• Saturday, July 13, 2024
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Africa’s new storytellers: A funny story about Nigeria’s 2023 election

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Back in 2014, life was very different for two young men from West Africa. One of them, a self-styled “village boy” from the small Ghanaian town of Ahekofi, was a student of Aeronautic Engineering at Shenyang Aerospace University in China, while the other, a Nigerian graduate of Creative Writing from the University of Hull, was laying the building blocks for what would start off as a promising career in Marketing before segueing into the interesting world of full-contact, no-holds-barred investigative journalism.

Kobina Ackon, known popularly as Wode Maya, has since outgrown the surroundings of Shenyang, morphing into arguably the most recognisable internet personality in Africa, as well as the masthead of a burgeoning new community of African digital storytellers, vloggers, content creators and journalists.

The other person happens to be the writer of this column. Both of us had some sort of general idea of where our endeavours could end up when we started out, but much of the journey along the way has been – and continues to be – trial and error.

Through this long process of improvement, elimination and iteration, some interesting insights have shone through, one of which struck me yesterday when my phone rang and the caller ID read “Wode Maya.” Changing an Established Order Through the course of my sojourn in Marketing between 2014 and 2017, something I repeatedly came across was a “tail wags dog” reality in the Nigerian media space, where PR practitioners and advertisers were the prizes to be chased after by journalists.

The emergence of the internet as the primary vessel for information dissemination is having such an effect on several other spaces in African public discourse, including the space I operate in

I personally had become so used to this reality that on one notable occasion during an NIPR certification programme I attended in 2015, I actually asked a particular journalist in attendance why he gave us PR people a hard time when we pitched stories to him, very much unlike his colleagues who routinely rolled over suppinely for us. “PR people are not supposed to dictate coverage to journalists,” he said with a tired expression on his face. He looked as if the question genuinely removed an amount of energy from his soul.

Years later as a practising journalist myself, I would come to understand why that was – or should have been – an offensive question to ask. At the time, however, this was the reality of journalism in Nigeria.

It was a murky, uncertain, poorly and irregularly paid profession that offered little to no opportunities for professional and financial growth, and so anyone who came with a cheque in their hand got to pretty much have entire newsrooms eating out of their hand.

So it would have continued where it not for the rise of a brand new internet-based ecosystem, which is in the process of entirely disrupting the legacy paradigm for mass information and news dissemination in Nigeria and across the continent. Along came the explosion in popularity of platforms like Substack, Twitter and YouTube, which thoroughly democratised an individual storyteller’s ability to reach a wide audience with high quality stories.

Cresting this wave were the two individuals mentioned at the outset, and the extent to which things have been disrupted only became clear to me yesterday when I took that call from Wode Maya. African Stories Now MatterMaya was calling to ask after the possibility of speaking to Labour Party candidate Peter Obi. This is not an unusual request for me to get, since many erroneously assume that my public profile and my obvious partisan support for Peter Obi must mean that I am officially affiliated with his campaign.

In fact, I am completely independent and I do not work with the Peter Obi campaign, but I often get calls like that from journalists and political actors wanting an audience with the candidate that is clearly Nigeria’s electoral man of the moment. The key difference between those calls and Maya’s call, however, was the framing.

Typically, how it used to work when I was in Marketing was that the journalists wishing to speak to a prominent politician would be hoping for – and often outright expecting – the infamous brown envelope. It was accepted back then, that getting to interview prominent government or political figures was a source of income for whoever was lucky enough to interview them. In my time as a journalist, in fact, I have witnessed a few colleagues who shall remain nameless descend into fisticuffs inside a newsroom because of a disagreement over who would get to interview Rotimi Amaechi – a politician with a reputation for being “generous” to journalists.

Maya, however, had no such expectations. All he wanted to achieve by speaking to Peter Obi was to add value to his YouTube audience, possibly garner views and grow his platform. Since his YouTube channel is such a solid source of income on its own, young storytellers like him have come up completely insulated from the destructive idea that African stories have to be framed through the prism of who is paying for them. For these Young Turks, the quality of the story itself is an existential goal. He was not expecting or hoping to receive any payola from Peter Obi, and in the unlikely event that he were offered, he would even turn it down – something that the aforementioned colleagues from a few years ago would find unconscionable.

The emergence of the internet as the primary vessel for information dissemination is having such an effect on several other spaces in African public discourse, including the space I operate in. One can only watch with great excitement as African storytelling finally starts to break the borders imposed upon it by economic hardship, and African stories finally start being told the way they deserve to be told.

In that sense, at least, the future is very bright.