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Press,vanguard of our freedom

By Ochereome Nnanna

IT can be rightly claimed that the media, especially the print, is the foremost founding father of this
nation, not the least because those who fought for Nigeria’s independence were either journalists or used the instrument of the press rather than armed struggle as other decolonising entities like Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa, Algeria Mozambique and Angola.

In his article: The Nigerian Press and Transitions, published in a compendium: The Media, Transition and Nigeria edited by Tunji Oseni (1999) Ray Ekpu expressed it thus: “It can be said truthfully that Nigeria’s transition from colonial rule to independence was brought about by the combined forces of politicians who became journalists and journalists who became politicians.

Nigerian politics was shaped by journalism just as journalism itself was shaped by politics. This fact is important for the full appreciation of the role that journalism had to play in the nation’s affairs since then”. In their book: Making the News, Peter Golding and Philip Elliot are of the view that, “Nigerian journalism was created by anti-colonial protest, baptised in the waters of colonial propaganda and matured in party politics”.

The first two newspapers published in what was to become Nigeria – Iwe Irohin (1859, Abeokuta) and The Anglo-African (Lagos) were community newspapers. Much later, because of the nationalist mission of the Nigeria press, virtually every newspaper aspired to be a “national newspaper”. None was ready to be perceived as a city or even regional newspaper, even when their very editorial mission was to serve as ethnic, regional or socio-cultural vanguards.

For the Press, the road to nationalism started with the Lagos Daily News, which Herbert Macauley founded in 1925. Years later, Macauley was to emerge as the first President of the nation’s first major nationalist party, the National Council for Nigerian and the Cameroons (NCNC). His paper was very critical of the policies of the colonial government.

In 1937, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe started his West African Pilot and later on, the first newspaper chain that had separate titles in Lagos, Warri Onitsha, Port Harcourt and Kano. Zik unlike most of the newly educated elite, was trained in America, where he drank richly from the fervour of Black Nationalism and the American touchy rejection of colonialism. He became the first Secretary General of the NCNC and later on, its President when Macauley died. The Nigerian Tribune, founded by Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1949 in Ibadan, also joined the anti-colonialism fray.

In those days, most journalists soon graduated into politicians after the tradition set by Zik. These included Anthony Enahoro, Lateef Jakande, Mokwugwo Okoye. The Nigerian press, after helping to chase out the colonialists with combative irreverence, brought the same reflex to bear on post colonial rule.

Incidentally, these politicians who were once journalists fight the colonialists were now the new leaders of a new nation founded on ethnic regionalism. They turned their sharp pens on one another.

The leaders of the various regional governments founded their respective newspapers, and later on, radio and television stations (the first television station being the Western Nigerian Television, WNTV in Ibadan in 1959 by the Regional Government led by Chief Awolowo). The major newspapers or groups of newspapers that existed by 1960 when Nigeria were The Daily Times, West African Pilot, The Nigerian Tribune (all privately owned) and Morning Post (owned by the Federal Government). Daily Times group had shot to the forefront as the most prominent newspaper.

Bearing in mind the acerbic clout of the press, the new indigenous leaders, both civilians and military, took several steps clip the wings of the press.
 
Making, Breaking Governments

The press’ depiction of the Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s government as inept, corrupt and pro-Britain triggered the Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu coup in January 1966, during which the leading lights of the Balewa government, and those seen to be their surrogates were killed. The Nzeogwu coup was initially popular in the Lagos-Ibadan media, but when their owners and political leaders went into negotiations that resulted in a multinational coalition against the bid by the Igbo to declare an independent state of Biafra, tones changed, and the Nigerian press became a partner in the mission to keep Nigeria one.

The press also played a leading role in the ouster of General Yakubu Gowon by portraying his regime as corrupt. When Gowon decided the 1976 date for a handover to civilians was no longer realistic, the press swooped on him, in the main because the press belonged to loyalists of restless politicians who had been sidelined by nine years of military rule.

A shift in date meant an extension of their suspension from active politics. Gowon was ousted on 29 July 1975. The succeeding regime of Murtala Mohammed-Olusegun Obasanjo quickly nationalised Daily Times, the most vibrant newspaper group at the time, and the New Nigerian which belong to the Northern region government, indications of how it intended to relate to the press.

The press got generous mention when the military ousted the 52 month-old Alhaji Shehu Shagari regime, which newspapers portrayed as docile and surrounded by rapaciously corrupt and hawkish, flamboyant ministers and subordinates. The in-coming Major General Muhammadu Buhari regime clamped down on the press with his Decree No 4 of 1984.

When General Ibrahim Babangida took over power in 1985, he was aware of the power of the media. He was a great politician and went out to cultivate friendship of top media chiefs. As soon as it dawned on the press that Babangida had a hidden agenda, his “romance” with the press came to an end, and thus started a series of altercations that led to his flight from power on 27 August 1993, after annulling the presidential election won by Chief Moshood Abiola.

The Interim Government which Chief Ernest Shonekan headed, was virtually shot down by the media, with covering fire from media-inspired civil society groups and an activist judge, Justice Dolapo Akinsanya.

General Sani Abacha, however, felt he had what it takes to outlive the media and succeed where Babangida and Gowon had failed. His sudden death foreclosed elongation of what could have been the most trying time for the press.

The power of the media largely stopped President Obasanjo from amending the 1999 Constitution to obtain a third term in office in May 2006. The Nigerian media have fought impunity and tenure elongation in the same nationalist spirit that its forebears took on the colonialists, because the Nigerian media are convinced that this nation was founded on democracy, respect for the rights of the people to whom power and sovereignty belong.
 
Bloodied Of course, the media also got bloodied in the process of putting their fingers in the eyes of authoritarian regimes. In the First Republic, the Official Secrets Act of 1962 and the Newspaper Act of 1964 were enacted to shield government activities from the media and deal with journalists and newspapers that succeeded in ferreting out information that embarrassed government officials. The governments of General Gowon, Major General Muhammadu Buhari, General Babangida and General Abacha, made obnoxious laws, jailed journalists, proscribed newspapers and magazines. Dele Giwa was bombed to death and Bagauda Kaltho disappeared. Journalists were implicated in coup plots and jailed Chris Anyanwu, Niran Malalolu, George, Kunle Ajibade. Others were routinely detained or jailed for other reasons – Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson in 1984.
Government kept monopoly in ownership of the electronic media, especially, radio and television, until the Babangida regime’s policy of liberalisation allowed private ownership of the electronic media.

An unprecedented explosion in the proliferation of private radio and television stations followed liberalisation, such that Lagos alone boasts of more than 25 privately-owned radio and over 10 private and government-controlled television stations.

With the advent of the new media on the heels of the information and communication technology revolution, the nature and character of the Nigerian media (just as in other parts of the world) have undergone massive changes. Citizen journalism now flourishes, as Nigerians freely post their views – and even reports – on the internet unhindered. Citizens operate their own websites and blogs. There are now many “investigative” report sites where those who are tickled by sensational gist feed their curiosities.

The media have lost some bite over the years. The movement of the seat of government to Abuja was a major event. Tucked away in Aso Rock, the Federal Government can now afford to ignore the media. Throughout his feisty eight years in power as an elected president, that was exactly what Obasanjo did. The advent of the internet and other virtual media, dwindling resources of the public, as well as fading reading culture, have led to rapid falls in the print run of newspapers and magazines. This also means greater dependence on advertisement revenues to pay the bills, with the consequent slowing in the fighting spirit of the media. Governments, as largest spenders on advertisements, have greater influence on publishers and editors.

The golden period of the Nigerian press, especially the 80s, when new private newspapers and several soft-sell magazines took the country by storm later gave way to the 90s when new publications paid greater attention to business and politics. Magazines mounted the kind of in-your-eye reporting style against the military regimes reminiscent of Zik’s West African Pilot days. These magazines deployed what was termed “guerrilla journalism” during the reign of terror towards the tail end of the Babangida and throughout the Abacha regimes, whereby they continued to publish from hideouts when they were banned and their offices sealed by security agencies.

As Professor Bola Akinterinwa, in his article: Media, Transition and Democracy, at high and low tides, the Nigerian media, especially the private press, have, more than any other stakeholder in the independence of this nation, upheld their constitutional obligations as enshrined in paragraph 2(a) and 2(b) Section 14(1) of Chapter II of the 1979 Constitution as virtually recopied in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria concerning the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy: “sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government derives all its powers and authority”.

Tony Momoh, former Editor of Daily Times, former Minister of Information and author of many books on Nigerian journalism, has on several occasions reminded us that the Constitution demands the media to at all times uphold their right to hold government to account to the people for their actions, and must do this “on the understanding that it has a duty to first and foremost, monitor governance”.

One of the changes that have occurred in the character of the Nigerian press is that the press is no longer the recruiting ground for political leadership. Rather, the media have become a hunting ground for chief press secretaries, commissioners for information and special advisers on media matters to presidents and governors. They are no longer fielded as future successors of political leaders and political movements, precisely because there are no such things anymore.

In 50 years of Nigeria’s independence, the media have fought the good fight, but like every other thing in Nigeria, they have lost a lot of grounds as the vanguard, champion, compass, trustee and guardian of independent Nigeria.


Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.