‘I’m trying to democratise knowledge and success secrets’
No doubt, Azuh Arinze has paid his dues in the field of journalism with a career that span over two decades. The Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of YES! International Magazine, and Convener of YES! International Magazine Annual Lecture series, he’s a member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors and Guild of Corporate Online Publishers. He was the Editor of Encomium Weekly between 2003 and 2011, which was after he had edited Reel Stars magazine as a 26-year-old. He was named Africa’s Best Entertainment Writer in 2010 by the organisers of African Film Awards in the U.K. In this interview with DANIEL ANAZIA, he spoke about his journalism career and his recent books, Success Is Not Served a La Carte and Encounters: Lessons from My Journalism Career.
Congratulations on your two new books. What actually inspired the project and what’s the objective?
Prior to these two new books, I had written three books previously. There’s Tested and Trusted Success Secrets of The Rich and Famous, and The CEO’s Bible Volume I and 2. So, Success Is Not Served a La Carte is the fourth, while Encounters: Lessons from My Journalism Career is the fifth. The major reason for my writing the books is that by virtue of my profession, I have come in contact with some of the most respected Nigerians, which some people, especially in my kind of profession, do not have access to; it’s not everybody that enjoys such access and privilege.
For instance, I have interacted with the late Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, who is one the best when you are talking of the legal profession. I have also interacted with Mr Biodun Shobanjo, who runs one of the biggest advertising agencies, not just in Nigeria but also in Africa. There is Dr Christopher Kolade, who is one of the most venerated Nigerians alive; his name comes up effortlessly and regularly anytime and anywhere Nigerians discuss the issue of integrity. There is also King Sunny Ade (KSA), Iyom Onyeka Onwuenu (the Elegant Stallion), Kanu Nwankwo (the most decorated Nigeria footballer), Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Pete Edochie, Olu Jacobs, Richard Mofe Damijo, and Ali Baba, who is the doyen of comedy in Nigeria. There’s Okey Bakassi, Julius the ‘genius’ Agwu, Yibo Koko, Tee A, Gbenga Adeyinka 1st… just to mention a few. I did a series titled, The Comedy Kings.
At every point in time, I just decide where I want to focus on. In journalism, I have interacted with all the founding members of Newswatch, except Dele Giwa, who was not alive when I delved into journalism; there is virtually no title editor I have not interviewed. From The Guardian to Sun, Thisday, Punch, Vanguard, Nation, just to mention a few. As matter of fact, I was the last journalist that the late Dimgba Igwe spoke to before he passed on.
In the religious circuit, I have interacted with Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye, Bishop Mike Okonkwo, Prophet T.B Joshua, and Apostle Anslem Madubuko. In the corporate world, there was a time I was interviewing those running the multinational companies in the country, from Festus Odimegwu to Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, Prof Pat Utomi, Seni Adetu among others. The banking sector was not left out, as I went after the bank MDs. Also the soft sell magazines publishesr including Kunle Bakare, Seye Kehinde, Mayor Akinpelu, Femi Akintunde Johnson (FAJ). It depends on where I want to focus on; I just pick them from different career/field of profession.
Let me put it mildly; I have in interacted with over 200 of these high net worth Nigerians in an interview. Most people don’t have that access, but as a journalist, I have and what I do is to go to those people and extract from them how they have been able to get to where they are today; serve it in an easy to read and understand format, put everything in a book or in books and make it available. What I’m trying to do is what I called ‘democratising knowledge and success secrets.’ And in doing this, I look at a particular industry; find out the movers and shakers of that industry, set out to interact with them, put them in an easy to understand question and answer format for people to read and understand how they started and made it to where they are; what did to make it.
In my over 20 years in the journalism profession, I have learnt too many lessons, but the chief among them is that ‘success is not served a la carte’. You work for it, you prepare for it; you give it all the required and necessary attention, and then you wait patiently and painstakingly for it berth, just like a ship in the harbour. Anything else that short-circuits this process is usually fruitless and sheer waste of time. That is why the road to success is usually littered with carcasses of those who thought they could circumvent that age-long approach.
So, the objectives of the books is to let people know that success runs on principles and the ability to understand these principles will help you go far in whatever endeavour you choose in life. I want people to know that in everything in life, you don’t need to waste too much time because it is preciou. Whatever field of profession you find yourself, find out those who have succeeded and know what made them to succeed. Once you able to do that, you will begin to soar like an eagle.
Most of these people you encountered in the course of your career are not easily accessed. How did you penetrate them to extract information?
Just like I said earlier on, if a child is going on an errand and he knows the shortest route that will take him to where his destination, that child will get there on time. That is one of the things that the books are also trying to teach people. Right from a young age and as I grew in the journalism profession, traversing the different media houses, it has always been my desire to ascertain why some people fail and some succeed; why some success stories are sustained and others die prematurely and sometimes in ignominy too. It was that strong desire to crack this mystery that led me into chasing, interviewing and documenting for posterity the individuals whose success stories I have chronicled in the books. Spanning over a decade, the interviews cut across different age brackets and profession.
Like I often say, journalism is about people and events around them. As journalists, we report people’s foibles, acts of commission or omission. To write a factual story, the journalist most often depends on people — sources, who could be either eyewitnesses or conversant with the matter at issue. Therefore, cultivating a credible relationship with reliable sources is key to a journalist’s successful practice. Like many relationship, a journalist’s relationship with a source takes some effort and trust. This relationship, which ought to be symbiotic, is often difficult and delicate. When I was the editor of Encomium, one of the pieces of advice that my boss gave me back then was, “You are just about phone calls away from anyone that you want to meet. What you need is to know somebody that knows somebody that knows somebody.’
One of the memorable encounters that I capture in one of the books — Encounters: Lessons from My Journalism Career, most times, all the indices or everything will not walk perfectly well for you. There is this particular quote from the Bible that says: ‘The kingdom of God suffers violence and only the violent takes it by force.’ So, sometimes, you also have to be smart, crazy and creative in your pursuit for success. As a journalist, you must be smart, crazy and creative in your pursuit of interviews.
For example, I had gone to interview Prof Pat Utomi and in the course of trying to find out who his role models are, he said it is Dr. Christopher Kolade. After that, I went to interview Mr. Tunde Lemo, the former Managing Director of WEMA Bank and Deputy Governor of CBN, and he said Dr. Kolade was his role model. I also interviewed about four bank MDs and everyone kept mentioning Dr. Kolade. I now felt it will also be nice for me to go and talk to this man that everybody kept mentioning as their mentor. I didn’t have any access to the man; I had never met him one-on-one before our eventual meeting.
Days after one of those interviews, I got to the office and they brought my copies of the dailies as editor. I was flipping through one of the papers and discovered that the man was coming to Golden Gate Restaurant in Ikoyi to deliver a paper as keynote speaker. I dressed up very well and arrived at venue of the event early enough. Now, I have notice something; most journalists go to events late. Any journalist who wants to go far should watch that. Also, most journalists don’t dress well. Any journalist who wants to make a mark and go far in the industry must also watch his or her appearance because, there’s a saying that you dress the way you want to be addressed; appearance matters. I got to the venue an hour before the scheduled time and I was equally well dressed.
Now as journalists, we must know and note that serious people attend events on time; they keep to the scheduled time. They are not like some people who always want to be noticed; just take your time and check this out. I’m not talking about politicians, as you and I know they like to show off; I’m talking about serious people, technocrats, I mean core professionals. You know politicians will come when everybody is seated and the event has commenced; only a few of them respect time and keep to it. I have studied, interacted and interviewed them.
I think about 45 minutes or an hour to the scheduled time, I saw Dr Kolade walking in all alone and unaccompanied; he was holding a small file or so with him. I jumped down from my car and leveled up with him; he thought I was part of the organisers. After the welcome and all that, it was when we got into the elevator that I told him I was a journalist. When we got into the hall I told him I would like to interview him and he told me he did come there for an interview, but to deliver a paper. I persisted and after sometime, he said: ‘This young man that will not take no for an answer, what exactly do you say you want from me?’ I said just an interview. He asked how long and I said 20 to 30 minutes, but he said ‘no, no, no, I can’t give you 30 minutes of my time. Because of your persistence, I will oblige you five minutes.’
Nigerians don’t obey call time; at the end of the day, I ended up talking to the man for almost 45 minutes because the guests came late and the man was there alone; we just went on and on. Most times, journalists take the resistance as being no for an answer; you have to keep pushing. Another lesson from that encounter is that as a journalist, if you asked intelligent questions, you get intelligent answers. It was because the man was enjoying the interview that it went on and on. If he hadn’t been enjoying it, he would have cut me short.
For me, how to get interviews is not cast on stones, sometimes I write my proposed interviewee letters and sometime I attend high profile events to get them. Most times, I get invitations for such high net worth events. Again, the manner of approach matters when trying to get these people; if it is okay, they respond. I know what it took me to get Mr Biodun Shobanjo, the Chairman/CEO of Troyka, to chair of one our anniversary lectures. I wrote him for four years, I never stopped until he granted me audience; the letter is in one of the books.
One thing we must understand as journalists is that these HNIs can smell seriousness from afar; they can decipher when someone want something serious from them. If what you are not a nuisance and what you asking them to do for you is genuine, they will usually oblige. I remember pursuing Mr Udeme Ufot of the advertising world. I wrote him a letter and he granted me audience, but he took his time to explain to me that he was not favourably disposed to granting that interview at that point. Instead of feeling disappointed, when I got back to the office, I narrated what transpired and he saw it, liked it and said, ‘okay come, let’s now do the interview; I enjoy how you captured what happened.’
Most journalists, when they approach you for a favour or something and you declined, they classify you as their enemy; we don’t need such mindset in the industry.
Again, I remember my encounter with former governor of Rivers State and now Minister of Transport, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi. I had gone to my friend Julius Agwu’s house for his child’s dedication and I saw Amaechi sitting all alone, just relaxing; I went over to him and introduce myself. If you package yourself very well, you find out that people willingly will listen to you. Also, if you want to get someone and you know someone that knows that person, you can put a call across and the person will facilitate meeting for you. Sometimes, the interviews come to me. Sometimes, I will be sitting in my office and my phone rings and the voice at the other end will say, ‘My boss wants to meet with you.’ Maybe the person must have read one or two interviews I have done. The greatest joy I have is when people enjoy interviews I did; it pumps my adrenalin.
A critical look at all your books show that they all tend to tilt towards the same direction and people may consider them monotonous?
I respond in two ways; first, the books are not tilting towards one direction. For instance, what Dr Kolade did to succeed is different from what Prof Pat Utomi did. We all have different life and career trajectory; people play in different fields. For example, we all paly in the field of journalism and the principles of success are the same, but the application is what makes us different; what work here may not work there. Yes, all of them points towards what you can do to succeed in what you are doing, but you see, you may not be interested in what a footballer would do to succeed; you may be interested what a journalist does or what a banker did to succeed. Don’t forget that we are not talking to the same people; we are talking to different people in different industries, which is why I said that I have interviewed over 200 different people.
Any day you have the opportunity to read about how Tony Elumelu started Standard Trust Bank, which is now UBA, you will know that it is different from what Jim Ovia did in Zenith Bank. The most important thing is that at the end of the day, they are all heading towards success, but from different perspective. One of the books is about interviews, and that is last the last books, Encounters: that is why I said Lessons from My Journalism Career. I earlier told you about my encounter with Dr Kolade, let share with you my encounter with the late Prof Dora Akunyili, the one-time Director-General of NAFDAC, and Minister of Information.
At the height of her reign as DG NAFDAC, I needed to interview her and I discovered that Dame Comfort Obi had written something about her. She told me to discuss with her, which I did and they gave an appointment. On the day of the appointment, I got to her office in Abuja, in all fairness to her; she was an extremely busy woman. Even when while I was waiting, people were trooping in to see her. At the end of the day, she told me she was fagged out, and she was going to cancel the interview. She called one of her aids and directed them to put me into a hotel and make arrangement for my flight back to Lagos. But I told her that I didn’t come there for any hotel booking and flight ticket. As a matter of fact, my company knew I was coming to interview her and they are waiting for it. She was alarmed by my confidence, she had already stood up and her security details were already waiting; her pilot car was already blaring the siren. I told her, ‘you cannot go, I came all the way from Lagos.’ I said that with every sense of humility, but exuding high confidence.
She was already standing, clutching her bag, but she sat back. She asked them to call Emeka (the DSS operative), who she directed to tell the pilot people to wait. She granted me the interview and I left afterwards. Two weeks later, the publication came out, apparently her people had bought it and she had seen and liked the interview. I got a letter in my office then at Encomium, asking me to be part of entourage to a trip oversea. That was how we became friends. Imagine when she had said that her aides would check me into the hotel and arrange my flight back to Lagos, I had accepted, what would have happened? The lesson here for everybody, both journalist and non-journalist, always keep your eyes on the ball. At every point in time, know what you are pursuing. Most times, people focus on the things they should not focus on. I have 60 different lessons in Encounters. Is it my encounter with Kanu Nwankwo during his wedding in Owerri or Bianca Ojukwu, or Festus Keyamo?
Starting my journey into journalism, which today span over 20 years, at Fame Weekly, as an intern, the first story idea I suggested during our editorial meeting was that I would like to interview Onyeka Onwenu and my boss then, Mr Femi Akintude Johnson (FAJ), who was writing something at the time, adjusted his seat and look up at me. He then told me that Onyeka had taken the magazine and its publishers to court over a story they published that she didn’t like. He then said that in order not to discourage me, I should still give it a shot. I went, in fact, immediately I announced my presence at her office somewhere at Isaac John, Ikeja GRA, she said, ‘didn’t your boss tell you I took them to court?’ I said they did and she said, ‘you still want to interview me? Okay, go on.’
We did the interview, but when I got back to the office, I discovered that the tape recorder did not record the conversation. Everybody said Onyeka is an iron woman; she is tough, and brute. Something dramatic happened; imagine how little I was then. I wrote her a letter, explaining my predicament and asked if she will be gracious to grant me another interview. I took the letter by hand to her office and handed it over to the receptionist. Apparently, she took the later in immediately and while I was walking to catch a bus, I saw the lady running and beckoning on me. She then told her madam said I should come back. I went back and we did the interview; we published it. After that, we became so closed that when I had my first daughter, she was the godmother, and as godmother, she would journey from her Opebi residence to my place in Akute for Catechism classes, which was a pre-requisite for anyone intending to be godmother or godfather for a child in the Catholic faith.
Encounter with Kanu Nwankwo for me is the best story I wrote in my career. The odds were against us, but despite this I told myself that Encomium will come out with the best story from the wedding and we did; we did what other people shy away from. Most media platforms concentrated on the wedding, but I didn’t. Much as we did the blow-by-blow account of the wedding, the magic wand was that we got the owner of the hotel where Kanu and other people lodged to take me to the room where he was to spend or spent his first night as a married man. We took the photograph and said, ‘this is where Kanu and Amara will be spending their first night as husband and wife.’ All the cars he had in his convoy, I noted them down.’ I got how much exactly he paid for Hotel Presidential Owerri where the wedding held.
I also had interviews with the HNI that came, his father-in-law, mother-in-law, his younger brother Ogbonna, and closest friend. I was told the schools he attended, which I visited and took pictures. One lesson I took away from that encounter is that you must know when to deploy your contacts. Ovation had the exclusive right to that wedding, and I remember I had a friend at the hotel. So, I went over to him and he helped facilitated the interview around 1am; even the security people didn’t know we interviewed Kanu and Amara. There was a guy name Paulinus Nwachukwu, God bless him; he helped keep Kanu awake. Also God bless my source and contact, Evangelist Mike Ikoku of All Seasons Hotels; it was there Kanu and crew lodged.
We did the interview, took photographs and pretended as if nothing had happened. That edition of Encomium sold almost 99.9 percent. Another lesson I made here was that as a journalist or non-journalist, if you know the right people and have the right contact, you would get what you are looking for. If as an editor that sits in the office everyday and marshal out orders, you cannot go to an assignment and come back with less expectation, you must raise the bar to show your experience.
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