David Hundeyin is famous in Nigeria, especially on social media, for telling the truth to power with damning evidence. He practically re-engineered the public discourse about Boko Haram and Islamic terror in the country.
He’s a Nigerian investigative journalist and unarguably one of the best at it. Going after seemingly anti-government type of stories made David an instant target to the power bloc, forcing him into exile, from where he continues to be a thorn in the flesh of the Nigerian authorities. His childhood, he says, prepared him for the virulent attacks that trail his work.
In this interview with Business Elites Africa, he talks extensively about his viral and controversial stories. David shares the backstory leading up to one of his recent and most important works, which exposed the true story behind terrorism in Nigeria and unmasked its financiers. He also tells us why he made it his life’s mission to only chase the stories the Nigerian media is afraid to tell or have been paid not to touch.
I actually had formal training in media and Journalism. My first degree was in creative writing and media culture & society at the University of Hull in the UK. This was essentially a joint honours program, which half of it was like English and creative writing because I had a flair for writing. The other half was like a more conventional media and journalism training course. It was administered in conjunction with the BBC. So we used to have a lot of practical and on-ground training. That’s why till today, one of my skillsets is audiovisual production.
Initially, the plan was to stay in the UK after school and probably start a career at the BBC. I really wanted to work at the BBC in Salford, but that didn’t work out for me. I ended up in business consulting. So, I had a job at KPMG. I later moved to Direct Group, an insurance company.
Returning to Nigeria
I came back to Nigeria in 2013. I was 23, and I thought I needed to restart my career as it was a completely different environment. The type of work I was doing at KPMG in the UK. is not the type of work that KPMG in Nigeria does, so there was no space for me there. But I applied anyway, but they didn’t take me. I had to sort of completely reimagine what I wanted to do with my career. And then the option to go back to media and journalism easily came up.
I applied to Vanguard newspapers, and I made it to the final interview stage. I did so well in the interview that the editor called me into his office and said, ‘look, to be honest with you, if we hire you, we’re not going to keep you. Let me just link you up with a friend who runs a business that I think you’re more suited for.’
He linked me up with an agency called Black House Media (BHM), it’s a full-service marketing agency now, but at the time, it was a PR agency. So I started my career in communications there. I worked there from 2014 to mid-late 2016. I was employed as an intern and left as the head of content. I went on to set up my own content agency.
I thought I could do more on my own, but unfortunately, it wasn’t a well-timed decision because 2016 was when Nigeria’s first recession (since 1987) happened, under the Muhammadu Buhari administration. And in a recession, one of the very first things companies cut is marketing budgets. As a result, things didn’t work out well for the agency. I ended up closing it down within three months. It got so bad that I had to put my car on the Uber platform just to pay some bills.
In 2017, I got back into paid employment. I was a manager at a digital agency called A.D.E (Acquiring Digital Estates). I saw an advert for a new Channels TV show during this time, calling for writers and correspondents. It was supposed to be a political satire show. Instantly, that caught my attention because that’s the type of work I’ve always dreamt of doing – like something genuinely different and creative in the Nigerian context, but also very impactful.
So, I applied and forgot about it. This was in February 2017. In April, they contacted me saying that they loved what I sent. The application was basically to send a test script. They were like, they loved it, and they wanted me to do another one. So I did another one, and I sent it through. And in June 2017, I got the call that changed the course of my life. They offered me a contract. I ended up becoming the first writer they gave an offer on that show. They made me hire the rest of the team.
The show was called ‘The Other News‘ with Okey Bakassi. We started production in July 2017. I was there from then till May 2018. I was there for three seasons, which was some of the most critical work I’ve ever done.
First of all, it got me coverage in the New Yorker Magazine, The Washington Post, and there was a Netflix documentary made about the show – Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy (episode 3 or 4). I appeared in that documentary. And most significantly, I got a nomination to be part of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) in 2018 due to my work on that show. That’s what gave me a significant break. It gave me sort of the biggest platforms that I ever had in the media or journalism space.
When I left in 2018, I decided that I was big enough to do what I was trying to do two years earlier – to set up a content creation agency. At this time, I was doing very well financially because I was typically creating content for foreign agencies and news platforms. In fact, in early 2019, I had up to 5 full-time staff.
Do you mean your content company hired the staff?
Yes. The agency was called Tupstar Nigeria. Although we weren’t doing work for Nigerian clients, which is why you may have never heard of us.
We were working for foreign clients and getting paid in Dollars. The money was good; we were doing very well. And then, in March 2019, while I was doing some work for a client, I think it was Yahoo Finance, if I remember correctly. My editor sent me a message on Slack, saying, ‘you write a lot about American politics, European cultural issues, but we’ve not seen a lot of African content, and you live in Africa, you’re in Nigeria; give our audience something.’
So, I did a very long opinion editorial about the presidential election in Nigeria, which had just ended. First of all, that op-ed was not written for the Nigerian audience. It was written for the American audience. I didn’t know that type of writing would appeal to Nigerians at all. Nobody in Nigeria knew who I was, and I was okay with that. For some reason, I couldn’t understand; the op-ed just went viral in Nigeria. We got over 20,000 retweets in 24 hours.
Why did you think the Nigerian audience wouldn’t be interested?
The type of writing is not a Nigerian voice. Many Nigerians that read it retorted that ‘how does this Oyinbo person know so much about Nigeria.’ That’s also because my first name is David, and my last name doesn’t really sound that familiar to anyone who is not from Badagry. The story caught the attention of a lot of Nigerians. Many Nigerian media platforms started reaching out to me. I had contacts from The Scoop, BusinessDay, and Newswire.
They said they liked the fact that I’m young. Specifically, BusinessDay said they were trying to introduce younger voices to their readership. If you want your platform to survive, the average age of your readership has to be under 50. If your readership is aging, that means your platform is dying. They were trying to introduce youthful voices to BusinessDay, and I ended up becoming like the linchpin of that strategy in early 2019. I was just writing opinion columns on the platform. I wasn’t doing much journalism work. I was a journalist in the international space but not in Nigeria.
And then this changed in August 2019, when my cousin, who had just moved to the UK, told me he had a story for me. He used to work at the Badagry general hospital. He said what was going on at that hospital couldn’t continue. They had a maternal mortality rate of over 40%. Generators didn’t have diesel; they carried out surgeries with flashlights on their phones, the taps didn’t run, etc. Instead of using running water, a global standard for surgeons, they used buckets, and the pharmacies never had stock. So when patients come, there are no drugs in the hospital’s pharmacy for them. He was like the only option left to get the government’s attention to the hospital was to put the story out there, so he contacted me. I had never done this type of story before, but I jumped at it.
I think that’s the best form of journalism – when you do something that would have an impact. The story titled “Death in Badagry general hospital” was published in August 2019. The story ended up having an impact. The Lagos State Health Service Commission quickly sent a team there unannounced, and as a result, some changes were made. The hospital generator not having diesel was fixed, and the pharmacy was stocked. The Managing Director was almost fired; he was recommended to be fired, but he politically wiggled his way out of it. The long and short of the matter was that the maternal mortality rate of 40% was cut in half, at least due to that work. That was the first time I thought to myself that wow, is nobody in Nigeria doing this? Because I consider this to be like low-hanging fruit.
Then, I realised that there weren’t many people in the investigative journalism space in Nigeria. It was pretty much Fisayo Soyombo and Chinedu Asadu, and even Chinedu wasn’t really known then. So from that point, I started looking out for more stuff like that. Bear in mind that there wasn’t any payment structure for this. I didn’t get paid for the Badagry story, and I didn’t ask for payment. It was something I just did because it needed to be done. And it was published on The Scoop, which was a reasonably popular platform at the time, but I think it’s now defunct.
Anyway, in August 2019, I started writing for Newswire NGR, and that was when I did a story about the phenomenal rape case in Abuja, where young women were getting yanked off the street and raped in police custody. My report unmasked the person behind the menace as Hajia Safiya Umar, the former head of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board.
The story did not only expose her; it made her functionally unable to continue doing those things. The story was also later cited in the Ikeja High Court judgement delivered by Justice Binta Murtala Nyako favouring one of the victims. The judgement outlawed the practice of kidnapping women off the streets in Abuja under the guise of fighting prostitution. That was like my proper big win as a journalist, and I thought that I really want to keep doing this. Again, I was still doing my regular content creation work, and I still do till today because that’s where my bread and butter comes from. Investigative journalism doesn’t pay my bills. It’s a passion project, so I try not to criticize my colleagues who don’t do the type of work I do because it’s challenging in Nigeria and unrewarding.
Why did you move back to Nigeria in the first place?
There were some reasons: functional as well as ideological. In 2013, when Theresa May was the Home Secretary of State, she had an extremely aggressive policy on migration. I got into the UK on a student visa and migrated to a post-study work visa, and at the time, I needed to get a work permit status. But she made the work permit as interminably difficult as possible. I could have stayed and fought, but eventually, when it just became so hard, I thought to myself, ‘why exactly I’m I putting myself through this?’.
It’s not as if where I’m coming from is a war zone that I’m running away from. At least it wasn’t so bad at the time. Maybe it is now. And I had and still have a very comfortable family. So I thought the mental pressure I was going through overwork permit wasn’t worth it. When my post-study visa was due to run out, I had sent the required application to extend my visa months before and the Home office still didn’t respond. And years later it then emerged, long after Theresa May had left office, that there was a huge black hole of more than two million pieces of correspondence that the Home office didn’t attend to because they were short-staffed.
Essentially, I was about to get to a point where I was going to become an immigration offender due to no fault of my own because the Home office simply didn’t respond to my application. My HR at work had mentioned to me that my visa would expire soon, that if I didn’t show proof that the Home Office had extended it, they would let me go. It was such an awful position to be in. What then made it easier for me to leave was my issues. I was in a long-term relationship, and we broke up. So I needed a fresh start. I just packed everything up in March 2013 and returned to Nigeria.
Let’s talk about your investigative stories. You were still in Nigeria when you did the Badagry general hospital story and the Abuja rape piece. Did you not nurse the fear of being victimized by the govt. or other elements exposed in your work?
I also have to point out that even though there is a certain amount of danger involved in doing that kind of work in Nigeria, sometimes people do overstate it. It’s not as if every single time you open your mouth and speak up against authorities that they’re going to send DSS after you. The people in power are also aware that they may overplay their hands and don’t want to do that. So there’s a complex balance. It’s almost like a game. I became sort of adept at understanding how far I could push certain boundaries, how far I could take certain things, the kind of energy I should project, and then knowing at the same time when to stop. And at the point when I knew I wasn’t going to stop, I had to leave Nigeria. This was in 2020, after the “Lekki massacre” in October. I got hold of a story that was going to implicate the Nigerian government in the event that happened that night of Tuesday, Oct. 20, at the Lekki toll plaza. I realized that everything I had done up to this point had irritated certain elements of the government and highly placed private individuals, and this time around, I was coming for the entire institution of the Federal Government.
I knew it was not wise for me to do the story and be physically accessible in Nigeria. I decided to leave the country before the story. At the time, maybe I didn’t realise how permanent the decision to leave Nigeria would turn into. I didn’t have a plan of how long I was going for. I just left because I thought that the story needed to be done. So, one week turned into a month, turned into six months, and now over a year. Over the past few weeks, it’s just been sinking in more that my life in Nigeria as I knew it is never coming back.
Your articles have been criticised as being sensational. Do you choose controversial topics for the buzz?
It’s a criticism that I always find somewhere between irritating and funny. Funny because I never understand why the personality of the writer is always so important to people. I think what should be more important is the substance of the writing. The issue should be; is what is presented factual or not? If it is accurate, then I don’t know what anybody means by sensational. Something is either true or not. If I write that two plus two is four, and I write it in a way that will make you want to read that two plus two is four because it’s engaging and interesting, I don’t see why you would say that is sensational. If I write that two plus two is five, then there is a problem.
I also find it a bit irritating because in the context of Nigeria, where every day, when you open a newspaper, you’ll see headlines like ‘6o dead in Sokoto’ or elsewhere. That’s the typical Nigerian news cycle. So I don’t know how you can be in a country like this and interact with this kind of news cycle daily, and then you’ll say that somebody’s reporting is sensational. Please, is the news you read every day sensational or not? Everything you read, watch, or listen to in the Nigerian media every day is, quote and unquote, sensational because that is the current reality in Nigeria.
As we’re talking now, no fewer than five different conflicts are going on in Nigeria. There is a conflict with armed herders; there is a conflict with Boko Haram; there is a conflict with ISWAP; there is a conflict with Ansaru. There is the Niger Delta insurgency that never really ended, and there is a conflict, possibly a brewing insurgency in the southeast. That is six and counting. So which part of Nigeria’s story is calm and understated? I choose to tell the story of Nigeria precisely the way it is. I don’t feel the need to be polite or to couch it and make you feel comfortable while you’re reading it. I feel like I’m doing a disservice to the victims of Nigeria if I do that.
All these things that the Nigerian media does take the edge off stories and make them easily digestible and palatable. I don’t do that. Instead, I’ll make it as rough and uncomfortable as it is. I think that that’s what journalism is supposed to be, telling the story of what is actually there and presenting it to the people to see what is actually there and not giving them the sanitized version of it.
Your recent work opened everybody’s eyes to the untold story of Islamic terror in Nigeria, and you named influential individuals financing it. What impact were you expecting the report would make?
I wasn’t necessarily expecting that the story would do something, at least not something dramatic. The purpose of the story wasn’t to spark anything dramatic or visually spectacular overnight change. But the purpose of the story was to introduce information into the public space, which has been suppressed for a long time because people often talk about Boko Haram’s sponsors in a very abstract sense as if these are not really known traceable people, with names, faces, and addresses.
When we’ve been talking about Boko Haram for more than a decade and at no point in time has the government been able to parade a known powerful person and say this person is a sponsor of Boko Haram of Islam terror in Nigeria. And this is a government that has DSS, NIA, DIA – all the alphabet intelligence agencies – yet they don’t know these things? Then, you have people like retired commodore Kunle Olawunmi who came on Channels TV and said he’s not going to mention names, but Boko Haram’s sponsors are known to the military.
I basically went digging. I was sure that this information was out there somewhere. There is no way this insurgency has been going on for so many years and information hasn’t made its way into the public domain. I also know that one major shortcoming of Nigerians is that, even though we’ve had a sort of widespread internet access for more than a decade now, many of them are still information illiterates.
I knew that some of this information might just be sitting on the internet in plain sight and until somebody brings it out into the Nigerian space and tells a story around, Nigerians won’t be bothered. That’s essentially what I did. It’s called open-source intelligence. I dug through WikiLeaks, I used Google.
I searched for keywords with names that I found on WikiLeaks. I saw news articles; I found references to UN documents; I found references to Nigerian government documents; I found academic references and more. There was just so much material that could make me write a longer article. It could have easily been 6000 – 7000 words. A lot of these materials are freely available.
After sourcing the story so extensively, spending so much time, double and triple-checking and fact-checking everything, and then embedding the references within the story, people still read the article and complained that I didn’t provide evidence. They said I was making sensational claims. I was wondering what’s going on with these people. And then I went and checked the backend, and I saw the data on the backend and realized that out of the 980,000 views the article had garnered, less than 3% clicked on a single link. People just read it as if they were reading a movie script or a bedtime story.
They didn’t engage with it intellectually at all. This includes some people like Bulama Bukarti, who consider themselves to be intellectuals. He went and wrote a column in the Daily Trust attacking me after the story came out and claiming that I didn’t substantiate my findings. When you read the column, it becomes so apparent that Bulama didn’t read the story. He only heard what people said about the story. That’s always the problem I have with some Nigerian audiences, especially some of my colleagues. I say this with the best intentions and not be combative or aggressive; I feel like some see journalism as just a job. I don’t think it’s something they feel passionate about. I don’t think it’s something they take a lot of pride in. And I don’t think it’s something they’re very good at and it’s a problem.
Would you say you are disappointed that the story wasn’t as impactful as you’d have thought?
No. In terms of the impact I was hoping for, I think it even did more. The level of viewership that it got is enormous. Until I published the story, the most significant readership my story has ever done was about 150,000 views, but this one is touching a million. That’s just on my own platform. It was reproduced in several other media. I’m sure its readership has crossed that 1 million mark. That’s the first time something I’ve written has gone that far.
This article has definitely achieved that in terms of seeding the public discourse with this useful strategic information. It has moved Nigeria’s public discourse beyond the point it has been stuck at for years, which was that ‘are certain highly placed elements including the President supportive or sympathetic towards Islamic terrorists in Nigeria?’
It has always been like a conspiracy theory. Some people will say yes they are, while some will say no, there is no evidence. I think this article has finally shifted the discourse further, that yes, they are, and now there is evidence. Now, the debate will move to what do we do? And that question is overdue, and it’s not up to me to answer. It’s up to the people themselves.
The goal of advancing the public discourse with reliable information which cannot be contradicted or denied has been achieved. Nobody has come out to say it’s not true because there is nothing to deny. Everything is right there in black and white.
Although NASCO claimed its founder was taken off the terrorist sponsors’ list. How would you react to that?
Your name can always be taken off a list if you make a deal with the US government. It’s not the first time something like that will be happening. This is why I’m sure many people did not read that thing, because all of this was actually in the story. It was stated very clearly by a formal US State Department official that the terms under which his name was removed was that he (NASCO founder) admitted that he financed terrorism.
By the way, I should also point that the US government doesn’t make mistakes when it makes indictments against people. The US government doesn’t make allegations. I remember when the Hushpuppi saga broke, and some people were trying to make the same silly argument that he has not been convicted yet, saying these were just accusations. Excuse me, when the US justice department or the US treasury department publishes an indictment against somebody, they have like a 98% conviction rate and the other 2% is not because they lost in court; it’s usually because deals were struck or things were settled in other ways, an indictment is as good as a conviction.
The FBI is very good at its job. So I don’t understand how people then come out with a straight face and say, ‘Oh yes, he was indicted, but it was by mistake and was later cleared. No, he was not, and it was not a mistake. I’ll recommend that people read this story and read carefully, don’t rush through it. All of this was actually covered.
Let’s talk about your platform. You founded West Africa Weekly to push out your investigative works, right?
Yes. I’ve actually been playing the idea of a substack newsletter since 2020. In fact, I started signing up since then even though I didn’t have any content published on it, and I didn’t have a name for it. In April this year, I was scrolling through Twitter, and I saw a link to Substack Local’s program. It’s a $1 million program that sets out to take in a number of journalists and writers worldwide and fund them to create their kind of content for a whole year. And during that year, you’re expected to have sufficient sign-on numbers to make it self-sustaining after the year-end. It’s essentially to help people build up subscription-based media for a year without relying on the subscription revenue for the first year.
The first one was a mixture of crime and politics, the second story was more political but also corporate, the third one was politics, the same thing as the last one. I’m trying not to publish filler content like everyday stories that you can just see in a random newspaper. This is because other platforms already cater to that side of the market. I do long form articles but not news content. I’m not at the top of the news cycle. My work is more analytical.
So, what’s your next project – any possible groundbreaking story in the works?
I’m not really at liberty to discuss what story I’m going to do next because that might preempt the story. One rule of investigative journalism is not to spoil the investigation by talking about it prematurely. But the plan is to continue putting out stories that I think will be very difficult for someone else to put out. I think I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I can actually do this kind of work. I’m trying to take advantage of that opportunity and do the kind of work that will hopefully be referred to as iconic one day. That’s not why I’m doing the work though. I certainly hope that one day I will be able to tell my children that when Nigeria was imploding, I was part of the solutions.
Does your family not fear you might be in danger because of these stories you’re putting out?
Different family members have different positions. There are some who don’t like my face. I come from an establishment family. My family is part of the Nigerian establishment in terms of positions, so some of them don’t understand what I’m doing and don’t appreciate it. Many of them live out of Abuja (Nigeria’s seat of power). They get government contracts, and they’re party members and high ranking members of the security forces. So this guy who shares a surname with them and is becoming very visible is sort of ‘putting sand in their garri’ (Nigerian parlance translating to “he’s a threat to their economic opportunities within the government circle”).
When the person who wants to award a contract to them sees their last name, they’re going to question if they’re related to me and that can become an issue. And this is already happening. One of the things my childhood actually did for me was that I became very comfortable being alone and enjoying my own company. Maybe because of the unique and peculiar way I was raised. I grew up inside a religious cult. I’ve had to live a double life for decades.
Can you expatiate on being raised inside a religious cult?
I was raised as a Jehovah’s witness, and I never actually believed in it, but obviously, I had to do what I had to do because my parents were very much fanatic Jehovah’s witnesses. So I had to be comfortable not telling people what was happening inside my mind. I had to bottle it all up. I had to be comfortable with being physically separated from people.
Have you had the courage to voice out your concerns and be your own man?
Yes. I actually left the organization in 2007 but I officially notified my parents that I was leaving in 2015. So I’ve moved on but what that childhood did for me was that it made me extremely strong-minded. Like my mind is like it’s made of metal. So whether anybody approves of what I’m doing or not, it doesn’t matter. Is there any disapproval on earth that’s more painful than the disapproval of your own parents? So if I can survive that for years, people liking me or not doesn’t mean anything to me.