Nigerian freelance journalist and anti-graft activist Ifeoma Ozoma Blew the Whistle on Pinterest. Now she protects whistle-blowers.
Ozoma Blew the Whistle was born to a diplomat’s family in Lagos. She grew up in a rich culture of tutelage and scholarship, from a Nigerian parent and an American grandmother, and she later came of age in a country where women were not supposed to be allowed in the labour force, let alone have careers. She immersed herself in journalism and schooled herself in everything about contemporary media – television, books, and film. She then worked as a news producer at a national news station, and when the opportunity to travel arose, she decided to take it. A whirlwind of advice, mentorship, and networking led to freelance work around the world – published articles, magazine features, and original documentaries. Still, she was not content with the way the media was covering Nigeria.
I learned about the underbelly of corruption from my grandmother, a World War II survivor who became an activist and formed Mothers of the Disappeared – a group to bring closure to families that lost loved ones in African wars. As a child, I learned that the atrocities were committed because the men in government had preferred to settle petty squabbles than defeat an enemy. It taught me that nobody would be safe until the law restored order.
Around that time, Nigeria began facing questions about its involvement in the oil-for-arms deals that saw Britain, France, and the United States trade billions of dollars worth of weapons to finance the invasion of two African nations, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Growing suspicions about corruption revealed how the Nigerian government had misappropriated billions of dollars and used oil revenues to prop up the lives of criminals and promote government elite. What seemed like a desperately needed reform was instead only whetted people’s ire and stymied the rule of law. I began to sense the country’s corruption came back in my own community and started reporting on the conflict.
My grandmother took the tragedies to heart and never allowed me to rest. She passed away when I was 16, but when I returned home to Lagos to pursue a career, she was in my mind on every day. She would watch television and say, “I told you, she’s going to be critical.” Then she would remind me I didn’t know all the facts, and would demand I tell her about them. Through her words, I had a parent inside of me, both maternal and paternal. I felt a responsibility to be the bridge between the men and women in government and the people they needed.
At one point, I saw a senior editor of a national media group fired in an upscale part of Lagos. One of his accusers, who didn’t make it to court, became a low-level employee at her bosses’ newspaper. When I was growing up, the editor took me aside and said it didn’t matter that I had been there since I was six and can read and write and understand all languages. I was not only in his office, but in charge of the entire bureau and a coordinated monitoring operation for an entire city. So I thought, if I worked for such a senior editor, then it meant I was capable.
I also realized I needed to understand Nigeria’s history better, and that if Nigeria wanted to shed its image as a rogue nation, it needed to figure out how to instill trust and dignity in the very public institutions that need to serve the people. The first place I turned was to more traditional education. I saw how much respect Nigeria gave the armed forces, how the ministry of defense received $8,000 in monthly allowances for each soldier. This prompted me to break off from television work and pursue a graduate degree at a university in Abuja, the capital. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Even with degrees in journalism and law, I didn’t think I could run a state. But it made me think about the integrity of Nigeria’s leaders and institutions, and I found myself in a bizarre situation where a friend of a friend explained a simple concept to me called “willing participation.” Basically, when someone has access to government data, it is their duty to share that information with the public. And if that access is denied, they have a legal right to sue.
I thought about these concepts from a story I recently read by a courageous Nigerian whistleblower, and in that story, a story that inspired me to set out to write and speak out against corruption. I heard her speak about a dramatic story involving forced abortions