Babajide Kolade-Otitoju is a seasoned journalist, arguably Nigeria’s most popular, daring and courageous newsman.
Winner of The Gazelle News.com’s Journalist of the Year award, Otitoju, main anchor of the popular television programme, Journalist Hangout took The Gazelle News.com’s crew back into the history of the creation of the programme and how it has now become Nigeria’s most popular television programme.
Briefly sir, I want you to tell us the aim behind the programme, Journalist Hangout.
Journalist Hangout was something that came by happenstance. We had a programme that we called “Election 2015”, which we shortened to “E-15”.
That programme kicked off sometime in 2014, and it was meant to review all the major political events of every given day, right up to the Election Day. That was our plan. So any political development that happened on the given day, we would come and review it and talk about the impact it could have on the election proper. We went on like that, making predictions, helping people to make informed choices as we moved closer and closer to the election.
So, it became the daily menu for many television viewers in the country. Every day, they would sit down to watch the programme. At the time we started the programme, it was a 30 minutes affair. When I told our boss at the time that 30 minutes was not enough for us and he should let us have one hour for the show, he said no. He said that one hour was too much and it would make the show become boring. I told him this programme will not become boring. Then he finally agreed reluctantly for us to have one hour for the programme.
But even one hour on some days will look like ten minutes because the programme became more and more interesting.
Initially, we were making use of the staff of TVC. But ultimately, we began to bring in other people. And I think the decision to let other people take part in the programme was a good one because it deepened and increased the quality of conversations. And invariably, it became the lynchpin of the TVC News Nigeria, which was formed on October 1, 2014. The TV station that you now know as TVC News today was created on October 1, 2014, with me as the head. And Journalist Hangout was one of the programmes that we used to draw the attention of viewers to the new channel.
Once Journalist Hangout was successful, more and more people began to take the station seriously. So by the time the elections were over, we were still producing Journalist Hangout daily and still calling it “E-15”.
Moves were made to rest the programme. Some senior people in the newsroom came and said “Look, this programme has to go. It has served its purpose. It was meant specifically for the 2015 election. We are through with the elections, why should we continue to have the programme? But of course, in the middle of all the arguments about whether the programme should remain or not, having – according to them – fulfilled its mandate, viewers were calling in to say, “Look, yes you called this programme E l-15, Election 2015, but please, do not rest it. You need to continue this programme even after the election.” And some of our directors too at that time did not also want the programme to be rested. So they told us, “Do not rest this programme, let it continue.”
Ultimately, we had a meeting again in our boardroom. And right there I told them, “Look, some of you want this programme to be rested, but many of our directors at TVC do not want it rested. So what are you going to do about this?” They said, “Who are the directors?” I told them, and they had no choice but to let us keep the programme.
At that time, a news bulletin had even been created to replace it. Yes! They didn’t feel there was any need to continue, but that was not how the viewers felt. The viewers felt like “Look, even if we need to change the name, the programme has to continue.
So, one of our bosses then, Mr. Adegboyega, who was the Finance Director suggested the name “Journalist Hangout”. And the moment he told me, being a former newspaper editor, I knew that was the best name we could give the programme. You know, it’s just like someone casting headlines, and you’re looking for an appropriate banner headline for your tabloid and someone suggests a headline. If you are someone who is experienced, you will be able to tell yourself that of all the suggestions, this is the best, because it will strike you and strike the right chord. So I just said, “Well this was the best we could get.” And that was how we changed the name and Journalist Hangout was created.
Now! That particular name, Journalist Hangout, how does it strike you?
You see, the idea of the programme was to make it exclusive to journalists. And the idea was to come in around 5 O’clock every day and debate the most dominant issues of the day. You know, it’s like journalists sitting together the way we used to banter over national issues and all that. So, that was what we designed the programme to look like. Once that name, Journalist Hangout was suggested, since the programme was something like a journalist roundtable, like a roundtable discussion by journalists, I just felt that calling it Journalist Hangout was very appropriate.
You know, we could have called it “Journalist Roundtable”, or something like that. But we just felt that this was the appropriate name for it, and we have refused to open the programme up to non-journalists because if we didn’t leave it in that undiluted form, its identity would be eroded completely. And it will now look like just any other discussion programme on TV. But since we made it exclusive to journalists, it continues to live up to its character as a programme designed by journalists for journalists.
So if you’re not a practicing journalist or a seasoned journalist, you’re not welcome. If you used to be a journalist and then you moved into active politics, you’re not going to sit with us. If you are press secretary of a governor, and then you are a journalist, you can’t sit with us. You must be a practicing journalist to qualify to sit with us on the programme. So, that is something that we stuck to, to give it the identity that it has.
Will you say that is the main reason the programme has remained unbiased? Because it has a reputation for being very fair but daring.
The decision was made at the beginning by our bosses at the time not to interfere. And I bless them for taking that decision to not interfere with our editorial direction and all of that. That, in my view, was the game changer. Not interfering at all. When you refuse to intervene or interfere in our editorial judgment, then we are encouraged to be as professional as we can ever be. We are encouraged to be loyal to the ethics of our profession. We are encouraged to be blunt but fair. Because it is important to be fair even while being blunt. That is what has got us this far. When you hear people talk about Journalist Hangout, the first thing that comes to mind is fairness, fearlessness, and the quality of discussion on the programme.
The hunger to simplify issues and make issues very simple for the ordinary Nigerians to understand is one of the things that signpost the programme.
Sir, has there been any time that your discussion on the programme led you into a clash with the government?
Haha! Of course. Many times. Clash with soldiers, clash with people who support individuals, people who are fiercely loyal to individual politicians, individual generals. You can’t make a habit of speaking the truth without stepping on toes, without being hated, without being challenged.
So, I’ve been challenged so many times by people in government, I’ve been harassed, I’ve been threatened, I’ve been a subject of insult to people I will describe as ‘Cyber Thugs’ hired by politicians, hired or paid by people even in the military.
There was a time when someone who claimed to belong to an NGO wrote a petition against me to our CEO and claimed that the NGO was affiliated to 149 others, and also claimed that I was an enemy of the state, saying that I was fond of projecting the interest of terrorists. But I told my boss at that time that this person was a freelance miscreant working for some of Nigerian generals. I told my boss not to take what they wrote seriously and I said I was sure that it was a fake NGO. So, by the time we tried to investigate, even the address that was cited in the letterhead of the supposed NGO, does not exist.
But in the end, they have only made me stronger, made me even more committed to doing exactly what I’m doing that makes them unhappy. So, if you are good at what you do, if you are speaking the truth, then you must expect to be challenged, you must expect to be resisted, you must expect to be hated. It’s just a normal thing. If you are successful at anything, one of the ways by which you know that you are successful is the number of enemies that you have amassed. If you don’t get challenged by enemies, if you don’t get insulted, then you’re probably not telling the truth or you are not speaking it consistently. But if you make a habit of speaking the truth consistently, then you are not going to have many friends.
I’ve lost friends, I’ve been reported many times, and their goal is to kick me out of my job. Some of them will say “Jide is PDP.” They say all sorts of things, because they cannot explain why someone like me would be so committed to speaking the truth even if it hurts the ruling party. They cannot explain. And they have convinced themselves that I’m anti-APC or I don’t want the APC to win the elections, and all that rubbish. But again, the more they do what they do, the more I’m convinced that I need to speak the truth a lot more.
You know at The News magazine, we were told that we needed to be biased on the side of the truth. Every time that comes to my mind that ‘Look, in everything, let your bias be for the truth.’ I’m just enjoying myself.
Remember when we did a story, when I posted something on Tomatoes? There was nothing they did not say to me. In fact, some of them called me “The Tomato Journalist.” One day on my wall, somebody said “Tomato journalist!” I said “Present Sir!” I noticed that after I said so, he did not come back. It is because I needed him to know that I’m not bothered by this. You are not going to do anything about the progress that I’ve made in my career. You can sit on social media as a hired miscreant abusing people, but it doesn’t change anything. Either I will go on air and expose you for what you are, and show to the world that politicians have now made a habit of hiring cyber thugs to abuse people who speak the truth. And I can tell you that the more you say that, the angrier they become. But a lot of them will have that conclusion in their heart that “This person, no matter how hard we try, we can’t change him.” That’s the way it is.
I think I have gone beyond character reformation as an old man in his fifties, it’s too late to change. It’s just too late. That’s the truth. It’s too late. Not even my father can change me. No one. Once I’m convinced that a course of action is right, I don’t see how anyone can change it. Many people will see it as arrogance but they fail to realize that I take my time, I’m very slow at doing most things. You know, I take my time before deciding on a course of action. I would have slept over it. Once I then decide, it won’t change, no matter the persuasion.
Was there anytime you feared for your life or your family members?
I fear for my family, but I really do not fear for myself. Sometimes, I tell myself that if anything happens to me, these children will suffer. But I think I can safely say that I conquered fear a long time ago. And the places that I go, the things that I do, anybody who gets frightened easily will not attempt the things that I do.
Remember back in The News magazine, I had the opportunity to escape abroad after my story on “The Coup Plotters.” Some of the people who contributed maybe just one or two lines to the story I anchored, they got visas, seven years visas to France and other western countries. But I said I will not go anywhere, I refused. My bosses went abroad to escape possible murder by Abacha’s goons. But I didn’t go anywhere. In fact, I remained in the state of the president, and I continued the work. So it’s not something that started today, to show courage, to do one’s work with courage is not new to me.
I have escaped death a number of times. So many freak accidents that could have cost me my life and I’ve escaped. But it doesn’t then make me fear death and not want to take risks. I enjoy taking risks. That’s my own way of encouraging younger journalists that ‘Look, you can do it.’
I tell people that if there’s a place that people are scared to go, I tell myself I will go there. Just maybe give me some soldiers or policemen and I will go. I’m happy that the friends I have made in the Armed Forces – in spite of the feeling that some people have that I hate the Army and that I hate the Armed Forces – are still happy to give me protection to some of the most dangerous places in our country, and I come back with stories. So for me, there’s no reason to fear, I just enjoy the challenges that this work throws at me. And I enjoy unearthing the truth.
For example when they were giving us the impression that they had done some work at Mambilla. I went there to show the whole world that there is no road leading to Mambilla.
I was on the bike for more than two hours. You know, treacherous terrain, undulating and hilly terrain, and then you descend to a valley, you climb up again. Yes. I fell down three times on the bike. But the cameraman deleted the parts where I fell down. You know, a typical young cameraman from the North, you know they are very respectful. He said “Ah, when my boss fell down, why should I record it?” He said he deleted everything. I said “Wow! That was the story.” You know. But at least people could see where I was being lashed on the face by shrubs on both sides of the narrow pathway leading to the site. I think in July, it will be three years since I made that journalistic breakthrough. And still, nothing has changed. They’ve not done anything there.
Up till now?!
Yes. They’ve not done anything. Nothing. And people have made money out of it. They’ve done geo surveys, allocated so much money, but they didn’t do anything. Up till now, Nigeria has done nothing. And that’s a dam that should give us 3050 megawatts of electricity. The average now is between 3500 to 4000. We don’t do 5000 megawatts on the average. We don’t. So a country that has never wielded 6000 megawatts of power – we have never wielded it – refuses to develop a dam that could give it – just one source that could give it more than 3000 megawatts.
That’s the dilemma that we face in our country, that’s the tragedy that we face in our country.
How did you develop love for reporting the military, as dangerous as it is?
As a kid, I used to read ‘James Defense Weekly’. That book remains the most popular publication of the military globally. I had an uncle who was in the army at that time. He died in 1987 during his time at the Command and Staff College, Jaji. He was on course at the Command and Staff College Jaji. He had an accident and died. He was my mother’s younger brother. So he made us like the military.
You know, you see people running after him, soldiers running after him, giving him salute. When we are late to school, and we are crying, he will take us to school by himself – my younger sister, Iyabo, and I – and whenever they see him – at that time he was even just a Captain, but you will see how soldiers will be saluting him, giving him respect. So I’ve always loved the military. And I like reading about the military, reading about general’s tactics, war tactics, and all that. So that love continued, and I continued to build up my knowledge base about the military.
So, sometime in 2006 when I visited the former Military President, Ibrahim Babangida, we were discussing, and I told him that ‘You belong to the Armoured core, the prestigious Armoured core of the Nigerian Army.’ Back then, I said ‘Tell me the main battle tank that you can call your favorite.’ So he looked at me, then I broke down the question for him, I said ‘Okay, between the Russian T72 Member 2 tank and the American M1A1, which one is your favorite 2 tank?’ He looked at me and said “Haha, how come you know so much about the military? Did you do a column on the military in the newspaper?” I said ‘No.’
“Haha. Have you written a book on the army?” I said ‘No.’ He said, “You must start a column, and you must write a book. The way I see you, you know so much.” And then we began to talk. He now explained his preference. You know, as a retired Armoured officer, and we got talking. I have not met that challenge that he gave me. But seeing a former Nigerian President and a retired General telling me that I know so much about the military, I then decided to even go and study more. So any piece of information I see about the military, I’ll read. And that way, I got better.
And when this Boko Haram war began, I started to read anything about the Boko Haram insurgency, speak with generals, I was also learning from them. So, it reached a point that I could say I don’t need any soldier to tell me that this is what transpired at the warfront because most of the time, they don’t tell the truth. So I’ve had to rely on my residual knowledge of the military as well as information from my own sources within the military, sources that I’ve found extremely reliable.
I have developed so much love for the activities. A lot of the generals are people that I am close to. So I also show interest in their welfare, and sometimes I tell them, ‘Look, I want to get on that aircraft. Can you take me in on a mission?’ I did that with the Air Force and I went with them on a mission in 2018.
That was a first by any Nigerian journalist. To travel with the Air Force in their ground attack helicopter to go on a mission against Boko Haram, so I could see the way it is done.
I not only did that, I also went with another aircraft, a recognizance aircraft. I said, ‘I want to see how you people spy on the enemy. Take me with you.’ I’ve been a friend of the Chief of Air Staff, Musadeen Baba Abubakar. He ordered his people to take me on their recognizance mission. I traveled with them, I showed all of these things on TV. I saw Sambisa, we moved around Sambisa to see Sambisa from the air. I could see the enemy operating on land from the air. So it has broadened my knowledge.
One day, our boss here went to see the Chief of Air Staff and he said, “You know what I like about Babajide, your staff? He will not only seek knowledge, he would tell us that we should take him along when we’re going on operation.” So when he said that, my bosses were shocked.
The day Bola Shagaya had her birthday, Asiwaju Tinunbu was coming into the hall. So I went, I wanted to greet him. As he shook my hand, he said “They say that you now move around with choppers.” So I knew that he had seen that story on TV where the Air Force Chief said that, “Jide goes with us on missions, he’s not afraid to go with us.” And that is the sort of journalist that he wants. So Asiwaju watched the news, that was what he was referring to.
It’s so much fun for me to go to those places. Sometimes, to bring the pain that people are going through into the knowledge of the generality of our people is also what drives me and encourages me.
If the government had been more proactive – you know, sometime ago, I went to Kastina to speak with bandits. That was around July, 2019. The place where I interrogated the bandits was where they killed eighteen soldiers and a Captain last year. I went, talked about their problems, but nobody listened. Nobody listened. Those guys are now very brutal, they are very deadly.
What was the most challenging period for Journalist Hangout as a programme?
Most challenging? I don’t think I can readily say that a particular period was the most challenging. Maybe when we first started the programme and we were trying to identify the right kind of people to be on the show. Initially, just anybody was coming on the show and initially, we had too many anchors. We must have tried up to five different people before we now had a ready book of anchors and then we settled for regular people who appear on the programme. It took a while. Sometimes we bring some people, they just want to use the programme. Some will come and say some political things that at the end of the programme we’ll feel embarrassed.
So maybe at the beginning, but we’re now more stabilized and the 2019 elections have made us stronger and more popular because they saw predictions being made, and those predictions came to pass. So people can’t believe that such a level of accuracy could happen. So the challenges were around like 2014 when we just started.
Yes. When you mentioned that you used to go on missions with the military, there are claims that there are saboteurs in the military. I want to ask if they did not see you as a threat. Some of them in quotes?
No. If they are afraid of saboteurs, they would most likely be afraid of their own colleagues who are giving information about troop’s movements to the enemies. And the army has arrested people in the past, arrested some of their colleagues in the past for that. Someone like me, they know what I stand for. I report the truth, and I can never work for the enemy but I will sometimes tell the truth about the enemy that you don’t want to hear. For example, if the enemy overruns a military base, sometimes I will announce it, and they don’t like that. They want to give people the impression that all is well. Some of them don’t like it. But I think overall, they see me as a friend of the military.
And the support that I got the last time I went to Maiduguri shows that at least they are happy with me allowing me access to their weapons, that kind of access has never been given to any journalist. So it must be that they trust me to a large extent, and that they believe whatever I’m doing is for the good of everyone.
So they do not see me as a saboteur or as a threat. It’s just some unsolicited supporters or some paid individuals on social media who will be calling us names for saying the truth. But there are generals, there are bosses. When they appoint them, I call them. When they appointed the Chief of the Defence Staff, I called him and he picked at once and I congratulated him. I don’t have issues with any one of them. I just do my job and they know that I can’t be bought. I’m too big to be bought. If today, I say something positive about you, it doesn’t mean that the next day if I see any need to criticize you I won’t criticize you. I don’t want you to take that power away from me.
That’s why we try our best to not get too close to some politicians, to people, because politicians, once they are close to you, or because they give you money, you must not say certain things. So as not to be under their control, we try to give them space. It’s difficult for a truth-speaking journalist to operate freely in our country. They face all kinds of challenges. All because they don’t want you to tell the truth. They don’t want it.
Sir, I know that there’s no perfect human being. So for the benefit of hindsight, how did you manage some honest mistakes that you made in the course of your experience as a journalist? And what would be your advice to generally for young journalists to be steadfast and to focus on the job irrespective of the challenges on the way?
We make mistakes, I make mistakes a lot. But once I discover that I’ve made a mistake, I quickly correct myself.
So when you make mistake, as a journalist, you must be quick to admit it and correct yourself.
People say that I don’t let others talk on the programme, so these days I give people – even when you’re wrong, I try my best not to intervene. But if that guest continues along that path, then I will be forced to come in and say, ‘This is not true.’
People have told me that they don’t like that. They say, “You have your own time, let someone else talk.” I try my best not to get involved when others are talking, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy because I also don’t want the viewers to be misled. I hate it when you are misleading the viewers. So I will sometimes want to come in.
Sometimes the approach can be wrong. Sometimes I over-do things in trying to win an argument. I know that is a character flaw. I try my best to not do that all the time. But if you are committed to learning like me, and if you invest your time in reading as much as I do, it can be painful when you’re watching someone saying the wrong things. It can be painful, but people will not understand. But it’s something that makes me very angry.
I remember during one of our programmes, a guest said the National Assembly consumes more than 25% of Nigeria’s budget. And I told him, ‘That is not true.’ He said “What do you mean ‘that’s not true’?
He started arguing with me. He was raising his voice. I said ‘You are wrong.’ He said “Tell me! Tell me how I’m wrong! Tell me how I’m wrong!”
I didn’t want to embarrass him because I could have shown him and showed the world that he is not a journalist who is current. There and then, I said, ‘This is our guest, we should not embarrass him.’
So I said, ‘I won’t talk.’
The anchor said, “Say something.”
I looked at the anchor and rolled my eyes at her. So she went on a break. It was during the break I broke it down for the guest and said, ‘What is the budget of the Senate this year? What is the budget of the House of Representatives? The House of Representatives’ budget is N125 billion. The Senate N150 billion. The budget of our country is N6.5 trillion. Is that up to a quarter? It’s not even up to N500 billion.’
When he heard, he said, “Ah! You are right. You are right.”
I said, ‘I could have embarrassed you when you were arguing. But I didn’t want to do it.’
So, everyone has their own character flaws. People tell me sometimes that, “Look, there are some arguments that you need to let go of. No matter how you try, those who have made up their minds not to believe you will never believe you.”
Then I get very emotional when it comes to issues around the progress of our country. I know that it comes from the bottom of my heart that we need to improve. We need to make Nigeria better. But at the same time, maybe on the programme I need to moderate my anger. Because at the end of the day, no matter what you do, those who will not change will not change.
I want our younger colleagues to be more dedicated, to be creative, they should try to add fresh lines to every story that they come upon. They should not simply copy and paste. If somebody says, “Why?”, you should be able to say, “Why not?”
Journalists should ask questions, but journalists don’t ask questions these days and a lot of syndication of stories. I hate to say it but it’s just too much.
Look at the story that APC had zoned the Presidency to the South. Now there was nothing like that, yet everybody carried it. Absolute falsehood, yet everybody carried it.
There was no time that they said that. They said party positions held by the North will now go to the South. They were not talking about the President’s seat. The President’s seat is not a party elective position. And they just misled people.
So journalists should be more hardworking, more creative, and be more ethically strong. I know that we live in difficult times but we don’t have a choice, we have to be more ethically strong. That’s the only way we would be respected.
With your deep knowledge of the military do you see us winning the war against this insurgency, terrorism and other criminal activities?
We are winning the war against insurgency in the North East already. These days, you hardly see reports of Boko Haram overrunning a military base. And I’m saying the truth as someone who is a critic of the military, who has always gone for such reports. It’s not happening like before again. And more and more of them are even surrendering. You could argue that a lot of the people surrendering are not active soldiers or active fighters but it’s happening.
Where we have issues now is the North-West, and parts of North Central. Banditry is a bigger problem now than the Boko Haram insurgency. That one, I don’t know how we will go about winning. But in terms of Boko Haram insurgency, we have made progress and they have brought in some weapons that will help us finish them. I don’t know when exactly we will finish them, but we’re making progress. Even the Governor confessed to me that, “Look, this year, our farmers recorded higher yields. Yes. Because a lot of them could now go to the farm. It was not like that before so we are making progress over there. But now, banditary is a lot worse than Boko Haram insurgency. And with the banditry, there’s no sign of progress, there’s no sign that we can even win that one. There’s no sign. We are more worried about that one than any other thing.