Award-winning Nigerian journalist baffled by nation’s splits

Nigerian journalist Godwin Nnanna has won more awards for his reporting than most entire newsrooms, but there’s one story that he always struggles to understand – why Africa’s most populous nation is still so poor and riven by religious strife.

Godwin, who says he might have become a Christian preacher if he hadn’t gone into the newspaper business, has been watching with anguish a campaign of bombings in Nigeria by the Islamist militant sect Boko Haram that has killed more than 900 people since 2009.

“Our Christmas was not too happy one for us because the Church was bombed back home, and then people my wife knew, people she is related with, people she has worshipped with, were killed,” he said. Thirty-seven died in that Dec. 25 attack.

“This country ordinarily should be a giant,” he said in an interview at the Knight Science Journalism office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is living with his wife and two children and studying as an affiliate at Harvard and MIT. Nigeria has 160 million people, almost double that of any other African nation.

“This is a time in history when numbers matter,” he said, pointing to the rise of nations led by China and India partly linked to their populations of more than a billion people each.

“We are such a huge market. We have a huge population and we have such enormous resources…there is no reason why we should not compete.”

One big drawback, dating from British colonial rule, was the 1914 creation of a country split between a mostly Muslim north and a mainly Christian south that have been uneasily living together ever since.

“I have really never seen a country with our uniqueness, almost on a 50-50 basis Muslims and Christians. Most countries have one religion dominant,” he said. Boko Haram, loosely based on the Taliban in Afghanistan, wants to impose sharia law across Nigeria.

With better leadership, Nigeria could have grown to be prosperous like Malaysia or South Korea since independence in 1960, he says, rapping the table to drive home his point. Nigeria has plenty of resources – it is a big oil producer and an exporter of farm products such as rubber and cocoa.

But still things don’t work.

“It’s an impossibility to be in Nigeria for a whole day and the light doesn’t go off,” he said. One recent study showed that 93 percent of Nigerians felt they were poor — the official figure is lower, but still an alarming 60 percent.

“Nigerians’ loyalty is not to the center, ironically. Unlike Americans who say ‘God bless America’ and are ready to die for their country, not too many people show that kind of passion for Nigeria.”

“Everyone is keen about where they come from. ‘I am a Yoruba man’, Or ‘I am a Hausa man’ or ‘I am an Ibo man’. Or each one says ‘I am a Christian or ‘I am a Muslim,” he said. And in politics, each religion, region and group expects “its turn” to rule.”

That just might lead to divorce, or an agreed shift to devolve more power to the regions. “If you read newspapers in Nigeria today, a lot of people are clamouring for a sovereign national conference…to agree as a people if they want to be together,” he said.

Godwin, who will be 38 in May and whose surname Nnanna means “grandfather”, said he was propelled towards journalism by a love of writing. He gave his teachers cans of coca cola to read and mark the extra essays he wrote beyond the normal school work. (see box below)

He is head of investigations at BusinessDay and a co-founder of the Economic and Financial Times and said he was also driven by a desire to expose injustice.

His writing skills have paid off since he started journalism in 1997 with a string of more than a dozen national and international awards, including two from the United Nations. His work has ranged from exposing the dangers of flaring of gas in the Niger Delta to writing about a political crisis in Ivory Coast. (see box below)

Godwin said he will always be a writer even if he moves on to do more editing of stories rather than working on the front lines.

He said that his disappointment about Nigeria’s failure to live up to its promise are summed up by Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer who won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature.

“Wole Soyinka…said he hated the word potential because that seems to be the only identity of Nigeria today,” Godwin says. “Everybody talks about Nigeria in terms of potential. Potential, potential, potential, for almost 60 years and still it’s the potential.”



Head of Investigations at BusinessDay
Co-founder, Managing Editor of Economic and Financial Times
Awards (14 in total; highlights):
2010 – Winner, Citi Journalistic Excellence Awards (Nigeria)
2008 – Finalist, CNN African Journalist of the Year
2007 – Silver medal, Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for written media (UNCA Awards)
2007 – Winner, Nigeria Media Merit Awards (NMMA), Environment Journalist of the year
2006 – Gold medal, UN Foundation’s prize for reporting Humanitarian and Development issues.
2006 – Fellow, Dag Hammarksjold Scholarship Fund for Journalists (UN Journalism fellowship)

“I have always loved writing. In secondary school, I took it upon myself, before I did my high school exams, to put together all the exams from the past 15 years and then I did all the essay questions — I would write it and submit it to my teacher. I would take my pocket money and get a can of coke for the teacher and he would mark it for me…I did other self-inflicted exercises, I did like to sit and watch television discussion on national issues I would listen to it and make an essay out of it.

“If I wasn’t a journalist perhaps I would be a preacher.”
I feel strongly about injustice, I feel strongly when things don’t work very well
When I was growing up I was very religious. I still am. I was involved, at one point I was doing a great deal of aid, leading a team to the prisons in Lagos, the maximum, the medium prisons. It was a case of giving them hope, letting them know that there is a life beyond the prison. I did that for a couple of years before journalism came to take the better part of me.