected president and is now nearing the end of his last term; his administration has been marked by disinformation, restrictions to online speech, and attacks on the press. Journalists continue to operate under the threat of punishment, and propaganda abounds. During the Lekki massacre of October 2020, for instance, when the Nigerian army opened fire on civilians protesting widespread corruption and brutality in the police force’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, the NTA did not immediately cover the story, despite the fact that video footage from the scene had gone viral on social media. “When they finally did cover it, they gave it a spin,” Túbọ̀sún said: the protesters were described as violent and the military assault was described as a peaceful intervention.
At one point, Nwobodo decided to apply for a journalism master’s program in England. When she interviewed for a scholarship, she was asked if she believed the things that she read on camera. “Whether I believe in it or not is not the issue,’” Nwobodo replied. “‘The issue is that I have to read it—that is my job; that is why I’m being paid. And I want to keep getting paid.’” Nwobodo was denied the scholarship, and continued working at the NTA until 1997, when she went into public relations for the National Electric Power Authority—which was also run by the government.
For Lamont, when she returned to the US, life wasn’t the same. “I went home and cried every day, just from the release of the stress,” she said. “I honestly thought I would go back to CBS.” But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Her husband made efforts to lift her spirits; he arranged trips, including a vacation to the Virgin Islands, their favorite place. She spent time with her children; her daughter was still at home. Lamont had enough money saved that she didn’t have to work for a few months.
One day, she reconnected with Adam Clayton Powell III. He told her about a recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to release new television licenses, aimed at building stations in cities such as Tampa, Dallas, and New Orleans. The FCC was specifically looking for women and people of color to run those stations, he said. “How many of those do you think we got?” Given her time overseeing Jacaranda, he urged her to consider applying.
She promised to think about it. The prospect of moving to one of those cities didn’t appeal to her much at first. But New Orleans, she felt, might have some promise. “I thought, ‘Hey, New Orleans, there’s music,’” she said. While she was still considering it, she ran into an old CBS colleague, Ed Bradley. He asked if she’d be returning to the network. She told him about the possibility of an FCC license and opening up her own television station. To her surprise, he thought it was a great idea. “He told me to get out, get out of the broadcasting side,” she said.
Lamont took the leap. “I probably wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t gone to Nigeria,” she said. She also decided that, if she was going to be managing a television station, she’d better get more management training. Lamont used the rest of the salary she’d saved from Jacaranda to enroll in a mid-career public administration master’s program at Harvard. “I enrolled in the fall and moved on with my life,” she said. Three years later, she won the FCC license and with it moved down to New Orleans with her family to create WCCL-TV. “We aired one CBS News program, Face the Nation, but that was it for news,” she said. It was a commercial station, mainly for entertainment programs.
Lamont ran the station until 1994. She continued operating a satellite teleport she’d built across the street that serviced other television and radio broadcasts—but she had to give it up in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit. “Thirty-eight out of my thirty-nine employees were now homeless,” she said. She regrouped; she focused on running a call center with her husband. Now eighty-three, she still works five days a week. She’d like to finish her writing projects someday, including a collection of poetry. “I’m just busy running this company, and I’m trying to retire,” she said. “It’s kind of frustrating.” Still, she feels gratified by one aspect of her career trajectory: “I got out of the news business at the right time.”Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.