‘Citizens must hold leaders to account, demand transparency in their actions’
You are household name in the global media sphere. There is no one who watches international news, who would not recognise your face or know your name. How did your media career begin?
That is going back a long time ago. My media career really began in a very quiet way.
I just went straight from University as a trainee into television.
So, it was very simple. I did not study media; I studied politics and economics at Oxford University and from there I went straight into ITV as a trainee. That was it and they trained me on the job.
Why media? What drew you to journalism? Could you have been influenced by your father who was a newspaper editor in Sudan and who also worked in the BBC Arabic Service?
I have always been interested in current affairs and politics and my father had also been involved in pre-independence politics in Sudan.
So, I think that if you are interested in politics, some people become practitioners and others become observers like me.
And I suppose there must have been some family influence. And I think you are a very privileged person if you can combine your interest and passion with your work; which is what I did.
Where was your mother in all this?
My mother is a very lovely, accomplished, highly intelligent woman. She was a teacher before she got married.
She continued to teach in Sudan but had to stop. She is a mother of six children. So, her career was a bit disrupted when she moved to England.
She comes from a very educated background; that is because her grand father (my great grand father) pioneered female education in Sudan.
And all the women in her family (if they were alive today; some would be well over 100 years old) could read and write.
I have had aunts who have got post graduate degrees from Western Universities who are in their seventies.
So, she was always a huge encourager. She encouraged all her children to aspire to do well.
Back to your career path, how easy and difficult was the journey, considering that you are an African (Sudanese British)?
Yes. When I started in the media, there were very few people of colour, working in the British media.
I think that perhaps, I entered at a time when there was a sense that they needed a greater diversity in the workforce in the early 1980s.
There had been race riots in England, people would remember the Toxeth riots in Liverpool (July 1981) and I think there was a huge discussion.
There was a very famous report by a British judge (The Scarman Report of 1981 Report) and I think that I must have just come in on that wave where they thought that people needed to diversify the workforce.
So, there were few of us. It has been a long haul but you know this was in the days when there was no international news really; no international channels. And I suppose, I have just hung on in there.
How have you found working with the BBC as a black woman?
Really I am not in the minority now (well, I was in the minority but there are so many of us now.) I think I would make a distinction between then and now.
I mean, in years gone by when there were few of us (especially on camera), there was a novelty value. You get a lot of attention.
But now, I think it is really just very standard to see women of colour on screen.
And I think there is a particular drive in the BBC (particularly in the BBC International Channel – BBC World Service and BBC World); to really draw on the first hand experience of African-British, Asian-British workforce because they bring particular insights into covering those particular regions.
For instance, we have got for Nigeria, a West African correspondent Mayeni Jones. And that is just a demonstration of how we are using that talent pool; who are from the British Black community.
What are the challenges you still encounter as a woman and an African in a male dominated field vis-à-vis the Carrie Gracie story and her campaign for equal pay in media houses?
The media is no different from any other sector or industry in the economy.
And it is part of society and there is of course, right across every sector; be it business, politics, science and be it the media, that there are gender disparities which need to be addressed and in the light of the Carrie Gracie story; the BBC has responded and it is trying to do its best to ensure that there is not a gender gap when it comes to pay and promotion.
For me, I think it is not a particularly burning issue, for me personally but I support all efforts to make sure that gender disparities are addressed. And I think the BBC is doing that now.
Why was it not a burning issue for you personally?
I think that I am of a certain age and for me, I also have a project (The History of Africa) which I have nurtured myself, which is for the BBC of course, and which is something I am pursuing as my own passion, my own interest.
And so, I don’t work full time at the BBC as I used to.
I am writing a book about African history, so I have other things I am working on. The discussion was very much about correspondents out in the field.
And I am not one of these correspondents out in the field. That is why it did not touch me personally because I have other projects that I pursue.
When your documentary series aired on the BBC; I watched all the episodes except for one. Why did you decide to film the documentary series “The History of Africa”?
It has been a real labour of love. My post graduate was in history, so I have always loved history personally as an interest.
But I happen to think that African history has been occluded (that means deliberately hidden).
You know, it has been either been denigrated, occluded, or written by outsiders.
Or indeed, Africans are being told they don’t have any history which is a supreme irony because of course Africa has the longest history in the world, because this is where humankind originated.
And I just felt that, that needed to be addressed. And so, I wanted to bring that popular history to our screens whereby chronologically, systematically and regionally, I would chart the course of African history from the beginning of time to the modern era.
Also, for an African audience, because I don’t think that has ever been done before.
So, if you watch the series, you would know more about African history; you would be encouraged (I hope) to go and find out more and be entertained as well, in the process.
The second series that I am starting would focus more on West, Central and Southern African than the first series and I hope to come to Nigeria later this year to film some of your wonderful Kingdoms from the past.
And I just think that there was a gap (as I said, it has not been done).
We have had series that have looked at highlights of African history but never before has it ever been done in this kind of chronological, inclusive and systematic way.
And also, the other thing, I do is, there have been programmes in the past, whereby somebody would bring you their own point of view.
Let us say, the presenter, the great and wonderful Ali Mazrui, Basil Davidson and so on. And they would bring their own interpretation.
But what I do is, I merely act as a facilitator for the African experts themselves or the ordinary Africans to tell their own story. So, it is also about ownership.
I am not sitting there telling you this and that (of course I studied the history and learned about it) but I am bringing a Nigerian historian to talk about Nigeria. I am bringing a Ghanaian historian to talk about Ghana.
Do you see what I mean? It is about ownership of the story but then of course, going back then to the past, there were no countries as such then.
What were the challenges you faced whilst filming the history of Africa documentary series?
Well look, you live in Nigeria. It is very difficult to operate in Africa, getting permissions etc.
Sometimes, I go off the beat and track (I don’t just go to capital cities) and unfortunately, you would know that infrastructure is lacking in Africa.
Roads are very poor sometimes; there have been logistical challenges i.e. physical challenges and that has been really difficult.
This is a difficult series to pull off anywhere but in Africa where transport is really not very great; it has been a challenge and internal airlines’ air flights are not there sometimes.
So, I would say that, that is the greatest challenge. I mean, the country where I was born, The Sudan (the third biggest in Africa) and going by road across huge tracks of desert, you get lost, you don’t know where you are going sometimes because there are no roads, the SATNAV (Satellite Navigation) does not work.
So, I would say that those kind of challenges have been the biggest really.
Once, you get through, to the people and the historians, the anthropologists, the archaeologists; that is the highlight. They are absolutely all wonderful.
They know their subjects and they have a great passion for it. And that offsets those challenges.
What discoveries fascinated and surprised you during the filming of the documentary?
I think that I was surprised at how rich Africa’s history is. Also, not surprised because I had read about it of course.
I was delighted to see that actually, Africa’s history is even richer than I had imagined and also, how people integrate historic traditions into their day to day lives.
You see that continuity of traditions from centuries gone by; still preserved in people’s daily lives. It is quite remarkable.
The ancient Kingdom of Kush in Northern Sudan, (you would remember, if you saw the series), I just looked at even the kind of beauty treatments the women still do; various customs, the scarification of the faces (they found mummies with scarification on their faces).
So, it is extra ordinary that you see this continuity of tradition. I think that is what is wonderful about African history is that although modernity has been embraced; there is what is still a real sense of wanting to retain traditions.
I think that, that would be the most interesting observation, I would have to make.
You once said that while getting the content ready, you spoke with several African elder state persons.
And a lot were surprised by the fact that they knew more of Western history than African history.
One of such persons, who you spoke to and mentioned, was Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. How did that strike you?
I think that with people like President Obasanjo (actually this was a conversation that mirrored one I had with my own parents who were brought up in Sudan; just as Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was brought up in Nigeria, under British rule and at the beginning went to school.
And of course you had the British education system) who said to me, “I know more about British Kings and Queens than I do about my ancient history.”
Going way back, you could mention Henry VIII and so on. And I think that was the same thing with my parents.
So, this idea that once you have been through the British education system during the colonial era, you would have that kind of curriculum whereby your own country’s ancient history (not the modern but ancient history) would not just really be particularly emphasised in the curriculum or if it is dealt with; it is dealt with in a very superficial way.
My mother, when I spoke to her, said that “oh, we were taken to see the pyramids in Sudan once.” But they did not know much.
But now, I know much more about Sudan’s ancient history than my parents ever did.
And so, I think President Obasanjo was making the same remarks and I found that actually that was something which was echoed by so many people (even among the younger generation).
It is not something confined to the older generation.
As you know, there is a big movement in South Africa and other places in the world including in Europe to decolonise education curriculums.
The thing is, there is a difference between the Africanist and the African historian.
So, the Africanist maybe as a Westerner who studied Africa and the African historian is an African. I think that we now need to bring the African historian centre stage.
The new Africanists, I mean, are by and large, obviously more enlightened than the old Africanists. So, I am not really doing them down now.
There are some wonderful British historians. But I have to say, that it is not about colour or being Africanist (you could be black, brown or white).
Richard Leki (the famous Kenya palaeontologist) formed the backbone of my first programme. It is not a thing about colour, it is about being African. That is important.
Which episode was the most challenging to record or shoot and which episode struck a chord with you?
I would have to say probably Sudan because of the vastness of the country. It is such a big country and there are not good enough roads.
It is where we had the most transport challenges. Egypt was not easy to film; very bureaucratic as well; you had to have permits to different parts of the country (Alexandria, Cairo etc).
I would have to say, Sudan. Algeria was not easy either particularly (the biggest country in Africa).
But it had a very good internal flight system. We could move around, aside the security issues. Everywhere I filmed, we had to have two police cars.
It was just after a terror attack or so and the Algerian authorities insisted that I had a police escort at all times. So, there are security risks and so on.
People would ask, why bother? What was the reason and rationale behind the project?
You are right because it is absolutely a real challenge. I think I like the revelatory aspect of it; that it reveals something that is not being revealed before. It is a unique project because it has never been done before.
And also, working with UNESCO on this because UNESCO through African historians wrote volumes from the general history of Africa.
I derive my facts and my dates and even some of the academics I interview have contributed to those volumes (the general history of Africa) which are a UNESCO project. It was started back in the 1960s.
What has the feedback being like and do you think you’ve succeeded in telling the history of Africa?
Obviously, television programme cannot do everything and it would be naive of me to say that I have comprehensively covered all of Africa’s history in this TV series.
The first one is from the origins of human kind in the Twelfth Century.
But what I have done is to highlight some important aspects; I hope the most important aspects of a particular history because I think my main aim is to stimulate interests in it.
And I think that television does that well because it sears the history into imagination (particularly of young people and to capture their imagination.) And television is a good vehicle for doing that.
And then thereafter, I would hope they would then want to go and find out more by reading books.
How long did it take you to shoot/film History of Africa series?
I suppose we were filming for the best part of two years. Sometimes, we would film and edit at the same time when we got back to the UK.
I suppose from beginning to end, the series must have been about three and a half years.
It takes a long time. The second series hopefully, would not take as long (I hope); because obviously, there are lessons learnt so on and so forth.
I have to say that the BBC HardTalk interview you had with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quite explosive; just after what happened in the Middle East between Israel and Syria.
Who would you say has been the most difficult personality you’ve ever had to interview?
Well, so many now. Actually, I think that the hardest interviewees are the ones who defuse tough questions with humour (funnily enough). Because when they deflect a question with humour or accept it, then it is harder and you have got nowhere to go really.
For example, the Dalai Lama (the Spiritual leader of Tibet); when I interviewed him and put to him questions saying, he has been accused by his critics of appeasing the Chinese and had not really delivered anything much for his people.
He said, “Yes, I know. Even my own brother criticises me and says you are a sell out.”
After that, it is a very disarming answer. Desmond Tutu is the same. I said to him, “President Mugabe has described you as an evil, nasty, little interfering Bishop.”
And he said, did he really say that? And his shoulders shook with laughter. And so, where do you go after that?
So, you see what I mean, actually, they are the harder ones to do than the other ones who you always have a follow up questions to come back with.
Actually, I laughed when the Bishop Desmond Tutu laughed because his laugh was and is infectious. It is probably not the answer you were expecting.
But I think when you have a Nobel Prize winning economist that you have to interview on BBC HardTalk, of course that is a challenge like Amartya Kumar Sen (the Indian Nobel Prize winning Prize in 1998).
You are sitting and engaging with a great mind; an intellectual giant. But you still have to sit there and hold your ground. And that is another example of a difficult one.
Zeinab Badawi, be honest and forthright. Who are the personalities you’ve tried to get on BBC HardTalk who have refused to do an interview and appear on the show? Global, African and Nigerian personalities.
The American leaders are never very good. I mean; I don’t even know if we have a bid for President Trump but we have never had an American President on BBC HardTalk.
Not even President Barack Obama?
Not even President Obama It would be wonderful to have President Obama. If you are listening and reading this, President Obama; you can find me at the BBC. They tend to be the ones we don’t get.
What about African leaders who have avoided BBC HardTalk?
African leaders are not too bad. Actually, a lot of them are quite amenable to it.
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda; I have interviewed (I think twice on HardTalk). Recently, President Adama Barrow of The Gambia (about six weeks ago).
The late leader; Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia; Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa (early this year); President Peter Mutharika of Malawi. There are quite a few I have done over the years.
And there is always a lot of respect for African leaders, who do BBC HardTalk. President Buhari has not accepted my request.
If you are reading this, President Buhari; you know where to find me (but President Obasanjo has done BBC HardTalk.)
During the 20th year anniversary of BBC HardTalk in 2017, the past and present presenters met and you said Nigeria’s former President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was one of your most difficult guests. Why so?
I don’t think I said so, that was not me. Perhaps, one of the other presenters must have said that.
Did I really? I don’t think I did. I think that somebody else made references to that; maybe Stephen Sackur. But if I did; I cannot remember.
Doing a quick research, you are right. It was Stephen Sackur. To the next question. Do you think African governments should dabble into funding media expansion?
People often say to us, the BBC gets government funding; which it does through the license fee; not (BBC Word, the section that I work for.) BBC World Service also gets a grant from the government.
But, I think one has to make a distinction between a state broadcaster and a national broadcaster. The BBC is very much a national broadcaster and it is all over the nation of the United Kingdom.
And if you have a national broadcaster whereby the government just facilitates a broadcast station (radio and Television) to be a national broadcaster and does not interfere and have very strong rules that ensure editorial independence; then I think it is alright.
I could not say to you that is wrong but what would be wrong is if there was government funding from a State broadcaster, so that it just becomes another organ of the State; a propaganda mouthpiece for the government of the day. And that would be wrong.
And that is not the BBC; it is a national broadcaster and not a State broadcaster.
As an African who has lived in the West for five decades, why do you think the African narrative as portrayed by Western Media sometimes, seem to be negative?
I think that news is inherently always going to be looking for difficult stories.
It is not just Africans who suffer from this perception (if you think about any of our coverage from any part of the world.) It is the old saying; “man crosses the road safely; is not news.
Man crosses the road, gets knocked down by a car is news.” So, it is just the nature of news on the whole.
There has been a bit of a pushback now for people to say that this is too uni-dimensional; you need a more multi-dimensional approach to covering news and that there has to be shade and light when we cover stories.
And by and large, if you look at BBC bulletins now, they would have stories (human interest stories, people who have succeeded even against the odds.) Or even if that is not on the news bulletin, there would be programmes that provide that kind of outlet.
My history series in a way is a celebration of African culture.
Of course, there are wars that I would talk about and so on, but that is giving a more multi-dimensional view of Africa.
However, having said that, I think that this kind of approach is alright when viewers in the West for example; when you do a story about London (that is the terrible Grenfell Towers tragedy); people may know more about London and then, they know that, that Grenfell Tower disaster is not the only thing that defines London.
There are many other lovely things that go on in London. So, people are able to fill in other views of London.
But when people are watching things and reports about Africa which may be about coups, wars, famines etc, they may not have any other first hand experience of African countries because they may not have visited especially in the days when globalisation was not around and mass travel was not available.
That negative becomes the whole because they are viewing in a vacuum and they don’t have any other thoughts to challenge it, therefore, the parts become the whole.
And that is not so true of the West, seeing as they are watching in America and there is some tragedy or shoot out that has gone on; they know that, that is a problem in America.
But they also know that you can go shopping in Manhattan, California, surf on the beach etc.
So, it does mean that Africa does have a bit more of a problem in that regard.
And also, I think that coverage of Africa has become very much now inextricably linked with the migration issue.
And when Western nations see Africans coming in or wanting to come in, they are perceived as quite a bit of a needy outsiders.
And that may re-enforce their attitudes about Africans who are settled and have been settled for a long time.
The international migrant issue becomes something that has an impact on the social, domestic, political agenda and has an impact on settled African and black communities in Europe.
Is it not striking that your great grand father Shiekh Babiker Badri was the pioneer of women’s education on Sudan? And if such awareness was prevalent in Sudan more than 100 years ago; what do you think happened to present day Sudan and the empowerment and education of women? if someone like that could be so open-minded, what happened?
Actually, Sudanese women historically and even to this day do exert themselves very much on the country’s agenda. I have very strong female role models in my family.
Not all women are like that. Of course, they are from the elite, they are educated but there is certainly space for them in Sudan like every where else.
Every society is patriarchal and even in the UK, the parliament had got about 23 or 25 percent of parliamentarians are women. It is not great. It is the same in Sudan.
Obviously, you don’t have enough parliamentarians who are women, you don’t have enough business leaders but by and large, and there is space for a woman to flourish if she wants to.
Obviously, there are more conservative communities but luckily, I don’t come from such a community.
We have always had women who wear the trousers in the family. The girls and women are encouraged as much as the boys to go to school, to do as well.
I am fortunate in that regard but I would say that it is not just my family.
It is not impossible for women to flourish. Though, there are terrible cases like the girl Noura Hussein who was forced into a marriage and tragically killed her husband.
I am glad to see her death sentence rescinded but of course, there are cases like that.
To the not so personal question. Have you ever been subtly, covertly or overtly threatened by a personality? Or have you ever felt threatened by a personality during the course of your work?
No. Never. Maybe I am too tall and they are too scared.
Some might want to ask, what makes journalists like you think you really know countries when you analyse or ask global leaders, certain tough questions?
I have been in the business for such a long time. I am fortunate that I have studied politics and international relations, economics and philosophy.
So, luckily, I did have a kind of framework when I went into this business if I have to interview someone about economics, I can remember the economics I did at University which has provided me with a very good framework.
And I have been in the business for such a long time that there is nothing that is completely new to me because obviously there is just an extra layer you have to add each time.
For instance, interviewing leaders e.g. Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa. It is just getting the latest developments.
But I always do my homework and we have got a wonderful research team and producers at BBC HardTalk, who would get their research, double check their facts and we really do our fact checking, so that anything I put to the interviewee is true and is corroborated.
On BBC HardTalk, it is not my opinions I am advancing, we are attributing criticism to third parties this is what so and so has said about you.
If the interviewee does not accept it; he or she could say, so and so is wrong.
And that so and so person may be the United Nations Secretary General or somebody who has been a victim of abuse of some kind. We are using their experiences to put that point of view forward.
What makes the BBC Global Questions unique and why having it in Lagos?
I believe that BBC Global Questions is unique in the BBC World TV firmament. There is something similar on British Television.
But ours is unique because it travels all over the world and it brings in people not only from the country but sometimes from the region.
In Britain, we have a programme called Question Time but that is just a local audience (British audience).
For example, we did the BBC Global Questions in Nigeria as Nigeria focused; because Nigeria is quite a large and vast country.
We went to Cambodia last year (2017) and if we had something Vietnam, we would have gone there.
So, that is what makes it unique that BBC HardTalk offers a regional as well as a national perspective of a story.
Nobody else is doing it whereby we bring citizens together with leaders and influential opinion formers to put their questions to the panellists.
It is a real exercise in encouraging citizens to hold their leaders to account.
To demand transparency in their actions, to ensure that their grievances or their views are being presented.
And it forces the panellists who are as I said, either politicians, opinion formers etc to really understand where the mood is amongst their particular people.
And we brought it to Lagos because it is the most popular city in Nigeria and because of course Nigeria is a very important country.
Out of every four Africans; you find a Nigerian. And it is an important country not only for Africa but globally. Africa cannot succeed if Nigeria does not succeed.
Any failures that Nigeria has are also shared by all of Africa because Nigeria is such a big part of Africa and also in the Diaspora.
So, I think those are the reasons that we felt that Nigeria was a very good country to focus on; on this BBC Global Questions.
And particularly on the youth because obviously, Africa has a very youthful population and Nigeria as well.
What next for Zeinab Badawi? You’ve Kush Communications. Do you intend to set up a big media conglomerate?
Well, I don’t know. I would have to get through the history of Africa Series first and my books for children and then, we would see.
But if there are any Nigerian investors out there, they can come and find me and we could discuss.
What is the title of the book you are currently reading or writing?
You know, the History of Africa series, you cannot really understand it unless you are eighteen and nineteen years above.
So, I am just going to do books for younger children (eleven to twelve year olds) because I think catch them young, get them interested; so that they know that they have a history; so that they do not think that Africa’s history started with slavery and the arrival of the European colonial powers.
I think that is very important and that is why I would like to reach the younger generation.
I am a mother of four children (two daughters and two sons) and I can see that there is a kind of curve that is a good time to catch the child at about the age of ten or eleven, to capture their imagination.
I would do heavily illustrated books and I am talking to publishers presently.
And the book would be titled the same title as the series; The History of Africa with Zeinab Badawi.
And that would keep me busy for the next two to three years. By then, I would be an old lady and I can retire in the sun somewhere.
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