To the surprise of few, Nigeria on Monday took CNN to task for an interview with Nobel Prize-winning author Prof. Wole Soyinka.
The nation’s foreign ministry accused CNN of airing a “false interview” with Soyinka in which the Nobel Prize-winning writer said Nigeria “scandalized itself” when its government approved a $13.2 billion toll road for the city of Lekki, in the south of the country.
The government has accepted defeat in the fight against Boko Haram terrorists and is now grappling with a surging economy fueled by energy exports. But an 80-mile toll road for wealthy citizens? Nigeria says it will challenge the move in court and warns against officials “using propaganda” to tarnish the country’s reputation.
CNN says it stands by the broadcast and the integrity of its network’s journalists, but it had no comment on Soyinka’s issues.
Since the fall of a president, Nigeria has turned to CNN. Last November, before rumors swirled that ailing President Muhammadu Buhari was preparing to resign, the network aired a lengthy interview with him.
In a more recent sitdown with Washington Post Editor Fred Hiatt at the White House, officials presented a more optimistic picture.
Soyinka may be a hero of protest music, but as a journalist, he asked tough questions of Nigeria’s leaders. In the CNN interview, aired on Sunday, Soyinka lamented the battle against Boko Haram militants as a “scramble” and said Nigeria had raised expectations that had now been dashed.
Asked by CNN’s Karen Zraick if Nigeria’s focus on infrastructure meant people were unaware of the violence, he replied: “In some way, yes.”
Zraick asked Soyinka about the relocation of some militant leaders to an undisclosed village in the South, to avoid a battle at the hands of Nigerian forces, and what he thought of that move.
In July, Lekki Express, part of a road linking Lagos and Abuja, came under fire as the government struggled to pay back a $6 billion loan from China’s Ex-Im Bank. But then-President Muhammadu Buhari gave the project the go-ahead last August.
Last month, Beijing signed off on an expansion of the Chinese-built runway into the Arabian Sea. Within days, Japan unveiled its own plan to build a super-highway from the Pacific coast to Abuja.
Soyinka called it a “terrible mistake” and argued for the expansion of existing toll roads. But he said he didn’t want a “competition” between Europe and Asia for a big slice of Nigeria’s economic pie.
CNN did not include his comments.
Instead, the network hosted an interview with Soyinka with Jeremy Greenstock, a former U.N. ambassador to the U.S. and British diplomat who served as the top U.N. representative to Nigeria during the country’s civil war and who now works as an international journalist and author.
Greenstock pushed Soyinka to clarify his remarks, saying they are “a very blunt and hard criticism of what’s going on there. A country which has drawn huge foreign investment and much positive overseas attention to itself should really not be investing in a multibillion-dollar project that has very little to do with the infrastructure need.”
Greenstock acknowledged that Nigeria needs infrastructure, especially roads, but said it might be a “mistake” to open up Lagos to private tolls. “These are very, very important voices coming out of Lagos, and it’s a very important voice. I hope the voice doesn’t get drowned out. I would like that to be kept and heard,” he said.
Soyinka told Greenstock that he was under no obligation to respond to the latest comments from the government. “I’m not an ex-diplomat or foreign correspondent for that matter. I am an African, first, and also a Nigerian,” he said.
“It is a difficult call for me as an educated person to comment on things that can make me look as if I do not have a heart and I’m a corrupt person. I do not have a heart and I do not seem to be corrupt.”
Calls to Nigeria’s foreign ministry, which did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, were not immediately returned.