This piece is an interview session done by the University of Nigeria Essayists’ Group (UNEG) with the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of PositiveNaija, Toju Micheal Ogbe on conceiving PositiveNaija, the peculiarity of its essay competitions, and positivity for Nigeria and Nigerians.
The University of Nigeria Essayists’ Group is an association of national and international award-winning essayists and writers from all campuses of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN).
Interviewer: Akunna James-Ibe
Date: 20 January 2021
There are several essay competitions with Nigeria as a central theme, but very few that force interested writers to dig for treasures in the rubble that is the country. Since 2017, PositiveNaija has been committed to doing just this through their annual essay contests and other activities geared at instilling positivity in the Nigerian people.
In this interview with the brain behind PositiveNaija, Mr. Toju Micheal Ogbe, you will find out, amongst other things, what the PositiveNaija essay contest is all about.
Thank you sir, for affording us this privilege to have this conversation with you.
You are welcome. Thank you too.
It’s not everytime people get to meet visionaries of your kind. I am sure our readers would love to know you, formally and informally.
My name is Toju Micheal Ogbe. I am the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ‘PositiveNaija’ and ‘The Nigerian Diplomat’, which both focus on the positive progress and excellence of Nigeria and Nigerians globally. I love God, enjoy critical thinking and profitable knowledge. I enjoy watching and playing football; reading, music, candy crush and I love to laugh. Movies as well.
Interesting, especially the Candy crush part. How, why, and when did you conceive the idea of Positive Naija, and how has the journey been so far?
On the Candy Crush, currently at level 1196.
(Laughs) Congratulations Sir!
On why and when I conceived the idea of PositiveNaija, incredible experience and story. First, I had my first degree in International Studies and Diplomacy (2010), which I dearly love and was interested in the practicalities associated with it. I was literally all over it and just wanted to be good at it right from day one. Then, I had my second degree – MBA in Oil and Gas Management (2013). At this point, I was really looking at consolidating my knowledge/skills still towards diplomacy and then I came across an interview – I think of a Finnish Diplomat on a newspaper (The Guardian Nigeria) and I read on the benefits of having the need of positive stories and narratives. I loved it and then, almost immediately, still in 2013, I created via Blogger, “The Nigerian Dream” to share positive news and stories about Nigeria and Nigerians. It did not really do well because I had to get a job as I did not have the resources to be viable on it and consistent as well as and I was still quite inexperienced with the technicalities involved in running a blog. So till date, that had just 2 posts. You can check it here: naija-plus.blogspot.com.ng
And then, it was in January 15, 2015, I registered PositiveNaija and was a bit more prepared and so it went on but still, I was not really consistent and was not aware about a lot of technicalities involved. However, I continued to search and post accordingly. And it was from 1st of January 2017, I decided to go full time on it. And it had been progressive.
From a personal point of view, I am quite dynamic and have love knowledge and overtime, appreciated the power of having the right knowledge and also being practical about it (its impact). I do not think I love Nigeria more than anyone else or not concerned about the state of hopelessness prevailing the country and its peoples but I can largely say that I think I just wanted to do an exemplary work in a certain manner – trustworthy, good, unique/original, creative and simple! And it thus culminated together with my trainings, now having to focus on Nigeria and the area of positivity – and it then happens that I love it, believe in it and it kind of loves me back! Although certainly not without its own peculiar challenges – but I am very much comfortable in it and everyday continue to see the endless possibilities of the focus on doing good. My submission personally therefore is that I do not believe we have even started to live considering that we are yet to explore the power of goodness and love particularly as Nigerians.
The how – which is technical, I had to learn from scratch – web admin, web design, SEO, etc. as it was not my area of study. Along the journey, I have also had support from friends, family, loved ones, partners, etc. A lot of difficulties but still learning everyday. Patience, consistency, belief, hardwork, integrity, etc. And of course, God has been my primary helper. All of this is possible because of a vision!
Amazing. What are the means through which you engage Nigerians, and how have the responses been so far? Are there indications that your work is instilling positivity in the populace?
With respect to medium, we engage via our website, social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, WhatsApp) as well as offline through our stickers and newsletters. With respect to content, the news we publish, programmes and competitions, as well as our online Forum available on the website.
For the responses, we hope to get as much persons. We have some good following and kind words towards what we do. Still, we also have, understandably, some lack of belief/trust in some feedback. I say understandably because what we could classify as good news, is subject in some ways to the experiences of a number of persons. For example, for a lot Nigerians, good news to them is that the price of rice has reduced, salaries are being paid, road constructions are going on – and sincerely all these are valid and truly needed, still we need to step up what we celebrate or regard as progress. So there is some kind of a problem of disconnect if you know what I mean.
On if there are indications of our work instilling positivity on the populace. I think so – although but I think the question will be best answered by those who interact with our work.
Are there other visionaries-cum-patriots like you out there? People that believe in and actively support your venture?
First, the word ‘patriot’ amuses me when I think about it – not sure why but it sounds funny when used to describe me; maybe because I never thought I would be in this kind of setting where we have to, through our work, encourage and promote Nigerians. Still, in the context which you mean, yes, and I think they are a lot. People who subscribe to our newsletters, follow us on social media, participate in our competitions, friends, family, partners, etc.
Over the years, PositiveNaija has come up with very interesting and, somewhat, controversial essay topics, If I may say. What inspires these topics?
I do not think they are really controversial. I just rather see them as self-reflecting and self-checking topics for the country and the people. So for example, we say we are the Giant of Africa, how and why? We say we are a loving and hospitable people, how and why? We say we know where we are going and the reason for the existence of the country, how and why? Generally, it is a way of providing a reliable space where people can genuinely, not only bring out to the surface, truth, but also an innovative and transformative experience even for every writer that takes part.
In 2019, no winner emerged for the PositiveNaija essay contest which was titled THE VALUE OF THE LIFE OF A NIGERIAN. And in 2020, the number of shortlisted participants fell short of 10. Any comments on this development?
For the 2019 edition, I think there was a genuine chance for a winner to emerge. Certain notable factors attributed to why no winner or finalist emerged, include the following reasons: logical and narrative inconsistency; instances of lack of reliable/relevant references by participating writers; spelling and grammatical errors; false information; genuine value of the essay objective not profound with little or no linkage to the reality on ground today as most essays largely appeared to be – off-topic, descriptive, lamentational, historical or suggestive; late submissions; etc.
For the 2020 edition, we envisaged the best ten essays. And from our review, we had just three (3) that met with the set expectations of the competition.
THE VALUE OF THE LIFE OF A NIGERIAN. Considering this topic and the recent events in the country where Nigerian lives have been treated with little or no value (wanton terrorist attacks, hoarding of COVID-19 palliatives, killing and witch hunting of peaceful protesters, incessant university strikes, and so many other unfortunate events), I feel like I can sympathize with the dilemma and anguish participants suffered. Say you were a participant, can you briefly highlight how you would have tackled the topic, that is, what you would have expected from writers?
Interesting question, and a truly valid perspective. I know a number of persons actually thought it was an impossible topic if written truthfully. Sincerely, I do not even know the answers to most of the topics we roll out. As stated earlier, I sincerely think there was a good opportunity for a winner to emerge. I clearly remember one essay but the person’s essay was just short of one element, which was communicated when the person requested for feedback and which was well accepted by the person. We act as judges, and what I can say in terms of our expectations from writers is to be insightful and objective with a focus on current realities, undertake thorough research, be factual, maintain narrative consistency and be truthful. For example, the 2019 edition had as an element “how are Nigerians being empowered” and a number of persons see empowerment differently, which is not a bad thing but are they seeing it objectively and comprehensively based on what empowerment truly means?
Personally, I think the 2020 edition themed ‘The Purpose of Nigeria’ is the most difficult topic we have had so far.
I also think the 2020 topic was terrifying! What was the idea behind the topic? It sounded like a topic that needed more conjecturing than facts.
I try to listen attentively and objectively to Nigerians both online and offline especially those that bring up insightful conversations on the state of the country and how we can make genuine progress. I think the major factor that inspired the 2020 topic “The Purpose of Nigeria!” was as a result of the state of the country really – in terms of the numerous abnormalities we are facing and ultimately, to what end? And so the essay topic, in as much as it serves as an encouragement because our topics are not framed as questions, it also aimed to unravel the mysteries behind what the country really is and, if we at least come up with a tangible insight, let us then, have the opportunity to take pride in what we have at this current time and maximise/build on it.
“It sounded like a topic that needed more conjecturing than facts?” I would not call it ‘conjecturing’ because we do not judge by emotions or false facts. However, logical/narrative inventiveness is important.
How are the judges for the contest selected, and what are their judging criteria?
We select the judges through a number of considerations: how objective they can be – people with consistent character; they must be Nigerians; they must have proven competence in their respective fields; they must be two males and two females (agewise – one advanced male and female; and one youthful male and female). For the 2020 edition, we had more fine-tuning to do because of the nature of the topic – we needed someone who studied English language (and gladly we did – both at BA and MA level); we needed someone with a sociological/anthropology background; we needed someone with a legal background, preferably in academia; and we also needed someone with a history or writing background. As for their judging criteria, we leave it to them and trust them to judge independently, at their discretion, based on what they consider as objective, logical, factual and truthful, etc. We search for them (online) and in some cases, get recommendations.
Many writers are often discouraged by essay contests that have a voting round. They feel it often ends up as a popularity contest than a test of worth. Any comments on this?
Indeed, we are aware of this and some persons have actually inquired and expressed their disappointment regarding this, on which we can understand their concerns.
First, just to state that the approach we have used in the PositiveNaija Essay Competitions is peculiar and progressive. What this means is that at the foundation of the entire process, we try to as much as we can, to have a system that is reliable and most importantly, trustworthy through a check and balance system. When PositiveNaija reviews the essays, we send to the judges and the auditing company – Wole Joshua and Co. (who act as our check). As a check on the judges, they review ‘blindly’ as well as the opportunity for the public to act as the final check. And furthermore, even for us at PositiveNaija, we have placed a check on ourselves creating the obligation for us to provide feedback to participants who were unable to make it as finalists/winners. Now, why we have tried to bring in the public to vote is to as stated act as a check and a ‘reliable decider’. A pertinent question: as it was almost the case in the 2020 edition, if from the assessment of the judges, we had two persons who had the same score e.g. 350/400, how do we decide who is first and who is second?
In addition, considering the peculiar nature of our topics, we believe that it is a very potent strategy towards increasing the visibility of the competition. Imagine you are finalist in the 2020 edition and you meet people within your circle and tell them that you need their votes and support to win an essay competition titled: “The Purpose of Nigeria!” I believe that, that is something really striking and captivating.
In addition, when we completed the second edition of the essay competition, we realised that even if the total of the judges had Akunna James-Ibe as the topmost, and consistent with the public votes as the highest, we made it very clear on the competition page of the 2018 edition that “Increase in Advisory Judges weight would move from 80% to 95% beginning in 2019.” This is because, the focus we believe must rely on the quality of the essays and give greater weight to the judges. So in its true sense, the voting when the weights of the public is significantly reduced, becomes a kind of publicity and not necessarily to undermine the work done by the judges or even the efforts of the participants. This we have then implemented for this year’s edition and going forward, a 1% voting weight by the public (from the previous 20%) – making it much more difficult for the votes to hold sway.
The 2021 essay contest is titled, THE POWER OF THE NIGERIAN PEOPLE. Could you hint on what the team would be expecting intending participants to explore in their works? And when is the call for entries to be expected?
The 2021 PositiveNaija Essay Competition aims to promote: the collaborative and coordinated capabilities and strength of Nigerians in influencing governance for good; human dignity; Nigerian patriotism; impactful scholarship as well as serve as a platform for excellence! The objective is for participants to inform the world on the genuine value of the collective success/prosperity of Nigerians towards good governance and a life of dignity both nationally and internationally today. Submission period is July 1 – 31, 2021.
Thank you Sir. Do you have any advice for those who intend to participate in the 2021 essay contest and in subsequent contests?
You are welcome.
I encourage intending participants to have the courage to take part in the competition, which is reliable, transparent and rewarding, not just financially but in having the opportunity to have a just and accountable experience. To demonstrate this, we have consistently in every edition of the PositiveNaija essay competition, published the names of all participants at the end of the competition, published the names and profiles of the advisory judges before the start of the competition, published every sponsorship support received for the competition, informed on our obligation to provide feedback to every participant who demand feedback on their essay quality/performance, etc. In addition, I would encourage prospective participants to read extensively, be meticulous in their writing, take their time to understand the guiding rules of the competition as well as the philosophy of PositiveNaija (as the organiser), and ultimately, see the competition as a genuine contribution to the constructive discussion and perhaps, inventiveness in the progress and development of the country (Nigeria and Nigerians). Finally, the essay competition as well as other competitions/programmes we execute, are truly a positively transforming and unique experience for all.
I must say, this has been a very interesting conversation. Thank you for this sacrifice. UNEG is super grateful.
You are most welcome. Thank you too.