Up until last year, Fisayo Soyombo had been working as a freelance journalist in Nigeria — a lone ranger speaking truth to power and working to advance society. He wanted to do more, however — specifically, raise a young generation of journalists looking to serve the public with critical, investigative reporting of their own.
In June 2020, Soyombo founded the Foundation for Investigative Journalism [FIJ] a newsroom that reports on social justice, human right abuse, and corruption in Nigeria. For almost a year now, the outlet has worked to hold power to account.
Investigative reporting, with impact
“We are the only newspaper [online] to have attempted a casualty toll count of the protesters killed by soldiers on the night of October 20, 2020,'' Soyombo said, referring to the protests against police brutality in the country last year. “Government agents put enormous effort into covering up the massacre of unarmed protesters, but we managed to document the relics and name some of the dead.”
A reporter from the outlet also recently traveled between Lagos and the UK to expose a syndicate that was allegedly procuring false negative COVID-19 results for international travelers. “The racket ring’s operation is so sophisticated that, in connivance with people in government agencies, including the Port Health Service, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and the Nigeria Immigration Service, it manipulates the Nigeria International Travel Portal and outwits the country’s supposedly strict travel system,” Soyombo explained. After the report was published, the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital ordered an investigation while the state government set up a COVID-19 results verification platform.
FIJ has reported stories of sexual violence, with impactful results. “One of our earliest stories is that of a police inspector who raped her stepdaughter, then evaded justice because of his status and even went as far as threatening the [survivor] and her mother,” said Soyombo. “Once we reported it, the inspector was picked up. The case is alive once again.” The FIJ team also reported on the case of a woman who was sexually harassed by her boss and was subsequently fired without pay. “The police were gunning for her after her boss petitioned them because she repeatedly asked for her money. After our story, the police backed off,” Soyombo said.
The organization’s investigative reporting has exposed economic crimes, such as fraud, as well. For instance, one FIJ journalist followed the story of a bank customer who saw a withdrawal of N200,000 (about US$487) in his account. It was a failed transaction, however, and he hadn’t been refunded by the bank for two months. “Once we intervened with our story, the bank credited him,” Soyombo said.
From editor to reporter and back
Soyombo first thought about launching his own outlet in 2016, when he was the editor of the investigative outlet, TheCable. The decision was an “evolution” he was “going to make at some point” in his career, he said.
Before eventually doing so, however, he worked with leading investigative newsrooms in the country to expose corruption. His coverage focused primarily on the criminal justice sector and the procurement of arms for fighting Boko terrorism in northeast Nigeria.
After editor roles with two other publications, Soyombo decided to become a freelance investigative reporter. Not many journalists would choose to make this move from an editor role to reporting, he noted, but this wasn’t a problem for him. “I am in journalism because I saw it as a tool for speaking for the downtrodden, speaking truth to power and generally advancing society,” he said. “I was sure that realizing these targets would be easier if I fully dedicated myself to investigative reporting.”
It was while freelancing that Soyombo decided to launch the FIJ, an outlet he envisioned would embrace the same ideals that he held as a freelance reporter — fulfilling them at an even faster pace. Members of his team could hunt down 10 stories in three months, something that would have taken him more than three years to do himself. “The best part of it all is I get to eat my cake and have it [too],” he said. “I’m technically still a freelance journalist; just that I am now responsible for the growth of my guys. I’m now a reporter who must look after both his report and his reporters.”
Sustaining the initiative
Soyombo funds FIJ primarily himself — it’s “no walk in the park,” he said. The outlet has also received development support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa. “It’s a complicated challenge; there are probably a thousand and one easier ways to go about one’s journalism career, but I am here already and there can be no looking back.”
Soyombo is the sole editor of what he calls “a lean team,” one whose pay package ranks among the highest in the Nigerian media landscape. He prefers to work with fewer hands and pay them well, rather than work with many and pay them less. “I supervise a crop of young but talented reporters,” he said. “We are hugely ambitious, to be honest, but we are also prepared to grow one step at a time.”
Soyombo hopes to continue pursuing social justice through FIJ’s work, while remaining committed to raising a new crop of journalists with integrity. “We want to be able to count dozens of people whose quest for social justice we have participated in actualizing,” he said. “We want to have produced scores of impactful investigative stories.”
Despite lean resources and the impact of the pandemic on newsrooms, Soyombo also wants to become a reference point for fair pay in Nigerian journalism. “I believe journalism should not condemn you to a lifetime in poverty,” he said. “Journalists should have integrity and should be incorruptible, but they should be well-paid too. Some years down the line, I would be so proud if people in the industry thought: ‘If FIJ can pay their reporters well, why can’t we?’”
Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian freelance journalist based in Johannesburg where he is currently an Open Society Foundation fellow on Investigative Reporting at the University of Witwatersrand. He has been published by a number of publications, including Foreign Policy, NPR, African Arguments, Daily Maverick and Rest of World.
Ifesinachi Ayogu is a freelance journalist based in Enugu State, Nigeria. Ayogu's reporting covers specialized topics including politics, conflict, social justice, human rights and development.