Indications emerged on Friday that journalist and creative writer, Tolu Ogunlesi allegedly co-authored an article, by The Economist, which labeled Nigeria’s former president, Goodluck Jonathan, an ineffectual buffoon. The article also described President Buhari’s approach to dealing with Nigeria’s economic challenges as “crude.”
The article which attracted the condemnation of many Nigerians, saw The Economist trending for hours in the Nigerian social media space.
Tolu Ogunlesi, investigations revealed, has been working as a ‘ghost-writer’ for The Economist. An informed source who did not want to be named disclosed to SIGNAL that Ogunlesi has authored many of The Economist’s articles focused on Nigeria, including the one last year in which the magazine endorsed President Muhammadu Buhari shortly before the elections of March 28, 2015. Ogunlesi is also a regular contributor to foreign newspapers like the Financial Times.
Ogunlesi’s history of anti-Jonathan rhetoric
During the administration of former President Jonathan, Tolu Ogunlesi carved a niche for himself as a government critic writing extensively in articles on local and foreign journals criticizing the government and administrative style of the former Nigerian president.
Ogunlesi’s disdain for Goodluck Jonathan and his wife, Patience Jonathan just like that of many anti-government voices in the social media was unhidden. He is credited as the script-writer of the cartoon remake of “Personally” by PSquare which mocked and ridiculed the former president and his wife. Ogunlesi’s cartoon remake of the song originally done by PSquare, received the sponsorship of foreign donors like the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).
In another development, Ogunlesi was also allegedly behind the ‘Wendell Simlin’ propaganda which labeled Reno Omokri, then Special Assistant on New Media to former President Jonathan as the man behind an anonymous e-mail spreading accusations that then Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Lamido Sanusi, was a Boko Haram sympathiser and sponsor.
Re-writing Jonathan’s legacies
Ogunlesi’s ability to weave unflattering narratives against the Jonathan administration endeared him to Buhari’s presidential campaign and he is reported to have carried out a couple of foreign media hatchet-jobs for the Buhari presidential campaign, chief amongst which was, and still is, to re-write the legacies and accomplishments of Goodluck Jonathan. The logic behind this strategy, is hinged on the idea that if Jonathan is branded and presented to the international community as the worst thing that ever happened to Nigeria, the gains of his administration and his legacies would have been easily eroded, an informed source who did not want to be named told SIGNAL.
“One big challenge of Buhari’s government is the achievements of former President Jonathan which Buhari himself has discovered will be very difficult to surpass. So part of what they are trying to do is blame Jonathan for everything that went wrong with Nigeria, demonize him and make him look weak, corrupt and incompetent so that Buhari can easily smell like roses and pardoned by Nigerians if he is unable to deliver his campaign promises”, the source said.
It wasn’t surprising when in July 2015, news broke that President Muhammadu Buhari had appointed Tolu Ogunlesi as his Special Assistant on New Media. While Ogunlesi is yet to officially resume this duty, months after the announcement, government sources say he is already on the government’s payroll working behind the scenes on a “brief” aimed at demystifying Jonathan and re-writing his legacies.
Ever since, Ogunlesi has reportedly been ‘consulting’ for Buhari’s government and recently assembled some social media bloggers and activists to meet with Nigeria’s information Minister Lai Mohammed at a meeting in Lagos.
Curiously, just as President Jonathan was delivering a speech in Geneva on Wednesday where he gave an account of his stewardship to an audience of global observers, Ogunlesi tweeted in reference to Jonathan: “Claiming ‘I built schools’ as achievement while you allowed BH operate unchallenged, & securocrats looted defense funds. SMH.” In a follow up tweet, he said: “History will be kind to the fisherman’s son, for he intends to re-write it himself” in brazen contempt of the former president.
Prev tweet: Claiming 'I built schools' as achievement while you allowed BH operate unchallenged, & securocrats looted defense funds. SMH.
— tolu ogunlesi (@toluogunlesi) January 27, 2016
History will be kind to the fisherman's son, for he intends to re-write it himself.
— tolu ogunlesi (@toluogunlesi) January 27, 2016
Barely 24 hours later, The Economist published the article denigrating Goodluck Jonathan.
Despite being publicly outed on Friday in the Nigerian social media as the man behind the Jonathan article, Ogunlesi is uncharacteristically yet to deny the allegation.
A hatchet-job gone wrong?
But if Tolu Ogunlesi is working for the government of President Buhari, why was Buhari also sharply criticized in the article by The Economist? An informed source who spoke to SIGNAL described it as ‘playing smart’.
“Tolu is attempting to eat his cake and have it at the same time. He is clearly on the payroll of Buhari’s government to manage some aspects of the government’s foreign media, but he is also using the opportunity to anonymously hit back at Buhari’s government,” the source told SIGNAL.
“Many people who supported Buhari are disappointed with him but can’t openly criticize him for fear of being ridiculed by the opposition. Tolu is also not happy that after his appointment was announced months ago, he is yet to be confirmed. So for him, this is an outlet to anonymously vent his anger at Buhari’s government.
“Don’t be fooled by the seeming objectivity of the article. I don’t even have a problem with Tolu abusing Jonathan or Buhari, but let him choose one. He cannot be under the payroll of one and then turn round to insult both of them. You are paid by Buhari to manage his perception in the social media, but you are also going behind to anonymously use the platform he is paying for to attack him. That is not being smart. It is being dishonest,” the source said.
Over time, The Economist, SIGNAL gathered has indicated more than passing interest in Nigeria. A report in June 2015 by the magazine titled: “Enabling a more productive Nigeria: Powering SMEs” cited Tolu Ogunlesi as having contributed reporting and fieldwork.
When it comes to critical Nigeria articles, Ogunlesi and Eleanor Whitehead, the Nigeria correspondent of The Economist, SIGNAL gathered, are the go-to persons.
UPDATE: At about 8.40am on Saturday, January 30, 2016, Tolu Ogunlesi took to his Twitter page to deny being the author behind of the controversial The Economist article and threatened to write SIGNAL demanding an apology and retraction. He was silent, however on other revelations in this article. We spoke with the editors at Signal who say that Ogunlesi has sent them a series of abusive messages. They insist that they stand by their story.
Read More at Signal