By Sola Oni
At exactly 12 am West African Time (WAT) on Tuesday, October 20, 2020, I shall by divine grace attain age 60 on this planet called earth, the next after Venus, third from the Sun and the only astronomical object that harbors life. Fresh from my National Youth Service Corps Programme (NYSC) at the College of Education, Jalingo, Gongola State, (Now Taraba State Capital) in 1990, I got a job in Yola few days after our passing out.
It was dramatic that I became the Editor of a Yola-based Newsmagazine, National Spectator, for defending the editorial thrust of Liberty Magazine, which I published as an NYSC Member after setting up Liberty Press Club, and also reinforced my discussion with critique of operational philosophy and editorial policy of National Spectator Newsmagazine during my interview with the Publisher, Chief D.S.Nyapuru. He heaved a sigh of and signed my employment letter in the middle of the engaging interview and my job commenced immediately.
The soft spoken influential northern politician opened doors for me to some political heavyweights in Nigeria. Our first cover edition under my editorial seat was an exclusive interview with the respected Colonel (Rtd) Yohanna Anteyan Makdaki, the former military Governor of Gongola State and then Benue State during the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. Madaki made headline with his strong views on the role of the United States in the Gulf War at that period, arguing that United States had an obligation to defend its territorial integrity.
But it takes someone who reads the entire interview to understand his position. Muslims in Yola were generally assumed that Madaki was defending United States rather than Saudi Arabia and were miffed at the caption. This is simply journalistic tactics. We reprinted the edition due to massive demand. Our next cover story brought me face to face with the late Cicero of Nigeria’s political landscape, Chief Bola Ige, Chief Olu Falae, former Minister of Finance and late Abubakar Rimi, former Governor of Kano State for exclusive interviews as they came to Yola for caucus meeting. It was an exciting interview. I put Falae, the erudite economist on the spot on the raging controversy about the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). But Falae, who was warming up for Presidency, highlighted the substance and essence of the Programme in less than 15 minutes . In one of the subsequent editions we interviewed the socialist-inclined Balarabe Musa, former Governor of Kaduna State and vintage Isa Mohammed, former Governor of Plateau State.
There was no dull moment in Gongola State and people began to perceive me as a tin god. I realized the need to bridge a professional gap by working in an environment where someone can challenge me for better output. I resolved with my wife who was then in Ekiti State that I would move to Lagos, the nerve center of top-notch journalism. In 1992, I explained to Chief Ige why I needed to relocate to Lagos. He agreed and invited me to his Chamber at Ibadan, gave me reference letters to The Guardian, defunct National Concord, and Daily Times. The three newspapers were making wave at that time, but The Guardian was the most elitist. Its stories are written in high prose and the headlines appeal to intellect rather than emotion. It was a status symbol to work for the Flagship at Rutam House in those days. Ige recommended me strongly to The Managing Directors of the three newspapers through one of The Guardian’s Editorial Board Members, Mr Sina Odugbemi, who now holds a Doctorate Degree in Law. His mandate was to introduce me to the three newspapers for employment. I preferred to work for The Guardian. But it operates a rigorous recruitment policy. Applicants must undergo test that may last for years. They shall source stories and write in The Guardian’s style.
Some candidates do abandon the test after a long period of trial. One of my classmates at the university discouraged me from going through the route. Despite my introduction to The Guardian by Odugbemi, I had to undergo the Test. I took up the challenge and before the end of the first month, I was employed. One of the secrets of The Guardian’s exemplary quality in those days was deliberate recruitment of professionals from different academic background, hence the paper has specialists in all fields of human endeavour. It parades top class academics. Dr Olatunji Dare (now a Professor) who finished with First Class Honours in Mass Communication at the University of Lagos was the Chairman, Editorial Board. Another secret of the newspaper’s competitiveness was the editorial freedom granted the Management by the Publisher, late Alex Ibru. Every successful government takes the paper’s editorial opinions sacrosanct because of its depth of facts, analysis and polished diction.
The flagship places premium on exclusive stories. I started with Energy and was later moved to Aviation, Insurance, Real Sector, and Money Market before my odyssey to the Financial Market. I was privileged to pass through Jide Ogundele, Editor Financial Guardian and later Group Deputy Editor, Business, Eluem Emeka-Izeze, Editor, The Guardian, Femi Kusa, Deputy Editor-In- Chief and Lade Bonuola, Editor-In-Chief and Managing Director. These are top class professionals symbolize the entire Board and Editors of The Guardian’s titles. They will not settle for mediocratic stories.
I became a restless reporter, jostling for front page stories. At times, I had more than three by-lines, including prominent pages to my credit in a day. Journalists in those days work round the clock to get stories unlike the current era of online information flow which has rendered many reporters indolent and diminished the urge to break news. One afternoon, barely three months after my employment, Jide, my immediate Editor said Sola, go to the Library and begin to read Financial Times as from now. Tomorrow, you shall report at The Nigerian Stock Exchange and you must get us solid stories as usual. I could not understand why I must cover almost six beats within a few months. You dare not challenge such an editorial order. That marked the beginning of my real odyssey to the financial market.
I went to The Guardian’s well -stocked Library, assembled some copies of Financial Times and began to study the companies and markets section. I also decided to buy some books on finance and economics to defend my stories. My first day at the gallery of The Nigerian Stock Exchange was exciting. I watched stockbrokers like dramatists as they shout ‘offering’, ‘bidding’ ‘home delivery’ and other trading terminologies. Every stockbroker is addressed by the name of his organization. Like a convention in journalism, every stockbroker is a gentleman. The Exchange’s Officials: The Call Over Chairman and Clerk seat at the podium. As the Clerk calls out the quoted companies’ names, stockbrokers respond simultaneously by indicating whether to buy (bid) or offer (sell) with the quantity and price. It was awesome, how the Call-Over Chairman and Deputy Director General, late Chief Henry Ogiri picks individual’s request and apportions the quantity equitably. The Call Over Trading, also called Open Outcry is time consuming and energy sapping. At times, ladies’ voices can be swallowed by men’s baritone. Despite the shortcomings of this transaction model, it unites stockbrokers as members of one large family.
Although the Chairman has an opportunity to be biased in his allocation of shares, he is obliged to be fair to all. Call Over also enables stockbrokers to argue why a share price should rise or fall. The daily trading is a harvest of stories for reporters with high sense of news judgment, otherwise, he stands the risk of pushing out routine stories daily. This can provoke an editor’s wrath. All stockbrokers deal in the same financial products. Therefore, stock market approximates perfect market in economics because. There is homogeneity of products and free entry and free exit, though the latter is a function of demand and supply.
The capital market is the heartbeat of the economy where individuals invest for medium and long term and companies and governments mobilize huge capital for diverse use. There is correlation between development of an economy and its capital market. Virtually all sectors of the economy are represented on the market. The stock market, like any institution, is not without its good, bad, and ugly. This is why investors should leverage expertise of stockbrokers to mitigate risks. I started turning out strong stories from the market for The Guardian. At times, my story could ‘step ’on the toes of The Exchange, the Self Regulatory Organisation ( SRO), where late Apostle Hayford Alile was presiding or Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the apex regulatory body, under the watchful eyes of late Mr George Akamiokhor. The likable duo typified highest level of professionalism by all metrics. But neither organization ever faulted my stories. In the later years, Professor Ndi Okereke-Onyuike (then Doctor), the Deputy Director General and a delight to every reporter because of her brilliance, lucidity and willingness to answer reporters’ questions had several times threatened to ‘arrest’ me for my stories, but it always ended in laughter. Competition was keen among Correspondents. Everyone strives to break news. I suddenly became an in-house investment adviser to my Editors at The Guardian, church members, club members, families, and friends.
I must defend every market swing in my stories and back it up with authentic sources. Some of us did not care about our relatively poor salary in those days but derive joy in hitting front page and serving as checks and balances to the high and mighty in the financial market. As a pay back, job was running after us. I rejected moves by some banks to employ me at different interval just because we mock Public Relations Staff as mere messengers who can never become CEO. We derive joy in breaking news and being regarded as threats to CEOs. We never realized that PR is a strategic function, depending on the organization and performance of the practitioner. My wife was uncomfortable with my rejection of bank jobs, wondering what was happening. I began to have internal conflict.
People were already calling me a stockbroker which I knew I was not. At this juncture, it became clear that I needed to develop capacity in the securities market and become a certified stockbroker as part of my professional diversification. Surprisingly, in 1997, Mr Kusa told me in his office one evening that I should find out how I could undergo the 90-day training for certification of Stockbrokers by The Exchange to strengthen my skills and become a stockbroker. The crash programme was designed for holders of bachelor’s degree or equivalent in any discipline. The emphasis was on technical analysis of securities, ethics and trading. Every trainee must be introduced by a principal who I think is vicariously liable to his trainee’s error of commission or omission. Most of the highly revered stockbrokers who have attained the commanding heights of the noble profession in Nigeria today were beneficiaries of this short-term training. But Mr Kusa was a bit apprehensive whether The Exchange would allow me to undergo the programme, as a crack Reporter.
He however added that alternatively, The Guardian might send me to the New York to train and write the qualifying examinations, become a stockbroker, and come back to Nigeria to be proclaimed The Guardian’s Capital Market Editor. In those days, stockbrokers were some of the most sought after and highly paid professionals, unlike nowadays that most stockbrokers go about with shallow pockets as victims of economic malaise and deep rooted investor apathy. The commencement of the Chartered institute of Stockbrokers (CIS) later elevated and globalized the point of entry through a rigorous examination process. The total number of certified stockbrokers in Nigeria as at now is just above two thousand. I was excited by the confidential plan for me. But prior to this information, a Director in SEC had hinted me of the Commissions’ willingness to hire me for its Surveillance Department after the embargo on employment is lifted as SEC is a government agency . As I was ruminating over the two issues, destiny took its normal course after few days. The Exchange’s Head of Corporate Communications, Mrs Yinka Idowu who later became my immediate boss invited me to her office one day at 8 am and said The Exchange would need my service.
Still basking in my disdain for Corporate Affairs job, I shocked her with my instant but polite response that what will be my function. She laughed and gave me a file that contains my job functions which revolve around investor education and responding to media enquiries. My acceptance of the offer later was not based on juicy package but an opportunity to become fully integrated into the market, end up as a Chartered Stockbroker and save myself the ordeal of being called a stockbroker. I assumed duty at The Exchange on July 8, 1997, the year it commenced its Central Securities Clearing System (CSCS) as part of globalization drive. Leaving The Guardian was a tough decision. as The Organization did a lot to prevent it, including double promotion. The Guardian’s Management thought i was moving to Thisday which recently joined newsstand and busy recruiting experienced hands for brand positioning. Some top financial experts including Mr Atedo Peterside and the present Governor of Edo State, Mr Godwin Obaseki expressed surprise at my exit from Rutam House. I had enjoyed the duo among others, through exclusive interviews and professional comments on topical issues. When Mr Peterside saw me at The Exchange, he said “ I never knew you can leave the media.”
Mr Obaseki was more poignant as he said “Sola, why did you leave The Guardian? You are like a king that removes his crown and says we are all equal. You that The Exchange always feel your presence as a Journalist.” A Chairman of an indigenous quoted company told one of the late reporters of The Guardian, Gbenga Agbana that The Exchange had silenced Sola Oni with this offer. My 13-year career at The Exchange was tasking but highly rewarding. As the Spokesman of The Exchange, I was communicating all policy issues to the public, engaging with the media and heavily involved Investor Education. There was no dull moment. I earned promotion six times in 13 years. My career at The Exchange strengthened my decision to become a stockbroker, a dream that came through after passing the Institute’s Examination.
To further strengthen my career in the financial market, I am a certified Capital Market Registrar, Commodity Trader and Member of Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment, United Kingdom (CISI). But all the certifications are without prejudice to my strong background in Financial Journalism through which I won the fourth edition of Diamond Award for Media Excellence in Financial Reporting in 1997. I also remain a Strategic Public Relations Professional. In 2009, Accenture, which handled restructuring of The Exchange, reviewed my job functions and comments of the Director General and recommended that I should be deployed to Market Operation, a core Department to enable me rise to any level in the Organization. I was already an Assistant General Manager that time.The transfer opened some technical trainings for me abroad such as comprehensive capital market training at International Institute for Securities Market Development, midwifed by the United States’ Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington DC. I did an internship at World Bank, Chicago. I had earlier attended the New York Institute of Finance, also in Washington DC and participated at a training powered by The Management School, London, among others. The Guardian provided a platform for me to showcase my talent while The Exchange reinforced my stay in the corporate world. Financial journalists should keep tab on the entire economy. They must have reliable sources among the stockbrokers, officials SEC, all securities markets, quoted companies, shareholders’ associations, market analysts etc to excel. They need regular training to keep abreast of constant changes in the global economy and the impacts on our market. Unfortunately, many stories on the market nowadays fall below minimum benchmark as every professional story should spur an investor to buy securities, sell or keep on hold. Stockbrokers have always expressed dismay at abuse of space and airtime by some media organizations through jaundiced stories and screaming headlines of huge losses whenever the market is bearish.
Reporters ought to also know that bearish trend is a buy signal for blue chip companies whose shares are trading below intrinsic values. Market reports are no longer generated solely from The Exchange as NASD OTC PLC, FMDQ Securities Exchange, Nigeria Commodities Exchange (NCX), AFEX Commodities Exchange and the latest entrant, Lagos Commodities and Futures Exchange (LCFE) are established for investment opportunities. New products offerings are introduced to the market regularly. Trading in derivatives is becoming a focal point of securities market in Nigeria. Consumers of market stories are becoming more educated and sophisticated. Millennials and institutional investors value analytical stories for investment are in dire need of analytical stories for investment decision. Strategy and tactics of reporting the market is changing by the day.
Stockbrokers and financial press must be global in thinking and outlook. Training models for financial press must change in form and content. It should reflect current developments in the market, including digital assets. Turnover is high on the Business Desk in the media houses as banks and other financial institutions employ good ones. Some organizations assign interns to cover the market. Regulators may need to work around this without necessarily appearing dictatorial to media houses. The market is sensitive and should be reported by those that have basic training. Media houses can take care of fundamentals of news gathering and reporting. But they lack technical know-how to train journalists on fundamentals of financial market. They may not be able to teach financial statement analysis, especially investment ratios and their applications effectively. No journalist can report the market accurately without these tools. This makes the scholarship awarded some financial journalists by the CIS for Diploma in Securities and Investment timely and commendable.
They cannot give what they do not have. This is where synergy comes in. Regulators, operators, and quoted companies should invest in quality training of financial journalists. Professional journalists with track records of covering the market should be involved for effective deployment of case studies and critiques of stories. Such engaging training was like a statutory function during my days at The Exchange. The financial press is a strategic member of the market ecosystem. Online publication and social media have demolished the Chinese Wall that literally block information highways. Journalists’ inaccurate reports or lack of understanding of some basic concepts can dent a securities market image and cause financial hemorrhage for its quoted companies and shareholders.