Meeting Ferdinand Ayite: Trials and tribulations of independent journalists in Africa

Ferdinand Ayite

Africa is arguably one of the richest continents in the world. Endowed with precious minerals like gold, diamond, bauxite, iron ore, manganese, lithium, graphite, oil, among others, and yet it is always constrained economically, and so many of its citizens are living in poverty.

Africa’s wealth is also known to be stolen and carted away out of the continent, with the active connivance of the people who have sworn oaths to protect the resources.

It is believed that good governance would set the right structures to ensure that Africa’s resources are properly managed to benefit the citizens, but there is still no settled concensus on what works best for Africa, and as the rest of the world moves on, Africa continues to strain itself to economic development, as it figures out what form of governance system works.

While at it, Africa’s debt is growing. The public debt in Africa averages 70 per cent.

According to the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the need for financing in Africa keeps increasing. Africa needs $100 billion to cater to health and social protection. Another $100 billion is required for economic stimulus immediately, and to assist the continent for four years as part of economic recovery, another $420 billion is needed, and the continent’s financing gap is estimated at $2.5 trillion.

The continent is reported to be losing an estimated $70 billion every year to illicit financial flows. There are also the issues of corruption, bad governance, human rights abuse, and growing unemployment.

With the despondent and gloomy picture painted by the facts listed above, the question arises; who would rise and demand accountability?

There are efforts being made to curtail corruption, and the loss of badly needed funds through illicit financial flows, but much more needs to be done – and that’s where the work of independent journalists comes in.

For the large part, majority of media in most African countries are state-owned and controlled. The few private media are also owned by corrupt assigns, and collaborators of inept governments, who do not countenance critical reporting that only independent journalism can do.

However, independent journalism in Africa is in dire straits. With very little to no funding, independent journalists are overwhelmed, overstretched, and besieged as they drain themselves to hold often corrupt and powerful governments and businesses to account. These governments are often merciless and ruthless, using every available state force against these journalists. Some have been detained and others have been killed. In most cases, the killings are never investigated and never brought to closure.

As a matter of fact, there is also zero funding for independent journalism from the continent itself. All funding available, far and in-between comes from outside Africa.

Left with no resources and facing belligerent governments and systems, independent journalists in Africa depend on their iron will, passion, grit, love for country and commitment to journalism to keep doing their job.

One such journalist is the Togolese investigative journalist and publisher, Ferdinand Ayite. I first met Ayite at the OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg in 2016. We were both returning from the African Investigative Journalism Conference held at WITS University. We had a brief moment to chit-chat before our flight to Accra, where Ayite would either catch another flight to Lome or find a bus for another four hour drive home.

Ayite has also been targeted by the invasive Isreali tech company, NSO’s spyware, Pegasus. When Forbidden Stories published a list of journalists targeted by their governments, Ayite was one of the targets of the Togo government.

In February I was in Lome for a meeting. I had the pleasant honour of meeting him again. This time around I invited him over to the hotel I was staying in. The unassuming and soft-spoken Ayite has cemented his name in the history of Togo as one of the journalists who is standing up to be counted, but that is not without having to pay a price. His newspaper, La’Alternative gets no advertising nor sponsorship. He has been arrested several times and illegally detained and fined. His star reporter, Maxime Domegni has been chased out into exile.

As recently as December 2021, Ayite and another independent journalist Joel Egah were arrested and thrown into jail over charges of defamation for criticizing some ministers of State in a broadcast. They were released on bail, but Egah suddenly died of heart attack a couple of months after his release from unlawful detention. The dedicated journalist died at the ripe age of 43.

Ayite has also been targeted by the invasive Isreali tech company, NSO’s spyware, Pegasus. When Forbidden Stories published a list of journalists targeted by their governments, Ayite was one of the targets of the Togo government.

Working as an independent journalist in any African country is like walking in a dark alley, alone. People who believe in the work of independent journalists are often afraid to openly show support for fear of being victimized by the political systems.

My meeting with Ayite in the hotel lobby was brief, we couldn’t even share a drink, because he had to go and pick children from school, and I had come out of a long meeting. He had patiently waited for me, even though he was hard pressed with time. But I was happy to meet him. I was glad I could make him feel he is not alone in the struggle to shine light on the dark arts of governance in his native country of Togo – there are other journalists doing the same in their home countries.

The author with Ayite in Lome in February.

I shared my own experiences with him. I was certain he felt the camaraderie and hopefully that warmth gave him some encouragement. But that’s all I could do. Ayite’s circumstances aren’t any different from mine, the only difference is the border separating our two great countries brought to their knees by bad governance and corruption.

Even though Ghana is insisting it’s a democracy, it is only that in name. The reality is not democracy, as the Executive runs riot as and when it chooses with little or no restraint from the other arms of government that are supposed to hold it in check. Whereas in Togo, a family has taken over the country and has been holding it in a stranglehold for decades without let.

Independent journalism is not the only tool, but it has been shown to be a potent one in holding the powerful to account, and in the pursuance of human rights, justice and good governance.

Journalists like Ayite need all of us behind them. Africa needs more journalists like Ayite.

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi
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