The name of Alhaji Yusuf Alli evokes different pictures to diverse people. But the most important of all is that of his journalism colleagues who see him as that person that can hardly be beaten to any scoop. Alli, the Managing Editor (North) of The Nation, recently shared his experiences with LAWAL SABO IBRAHIM. He says only investigative journalism can save the print media from extinction.
One of the most remarkable moments in your career was in The Punch, why did you have to leave?
Yes, my stay in The Punch was unique but every newspaper I worked for had its own characteristics. I started as a journalist with the Herald newspapers in 1989; I was a sub-editor, legal writer, foreign affairs correspondent and then member of the editorial board. It was from the Herald that I won a fellowship from the United States Information Agency to go to the US for training. From there I moved to , which is a sister publication of The News, I was there from 1994 to june 1996. But I had some stability in Punch because I was there for over13 years and I rose to become an editor of the paper. I edited the three titles. It was a major challenge working for The Punch because as a reporter there, your mind will never be at rest because one is kept on his toes always. The paper has a tradition for the best and it is an innovative newspaper. It was an environment I could say I achieved everything I have in life. I get married, had all my children and built my house in The Punch. So, as challenging as it was, it was also rewarding.
If it was rewarding then why did you leave?
Well, I can’t be Methuselah, forever living at a place. This job is about mobility and I have attained the peak of my career there though the exit was sudden.
Why was it sudden?
Because I was barely a year into my tenure as the editor of The Punch when the management decided to restructure and all the three editors were asked to go without any cogent reason. At the time I took over we were having 56,000 copies print run, but when I took over the paper, I achieved 110,000 copies daily, especially during the 2007 elections. After the elections we came down to about 83,000 per day. We hardly had space for news because adverts were coming in torrents. In his valedictory address recently, the former chairman of The Punch, Chief Ajibola Ogunsola listed the editors that made the paper what it is today and I was privileged to be one of those he mentioned. I don’t play management politics wherever I am even now at the Nation I call a spade, a spade. I did not have a godfather to become editor of The Punch and I knew my career was too smooth not to suffer a jolt, so, what I had was a jolt.
Even as a reporter?
Even as a reporter my work used to speak for me; I virtually won all the awards in The Punch; reporter of the week, month and that of the year. So, I made so much from the system and I have never for once called any of my bosses to say good morning. I know at that point some people in the management were scared of the records and the ‘pull-him-down’ syndrome was there; so, I was made the senior editor (investigations). It was more or less making me a glorified reporter, yet I accepted the challenge. Immediately I was removed as editor, I resumed the following day at my new position. But when I realised that I became the senior editor by crook, I discovered that I won’t survive for long in that system. The most surprising thing was that when I was given the so called promotion, my immediate supervisor asked me to go and write what I will be doing within the system, in short, my schedule of duty. I then wondered why I was promoted without schedule of duty and I knew the game was up.
Would you say you were fulfilled there?
My fulfilment was in the fact that my career there ended without any stain or blemish and even without lobbying anybody to get to that level. So, when The Nation offer came I took it, and I was given this offer at an eatery. If a journalist is the hardworking type he does need to go for an interview. The managing director just called and asked me to meet him at that eatery in Lagos for a discussion. I went, and there and then he gave me the job and up to today, The Nation does not have a leaf of any of my certificates; but because of the trust and confidence they have in me they decided to give me the job. Later I discovered that a former editor of The Punch, Gbenga Ogunleye actually recommended me for the job. By then the paper was just coming up, and if you want to make an impact in journalism it is through good stories. So, you have to go for the best hands in the market. So, what The Punch lost became the gain of The Nation.
But there are insinuations that you were frustrated from Punch because you had a misunderstanding with a superior?
Let me tell you, I had no misunderstanding with anybody and I was not frustrated in any way. If I had stayed and established that desk, the work I would do could make me the managing director of the company. What happened was that as an editor, your superior could have an input in what you do. Then President Obasanjo wrote to the National Assembly to keep them in confidence before handing over Bakassi to Cameroun. My supervisor suggested a different headline from the one I casted and the following day the publisher was unhappy with what we had and he sent me a text message. I forwarded the text to my supervisor who just replied ‘take charge.’ If the headline was an award-winning one the glory will come to me as the editor of the paper; so I called my team who chorused that I should shift the blame to my supervisor. I said no, I edited the paper and should take the blame. So, the fact of my departure from The Punch was that I lost out to management politics. Look, even when the editor’s vacancy came up, and the management wanted me to be appointed, the people who did not want me came up with an idea of writing exams for the first time in the history of the company.
So you write an exam?
No editor was ever appointed through examinations except me. I had to write a three-hour exam with my line editors and assistant editors and it was on the basis of that test that I became an editor. Even recently when I saw that former supervisor of mine, people thought I was not going to greet him but I did because he was such a nice boss. Under him I got so many promotions and if God decreed that under him I was going to fall so be it. I bear no grudges against him or any other person on that matter. More so, I was not the only editor asked to step down at that time, three of us were asked to go on the same day. So if someone says I had a misunderstanding with someone, what of the two others.
You are seen as one of the best investigative journalists in Nigeria today, how did you achieve that?
Well, my life is about breaking stories and I like breaking records; that is why I am able to rise in The Punch. Investigative journalism is a step ahead of the routine one and the best one can practice because it makes one unique in the market and shores up the image of one’s paper. It is being unusual and a step ahead of fellow journalists. I deliberately adopted that, may be because of my background.
And which background was that?
I had always been a rebel as a kid and always wanted to improve the society. I always want things done in a proper manner. So, when people are doing evil in the society, when they are violating the laws I always like to expose such and I also don’t like corrupt tendencies and when people are corrupt I want to expose that. So, may be that is it; but I succeeded in doing this because one, I could keep trust.
How can one be a successful investigative journalist?
To be a successful investigative journalist one must know how to keep trust because you have a number of contacts who will always make a few things available. Then you have to be selfless; once you don’t run after money you will get scoops, and that is the difference today as the brown envelope syndrome is the vogue and once you get money from someone you are constrained from reporting against him because he who pays the piper dictates the tune. If you are my friend today even if you are a president of a country, there is nothing I cannot report on you, once you commit any infractions, I will expose them. Let me give you an example, one of the closest friends I have is Professor Maurice Iwu, former INEC chairman, but when it was time to call a spade, a spade, it was as if I was waging a war against him until he left the system. 2007 polls was completely flawed, Late President Yar’Adua admitted, and this man wanted to remain as INEC chairman; I felt there must be a change, I went all out on why he should not come back. Some people tried to set him against me but it did not work because he always said he knew the type of person I am. He conducted an election with more than N40 billion, I never went to him for any contract even though I was hungry; things were bad. But I still have my honour and integrity intact and to date, if I see him we joke about the system.
Who is the other person you have close contact with?
Another person that I will say I have a close contact with is the former governor of Oyo state, Otunba Alao Akala. My younger brother was one of his most trusted drivers and the way I was writing stories against him people continued to point at my closeness to him but I always tell them that I was doing that because there were allegations of him being corrupt. Though no court has yet convicted him, but when you see a governor wearing chains, bangles and all sorts of things, sure he is not a seriously-minded person and Oyo state used to be a pacesetter in the country. So, I had to do my job even though my brother was close to him. This does not mean I had a personal grudges against him, we still relate very well. It was the same thing with the late Governor Mohammed Lawal of Kwara, I was on his neck but that did not affect our relationship; his wife just called me this morning from Dubai though I was very hard on her husband, may God bless his soul. I do my work without malice and that is one thing an investigative journalist must imbibe. One must separate himself from the story he is writing by basing it on facts and figures. Don’t let your personal interest go into investigative journalism.
There are speculations that newspapers may go extinct in the near future due to the online media. How do you react to that?
I agree with you, but the only way a newspaper can avoid extinction is by being a step ahead of the online media. We have to recruit journalists who are ready to take the risk, ready for investigative journalism. We have online media but I am still breaking stories. They always wake up to find out that they have missed stories. If a newspaper is proactive it will survive. Like your paper the Blueprint, you just came on board but you are making so much headway, especially when it comes to the Boko Haram stories. Look at what Daily Trust is doing, one reads investigative stories in it, and you read them in The Punch and in ThisDay. I think with investigative stories papers will survive extinction. It is only lazy papers that depend on routine government stories that will have to worry about extinction.
But investigative journalism seem too intimidating and dangerous to some practitioners?
I discover that young journalists run away from investigative journalism. They are always afraid of stepping on toes and do not want to offend people. But they are more or less ruining their own careers because this job is about blowing hot and cold. I am not saying people should rundown public officers or others unnecessarily or write stories out of nothing. Investigative journalism is like a service to the society when you use it to correct the ills of the society. The powers that be may not be happy, but the end will justify the sacrifice. It does not mean that one will die a poor person. Investigative journalism is not synonymous with poverty because if you are a good investigator, the job itself will pay you heavily and you will get promotions as at when due. With it also honour will come which is much more rewarding than all the money one can think of.Not only that, with it one makes contacts who can sustain you for life not necessarily in monetary terms but in respecting you for what you are and your name will ring bell and then knock on doors. I have travelled out of this country severally based on the fact that I am an investigative reporter. After all, when we die, are we going to take riches with us, no, we will go with good names and will also leave the same thing. Aremu Segun Osoba was a crack investigative journalist, did he not become a governor? So also were Chief Tony Momoh, Alhaji Lateef Jakande and Labaran Maku. They stepped on toes yet the society rewarded them. So, if one is an investigative reporter his name will open doors for him as the society will call upon him not those who compromised.
What advice do you have for journalists who would wish to perform and still stay out of trouble?
Well, I will advise them to be truthful, hardworking, avoid malice in writing their stories and learn to keep trust. If somebody takes you into confidence on any issue and gives you a storyline don’t betray that person.