Mike Awoyinfa’s name rings a bell in Nigerian media industry as the founding editor of defunct Weekend Concord, the pioneer Editor-in-Chief/Managing Director of The Sun and the publisher of the now rested Entertainment Express newspaper. Surprisingly, it is his books that pay his bills to this day. The prolific author first came to prominence as a writer with the publication of The Art of Feature Writing in 1988, which he co-authored with late Dimgba Igwe. His latest book is entitled 50 Nigerian Boardroom Leaders, a book that has become a bestseller months after its release. The renowned journalist spoke to HENRY AKUBUIRO on his writings and the secret of his success as a writer.
You have made a name as a big-time journalist. Now, you have focused your attention on book writing, becoming a prolific author, too. How did the journey begin as an author?
I have always wanted to be a writer right from childhood. Once you read voraciously, it makes you want to be a writer. In those early days, after reading books, and we were asked to write essays in primary school, it showed in my essays. Whatever essays I was writing, I would manoeuvre the storyline along the books I had read. I eventually became a journalist. The rest is history. I worked with Concord and became the editor of Weekend Concord. Then I went to The Sun as the founding MD. All this time, my story couldn’t be isolated from the story of Dimgba Igwe. We met at Sunday Concord. It grew to a point where we were getting restless and asking ourselves, “How long are we going to be editors?” We became so ambitious and told ourselves to write a book.
That was how we wrote The Art of FeatureWriting. That was 1988. It became a bestseller. Most journalists of today told me they went to journalism school reading The Art of Feature Writing, which is still selling. In fact, The Art of Feature Writing became the template to starting the Weekend Concord. When I was asked who to be my deputy at Weekend Concord, I chose Dimgba Igwe. We picked a formidable team that included Femi Adesina, Dele Momodu, Sola Osunkeye –the A-Team of journalism.
From the Art of Feature Writing, we wrote another book called 50 Nigerian Corporate Strategists. Concord was closed during those era of military dictatorship in Nigeria, and we didn’t know what to do. We went around interviewing CEOs to tell us how they managed business in the country. It was a book we sold for 10,000 naira that time (in the 90s). It was from the proceeds of that book that we built this house. Dimgba also built a house beside mine.
From the success of that book, we wrote another book called Nigerian Marketing Memoir. After that, we went to work for our friend, Orji Kalu, to start up The Sun. We thank God we were able to build a newspaper that is turning out to be a big brand. You know what happened –my colleague, Dimgba, died suddenly while jogging, and we had already planned so many books to write, including biographies; we started a company called Corporate Biographer.
The death of Igwe really distablised me. Up till now, I haven’t recovered, because we were twins; we did everything together; we had the same vision. In the tennis game of life, we were partners. Suddenly, I found myself as a solo player having to do what two people would do. I was so truamatised. So, I said, “What do I do that Dimgba will like?” And God gave me a vision of writing a book on 50 Nigerian Boardroom Leaders.
So you mean this latest book was done in his absence?
Yes. I have to retain his name on the book cover. There is no way I won’t include his name as a co-author, because he never expected to die at that age, and I know if the table had turned and I was the one who died, he would have done the same thing for me. He would have even done more. He was such a good man. I have no cause to doubt him: he would have taken care of my family. So I chose to do a book he would like. Dimbga liked boardroom issues, things like meeting. He was always at home with such. I am more of a writer with creative ideas. I was the one who dreamt fantastic dreams. Even when I was at The Sun as the MD, he was the one holding the meetings. I just gave every power to him to coordinate. I hated everything about meetings. But, because of him, I had to wake up; I had to start liking things that I didn’t like before. So I decided to go around and look for boardroom leaders.
Both of you had initially produced 50 Nigeria Corporate Strategists. How is that one different from 50 Nigerian Boardroom Leaders?
The first book is about business management, but the board is at a higher echelon. It is like a committee of advisers to companies. Every company must have a board of elders or experienced hands who have seen it all and who are ready to tell you frankly some hard truths. If you bring any strategy, they are the ones to approve the strategy or your budget. Every company needs a board; it is like the engine room of every business.
After looking around, I discovered that there hadn’t been any book, anywhere in the world, on boardroom leaders. The boardroom is more of a mysterious kind of place where those outside don’t know what goes on inside. Even boardroom members who write books write it from their own perspectives. So I decided to interview 50 boardroom leaders, the big names, to share their stories.
How did you select those you interviewed for the book?
First, I had to look for the big names. There are some obvious names like Christopher Kolade, Michael Omolayole, Professor Joe Irukwu, Dotun Suleman, Olusegun Osunkeye. Those are names that ring bells. Everybody knows them. Once you mention their names, people recognise them. They are seen as the babas of the boardroom. I had to make sure I got them to tell their stories.
How receptive were they?
They were very receptive. Some of them know my pedigree, that I had written books in the past. Some of them were people I had interviewed in the past, like Sam Ohuabunwa. Everybody was excited to hear I was writing another book. This is a country where people are loaded with ideas. But not everybody writes a book; they keep saying “wait until I write my memoirs”. At the end of the day, many die without writing their memoirs. So seeing a journalist coming to ask them questions, they jump at the offer.
Journalism has trained me to be able to do what I am doing right now. Journalism is researching the background of your subject –the person –and going there to ask the right questions: who, what when, why? Those are the elements.
So what’s the difference between interviewing a subject for a newspaper and interviewing a subject for a book?
Interview is an interview, except that interviewing for a book is a higher journalism; it is higher than a PhD in journalism. Yes, you have to raise your game, research, and go deeper and deeper, so that you can ask the right questions. By the time I even went out asking questions about the boardroom, I was already a boardroom specialist. Thank God, I had been in the boardroom of The Sun, and I had watched the board in action. I know what happens in the boardroom. I know the role of the chairman and what is expected of a non-executive director of the board. Journalism fires your curiosity. You want to know more. At the end of the day, this book has made me an authority on the board. You can see the book is massive, over 800 pages.
How did you manage to put this tome together from the thought process to realisation?
I knew I wouldn’t do it alone. So I had to bring in a young man I have been mentoring, Jibril Musa of The Sun. He would follow me to my interviews. So he became the other Dimgba Igwe. I brought him closer. Before we would go, we would discuss questions together. He is a very intelligent young man. He was the one who transcribed everything, even wrote some of the chapters. It was a mentoring process. When he didn’t get the right angle, I would sit down to rewrite and edit it. I wouldn’t say I wrote this book alone. It was a joint effort in the real sense of it.
You have written up to ten books, and you aren’t done yet. I hear it every now and then that books don’t sell in Nigeria. How has the experience been for you?
If you want to make money from your book, do your homework; look for a vacuum in the market and think entrepreneurially. Don’t just go and write books for writing sake. Ask yourself: is there any book in the market similar to what you have in mind? If the answer is no, you have seen an opportunity; go out there and fill that vacuum. Find the right people (like in the book I wrote) people want to read about, role models like Michael Omololaye, Christopher Kolade, Ibukun Awosika (first Chairman of FirstBank), Biodun Shobanjo (the advertising guru), Mrs Mosun Bello Olusoga (of Access Bank), Osaretin Demuren (Chairman of GT Bank), Dr Felix Ohiwerei (a legend with Nigerian Brewery), to mention a few.
So who is your target audience?
For now, my major target audience is anybody who has money to buy a copy of this book for 40,000 naira, know the worth and read it. My target audience are also board members of other companies, who would want to use it as a benchmark to know whether what they are strategising in their boardroom looks similar or those looking for ideas to pick from others. My other targets are students reading for their masters in business administration or anybody who is doing research on corporate governance. I am also targeting senior managers in corporations who have eyes towards the board, whose ambition is, one day, to be on the board of companies. This book is not just for the board; it is also a book on business wisdom. In it is contained 50 Nigerian corporate icons telling the Nigerian story. Every board guru you read in this book tells you the reason businesses die in Nigeria. It is mostly because they don’t have an effective board.
I am so happy how far the book has gone for a new book. It came out this year, and is already selling like hot cake. So far, it has become a success story. I hope it becomes the book of the year. I believe anybody who reads this book, this is a fast track to success.
So where does your energy come from, because it is not every day you come across a former editor or a newspaper MD doing what you are doing?
First of all, I thank God for giving me the wisdom and the strength. But when you find yourself pushed against the wall, you have no other job than do it. At my age, as a retired journalist, I won’t be begging to apply for jobs. I can’t go and lobby to be a minister or be in government. I am not cut out for that. The only thing I am called for is to be a journalist. From experience, I can’t be writing show business or entertainment –money doesn’t come out of it. Not long ago, I ran a newspaper called Entertainment Express, which folded up.
This kind of society is not ready for an entertainment newspaper. Internet has disrupted the whole business –I wonder how people into sports journalism are surviving –so I have to leverage on what I can do. I had already done a book on corporate strategists, and I already know my market. I have carved a niche. I can only expand the niche. Luckily, nobody is competing with me. This is a niche Dimgba and I have dominated over the years, and we are still dominating. Dimgba doesn’t like easy things. He likes things that are difficult; things like this that are challenging. When Dimgba sees the mountain and a hill, he will rather climb the mountain. Before he died, we were also writing a book on entrepreneurship called Nigerian 50 Business Founders. It is what I should have finished, but I decided to do this first, because it was where the spirit was directing me. Now that I have finished with this, I am going to continue with Nigerian 50 Business Founders.
We need to write a legacy book about such entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is the catalysts that drives the economy everywhere in the world, from Bill Gate to Steve Job. In Nigeria, we have such entrepreneurs, people who are thinking out of the box, creating something out of nothing. What I am doing now is entrepreneurship, inventing things that people will buy.
Some people say Nigerians don’t read, but I have proved them wrong. If you produce a book that will add value to their lives, that will teach them how to survive, no matter the cost, they will buy it. This book is sold on Amazon for 100 dollars, paperback edition. I am so happy. It is not the money alone that matters, but people reading it, clapping for you and praying for you. I could have gone to writing novels…
Yes, you said in a previous interview you wanted to be a poet. What happened to that dream?
My brother, it doesn’t pay. I am a business poet now (laughs). I am a management poet. I am a boardroom poet (laughs).
Isn’t it possible to combine what you are doing at the moment with poetry or fiction?
If you write a poetry collection and sell it for 10 naira, who will buy it? Can they even understand you?
So what is your advice to writers who complain they are not breaking even?
They should think entrepreneurially. Write a book that will impact the society. Write a book that will be a toolkit for training. Write an experiential book. I am not saying people shouldn’t write fiction –there are people who do that –but I don’t have time for fiction. I have read enough fiction in my life, and I am not aiming to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. I have found a new niche as a writer.