By Mike Sula

Critic at Large

A few weeks ago Dapo Ajanaku, foreign bureau chief of the Nigerian newsweekly Tell, was taping a magazine cover inside the door at the Eko restaurant at 13th and Michigan. A portly cabdriver, his face a latticework of Yoruban tribal scarring, rushed up shouting, “Let me buy one! Let me buy one.” Laughing, Ajanaku directed him inside, and he reemerged a moment later, clutching a copy of the “Death of the President” special issue, with its black cover and bold headline exclusive, “Abiola’s Last Prison Notes.” He was followed by the restaurant’s proprietor, who told Ajanaku he needed extra copies to sell. On the way back to his car to get more, Ajanaku saw the cabbie parked on the corner, poring over the news from home.

“That is the sort of thing that gives me joy,” says Ajanaku, a journalist with 20 years of experience. “That is why if it rains I will go out in the rain to distribute this magazine.” As the weekly’s sole employee in the western hemisphere, Ajanaku covers news in the U.S. and Canada for Tell’s more than 100,000 readers. He also markets, distributes, and keeps the books on the 200 to 500 copies flown in from Lagos every Wednesday.

Back home Tell is banned by the military regime. “The government doesn’t want Tell to exist because it is exposing them too much,” says Ajanaku. “Since this magazine started they have been seizing copies. We have lost millions of naira on seizure, but we always find a way of getting it out. If they seize our color copies, we will go to another place and print black-and-white. The way we come out is an act of God.”

When Abacha was still alive Ajanaku received some threatening phone calls that he believes were from government agents, but he dismisses the calls as “nonsense.” He knew that Abacha was arresting Tell vendors in Nigeria. “I was worried but not afraid. You can’t just pick me off the road here.”

As a high school student, Ajanaku admired journalists but didn’t think he had it in him to become one. “I thought a journalist had to be someone who was perfect, someone who was extremely brilliant,” he says. “But I only regarded myself as an average student.” After graduation he worked for a few years as a civil servant, eventually attracting the attention of a manager from a newspaper group in his home state of Oyo, who offered him a job as a court reporter for a local paper called Sketch. “I think he saw me and liked me and believed that I should be able to function well,” Ajanaku says. “But when he told me I said, ‘I don’t have a degree. I don’t think I can do it.'”

Ajanaku accepted the offer anyway, and with only a few days of training, he was sent to cover the fraud trial of a government minister. When the story hit the front page the reaction from friends and family was enough to persuade him that he’d found his calling. “The news went around the city because the newspaper was very popular. People were contacting my parents and asking if it was really their son who wrote the article. They were so proud of me, and I was so proud of myself that I started putting more energy and strength into everything I wrote to ensure that it made the front page. I saw that this was a profession that was going to enhance my credibility and make me a good writer and make me popular.” After two years at Sketch Ajanaku enrolled at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, getting a degree that allowed him to land reporting and editing jobs at a string of national publications. In between jobs he earned a degree in public law and criminology at the University of Lagos.

Meanwhile, some editors at Nigeria’s most popular weekly, Newswatch, were becoming increasingly disgusted with how their magazine was compromising its stories, especially those covering the government of General Ibrahim Babangida. The trouble began in 1986, when editor in chief Dele Giwa was killed by a package bomb. An independent investigation by a prominent human-rights lawyer pointed toward the government, but Newswatch executives refused to cooperate, damaging the magazine’s credibility among many Nigerians.

In 1991 five editors struck out on their own and started Tell, using the slogan “Others watch the news. We tell it.” When Babangida annulled the 1993 elections, which were swept by businessman Moshood Abiola, Newswatch’s coverage was tepid compared to Tell’s unflinching condemnation of the government and insistence that the elections be upheld. “People saw Tell as being in line with their democratic aspirations,” says Ajanaku. “Unlike Newswatch, society did not see them as being part of the government. So anything they wrote people believed.” Tell became the most widely read newsmagazine in Nigeria.

It was around this time that Babangida’s security forces started seizing the magazine as it rolled off the presses. Things got worse when Abacha took over five years ago; he arrested news vendors on the street and jailed three of Tell’s editors (one of them, George Mbah, was released last week). The magazine has only a skeleton staff of administrators in its office in Ikeja, a suburb of Lagos. Editorial meetings are held in churches, mosques, and in the bush, and the editors never sleep at home.

After working for two years as the general manager of a men’s magazine called Mr., Ajanaku joined Tell as an associate editor in 1994. That same year he was invited to Washington, D.C., to cover a prodemocracy conference hosted by the exiled Democratic Alliance for Nigeria. He was impressed by the expatriate community and saw it as an important news source and a potentially lucrative market. He pitched the idea of a foreign bureau in the U.S. to the editorial board. When he left the country he didn’t tell airport officials he was working for Tell. “They wouldn’t have let me leave the airport,” he says. “I had copies of my old magazine in my suitcase, so even though my passport says that I am a journalist they believed I worked for Mr.”

Ajanaku decided to make Chicago his base because 30,000 to 40,000 Nigerians live here, including his sister. For a while he shared an office with an African magazine called New Breed (he also became a contributing editor). But a year and a half ago a fire forced him to move operations into the one-bedroom Uptown apartment he shares with his wife and two little girls. He keeps up with events back home through a fax machine sitting in the living room.

“I prefer stories that are exclusive to me,” he says. “Because CNN is international, the moment you hear it here it is heard in Nigeria. That is not the type of news I want to pursue. I have to generate news that will be very fresh and timely and will be consistent with the policy of my paper.”

Ajanaku doesn’t object to being called an activist as well as a journalist. “As a newsman I cannot make direct comment,” he says. “So I have to make people say what is in my mind. Common sense dictates that one has to see things the way they are supposed to be seen.”

On July 7 his mother told him that a friend in London had said that Abiola had died in prison. Ajanaku was devastated, but he went to work. He picked up the phone to get a reaction from the prominent Nigerian expatriates who are his chief contacts. “As a reporter I know the views that I need. I know who to ask.” Some of his reporting ended up in a long, collectively reported story about the chaotic events surrounding the death of Abiola. One of his Chicago sources told him, “Only a fool would believe that Abiola was not murdered.”

The same story alludes to a “secret document sent to Tell in the U.S.” that outlines a conspiracy to prevent Abiola from ever becoming president by a “‘cultic group’ in the military” that approved the appointment of General Abdulsalam Abubakar as Nigeria’s latest strongman. Ajanaku won’t say what this document was, who it was from, or even if he was the recipient. “It would be very unprofessional of me to confirm or deny that, but I believe what is there,” he says. He’s planning a trip to Washington next week to interview Abiola’s daughter Hafsat and other prodemocracy leaders in exile about the future of Nigeria, and he’s preparing to write a piece on Ola Alabi, the Nigerian ice cream vendor whose foot was blown off by a firecracker last month on Chicago’s west side.

Ajanaku says that more of his time is spent marketing the magazine than writing for it. He spends much of each week doing clerical work–mailing the magazine to subscribers and monitoring sales at distribution points. To make ends meet he moonlights as a cashier at a downtown parking garage.

Before Ajanaku arrived, Tell was smuggled out of Nigeria inside News-watch and other magazines. But there weren’t many copies, and they were often a week or two late. Ajanaku now distributes the magazine at three places on the north side and three on the south side, including African restaurants, a record store, and a grocery. Demand clearly exceeds the supply–he says each issue is passed along to about ten people–and Ajanaku’s goal is to bring thousands of copies into the country every week, opening markets in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Old World Market on Broadway, an Uptown grocery with a large African clientele, is Ajanaku’s largest distribution point. Manager Maria Hurtado, who stocks several other Nigerian publications, including Newswatch, says Tell is her best seller (second best is a soccer magazine). “We receive like 20 calls a day from people seeing if we have it,” she says. “As soon as they read that one they come for the next one. Sometimes there is a delay, and they’re like crazy–‘When is it gonna be here? When is it gonna be here?'”

Nigerians have been promised democracy for a long time, and Ajanaku says that they’re skeptical about Abubakar too. Still, he just heard that Tell is being sold openly on the streets of the capital, Abuja, for the first time in its history.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dapo Ajanaku photo by Dan Machnik; Tell magazine covers.