A Journalist Through and Through
Though he appears quiet at first, Waziri Adio spent years in the thick of things when political life in his native country was dominated by military rulers and authoritarian regimes.
Adio is a journalist through and through.
Three times he has won his country’s top reporting awards. And beneath his pensive manner he watches his native land with a sharply critical eye, bent keeping on Nigeria’s youthful democracy in line.
Adio spent this year at Harvard as a fellow with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, living in Dunster House and lecturing on the challenges and responsibilities of free press in Africa.
To Adio, a responsible free press and a successful democracy are inextricably linked—a message he’s tried to spread at Harvard during his Nieman year. In the fall, he spoke before the Harvard African Student Association and the Center for International Development to warn against premature celebration of emerging African democracies.
“There are tensions between journalists and governments all over the world,” he told an audience of students and fellow journalists. “What distinguishes a democracy from an authoritarian regime is how you manage that tension.”
Now, as he readies to leave the University at the end of the month, Adio prepares to return to Nigeria as a reporter and pick up where he left off.
A Radical Under Military Rule
Adio wryly recalls how, as an impressionable 10-year-old, he idolized a Nigerian television journalist who routinely put the country’s politicians in the hot seat.
“The guy asked them all the impossible questions and people actually answered him,” Adio says. “Government officials were not supposed to be questioned. And this guy was very, very bold. And I told myself that I wanted to be like this guy when I grew up.”
Adio entered the University of Lagos in 1988 and studied mass communications—a program so competitive it took him three attempts to get admitted. Looking back, Adio remembers his ignorance to the financial hardships that would come with the territory once he became a professional reporter.
“It was much later after I entered the university that I realized that journalists were not well paid,” he says. “From the outside, you thought it was one of those glamour jobs because you see these guys on TV well dressed...Then you see these guys who graduated 10 years ago and didn’t have a car [or were] dressed shabbily.”
A year after graduating Adio found a job in 1993 at an obscure newspaper called New Vision. But determined not to become one of the shabby ones without a car, he became restless with the paper’s small circulation and joined the staff of the Temple newspaper.
In addition to reaping the benefits of a larger circulation, Adio was exposed to the risks of being a journalist under the military rule of General Sani Abacha.
In the regime’s eyes, he says, Temple was considered a “very radical newspaper.”
“The military is not interested in press freedom. It’s not interested in freedom at all. They didn’t want any questions,” he says. “That runs against what journalism is supposed to be because you as the journalist want to ask questions. You can’t do that without being labeled ‘radical.’”
Stigmatized by the “radical” label and even faced with threats of arrest, Temple staffers like Adio kept the paper afloat—campaigning for democracy by working underground.
“If you carry a story that they don’t like, even if your newspaper is not banned, they will seize the copies,” he says. “And they will come to your office and shut it down. Or even arrest your printer.”
“[Temple] had a mobile office,” he adds. “You’d just find out that the newspaper would come out despite the offices being closed.”
A Critical Eye
Even as one who spent years critiquing his government, Adio says he’s not about to play the role of crusading journalist just for the sake of appearing radical.
“I will not take sides and I will criticize everybody,” he says. “You had the military guys on one side and the pro-democracy people on the other side. Each of them needed to be put in their place.”
For Adio, many crusading journalists undermined their own ability to report the news.
“They boxed themselves into a corner such that they couldn’t even get news from the government,” he says. “What you want to do as a journalist is that you want to have access to everybody. You have to have the facts and you have to argue from the facts.”
A voice acknowledged by both opposition and government leaders, Adio built his reputation a respected critic—earning national awards three consecutive years in the mid-1990s.
In 1995, he transferred to This Day, the leading independent newspaper in Lagos, which had until recently been Nigeria’s capital city. And not long after that, he was on his way across the Atlantic.
Coming to America
In 1997, as global opposition to Abacha’s rule mounted, This Day opened an office in New York so it could cover the overseas opposition. According to Adio, Nigerians in Britain and the U.S. brought a fervor to their protest that took advantage of their greater press freedoms.
“The things that people couldn’t say in Nigeria, they could say here,” he recalls. “At that point [Abacha] was totally deranged. He was either killing people or putting them in jail.”
In 1998, when he joined his paper’s New York office, Adio enrolled at the Columbia School of Journalism. The following year he was introduced to the Nieman program by one of his professors.
After the pressure of daily journalism, this year’s fellowship came as a welcome break. But his acceptance also came at a time when Adio felt increasingly disillusioned with how he was being treated in the U.S.
“The limited interaction I had with Americans outside the course of work didn’t encourage me to stay here,” he says. “I had experience. I had gotten some sort of a reputation in Nigeria. I come to this society and they ask, ‘Can you speak English?’”
“The thing about America is that people are so arrogant they don’t believe that you know anything,” he continues. “And so you say, ‘OK, by the time I get into the system, I will show them I know something.’”
Adio says he was not alone in being discouraged at the reception of journalists from the developing world.
“If you have several years of experience in Ghana or Nigeria or anywhere, you don’t want to come here and start off as an intern,” he says.
“Believe me,” he adds, “I know the best of the journalists from Nigeria who were educated here in the ’80s—they are doing odd jobs in New York because nobody was ready to give them a chance. Because nobody thought they knew anything at all.”
As Adio worked toward acceptance in the U.S., the political climate in his native country changed drastically. Abacha died in 1998, and Adio sees the potential for democracy to take root in his native country both as a gift and as a challenge to Nigerian journalists.
“An atmosphere of freedom actually put more responsibility on you as a journalist,” he says. “You have a lot of work to do as part of the reconstruction of that society.”
So now, after four years abroad, Adio is preparing to return to Nigeria and cover the country’s tender political situation.
“If you want to be an agent of change,” he says, “you can’t do it from a distance.”
—Staff writer S. Chartey Quarcoo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.