Simon Kolawole is the Founder/CEO of Cable Newspaper Ltd, Lagos, publishers of TheCable online newspaper (www.thecable.ng). He was Editor of Nigeria’s influential newspaper, THISDAY, from 2007-2012. He currently writes a weekly column for THISDAY, The Sunday newspaper.
Kolawole earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos, and a Master’s degree in Governance and Development from the University of Sussex, UK, as a British Chevening Scholar. He was named among Africa’s next generation of leaders by The Banker, a publication of Financial Times of London, in 2009. He was Mo Ibrahim Fellow on the Governance for Development in Africa Initiative at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in 2010.
In March 2012, he was named Young Global Leader (YGL) by the World Economic Forum. As a YGL, he has attended courses on leadership at the Yale University (2013) and at the Kennedy School, Harvard University, both in the United States.
Kolawole the writer concentrates most of his thoughts on nation-building and its impediments, and has written extensively on governance, conflict and development. His primary academic interest is ‘fiscal sociology’ – how the fiscal relationship between a state and its citizens impacts on the quality of governance. In this interview with Church Times Nigeria; he shares the bit about his life and the journalism profession..
Kindly give a run-down of your background.
I call myself a post-civil war child, born at Amilegbe Maternity Home, Ilorin, Kwara state, by an organist and a chorister. My father was an organist and I still have some of the Hymnal books he used to play from. My mother was a chorister. My father died very early in life, at 31 or 32, in a motorbike accident. I was four years then, and he left five of us behind. My parents are from Mopamuro local government in Kogi state. Automatically I am from there too. I am the second child in a family of two boys and three girls. One of us died last year.
What was it like growing up? What was your idea of God?
My father was a Baptist, just like my grandmother. After the death of my dad, I went to live with her in the village. Church was punishment in those days. We would leave home very early Sunday morning, attend Sunday school, sing a million boring hymns during the church service proper, and then I would carry my grandmother’s bags and follow her to meetings, all kinds of groups in the church. I remember “Egbe Majekobaje” and “Egbe Ina Olorun Ntan”. We would get home at 4pm! I hated church. But the punishment, which she hardly enforced, was that there would be no lunch for you if you skipped church. Church was pure punishment. I began to enjoy church a bit as a teenager when I joined the Royal Ambassadors, the equivalent of Boys Brigade in the Baptist Church. I loved the uniform, the parade and the camping.
My idea of God was that he was one distant being, unapproachable, tough, fire-spitting. I used to see God as somebody who would allow bad things to happen to you because you did not pray before you left home or pay your tithe and offering in church. It was like a God who was so eager to punish people for their wrongdoing. Yet, I could cite many instances of God’s mercy in the Bible, but the God I was taught in church was a consuming fire.
At what point did you get to a realization to surrender your life to Jesus and how did it happen?
My journey to the Christian faith had many preambles. I remember sitting down one day, while I was in the final year in the university, and thinking about life and the future. I asked myself: what on earth can give lasting satisfaction? I came to the conclusion that only knowing Christ could give a joy that never ends. The irony, though, was that I went to church only once throughout my university days. I spent Sundays watching TV drama and Telematch and Ali Mazrui. Yet here was I saying knowing Christ was the only thing that guaranteed everlasting joy!
Also, there was a much older student who was a Christian. We used to call him Reverend. He was very friendly and jovial. He felt so free with us sinners, very different from the holier-than-thou attitude of the others. One morning, on my way from the bathroom, he stopped me as I passed in front of his room and said: “Simon, I just want to tell you that Jesus loves you.” I laughed it off. I must have said something cynical in response, but I can’t remember what I said. But, you know what? That statement did not leave my mind for ages. It just stuck. It started tormenting me, as it were.
A year later, I gave my life to Christ during my NYSC. My roommate, Chris, was a Christian, and most of the corps members at the Corpers’ Lodge were also Christians. So I got know to know more about the Christian faith in detail. To be honest, though, other Christians made it easier for me. They did not judge me. They did not reject me. They embraced me and I could see the love of Christ in them. Giving my life was a natural consequence. I gave my life on September 11, 1993 at a Love Feast organised by NCCF (Nigerian Christian Corpers Fellowship).
What were your initial views of the Christian faith? Were there things you initially did not agree with? How did you resolve these issues?
Being a body of Christians from different denominations and different doctrines, our fellowship was robust and also challenging. The first obstacle for me was that I was told if I was in a relationship, I had to break it as it was not of God. I was not in a relationship but there was a girl I liked so much and was hoping would agree to marry me. So when I was told it was wrong because she was not even a Christian at the time, I told myself I would wait for her to convert and then I would propose to her. Again, I was told that even if she gave her life to Christ, both of us had to start our lives afresh, that we could not carry over a relationship. Eventually, and painfully, I had to cut her off from my mind. As soon as I was able to do that, I gave my life to Christ. I did not really agree with the teaching, but I felt it was better to be safe.
The second trouble for me was that I loved secular music a lot. I was a devotee of Bob Marley, and I loved all sorts of reggae, jazz and R&B. I was told I had to stop listening to “worldly” music if I wanted to be a Christian. It was very, very difficult for me. I loved music like rice and beans and I felt I would die, although not literally. I had to take the painful decision of getting rid of those secular tapes. Someone was even trying to tell me that if a Christian song was rendered in reggae beat, then it was ungodly. That one, I refused to accept. My argument was that most of what we call Christian music in the church is nothing but rock, even if mild rock. I argued that the Bible does not prescribe what beat is Christian.
Finally, at a Bible study, a few days after I gave my life to Christ, the issue of restitution was brought up. The discussion was so heated. In fact, we almost ended the evening with a fight. A brother, who was a Catholic Charismatic, insisted that all new Christians must do restitution. I did not agree. I made three arguments. One, nowhere in the Bible is restitution made a pre-condition for salvation. The Bible only says he who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Two, the thief on the cross did not do any restitution. Jesus told him,’ today you would be with me in Paradise’. Three, the Zacchaeus that was regularly used as an example of restitution was only following the self-righteous Jewish belief that you can do something to earn forgiveness or favour. He was the one saying he wanted to do restitution. It was not Jesus that told him to do restitution.
Those were the things I battled with initially. Today, my views have not changed much, but I think I have better understanding. On restitution, for instance, my conclusion is that even though it is not a pre-condition for salvation, you can be led by the Holy Spirit, case by case. If God says you should do it in specific cases, you have to obey him. However, if you just wake up one morning and go to tell your neighbour, ‘Sir, I’m sorry, I am the father of your children, I have come to do restitution,’ I think you would have yourself to blame if the man sends two people to the grave that day. We have to apply wisdom and be Spirit-led in matters of this nature.
Did you consult God before choosing a career in journalism?
I was not a believer when I chose my career.
What are the factors that influenced your choice of Journalism?
I wouldn’t really know. I think it came naturally. I initially wanted to be a lawyer, but then Dele Giwa was murdered via a parcel bomb. That was when I was about to fill my JAMB form. I was asking myself: journalists must be very important if they can go to the extent of killing a harmless man like this. But I was already in love with newspapers from the time I entered secondary school.
You have worked in several places before finally settling to do your own thing. How will you describe your experiences in those places?
Every newspaper I worked for contributed something to my life. I covered different beats, learnt different skills and made friends all over. I wouldn’t recommend my nomadic career to any young journalist, but I enjoyed every bit of it.
Journalism and Christianity; Do you see a semblance?
In many ways. Christianity is about spreading the good news. In my journalism, I tend to be more interested in what can gladden the heart of the reader. I love to celebrate people’s successes, and look on the brighter side of life.
In what way has your faith influenced your practice of journalism?
I would love to say in every way, but I would be sincere and say I missed the road several times. My faith has given me a conscience, has taught me to be ethical, to look up to God for success rather than cut corners. It has taught me not to misuse the power of the pen, not to think of myself more highly than I should, not to destroy but to build. I have missed my steps a lot, but I have stayed on course. I want to be able to say at the end of it all: I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.
Can you share some of the striking testimonies in the course of your practice as a journalist?
That can be the subject of a book. God has been with me all the way. I rose through the ranks very fast. I acquired skills that later gave me extra income legitimately. I came across people that would later be part of my vision of helping society. My career path is filled with testimonies, miracles, favour. I will tell the story in full one day.
If you’re not practising journalism, do you see yourself being a preacher?
We are all messengers of Christ and we have to preach the gospel no matter our occupation. So one does not stop the other. We have bank MDs pastoring churches!
What is your most favourite scripture? Who are your mentors in faith?
I have many favourite scriptures: ‘trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not on thy own understanding’; ‘they that sow in tears shall reap in joy’; ‘say ye to the righteous it shall be well with him’; ‘when my heart is overwhelmed lead me to the rock that is higher than I’; ‘in the world, ye would have tribulation, but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world’. There are so many of them! My mentors? I can’t point to any mentor in particular. But I can talk about role models. Apostle Paul says imitate me as I imitate Christ. I should think it is my role models that indirectly mentored me. One of them is Pastor Magnus Maduka, a pastor in the Redeemed Church. There is also Pastor Noruwa Edokpolor, also of the Redeemed Church. Of course, Pastor Sam Adeyemi, Daystar Christian Centre, where I fellowship. Bishop David Oyedepo too. They mentored me through their messages, not personal contact! While I was attending the Baptist church, I sat under the ministration of Pastor Job Alabi, Pastor Israel Akanji and Bro. Gbile Akanni at various times. They were phenomenal. I’m a product of all these schools!
Have you ever been tempted to abandon the Christian faith…what informed the temptation?
What a question! What a question!! I have never been tempted to abandon the faith, to be honest. To whom do I go? Only Christ has the words of eternal life. However, my faith has been severely challenged, to the extent that I started feeling helpless and hopeless about life. I started questioning certain things about the power of prayer, and the need for prayer at all. On September 8, 2015, I lost my sister. It’s by far the biggest tragedy that has hit me in life. She was just 18 months older than I was, and we grew up together holding hands while going to school. She taught me the first things about life — manners, dressing, good grammar. She fell ill and we thought it was a small matter. I just got a call one morning that she was dead, when I thought they were about to tell me she had been discharged from hospital. It was too much for me to handle. Till today, I still shed tears. When we lost our dad, she was five and a half and I was four. We went through a fatherless life together. A few months before her death, we were still thanking God for taking tragedy far away from our family after our father’s death. We were so confident nobody would die young again in the family. Her death shattered me. I grieved and grieved endlessly. I would wake up at night and start crying. I was like, But God you could have saved her from death. In truth, my faith was shaken, but I was never tempted to abandon the faith. There is no turning back. That one is settled in heaven.
Kindly accept our sympathy for this loss. It could be painful. But we believe God understands. Let’s talk about your new concern, as the founder and CEO of TheCable.ng. Is this a vision come true? What has been your experience so far? In what way does this resonate with God’s will for you?
One of the things I have learnt about life is that God does not reveal the whole of our destinies to us at once. He can flash the picture of your future several decades ahead, and many of us jump the gun because of that. We jump ahead of him. I have seen God lead me step by step, metre by metre, mile by mile. My vision as a secondary school student was to establish a media house, and at various times I thought about magazines, newspapers, TV. I even thought about specialised publications on entertainment, sports and business. But at every stage of my life, God brings his plans to pass. The Cable is just the beginning of the realisation of the vision. There are many things in the offing, and most of them are not even media-related. TheCable has been a good experience for me. I am learning the ropes and I think I have a better understanding of business now than I had when I was just a journalist.