By Iboro Otongaran
Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it –Frantz Fanon
What Frantz Fanon said in the quote above all those many years ago in 1961 rings true today about the place of Nigerian journalism in nation building as it did during the arid climate of military dictatorship (1966—1999), and further down to the rapacity of British colonial rule (1859—1960). What brings Fanon and the acuity of his insight to mind is Naija Times book launch of October 19, 2023, which was the highlight of the online newspaper’s third anniversary celebration.
Aptly communicatively entitled For a Better Society, the book, which is a collection of the paper’s leader for three years, is a non-squinting focus on and direction to what ought to be the mission of journalism in Nigeria in these times. The title of the book echoes Fanon’s penetrating insight and recalls the illustrious history of Nigerian journalism.
During colonial rule Nigerian journalism acted as the coalescing agent by mobilising public opinion towards the achievement of a better society, which was but a dream because colonial rule didn’t allow Nigerians to take decisions for themselves, didn’t permit them to be the architect of their future, and would not allow them to plan for the education of their children. For the media, colonial rule had reduced Nigerians to indentured people who had to be liberated. This was the mission of Nigerian journalism during the colonial period. It was a mission that was fulfilled.
The media organisations and journalists who “stormed the Bastille,” as it were, to break the shackles of colonial rule were many, but some stand out for putting in more than their fair share of the work. Frequently cited as chief among the truly outstanding, and regarded as “the father of Nigerian journalism,” is Ernest Ikoli. A media historian, John H. Enemugwem, in A Journal of Contemporary Research 2009, has noted “Ikoli’s nationalism of the pen for Nigeria’s independence.” Others included but are not limited to the West African Pilot and its publisher, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe; the West Indian, Robert Campbell, and his newspaper, the Anglo-African; the Lagos Observer; The Lagos Standard; the Lagos Weekly Record owned by the Liberian, John Payne Jackson; John Horatio Jackson, who assumed the editorship of the Record after the death of John Payne Jackson; the Times of Nigeria owned by J.P Davies.
After a review of how the media acquitted themselves in their historical role in the colonial times, Enemugwem writes, ‘Because of their anti-colonial roles and opposition [to] the colonial administration in every ramification before 1920s, “what the African seemed to be missing in representative government, they appeared to be making up on the pages of newspapers.”’ Enemugwem concludes with the following accolade for the colonial press: “The confrontational posture of these early newspapers earned British West African nations African representation in the colonial administration of their countries from the 1920s to independence and the Lagos media were not only commended for promoting it but also for evolving a better situation in the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria” (emphasis added).
This tradition of fighting for a better society, of working in concert with civil society and other stakeholders to evolve a better situation for the country was passed on to the new generation of media men and women, who in the post-colonial era of military rule, identified a mission of fighting for democracy and riding Nigeria of the jackboots of military dictatorship. It was a herculean mission, fraught with all the risks, including risks to life and limb. But the media did not flinch. Rather, they demonstrated the verity of the superiority of the pen over the gun. The military was driven back to the barracks, and once again another generation of Nigerian media professionals fulfilled their mission.
Years after the nightmare of more than three decades largely of military dictatorship, the nation’s collective memory is still green with imagery of arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, closure of media houses, clampdown on all manner of free expression and extra judicial killings. In spite of these dire straits, the media, inspired by its illustrious history, faced down the military potentates and they blinked. Some journalists—Dele Giwa and Bagauda Kaltho on my mind—did not live to tell the story, but alive are Ray Ekpu, Bayo Onanuga, Yakubu Mohammed, Soji Akinrinade, Dan Agbese, Babafemi Ojudu, Kunle Ajibade, Charles-Obi, George M’bah, Onome-Osifo-Whiskey, Dare Babarinsa, Kolawole Ilori, Nosa Igiebor and many others, albeit with varying degrees of scars. The roll call in courage and bravery cannot end without paying due tribute to the dean of the old school, Dr Stanley Macebuh, who recruited and deployed the best and brightest in the vineyard of journalism, when the business was defined by good writing and impeccable grammar.
The 4th Republic
The historical trajectory of Nigerian journalism shows that each epoch was confronted by a defining challenge. To recap, the challenge of the colonial times was the imperative of freeing the nation from colonial bondage. During military rule the task before Nigerian journalists was the restoration of constitutional rule which the military had taken away from 1966—1999, save for occasional flashes of civil administration that were not really free of the incubus of the men in khaki, who maintained a tight leash on their civilian collaborators that were allowed to operate mainly at the subnational level.
The march of history since 1999 has thrust the nation into a different epoch, branded the Fourth Republic, and beset with a challenge of a different kind. Since the Fourth Republic began about 24 years ago, the Nigerian economy has been in a serious decline. In fact, the economy appears to be in a free fall now, wracked by the collapse of the real sector, fiscal instability hallmarked by run-away inflation, crippling infrastructure deficit, rampant insecurity, unprecedented level of unemployment that has produced the japa syndrome, insufficient public power, which, combined with other input factors like the exchange rate, has made Nigerian industries uncompetitive on the global stage. Other features of the economic collapse include a rise in universal poverty in the country, and a serious decline in virtually all human development indicators.
Taken together, all these issues make up the economic equivalent of the challenges that Nigerian journalism confronted during the colonial times and in the period of military rule. Given the babble in the media industry, the brawls over personal preoccupations, the absence of media resonance by way of sustained agenda-setting on the economic crisis facing the nation, can the conclusion not be justifiably drawn that the main issue of our time, which is the economic meltdown, has become the blind spot of the Fourth Estate of the Realm? Why have Nigerian journalists not faced up to this national challenge with the kind of grit and gumption as well as the dedication that their predecessors responded to similar national challenges of their epochs? Why are we not seeing a concerted effort across the media industry to cobble up a coalition of all stakeholders to face down the economic maelstrom that is barrelling down to smash an ecology of 200 million people! Journalism in the Fourth Republic appears to be short of the coalescing essence that helped in the past to band progressive forces in a coalition that confronted and overcame national threats.
I do not know the reason for the somnolence of Nigerian journalism in the face of a mortal threat to our collective existence. I only hope however that the intervention by Naija Times with the publication of For a Better Society will shake the industry out of its lethargy to begin the serious work of taking up its mission like the generations before it and work as one to fulfil it.
Otongaran, a communication specialist, is the former Special Adviser to the Managing Director, Oil and Gas Free Zone Authority and Minister of Niger Delta Affairs.