Warungu exits BBC


Originally Published: May 14, 2011

They say a journalist never knows his true worth until he has covered conflict. Joseph Warungu’s turn came in 1993 in Burundi.

The country’s first democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, had earlier been assassinated by Tutsi extremists.

As a result of the killing, violence broke out between the Hutu and the Tutsi, leading to the death of 50,000-100,000 people in that year.

When the killings were going on, young Joseph Warungu was dispatched from London to cover the conflict for UK news television station, Channel 4.

Mr Warungu had no idea of the perils that awaited him in that country.

“That was the scariest time of my career,” he recalls.

As a good journalist he did his research on the country and learnt of the deeply rooted tribalism that had fuelled the conflicts in not only Burundi but the neighbouring Rwanda as well.

One morning, flanked by his local fixer and his camera crew, Mr Warungu left his hotel in search of a story. His aim was to visit the areas hardest hit by the ongoing conflict.

“We got to a Hutu school that had been burnt down in a revenge mission by Tutsis. Just as we started filming, a truck of army guys came rushing towards us,” he says.

His allowance

A commanding officer asked the men to identify themselves and the fixer earned his allowance by explaining to the soldiers whom they were and what they were doing there. The army men accepted his explanation – but only partly.

From his dark skin, slight frame and height – six feet – Mr Warungu could easily pass for a Tutsi. And the soldiers, who were Hutu, believed he was from the “other tribe”.

“Do not mess with us,” they told the fixer. “Give us this man. We know he is Tutsi. Let us go and deal with him!”

To make matters worse, Mr Warungu didn’t have his passport. So, at that moment he was the enemy, and he was to be dealt with accordingly by the men surrounding him with guns at the ready. He however emerged from the sticky situation unscathed.

During the interview in Nairobi, a bus passing nearby burst a tyre. Mr Warungu first flinched then burst into a smile. The loud noise brought back another memory of the hazards of the job he has retired from after two and a half decades.

It was early evening in Somalia, in 2000. Mr Warungu was in his first floor hotel room in central Mogadishu. While going up the stairs, he had met with a number of cabinet ministers in the transitional Somali government. He paid them his respects and proceeded to his room.

He sat down, opened his laptop and just as he was about to start working, he heard a bang.

“My room shook violently and the next minute was on the floor,” he says.

After he mustered enough courage several minutes later to venture downstairs to find out what had happened, he learnt that an assassination attempt had been made on ministers who were drinking coffee there. Someone had run into the lobby and lobed a grenade at them. Luckily there were no fatalities.

Things exploded

“That was Somalia. There was no warning. Things just exploded,” he says.

When he set out as a journalist after having been an English and Kiswahili teacher, never in his wildest dreams had he thought he would find himself facing a potential firing squad.

In fact, when he joined the Voice of Kenya in 1985 as a volunteer, his main aim was to be a radio and TV broadcaster. The rigours of field journalism never once crossed his mind. Clearly, there was disconnect between his aspirations and the reality.

He was later to join Kenya’s premiere independent TV station KTN in 1990.

“Straight away, I thought I would interview the big names. Seeing my eagerness, my editor at KTN put me on the crime beat,” he says.

Every day, he had to make trips to police stations and fish around for a story. Then he was bumped up to court reporting.

KBC and at KTN prepared Mr Warungu for his future assignments that saw him globe-trot for about 20 years until he left recently. He was the first African to be made head of BBC Network Africa and Focus on Africa.

The journey began in 1992, when he got a job with the BBC Swahili Service network. From then on, he worked not only for BBC but as a stringer for other international news networks as well.

When he joined BBC, he did not know what awaited him there, but all he was sure about was that if he were to survive the cut-throat competition of international journalism he had to double his effort.

“I was a novice back then and it felt a bit like being thrown into the deep end. But I believed in myself and the experience and training I had received. So I took it all in my stride,” he says.

He recalls the events that shaped African politics at that time.

“I arrived in Bush House, the home of the BBC World Service, in June 1992. After the wind of independence in the sixties, which swept away colonial administration, many African governments were themselves facing the same challenges of popular uprisings for the clamour of democracy,” he says.

Lusaka protests

The political change across the continents saw him cover the Saba Saba and Kamukunji rallies in Nairobi in the 1990s, and the Lusaka protests that saw the democratic election of a new president and a new system of governance.

“People all over wanted freedom and space. It was amazing to be part of such life-changing events,” says the father of two.

But Mr Warungu has no regrets on the path his life has taken. Every gloomy or dangerous situation he has found himself in has been coupled with an equally inspiring memory. Among his fondest memories is an assignment he had early in his career.

Year: 1991. Country: South Africa. Location: Durban. Event: the first African National Congress meeting to be held on South African soil since 1960.

“(South African president) Frederik de Klerk had just lifted the ban on the ANC. There are no words to describe the mood then,” he says.

After a bit or probing he attempts to put that experience in words: ANC had invited delegates from all over the world. It was no longer a matter of if the Apartheid government ceded ground to the majority black population, but rather a matter of when.

“South African delegates who were picked from all over the country were singing Zulu war songs, re enacting war moves… it was electric,” he says.

As he looked around he could spot some liberation heroes. There, at the front of the hall, were Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Cyrille Ramaphosa. Somewhere in the crowd, Thabo Mbeki was running around making sure everything went according to plan.

“I had no idea that he was later on to become the president of the Rainbow nation,” says Mr Warungu.

But it was at the same function that he experienced one of his career lows as well. As the conference began, the ANC thought it courteous to announce to the gallery the invited countries.

One by one, the announcements were made. Huge cheers and thunderous applause followed the mention of each country.

But when Kenya was mentioned, the noise went down a notch and some murmurs were heard.

“We were accused of not playing a particularly important role in South Africa’s liberation struggles. I almost felt ashamed of my nationality,” he says.

Mr Warungu has interviewed many statesmen and celebrities but he ranks Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni among the most difficult people to interview.

He says Mr Museveni is the embodiment of an African strongman.

“He wants to be in control of everything and from the word go he will let you know that he is the master of the ship. It is very easy for one to go for an hourlong interview with him and leave without getting whatever information had taken him there in the first place,” he says.

Mr Warungu remembers the late South Sudanese leader John Garang for his intellect. Simply put, Garang came across as a man who knew his stuff.

He remembers former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa for his short temper.

“You would be having a very light-hearted interview but the moment you asked a question he did not like, the tone would change. He is quick to anger,” says Warungu.

But he says none of his interviewees was as interesting as to talk to as the diminutive musician Angelique Kidjo of Benin.

Some of the assignments he has had have bordered on boredom. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown falls on this list.

“Gordon Brown did not have the gift of the gab. At some points of the interview he would rumble on and on and was mostly concerned about good public relations for his government,” says Mr Warungu, who interviewed the former prime minister at No. 10 Downing Street.

Yet, even with his experience, some interviewees still managed to surprise him.

“Kofi Annan caught me off guard. I thought he would be a secretive character whom I’d have to probe for information. Contrary to my beliefs at that time, he turned out to be among the most revealing personalities I have interviewed. He talked candidly about the Kenyan post-election violence, the coalition government and his thoughts on African leadership.” This was in 2009.

In his career, Mr Warungu managed to get stories that most of his peers in the field still chase after.

Does he think that a big part of his success can be attributed to the fact that he has been reporting for and later on managing a foreign media house?

“I accept that being a correspondent for a Western owned media house has its advantage. For instance, the name of the institution itself, in some cases, grants you access to people and places it would be hard to get to as a reporter for a local media house,” he says.

But he insists that this fact should not in any way be used to take away the ambition and drive for those working for such outlets.

But this too has its downside.

“Most of the time the story of Africa told by the Western press is biased to fit a certain template they would wish to show the world,” he says.

As the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Focus on Africa and later on a head of the BBC African News and Current Affairs Service at the BBC for the past seven years, has this happened to his former employer?

Were fortunate

“Not really,” he says. “We were fortunate enough to employ people from that country with an understanding of the stories they file at the end of each assignment.”

This explanation however has been used to further propagate corruption, another challenge the media are facing. It has been argued before that the danger of using people on the ground to cover stories that affect them directly is that they never fully detach themselves from the assignment, eventually taking sides or being paid off.

“Corruption will always bring down the environment it thrives in. By allowing it into our newsrooms and boardrooms we are telling the people that we no longer deserve to be the called the Fourth Estate,” he says.

To stem it, he says, both the journalists and the media owners need to play their part. On one hand, journalists need to abide by the highest ethical standards possible, and on the other hand, employers need to stop treating their journalists as labourers.

His wife, who had been his strength for many years, died in 2005.

None of his two children, Bob, 20 and Anne, 18, wants to follow in their father’s footsteps. Bob is interested in diplomacy while Anne is studying criminology.

“They have their own paths they would like their lives to follow. Plus, maybe they saw the toll the job took on me and decided otherwise,” he says.

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