Toyosi Ogunseye is one of the most respected journalists on the continent. In her career which has spanned 14 years, the biochemistry graduate of the University of Lagos has won over 30 awards, including CNN MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year Awards (2011 and 2013), Knight International Journalism Award; Nigerian Academy of Science Journalist of the Year; and the Diamond Awards for Media Excellence (DAME).
The Mandela Washington fellow is an inspiration to many, especially young people. In this interview, Ogunseye who currently heads BBC West Africa, spoke about her journey to the top, her passion for lecturing and her interest in governance.
The interview is filled with experiences of moments which shaped her career and the role different persons played in making her who she is. The first female editor in the history of Punch Newspaper, founded in 1973, got so emotional when she spoke about the departure from her last place of work.
TheCable: Fourteen years ago, Musa Ebomhiana, former news editor at The Sun Newspaper, gave you the opportunity to report as an undergraduate; today you are arguably one of the most successful journalists on the continent, what’s the secret?
Ogunseye: Thanks for the compliment. One of the secrets is that I’ve always had people who believe in me. The best journalists trained me and still look after me. Ms. Yinka Omage the then editor of Genevieve Magazine, was the one who introduced me to Mr. Ebomhiana. He took to me from the first day I walked into his office, asking for a chance to write for the paper. Mr. Ebomhiana handed me over to Mr. Dipo Kehinde, who was my first line manager and crime editor. I learnt hard work from Mr. Kehinde and he led by example. I was expected to do minimum of three features stories daily, that was 15 stories weekly. That was the minimum acceptable standard to him. He introduced me to all his sources, took me to almost all the police stations in Lagos and Ogun states, teaching me the art of looking people straight in the eye and asking them difficult questions. The State Criminal Investigations Department, Panti, became my second home because the best crime stories were there. Almost all the cops received me with open arms. It got to a point that I knew most of the suspects in different police stations and anytime I went to interview a new suspect in the cell, the old ones would scream playfully, “Lady Sun!” I guess they were just amused by the young girl who enjoyed interviewing them. Mr. Femi Adesina, who was the daily editor of Sun then, supported me once I convinced him that I was serious about becoming a journalist.
I was on the daily desk but Mr. Steve Nwosu, the then Saturday editor of Sun, would not close his paper without asking me if I had any big story he could lead with. He would leave his office, walk to my desk in the newsroom to ask, “Toyosi, do you have any big story for me?” That was massive, editors were like gods then. I once rode on a commercial motorcycle from Apapa to Sango ( about 70 kilometers) and back on a Friday evening, to get a story on how two men were detained because they stole chickens on Obasanjo’s farm. Mr. Nwosu was waiting for the story to lead the Saturday paper with and I couldn’t disappoint him. I got back to the office around 9pm and quickly wrote the story. Writing front page stories was like winning a lottery. Nothing beats that feeling. When I moved to News Star, Mr. Niyi Adesina was the editor and he also believed a lot in me. Mr. Rotimi Williams was my direct line manager and crime editor at News Star. He invested a lot in me. He would take me to Seme border and Cotonou almost every weekend to report trans-border crime stories; I did local stories during the week. We interviewed all the big time car snatchers and robbers across the border when the police arrested them; we knew their routes including their gun suppliers. Almost all the policemen and anti-robbery cops I met took a liking to me and I never ran out of stories. They always kept the best stories for me to the consternation of my colleagues. Even if it was a general press conference by the commissioner of police, my police pals would keep some stories which they didn’t give to anyone but me. After the press conference, they would wink at me, and then I would go into a corner to interview as many suspects as I wanted exclusively. At a point, it became tough for some colleagues to get stories from Panti because the policemen would tell them that the stories were for me and if they wanted it, they would have to ask me first.
All I’ve said does not capture one percent of the support I’ve received in my career. I’ve said these much to explain to you that I may collect the glory publicly, but I have men and women that have made me who I am today. I am extremely passionate about my job and I’ve never rejected an assignment. I take my responsibilities quite seriously. I don’t waste any opportunity that comes my way. I was on the crime beat for about seven years but I wrote stories on almost every beat and my bosses didn’t have to ask me to do it; I take the initiative and I give my best at all times. I ask for help, I don’t believe I know it all. I don’t keep negative company. Giving up is not in my dictionary; I am willing to learn, change and grow but most importantly, God gives me constant favour and provides me with wonderful people who work tirelessly towards my success. I must add that I have supportive family and friends.
TheCable: How do you choose the stories to pursue; what’s usually the underlying motivation?
Ogunseye: I hate injustice. Oppression gets my blood boiling. I don’t like it when people intentionally treat others badly. Just tell me someone is oppressing you and I will be there immediately to fight for you. That’s my motivation- to use the tools and the opportunities that I’ve been given to help others live a better life.
TheCable: Which investigative story did you enjoy pursuing the most?
Ogunseye: All of them are important to me. Every investigative story I’ve done is dear to my heart because I don’t do anything haphazardly. It’s either I’m doing it or I’m not. I don’t do half measures.
TheCable: Thirty journalism awards and still counting, which of these awards do you cherish most?
Ogunseye: I don’t have a favourite and I sincerely mean it. They are all precious to me in equal measure.
TheCable: The panel which judged one of the awards you won praised you for your commitment to high-quality ethical journalism, particularly your focus on the environment, justice and good governance, why the choice of these areas?
Ogunseye: These areas were not intentional. All my stories have strong justice themes. As I said earlier, I don’t like it when people trample on others. I am known to get down from my car and get justice for “danfo” (popular commercial bus in Lagos) drivers when I suspect they are being maltreated by law enforcement agents.
TheCable: ‘The first and youngest female editor at The Punch Newspaper’ is a phrase that is hardly missing in any gathering where you are introduced, how did you feel leaving a platform which made immense contribution to your success?
Ogunseye: Sad, I cried my eyes out. On the other hand, I was happy that I got the head of West Africa job at the BBC but leaving Punch was difficult and painful. It was like amputating a part of my body. Punch is family. If I start to talk the amount of support I received from the company, we won’t leave here today.
TheCable: What do you miss most about Punch?
Ogunseye: Everything! My team, my bosses, my secretary, my friends, the environment, the jokes, the adrenaline that comes with producing a paper, I can go on. I really miss my team, how we used to work even in tense moments. I learnt how to be consistently excellent in Punch. It was the best eight years of my life. All the accolades I received there was because I had wonderful bosses who let me grow and fly. I’m most grateful for all the opportunities they gave me right from the first day I stepped into Punch. My editors, the entire Punch board, current Chaiman, Mr. Wale Aboderin and the past Chairman, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola and my Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief, Mr. Ademola Osinubi were amazing gentlemen who nurtured me well. The former Executive Director, Mr. Azubuike Ishiekwene, also made opportunities available to me. I don’t know what they saw, they just believed I could do anything. My direct boss, Mr. Adeyeye Joseph, was the best mentor ever; I’m yet to meet a more meticulous person.
TheCable: In a society traditionally rooted in seniority by age, how do you cope with subordinates who are not submissive?
Ogunseye: I’ve been lucky to work in environments where there’s zero tolerance for insubordination, this has helped. I tend to ignore tantrums as long as they don’t adversely affect job performance. After a while, most of them realized that all I cared about was producing the best paper every Sunday. In a few cases, some allowed their personal prejudices affect their performance to which I responded accordingly. For others, we became friends when they got to know me better. I often say that even if people don’t like you; make sure they respect your competences.
TheCable: It is said that a journalist is someone who ought to know something about everything, meaning that those in this profession are supposed to read voraciously, on the average, how many books have you read?
Ogunseye: I don’t count but I’ve read quite a lot. I read as much as I can about everything. I love autobiographies and fiction.
TheCable: Have you ever considered setting up a news platform?
Ogunseye: Yes, I have.
Why did you withdraw from major social media platforms at a period when many are rushing into them?
Ogunseye: I find social media quite distracting. I withdraw often to concentrate on my life and the things that really matter.
TheCable: You studied biochemistry at the university, has there been any time you considered building a career out of it?
Ogunseye: After biochemistry, the plan was to study medicine. I held on to that dream for some time that but not anymore.
TheCable: Can you share with us your worst experience as a journalist?
Ogunseye: Most of my sad experiences as a journalist were about how people treat journalists. It’s really bad. The solution lies with how we carry and portray ourselves.
TheCable: How would you describe the Nigerian journalist?
Ogunseye: The Nigerian journalist is hardworking, tenacious and has the patience of job.
TheCable: The brown envelope is a common topic amongst journalists and readers alike, what is your take on it?
Ogunseye: A lot of attention is given to journalists that receive brown envelope. I believe that media owners that make it difficult for the journalists to earn decent wages should come under same scrutiny. I don’t know why we are often reluctant to call out media owners who consistently fail to pay salaries. Also, the givers of the brown envelope-people and companies that have an annual budget to bribe journalists should come under the same heat. If there are no givers, there won’t be takers and vice versa. Having said these, we must continue to hold ourselves accountable as the watchdogs of the society. We can’t be quick to label others as corrupt if we have skeletons in our cupboards. The media is an integral part of any successful society.
You lecture for free at Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ), what motivated you to make this decision?
I really love teaching; it’s one of my passions. It’s a natural habitat for me. It’s my way of giving back and ensuring that we continue to have solid journalists. I’ve not done it for some time now because of my busy schedule but I’ve had more requests from other universities and I’m going back. I’m going to find the time.
TheCable: So far, how has the experience been at the BBC and what do you hope to achieve with the platform?
Ogunseye: I have had a wonderful experience so far, the BBC is a really great place to work. I’m receiving huge support from everyone and they trust me to run the West African operations effectively. My aim is for us to deliver independent, objective and original news to meet the needs of our audiences in West Africa.
TheCable: Can you tell us more about your new job?
Ogunseye: As the head of West Africa, I am to ensure that all the operations of the BBC in Anglophone and Francophone West Africa run smoothly. I manage five services in the region- Hausa, Afrique, Pidgin, Igbo and Yoruba. I also have teams in these services that work from London. The Igbo and Yoruba services launch on February 19 and we can’t wait to serve our audiences original journalism that adds value to them. We will be broadcasting on radio and all our digital platforms in these languages. I think it’s quite innovative and refreshing. You need to feel and see the energy in our newsrooms about this expansion. It’s an exciting time to be a journalist and we are eager to reach new and younger audiences. The BBC Hausa is the big brother of the services in Anglophone West Africa and its success inspires the rest of the teams. BBC Afrique is equally a force to reckon with in French-speaking Africa, and the digital transformation of the service will further engage our audiences wherever they are. There is so much we have in store and West Africans are going to experience a plethora of the best journalism the BBC has to offer.
TheCable: What counsel would you give to young journalists trying to find their feet in this field?
Ogunseye: Don’t give up, keep at it. Don’t listen to naysayers. Mind the company you keep. Your friends in the newsroom should be the best performers, not the worst who have nothing good to say about the profession, their bosses and the company. You can’t write well if you don’t read, read the stories of excellent journalists. Get a good mentor. Be versatile, creative and ethical. Seek for opportunities. Develop yourself. It’s okay to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t let any level of success intoxicate you; it’s often the beginning of downfall. Be careful where and whom you seek validation from.
Currently, you are studying for your PhD in Politics and International Relations, any plans to seek political office in future?
Governance is definitely something I’m interested in in the future.