Mrs. Ibim Semenitari is an investigative journalist with multiple awards to show for it.
The first Nigerian female journalist to win the highly coveted CNN African Journalist of the Year award, she’s also won two Nigerian Media Merit Awards (NMMA) and three Diamond Awards for Media Excellence (DAME). Among others.
Married to Henry Semenitari, a former managing director of Unity Bank and blessed with four children, she attended St. Cyprian’s Primary School and Federal Government Girls College, both in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, before proceeding to the University of Benin where she read English and Literature, graduating in 1989.
A proud Rotarian and daughter of Sir Gabriel Toby, former deputy governor of Rivers State, prior to joining the political train where she first served as commissioner for Information and later, Acting managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, her journalism expedition had taken her to media outfits like Daily Times, Newswatch, Tell, Business Eye and so on.
She shared her story with the publisher/editor-in-chief of YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine, AZUH ARINZE, on Thursday, September 14, 2023. Enjoy…
To excel in one’s field as a woman, what must one do?
I think the first thing is for you to be sure of what you want to do. I always say that passion is a driver, but clarity is even more important. So, you have to be very clear and intentional about what you want to do and then where you want to go. This is irrespective of whether you are a male or female. The same things hold through regardless of your disposition. Where do you want to go, how do you want to get there? It must be clear. But if you are not sure in your mind where you want to go, then you will have a problem figuring out how to get there. It’s really as simple as that. When you are sure where you want to go, then you figure out how to get there. And passion becomes a driver that takes you where you want to go. But if you are not sure, then you have a problem. So, clarity is important.
Interesting! Despite having a privileged background, you have also done very well on your own. What were some of the things you did that propelled you to where you are at the moment?
The two parents who raised me are very hardworking people, and I come from a tradition of hardworking people. I come from a tradition of strong women. My great grandmother, on my mother’s side, was the first Opobo woman to build a block house and she sat with kings. Where the chiefs sat, she was invited and I recall that she was one of those in the Aba Women’s Riot and she played politics in those days. In the Zikist Movement, she was a strong member of the Zikist Movement. My great aunt was the women’s leader of Zikist Movement as far back as then. My great grandmother was a landlady and had houses. In those days, they called it Igwenga, in the present day Ikot Abasi, and during the Aba Women’s Riot, she was one of those who went to fight the matter of taxes. My great aunt, when the soldiers came to Opobo to arrest them, swam from Opobo to Utaiwa to hide while they were shooting. So, I come from a tradition of strong women and hardworking people. My grandmother, on my mother’s side, will drive bicycle for miles and she was a pastor’s wife. My grandmother, on my father’s side, even though she was a housewife, was also tailoring; a seamstress. She was actually an Ngwa woman and you know Ngwa women are hardworking. My grandmother, after whom I was named, from my father’s side, from Amampu Owerrinta, was a very hardworking woman and even though her husband was a palm wine trader, had tons of money. She would keep her machine and be sewing for people. So, I come from a tradition of hard work and I mustn’t do anything less.
You are one of the most accomplished female journalists that I know, how did it all begin and how were you able to get to where you are now in the profession?
I always say that anybody who truly is in journalism is there because they have a death wish or they have a messianic mentality. It just has to be, because in the days we did it, it wasn’t the most paying job in the world and I don’t think it still is. But it is something you do because you truly have a heart to make a difference. And for me, journalism remains literally in my blood line. I dream it, I eat it, I breathe it. Communication is everything to me. I recall when I was in secondary school; I told my father when I was thinking of the things to do in my life… Let me even give you my career choices so you will see that all of them were linked. I initially wanted to be an archaeologist so that I would go and dig and find out what’s happened. I wanted to do criminology so that I could investigate. I have always been fascinated by investigation and finding out things and occurrences and later I said, okay, I’ll be a lawyer. The whole point was just for me to make sure I could find out things that were going on and support and make a difference in the lives of people. So, for me, journalism is more than just a job. It is literally like a ministry. And it is something I love very passionately. You know, when you love something, the truth is that you will follow it with all your heart, you will do it without thinking. Communication is something I eat. Like my mother would say, that’s your meat literally, and I still believe that journalism is one tool or one career or one profession that can actually change things. I’ve done stories that have made a difference in this country and I’ve been proud to do them. Regardless of what they say about the media and about journalists, we do make a difference. There’s democracy today because some of us literally laid our lives down. We were hiding, we were in every kind of place to ensure that we had a democratic government and it doesn’t really matter what people say, the reality is, if you were there when the military wanted to stay, when some of us had to run and hide in garages and do editorial meetings in filling stations, then you would know that it is not fun to say let the military return. I literally had to escape and run from place to place. But that’s a story for maybe some other time. But the reality is that when people talk about what they really don’t know, because they never experienced it, because they were in their comfort zones when some of us had to ensure that there was a difference in Nigeria’s government, I marvel. Today they can say things, today they can wish things. But I tell people that as young as a 15-year-old, we had pounded the streets and insisted and demanded for better governance. When I got invited to be commissioner, I recall what my bosses, Dan Agbese and Nosa Igiebor said to me at different times, because I went to see them. They are my fathers, my bosses, my friends in the profession. I said, “I have this offer, what should I do?” I recall that Nosa said, “Well, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. You’ve served on this side, you’ve written stories, now go and show them that it is possible to make a difference”. I went to Dan and Dan said to me, “State your conditions, make it clear and if it’s not working, return, but make sure you go and prove that, yes, anything we say is possible.” So, for me, really, journalism is literally my life. I don’t know, but I can’t think of anything I love more than journalism.
Anyone who wants to excel in journalism, what must the person do?
You know, sometimes people say why do you always say passion. As an editor, if I was interviewing you, I looked at competence. The first thing I try to really see was whether there was that fire in your eyes, whether there was that desire to tell a story, whether you were anxious to go out there and make a difference and if I didn’t see it, it didn’t matter how eloquent you were, it didn’t matter how well you wrote, it was clear to me that you weren’t a newshound, because a newshound smells blood. You smell news like you are smelling blood and you would see the passion, you would see the fire when the person just sits in front of you and you ask the first question. You can tell that this person is headed to the top. So, really, the first thing you need in journalism is that passion, that desire to be able to make a difference. Any journalist who is not desirous to make a difference will be in the career, but those are the people that truly make a mess of our profession; those are the people that will sell us out for a mess of pottage. But the journalists who want to make a difference, when they sit in front of you, you’ll know.
Can you remember the first story ever that you wrote?
Professionally, my first story was in 1989. I can’t remember what it was, you know. But I was in the Daily Times then, because I started in the Daily Times – Poise magazine. It was actually a women’s magazine. I was serving in the Daily Times then. I remember when I came and said to Onyema Ugochukwu that I wanted to work at the Daily Times or to serve, he said to me, “Hmmmm! “You want to serve?” I said yes! He said okay. Then, the editorial board was made up of Sonala Olumhense, Femi Ajayi, Lizzy Ikem, Chidi Amuta and so on. So, they sat around and before I knew it, I was being interviewed. Sonala said, “What do you think you will bring to the table for a new women’s magazine?” I started talking and when I finished, Sonala said I think you have the job. And that’s how I started my job in the Poise magazine in the Daily Times, but I can’t remember the first story that I wrote.
Can you remember the first interview you conducted?
The first interview? Yes. With a group, we had conducted an interview with Molade Okoya-Thomas. Yes, my first interview was with Molade Okoya-Thomas.
I need you to tell me the most memorable story that you have written…
l don’t even know which one to start with, because there are so many. Okay, let me tell the story of when I was in Quality magazine. We wanted to do a story on the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association). We had heard that at the YWCA in Lagos, people were coming there and they were pimping the girls. So, I was asked to disguise and go into YWCA and I went there to spend the weekend. I got a room and all of that to be a participant observer. There was a very privileged and important person that came that night to take the girls out and the matron was aware. So, I participated, I got my story and by Sunday, I said, “Oh, I’m feeling very ill, I have malaria and all that .” Of course, I checked in with a totally different name. I used my middle name and my father’s first name and checked into the place as Mary Gabriel. So, when I finished, I went back home. And then Quality magazine came out on Tuesday and when the magazine came out, the board of YWCA came to the office to look for Ibim Toby who wrote the story. Fortunately, I was going down the stairs when they came. Of course, they didn’t know me because they were not there when I went to do the story. It was the matron who saw me. So, when they came in, they said they were looking for Ibim Toby and I said, “Please, come with me” and I took them to the editor, Bala Dan Abu. I said, “Editor, these people are from the YWCA, they are looking for Ibim Toby and I said I should bring them to you.” He said, “Okay, where are you going?” I said I was going to get food. He said, “Quickly, quickly, go for lunch, I’ll meet with them.” So, that was how I ran out. So, Bala Dan Abu met with them and all that and all that. But to cut the long story short, we did the story, we broke the story, the matron was dismissed and there was a bit of reorganization. I remember that story because it was my first investigative story.
What year was that?
This was in 1990.
Tell me your most memorable interview and why…
There was the interview I had with the then leader of the Celestial Church of Christ, Alexander Abiodun Adebayo Bada. I went with my recorder. Azuh, if you knew how difficult it was to get that interview. I spent three hours. Finished a 90-minute tape, used another 90 minutes tape. You won’t believe it, I came back and my tape was blank! In those days, Quality magazine interview, the lead interview, was nine pages. Three hours, I came back and my tape was blank. I said, “God, where will I start from?” Will I go back to Bada for another interview or how do I tell my editor that my tape was blank? It was crazy. But God saved me that I had been making some notes and at that time, my brain was still a bit sharp. Not this “old brain wey no sharp again”. So, I sat down and started recollecting and using my notes. If I didn’t take those notes, I would have been dead. So, I was able to finish it, but I didn’t eventually get nine pages because there were some things that were missing. But I managed to get seven pages. And it was a cover interview. I was lucky that the man did not take us to court or anything because if he did and I needed to bring my tape, I would be in big trouble. My dear, after that, I don’t go for interviews with less than three tapes. I would go with the small midget, the big tape and a second tape and I will also write.
So, with the benefit of hindsight, what would you say makes a good story?
l always say that what makes a good story is the fact that you are saying something new. And that’s why it is news. A story that is a rehash of everything everybody knows is not a story. A good story is something new and then you are able to give us that new information in a pleasant way, in an interesting way. So, it’s new and it’s exciting and it reads well. That’s what makes a good story.
What makes a good interview?
Wow! A good interview is when you are able to bring out something that nobody could ever get out from this person. I always say that a good interview technique is to watch the reflections; watch when the person’s eyes open, watch when the person thinks again… When you see those gestures, know that you are hitting the right spot and stay on it. So, what makes a good interview is being able to catch someone off guard. When you are able to get your off-guarded moments in an interview, then you have a great interview. Those unguarded moments are the things that make your interview, that give it that spark. It’s the “Ajino Moto” of that interview. The unguarded moments.
What makes a good magazine?
Magazine journalism has always been about the news behind the news. A newspaper is in a hurry, but magazine journalism is actually history in the making. Everything about magazine journalism is about story telling that is exciting and interesting; that background that a news story can’t give you. So, being able to uncover and get that background enables people to understand the matter better. In those days, after the news had been broken, people wanted to know what really happened, what’s the gist behind it, what’s the real thing that played behind. Those are the things that actually make you to have a good magazine story. So, a magazine story is beyond just information, it goes to bring out the news behind the news.
With all your experience, what now happened to your magazine, Business Eye? Why did it crumble?
Business Eye was on when I finished serving (as a commissioner). But when you say this, people think, “Oh, you’re just being ungrateful.” If there’s one regret I have for going into government, I will say that it killed my magazine. People will say, “Oh, she’s just talking”, but that’s the truth. Because before I became a commissioner, Business Eye was able to survive, pay its way. At least, we could pay our salaries and you are the visionary; so you know what you want. And then you go to take up a job and ethically, I recused myself completely from Business Eye when I went to work in government as commissioner. I didn’t want my political coloration to taint the magazine. So, I refused to be involved fully. It was the most professional and ethical thing to do and for my magazine, I recused myself, I resigned properly from the board and throughout as commissioner, I hardly gave them any advert. The advert they got was from somebody, a consultant who was working for Rivers State government. He gave them an advert because they were the best business magazine. I had thought that my journey into government was going to last one tenure and in 2011 when we finished, I told them, you guys, get my office ready, I’m coming back and I was actually preparing to go back. But we had the Garden City Games in those days and I said okay, let me finish my work as the head of communications for Garden City Games. I was re-nominated as commissioner for Information. So, I had another four years to go. Business Eye struggled in that period. It really did! Someone wanted to buy it off and I declined because the person wasn’t someone I was willing to entrust Business Eye to and also because I have a rule. I came from a tradition of Tell magazine where we insisted on no cash for news. So, I was not willing to go that route. It wasn’t my style, I wasn’t going to do it. I also declined when I had other opportunities. When I then finished completely, it was difficult to continue. I came from a tradition of investigative journalism where we put top journalism first. People who knew what they had to do. I got back to the newsroom and the newsroom had changed. Then, we were doing economic and business news intelligence and those who could do that kind of work had been taken over by the business people who were doing business intelligence like Uncle Bismark Rewane and I even called Uncle Bismark. He said, “You know there’s still a gap in this market and we need you to come back and fill it” and we did try. Business Eye isn’t totally gone. We took a break to restrategize and it was actually in 2020 that we stopped. And that was because I said to myself, perhaps we need to review our business in terms of structure and strategy. Business Eye was my dream and when we started in 2007, we changed a lot of things; we went all-colour. Even my previous bosses at Tell also went all-colour after us. So, there were many innovations that we brought in and we are glad we did. As far back as 2007, we had planned a digital edition. If you go and look at that time, we already had a magazine that you could flip, an online magazine. Let me say that our basic idea is to be able to deliver economic and business and financial intelligence and the truth is – it’s still not in the market. Our niche is still there for us, and we are still coming back.
What is the biggest mistake that any journalist can make?
The biggest mistake that any journalist can make is to sell a story.
What do you mean by to sell a story?
To sell a story is to have a story and to allow someone to buy the story. The reason is because people trust you; you are the conscience of people, you are the conscience of the nation and in fact, of the public, and you are their mouthpiece. You ask the questions they’ve been dying to ask, but they can’t. You are the one to extract the information they’ve been dying to get. So, the worst thing you can do is to betray that trust by having a good story and selling it.
What are the legitimate avenues through which a journalist can make money?
There are tons and tons of them. I remember that when I started journalism, we were not paid a whole lot. I’ll tell you what happened once – I went to interview the popular sculptor, Fred Archibong. He sculpted something in First Bank. Then he was living in Surulere, Lagos and I went to interview him. When we finished the interview, he asked me to come for lunch and I said I wasn’t hungry, but I was starving! I hadn’t eaten and then he offered me N50 and I declined and said I’m fine. I went away with my N5, jumped in the bus and went back to my house in Maryland, still hungry. When I got back to the office that day, I made up my mind that I’m never going to be in a situation where I’m hungry again. On Monday when work started, I took an IOU (a kind of loan) and went to the market to buy meat of ten Naira, at Oregun Market. I still remember that. And that’s how I started my business on the side, of frying meat, putting it in packs and selling. So, I will send to some modern supermarkets and some of the shops around Oregun Market where people go to drink. My other friend will make “chin-chin” and I will make cakes and that was how I started having a business on the side. From there, I started seeing opportunities to write for the Word Press Review and I would write one page, they will give me $50, which was a lot of money. So, as a journalist, you have to be able to legitimately earn an income on the side. There are so many things that you can do. These days, people look for who will do papers for them, people look for who will write books for them. You can be a ghost writer. You already have great skills that people need. I know a lot of journalists who earn good money by stringing for people abroad. You are the local, you have the local perspective. They can’t get it even if they send somebody down here. So, they need you and you can make money from that.
You’ve won the CNN African Journalist of the Year award, once; Nigerian Media Merit Award, two times; Diamond Award for Media Excellence, three times. What are the best ways to come up with award winning stories?
Winning the CNN African Journalist of the Year award… It’s really interesting because it was when one international fashion designer died. I looked at how Time magazine reported it. Around that time too, I was watching TV and that was when Fela was arrested and they claimed that he had died, but he hadn’t died. Unconsciously, I said when Fela dies, I will write the best story ever written about Fela. And this was coming from a reporter who wasn’t going to The Shrine (where Fela performed). I hadn’t gone to The Afrikan Shrine when I was saying this. When it now happened, I got into the newsroom and Nosa said, “The Fela story, please go after it.” So, I went to Femi’s house (his son). Then, Femi was living in Omole (in Ikeja, Lagos). And Femi was angry, he was abusing journalists for allegedly writing untrue stories about him. But then I had done a story on Ras Kimono (a Reggae musician) when he came out with What’s Gwan? I did a full page story on Kimono’s What’s Gwan? This was back then in Newswatch. So, as he came, he saw me and Femi was chasing everybody away. He took my hand and he said, “Femi, this person must enter.” Femi asked why, he said na my sister, she’s got to enter. So, he took me in. Femi spent the entire period abusing all of us. Na una papa go die, una dey craze. I kept saying no vex. Anyway, grace! Sometimes God’s grace just works for you. Yeni (Fela’s eldest child) came in, I said no vex, Funke, his wife came in, I also said no vex. Then Yeni said she wanted to go to Kalakuta (Fela’s house), I said I would drive you. So, I took her to Kalakuta. When we came back, I suddenly became a friend of the house. So, when Fela eventually died, I got the first info. She (Yeni) called me and said Uncle Olikoye (Fela’s eldest brother) is addressing a press conference, I need you to be there. I said where, she said at The Shrine. It was a Sunday. I rushed to The Shrine, Yeni saw me, took my hand and took me in. So, that was how I started off and then got the Fela story. But back to how do you get a good and award winning story? Tenacity! I just described it. For me to get the Fela story, I moved, I made friends… First thing in the morning, I will drop my children in school and before 7am I am at Femi’s house and then I will stay with them, saying nothing. I was like a fly on the wall. I will just sit in the house, listening to all the burial plans, but I won’t say anything. I want to go to Kalakuta, I will take you, I want to go here, I was doing driver work. And by this time I already had three kids. When it’s time for school runs, I will rush to their school, pick them up and drop them at home and come back. So, when they got the MIC (funeral home) to plan, I sat there, and I was part of MIC planning. To the extent that I wore the same dress with MIC pallbearers and that was how come I knew what time Fela’s corpse was going to leave, which morgue he was. I was there around 4am, they took the body to TBS (Tafawa Balewa Square, Onikan, Lagos), I was by the casket. So, I saw all those who went by, the expression on their faces, comments. I was immersed in the story. For award winning stories, you have to be immersed in the stories. You have to be tenacious, you have to be passionate, you have to be part of the story. After the burial, I was in Kalakuta, I was in the room with the wives, and that was how I got to know how each of those girls came to Kalakuta. I sat on the bed with them. I listened to them. I remember when we were going back, I have never smoked a cigarette in my life, and here I was on the bus, they were smoking and they gave me “smoke” and I said, “I’m so sad, dis Fela death dey pain me. Abeg, abeg, abeg… I no wan smoke now.” When I got home that day I just passed out in the sitting room and my husband said, “Dis woman, dis woman… Don’t die in this journalism for me o!”
What is your take on the coming of social media?
I think that it has its good sides. I also think that it’s an opportunity for those of us who are professionals to separate the wheat from the chaff, because those who are not professionals can never tell a story like we do. They don’t understand what it means to do that. Professionals should seize the space. Yes, it has its bad sides, a lot of gossip and the fact that people run away with a story even before the story has matured. All of that is there. But for every bad side, there’s a good side. Even the fact that it’s borderless. It provides a good opportunity for us to explode and explore and it leaves a lot of history for those coming behind. So, I think there are good sides. There are also lots of bad sides, but I always like to see the glass as half full.
Rotimi Amaechi made you a commissioner during his time as governor. Now, both of you belong to different political factions. What exactly happened? Why did both of you fall out politically?
We didn’t fall out… I wouldn’t like to say we fell out. We mutually agreed… If you noticed, I’ve been very quiet about that because my former boss is also like a big brother to me. But one of the things we had agreed on when I was going to start working for him; I said at any point where either our principles no longer aligned or where there isn’t mutual trust any more, then he can either ask me to leave or I can take my leave. But we didn’t fall out. It was just that things happened and in life, you have a decision to make and you make it. So, I made a personal decision that was at that time the best decision I could take and that was that. So, we didn’t fall out. He’s still my big brother.
Amaechi also moved you to the Niger Delta Development Commission as Acting managing director. How would you describe your sojourn there? Most people see NDDC as a cesspool and cesspit of corruption…
It was a good experience for me. I had reported NDDC in a different way. Well, at the time the NDDC was going to start, I was one of the few people who were part of a lot of the work that was done when the South-South Coalition met. So, I had worked with the South-South Coalition on the media team alongside Tony Uranta and so on and so forth. And during the NDDC Masterplan, when it was being launched, I was also part of the journalists who had again been part of all that. So, I had a clear idea. Before that, I had been part of reporting of issues in the Niger Delta, including the Kaiama Declaration and all of the other issues. I was basically part of the activism in the region. So, this was an opportunity for me to do something for my region and that was the way I saw my time at the NDDC. I saw it as a privilege to go there and make a difference for my region and I recall that the day I left, I went back to The Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi and said thank you for that privilege, to have been able to do something for my region. So, that was the way I saw that assignment and it was with that heart that I went into the job. Yes, people see it as whatever it was, but I can say without any risk of contradiction that in the eleven months I served, I did not, I did not, and I still don’t have any contract at the NDDC – before, during or after. And I didn’t take a Kobo from anybody to pay them. I paid people as and when due and I always say that for my time at the NDDC, I always prefer that other people talk about it.