Tolu Ogunlesi, Features Editor 234 NexT – Interview

Tolu Ogunlesi is the Features Editor at NEXT, a Nigerian daily newspaper. He is also the latest recipient of the 2010 Future Journalist of the Year award. In 2009, Tolu won the Arts and Culture prize in the annual CNN Multichoice African Journalism Awards, and a Dorothy Sargent  Rosenberg poetry prize in 2008 among many others. He is an internationally acclaimed author of a wide collection of poetry and novellas.

Tolu’s path has been shinning ever so brightly, and I proudly present him to you right here, on TeesDiary. He talks about his career and shares thoughts on the internet and Nigeria’s coming elections.

Congratulations on your recent Future Award?


You have loads of literary accolades to your name … what was the start-point of your journey?

My earliest memories of a literary world date back to the books I read as a child – all illustrated of course – The Bible, Brothers Grimm stories (Hansel & Gretel, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty etc), and later on Enid Blyton, Tintin, war comics etc. I was sufficiently immersed in Blyton to embark on the creation of my own Blytonesque stories, so at the age of 12, writing as “Jeffrey Cowell” I completed a novel inspired by the Secret Seven.

Career challenges…

I imagine it’s the same challenges that all writers everywhere face: how do I write my best? What do I do in the face of writer’s block? How do I coerce the muse into coming along on the journey? How do I make a living from doing this?

I do this because I love doing it. I can’t imagine a life without writing.

There is this thing about Nigerian parents wanting their children to study the Sciences because it is considered to be the most financially rewarding career path. Did you have to scale any of such hurdles… convincing your folks Arts was your calling?

Well, in today’s Nigeria, those certainties belong to a long gone age. You need to see jobless/struggling/poorly-paid doctors, engineers and accountants to know that the cliches no longer hold. In my case I didn’t have to do any convincing, because I didn’t make any abrupt move. For a long time I combined working at an 8-5 (hospital, management consulting, telecoms) with writing. So when I made the move, I didn’t need to convince anyone. I had a ‘track record’ so to speak, and I made the big move only when it became clear I could survive it (financially)

That brings me to the BIG question. Just how financially rewarding is being a writer? Back when I was a Mass Communication (Journalism) undergraduate, our tutors often told us that if we were looking to make the BIG MONEY we were on the wrong academic program.

Well, they’re right! Unless you get a great book deal (nothing like that exists in Nigeria by the way), or you’re a celebrity journalist (think Piers Morgan or Christiane Amanpour), then there’s no point raising your hopes and dreaming of a rich life. It’s the truth. For most writers, earning a living will always be a struggle. Most people will have to combine a lot of writing gigs, and even throw in other jobs – editing, teaching, speaking, PR, etc. If you want really big money it’s best to look at reality TV or Hollywood or Football, or if you’re in Nigeria, politics.

🙂 LOL @ “… if you’re in Nigeria, politics”. We will come to the politics bit shortly. I will like to address the issue of objectivity as an ideal in news journalism…

Well, it’s there as something to aspire to-

Is it really possible for the journalist to be completely divorced from his piece ?

Journalism is done by human beings. Journalism can only be objective to the extent that its purveyors are objective. We need to define objectivity.

And what will you define it as?

Everywhere in the world papers take stands in relation to the political space – the left, right, etc. So what does that translate to in terms of objectivity. I think fairness and balance are more important, more understandable, more defensible, than ‘objectivity’, which is a vague concept most of the time… unless of course by objectivity we mean balance: giving access to all sides of a story

You have done a number of pieces on the coming Nigerian elections, how exactly do you manage balance in your analysis and avoid bias? How do you employ this skill?

I think this depends on what one is writing. Opinion pieces, as the name implies, are opinion – a clear admission of bias and subjectivity. An analytical piece or an interview would be different – you present the facts and arguments and statistics and all, and leave the reader to come to a conclusion. In an opinion piece you’re working with a hammer. You have a point to make, and you want to drive it home!

An opinion piece exposes your point of view to your readers. When you write an analytical piece, are you arguing that you are able to keep clear of your inner convictions on an issue?

Well, even that is not an argument anyone can convincingly make, I think. But at least we could aspire. There are often huge differences between the work of those who aspire (even if they don’t attain), and those who don’t. And also there are certain conventions that are supposed to be in place in a media establishment – editors and copy editors and stuff – a chain of readers to help ensure that opinion and bias are kept in check as much as possible.

Alright. Let’s explore Nigeria’s political climate. In one of your articles, you said “Nigeria needs a revolution…a series of unspectacular yet aggressive revolutions…we need our revolutionaries not on the streets but in the classrooms and laboratories and farmlands. This revolution demands blackboards, not placards”. What do you mean exactly by this, as one would think impact cannot be made without taking to the streets.

Well, I don’t know if I agree with you. But I admit that uprisings are exciting, they make for great stories and inspirational accounts. Look at how the uprising in Tunisia set off a chain of others in the Arab world. Wouldn’t you love to see that happen in Nigeria, to see all those hopelessly corrupt politicians chased to the far ends of the earth; with all their mansions and cars left behind? That would be exciting. But it doesn’t guarantee any lasting change. In many cases a new set of oppressors is waiting in the wings to replace the old. Charles Taylor the ‘revolutionary’ is always waiting to replace Samuel Doe the ‘tyrant’.

The seemingly visionary Nigerian military of the 1960s organised a revolution against the corrupt politicians, and shed blood, and the people rejoiced. What progress came out of that? June 12, the freest and fairest election in the history of Nigeria – what kind of violent uprising could have achieved what June 12 achieved? My suspicion is that real change happens in an unshowy manner, like a tree growing or wine fermenting. You don’t see any spectacular signs in those cases do you – yet that’s where the real work is happening. Lightning and thunder are showy, but I’m not very sure what they’re accomplishing.

Maybe that’s a very simplistic way to look at it, but my point is that lasting change is more likely to be found away from the mobs and crowds…

I have noticed a wave of online interactions and campaigns towards voting this 2011 on social media networks. What kind of impact do you consider new media will have on the practice of democracy in Nigeria on the short and long – term?

Like in America in 2008 we are witnessing a significant demographic shift – a lot of people who’ve never voted before, and who didn’t care much for politics are now interested. Now it is cool to want to vote, cool to have an opinion about Nigerian politics, cool to belong to a camp or the other. This is a good thing. Real politics doesn’t commence until there’s awareness and participation from citizens. Look at how people are posting photos of their voters cards on Facebook and Twitter. It’s exciting to watch. Young people made a difference in America in 2008, there’s no reason why they won’t in Nigeria in 2011. More than 400,000 people are following Goodluck Jonathan on Facebook, in voting terms that’s a LOT of people – about the same as the total number of votes cast in the recent Delta rerun elections.

In the long term, one expects to see politicians drawn out of their holes and hiding places, in a bid to meet the people online. Anything that will draw Nigeria’s politicians out into the open is welcome.

There is this school of thought that opines that these online campaigns are not going to be of any effect. They believe the internet-generation is not enough to push for the change we need in Nigeria. For instance, a rally has only commanded a maximum of about only 2,000 people compared to Nigeria’s population of 15oM. Also, the online interactions are perceived as educative rants of the elites (digital literate). Thus there is a need to get down to the grassroots, the danfo drivers, boli sellers and educate them about their political rights to vote . This is where the cynics beleive the change is needed. What is your reaction?

We are in a situation where every little push forward counts. We cannot sit back and say discount any form of progress. I like to call myself an Equal Opportunity Cynic, but even that kind of cynicism is unacceptable to me. People don’t seem realise that the internet, apart from being a platform for millions of Nigeria today, is also potentially a gateway to the so-called ‘grassroots’ who are not online. If you see every one of the Nigerians online as a member of an offline community, then you realise how small Nigeria has become in terms of ease of coverage. Think of if you tried to spread news by Twitter. By tweeting you are not only contacting people on Twitter, but also lots more who have never heard of Twitter – because the news will spread by word of mouth. After a point no one will remember where the news originated in the first place. That a widely publicised rally commands 2000 people is no evidence that the internet is ineffective. It is a tool, like many others, and its efficiency is dependent on human agency. Online campaigns are here to stay, and they will continue to make a difference, no matter how minimal. What we should guard against is assuming that the internet by itself will make a difference, or that it is all we need.

This is an interesting on-going debate among both academics and the general public. I suspect it’s going to drag for a long time until the impact of the internet on political climates can be adequately measured.

Lastly, share with us tips for an award-winning write-up.

You cannot write an award-winning piece, unless you’re the one awarding the award yourself. But you can write the best piece within your power to write, and you can hope that it will be recognised as award-deserving. Outside of that, we’re powerless regarding our own work. We write, we hope, we write.

Okay, what ingredients can a budding writer put together to cook a good write-up?

Hmmm… a great piece, like great soup, will be a combination of many things. In the case of soup (let me show off a bit) – there’ll be the ingredients, the sense of adventure you bring to it (a certain style/panache/swagger), and very crucially, the TIMING, how long it cooks for, how long before you add this or that etc. There’ll also be the choice of accompaniment – you won’t serve your best egusi soup with a plate of beans will you? In the case of a great article – there’s your grammar, there’s a certain sense of ‘innovative-ness’ you can bring to it, an attempt to do something exciting, something that is not boring; there’s your use of language: a certain music and swagger and confidence, which comes from endless reading. And there’s self-editing, cutting down and adding and polishing and shaving. Humor and a lightness of touch sometimes make a great difference. And then there should be a desire for continuous improvement – so that every article strives to be better than the last. Complacency will destroy a writing career faster than anything else.

Junkie- Wrap:

I hope you have enjoyed reading this piece, and perhaps taken away a thing or two. I look forward to your comments and reactions, especially on the front of the INTERNET’S IMPACT/ ROLE IN A NATION’S DEMOCRACY.

Have a great week ahead!

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4 thoughts on “Tolu Ogunlesi, Features Editor 234 NexT – Interview

  1. Great interview Tomexy, many useful tips and insights in there.

    Tolu is an example that many of us, young Nigerians, strive to emulate, not necessarily as a writer and journalist, but with regard to personality and character. I mean it when I say that when I grow up, I want to be like him.

    I find it laughable that some people still believe that online campaigns and the use of new media to promote social change are short-lived fads. The fact that the Egyptian government was spooked into killing the internet over the past few days should cure their shortsightedness. And why else would China be scared of google? The increasing ubiquity of the internet has made it possible for ordinary folks to not just consume news, but also to participate in it, create it, in blogposts, pictures, videos, tweets…whatever. I just came across a youtube video in which an 8 year old child scolds Mubarak. And in Nigeria? The online buzz surrounding the INEC registration, generated by activists like Tolu and others in the socialmedia wielding youth demographic, had direct consequences on the turnout of people for the exercise. Never before have I seen the Nigerian youth this excited about determining the nation’s political course.

    Short of total and countrywide hypnosis or mind control, repressionist governments will find it increasingly difficult to censor information and spread propaganda. The Tunisian and Egypt experiences are only harbingers of the true potential of the internet as a tool for social change. Online is not the future…it is here. But like Tolu said, it inevitably depends on human agency to give it form and direction, and that is where the art of the journalist shines through. We count on you guys to continue to using your reportage to craft the future and steer it in the right direction.

  2. opeoluwaodedina says:

    Nice one.

  3. temiville says:

    WOW!!! So quick! My journalist friend… will come back to leave a proper comment after reading well

  4. Austine says:

    Nice work! well this is just the beginning. Soon u’ll be interviewing GEJ on his second term in office.

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