BY ROSEMARY NWAEBUNI
The Shining light award was instituted to honour investigative journalists in developing and transitioning countries who carry out such investigations under threat, duress, or in most daring conditions. The award ceremony usually climaxed the Global Investigation Journalism Conference organized every two years.
From numerous entries, judges shortlist the best twelve; out of which the winner, first runner up and second runner up were announced. The 2017 Shinning Light Award was a watershed in the anal of investigative journalism in the African continent as it was won for the first by an African journalist from Aniocha South Local Government area in Delta State, Nigeria, Mr. Emmanuel Mayah. The two investigative stories that earned him the award were: “Inside the Massive Extrajudicial Killings in Nigeria’s South-East” and “How the Onitsha Massacre of Pro-Biafra Supporters was Coordinated,” both published in Premium Times, Nigeria (2016).
In an interview with Rosemary Nwaebuni, Emmanuel Maya, an Engineer turned veteran journalist, calm, unassuming personality and multiple award-winner hinted on his humble beginning, venture into journalism, and his driving force. He said, “I have won so many awards that honestly I do not know how to feel anymore. At the risk of sounding immodest I think I have gotten excitement-fatigued”.
Kindly give a brief background of yourself
My name is Emmanuel Mayah. I am a multiple award-winning investigative journalist. In fact I am said to be the most decorated journalist in Africa. I try to excel in anything I do and the compulsion to so excel was grown in my early education in the then Bendel State.
I was born in Asaba but I am a native of Ossissa, both in Delta State. I am proud to say that the inquisitive instinct that shaped my journalism and academic career up to the City University London, was grown here in Delta State. I attended Saint Benedict Primary School, Azagba-OgwashiUku and then Saint Anthony’s College Ubulu-Uku which in my days was the equivalent of an Ivy League college. The name of my Principal was Mr. I. E Akaraiwe. A native of Okwe, he was a no-nonsense man, an A-List Principal whose name resonated throughout the entire Bendel State and beyond. Nobody in St. Anthony’s spoke bad English; it was a cardinal sin to so do. Academic competition was so stiff yet Akaraiwe, who was like a God to all of us, introduced a system that ensured our knowledgebase transcended the classroom with huge influence drawn from international affairs that fired the imagination. For example, written above the blackboard in every classroom of St. Anthony’s was a political consciousness slogan: “Apartheid Is A Crime Against Humanity”. We had newspapers in our library and students were encouraged to read them to follow local and international affairs. That was the kind of background Akaraiwe gave us. St. Anthony’s was so popular one of the students was from South Africa. His name was Gideon Mulanga. He was the House Prefect of Onwueme House.
Aside the regular Debating Society and Press Club, the school had an art gallery where the works of outstanding Fine Art students were exhibited. One of such gifted students was Richard Amadi-Emina, son of a millionaire from Ebu. He was a prodigious sculptor for someone his age. He was also a martial artist. Then there was Ezewuzie; I have forgotten his first name but he was a cartoonist who after secondary school started selling his cartoons to Ikebe Super comic magazine. The school also had a Pop Band equipped with various musical instruments that included drums, keyboards and guitars. One Mozia Anthony in Form 5 led the band. I was in Form 1 at that time. I remember that every Wednesday when the Pop Band had their rehearsals, the Principal Akaraiwe would play the saxophone. That was the only thing that assured us he was a human being because there were many myths around Akaraiwe at that time.
The much-talked about legal luminary in England, Professor Fidelis Odita, a Queen’s Counsel, is a product of St. Anthony’s College. He was a good friend of my Master, Everest Nwaokolo the House Prefect of Kizito’s House. The former Group Managing Director and CEO of Afribank, Serbastine Adigwe was the House Prefect of Annex House. A few days ago I learnt that the Minister of State for Petroleum, IbeKachikwu, was a student of St. Anthony’s in the early 70’s or so. The school motto was “Emerge EtAdefica” which means Arise and Build .So I try to excel in everything I do. It is a St. Anthony’s thing.
You just won the Global Shining Light Award, how do you feel
I have won so many awards that honestly I do not know how to feel anymore. At the risk of sounding immodest I think I have gotten excitement-fatigued. Yes it feels great when you mount the stage to receive an award and people are cheering. In this particular case, I was overwhelmed by the support of fellow Nigerians in South where the award ceremony was held. Rosemary, you were in that crowd in South Africa and there were journalists from 130 countries from different parts of the world in attendance. This is the first time an African will win the Global Shining Light Award; an award that is the most sought-after laurel after the Pulitzer. So it is no longer a personal thing. It is a national triumph for my country Nigeria and particularly to my home state Delta where it all began with my childhood education. At St. Benedict’s Primary School, I always came out 1st Position from Primary 1 to Primary 6. I was also the Class Monitor in every class and finally the General Monitor. They use to call me NwaOnyeNkuzi (the Teacher’s son) even though my father was a farmer. I think those things counted.
What is the award winning story about?
It is an investigation into multiple extra-judicial killings carried out by security forces in the South-East of the country in 2016. Several horrendous things have happened in Nigeria and people just keep quiet. I never want to be part of any conspiracy of silence. I visited a family friend in Abuja last year only to meet another guest who was the wife of a senior Army officer. She said she was praying that her husband be posted either to the Niger Delta or Aba in the South East because those were where the money is. Now, has this woman ever bother to ask how soldiers make big money in those areas. In Niger Delta it is oil; in the South East it is by participating in extra-judicial operations. Remember Major Al Mustapha of Abacha’s inglorious days; how soldiers who served in his squad became rich overnight. It is the same story to this day.
For years the South-East has remained a theatre of extra-judicial killings. There is also the notorious special police force, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) that make news more for accusations of secret executions and debt collection. Cases of mass murders are hardly sincerely investigated just as witnesses and survivors had become familiar with the consequences of stepping forward to say what they know. In 2013 over 40 decomposing bodies were found floating in the Ezu River of Anambra State provoking public outrage. The police offered no explanation. The Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) claimed the bodies were those of its members arrested by security agencies but were never released from detention nor charged to court. The Police and the Military continued to deny any wrongdoings. So I thought that as a journalist I should independently investigate what was going on. The opportunity for me to do that came when bodies of some unknown persons were found at a dumpsite in Aba by scavengers.
How long did the investigation take?
It was a two-part investigation. It took me two months to conclude.
Did anyone coauthor the investigation with you?
It was a solo investigation. No other journalist collaborated with me on that assignment. I conceived the investigation by myself. I went there alone. I took all the risk and was only able to navigate myself through the special grace of God. It remains one of the riskiest undercover assignments I have carried out as a journalist.
You won an award barely a week before the Shining Light Award, what was it? What story is that?
Yes I won an award as the West Africa Journalist of the Year 2017. The award was held in Burkina Faso. It is called the Norbert Zongo Investigative Journalism Award. Norbert Zongo was an investigative journalist whose status in death is like that of Dele Giwa, the Nigerian journalist killed via parcel bomb in 1986 by the military dictatorship of General Ibrahim Babangida. Norbert Zongo’s case was a multiple tragedy. He was killed in 1998 in his country Burkina Faso by the government of Blaise Campore. Remember that Blaise Campore was the man who killed and overthrew one of Africa’s most popular patriots Thomas Sankara. His assassins killed Norbert Zongo; killed his younger brother as well as his driver. They were shot inside a restaurant. At the time of his death, the journalist was investigating atrocities carried out by Blaise Campore’s brother. The same story that fetched me the Global Shining Light Award also got me the Norbert Zongo Prize.
What other awards have you won in the past?
In total I have won 22 media awards. I have won two times the CNN African Journalist Award. I was the pioneer winner of FAIR African Investigative Reporting Award in 2009 in South Africa. I won the 1st Prize again the following year in 2010. I have won the Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Reporting. I have won the Nigeria Media Merit Award and several others I cannot readily remember.
What were the challenges you encountered in doing the Shining Light Award story?
The challenges were many but the most formidable was getting photo evidence. That was the story itself – photo evidence. It was the only way I could prove what was going on. Without the gory photographs, it would have been easy for anyone to repudiate the report as a fabrication. That was why it took me a long time to do the assignment; going into mortuaries, hospitals, getting the identities of the victims, visiting families and sneaking into the Onitsha Military Barracks to take more photographs and doing all that while trying to avoid arrest by soldiers.
How did you overcome the challenges?
For that kind of assignment you needed first to have established a certain level of credibility as a journalist for you to gain access into certain territory including a military zone. It is people who will give you vital information; it is people who will tell go here and go there and you will see this and that. Nobody will take the risk to open up if you are perceived as a journalist with character flaws. Your reputation will always speak for you and you are assessed by your past works and sacrifices made in the past in the public interest. If people don’t have confidence in you as a reporter, nobody will have the trust in you to say: Mayah, come and see what soldiers are doing. There are things I cannot say here so that they don’t put other people in jeopardy. As you can see in the second part of the story, it was someone within the security services who after witnessing the killings carried out by his colleagues and could not find the conscience to remain silent that got in touch with me saying: Try and enter inside that place; you will see new mass graves.
What is your propelling force in the investigative journalism profession?
The question you ask me is like asking a mechanic what is his singular motivations. It is nothing but to fix a bad car. It is the same for me: to contribute my part in fixing the country called Nigeria. I can’t say I am trying to be a change agent but if the mechanic can do his work well, why can’t the journalist? Journalism is a choice I have made. Thinking about my beginnings as a reporter, I can never forget my very first editor Bosah Iwobi. Without him perhaps, nobody would have heard the name Emmanuel Mayah. He saw what other people couldn’t see and he gave me my first break. He employed me even though I was coming from an engineering background. Within six months of working as a cub reporter, Mr, Bosah Iwobi gave me a weekly column to be writing. He gave me the opportunities that steadied my baby steps as a reporter and today I have travelled to over 50 countries of the world. I have partnered several international development organisations among them the European Union, Oxfam Novib, the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) based in Italy; the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, based in Geneva; Finance Uncovered (UK), Corner House (UK); Publish What You Pay (PWYP) Norway, CIDHR Argentina, among others.
What advice do you have for upcoming investigative journalists?
Never take the easy way out. Be diligent in your work. Make up your mind what you want to do and this is easy once you discover where your strength lies. Investigative journalism has several corridors. You should decide if you want to do financial investigations, human rights investigations or corruption in government. Then you must try to acquire the right skill sets. It is fundamental. They are the tools you need to do your work like the mechanic. Lastly, you must network and build transnational contacts. Without the right networking, a good investigative reporter would be like a lamp under the bushel.