RUGA “makes good economic sense”, Simon Kolawole, Publisher/CEO, TheCable
In this interview, Simon Kolawole, veteran journalist and publisher/CEO of the online newspaper, TheCable, talks to The News Chronicle on sundry issues – his resignation as the editor of ThisDay in 2012, his decision to set up TheCable, the proposed federal government’s RUGA scheme – and many more!
TNC: First let me congratulate you immensely for the feats achieved by The Cable within a few years of coming into existence. Did you envisage when you first started that The Cable will quickly get to this level of renown, becoming one of the leading online newspapers in Nigeria? Tell me, how has it been all these years? How many staff did you start with and what is your current staff strength? What are the key challenges you face, and what puts smiles on your face whenever you think of The Cable?
SK: Each time I receive positive comments over the modest progress we have made in five years, I feel highly encouraged given the enormous ground we are yet to cover. I tell my team that they need to double and triple their efforts to keep the ball rolling. Our dream is to be the most respected online newspaper on the continent. We set out to deliver quality news with speed and simplicity. We targeted readers of traditional newspapers who would like to migrate online or add online to their menu. We were also particular about decision makers in politics and business as well as upwardly mobile Nigerians. The first thing we had to deal with was keeping our costs low while delivering big results. That was a massive challenge. Quality journalism costs money. There are probably 10,000 websites also offering news simply by copying and pasting from other websites, most times without attribution, and incurring little or no costs. How do you compete in such an environment? It is compounded by the fact that online advertising is very cheap and the biggest revenues are probably made by those who can game the metrics. We also found out that the kind of journalism we wanted to deliver is better achieved with experienced and competent hands — given our target audience — but many experienced journalists were either reluctant to move from mainstream media or could not cope with the pace of real-time reporting. All these were big challenges. One of our biggest achievements, I would say, is that a young and virtually inexperienced team has kept TheCable competitive from the very beginning. This always gladdens my heart, given the various milestones we have recorded with modest means.
TNC: You have been a journalist for several years – having worked variously for City People Magazine, Complete Football, Thisweek, Tempo and Thisday before setting up The Cable to transmute from being a journalist to media entrepreneur. You are obviously very informed and have many admirers across the country. Your critics however accuse you of being a master of ‘on the other hand’ type of analysis, such that it is sometimes difficult to know your stand on contentious issues. What do you say to this? How would you compare your experiences in the various media houses you worked, up to setting up The Cable? And what is your position on RUGA, the rumours that the powers that be are moving on the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, and the politics and permutations for 2023?
SK: I started writing a regular column in THISDAY in 2003 and I would be naïve to say that I am not aware of the criticisms of my write-ups. I can say I have as many critics as I have admirers. I never set out to please anybody or play to the gallery. I would rather not write at all than write just to please critics. On the accusation of being ‘on the other hand’ writer, I think we all have our biases. The tendency in Nigeria is to say something is 100% good or 100% bad. I have never in my life believed that anything is perfectly perfect or perfectly imperfect. In logical discourse, you have the thesis, the antithesis and the synthesis. I reflect everything and then take a stand. There is no issue I have written on that I don’t take a stand — just that I don’t use the kind of language some people would want me to use. For instance, I would criticize President Buhari’s policies or statements without calling him a Fulani jihadist. Many would want me to call him Jibrin from Sudan. I will never do that.
On RUGA, I am 100% for it. It makes good economic sense. I advocated along that line when the herders/farmers crisis escalated. We are dealing with an economic and security problem that has been badly politicised. I grew up in a community that had something like RUGA and so it is nothing strange to me. But I will also criticize the way government has handled the whole thing. I will criticize government for poor policy process and communication, but I won’t say there is an attempt to Islamise Nigeria when I don’t have any such evidence. That is me. I am not going to say ‘I endorse RUGA and the way government went about it’. I would say ‘I endorse RUGA but government mismanaged the process of conception and communication’. That is exactly what they call ‘on the other hand’ even when my position is very clear. I believe that Nigeria does not need extremists and irredentists. What we critically need are nation-builders, peace-makers and consensus-builders. On Professor Yemi Osinbajo and 2023 permutations, I would rather not say anything. Politics irritates me, especially the way it is played in Nigeria. I am more worried about today than 2023. I am worried by the unemployment, poverty, inequality and insecurity across the length and breadth of Nigeria than what region or what religion should produce the next president. We have been doing this all our lives and yet we are where we are.
TNC: In 2012, the World Economic Forum named you one of the Young Global Leaders as recognition of your record of professional accomplishments and commitment to the society. You became the youngest editor of a national newspaper, ThisDay, at 29. You edited Thisday for five years before you resigned in 2012 in what some people regard as ‘controversial circumstances’. Can you tell us a bit more about these, including the circumstances that led to your resignation from Thisday? What is your relationship today with Nduka Obaigbena, the founder and publisher of Thisday?
SK: I resigned from THISDAY in 2012 because it was part of my plans for my career. I was supposed to have resigned earlier but I kept putting it off. When I was in secondary school, I dreamt of starting a newspaper someday. That dream never left me. After I had toyed with many ideas in the course of my career, I conceived the name “TheCable” in 2008 or thereabouts, and I registered the company in 2011. By that time I was ready to leave THISDAY. I finally decided to leave THISDAY in September 2012. But when I was made Editorial Director of THISDAY in June 2012, that offered me an opportunity to exit. I didn’t have any problems with my chairman, Mr Nduka Obaigbena. Some said I left in anger after a “cabinet” shake-up. Unknown to them, I was in Obaigbena’s house a few hours after my resignation, chatting and laughing with him. He said he did not want me to leave, but I told him I had planned my exit since 2007. As a parting gift, he gave me a new car. Two years later, he chaired the launch of TheCable. We enjoy a great relationship till today. God used him to advance my career and until I draw my last breath, I will always appreciate and celebrate him.
TNC: Let us look at the state of the country today. How would you compare the leadership styles of Nigeria’s Presidents in the Fourth Republic, from Obasanjo to Buhari? What do you think is the real ‘trouble with Nigeria’? And what would be your prognoses for action?
SK: Nigeria is perpetually in evolution but our leadership trajectory has been shaped by too much military involvement. When you look at Obasanjo and Buhari, you see two people cut from the same military fatigue only that Buhari is more modest in his personal life. Both made fighting corruption their mantra and, whether or not we like it, they were more vocal and practical in the anti-graft war, even if there are questions marks here and there. Presidents Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan were less visible in the anti-graft war. Obasanjo had a more national outlook and was more hands-on in economic policies, compared to Buhari. In the end, though, their military backgrounds would always interfere with the democratic freedoms and rule of law. Meanwhile, I align completely with Prof Chinua Achebe’s position that the trouble with Nigeria is leadership. All ingredients needed to make Nigeria great are here with us. But any country that has developed is as a result of leadership. Competent and patriotic leadership. Competence does not mean you will be patriotic and patriotism will not compensate for competence. You need the needed attributes to deliver the goods. The moment we sort out the leadership problem, the rest is a piece of cake.
TNC: Let me end with a question that may be a little sensitive for a media entrepreneur – the issue of ‘brown envelope’. There are some who believe that big media players like you are in the pockets of big time politicians and entrepreneurs and that a substantial number of published stories even in respectable media houses are planted stories. How would you respond to this? How would you assess the state of journalism in the country today, especially with the democratization of media ownership through social media? How do you think the media can help in combating issues like fake news, hate speech and ethnic and religious profiling?
SK: There is a real problem of ‘brown envelop’ in Nigerian journalism. It is a very big malaise. I don’t think it is only journalism though. I think every nook and cranny of Nigeria is polluted with corruption, including the church. I would therefore not think journalism would be exempt. That would be a miracle. Nevertheless, I can vouch for myself that I am not in the pocket of any politician. TheCable is also not in the pocket of anybody. We do not collect money to write or censor stories. We are also particular about professionalism so that we do not help spread fake news and hate speech. Nigerian journalists are doing their best given the difficult context under which they are operating. It is tough politically and economically. Some media houses are raising the bar in terms of remuneration, ethics and professionalism, but we all have a long way to go.
TNC: Finally, I know you have been a journalist most of your working life and obviously enjoy what you do. But what if ‘your people’ insist that you abandon journalism to come and ‘serve them in some’ capacity, what will be your response?
SK: I have no interest in politics at all, either by election or appointment. I have turned down several political appointments, some of which people would die or kill for. Nothing in politics attracts me. I am not even tempted.