Reporter’s Notebook: Lessons learned while reporting on election violence in Nigeria

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By Temitayo Olofinlua, Global Press Journal, Nigeria

In February of 2015 I started working on a story about electoral violence for Global Press Journal.

I interviewed a retired grandmother in her late 70s at a stampede when some political party supporters passed by Iwo Garage. She became my narrative lead.

By the end of the month my interviews were done. My first draft, written.

On March 2, I was tidying my first draft when my husband called.

He heard breaking news on the radio – violence had erupted at a political rally at Ode-Ige. Two or three were already dead. That’s how my narrative lead changed.

My editor, Wairimu Michengi, was buzzing for me to send my draft.

The story just changed, I told her.

It was time to chase this new lead.

I visited the hospital where dead were taken – Ade-oyo General Hospital.

Back and forth trying to confirm the information. Finally, the hospital secretary confirmed three dead. I did not even use her quote, just her info to establish the number of dead.

First lesson: not all interviews get used. Sometimes, it is just the information that makes the difference.

Next stop: the community.

I’d never been to that area. It still reeked from the pain of the incident. But it was quiet. Clusters of men were gathered in shops, speaking in low tones. Houses still covered in campaign posters.

“That’s where they had the campaign. We are still shocked,” I was told over and over.

Next I went to University College Hospital. The ward leader was there. Waiting on two injured supporters of a political party. I got in just as the gubernatorial aspirant, Rasheed Ladoja, was
addressing the press. There was a crowd.

Second lesson: it is a disadvantage to be a “short” reporter. I could not see beyond the horde of cameras. I didn’t get much.

So I went on to interview with the ward leader. He broke down.

Another person had just died.

Let me tell you about a part of the interview that never made it into the report:

As we were talking, a woman wearing iro and buba, arrived. She was wearing a black scarf with flower patterns on her shoulder.

“How is Lateef?” she asked him. Lateef Akinyemi, who was in his 30s, had died.

“Lateef is no more,” Elejigbo told her looking at the ground.

The woman grabbed her head, removed her scarf and tied it around her waist and started to shout.

“Lateef is dead? Is this where this boy will end his life?”

A man tried to hold her, stopping her from running away. Her eyes glistened with tears. She stomped her feet on the ground; she kept shouting.

“What will I tell his wife? How will I tell his mother?”

Between tears, she said that Lateef was her nephew.

She made some phone calls. Then, she walked away. Her legs moved quickly. Her head was shaking left to right. She cupped her chin in her right hand.

Third lesson: Pay attention to the minute details, even if it never makes it into the report.

After the interview, I went back to the community to get more sources.

I was emotionally drained. These were human lives we were talking about.

Four dead. One dangled between life and death. Caked blood was still in the gutter with a pair of pam slippers, never to be worn.

Fourth lesson: objectivity may be elusive but seek it. Shut emotions.

So, I sought out the political party that was being accused of the violence, the APC.

That interview came through at the last minute. To get them to talk I said: “Would you like these accusations out there without your own view?”

But I knew the report wouldn’t be complete with a trip to the police headquarters.

After waiting at the office for hours, the officer was reluctant to speak with me. He said he wouldn’t comment on the issue because there had already been press briefing on it.

“Will you like that I write that the [police department] did not speak?” I asked. “How about a comment on the police preparedness for the 2015 Elections?”

Then he spoke. He also gave me a printout of the earlier press briefing.

Fifth lesson: remember ‘Sola Fagorusi’s words: ” No is not an answer.”

It’s just a word made up of alphabets.

I tried my photography muscles on this story too. I practiced skills I learned from Amogunla Femi Kayode and Paige Stoyer.

Sixth lesson: a police officer can be your cover when taking photos. Before clicking, I sought a cover. Delicate times. Sometimes it was just people in the area. Other times, security officers. Many here do not like to be “shot.” Who does?

I was afraid. Violence could still break out–what if it happens with me still there?

So, there you go. The making of a story.

Thanks to everyone who added one thing or the other to this story. One source to follow. One connection here and there. And the editors, one clarification after the other. Thank you.

May Nigeria know peace.