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Tribute to John Chiahemen; journalism’s perfect tense

Over the decades, John Chiahemen never lost enthusiasm for that exceptional yarn that would shake the mighty and which he would write with the speed and simple elegance that were his hallmarks, Matthew Tostevin writes.

But John Chiahemen, who died on Tuesday aged 72, was so much more than a brave and dedicated reporter with a fine turn of phrase.

He was a trailblazer and role model. He was a newsroom leader with an unmatched network of people who would talk to him – and listen to him – from presidents to street sellers. He was a mentor and fierce protector of those who could never have achieved what they did without John’s good-humoured guidance.

It was a mark of the respect with which John was held that Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari was quick to pay tribute.

“The remarkable legacies left behind by one of Nigeria’s most accomplished journalists will continue to inspire current and upcoming members of the fourth estate,” a statement from Buhari said. “Chiahemen was respected for his brilliant contributions and editorial role of covering news about Africa from a business and development perspective, beyond the narrow stereotypes of disaster and poverty.”

The young journalist from Makurdi in central Nigeria appeared to bulldoze stereotypes effortlessly.

It wasn’t from fancy schooling. John was educated close to home in Katsina-Ala and Jos before his degree from the well-reputed Ahmadu Bello University.

Doing youth service at a television station in the southeast city of Enugu, John fell into a world he was to master and make his own. He was a pioneer at the Nigerian Television Authority and held the top news post while still in his 20s.

“John Chiahemen burst into the Nigeria media scene in the 1970s, anchoring the national television NTA Monday programme Newsweek. He won plaudits for his hard-hitting interviewing of the country’s leaders who were not used to journalists asking them tough questions,” wrote James Jukwey, a former Reuters colleague.

“He joined Reuters after the country returned to democratic civilian rule in 1979. With good contacts within the Nigerian establishment, Chiahemen regularly broke major news and kept Reuters ahead of the competition on most occasions.”

With Reuters, John’s talents were given a much wider stage.

He moved to East Africa as a correspondent in the early 1980s, a move that like so many others helped to pave the way for other African journalists. It was a time of growing insecurity and John was often out in the field.

“We were privileged to work with him,” noted a later Reuters East Africa bureau chief, Jonathan Clayton.

After Nairobi, John moved to Paris and then to a senior position on the Reuters Middle East and Africa desk.

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In the mid-1990s, John returned to Africa as the deputy bureau chief for West and Central Africa. The crises were deepening with coups and civil wars and John’s steady hand, common sense and courage were vital assets alongside his news judgment and love for the continent.

“His compassion shone through,” said Corinne Dufka, now West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. As a Reuters photographer, she was on numerous perilous assignments with John.

On one mission in Sierra Leone, John was in particular danger after the capital was seized by rebels whose trademark was cutting off limbs. They were hunting for Nigerians because of Nigeria’s role in the ECOMOG peacekeeping force. John’s colleagues hid his passport as they all holed up to await Marine evacuation by helicopter and as the bullets flew ever closer.

“He tried so hard to be calm under pressure,” Dufka recalls. “John was incredibly competent, he still filed, he reported, he used his contacts with the Nigerian ECOMOG soldiers and he just carried on and soldiered on with professionalism.”

John loved the time he spent with his wife Winnie “Chizi” Chiahemen and daughter Mimi in the relative stability of Abidjan, where they often hosted visiting correspondents. Any reporter who worked with John would quickly find out how much his family meant to him.

All too often, John needed to be back on the road. Never a devotee of corporate penny-pinching, John travelled in the best style he could. He knew it was a way to develop those all-important contacts, though he was as ready as anyone to rough it when he had to.

John’s experience and readiness to share made him a guide and inspiration for many.

One young reporter submitted only scanty notes from a first Reuters assignment covering an Ebola outbreak. Returning to the office hours later, the reporter found a perfectly written story on the wire that got him a byline in The Guardian. It was pure John for decades: working selflessly to get the story out while others took the credit.

During an episode in Kinshasa, with dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s days coming to an end, John and the Reuters crew came under attack from the authorities and their deportation was ordered. It was John who organised a speed boat escape across the Congo River that could have come from a James Bond film – perhaps with touches of Nigeria’s chaotic Nollywood film industry.

When Reuters upgraded its Nigeria coverage and appointed a full bureau chief, it was John who was the perfect person. The fact that John’s stature in Nigeria remained so high was evident from his spectacular welcome party, attended by the chief of police, senior army officers and leading politicians among others.

“To me he was significant as a Black guy who made it at Reuters. To that extent, he was a role model,” said Matthew Mpoke Bigg, a colleague who is now with The New York Times.

After Nigeria, John moved to Johannesburg as bureau chief for southern Africa. There were difficult stories to cover such as the rolling crisis in Zimbabwe, but the narrative around Africa was shifting to one of opportunity and investment.

John was a leading force in shaping that as bureau chief and at the helm of the Reuters Africa website, making it the go-to place for news about the continent and winning the best site award at the Diageo Africa Business Reporting awards.

“He had a great sense of fun, a tremendous belly laugh and was very respected in Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent,” said former Reuters Middle East and Africa editor Barry Moody, noting John’s “Healthy cynicism about political leaders inside and outside Africa with a good bullshit detector.”

John retired from Reuters in 2009 having had an impact that few could match.

At their home in Johannesburg, John and Chizi were as much a centre of attention as ever with fabulous parties that brought together journalists and movers and shakers.

John was not done with the news world. He became a valued consultant to media organisations and other institutions and returned to the broadcast world as the pioneer managing editor of the Arise News Network, setting the stage for its emergence as a global news service.

“A giant in the Africa media industry, yet a kind man who inspired so many young people across the continent to be better journalists,” wrote Gary Alfonso, a former CEO and managing director for CNBC Africa and for Fox in Africa. “You taught me about people. And generosity. And writing. You leave the media industry in a better state than you found it.”

John’s last major piece of work was a book he wrote for Afreximbank, published in 2021 and titled One Market: The Making of the Inaugural Intra-African Trade Fair. John knew he was falling ill and was happy to have completed the assignment “right on time” as he put it. As always, he delivered.

John fought the long and valiant battle against motor neurone disease (ALS) with the dedication he had brought to everything he did.

Some of John’s many friends were lucky to speak to him or send messages as the end neared. He smiled when he heard them. And there was still that old sparkle in his eye.

“He was selfless to his last breath,” his family said in a statement.

John died peacefully in Johannesburg surrounded by his family.

He is survived by his wife Winnie “Chizi” Chiahemen; daughters: Ide Wise, Fanen Chiahemen and Mimi Chiahemen as well as his grandson Finley Hemen Kanyin Wise and son-in-law, Ben Wise. He is also survived by brothers and sisters, including Tom Chiahemen, who was inspired by his brother to follow him into journalism and is now a publisher in Abuja.

~Matthew Tostevin, an ex-Reuters editor writes this in The Baron

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