Many a journalist sold his soul and his craft to the highest political bidder or indeed to anyone who put up a bid.
Journalism is, after printing, the oldest of the modern occupations in Nigeria. There were newspapers and newspapermen before there were lawyers, doctors, engineers and educationists, and there were “Nigerian” newspapers before there was an entity called Nigeria. As the nation celebrated its 57th anniversary of political independence on October 1, 2019, the press ought to have celebrated its 162nd anniversary. For it was on December 3, 1839, that the first Nigerian newspaper, Iwe Irohin fun a won are Egba ati Yoruba (literally “newspaper for the Egba and Yoruba) was set up in Abeokuta by Rev. Henry Townsend, an Anglican missionary.
Iwe Irohin, which later became bilingual in Yoruba and English disappeared from the newsstands in October 1867. Its proprietors and other Europeans having been expelled from Abeokuta and its printing press destroyed during a popular revolt. Four years later, Robert Campbell of West Indian and Scottish parentage, set up the weekly Anglo-African. The journal disappeared after just two years in circulation.
It was not until the 1880s that popular newspapers emerged. Educated Africans were becoming disillusioned and frustrated because of the contradictions between the vaunted benevolence of Christian colonialism and its alienating, exploitative nature, and because of the racial indignities heaped upon them continually by the colonial intruders. Taking advantage of a growing literate population and the expansion in the printing industry, these Africans founded newspapers that spearheaded a kind of nationalism that was cultural and political.
The newspapermen, according to Fred Omu in his authoritative Press and Politics in Nigeria, 1880-1937, were “professional and vocational journalists who took a positive role in politics and were active in social life.” These were the men whose activities, according to Nnamdi Azikiwe, himself one of the pillars of Nigerian journalism, “are identical with intellectual and material development of Nigeria”.
Their newspapers and pamphlets, according to James Coleman, chronicler of Nigeria’s nationalist struggle, “have been among the main influences in the awakening of racial and political consciousness.”
These men included Richard Deale Blaize, founder of the Lagos Times, J.Blackall Benjamin founded the Observer, the most successful of the 19th-century newspapers, Owen Emerick Macaulay, grandson of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther and brother of Herbert Macaulay, founded and edited the Eagles and Lagos Critic. John Payne Jackson, easily the most outstanding journalist in West Africa and a frontline nationalist to boot, founded the Lagos Weekly Record, described as “an arsenal of ideas from which opponents and the government took their weapons”. George Antus Williams published the militantly anti-government Lagos Standard. Christopher Joseph Johnson and his brother, Emmanuel, published the highly academic Nigerian Chronicle which conceptually anticipated the emergence of modern Nigeria by six years.
There was James Bright Davies who, as editor of the Nigerian Times, was jailed at age 68 for his outspoken criticism of some government measures. There was Kitoye Ajasa, the urbane lawyer and confidant of governors whose Nigerian Pioneer was one of the best-organized newspaper enterprises of the time and the longest-lived of the early newspapers. There was Horatio Jackson who reanimated the Lagos Weekly Record after his father’s death and made it the pivot of political activity in Lagos for 15 years. It was for this young Jackson that Azikiwe named Nigeria’s premier school of journalism at Nsukka.
Appropriately, the school’s laboratory newspaper is also called The Record.
There was Ernest Ikoli who gave up a promising career at King’s College Lagos to bring out the African Messenger after a brief spell with Jackson’s Weekly Record. There was Adeoye Adeniga, the versatile, encyclopaedic journalist who founded the leading indigenous newspaper, Eko Akete, and a string of other periodicals.
And, of course, there was Herbert Macaulay who wielded the deadliest editorial pen in Nigerian journalism. In 1927, he bought Nigeria’s first daily newspaper, the Lagos Daily News, and made it a ferociously anti-government newspaper as well as a political springboard, from whence derived his recognition as the “father of Nigerian nationalism” and his subsequent designation as a national hero.
Were these men, the so-called Black Victorians, nationalists at heart as Nigerian press folklore holds, or were they “deluded hybrids” who, having failed to win greater accommodation for themselves under the British imperial scheme, decided to seek refuge in things indigenous, as University of Ibadan historian, Prof. Emmanuel Ayandele, argued.
In whatever case, we are in their debt for their excellent pioneering work as journalists and for alerting their countrymen to the possibilities of freedom and independence. Rejecting their foreign names, many of them went back to their roots for meaningful substitutes.
They made indigenous dress styles respectable and carried out a synthesis of foreign and traditional religions. And the press they pioneered, Omu said, provided “the most distinguished intellectual forum” in Nigerian history, and in which “the high standard of debate and discussion could not fail to fascinate the modern reader”.
In 1937, Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe joined this galaxy of journalists and publishers when he set up the West African Pilot. Zik as he was popularly called, introduced slick American techniques into Nigerian journalism and ushered in a new era of nationalism, of which the Pilot, was an instant success as the star. Zik went on to establish Nigeria’s first newspaper chain.
By 1947, the Daily Times, which had been set up in 1926 by the Nigerian and expatriate businessmen, was incorporated in the Mirror Group of London and became the technical leader of the Nigerian Press, although its’ political impact was slight. It expanded rapidly, and its superior capitalization, excellent technical quality and effective distribution strategy led rival newspapers to seek ways of meeting the challenge it posed. Two years later, Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, leader of the Action Group and former journalist, founded the Nigerian Tribune. When the pilot died un-mourned and unsung, ragged and most unprepossessing, the Tribune became the oldest privately-owned newspaper in Nigeria till today.
The 1950s and 60s witnessed the establishment of Radio and Television, the development of monthly magazines, and the entry of government into the newspaper industry, hitherto largely a monopoly of the private sector and political parties. In 1960, Eastern Nigeria Government led by Azikiwe converted the weekly Eastern Nigeria Outlook into a daily and named it The Nigerian Outlook. The following year, the federal government established the Morning Post and Sunday Post. In 1964, the government of Western Nigeria set up the Daily Sketch. And in January 1966, barely a week before the coup that brought Nigeria, under 13 years of uninterrupted military rule, a newspaper was launched in Kaduna by the Northern Nigeria Government called The New Nigerian. The paper correctly anticipated a new dispensation and was the first Nigerian newspaper to be produced by Web offset. Its publishers, the New Nigerian Newspapers Limited, absorbed the leading indigenous language Newspaper, Gaskiya Tafi Kwabo, hitherto published along with the Nigerian Citizen by Gaskiya Corporation, Zaria.
One disturbing feature of government-owned newspapers in the years after independence, as Increase Coker, veteran journalist and pioneer historian of the Nigerian Press, remarked that it was their failure to distinguish between the ruling party and the government, so that they were, for all practical purposes, party organs financed from the public fund. Through crude and overzealous partisanship, they transformed opponents of the ruling party into opponents of the government and equated dissent with disloyalty.
On the eve of the January 1966 coup, so polarized had national politics as well as the press became that some native authorities in the East and West enacted by-laws banning the circulation of some newspapers from their areas of jurisdiction. Vendors were killed or maimed for merchandizing some newspapers and not others.
Some newspaper executives were attacked and their properties destroyed; others sought police protection for 24hours daily. It would be hard to improve upon ace columnist Peter Enahoro (Peter Pan) comment on the status of the press toward the close of 1965.
“Over the years, particularly since independence”, Peter said, “The press made conscious effort to win friends among politicians, thus weakening its hand in the process. For while it played up to the politicians….the Nigerian press became steadily alienated from the ordinary man on the street. Whether journalists admit the bitter truth or not, the fact today is that not many people on the street see the press as their protector and vindicator”.
When the civilian administration was overthrown in 1966, the Press turned inward on itself in sober self-criticism as journalists in Omu’s words, “lamented their acquiescence in the corruption and mismanagement of the politicians and vowed to demonstrate greater courage and integrity”. Anthony Enahoro, Federal Commissioner for information under General Yakubu Gowon and a distinguished former journalist, said in 1968 that, “whoever and whatever ruined the First Republic did so with the connivance and active collaboration of the greater part of the Nigerian press”.
As Nigeria muddled through one crisis after another and fought for its soul in a bitter civil war, there were few opportunities to test how serious the press was in its determination to demonstrate greater courage and integrity. Yet it seemed clear to Anthony Enahoro even before the end of the war that the press was ill-prepared for the challenges ahead. The Nigerian press, Enahoro said: “lacked men of stature” and could inspire no respect if its role was that of “sycophants, guilty of flamboyant praise for mediocrity………unquestioning deferential support for rulers………afraid to pronounce against wrong, and guilty of a craven desire to bat on any winning side.”
If what Nigeria had was not the press of Enahoro’s dream, it was at least a press that, even in a military setting, kept some of the rulers in check some of the time, although the press did not initiate the actions that brought the integrity of Joseph Tarka, federal commissioner, and that of Joseph Gomwalk, Benue Plateau State Governor under Gowon, to the point that the one resigned precipitately and Yakubu Gowon was ‘forced’ to take the extraordinary step of constituting himself into a law court to exculpate the other. In addition, the press initiated and sustained public debate on a wide range of issues, including the national census, creation of states, revenue allocation, a new constitution and the restoration of civil rule.
Not that military rule provided an ideal setting for the practice of journalism. One of the more bizarre episodes of that period was the widely publicized flogging of Minere Amakiri, a reporter with the Nigerian Observer, on the orders of Diete Spiff, Rivers State Military governor. His crime was that he ‘ruined’ the governor’s birthday by reporting factually on that sacred occasion a news conference at which teachers in the state had demanded for better conditions of service. More chilling was the little-known case of Segun Sowemimo, a journalist whose tragic death inspired the title of Wole Soyinka’s prison notes, The Man Died. That the press could make an issue of Amakiri’s brutal treatment and pursue his case all the way to a reassuring victory in the law courts over his tormentors speaks volumes about the press and about the era.
Indeed, Nigerian media scholars and other commentators are almost unanimous that military rule, 1966 – 1979, did not emasculate the press. As Sylvester Ekwelie of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka said of the period, the Nigerian press was free “to lead, inspire, criticize and even challenge the government”. And as Farouk Ugboajah of the University of Lagos found in a study of sensitive issues of national development, “Not even Decree 11 of 1976, the so-called Ohonbamu Decree that was the precursor of the much-dreaded Decree 4, constituted a clear and present danger to the press, for no journalist was prosecuted under it.
If Enahoro’s charge that the Nigerian press lacked men of stature as well as vision to recognize the danger and oppose wrong seemed premature in 1968, it was right on target from 1979, when the ban on party politics was lifted, to the collapse of Shagari’s administration on December 31, 1983.
Many a journalist sold his soul and his craft to the highest political bidder or indeed to anyone who put up a bid. Instead of clarifying the issues for the public, the press obfuscated them. Without exception, government-owned newspapers became organs of whatever political party seemed likely to control the state in which they were published or the centre. By and large, privately-owned newspapers espoused the public interest only in so far as it coincided with the interests of their owners. What we had was the closest thing to a “kept” press, the type that was the object of Upton Sinclair’s consummate scorn in The Brass Check. Any journalist who could not “make it” then, declared an editor of my acquaintance would never “make it” again. He and many others, “made it” with the criminal politicians, of course, but at the expense of their calling and, above all, at the expense of the constitutional injunction that they “uphold the accountability of the government to the people”.
It was an era in which a newspaper could lavishly publicize a strike threat by workers in one state of the federation while maintaining a deafening silence on an actual strike in another state, depending on which political party governed the state. It was an era of selective condemnation and selective approbation. Nothing was intrinsically right or wrong.
It was right only if it was done by the paymaster and wrong if it was done by his opponent as the case today with some newspapers taking consultancy services from governments for defence against media attacks.
The greatest beneficiary of this journalistic regression was Shehu Shagari. In fact, Shagari was largely the creation of a press that passed off his vacuity as proof of capacity for growth and his tentativeness as evidence of fore-thought, lauded his hare-brained schemes as strokes of genius, and generally made him come across as the best thing to have happened to Nigeria since Oloibiri when he was anything but not only did the press overwhelmingly hailed his flawed victory in the 1979 presidential elections, it clamped, in Noelle-Neumanns’s evocative phrase, a “spira; of silence” on the entire country, making it seem unwise and futile for anyone to regard the election result as anything but a blessing to Nigeria. Even when it became clear less than halfway through Shagari’s first term that what, we had was a government of fraudsters and that he was a complaisant hostage, the press continued to tell us there was no better alternative.
Thus assured of the support of a largely sycophantic and unethical shameless press and of no indifference as well as the impotence of a critical but ineffectual minority of newspapers, the political adventurers felt emboldened to engage in vote-rigging and return Shagari with an even bigger “mandate” that attracted a timely military intervention to rescue the country from the claws of fraud and tricksters.
Yet, amazingly, when the military called an end to the farce, the press was the first to claim credit for bringing down what it would be courteous to call a government akin to what transpired in 2015.
Even newspapers that had nothing but fawning adulation and saccharine glorification for everything as we are witnessing these days, Shagari said or did turn-round to claim the credit for his ouster. On this claim, we must return the famous Scottish verdict: Not proven.
Where in 1996 the press engaged in anguished self-criticism about its discreditable role in the events leading to the overthrow of Balewa, in 1984 it engaged in the noisy celebration of an event that occurred largely in spite of, rather than because of, the press. Would the armed forces or the people not have struck even if no newspaper had existed to chronicle the debauchery and depredation of the Shagari years?
This blanket condemnation of the press is unfair, I concede because not every section of the press was a degenerate as I have argued all along. Yet, to paraphrase Stephen Spender, unless the press uncovers or attempts spiritedly to uncover corruption, wrongdoing and injustice everywhere, it does not care at all about corruption, wrongdoing and injustice. To rail against opponents endlessly for misdeeds, real or imagined, while studiously ignoring the misdeeds of our paymasters is hypocrisy, not watchdoggery.
Given the welter of decrees that the military junta had felt impelled to promulgate ostensibly to facilitate the task of rebuilding the economy with the minimum of diversion, those days of Buhari/Idiagbon military government must rank as the most hazardous for the practice of journalism. Even without Decree 4, under which Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor were jailed, the Decree 2, under which several journalists were held in state detention, the journalist had to operate in a terrain chock-full of mines and booby traps.
Late Babatunde Jose, former chairman of Daily Times group, once identified about 25 enactments which severely constraints Nigerian journalism. The sedition laws, the Official Secrets Act, the Criminal Code (section 59) and many other laws make nonsense of the duty of the press, mandated by the operational Constitution, to render the government accountable to the people. It is perhaps a tribute to the authorities that they have not applied these draconian laws to the letter; otherwise, the jails would be full and overflowing. Yet, their continued existence in the statute books hamstrings the press at all times.
It will not do, of course, to pretend that government and its laws, particularly Decree 2 & 4, were the only problem. For even when these laws were not operative, what did the press do? It gave us Shagari and the sleep of reason which, Goya tells us, brings forth monsters.
A press whose members and even editors could not conduct free and fair elections to select its officers; a press whose members could not police and discipline themselves, allowing penetration by quacks; a press that routinely accepts perks and preferments from government and politicians and, indeed, from anyone who has anything to offer: what moral right has such a press to complain when elections are rigged, public funds are stolen and corruption is loosed upon the land? Can such a press expect to be taken seriously?
Nor is government “ownership” of the larger and perhaps better-endowed section of the press the problem. At the bottom, only a distinction without a difference exists between newspapers “owned” by government and those owned by individuals, for while the former must always toe the government’s line, the latter cannot deviate significantly from the line laid down by their owners. Those who say that the government should not own newspapers miss the point. Government not only may, it positively must own newspapers. For the press is too important an institution to be left entirely in private hands. We cannot allow “market forces” alone to give us our definition of reality.
Still, the point must be made that government does not and cannot own newspapers in the sense that the Awolowos, the Aboderins, Bola Tinubu, Alex Ibru, Tukur Mamu, Orji Uzor Kaku, Kabiru Yusuf, Sam Ndah Isaiah, James Ibori and Malam Maiwada own the Tribune, Punch, The Nation, Guardian, Desert Herald, The Sun, Daily Trust, Leadership, Daily Independent and Peoples Daily. Ideally, even these individuals ought to see their newspapers not as private property but as public trusts, as Herbert Macaulay counselled in a famous editorial in his defunct Lagos Daily News more than 80 years ago. As is with individuals, even more so with the government as government itself being a public trust par excellence, everything it does, ought to be for the benefit of the people, to whom it is accountable in the final analysis.
Of what use to the government and the public are “government-owned” newspapers that alienate major sections of the Nigerian society in the mistaken belief that people exist for the government and not vice versa? What mobilization potential do newspapers have when they cannot be trusted to give the day’s intelligence truthfully, comprehensively and in a context that gives it meaning? Can newspapers that routinely insult the intelligence of their readers with half-truths and outright falsehoods be used to mobilize those same readers for national development?
If “government-owned” newspapers are to serve truly national goals and not the ends of those in power, control must be decentralized. Significant sections of the public should be invited to nominate representatives to the boards or management committees of such newspapers. This measure will put an end to the practice whereby no distinction is made between the ruling party and the government, as well as provide greater access to what is, after all, a public resource.
In addition, some mechanism ought to be devised to provide some guarantee of job security for journalists. If they are forever left at the mercy of their employers to hire and fire as they please, journalists can never truly serve the public interest when that interest conflicts with that of their employers.
The Nigerian Press says British Media scholar Peter Golding, “was born of anti-colonial protest, baptized in the flood of nationalist propaganda and matured in party politics”. As I see it, party politics is too treacherous a terrain on which the journalist or the press can acquire the sure-footedness that goes with maturity.
The Nigerian press is maturing. The abolished Decree 4 of 1984 had the unanticipated consequence of bringing out the best in the Nigerian journalists. Columns, editorial cartoons and opinion pieces sparkled with wit and circumspection (one cartoonist came up with 53 names for the celebrated suitcases scandal involving a ‘respected’ northern traditional ruler of the 80s). Clinical analysis replaced vulgar abuse. Subtle but accessible verse took over from raucous prose. The better newspapers were excellent value for money. For the first time, there were journals that could legitimately be called news magazines, and they were among the best anywhere.
On its march toward maturity, the Nigerian press will have to resolve the dilemma of “responsibility”. A “responsible” press is what everyone wants, of course. Some even frame the issue as a choice between a “free” and a “responsible” press. We must avoid this false opposition between a “free” and a “responsible” press.
The press must have the widest possible freedom if it is truly to be the Fourth Estate of the Realm, that is, if it is to be “responsible”. But the crucial question that is seldom asked is: For what should the press be responsible, and to whom?
That, it seems to me, is the question that must be asked insistently as Nigeria looks forward to celebrating its 60 years of nationhood and the press chalks up 163 years of patchy but, on the whole, meritorious service to the people of Nigeria despite the odds.
Muhammad is a commentator on national issues