Mr. Sola Oni, a former spokesman of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, a journalist, stockbroker and Managing Director/CEO, Sofunix Investment & Communication Limited. In this interview, he speaks about his professional experience, capital market among others. Goddy Egene presents the excerpts:
How will you describe your experience as a journalist?
Exciting. Journalism is a demanding profession. It positions you to work round the clock and meet with the high, medium and low members of the society. A reporter can put a Head of State on defensive through critical questions. Career of a journalist is surrounded by deadlines.
It is a noble profession. Everyone recognises the presence of a journalist at any gathering. The profession demands a high level of integrity and skills, especially news judgment and writing. A journalist communicates to the mass of people. His story must be crafted in a way that it is understandable by everyone across all classes. This is why it is called mass communication. A journalist must ensure that all sides of any issue are verified before making the story public. There are requirements that one must attain to be called a professional journalist. I started my journalism career at Yola-based National Spectator News Magazine. I later moved to The Guardian. When The Guardian was proscribed by the Federal Government in 1993, I had a stint with DBN Television as a pioneer Senior News Analyst but I went back to The Guardian when it was opened.
As a young boy, were there signs for that you would become a journalist?
The answer is in the affirmative. I love to express myself as a child and put things in perspective within the limit of my age and experience and exposure. I grew up to have special interest in reading, speaking and writing. Before I started primary school, my father had taught me some common English words, expected of a child of my age. As an undergraduate, I was an active member of my Press Club, Phoenix Press Club, which was regarded as militant on the campus because we have core and partial ideologues who can criticize anything and damn the consequence. When I was in 300 Level, I became the Chairman of our Editorial Board. I enjoyed writing an editorial which is is the position of the magazine on any issue. This is the spirit that I took to my NYSC programme as earlier explained.
What was your motivation for practicing journalism?
Self-expression. The profession opens doors for one to participate in nation building. The press is called the Fourth Estate of the Realm after the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary. The profession brings you in contact with decision makers in the public and private sector.
Journalists shape opinions through Agenda Setting Theory. But they must uphold the Social Responsibility Theory of the Press. There are models of communication, including risk communication. Journalists are needed everywhere. Initially, I studied English Education at my Bachelor’s Degree, combined honours and later proceeded to study Financial Journalism and ended with Master’s Degree in Business Administration. Apart from integrity that is a must for all professionals, a journalist must have writing skills and a high sense of news judgment, the one lawyers call legal opinion. Journalism is an eclectic profession. This explains why those who cover health sector are not Medical practitioners and those in the financial market need not be finance experts. Journalism as a profession has some core courses that must be offered to qualify one to report any sector. But in practice, journalism like other professionals have specialisation . We have financial journalists, political journalists, sports journalists, etc Journalism is an elitist profession but demanding. It’s hard to practise journalism in Nigeria because of the conditions of service.
Those who excel in the profession genuinely love it. Journalists are needed everywhere even during war. Journalism is like academics. You either publish or perish. Journalists need constant training because of frequent changes in all sectors.
What led to your decision to exit the profession?
I never exited journalism (laughs). When I left The Guardian for The Nigerian Stock Exchange in 1997, part of my job functions was to liaise with the accredited financial journalists on behalf of The Exchange.
For the first few months at the NSE, I was writing a column for The Guardian on Sunday titled The KERNEL. It focuses on the financial market. There was a time that some senior stockbrokers reported me to my Deputy Director General, Professor Ndi Okereke-Onyuike that I insulted stockbrokers in one of my writings and The Exchange should ban me from writing the column. My boss told me and we both laughed. She said: “ I told them that why should you tell a Medical Doctor not to touch syringe. Don’t you all know that this man is a journalist before we employed him ? .” Later, due to increased workload, especially, investor education, I had to drop the column. Throughout my career at the exchange, including when I was moved to Market Operation as a Unit Head, I still keep tab on the media. At the moment, I write a column for Vanguard on the Financial Market and I publish an Online Newspaper, The Kernel.
You have always emphasised capacity build for financial journalists?
Yes. This is very dear to my heart. Financial Journalists need regular training. The financial market is technical and as such, financial press must understand the market in order to report professionally.
Stock market is information-driven. A single jaundiced report can bring down the price of a company’s shares significantly. The training should be jointly done at regular intervals by both the market regulators and operators. The cost of unprofessional report to the market and quoted companies and shareholders is huge. The changing market dynamics, emergence of more securities exchanges and commodities exchanges, introduction of new products, including derivatives digital securities have made journalists’ training a must. I must commend the Chartered Institute of Stockbrokers (CIS) for awarding scholarships to some of the capital market correspondents to pursue Diploma in Securities and Investment. It will go a long way in bridging the knowledge gap.
What challenges did you encounter when you joined the Nigerian Stock Exchange as an Assistant Manager in 1997?
It wasn’t much of a challenge. I have been reporting the financial market for The Guardian long before I joined The Exchange. Part of my job at the exchange was to respond to media enquiries as the spokesman.
I was heavily involved in teaching students on education visit about the market and how they can become shareholders and stockbrokers. I was also involved in making presentation during visit to quoted companies, churches, mosques, club houses etc to spread the gospel of investment.
However, what I can term as challenges include managing the media to ensure positive stories on the exchange, the major challenge in this regard is the curb reporters. They are ready to write anything regardless of technical errors. At times, you have to go extra miles so that you are not misquoted. You have to start explaining the basic concepts to prevent them from sending wrong signals to the public due to weak background in market dynamics. This group of journalists are hungry for by-lines at all cost. But experienced journalists make life easier as they cannot afford to mess up their names through mediocre stories. But the challenge with this group is their access to sensitive information because of they have top level sources. I have to manage them and they often accuse me that during my days nobody can kill my story. As a spokesman, you have no opening and closing time. During controversial issues, I can receive a phone call at 1.00 am apart from numerous text messages. You have to manage the media by making information available at the right time. When Professor Okereke-Onyuiike emerged the Director General, it was a new model of media management. She trained in the United States and as such answers reporters’ questions extensively. This also has its challenges. I actually enjoyed talking to her when I was in The Guardian. The problem about journalists is that you don’t know when you are giving them sensitive information. I have to manage my Boss. But on the overall, I enjoyed the co-operation of my colleagues in the media. I interact with all departments at The Exchange and this broadened my knowledge of the market.
Why did you become a stockbroker ?
In 1992, The Guardian posted me to cover the NSE. Prior to the period, I had reported the financial market for The Guardian. I had also reported the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the hub of money market.
During my days at The Guardian, I was at a point an in-house Investment Adviser and Portfolio Manager for my Editors and colleagues, church and club members etc. At that point, I was a stockbroker by association. I later decided to diversify my profession and this led to my writing the professional examination of the Chartered Institute of Stockbrokers (CIS). Upon completion, I qualified as a chartered stockbroker. This has fully positioned me in the market as I belong to both sides, the media and the financial market.
How did the changing political climate of the country in the turn of the millennium impact the performance of Nigerian stocks, if at all?
The stock market is a barometer for the economy. If the market is operating at variance with the economy, something is wrong. The global financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 took toll on the exchange like any other market and full recovery has not been achieved on our market. The market has experienced several rounds of volatility. It is part of every market dynamics. Foreign investors always bring their hot money to our market because of its potential for high return on investment (ROI). Valuation on our market is relatively low and this makes the market attractive. But uncertainties at the level of polity, economy and security have consistently dampened investor confidence and discouraged private equity from participating effectively on the market. COVID-19 pandemic and its associated challenges in all spheres of human activities have not helped matters. However, if the government gets its bearings in turning around the economy and managing other layers of uncertainties, the market will rebound steadily. Demutualisation of the exchange will enhance its viability. It is commendable that the current management of the Exchange continues with the lofty project which commenced during our administration. Most members of World Federation of Exchanges (WFE) have either demutualised or at the advanced stage of demutualization. It will change the exchange’s governance and processes. Status of Association of Securities Dealing Houses (ASHON) will change. We hope it will not create an oligopoly in the medium to long time. This is because the few Dealing Member Firms with deep pocket can swallow others. But if the guidelines of Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on demutualisation is strictly adhered to, the firms that came on board at the formative years of the market will not all go into extinction. All tiers of government should take advantage of the capital market to access medium and long term fund for development projects. It has been done severally in the past. The Federal Government recently raised over N200 billion from the market through Sukuk 1 and 11 to finance over 26 roads in the six geo-political regions.
How did you manage your work schedule when as the Head of Corporate Communications you later combined it as Head, Market Administration Unit in the Operation Directorate of the exchange ?
Following Accenture’s Report on restructuring of the exchange in 2009, I was deployed to Market Operations, a core Department for upward career progression. The Director General said I should combine the new position with my current one until The Exchange hires a new head of Corporate Communication. I was able to manage both. One of my major functions as the Head of Market Administration Unit was to monitor the net position in the trading accounts of Dealing Member Firms ahead of daily trading. There wasn’t much of hurdles. I represented my immediate Boss in the Market Operation, Mr. Binos Yaroe(Now a Senator) to open the market about four times.
You played a key role in the NSE’s Investor Education Programme. What did that entail?
Investor Education is the process of teaching and learning about rewards and risks of investment in securities. The Exchange sponsored one of our General Managers, Mr. Kene Okafor and I to Stockholm Stock Exchange in Europe for Investor Education sometime in 2000. We interacted with the officials of Stockholm Stock Exchange on how their market was demutualized being one of the earliest Exchanges that demutualised. Amsterdam Stock Exchange was the first in the world.
Investor Education focuses on the importance of the market, the products, roles of operators and regulators and how investors can access the market at individual and corporate levels among others. The Nigerian Stock Exchange designs the programme for different levels of investors, including primary school pupils. Without investors, there is no stock market. The Exchange’s Officials and a stockbroker make presentation and thereafter allowed the visiting group to watch trading. For other categories, The Exchange’s team pays visit to quoted companies, churches, mosques, club houses etc. to make presentation.
The programme is one of the strategies to grow investor base.
How would you rate public enlightenment on stocks in Nigeria? What are the factors responsible for this?
It can be better. The current three million retail investors and less than three per cent adult participation in the market in a country of about 200 million people is not heartwarming. There has not been significant difference from where we left ten years ago. A lot more should be done to attract potential investors into the market. But it should not be the sole duty of the exchange and SEC. The entire market ecosystem should take it more seriously.
What can be done to improve awareness on stocks?
Education is key. Financial inclusion of 48 per cent at the moment is low. Efforts should be geared towards sustained financial literacy. The engagement should not be the sole responsibility of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the exchange alone. Market operators should join hands. I believe that SEC’s Financial Literacy Committee of which, Mrs. Toyin Sanni is the Chairman is working along this path. Financial literacy level has to be deepened. Another strategy to grow investor base in our financial market is to introduce some investment products that reduces the point of entry into the market. Some of our stockbroking firms are already coming up with such creative products.
Was your educational role in the NSE responsible for your decision to start SOFUNIX International Schools?
No. SOFUNIX International Schools which comprise SOFUNIX Nursery and Primary School and SOFUNIX International College were established out of our desire to produce well-rounded students through development of the three domains of learning: Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor.
The College has recorded some track records within its relatively few years of existence. The Schools place premium on high academic standard and moral values. Recently, one of our former Head Boys, Mr. Adeshina Badejo, made First Class Honours in Petroleum and Gas Engineering at the University of Lagos. Many of the former students have also distinguished themselves in various professions.
Do you think press freedom is a reality in Nigeria?
The concept of press freedom is relative. Section 39 (1) of Nigeria’s Constitution guarantees freedom of expression. The Press has constitutional roles. Its fundamental role is to inform, educate and entertain. The question of press freedom is the extent that the press can exercise the constitutional role without repression from the government officials who feel enraged by the type of information that the press make public. The press is obliged to exercise professional judgment of accuracy of facts and getting all the sides to every story.
But there had been instances in Nigeria where journalists were detained, maimed or pay supreme death for exercising the constitutional functions. However, we must also admit that the issue of fake news is becoming more prevalent with the advent of social media where all manners of people suddenly become ‘journalists’. Both the Press and the government should exercise restraint in their interaction as they perform complementary roles. Press freedom exists but it is not absolute anywhere in the world. We can only talk about degree of press freedom in different countries. By global ranking, in 2020, the ten countries with the highest level of press freedom are: Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Switzerland, New Zealand and Portugal. In the same period, Nigeria is ranked 115 out of 180 countries in World Press Freedom Index. Press freedom in Nigeria is not yet Uhuru. We need Press freedom to deepen our democracy.