Our paths crossed in 2014. I was about to set up TheCable online newspaper. The biggest challenge was getting a good editor to take charge. Having practised journalism for over two decades, I wanted to take the back seat and concentrate my energies on other businesses. But unable to get a suitable candidate, I began to panic. I virtually gave up. Then the application of ‘Fisayo Soyombo arrived. He performed excellently well in the written test — and even better at the interview. Surprisingly, he gave up a bigger salary to accept our offer. According to him, he wanted to be part of TheCable dream. Putting dream above money? In Nigeria? I told myself: this guy will go far in life.
Although his newsroom experience was limited, his raw talent, youthful energy, enterprising skills and commitment helped birth and nurture TheCable, which he edited from 2014-2017. And he loves adventure — such as undercover reporting. He once disguised as a clearing agent in order to expose the decay in the customs service. This earned him the 2016 Wole Soyinka Investigative Journalist of the Year award. To write another story, he drove a “stolen” car (i.e. without documents) from Abuja to Lagos and back to Abuja, passing through 86 checkpoints. He bribed police officers at every point, so he was never properly checked. If the car was truly stolen, he would have got away with it!
His biggest risk so far has to be his prison adventure. Early 2019, when he was about to quit as editor of Sahara Reporters, he told me he had a story idea and asked if TheCable could foot the bill. “I want to do an undercover investigation from inside the prison,” he said gleefully, as if announcing that he wanted to travel to Dubai for sight-seeing. “Someone will report me to the police that I broke a deal, I will be arrested, detained, charged to court and then remanded in prison. I want to uncover the corruption in our prisons and justice system generally. I have researched how much it will cost me to stay in a more comfortable part of the prison, have access to phones and eat noodles.”
I was scared. He could be killed! I still asked him to send in a proposal. At the management meeting, we were divided, but we finally decided to go ahead after all the arguments and counterarguments. Good enough, ‘Fisayo had also got the International Centre for Investigative Journalism (ICIR) to foot part of the bill. With fear and anxiety tugging at my heart, I approved the release of funds for the assignment. My wife was particularly agitated. She kept asking me if it was worth the trouble. I told her she needed to feel ‘Fisayo’s enthusiasm. It was impossible to discourage him. He won’t take no for an answer. He even prepared for the adventure by doing dreadlocks — to look the part.
Ahead of his police custody at the Pedro station in July 2019, he called to say good bye. It felt like a journey of no return. “Safe trip,” I joked, and we both laughed it off. He adopted a pseudonym — Olajumoke Ojo. Everything started well. The police locked him up. He recorded the atrocities at the station with his hidden camera. In court, some prison officials approached him and said if he wished, the judge would remand him within the premises — for a fee. They didn’t know Ikoyi prison was his goal. He opted for prison. They told him he could get a cell for N30,000, N100,000 or N150,000, depending on his choice. The VIP cell, they told him, was N1.5million. It was all a matter of cash!
At Ikoyi prison, things began to take a dangerous turn. ‘Fisayo’s brother called to inform me that his cover had been blown! Call it the work of the devil: his hidden camera was discovered as he was being processed for incarceration. The warders seized it, watched the videos, handcuffed him behind the back, and began to torture him. They scraped his locks and beat him silly on every joint in his body. In our risk analysis, we never saw this coming. We were more worried about beating from fellow inmates. My wife overheard my phone conversation with ‘Fisayo’s brother and burst into tears. “I warned you! I hope they won’t kill him!” she said, amid sobs. I managed to calm her down.
To compound matters, ‘Fisayo’s journalist friend and co-conspirator went to visit him in prison as pre-planned. Not knowing that the burble had burst, she walked straight into trouble. She was arrested and handed over to the police. The lady who came with her ran away and called me. Actually, ‘Fisayo was not supposed to go to prison with the camera. The original plan was that his journalist friend would pretend she came on a visit and then slip the gadgets across to him. But on sensing at the court premises that the warders would allow you do anything for a fee, ‘Fisayo decided to keep his gadgets on him. That was how the devil got into the detail.
I was in the UK. I had to do something — and very quickly — to save ‘Fisayo from a certain trouble with the Nigerian state. He could now be officially imprisoned. There were no ministers in place, so I was blank on who to enlist for the rescue operation. I decided to reach out to a former minister. He started complaining that TheCable had a “sinister motive”. He said we could have applied officially to inspect the prisons. After all, NGOs often visit the prisons along with officials of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), he said. I knew I was dealing with an establishment person but I didn’t expect this attitude. In the end, he did not help. And ‘Fisayo was still being tortured.
After I had agonised for hours — amid frantic phone calls from ‘Fisayo’s brother — one name finally came to mind. Mallam Abba Kyari, the late chief of staff to the president. He was once a journalist and an editor. He once wore our shoes. He would understand what we were trying to do. I sent him a WhatsApp message, asking if I could call him over an urgent matter. Immediately he read my message, he called. I needed to be tactical in my approach. I didn’t know how he too would react to undercover reporting. The former minister just said it was sinister. I knew Kyari to be liberal and progressive, but he was a government official and he too might take offence at our audacity.
“Mallam,” I half-stammered, “we are trying to help President Buhari fight corruption in government agencies, so we decided to send an undercover reporter to Ikoyi prison. Unfortunately, his cover was blown and they have been torturing him. They also arrested the lady who came to visit him.” He sighed. I smelt frustration. Then he lamented: “This is what journalists do in advanced societies to expose the rot in the system and government will act to put things right. But you know how we are in Nigeria.” He promised to reach out to the relevant authorities. True to his promise, I got word that the torture had stopped. The lady was also released by the police.
But Kyari’s help was just the end of the beginning. With the police, prison and court now aware of ‘Fisayo’s mission, they decided to make life more miserable for him. The court frustrated efforts to grant him bail by erecting fresh barriers. I had to call a top Lagos state government official for help. The court budged, but gave his release warrant to prison officials instead of his lawyer. The prison also secretly released him to the police, who took him back to Pedro. Goodness me, he could have been killed on the way and his body dumped in the lagoon! Prison would claim he had been released; officially, police no longer had anything to do with him. We dodged a bullet there.
The saving grace was that his brother was monitoring proceedings closely. He had been waiting for ‘Fisayo to come out of prison. After waiting for hours without seeing any movement, he became restless. He inquired from the warders and they said ‘Fisayo had been released! To whom? They said he should stop asking them JAMB questions. He almost went amok. Something told him to go to Pedro. On getting there, he decided to test the waters by sending his cousin to find out if ‘Fisayo was with them. When the guy did not return, we concluded he too had been detained. They obviously wanted to lure the brother into the station and arrest him too. He, after all, was the “complainant”!
We were unsure what the police wanted: a pound of flesh or a bucket of blood? We sent Taiwo George, editor of TheCable, to Pedro for fact-finding. He found ‘Fisayo behind bars. ‘Fisayo desperately asked him to inform me. The police officers tried to stop Taiwo but he quickly called me, saying on top of his voice: “I’ve seen ‘Fisayo! He is at the Pedro police station!” And that was it! We immediately reached out to Mr Zubairu Mu’azu, Lagos police commissioner at the time, and ‘Fisayo was freed that night. He had spent five days in police cell and eight in prison custody to get a story! On his way home, he told me excitedly on the phone: “Oga, we have a good story.” Cheeky rascal!
In October 2019, TheCable published his three-part series on his prison experience — to wide acclaim. It won him nomination for the International Journalist of the Year award, organised by the One World Media (OWM). The other two finalists are from the UK: Alex Crawford of Sky News and John Sudworth of BBC News. On Thursday, June 18, the winner will be announced. In truth, ‘Fisayo is already winner — trophy or no trophy. As Proverbs 22:29 says, “Show me someone who does a good job, and I will show you someone who is better than most and worthy of the company of kings.” That is the story of the dare-devil journalist named Olufisayo Babatunde Soyombo. Excellence.