The name, Kayode Soyinka is a big name in journalism. Though he has been a journalist since age 18 and he has had a steady progression in the industry ever since, the parcel bomb incident that killed Dele Giwa, the late Newswatch Editor-in-Chief shot him to limelight. He was with Dele Giwa in his study that fateful morning when he received and opened the parcel bombs that exploded and killed Dele Giwa. Since that time, this fine gentleman had been living his life quietly in London where he is based.
Last week, he broke his silence. He spoke to City People Publisher, SEYE KEHINDE about his impressive career. Below are exerpt.
You have been in Journalism all your life. At what stage are you now, career wise?
I have achieved everything I wanted to achieve in Journalism. I have been in the industry all my life as you have said. 43 years to be precise. I have seen it all and adequately paid my dues in the profession in which I almost lost my life in the parcel bomb incident of October 19,1986. Therefore, you could say I should be at a retirement stage by now.
But I refuse to retire. That is why I am still busy traveling around the world reporting and publishing my own news magazine Africa Today. What I am doing now is building Africa Today as my legacy in the profession. Yes, you are right. I will be 62 years old this year. I have spent all my life as a newspaper reporter. I am 43 years in the newspaper industry now – I entered the profession as 18! I have done nothing else since then. I have been in the newsroom everyday for 43.
Each time you look back at your career do you feel a sense of accomplishment?
Oh, yes! I look back at my career with resounding satisfaction. I am proud of my accomplishments in Journalism. Why? The Daily Sketch in Ibadan hired me in 1976 as a cub reporter – that is the lowest rank in the profession in those days. I am not sure if you guys employ cub reporters in journalism in Nigeria of today, because people come in with university degrees now.
I was not that privileged during my time. Daily Sketch trained me in-house, in the newsroom as the practice was in those days. So you can say that I was an apprentice journalist. I gradually moved my way up through the ladder to become a Junior Reporter, Senior Reporter and acting State Correspondent in the old Bendel State.
It was my first posting out of Ibadan. I went briefly to replace our State Correspondent Emmanuel Onyejeana who was leaving for his annual leave. It was while I was there in Benin that I received a letter from the headquarters in Ibadan granting me scholarship to proceed to London for further training on Fleet Street – the world’s centre for journalism, where I was a student at the famous College of Journalism on Fleet Street where I obtained a diploma.
I was bonded to serve the Sketch for four years on completion of the course, which I could not do for reasons that would be explained in my memoirs that will be released to the public in Nigeria and globally very soon. It was while I was in training in London that I was appointed London Correspondent for the Sketch.
I replaced the late Olu Akinyeye, who had just completed his own course and was returning home and back to the Sketch. You see, in those days, Nigerian newspapers had the tradition of spending money on their staff reporters and editors. It was either for their training, further training which was done consistently, or they would regularly send them out to cover international assignments like the meetings of the Non-Aligned Nations, Commonwealth Summit, meetings of the old Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the United Nations (UN) and so on. I used to read some of those reporters, mostly senior journalists with their by-lines then, reporting from Addis Ababa, London, Belgrade, New York etc. in those days as a young schoolboy; and I was hoping that I would be like them one day.
I already had it in my head, or dream, my own by-line: Kayode Soyinka, reporting from London. And that came to pass. The Daily Sketch made me Its London Correspondent and that was the beginning of my long career as a foreign correspondent. I made a career of it. I was London Correspondent for Daily Sketch, Concord newspapers, London Bureau Chief for Newswatch. Added to my being General Editor for Peter Enahoro’s Africa Now – in all I spent 17 straight years as a foreign correspondent for national newspapers and magazine in Nigeria.
I think that is a record – 17 uninterrupted years. So, to answer your question, I feel a very strong sense of accomplishment because at 18, I became a cub reporter. At 21, I started a career as a Foreign Correspondent in London. At 26, I became an Editor. At 37, I got to the pinnacle of my career by becoming the owner of my own internationally acclaimed newsmagazine, Africa Today, of which I am Publisher and Editor-in-Chief up till now – the highest position I could attain in my profession.
And I achieved these feats before clocking 40 years old! I must point out at this juncture that despite my hyper-busy schedule as London Correspondent for Sketch, and later for Concord newspapers, and as General Editor for Africa Now and London Bureau Chief for Newswatch magazine, I did not lose sight of the essence of formal university knowledge. I took time off all these my different positions to enrol as a part-time student. Paying my way through without scholarship or a wealthy sponsor to back me, I graduated with a B.A. in International Relations from the United States International University, San Diego, California (Bushey Campus, England) in 1987.
This American university had a campus then in the outskirts of London, and they operated a flexible academic system, which suited me. I could combine studies with my full-time journalism job, and it made it easy for me to study for a degree course. I followed that with an M.A. in International Journalism from the best Graduate School of Journalism in the UK, City University in 1989. City University is now part of the University of London, and renamed City, University of London.
After leaving City, I was sponsored by the Commonwealth, through what used to be the Commonwealth Media Development Fund, to Wolfson College, Cambridge University, as a Visiting Scholar. It was at Wolfson College that I wrote my book, Diplomatic Baggage: MOSSAD & NIGERIA – The Dikko Story. It was a book on Anglo-Nigerian Relations, centred on the London kidnap of the former Nigerian Transport Minister and confidante of the late President Shehu Shagari, Dr Umaru Dikko.
I am satisfied with my accomplishments. The magazine I founded, Africa Today, is now world-renowned. It has to be for two reasons: I got the late President Nelson Mandela to grant us the interview for the maiden edition. You will agree with me that at that time, not long after he was released from 27 years in prison, when the biggest newspapers around the world wanted a Mandela interview, if you were lucky and you got one; it was worth setting up a brand new newspaper for.
Secondly, despite the challenges of publishing globally, we managed to keep Africa Today on the global newsstands for 25 years. I am the first journalist from sub-Saharan Africa to have successfully published a pan-African newsmagazine out of London that is on the global newsstand and sustained it for 25 years.
Africa Today will be 25 years old by May next year. My career has granted me the opportunity to have many international connections, especially with well-known international figures and dignitaries including organisations, governments in Africa and across the globe that I have dealt with and still relate with up till today on matters relating to Nigeria, Africa and the Commonwealth in particular.
I have over the years played important roles within some Commonwealth associations like The Round Table, the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) where I was chairman of its London Management Committee for three years (in the 90s). I also represented the CJA on the board of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) at the early stage of its establishment in London. Besides, I am a Honourary Fellow of the Commonwealth Press Union (CPU). I am also a 21st Century Trust Fellow.
I did the short Fellowship on the subject of The Place of Human Rights in International Relations at Worcester College, Oxford University, in April 1991, under the supervision of two distinguished senior fellows Professor Kevin Boyle, Director of Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, UK, and Ambassador Olara Otunnu, President of the International Peace Academy, New York at the time.
I thank the Daily Sketch and my country Nigeria for granting me the exposure and opportunity. And I am delighted I did not misuse them. I consider myself an ambassador for the journalism profession in Nigeria, and if I might also say, a good ambassador for my country Nigeria through my work as an international journalist.
Let me take you back to when you started Journalism many years ago. What was the attraction?
When I finished my studies at Baptist Boys’ High School (BBHS) Abeokuta, I opted for a clerical job with PZ Industries Limited in Ilupeju, Lagos. But the profession that was to earn me national and international fame and achievements quickly overwhelmed my teenage interest. So in 1976, at a young age of just 18, I signed on as a cub reporter with Sketch newspapers in Ibadan.
That time started off what turned out to be a very rewarding romance with journalism for me. Now, there couldn’t have been a better place for me to start a career in journalism than the Sketch. It was our local newspaper in Ibadan with nationwide circulation. Moreover, it was the newspaper that was my father’s compulsive read every morning, so I grew up knowing and reading it.
The Sketch, in addition to the Daily and Sunday Times that were based in Lagos, gingered my budding interest in journalism. Although I had tried my hand helping in the editing of our school magazine, The Trumpeter, under the tutelage of the late Mr Babatunde Ayopo, our English Literature teacher at BBHS, my interest in journalism had developed so early in life that it was one of the three options I had of what to do or study when I left school.
I wanted to study law so that I could become a lawyer; alternatively, I thought I could go on to study political science at university, and my third option was to go into journalism by being a newspaper reporter. Ibadan, where the Sketch was based, was a very sprawling city, which I found very fascinating. It was the place to be in those days. It was also the city of my birth and childhood.
I grew up and went to primary schools there. So it was and remains the place that I knew like the back of my hand. Even till today, as I start my journey into old age (I will be 62 this year), there is no other city in my home country Nigeria that I am as familiar with as Ibadan. It was the capital city of the old Western Nigeria, which had become a pacesetter region in newly independent Nigeria.
It had set the pace for development in the young country that had just emerged from British colonial rule. So, as a young man in those days, seeing all these developments going on around me was enough to inspire me to secure my first journalism job in a newspaper company based in the city and owned by the regional government.
Therefore, when the opportunity for it came my way, I felt it was something of a dream come true for me, a local boy of just 18! I had to seize the opportunity because entry into universities in Nigeria of that era was highly competitive. I was under these circumstances when, all of a sudden, the opportunity opened up for me to start a career in one of my three career options, journalism. The opportunity for the newspaper job came about unexpectedly. I have explained how it happened in my coming memoirs – KAYODE SOYINKA: BORN INTO JOURNALISM.
What in your career explains how you became BIG in Journalism?
First is patience, second is hard work, third is consistency, fourth is to be ready for the long haul – journalism, for me, is not a profession one can do for a short time, it is a job for a life time. That has been my experience. And, as mentioned earlier, I also started very early in life, which was an advantage for me because what took many others longer time to achieve in their career, I achieved early in life, with many more years left for me to do other things.
I thank God for that. I was lucky also to have met some senior colleagues who liked me so much and mentored me in the newsroom and through my career. I really thank them. Besides all this, you said how I became BIG in Journalism; well, permit me to put it differently. I would say my coming of age as a journalist, besides the several exclusive stories that I did while I was in Nigeria and from abroad, came about as a result of two things. The first, I have mentioned – my being a foreign correspondent for 17 straight years.
Many people till today still remember or recognise me as the famous London Correspondent. The second reason is directly related to the first, which is my miraculous survival of the parcel bomb of October 19, 1986, in which we unfortunately lost Dele Giwa, the founding editor of Newswatch. That was a horrific incident – the most gruesome assault on media freedom in Africa – so unprecedented in the history of Nigeria. And I was in the eye of the storm because of my involvement both as a victim and sole survivor.
If I may add the third factor, it is my daring ambition to launch Africa Today on the international newsstand and make it survive for 25 years and still counting. Not many people gave me a chance that it would last even one month when the first edition came out in May 1995. Here we are today, July 18, 2019, you are interviewing be just as we are putting to bed the latest edition of Africa Today dated July/August 2019.
Do you have any regrets being a Journalist?
Not at all. Journalism is my life. It gave me everything I have and have achieved in life. It gave me a globally recognisable brand name. It made me famous in my country Nigeria, Africa, the Commonwealth and internationally. It exposed me to the world in an unimaginable way and gave me connections and vast contacts with people and organisations around the world.
I have met some fantastic people in my career. And I am well travelled. In retrospect, I have resounding satisfaction, and I am very happy with what I have been able to do and achieve in my life and career. I am a humble player, a small print, in the extraordinary story of Nigerian, African, and world journalism.
When I look back and reflect on my background – especially my Christian background, my upbringing, and my roots, the battles for survival that I inevitably had to fight and most of which I won along my eventful career journey surprise me. Most especially, I am surprised when I think of my miraculous escape and survival from the 19 October 1986 parcel bomb that killed Dele Giwa. I have only God to thank. To Him only I give all the glory and praises.
What made you set up your magazine when you did years ago?
Remember that after the parcel bomb incident I remained in self-exile in the United Kingdom until after Babangida was disgraced and forced out of power on 26 August 1993. I spent my time (about 8 years) in exile concentrating on my Newswatch job. That was what sustained me and kept my spirit high. However, as busy as I was, I was always thinking of home. I felt a great pull towards Nigeria.
I really missed my country, most especially not seeing my old parents who were still alive then. It was around this time that the thought of putting an end to my employment by Newswatch started to develop in my mind. It became clear to me that I had had enough with Newswatch and I needed to do something new as soon as I had the opportunity to end my exile and freely return to Nigeria.
Therefore, I started to use part of my time in exile to start putting plans in place for my future after Newswatch. By this time, I had done 15 out of my 17 years of being a foreign correspondent in London. That was quite a long and eventful period. I narrowed down my options of what to do after Newswatch to two.
The first was to finally return home to Nigeria, while the second was to start my own business by launching my own newsmagazine. I started to give serious thought and consideration to these two options. I first deliberated over the option of finally returning home to Nigeria. At that time in 1994, it would have been 16 years since I first left Nigeria. I thought I would find it very difficult to reintegrate myself back into the system and work either as a reporter or as one of the editors in a newsroom. For that reason, I had to give the second option of starting my own newsmagazine more serious thought.
The more I considered it, the more attractive an option it became for me. It was also because of the fact that if I had taken the option of returning home, all the experience I had gained and contacts I had built for over 17 years of being a foreign correspondent in London and reporting from different parts of the world during that period would have gone to waste.
That was what prompted me to take my final decision. I wanted to utilise my long years of experience as a foreign correspondent and the connections and contacts I had made and put them into use in a way that would be beneficial not only to my home country Nigeria but to Africa as a whole and the world in general. It was this thought that encouraged me to start Africa Today, a new pan-African newsmagazine that would be different from the few on the global newsstands.
What do you do now? Are you still in active practice?
I am still a reporter – 43 years on! And publisher of Africa Today. I am still very much in active service.
*City People is given an exclusive insight into Kayode Soyinka’s memoir which will be out soon. This interview gives an insight into some of the contents of the fascination memoir of one of Nigeria’s best-known and accomplished newspaper reporters.