What Dele Olojede owes us next

The respected journalist Olatunji Dare, former chair of the editorial board of Nigeria’s Guardian newspapers, writing in the Nation Newspaper recently, reflected on the promise and frustration that was the  defunct Next newspaper ( What’s next for NEXT?)  For many of us who had worked for Next, Dare’s words were bitter-sweet and caused quite a stir. His observations properly situated Next as a pioneer in 21st century Nigerian journalism:

“When it made its debut in December 2008, NEXT was only as an electronic newspaper.  A paper edition would be introduced in August 2009. Audio and video would come later.  But even as an electronic newspaper, its entry into Nigerian journalism was electrifying. The web design was clean, tidy and well-structured. Colour and space and type meshed to produce a visual delight. The site was fully navigable. The reporting was sharp… The headlines were sober; they did not scream at you nor offend your sensibilities. The writing was clean, crisp and lucid. The editorials were magisterial; thoughtfully and closely argued, they provided insight and leadership on a wide range of issues, national and foreign. Shortly after its debut, NEXT was parading some of the finest writing to have graced Nigeria’s news media in recent memory.”

Dare’s essay was a nice ode to Dele Olojede, the complicated thinker and doer who had dreamed of Next and implemented one of the most exciting runs in the history of Nigerian journalism. Olojede’s place in Nigeria’s history is assured, thanks to respected icons like Dare, history will be kind to him. Indeed Olojede was able to bring to fruition his pioneering dreams and those of quiet and largely unsung leaders like Ekundayo Ogunyemi (Naijanet)  Muhtar Bakare, Sola Osofisan, Philip Adekunle, Nnorom Azuonye and Omoyele Sowore who long ago saw the digital world as an opportunity and a bridge to bring together all our story tellers and stories in one huge digital playground.

I appreciate the kind words Dare had for many of us who were privileged to have been part of that journey that was Next. I will be forever grateful to Next and my editor Molara Wood for the opportunity to exorcise my demons and practice my craft and for the exposure to a wide reading audience well beyond my wildest imagination. In the beginning of my tenure as a columnist, Next was generous to me and gave me wide latitude to write about any and everything that suited my fancy.  My three years at Next have been the most productive in my writing life and I give Olojede and Next full credit for allowing all that to happen.

Having said all that, many of us were treated poorly as employees of Next. There were clearly management issues, many of them so egregious, in a real country, they would have landed Next’s owners in big trouble. It is easy to google and come up with evidence such as this, this and this  Dare’s article confirmed in me that for yet another Nigerian leader, the hunter’s version of history was going to whitewash the real history. It is a cultural dysfunction I suppose, one of our weaknesses as a people is to exaggerate the positives in a leader and minimize or gloss over his or her frailties. I am now convinced that the next phase in the struggle for the life and soul of our nation is to hold our intellectual and political elite accountable. They are getting away with murder literally. Without accountability, they have become self-absorbed and tone-deaf to reason.

Back to Olojede, the mystery and the power of the Internet that Olojede tapped into allowed him to harness resources everywhere and in many cases bring some young people home from Europe and America to Nigeria.  In my three years with Next, I never met Olojede, did not need to. My editor Molara Wood handled all my affairs pretty much; she went to great pains to make sure I was comfortable. However, after a few months it became apparent that there were some issues with funding. Wood wrote to me one day to say apologetically that my weekly contract amount was being reduced by management. It was unilateral; there was no offer to renegotiate my contract. I was fine and soldiered on, I really did not care that much even when the long delays in payment became indeterminable; as far as I knew they would pay up eventually. There were never any assurances from management that they were aware that we were not being paid.

After a protracted period of time, I finally contacted management by email to complain about the nonpayment and the silence and to express disappointment that no one had reached out to me to talk about the issues. I never heard from anyone. Instead, Wood informed me with concern that management had decided to stop paying columnists; I was free to continue writing but it would be without pay. To say I was appalled by such unprofessional conduct would be to understate it. By this time, Next was owing me hundreds of thousands of Naira.  At the time, It seemed to reek of arrogance and a callous disregard for the welfare of employees. When my editor left Next, I did not have the heart to continue staying there and so I left. To this day, I cannot brag about getting a single email from Olojede or Next’s management regarding my tenure or the huge sum I am owed. Olojede would not have accepted such irresponsible conduct from his employers in the United States.

I was extremely lucky; many others had taken huge financial risks to go work for Next. And suddenly they were being told unceremoniously to take a hike. I am still haunted by the terror I saw in some of those folks’ eyes when I visited in September, 2011.  What Next did to those young people is unconscionable and Dele Olojede and I know that in the West where we all studied and lived, that would have been beyond acceptable, they would have sent him to the cleaners in a court of law.

Shabby treatment aside, nothing has upset me more than the fact that Olojede has recently allowed Next’s website to shut down. There is an emerging pattern here: Olojede seems to act unilaterally and imperiously; he seems allergic to the term stakeholder or what it means to communicate an action before implementation. The shutting down of Next’s website is unconscionable and unacceptable. Over the years that Next was in existence, the website gathered several pieces of significance nationally and globally, pieces that are now connected to external websites as resources through hyperlinks. All those links are now broken thanks to Olojede’s decision to shut down the website. I shall be blunt; Dele Olojede’s decision to shut down Next’s website is irresponsible; it is not that expensive to keep a website going. More importantly, many of us who had hoped to have access to our column pieces are now struggling mostly in vain to recreate our works. We should have been given ample warning ahead to time to allow us retrieve our column pieces. This is simply unacceptable and I am happy to call Olojede on this this conduct more than any other management deficiencies of his. It is abusive, it is wrong, it is irresponsible. Mr. Olojede, I ask you to bring back the Next website by all means necessary

Olojede’s mistakes, and they are legion have only inspired the West and others to continue to lionize him. Last year he won the prestigious John P. McNulty Award  for “running a 24-hour newsroom on diesel generators.” The prize was a hefty $100,000. African exotica sells in the West. Let me observe ad nauseam that Africa’s political and intellectual elite would benefit from not being held accountable by the masses they purport to serve – and by an avuncular West too eager to give them a pass on even their most egregious acts of misconduct. The next frontier in the struggle for Africa’s emancipation is for us to turn the glare of accountability on our own leaders. It is important to share the great and the unsavory in our leaders. It holds them accountable and serves also as a guiding beacon for those who will come after them. I was not privy to the inner management workings of the newspaper but clearly money was an issue in addition to what many have analyzed as poor management. And so Next’s fate is also a commentary on what should be merely an expense in the interest of a society. I am not a fan of external interventions, but I would have applauded the West if they had helped sustain Next. Memo to the West: The cost of an unmanned drone would have kept Next alive for eternity and propelled Nigeria to a new planet in accountability.  My conclusion? Dele Olojede may be a visionary but he hurt many people and a good start would be for him to apologize to them. He should also restore the Next website as a matter of top priority And Olojede, you do not owe me any money, I have written it all off, don’t worry. Not that you are staying up worrying about it. But this you owe the world; turn on the Next website again. That would be nice.