My first task today will be to congratulate Kiki Mordi for co-winning the inaugural People Journalism Prize for Africa with me. It is easy to dismiss the traction and action generated by your story — and a few people have tried to — as events that happened ‘just because it was the BBC’. In my corner, I have spoken against this argument. First, it was a thoroughly-executed story. And then you had the courage to tell it, notwithstanding the risks. Plus, of the hundreds of journalists at BBC’s disposal, you were the choice. That’s no coincidence. It’s reward for your years of silent toil. Again, I say congratulations.
Similarly, I’d like to congratulate Segun Awosanya for his People Champion of 2019 award. In my estimation, Segalink, as he is more popularly known, is Nigeria’s number-one unelected public office holder. If you’ve been a bit active on Twitter, you would have noticed how helpless citizens run to him for protection when they should in fact be ringing the Police. Sega is the ultimate proof that willing citizens can indeed be useful to the people without necessarily wielding political power. To share this day with Kiki and Sega is truly a great honour for me.
I want to deeply thank Gatefield for conceiving this idea, and I have to say I’m a very fulfilled recipient of this award. But I’ve always thought one of the unfair things about life is that one man sometimes gets the glory for work done by many. This award belongs, first of all, to those who worked with me in the background on my undercover investigation on Nigeria’s criminal justice system, the likes of the rugged Damilola Adeyera, the petite but energetic Zainab Sodiq, the unbelievably fearless Sena Kojah and a few others who have specifically asked to remain anonymous.
I also like to thank two of my former bosses, Mr. Simon Kolawole, CEO of TheCable, and Mr. Dayo Aiyetan, the Executive Director of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), whose newspapers co-funded the story, and who have both been integral to the evolution of my career in recent years. I am as well indebted to Professor Chidi Odinkalu, former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, who kick-started the #KeepFisayoSafe without which I probably would have lost my freedom after the release of the story.
I am grateful to those who housed me interchangeably when I went into hiding in October following the threat of arrest, and those who’ve done it afterwards, as I live more or less like a fugitive these days. To have housed a wanted man is the height of friendship and belief in what I do. I cannot mention your names but you all know yourselves. Thank you!
I’m also grateful to all those who have supported my work for ages — the likes of Dr. Laz Ude Eze, the man who convinced me to join the campus press in my first year studying Agriculture at the University of Ibadan; Mr. Jahman Anikulapo, my first mainstream newspaper editor who has now become my mentor; Mr. Omoyele Sowore, Publisher of SaharaReporters and my immediate past boss and, of course, my family. Specifically, I thank my father, my hero, the biggest exponent of the values and ideals that define my work, and my mother, whose fearlessness resides in my spirit. On October 22, 2019, my mum sent me a Whatsapp message asking God to bless me with “good health and long life”. What she didn’t know was that she sent that message hours after I found out about the meeting where my arrest was first mooted. That’s the kind of mother I have, a prayerful woman.
I dedicate this award to the memory of my late longtime friend, Blessing Johnson, whose call to glory will clock 18 months in another 12 days. In her lifetime, Blessing was one of my biggest private cheerleaders. From our days in the university, she fondly called me ‘the greatest orator on earth’. While I never for a second thought I truly was, it filled me with a lot of belief to know that someone dear to my heart, someone I rated so highly, saw me in that light. When she passed on September 3, 2018, I made a little promise to myself that my next journalism award would be for her. I want to thank Gatefield for helping me realise this.
Finally, while I accept this award with a deep sense of gratitude, I like to announce that I am donating the N500,000 cash reward to The Justice Project (TJP), a cause for the release of awaiting-trial inmates who have no business in prison. And, trust me, there are scores of them. My three-part investigation may have focused on the deep-seated corruption tarnishing the administration of criminal justice in Nigeria, but that isn’t the only frailty of the system. One other is the huge population of awaiting-trial inmates, many of them actually in prison for trivial offences and others not even deserving of detention much less imprisonment in the first place. At Ikoyi Prison, for example, more than 3,000 inmates inhabit a prison built for 800. Of these 3,000, less than 500 are convicts; the number of awaiting-trial inmates usually hovers around 2,500. While I am not in a position to help the prisons service clean up its corrupt house, by donating this money, I can at least help to kick-start a process I’m hoping can snowball into prison decongestion through the freedom of scores of awaiting-trial inmates. The funds, to be managed by TJP, will be used to pay stipends to lawyers who will visit prisons to track the cases, ensure more inmates have their days in court, represent the inmates, settle fines where necessary and provide support to the inmates. Aside focusing on the possibility of innocence and frivolity of cases against inmates, women with babies and inmates with young families back home will receive special consideration.
Today’s announcement is only the first of two; the second will be revealed in the next few days. Full disclosure, meanwhile: TJP is by Touch The World Foundation, a social initiative of Lagos-based church, Ecclesia Hills. But I haven’t picked them because they belong to a church; it is because the point man for the project is Abimbola Ojenike, whom I have known for 16 years as a man of integrity and a hardworking but silent force for social change. I am a million percent sure that with Ojenike at the forefront of this endeavour, no penny of the funds will be mismanaged.
Once again, I thank Gatefield for making this possible, and you all for listening.
God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria!