Journalism, without any modicum of doubt, has been extraordinarily nice to Mr. Azubuike Ishiekwene. Educated at Christ The King Primary School, Ajegunle; Gaskiya College, Ijora; Jubril Martins Memorial Grammar School, Iponri and then the University of Lagos where he bagged his BSc in Mass Communication and Master’s in Public Administration & International Affairs, Azu, like he’s more popularly addressed and unknown to many, is the only child of his parents – Robert and Jenny Ishiekwene.
A native of Utagba-Ogbe, in Ndokwa West LGA of Delta State, he was born on February 19, 1965, in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. Incidentally, he got posted there again in 1989 for his NYSC programme. Serving as an English teacher in a community school in Ahoada, he joined The Punch soon afterwards, as a staff writer, and prior to leaving, after over 20 years, had served as the Weekend Editor, Features Editor, Member, Editorial Board, Editor of Saturday Punch, Editor, Punch and ultimately, Executive Director, Publications. Berthing at Leadership as the Group Managing Director, he left after some time to set up shop on his own. And the result is The Interview Magazine, which he told us is in a world and class of its own.
Occupying a front row position as far as the journalism profession is concerned in Nigeria today, the father of three (Ashioma, Emeka and Nkechi) who is happily married to Rume shared some of his success secrets with YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, on Saturday, May 4, 2019, during the Nigerian Guild of Editors conference, at the Lagos Airport Hotel, in Ikeja.
Holding back nothing, the fecund and fearless columnist and author of The Trials of Nuhu Ribadu chronicled how it all started, while still in secondary school; his unforgettable days in The Punch and controversial exit; the ‘whistle-stop’ at Leadership and now The Interview. Excerpts…
First, what is your own personal definition of news?
That’s interesting! Back in the day as a student of Mass Communication, in University of Lagos, one definition I will never forget, which Dr. Olatunji Dare told us back then, is that news is what the editor says it is. Well, it may sound rather commonsensical, but that is what it is. Because news is essentially something that is new; something that is exciting, something that is revealing, something that creates impact. There are different dimensions of definitions of what news is. But if it is new, then it has to contain information, it has to make impact, it has to be novel.
What makes a good journalist?
Well, the world is changing today, but I guess some of the basics, like values, qualities of what makes a good journalist tend to remain as far as I’m concerned – curiousity and a few things like that. To be a good journalist, you have to be curious, you also have to have a strong sense for the pursuit of truth; not the truth, but truth. You have to have a sense of fairness and balance. Journalists also have this burden of feeling that they can change the world. So, there is that drive or that passion to be able to change the world, to make things better than you met them or better than you found them. So, those are essential qualities, and a key sense of justice, a key sense of fairness, a curious person who keeps asking questions, never being satisfied or never taking no for an answer. But in our modern world today, you also need additional qualities, like also being able to provide context and meaning, because in today’s world, the journalist is expected to do more than just provide the 5Ws and the H, so to speak. You also as a journalist has to be able to provide context, provide meaning; I think that these are some of the qualities that come to my mind now.
What do you like most about being a journalist?
There are so many things I don’t like, but I know a few that I like. And I guess a few of the things that I like is this sense of being perpetually hungry for information, finding things out and being curious. That is something I like about the profession. Some say it is cynicism, that if you have become a journalist for a long time, then you will learn cynicism, but I don’t know whether it’s still cynicism, or that deep sense of pandering after truth that drives it. But what I like about this profession is the opportunity that it gives you by training and by preparing yourself to thirst, if you like, after truth and to pursue justice as well.
What don’t you like about being a journalist?
It’s bloody stressful! And I’d go back to my journalism teacher, Dr. Olatunji Dare. He says journalism is a thankless job. So, ultimately, you are not really in it for money, but if fame and fortune come, then good. But you are really in it for service. But to come to your question, what is it that I find; you said don’t like. Right? It’s Quite challenging. It’s the amount of stress that you are exposed to, especially in the 24/7 news-serving world that we have come to live in, and also potentially, your sense of mortality always stares you in the face because there are times that you get it wrong and you get it so blatantly wrong that you are scared. That risk is always there. Because you are infallible, people are not immortal. We want to get it correct as best and as often as we can, but there are times that we get it wrong.
What is the commonest mistake that most journalists make?
I don’t know whether to call it most. I don’t want to speak for most journalists, because people have individual experiences. But I’ve made a few mistakes myself in my career and I think that that mistake is true. I think it’s the error of presumption. Journalists like to think that they know everything. And I’ve been guilty of that error many times in my career. But I think if you are humble enough, patient enough and persistent enough to dig for the truth, you will find sometimes that what you think you know is just maybe one side of the story or just one dimension of the story. Chimamanda talks about the singular narrative. Often, I think that we fall into the trap of the singular narrative. Well, sometimes not deliberately, not maliciously, but just out of a sense of passion, that oh, especially when you are dealing with an underdog; somebody that has been wronged. You say no, no, no…we feel that we have that burden to write, but by the time you dig deep, you look into it a bit more, you’ll find that they are shades of green, they are beyond black and white.
What is the greatest thing that journalism has done for you?
Learning! It’s given me the opportunity first to learn and to meet people. To meet a lot of people whom I otherwise wouldn’t have met, because you see, one of the most valuable assets in life, is the quality of the relationships that you have built over time. And I value my relationships very dearly. I have been fortunate to meet very good people and to build good relationships. And I think that that’s probably one of the greatest gifts.
What has journalism not done for you?
You know you can’t have it all! You also have to be careful what you ask for or what you wish for. I think on the whole, I don’t look back with too much regrets, in terms of what it has done. I think I’m learning and there’s still a whole lot more to learn. I am contented, 54, a grand father. The last of my three children is doing her Master’s. I thank God and I also thank those that I have worked with, the relationships that I have built, my family and all of those. There’s really not much I can look back to and say that…
To write well as a journalist, what must one do?
It’s to write! To write well is to write. Again, you know I have many inspirers, I’ve got many role models, but I keep going back to Dr. Olatunji Dare, because amongst my lecturers, and I give credit to all of them, those who have helped me along the way; there are so many people who have helped me along the way. But he has such profound effect on my career, because he taught me journalism in terms of reporting, news writing and all of those things. I learnt most of those things from him. To answer the question about how to write well and I remember one of the first things Dr. Olatunji Dare said – because then we will read his articles in The Guardian and marvel; how can a human being write like this? Yeah, we saw people like Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese…I remember the day I shook Ray Ekpu’s hands; I’m sorry I’m digressing. And I’ve told him this before – at the lying-in-state of Dele Giwa. I was in the university then, I put my hand in my pocket, I didn’t remove it…But then when we came back to class and back to school, the question was how can you write like this? How can you write like Dan Agbese? How can you write like Dele Giwa? How can you write like Yakubu Mohammed? How can you write like Dr. Olatunji Dare? And he said to me the only way to do it is to write one word and write another and another and another. I think what that boils down to is just applying yourself. Writing is not the easiest of skills, but the more you write, the more you know how to write. There are some habits that can also help improve the quality of your writing, and that will include being a voracious reader; you have to read as broadly and widely as possible. I’ve read everything, including The Grail. I don’t discriminate with what I read, because to be sure of your position, you have to test and you test it by reading. Iron, they say, sharpeneth iron. So, you have to be a voracious reader, you have to be an inquisitive and a curious person as I have said and then you also have to set time when you write. Because it is what you do and you do repeatedly that you master. I mean, I have my writing periods. There are times I must sit down and I shut everything and I write. Twice a week, three times a week. Till date! I saw Martins Oloja, just by the way, in the hall and immediately he brought out a notebook, it occurred to me that he writes on Sunday, so I went to him, I said I know you are writing your column (laughter). I’ve been there. I know what it means when you have a deadline to meet. Long story short, writing, good quality writing, takes a lot of work. You have to do it over and over again.
But why do journalists wait till the last minute to meet deadlines?
Because they know that then it’s a do or die! But there’s also something that the deadline mentality does for you – it cures you from the ailment of procrastination. It is now the time when you can no longer put it aside. Yes, you had put it aside yesterday, but now you can no longer put it aside. There are some people who are actually very good when they are doing it right on the wire, there are others who take their time. But you see, the first thing in life with whatever you are doing is you have to know yourself. There are some people, until it’s that deadline, they can’t start writing. And don’t try to compete with them, because you may not be able to do it at the quality or the pace they do it. So, you know yourself. Some people pace themselves, and when they have a deadline that’s going to be for Sunday, they do a first draft 3 or 4 days before, then look at the draft again; so you have to know yourself.
You just said something about columns and good columnists. What makes a good column, what makes a good columnist?
I…I…don’t know! You have to ask good columnists…
But you are one of them. Your name gets mentioned always…
(Laughs) – Thank you! It’s to write, like I said earlier. And also to know your subject.
For some people, when they want to enjoy beautiful writings or beautiful write-ups, they go to what you have written. When you want to do same, who and who do you read?
Oh, I read Sonala (Olumese); oh my goodness! He’s just something else. And, of course, I told you about Dr. Olatunji Dare. I still enjoy Dan Agbese, Ray Ekpu, yes, I still enjoy him. So, I read the grandmasters, as we have come to call them. Yes, those are the ones.
Now, of all the professions in the world, why and how did journalism fascinate you the most? How exactly did you become entangled with the profession?
Oh, it dates back to Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese, Ray Ekpu. I tell you – back in the day in the secondary school, I was the president of the press club. First, I joined the literary and debating society when I was in form 2, which was what we used to call it and then later I moved to the press club where I was the president, down to Newswatch magazine. Each time I took copies of Newswatch magazine, you will not believe that, I wanted to be like Dele Giwa, Ely Obasi (Quality magazine)… I used to love them and I wanted to be like them. And being a member of the press club, there was once it landed me in trouble at Jubril Martins Memorial Grammar School, where I went to do my HSC. I was coming from the secondary school with achievements, so to speak, of being president of the press club and so when I finished and I went to do my HSC at Jubril Martins Memorial Grammar School, in Iponri, Lagos, the principal there was very conservative. She didn’t want any press, no press club. I could not imagine that I was going to exist in an environment where there was none. So, I tried to initiate the press club and of course I was a prefect; she shut it down, she said no; no press activity here. When you go to university, you can go and do that. So, I started underground press. I would write stuff and paste. And I thought I was doing underground stuff, but I didn’t know that people were watching me. Mrs. Ligali then, that was her name, right there in the assembly, there was a day she called me out, that she had found that in spite of her instruction, I was still doing the press club, that she was going to expel me. Yeah, that was really tough! But I didn’t stop. So, it was clear to me that I wanted to be a journalist. If I wanted to study Law at that time, I was qualified to study Law. And that was how it started…
Can you recollect the first story ever that you wrote?
Em… even in the university, I was writing OPED articles for The Guardian and getting paid through Dr. Olatunji Dare. So, I wrote a number of articles. Some of the Mass Comm theories that I learnt; you know, just out of excitement, I would write on. So, I would write articles and Dr. Dare will help me. I can’t remember the titles. But those OPED articles were getting published in The Guardian. But as a journalist, as a student journalist, the first article I got published was about an expatriate for Volkswagen at that time who got drowned at the beach. I had a friend who was working in Volkswagen that time and I was doing my internship in The Punch. My friend knew I was doing my internship and the expatriate got drowned and I got the story as a student and then it was published in the Evening Punch. I almost went mad, literally! I’ve been having OPED articles published in The Guardian, but never a story. I was, of course, in the university, the president of our magazine, Veritas. Veritas magazine, a student publication. I was also the editor of UNILAG Sun. But that was the first real story published that I wrote.
Of all the stories you have written, which one is the most memorable and why?
I will tell you the least memorable – it was about Zik’s death. I was one of those who contributed to the story of his death; (laughing). I didn’t author it, but I contributed. It was a hoax. It turned out to be a hoax. And what it taught me after that is to be very careful. Not a good example. But well, because of the effect it had on my career, afterwards. I determined never to make such mistake again and as long as it is humanly possible.
What fond memories of your days in The Punch can you recollect?
I was there for about 24 years, but you see, I joined The Punch at the time when it wasn’t doing well. People thought I was crazy because I joined The Punch at the point when it wasn’t paying salaries and I had an option to have worked in The Guardian, if I wanted, because I had started contributing articles to them. But to come to your point about memories, even though salaries were not being paid then, the sense of community and friendship was amazing and I’ve seen here some of the people who helped me back then – Alhaji Nojeem Jimoh, who actually hired me. So, that sense of community is one of the things that sticks with me throughout.
Do you have any regret about the way you eventually existed The Punch?
No! I don’t, because my exit from The Punch…Interestingly, The chairman of Punch (Chief Ajibola Ogunshola), it was on the front page. The chairman of The Punch also responded, he was quoted in the article and it’s public document. The matter was one that was looked into by the Board, because I was a director of The Punch at that time and nothing was found against me personally. If I had done any wrong at The Punch, I will not resign and then have it on page 1 of the paper that I was leaving the paper. But that’s that.
You moved from The Punch to Leadership. What fond memories of your days there do you still cherish?
Leadership, for me, was the first huge experience outside of Lagos. Remember I had spent about 24 years in Lagos, practicing. First, I went to secondary school, HSC, university…The first time I left Lagos to Port Harcourt, Rivers State, where I was born; I’m not from Rivers State, but I was born there, was when I went to do my youth service. So, the first real experience for me in terms of work outside Lagos was Abuja. Before I joined Leadership, Abuja for me was a no, no. But then, I also found out later in life that it’s helped tremendously to expand my world view and for me to expand my contacts as well. So, one of the valuable lessons I took away with me from Leadership was the opportunity to meet people, get a closer sense of other parts of the country and other perspectives and also deepen my relationship, both in the profession and business as well.
You moved from Leadership to The Interview. Can you tell us a little about The Interview and what separates it from others?
Yeah, at the time I was leaving Leadership, in 2015, I had given close to about 27 years and I thought come on, I had to do something for myself. I delivered my entrepreneurial drive rather late. But it’s better late than never. What stands The Interview out is: it is the only publication that I know of in this country that has all your questions answered, and we pride ourselves on that. We have all questions answered and we ask questions that people will ordinarily not ask. And we make the interview come alive. Reading our Q and A format is not just like reading any other Q and A format anywhere else. We actually make Q and A come alive and that is an essential USP that no other publication has at this time.
In the course of publishing an interview-based magazine, you must have interviewed a lot of people. But who would you really like to interview but hasn’t been able to?
Oh, Winnie Mandela!
Why Winnie Mandela?
Well, because she’s such a rich repository of African history and tradition and a leader in her own right. But you know she’s been misunderstood, misrepresented, mischaracterized; and we ought to have been able to have a conversation with her. Unfortunately, somebody fixed it, but at the last minute, it didn’t hold.
Of all the interviews you’ve done in The Interview magazine, which one stands out and why?
I think one of the most exciting has been the interview with President Muhammadu Buhari and I say that not because of the position that he has, but because of how the interview was managed. We took him on a matter that had been buried for many years – you know the cat and dog relationship that he had in 1983/84, how he was eventually removed in 85 and all of that and the relationship between him and former Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida. There was this back and forth over what really happened, and we confronted him with the question and his response was really, really explosive. In fact, I got to find out later that some people in Aso Rock felt that the answer he gave, why they did they allow us to go, why didn’t they restrain us, why didn’t they vet that part of the interview, because he told us things that up till that time not many people knew. So, I think it’s probably one of his most controversial interviews.
There’s no arguing the fact that journalism has been so nice to you, what more do you want from journalism?
I think I owe the profession a lot more than I can ever demand of it. I think God has been kind and gracious to me and the profession has given to me all that’s possible also. All that is left for me; the question and the question I try to ask myself everyday is how much more can I repay, how much more am I giving back? That really is the question. It’s not about grabbing and hoarding. It’s now about letting go and giving.
When you are not writing and when you are not reading, what are the other things that keep you busy?
Well, I watch football…
Which of the clubs are you supporting?
I’m a Blues fan! I’m sorry, I do not mean to disrespect the other leagues or other clubs, but that’s what it is. So, when I’m not reading or writing, yes, I’m watching the premier league. In fact, now that the premier league is about to end, I’ve been asking myself: so, how am I going to be spending my weekends? But that’s what I do basically.