Celebrated global broadcaster, Isha Isatu Sesay is a British journalist of Sierra-Leonean descent. Since 2005 she has worked as an anchor and correspondent for CNN International. In this revealing interview, She shares her inspiring journey with Isaac Oladipupo.
What strikes you most about Africa compared to the UK where you live?
I’ll start with Africa because that’s where I started my formative years and my immediate family are still here. So for me, Africa, in my mind, is associated with family and community. What strikes me most about Africa is that, there is a sense of closeness amongst families, groups and communities compared to the UK and America where people live quite individualistic lives, and are kind of on their own single tracks. I love England just as much as I love other places that I’ve lived. In terms of what strikes me about that; I think in the UK, the African diaspora is again quite united. When you live in the UK where I went to school and spent most of my life, you can still maintain a great link back home. America, I just love its drive, I really do. I love its sense of self; there’s this believe that you can be anything you want to be. If you take the American dream of face value that the sky is the limit, and that really appeals to my sense of self that there are no limits. You can go as far as you push yourself.
And we see that in the story of Obama…
Absolutely! You know, I covered the campaign and I did the democratic and republican convention. So I was there when Obama accepted the nomination formerly. And I was at the Mccain’s campaign headquarters on the elections night. And you know, when the results came in you couldn’t help but get goose pimples and pinch yourself. My goodness, look at whats happening and exchange emails with people who send in important things. Look, I getting goose bumps now and I still get them every time I think about the achievement. Because to me, that achievement dosen’t just belong to him but it’s the embodiment and realization of an achievement that is possible for everyone. I’m not saying its going to be easy, lets not kid ourselves. Its not going to be easy, there are obstacles in life. I get very excited when I talk about it.
What are the things you think is bringing Africa backwards as a continent?
I wont use the word backwards because that’s not how I see this, we’re not backward people. Yes, we do have issues and we have things to work on. We need to strenghten our rule of law on the continent when it has strong democratic processes where people can be convinced that when you have one free and fair election, its followed by another one that is free and fair, so we can have a good transition of power. we need continuity, we need stability, we need a tranquil political process. That’s why people arent coming to put their money in the continent. You cant blame anyone for not coming to put in their money when they’re not sure of a good rule of law that’s going to be stable with a good democratic process; when they know that when they pay their taxes, its going to the right places. Those are the fundamental problems which I think hinders Africa’s continued development. We’re developing, let nobody be under any illusion. Look at Lagos, its now a happening place. Look at Ghana, look at Botswana, look at Rwanda. Africa’s not backward! Do we have issues, are we developing slower than I would like? Yes. But we’re not backward.
I was expecting you to touch on the leadership problems too, but it didn’t come up. But how do you think we can overcome this issue?
People say it’s a culture, but I don’t think so. Politricians feel a sense of entitlement once they’ve been empowered, they abuse it. I think Its going to take a change of mindset and a respect for the rule of law. People must recognise and observe time limits, they must have a sense of responsibility for their people. Sometimes I wonder about the compact and agreement between politicians and their citizens on the continent. Sometimes I feel there’s a dislocation, that they forget that they were voted into power to serve their people, that they were voted into power to make life better for the populace. People come to power and think too often that its just about their own personal enrichment, its just about their own personal development. But no, its about changing the entire mental outlook, its about changing what they say is their responsibility to the people. I don’t know how you do that, because I don’t think we’ve had enough time from the end of colonialism to really gather that point by now, but clearly, something is going on somewhere.
You just spoke about rule of law and we seem to have that with Yar Adua because he’s been able to uphold the rule of law to an extent. But suddenly he is taking ill and …what do you think?
I hope the you’d be able to settle out democratically in a transparent manner. You have processes, you have guidelines, you have how transition of power should be handled. All I can say, in a country like Nigeria and any country in the world is that if indeed your president is taking ill to the point where he cannot remain in office, then you follow your constitution mandate. And this is not supposed to be done in backrooms between different groups to kind of favour their own personal candidate, that would be bad for Nigeria which major countries on the continent look up to.
You spoke about selflessness of the leaders. Don’t you think a selfish interest is coming in here because, ordinarily, one would have expected the President to hand over temporarily. Don’t you think that tendency is in it?
You know, all I think is, you have a very strong legislator. I understand its being debated on Tuesday, lets see what emerges from that. I cant prejudge the situation of Yar Adua, at the end if the day he has not handed over power. we’ll see what the democratic process brings.
You were here in 2007 to cover Nigeria’s election, you even interviewed the then former President and the would-be President, which means you’ve observed them in their closed quarters. What would you say you came away with concerning their vision for Nigeria, having interacted with them.
I interviewed Yar Adua when he just won the election. The thing that struck me about him was that, he seem to me as a person with a great vision for Nigeria. i was just very impressed about the fact that he is clearly a very bright and educated man, he is very observant of the rule of law and how he wanted to strengthen that in Nigeria. when I spoke to him, he was very determined to handle the Niger-Delta issue. I was very impressed about him, he was very measured and very composed, for someone who has just won the elections.
What about the former President, you spoke with him too…
Olusegun Obasanjo, he’s a force to be reckoned with, and you’d know that the moment you’re in his presence. He is a very dynamic and impressive character as well, never afraid to give his point of view and to challenge you. He’s one of those people, in my time working in the business, anytime his name comes up everyone that have interviewed him smiles. He is a remarkable personality, he’s a force.
So you’re definitely impressed by Obasanjo’s personality. How did it get to you when a couple of negative news came up right after he left government?
I hold him in the same regard that I hold every politician, regardless of which country they’re in. it was an experience interviewing him. In terms of the stories that emerged, its not for me to personally come and affirm any news about him. There weren’t any persecution of anything like that, so I cant make any judgement.
What would you say about his role in empowering Yar Adua to take over the power after him?
Yeah, that was very much the situation widely said that it was an hand peg success. But I think what I would say to that is, incumbency always has an upper hand, and that’s the same in any political system. That’s just the way you have the power to confer, because you’re the incumbent.
One would expect that Inside Africa is a programme designed to showcase happening around Africa. How positively do you think this programme is impacting on Africans?
Inside Africa is there to show all sides of Africa. And I think Africans need not just to see the positives only, but also some of the challenges that we face in other parts of the continent. So I think we do great service but I’m very proud of the show, I think its really testimonial to see its commitment to the continent. Its one of the longest running feature shows on our network and we’ve been able to increase the number of correspondents on the continent. We have correspondents in Nairobi, we have in Lagos, we have in Jo’burg, all of them working for Inside Africa as well as for the network, to really gather different stories, to inspire, to educate and to entertain. So I’ll say that Inside Africa serves a really valuable purpose. We also highlight people who hail from this continent and are doing great things around the world. I’m really proud to say that we do good work, we work hard to do great things.
You’ve been to quite a lot of places around the globe. Which of these places or events do you find outstanding and remarkable in your memory.
In terms of remarkable events, I have to say that it was Mandela’s Birthday. That was remarkable! It was remarkable to see a man who, after many things he’s been through, served his country meritoriously and is still pushing forward. And as I said earlier, its about the compact, its about the relationship between what you see as your role and how you can help other, its selflessness. That was remarkable and impressive when he came out and everybody said happy birthday to him. He also spoke about all these again, about values and respect. That was remarkable! In terms of other thing I’ve covered in the continent that have been amazing, I wasn’t here for it but I covered very closely the Zimbabwe Election of last year, and that was also remarkable in the turmoil, and they really kind of said many things about our relationship between different countries and in South Africa.
Lots of accusing fingers have always gone the way of CNN in terms of its coverage on Africa bothering on being bias or upsided. What major efforts are Africans like you putting in to change this trend?
I strongly challenge that opinion. I have been in CNN for four years and I strongly challenge that anyone sitting in any production meeting and when any story comes about Africa, our first impulse is to say lets push to negative. We are a network that is focused on being objective and having both sides. We put out both sides of the story, we don’t come up with prejudgement, that’s up to the viewers to put out if that’s how they want to go. We just try and show the length and breath of this continent and the diversity and complexity of this continent. CNN is about showing different countries, their issues, progress and diversities. And one of the things I will never apologies for is the fact that CNN does not shy away from putting out any issue. We as Africans have to acknowledge the issues we have on this continent and celebrate our successes because we cant progress if we don’t acknowledge what we need to work on.
Lets look at the Farrouk’s issue for example. Its been said that the negative part is whats been fostered all around the world…
What is the positive side of that story?
Of course there’s no positive part, but even though Nigeria has make it case, they still make it seem that the guy was motivated or empowered by Nigeria
I think that maybe people are becoming overtly sensitive here because that’s not how I read it. I don’t think the statement should dismiss anyone’s feelings because that’s not my position. He is a suspected bomber, he’s not being convicted so lets sound that point clear. Secondly, my understanding of it is, we’ve reported the story and we only put across that he hails from Nigeria. That part cant be left out, just like the 9:11 bomber came from Soudi Arabia. Yes, I’m surprised that its from his own personal circumstances. But you know, look at Osama Bin Laden. Whenever they mention his name, they say Saudi. I’m sorry, I know people may see it like that’s just not how i see it. I think our comments has been very balanced and fair.
As a person from a Muslim background, do you sometime get on the defensive each time issues of terrorism like this happens?
Whenever acts of terrorism occur, whether in the name of Islam or Indoism, whether when you see actions between Catholics and Pakistani, I hope that people realise that there’s no representative of the religion, its individuals performing. So when they claim that they are doing anything in God’s name, I’ve not heard from God saying go ahead and do that, so I think they’re just making that bit up. My hope it that people are able to separate these extreme acts from religion, that’s my hope.
You’ve been with BBC, ITN and now CNN…
You never know when the day is going to break. With live television, you never know whats going to happen when you sit down in that chair and start talking; its like you dive in and not sure when you’re going to come out. Its really exciting, obviously, and its really challenging. But each day you’ve got to put yourself forward. And I love that, I love being kept on my toes and I love the fact that it gives me the opportunity to have insight from so many other parts of the world. Look at CNN covering the 2010 world cup and the African Journalist Award. We’ve been on that for a long time and we’re going to continue to do that. My job gives me the opportunity to be part of those events, to see them at close quarters. I mean, I love it. There’s no other network I want to work for, I say that. And as long as they have me, I’m really happy here.
You’ve worked with four different international television. What has motivated your moves?
Its progress and development, opportunities and development, that’s all. Opportunities coming at the right time. When I was at the BBC, I was younger and just starting out; I did a lot of lifestyle and entertainment programming. I moved on to Sky where I took up sports and I was there for three and half years, just a different part of my personality because I wanted to do something different like news. Then I moved on to ITN because they provided me an opportunity, and then CNN came up. So its just been same progress with different kinds of opportunities coming the way. I’ve never left one place to go do exactly the same thing, its always been a different opportunity that has moved me along.
So which do you find most interesting out of the bits you’ve done?
Definitely CNN. The brand is recognized almost everywhere around the world. Its an incredible ground to be able to say that I work with CNN. And when something happens and you just make a call and say, its CNN and we’d like to speak to you. You tend to always get a response, whether it’s a positive or negative one, but at least they’ll respond.
You were supposed to go into acting but you changed your career into broadcasting. What changed your line?
You know I went to the University with the mind of going into acting but when I got there I started writing for the University newspaper and magazine. I just kind of changed course and decided I would like to go into television. And I realised I could manage my serious and fun side with this.
Got a team there?
I never disclose my team because I only get abused when I do that, so I don’t tell people the team I support. Don’t even try because its not going to work!
Whats your take on Valentine celebration?
Look, anything that celebrates love and being nice to each other, I support. I would like to see us have it more than once a year. You know, if someone gives me flowers and chocolate, a big box of chocolate by the way, I’m going to accept it! Some people say its man made while some say it’s a constructive holiday. Regardless of the origin, lets celebrate love. Let everybody be happy and let everybody be safe.
Now, whats your view of the word love itself?
Now you’re going very deep (General laughter)! There are so many different types of love, and there are just too many definitions to go into.
After having had such a rich and rewarding experience in your career, how do you intend to give back to the society at large?
That’s a really good question. One of the things I do want to do more of in 2010 is a lot of charity work. I’ve seen so many things happening on the continent that I’d like to be a part of. I hope that even in a minor way, just by sharing my story, as I do this interview, it’s a small way of sharing my story in showing how I came from a small village in Africa, and yet coming this far. But yeah, even as one gets old, we become more committed to helping those around us live better lives, and that’s very important to me. Certainly, I want to do something about women empowerment. I think we need to empower our women to take up positions politically. You look at a country like Rwanda that has more women in power and yet doing very well, same thing with Liberia and the likes.
What brought you to Nigeria at this point in time?
Oh, I’m here for the Economist Conference which is being held on Monday to moderate two sessions for them, interviewing your Governor in Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola and the head of Telecom International, looking at strategies for success and focusing on Lagos. Again, its just an event that CNN was committed to be involved in and sending me along. It’s just great to be on the continent, talking to people, hearing issues and hearing how CNN is perceived as well.
Tell us a bit about life in Sierra Leone, that’s where you spent most of your formative years…
Yeah, I lived in Sierra Leone from age seven to sixteen, and Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries on earth, but in my mind its one of my homes (I have many homes now) and a place I am very grateful for all of the experiences I had, the friendship and the values I learned there. You don’t have to come from London to learn values. I learned most of my lessons while growing up in Sierra Leone, and I’m grateful for it. At times, I would laugh at my friends and say, “a lot of issues you had, you had because you grow up in the west. If you’d grown up in Africa, you’d learn through hardship”. That’s my personal joke that I tell people.
When did you eventually move?
I left in 1992 to the very first school and my family where still there. It was a difficult time then with all the divers crisis.
You’re undoubtedly one of the most gorgeous faces on CNN. Got a routine for your pretty face?
You know, I think its just good genes; thank you mother! Good genes and cleansing, toning, moisturizing. I tell women all the time. If you can, do it, and take a lot of water too.
And the constant smile…
It’s a choice! There are lots of things you cant control in life, so you’ve got to smile anyway.
What’s your fashion bias?
You know, I like girlie, fun stuff. I like colour, I don’t like clothing to be too revealing. I just like simple elegant clothing with a girlie twist. I like that kind of stuff.
Anytime soon? African or European?
You know what, I say when love comes I don’t care how it comes. As long as he is a good, honourable man, and he’ll be kind to me, that’s all that I want.
Lastly, what’s that single greatest lesson life has taught you?
Determination and disciple. You can be determined and not be disciplined, and that can be bad. You need the two to go hand in hand. You’ve got to be clear about where you want to go, you’ve got to be determined about getting there, and you need discipline to follow through. And in terms of some of the principles I hold dearly is humility as well, because you are only where you are because of the people around you. You must always remember that.
This interview was conducted by Isaac Oladipupo, at the Eko Hotels and Suites, Lagos Nigeria