The journalism graduate, political science minor and veteran reporter was suddenly thrust into a role with tremendous responsibility at a time of severe global unrest. Much of Ibukun’s focus has since been on the fallout of COVID-19 on the continent — in May she reported on the extraordinary story of a worker who infected 533 people at a fish factory in Ghana.
We recently spoke to Ibukun about her new job, the Black Lives Matter protests, her time at Concordia and her childhood in France and Nigeria.
What has it been like to experience the worldwide anti-racism protests as a journalist based in Accra?
Yinka Ibukun: Ghana holds a special place in the American civil rights movement. In The Heart of a Woman, Maya Angelou recounts how she moved to Accra, the capital, in the 1960s, with her teenage son, and mingled with an African-American intellectual community here that included people like W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois co-founded the largest civil rights organization in the U.S. but also agitated much of his life for an end to colonialism in Africa. He died in a home in Accra given to him by President Kwame Nkrumah. The W. E. B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture, a 15-minute walk from my house, provides a constant reminder of the intersection of those two movements.
Ghana has continued to open its arms to the African-American community. Last year, it encouraged the African diaspora in the U.S. to visit to mark 400 years since the first enslaved Africans arrived in what is now the U.S. The government called it the Year of Return.
So it’s no surprise that there have been some attempts to protest the police killing of George Floyd in solidarity with African-Americans but two protests were not allowed to proceed because of restrictions on gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even in Ghana, a lodestar of pan-Africanism, anti-Blackness persists, through colourism for instance.
Tell us about your career trajectory at Bloomberg News.
YI: I joined Bloomberg as a stringer in 2013 in Lagos, my home city. I was recruited as full-time staff a year later and spent six years reporting almost exclusively on Nigeria. I moved to Accra last year and took on a more regional role as a West Africa business reporter. In April, I applied to become West Africa bureau chief and got the job. I’m responsible for the coverage of 20 countries (but not Nigeria, which has a bureau of its own).
Your mandate is huge. How do you choose what to cover?
I’m currently training an artificial-intelligence tool used at Bloomberg to pick up certain topics on social media and in news reports. The tool allows you to ‘thumbs-up’ or ‘thumbs-down’ suggestions to teach the machine what you find interesting. At the moment, I’m teaching it to catch core Bloomberg stories, like anything relating to cocoa — the two biggest markets in my region, Ghana and Ivory Coast, account for more than 60 per cent of the world’s production.
We follow market news, politics, oil, telecommunications and infrastructure, among other topics. With COVID-19, we’ve been following how various countries are dealing with the pandemic from both health and economic perspectives. Western countries are dishing out trillion-dollar stimuli to protect jobs and businesses but the countries in my region run small governments and people are more or less on their own. So part of the coverage is what that means for people, economies and governments.
And then there are those timeless stories where all you need is a news hook to build a narrative around, like opportunities to highlight socio-economic or gender inequalities, for instance.
The challenge is threefold: monitoring, selecting and choosing a format to present the story. In all three aspects I get support from reporters, editors and various teams.
What stories have been most meaningful to you?
As a reporter in Lagos, I found that stories addressing the stark economic inequalities in Nigeria were the most meangful. Due to a lack of social services, that impacts every other aspect of life. I’ve written about how people die from a lack of access to safe water or how certain government policies have blocked people from accessing financial services and being able to set money aside or even borrow. Nigeria probably has some of the most extreme cases of inequality but the rest of the West African region faces similar challenges.
Where did you grow up and what was your family life like? How did you first cultivate an interest in journalism?
I was born in France and my family moved back to my home country Nigeria when I was about seven. I grew up in Lagos.
My family is mixed Nigerian-Ugandan so growing up I was exposed to multiple cultures and languages, including the French culture in which I spent my early childhood.
My mom was a serial entrepreneur and I was her assistant, managing her inventory, packing Christmas hampers for sale during the holidays, or just hanging out in her tailoring shop after school. I enjoyed it and became a part-time entrepreneur myself until I became Bloomberg staff. My first business was actually a poorly translated English-French newspaper which my 11-year-old friends and I sold for 50 naira (the equivalent of about $2 at the time).
I can’t pinpoint where my interest in journalism started. Long before I was born, my dad became the first Black director of the Western Nigeria Television Service, the first television station launched in Africa. I wish I could claim that as my origin story but I feel like I was already set on becoming a journalist by the time I learned he’d had this notable stint as a media professional. I knew him mostly as a scientist and diplomat.
What stands out most from your experience at Concordia?
I was at what was then CERAM Sophia Antipolis (now part of the SKEMA Business School) for two years and applied to Concordia because it was a partner university with the best-ranked journalism program. Transferring to a partner university meant I wouldn’t have to repeat most of my classes. It also helped that Concordia gave me a merit-based scholarship for international students.
At Concordia, I learned as much in the classroom as I did outside of it. A popular event was Cinema Politica that raised awareness about social issues around the world. I learned about the struggles of Palestinians through student-led political events, the oppression of First Nations and became more aware of discrimination against sexual and gender minorities. I was like a sponge soaking in all the political and social awareness.
A turning point came when I was elected editor-in-chief of Concordia français, the only French-language paper on campus. I became its first non-Québécois leader. After a brief honeymoon period, new roles were created to check my powers and I had an editorial disagreement with the new decision-makers. That essentially ended my relationship with the paper. Even now, as organizations talk about getting more Black people in leadership, it’s important to acknowledge how vulnerable it can be to be the only Black person — and especially the only Black woman — at the leadership level.
That experience, which played out just about a year after I’d moved to Montreal, made me seek out the African and Caribbean communities at the university and in my new city. Within less than a year, I’d started my own publication, Baobab Magazine, which focused on the African diaspora in Montreal. It was run by a group of women — all but one were Concordia students, and most of them were African or of African descent.
Creating with that group — and working with our many supporters within Black communities to fund it and organize events — remains one of the most meaningful professional experiences I’ve had because we addressed a real gap in the media space. Montreal’s Black History Month Roundtable gave us a prize in 2007 for most promising organization.