November 28, 2022

The story of media leaders in Nigeria’s construction and reconstruction

By Owei Lakemfa

NIGERIA was partly built by journalists who fought the British colonialists so ferociously that Frederick John Lugard, their colonial poster boy who amalgamated the country in 1914, was forced out as Governor General within five years. The media campaigns for the soul of the country went on through the colonial period and into the new century.

But the country has been very badly used, so much so that today, it is in urgent need of reconstruction. The media, as one of the main builders of the country, convened a roundtable on Saturday, November 26, 2022, to examine its part in constructing the country and what role it needs to play in reconstructing it.

To do this, the Nigeria Media Merit Award, or NMMA  convened a conclave of experts led by Emeritus Professor Michael Abiola Omolewa, an education historian and diplomat who was the 32nd President of the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

The 81-year-old had an 8,260-word paper, but spoke extempore. He told stories of the media during decolonization and concluded that: “The world without the media is inconceivable.” He pointed out that one of the foundational problems of the country was the colonialists’ deliberate development of the North as a different entity from the South and making the people consider themselves strangers to themselves, thereby building suspicion and mistrust.

The colonialists, he also said, discouraged the latter from embracing Western education with the enthusiasm and dynamism of the South so much that while post-primary schools were being planted in large numbers in the South, the entire North had only Katsina College, which was later uprooted and relocated to Kaduna. He said the staff and students of the pioneer Katsina College were prevented from interacting with schools and colleges in the South so much that as of 1942, graduates of the school were only slightly “Nigerian.”

In making the assertion that the country was built on a poorly constructed foundation, he quoted Sir Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa before his election as the first Prime Minister, who described the Amalgamation as “only on paper” and its unity as “only a British intention for the country.”

He also quoted Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the first opposition leader in independent Nigeria, as saying that “Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression.” Omolewa quoted Oxford-trained Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu as asserting that “Nigeria never was and can never be a united country.”

He further quoted the first Premier of Northern Nigeria, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello who said the Amalgamation was unpopular and “There were agitations in favour of secession.” He equally quoted Colonel Yakubu Gowon who led the July 1966 coup as saying: “God in his power has entrusted the responsibility of this great country of ours into the hands of yet another Northerner.” Implying that at the time, Gowon saw himself as a Northerner, not a Nigerian. 

Professor Omolewa noted that in contrast to the civilian and military politicians, the media generally saw itself as a patriotic movement. The media, he said, fought for common national causes such as against colonial Britain, which introduced the Yaba Higher College “as a poor imitation of what university education should be.”

Omolewa’s conclusion is that through the ages, “the media has been an effective and efficient weapon in the task of national development, construction, and reconstruction in Nigeria.” He said the country is suffering from the consequences of bad governance, adding that to reconstruct it, stakeholders must ensure good governance, security, people’s welfare, and sustain “the fragile trust among the different peoples and ethnic groups in the country.” 

This, he said, is necessary to prevent the abortion of the  democratic process. Dan Agbese, a veteran journalist and co-founder of Newswatch magazine, argued that journalists are social development tools, or lack thereof, that can be used negatively or positively. He pointed out that a monumental tragedy is the demise of news magazines, which he said may compromise the constitutional role of the press to hold the government accountable to the people.

Agbese said some journalists, for the sake of upholding journalistic principles, had been to jail, including himself, who is a ‘graduate’ of Ikoyi prison, adding that he was saying this not out of pride but to let the audience realize where journalists are coming from in the struggle to build the country. He added that the advent of social media, with its lack of accountability, is a danger to the mass media.

Nosa Igiebor, editor-in-chief of Tell magazine and 1993 winner of the International Press Freedom Award, argued that the media cannot work in isolation from other social groups. In making the case for the media to always hold government accountable to the people, he wondered how the National Assembly could have passed a $2 billion foreign loan to build a railway line to the Niger Republic. He said politicians are focused on winning elections and asked rhetorically, after winning the elections, what happens – wait for another four years? He wondered how Nigerians had allowed their country to degenerate so much.

Professor Lai Oso, who teaches communication studies at Lagos State University, believes that the media is a constant presence in people’s lives and serves as a gateway to their minds and thoughts. He argued that despite this, there are too many lamentations in the media that call for “solution journalism.” He claimed that the media is biased in favour of the wealthy and powerful, who dominate the stories like first-class citizens, while the majority of the population is treated as a second-class citizen living on the margins. The media, he said, should be a marketplace of ideas and pluralism.

I noted in my contribution that the media under colonialism, which was patriotic and fought for independence, was a bit polarised under the Civil War, while in the 1990s, it was a formidable force against military misrule. I pointed out that in the last two decades, with the prevalence of the non-payment of salaries by some employers in the industry, the journalist has become an endangered species, and the profession itself is transforming from the defender of the people into an institution in need of emancipation.

The state of the media, I argued, is reflected in its general inability to probe the leading presidential candidates on details of basic issues such as  how they hope to fund education, eliminate the phenomenon of the 18.5 million out-of-school children and transit our oil rich country from an importer of petroleum products, to local refining, thereby, eliminating the fraudulent fuel subsidies and stopping the exportation of jobs to foreign refineries. I submitted  that what is required of the media is journalism of social relevance, commitment  to social justice.