Last November, the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) honored IFP Alumnus Musikilu Mojeed with an Editor’s Courage Award for a series of articles published in NEXT online magazine that expose government corruption at the hands of Nigerian officials who allegedly manipulate the country’s oil industry to enrich themselves. In addition to receiving his own award for editing, Musikilu accepted two First Prize awards on behalf of his writing and reporting staff.
Writes Amy Duncan at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where Musikilu earned his master’s with support from an IFP Fellowship, “Mojeed demonstrated rare courage and provided the right kind of leadership to get the stories published in spite of high-level pressures, police harassment, attempted monetary inducement, and threats to his life.”
In December, the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism awarded Musikilu their 2011 Investigative Journalism prize for a story that exposed a Nigerian public figure who, according to Sahara Reporters, “lied his way to fame, promoting himself as one of the inventors of the Internet and one of the world’s greatest scientists…as he propagated false and misleading claims.”
As anger against a drastic increase in fuel prices continues to escalate in Lagos, IFP shares our Q & A with the rising journalism star, in which he talks about his passion for investigative journalism, the risks inherent in his line of work, and what he hopes to accomplish moving forward:
IFP: As an ‘investigative journalist’, what stories and issues are you most interested in? What drives your work?
I have consistently investigated and written extensively on matters related to corruption (corporate and governmental), human trafficking, and human rights in my country. I have, through my reports, exposed wrongdoing and corrupt practices and highlighted the plights of the oppressed in society.
My journalism is driven by a deep desire to be an advocate for orderliness, transparency, good governance, social change and justice in my immediate community and country. I believe these are the issues that should be at the core of any responsible journalism and social activism. So, I feel fulfilled when I provide a voice to the voiceless, highlight the plights of the oppressed, and make those that are plundering our country uncomfortable. I also feel motivated whenever I’m able to provide the Nigerian people with the right kind of information that helps them make informed decisions and hold their leaders to account.
IFP: When and why did you become passionate about journalism?
I dropped my childhood dream of becoming an engineer and opted for journalism after an incident taught me early in life that the profession could be an effective and reliable agent of social change. While in my fourth year in high school, I wrote an article which was published on the press board exposing teachers who were in the habit of taking shortcuts in and out of school by passing through weakened portions of the school’s perimeter fence. I wrote in the article that it was unfair for teachers to continue to punish students for the same offence that they too were committing.
The article sparked a chain of reactions. The teachers were terribly angry with me and I had to go underground for a short while. Our principal promptly called a staff meeting to impress upon the teachers to always show good examples. He also admonished the teachers and told them not to victimize me over the article. I later became the president of the Press Club, during which time I did a series of scathing reports on examination malpractice, amorous relationships between female students and male teachers, and bullying of junior students by seniors, among other forms of misbehavior.
By the time I left high school, I had made up my mind about what to do with my life. I went on to study Mass Communication at the Akwa Ibom State Polytechnic, and Communication Arts at the University of Uyo in Nigeria. At both institutions, I was a fearless and committed campus journalist, attributes that made my department in Uyo appoint me editor of the training newspaper, CAMPUS TIMES.
How did your experiences as a Ford Fellow at CUNY School of Journalism influence your professional goals and accomplishments?
CUNY transformed me from a print journalist to a multimedia journalist, at home with all media formats. I became a better storyteller, and entrepreneur. While there, I created a digital platform, www.nigeriapolicewatch.com, which uses crowd sourcing to report on police corruption in Nigeria. CUNY awarded me a $5000 grant to create the platform, which I have spoken about at a journalism conference in Johannesburg. I got a similar invitation to discuss the platform in the Netherlands.
My experience as a Ford Fellow was really a life-changer. It has transformed my career. After I got back to Nigeria, I was promoted to head my newspaper’s investigative unit. We did groundbreaking work that has earned us awards and commendations from around the world. I spoke at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference and the African Investigative Journalism Conference. I have just been admitted to the topmost investigative journalism group in the world, the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Tell us about the series of articles that earned you the Editor’s Courage Award from the African Investigative Reports Group. Why did you choose to write about the oil industry in Nigeria?
The winning story is an expose on the brazen fraud in the oil sector in Nigeria. When we started out, our motivation was to beam some light on the darkness that our oil and gas industry had become.
Our petroleum industry is a non-transparent, hugely corrupt sector where you will find officials stealing national resources outright, or cornering oil interests in clearly amorphous, brazenly criminal deals. We in the media have not helped matters with our straitjacket, shallow, and sometimes compromised reporting of the sector, which incidentally is our country’s cash cow. So, my team on the investigative desk of NEXT just decided at one of our meetings in February this year to take a serious, comprehensive look at the activities of the sector.
As we investigated, we found so much more information than we had envisaged, and it became necessary to publish our report in several parts to enable our readers make sense of it all. We came under tremendous pressure while doing the story. We were offered huge bribes by various people who described themselves as agents of the minister. Pressures were put on us through close friends, publicists and professional colleagues. Officials, including Levi Ajuonuma, the spokesperson of the NNPC, frequently threatened me. We got death threats from time to time. When those didn’t work, the police and other security agencies were commissioned to harass us, and then arrest us. My reporters and I abandoned the office and went underground.
What was your role at the highly-regarded investigative news source known as NEXT?
I was one of the foundation staff when 234NEXT.com was created. I joined the newspaper as a Deputy Investigative Editor in late 2008 and became its investigative editor on my return from CUNY in December 2010. NEXT was known and well regarded for its investigative tradition. The work my unit did, exposing corruption, bad governance, bad business practices and human rights abuses have become a reference point in Nigerian journalism.
But in October, NEXT became broke after the Nigerian government, uncomfortable with its critical reporting, declared it an enemy of the administration, and tacitly directed government agencies and businesses not to give it advertisements. It stopped printing and was only able to retain a few staff for its online operation. After we were laid off, some friends and I started Premium Times, where I am now the managing editor.