We made it. You and I. We trudged through the hardships of 2020. It wasn’t easy and at times, we thought we’d lose our minds. But we hung in there. With family, friends and endless Zoom meetings, we kept breathing, facing forward and walking. Sometimes, all we can do is keep walking. Putting one foot in front of the other again, again and still again until you realize you’re in a different time and place from where you were.
Now we’re here. We are weary, but we are alive.
My friends, we marveled in the sparkling lights of New Years Day fireworks at the stroke of midnight. Auld Lang Syne, crossover services and all, the entire world is now hoping that this year will be better than the last.
If you’re reading this today, that means you’ve grown at least an inch in courage because it took courage to go through 2020’s challenges. Challenges makes us stronger, so I’m grateful for the opportunities to grow in strength. Strength yields resilience. That’s the gritty, gluey force that holds us together, keeping us from falling apart in life’s turbulent storms.
Last year was a very tough time for journalists around the world, specifically for independents and creatives like myself. Some entities, like Rory Peck, National Geographic and Format, offered financial hardship support to help us cope or emergency funds to enable us to cover the pandemic. Many independent journos found themselves out of work throughout last year as the pandemic spread. I was able to get reporting gigs, but the pandemic severely impacted my ability to travel and get more stories. Anyhow, I’m a believer in living in an attitude of gratitude. So I’m using this space to share some of the stories that I covered last year.
#1 Covering anti-racism/anti-police brutality protests in America
I spent April to October in the States to work on a documentary film production. It was my longest stay back home in metro-Atlanta since leaving in 2012 to report in Africa. The air was tense with race-related discord and U.S. President Donald Trump was not exactly trying to unite the divided nation or calm things down. Racism is a deeply rooted problem in America. It’s been there since the country’s inception. During my stay, word of Ahmaud Arbery’s shoot-down-while-jogging was fomenting intense public anger. It happened a 4-hours-plus drive away from me, east of Atlanta. Breonna Taylor was shot about three weeks before I landed in the Atlanta airport. But it was George Floyd dying on camera that lit the match. The nation caught on fire. I watched everything in mortified dismay. Since 2012, my reporting has focused on covering affairs in Africa. But being in the U.S. for much of last year was an opportunity to cover what was happening there. So, I wrote two pieces about the anti-racism, Black Lives Matter campaign for Mail & Guardian, a prominent South African news publication. With my perspective as a Nigerian-American raised in Atlanta, I was able to capture the story to a South African (and global audience). Foreign correspondents – myself included – often do not report on the places where they grew up, but with last year’s Black Lives Matter campaign, I had a profound moment to do just that. The global media often highlights injustices happening in the developing world where authoritarian regimes are suppressing human rights, massacres are happening and dangerous populist and nationalist rhetoric fuels social unrest. And then there’s the United States of America. Last year was a sobering reminder that race relations are still not well back home.
Here are the stories:
America’s ‘Black Mecca’ rallies against racist police brutality
The Police Strike Again (page 10)
#2 Covering anti-police brutality protests in Nigeria
Millions of people around the world have been watching the Black Lives Matter movement unfold in America. The campaign that began in 2013 has inspired many young people across Africa. In October 2020, young people in Nigeria boosted a campaign against a tactical Nigerian police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). SARS has long been accused of abusing the rights of Nigerians: extortion, torture, rape, extrajudicial killings. The #EndSARS campaign brought thousands of people into the streets for more than two weeks to demand the Nigerian government disband SARS. I arrived in Nigeria on October 15 when the street demonstrations were grabbing international headlines and galvanizing support from people around the world, including activists in other African countries and Black Lives Matter advocates in America. I followed the coverage and decided to do a piece for VICE News that would take a step back and really look at the issue of police brutality and reform in Nigeria. It was a chance to tell a more comprehensive story after the street protests had ended and the international spotlight had dimmed.
Here’s the story: Police Brutality Is Tearing Nigeria Apart
#3 A Year of Interesting Hashtag Campaigns in Africa
Hashtag activism is the way to promote a social cause these days. In Africa, there were several hashtag-driven campaigns and I highlighted the popular ones (from Namibia, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Nigeria) in a story for Rest of World. Respected tech entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong showed some appreciation for the piece, tagging Chris Messina, the inventor of the hashtag, who said that hashtags have the ability to decentralize networks, as my story mentioned.
Here is the story: The revolution will be hashtagged
#4 Tackling Measles in South Sudan
Courtesy of the ONE Campaign (co-founded by Bono), I was in Juba, South Sudan in February and March reporting for Voice of America when Covid-19 started creeping into the news headlines. “The China Virus,” U.S. President Donald Trump would call it. In South Sudan, I was reporting on another health scare. A deadly measles outbreak had spread across the country and health workers were crossing miles to vaccinate more than a million children against the virus. South Sudan, the newest nation in the world, grapples with myriad problems and a poor health system is one of the them, but the government isn’t giving it anywhere near the attention that it deserves. Health funding isn’t considered “sexy” by many governments in Africa, ONE’s Africa executive director Edwin Ikhuoria told me.
Here’s the story: Amid Challenges, South Sudan Vaccination Drives Tackles Measles).
#5 Fashion in the age of Covid-19
Creative industries really felt the impact of the 2020 wave of coronavirus. Companies postponed film releases. Film and music festival organizers cancelled events. Art galleries shut down. The global fashion industry lost millions when garment factory workers stopped working during government-mandated lockdowns. October is the high season of the fashion scene in Africa. That’s when several events take place but 2020 was a different story. The fashion world is trying to re-strategize and incorporate environmentally sustainable methods to keep the industry going in a more conscious way while feeding the global appetite for beautiful wear. Africans are also contributing to that conversation.
Here’s the story for Quartz: Africa’s fashion business is using new and traditional methods to reform as a sustainable industry
#6 The ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria
I’ve been following the Boko Haram insurgency since 2010 and really got into the story from 2013 when I made my first trip to northern Nigeria where the conflict is happening. Boko Haram is a homegrown jihadist organization, an extremist militant group that declared war against the Nigerian government in 2009 and again in 2010 after the founder died in police custody. Boko Haram means “Western culture/education is forbidden.” The fundamentalist members believe that Islam is not compatible with Western culture and that Western ideals are infiltrating and destroying predominantly Muslim communities, like the ones in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram fundamentalists want to stop the cultural dominance of the Western world (which is often associated with Judeo-Christianity) and implement sharia law and the ultra-conservative approach of salafism, specifically salafi jihadism.
Over the years, I’ve been on the trail, extensively covering Boko Haram’s insurgency and the horrific effects. In 2020, I wrote two long-form narrative pieces. Enemies of The Public, published in Guernica, highlighted the experiences of two women impacted by Boko Haram’s war. The other piece for The Guardian narrated the story of Mama Boko Haram, a mysterious woman who is trying to get Boko Haram members to stop the bloodshed.
Here are the stories:
‘Mama Boko Haram:’ One woman’s extraordinary mission to rescue ‘her boys’ from terrorism
#7 Remembering Rodney King
Last year, anti-police brutality protests in America called attention to decades of excesses committed by police forces across the country. The 1991 Rodney King beating and the 1992 L.A. riots that broke out in response to the acquittal of four police officers charged with using excessive force on King reveal how powerful public reaction can get and just how ugly and complex this issue is. In light of today’s Black Lives Matter movement, I did a historical piece putting the Rodney King beating and L.A. riots into perspective to explain it to the younger generation (Gen Z, especially) who may not really know the details of this pivotal case.
Here is the story: The Messed Up Story of the 1992 L.A. Riots
#8 Transitional politics in South Sudan
Back to the world’s youngest nation. After seceding from Sudan to form the country of South Sudan in 2011, the South Sudanese people have wallowed in the misery of civil war. Strife between ethnic groups and deadly rivalries among politicians have messed up the country. It’s a tragic story that disturbs me. In February 2020, the two leading rival politicians finally decided to form a unity government to share power and end the years of violence. The South Sudanese people are now talking about reconciliation and effective nation-building, but that won’t be an easy task. Deep suspicions and resentments simmer. The pains of war take time to heal. For Voice of America, I reported on the complexities of South Sudan’s bid for reconciliation.
Here’s the story: South Sudan Activists Hope To Unify A Divided Nation
#9 A unique U.N. General Assembly
The pandemic forced the annual United Nations General Assembly to reconfigure itself. So, the 75th session of the world’s most politically important gathering was largely a virtual affair. Conversations and forums were held over internet signals and a livestream feed presented realtime coverage of the event. I was part of an innovative studio production team that had the unique task of capturing the headlines of the virtualized assembly. I joined veteran journalist Richard Wolffe as a Global Goals studio host to interview experts and bring important conservations around the U.N.’s 17 sustainable goals to the fore.
Here’s a clip of the highlights: Best of Global Goals Week 2020 UN Highlights
And here are the other conversations produced by the Global Goals Studio for last year’s U.N. General Assembly: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrlHnRelp83HFCFBDUBybwg/videos
So there it is. 2020 was a record breaking year, on several levels. Covid-19 was not the only thing that happened last year and I did what I could to continue reporting on issues affecting the lives of millions of people. I’m grateful for my colleagues who also kept on working to keep people informed.
Here’s to moving onward and story planning this year!