By Tonnie Iredia
About a year to the 2015 general elections in Nigeria, the Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, and the International Development Partners, under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, organized an international experience sharing conference on media and elections in Abuja. This writer, himself a long-standing journalist, had the privilege of being brought in to deliver a key note address which as expected focused on professionalism in media coverage of events. But with the then transformation ambassadors of Nigeria and several interest groups including some traditional rulers wearing the toga of election mercenaries to perpetuate a rather non-performing government in power, it was clear that trouble could hardly be averted. Ike Ekweremadu, Deputy Senate President, who was special guest of honour at the occasion, stole the show in my view with the news angle of his speech.
Ekweremadu acknowledged the fact that politicking and contestations were already at a feverish pitch putting the nation in political fireworks while governance had been pushed to the backstage. He agreed that his class had “turned Nigeria into an election nation in perpetuity” but called on the media to help temper the political trepidation. In the last one month, the over 3-year old appeal has continued to resonate in my sub consciousness as there is no better time than now to get worried about our heated polity. While I agree with Ekweremadu that the media can greatly help to reduce Nigeria’s political tension, I am tempted to ask him to plead with his colleagues in the political class to stop creating the tension they want another class to douse. For instance, the attitude of the Senate to the on-going recall process in Kogi is quite frustrating. Nigerians may begin to prefer military rule if the senate says the electoral body should be left to waste its time.
Of course, Dino Melaye like any other politician has his political adversaries and they are the ones at work, not the electoral commission. Indeed, from the modus operandi of many privileged government leaders, it is obvious that the massive groups purporting to be the ones asking for the recall are a rented crowd. One would have expected the politicians to step in and halt their colleagues who are using scarce tax payers money to cause tension. The same is true of the reopened work-to-rule approach of the Senate to the clearance of certain political appointees. The posture is fast turning the current senate into a belligerent entity. A Senate that wants to be remembered as forward-looking and result-oriented should have simply announced that it will undertake to clear the latest list from the acting President because his decision to send the list shows the defect in his earlier statement that the clearance was unnecessary. The Senators would have used it to claim victory if they saw the acting President in a contest with them; they would also have used it to stabilize the societal institutions concerned for the good of the nation
Rather, they opted to deride the executive by sending an ultimatum to the acting President to withdraw his earlier speech or else, they would never perform a duty they had argued was theirs. Unfortunately, many perspectives have been read to it by Nigerians who always employ every disagreement between our leaders to further divide the nation along ethno-religious cleavages. The issue of the budget is no less contentious. The hate speeches between some senators and the Minister of Works, Housing and Power, Babatunde Fashola are uncalled for because our leaders cannot be that combative only to pretend to dislike the vexatious diction of Northern Youths, Biafra seekers of the east or those asking for resource control in the South-South
However, the media can once again come in to save the nation. To start with, there does not appear to be enough of gate keeping by the watch-dog. Many media organizations often send to the public unedited statements made by politicians forgetting that the latter are fond of playing to the gallery. As soon as they find themselves in front of television cameras they often say and unsay. What some journalists do not appreciate is that in a law-making body, legislators have absolute privilege to say anything and the convention is that they cannot be sued for being defamatory. The media must therefore resolve on the basis of social responsibility to become more proactive in allowing their channels to be used to convey intemperate language. In this regard, there is now a need to reduce LIVE coverage of certain political events.
It is in earnest time for the press to embrace investigative journalism for the purpose of achieving the mandate of Section 22 of our constitution which directs the media to hold government accountable to the people. Every year, the brick-bats in the budget are given effective publicity; delays in submitting estimates, missing and found budget, the struggle for constituency projects in which local/state government items find their way into the federal budget etc, but the extent of implementation of the same budget leading to repeated provision annually for the same items do not get corresponding publicity.
Another area of concern is media trial. It is becoming a practice for the media to provide opportunities including the sale of advert space to one group of political interest to malign the other to the extent that some are allowed to pronounce on the alleged guilt of the other when the subject of dispute is yet to come before the judiciary. Painfully, in many cases, nothing is done by the media to premise such opportunities on their acclaimed ethical value of balance and objective. The media need to watch the trend of their being used to parade suspects before trial. Apart from the fact that to do so is capable of negating the constitutional provision which presumes every accused person innocent until proven otherwise, well after the sensational parade, no one hears anything anymore about the case in question. Quite often it dies a natural death with the press holding no one accountable.
The media ought to review all of this; but because charity ought to begin at home, we are obliged to beg our politicians to let Nigeria be.