There are four striking things about Mr. Ikechukwu Amaechi, the managing director and editor-in-chief of Acclaim Communications Limited, publishers of The Niche newspaper. Number one is his brilliance. Number two is his boldness. Number three is his selflessness and number four is his strategic nature. The first two could be noticed even from miles away. However, you need to get closer to him to notice the other two.
Born on January 26, 1967, the former editor of Daily Independent who hails from Mbaise, in Imo State, bagged his first degree from the University of Nigeria Nsukka before topping it up with a masters from Cardiff University in the United Kingdom.
Married to the love of his life, Chioma and blessed with children, Mr. Amaechi, a highly acclaimed journalist, writer and columnist shared the afternoon of Friday, October 13, 2023 with the publisher/editor-in-chief of YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine, AZUH ARINZE. This was in his office in Ikeja, Lagos.
We looked at journalism, journalists and more. Enjoy…
What makes a good journalist?
That’s an interesting question. Interesting in the sense that I think it depends on individuals. But there are laid down rules, if I may put it that way, of what good journalism is. You must pass the test of credibility, you must pass the test of fairness, you must be able to hear both sides and give everybody equal opportunity, you must be responsible in the way and manner you handle information. But most importantly, I think the credibility issue is key, because without credibility a journalist is worth nothing. The believability of what you put out there is as important as anything. But on a personal level, I think you must have the interest, the desire to be a journalist. It’s not one of the money-spinning professions, so to say. So, if your goal is to go there and make money, you may have been in the wrong profession and that’s why you see a whole lot of frustration out there. But if your desire is to be a journalist through and through and to contribute your quota to the development of the society, then you are in the right place. You must also have the passion and the interest. That is what sustains you at the end of the day. So, what makes for good journalism? You must aspire to be credible, you must aspire to be fair, you must aspire to do things that are believable and then, you must also strive as much as possible to imbue investigations into what you do, because investigative journalism is what stands you out.
As a person, what specifically got you interested in journalism?
I must confess: I went into journalism by chance. I read education at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. So, I’m a professionally trained teacher. But then, sometime after my youth service, I went to The Guardian and that was how the whole thing started. Although I’ve always known that I have this passion for writing and I also like good journalism, particularly editorials and opinions. That’s why even till tomorrow, if I lay my hands on any newspaper, the first thing I read are the columns. Any columnist that writes beautifully, it makes a whole lot of impression on me and I like writing too. I think I’ve told this to a number of my friends – even while in school, if I enter an examination hall and I don’t seem to have a full grasp of what the question is, I will write and continue writing and I think at the end of the day, I never failed any examination, because even those who may not agree with what I said, perhaps get impressed by the quality of what I write. So, I started with The Guardian in 1993 and when Abacha (General Sani, former military ruler) proscribed The Guardian in 1995, I went to The News magazine and later, other media houses.
Can you remember the title of the first story that you wrote?
I think the title is The Economist as a Furniture Maker or The Banker as a Furniture Maker. Something like that, and I will tell you the reason. When I joined The Guardian, I didn’t go into the newsroom. I joined the supplement department. Of course, the supplement department in those days when Femi Kusa and co were in charge was like the advert arm of the editorial. The Guardian was structured in such a way that each day had its own supplement. For instance, I think on Monday, it was property. I can’t remember now. Tuesday was some other thing. But Thursday, I think, was education. Friday was entertainment, hotels and all that. So, I was on the Friday beat and the features desk was headed by Mrs Harriet Lawrence, an American lady married to our own Bisi Lawrence at the time. I think Felix Abugu was the deputy features editor. Emeka Izeze was the editor then. Kingsley Osadolor was the editor of The Sunday Guardian. There was no distinct Saturday Guardian at that time. What used to happen in those days was that the features desk was producing the bulk of the materials for Saturday and then, where I was, in the supplement department, we were in charge of hotels, restaurants, eateries, nightclubs, all that entertainment stuff. That was the weekend stuff. They were all published in the Saturday paper. I had this friend who was in the Financial Guardian that was edited by Jude Ogundele…
The said friend, can you remember his name?
His first name is Tom, but I can’t remember the surname. Tom is from the Niger Delta; I think Akwa Ibom. He had an elder brother who went abroad, came back, I think he read economics, worked briefly as a banker and went into furniture making. He had a workshop around Maryland (in Lagos). All of us were living in Okota (also in Lagos) then. So, one of those days, I went to their place and he told me about the elder brother and the thing he was doing and I was fascinated. So, I went to his workshop, looked at the environment, interviewed him and came back and wrote the story and it was published on Saturday and that became my first story.
Can you remember the first interview you ever conducted?
I can’t. Because writing in The Guardian those days, for every story that you did, you would have spoken to some people. But I must confess to you that as a journalist, my biggest asset is to conduct interviews. I like interviewing people, and even at the risk of boasting, there is hardly any Nigerian that I’ve not interviewed, including General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd). That was before he became the president though.
So, what makes a good interview?
What makes a good interview is that you must have the skill that will bring out the words from the mouth of the interviewee. And what do I mean by that? A lot of things have changed now. In those days, without the Internet, if you were going to interview somebody, you must prepare. Now people don’t prepare for interviews and that’s why you hear people saying, “May I know you?” In those days at The Guardian or even at The News magazine, if you were going to interview somebody, the first thing you do is to go to the library, especially if it’s a high profile interview, pull out the file of the person and read the entire file – what he had said previously, who exactly the person is, where he’s coming from, what he has done and all those things. Of course, that will form the background to the questions you were going to ask. If it is perhaps somebody who said yesterday that going to school is not important, and today he is saying something else and you are going to interview him, you must be able to ask him why and interrogate him well. So, what makes a good interview is that you must know who the interviewee is, because if you don’t know him, then you won’t know the kind of questions to ask.
Of all the interviews that you have conducted, which is the most memorable and why?
Hmmmm! Like I said, I think I’ve had a whole lot of interviews. Each one is in a class of its own. But I think there is one interview that I did that I always remember, with Chuba Okadigbo (former Senate President). I interviewed Chuba Okadigbo by chance. It was not arranged, so to say. I went to Abia State, Umuahia to be precise, to do something. Orji Uzor Kalu was the governor then. And Chuba had just been removed as the Senate President. All of us were in the same hotel in Umuahia (Hotel Royal Damgrete). When I got to know about that, I went knocking on his door and I said, “Sir, I want an interview.” The man looked at me and said, “What do you still want out of me?” That was when I was with the defunct Anchor newspaper. Chuba eventually granted me the interview and it was explosive. I always remember that interview.
With the experience garnered over the years, what would you say makes a good story?
For me again, it is the issue of credibility. The story must be credible. There must be something new. People must be able to get something new out of it, otherwise it is just a regurgitation of what is out there. I think those who called it news, particularly if it’s new, it wasn’t by accident or happenstance. There must be something new and it must be credible.
Of all the stories that you’ve written, which is the most memorable and why?
I’ve written a whole lot of stories. I came from the background of features – from The Guardian to The News magazine and all that. I once did a story that nearly cost me my life…
What was the title of the story and what exactly happened?
I can’t remember the title now, but it was a story of the Ijaw/Itsekiri crisis. Remember in the 90s, at the height of Itsekiri/Ijaw crisis? I was with one newspaper called The Diet then. So, I went to Warri (in Delta State) to do a story on the crisis and as I usually do, I wanted to make it a very comprehensive story. I interviewed everybody, all sides to the story – the Itsekiri people and the Ijaw people. Then, Edwin Clark had relocated from Warri to his ancestral home in Kiagbodo. So, I went to Kiagbodo to talk to him. I went to different places and spoke to different people. There was a market that was at the heart of the whole crisis called Ogbe-Ijaw Market. It’s not like now that your phone is your recorder, your camera and everything. Like I said, I had gone to Kiagbodo to interview Edwin Clark. Fortuitously, that same day, when I came back to Warri, I decided to go to that Ogbe-Ijaw Market. By then, Ijaw people had chased out Itsekiri people and were keeping vigil there. They mounted a very strong army there. I went with one of the photographers in the town so that he could take photographs, develop them for me and all that. When we got to the Ogbe-Ijaw Market, the soldiers were there at the gate and they stopped me; I introduced myself as a journalist, from Lagos, and that I’m doing a story on so, so and so. They demanded my identity card, I showed it to them and they allowed me to go. Immediately, the photographer unstrapped his camera and started clicking away. There was nobody in sight. But Azuh, within seconds, we were surrounded by the Ijaw boys. Their eyes were bloodshot. They asked who I was. I said I’m a journalist. They said from where? I said from Lagos. They said what are you doing here? I said I’m doing a story on the crisis. They said who sent you? I said my organization. Of course, you know our publisher then was James Ibori, an Urhobo. Unfortunately for me again, the photographer happened to be Itsekiri. So, they said I was a spy. I looked back and the soldiers did not bother to intervene. They simply kept their distance and these guys were becoming very threatening. What saved me was when I innocently said: “How can you call me a spy? Anybody that is with Edwin Clark cannot work against Ijaw people.” They said yes. So, I said I was just coming from Edwin Clark’s home. They said it’s a lie. I said I was coming from Kiagbodo. I now said if you hear his voice, can you recognize it? They said yes. I pulled out my tape recorder and played back the interview I just had with him. That was what saved me. If not, those guys were going to kill me. After playing the tape, they said leave! Leave!!Incidentally, that was supposed to be my last day because I had done everything I needed to do. I only said let me even see the market in question. The other story that I also remember was after the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa (an environmental activist). I went to Ogoni (in Rivers State) to also do a story. Ogoni then was an occupied land. Soldiers had taken over everywhere. This man who is the president of Ndigbo Lagos now, Obi Madu, his elder brother was the commander of the Task Force at the time. I went to Port Harcourt, Bori Camp, to interview him. I also interviewed the wife of Chief Edward Kobani who was killed at Port Harcourt GRA, behind Hotel Presidential, before going to Ogoni land to see Ken Saro-Wiwa’s parents. I interviewed Ken Saro-Wiwa’s father. But the mother was so distraught that she didn’t want to talk. Another risky experience. I didn’t see Ledum Mitee then because he had fled the country, but when Ledum came back, I was the first person to interview him at one hotel in Ebute Metta, where he lodged. Subsequently, I went to Ogoni where we sat down and drank palm wine. Talking about interviews also, when Emeka Anyaoku finished his tour of duty as the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, I was the first Nigerian journalist to interview him. Pini Jason arranged it. I was with The Examiner newspaper then.
To write well, what must one do?
Writing is a skill. There are people who write well, but then just like every other thing, you must continuously strive to improve yourself and the best way to improve yourself is to read other people who write well. So that you can master the nuances, the tricks. You must continuously strive to write better. The problem we have, particularly these days, is that a lot of journalists don’t care. When we starting out, if you write a story, and it is published, and you read what’s published and it is significantly different from what you wrote, you’ll feel sad. In fact, in those days, you would go retrieve what you wrote and note all the corrections, all the alterations that had been made. And consciously, you would take that decision that no, this cannot continue. But now, you’ll find out that even if you throw away the entire thing and write another thing all together, they don’t care. So, to write well, you must strive to improve yourself and then you must also read what other people have written.
What makes a good column?
It’s your ability to convince people. If you are a columnist that people don’t take seriously, it doesn’t make any sense. A good column must be impactful. People must read and be eager to see what you are going to come up with next week. Again, it is not about name calling, it’s not about being bombastic, it’s about facts, it’s about credibility and you putting out there a body of information that is believable, that is credible and then your ability to also skillfully attract people and get people to believe what you are doing. I think what makes a good column is that you must be able to do something that people will be addicted to.
What do you like most about being a journalist?
The freedom it gives me, the access it gives me and then the idea that you are in your own way, contributing, no matter how little, to the conversations that are going on in the society.
What don’t you like about being a journalist?
I must be sincere, there is nothing. Except that it does not give you the big money. I started in 1993. This is my 30th year. If I joined the Police Force, perhaps, I would have retired as IG (Inspector General). Or at worst, I would be an AIG (Assistant Inspector General) by now. If I was in the Military, I would be a General by now. All the Service Chiefs, when did they join the Army? If I was in the Judiciary, or I had been practicing as a lawyer and I wanted to go to the Bench, in 30 years, all these guys that are in the Supreme Court, Appeal Court, that everybody is saying my lord, my lord, and they are causing confusion everywhere, I could have also been among them. But as a journalist, and in my profession, I have also excelled. I’ve been an editor, I’ve managed newsrooms. The only difference is that the kind of money those guys make, I don’t have.
What’s the greatest thing that journalism has done for you?
The doors it has opened for me. Like I said, you may not have the money, but there is this access that journalism grants you, that even a bank MD may not have. You can go to Aso Rock to meet the President. You can pick up your phone and call a governor or a minister and they will take your call. Not because they like you, but because you are a journalist. So, that access, you can’t quantify it.
What would you have wanted journalism to do for you that it has not done?
I’m not too sure that there’s anything that I would have wanted that journalism has not done. I’m paying my bills. Yes, all of us can do with more money, but I’m not the kind of guy that is tripped by too much money. If the economy is working, and the society itself is going the way it ought to go, you can earn a decent living from it. After all, in the United States of America, people like Christiana Amanpour, all these guys that work in CNN and so on, are rich. So, it isn’t the fault of journalism. I think it is the failure of the Nigerian society.
With the benefit of hindsight, what’s the commonest mistake that you have noticed with most journalists?
Relying on hearsay. And not being able to investigate and fact-check. That has been exacerbated by social media. In those days in the newsroom, it wasn’t so. In those days in the newsroom, if you submit a story, there must be checks and balances. If you bring a story, the news editor or the sub-editor or even the editor will ask: are you sure? They will tell you to do more investigation if they are not convinced or even call the people. The editor can say you heard this person, you didn’t get the other side. Go and get it. So, a story could stay for one day, two days or even one week until it is complete. But now, it’s “gbowayi, gbowayi,” because everybody wants to be the person that is breaking the story. Which is a big problem.
Talking about the coming of the social media, would you describe it as a blessing or a curse?
Both! It depends on where you are coming from. In fact, I was discussing with somebody two days ago; I said what has even saved Nigeria is the social media. With the kind of political mess we are in, if not for social media, we would have been in a bigger mess. It used to be easier to control the mainstream media and control the narrative. Not anymore! If it was in those days, Tinubu (President Bola) would not be facing the kind of crisis he is facing over his certificate. After all, the whole thing didn’t start today. But there wasn’t enough scrutiny done as of today. In 1999, Yes, Gani (Chief Fawehinmi, SAN) went to court over that issue. But all that was reported was what Gani said in court or what this and that person said in an interview. But now, citizen journalists are doing wonders and they are elevating the discourse. That is the good side of it. But the other side of it is that the line between propaganda and truth, between fake news and the truth has thinned out. Everybody is now a reporter, so fake news has become a major problem.
What are the other options available to any journalist who wants to make money from the profession legitimately?
You can write books. Out there in the US, even if you don’t go the extra mile, all you need to do is to be a good journalist and you will be paid well. But because of the way things are in Nigeria, most newspaper houses are owing; even what is paid is peanuts. So, you must find a way of making the extra bucks, and the most legitimate and easiest way is to write books, write memoirs and all that. Some people may say do PR (public relations), work as a consultant, but the elephant in the room there is that when you work as a consultant, unless you’re leaving journalism per se and going into public relations; if it’s to combine the two, they are not the same. Because in PR, you are trying to project the image of somebody while the other is not so.
As a journalist, what stands Ikechukwu Amaechi out? What distinguishes you?
I’m not too sure I’m in the right position to answer that question. But what I would say is that, like in every thing I find myself, I try to do the best I can. I don’t see myself as being better than anybody. But anybody who says I’ve done well may know why he or she is saying so. However, what I try to do is that in any environment I find myself, I try to do the best I can.
Journalism, just like you rightly admitted, has done a lot for you. What have you done for journalism?
I’ve also tried, in my own little way and as much as I can, to mentor the younger generation of journalists. Of course, I had to set up The Niche newspaper to do that. I’ve also done other things. I was a judge on the CNN/Multichoice African Journalist of the Year panel for five years and I was all over the place. I once delivered a lecture in Kampala (Uganda) on investigative journalism. I was part of a four-man panel in Durban, South Africa that discussed the impact of technology on journalism in Africa. That was when newsrooms were being digitalized. Back home, I’ve also given lectures and been part of programmes organized by CNN and Multichoice that looked at issues of journalism and all that. So, everywhere the opportunity presents itself, I’ve tried as much as possible to also ensure that the upcoming generation benefits from the little I know.