Urhobo Historical Society
/logo_min.gif - 1122 Bytes The Guardian Online - http://www.ngrguardiannews.com
Wednesday, August 29, 2001

The Media and the Democratic Process in Nigeria (1)

By Professor Sam Oyovbaire

 THE value of the media in the development of the Nigerian nation-state became prominent in the struggle by the Founding Fathers of Nigerian nationalism against British colonial rule and imperialism, mildly in the late 1920s and much more forcefully from about 1944. As the struggle intensified, and colonial rule inaugurated a process of tactical retreat through negotiation with the emergent yet fragmented political class, the media acquired a front seat and status as the mouthpiece of the anti-colonial struggle. In this role, the media and individual journalists experienced all forms of vicissitudes and punishment by the colonial authorities.

 The origins of the media however predated the nationalist struggle for independence. Without recourse to a repeat of long history here, we acknowledge the fact that the Nigerian press is a product of evolution from the early Christian missionary establishment in the South of the country. Between 1842 and 1885, the Church Missionary Society, the Baptist, Methodist and the Catholic Missions established their presence independent of one another in various locations, particularly in Abeokuta, Calabar and Onitsha. The desire to spread Christianity to the local people in their own language and anthological environment caused the CMS to start what is generally acknowledged as the first newspaper in Abeokuta. As it was reported, the Rev. Henry Townsend of the CMS was said to have observed, "my object is to get the people to read; and get them to inculcate the habit of reading."

 This motivation of the CMS resulted in setting up the newssheet called Iwe Irohin. Other newspapers followed the Iwe Irohin not only in Yoruba, but also in English Language; and their locations were mainly in Abeokuta and Ibadan areas. The Newspapers of the period, however were short lived as most of them lasted between six months and two years only. The important point however, is that between the 1850s and the late 1920s, the Christian press acquired some status of not only discharging the responsibilities of religious proselytisation but also of incursion into questioning the emergent colonialism and its multiple oppressive practices in Nigeria. One other significant element of the press at that time is the establishment of printing as an industry, profession and trade. Naturally, this new techno-economic and professional activity became rooted in the South West of the country before other areas such as Onitsha. It should also be acknowledged that the target audience and market forces for the press together with journalism as a new profession propelled and fostered by western education became dominant in the South West.

 As we would expatiate later on in this essay, the origin and location of the media began gradually to create and consolidate a world-view for it. In the struggle to undermine British colonialism and obtain independence, the media also acquired a highly nationalistic and Pan-African world-view and commitment. Apart from Christian evangelisation, the object and focus of process discourse were, of course, hostility to foreign domination, and, conversely, the interest of the media coincided with the emerging Nigerian national interest. The national interest was however, yet to unfold in its proper character at the point at which the media was already an acknowledged social force in the promotion of political development.

 The overwhelming critical features of the press in its relationship to the unfolding democratic process had emerged as early as the late 1920s. The role of the modern press pioneers such as the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, among others was to push forward and entrench the role of the press as "the watch-dog" of Nigeria's nascent interest. In the period leading to independence, the "watch-dog" enterprise was against the "British-colonial masters and colonialism". After independence, that enterprise logically shifted focus away from the perniciousness and arbitrariness of colonial rule to the inadequacies, fractiousness and excesses of the Nigerian political class which had replaced the "British colonial masters" yet administering rather than governing the country with as much arbitrary instruments as the British. The press could not co-operate with the Nigerian governments; rather it carried on with its adversary and irritant focus to government. Incidentally, the press became known by a section of the political class for its reportage and advocacy as a vehicle for partisanship, and thus acquired the derogatory image of being the "Lagos press". Accordingly, from its modern inception, the press or media has had to contend with the split or simultaneous image of "champion of the Nigerian national interest" and "mouth-piece or propaganda of the Lagos - Ibadan axis, South West or Yoruba world-view of the country. The significance of this presentation of the media in its relation to the Nigerian democratic process should be clearer later in this paper.

 As already hinted the press from the 1920s on to independence in 1960 became an industry, profession and a social force for liberation of the Nigerian people. This multiple dimension of the press attracted the first set of laws or ordinances by the colonial government against it. These laws, over time became a fundamental element in the development of the relationship between the media and government in their joint enterprise of forging the country's democratic process. The media became a "force to be dealt with" by government, while the media perceived and related to the government as an embodiment of oppression of the people. A number of laws or ordinances were enacted against the press. This particular character of the media and the democratic process dominated the post-independence political process as a consequence of military dictatorship, which is akin to colonial rule. The process also became logically partisan in its reportage, agitation and agenda setting. In the period leading to independence, it was easier to associate the role of the press with objective or positive nationalism in the context of the struggle against colonial rule. This role was eminently discharged notwithstanding the emergent fragmentation or fractiousness within the political class, particularly between southern and northern members of the class. The relationship between the media and the emerging democratic process was, thus dialectical by the fact that the media grew in the mould of hostility towards government and the political establishment, while government in its turn appeared not to trust the media and therefore desirous of taming or containing it. There was also the fact that the origins and dominant location of the media created for it an instrument for the propagation of a role, which was nationalistic yet geo-politically partisan. This is the inheritance at independence in the relationship between the media and the political process.

The media and its democratic mandate

To speak of the mandate of the media in a democracy is to assign a constitutional role for it. It is indeed to proceed on the assumption that the media is a constitutional instrument or phenomenon. Yet, in all Nigerian constitutions, the media is hardly mentioned in the manner in which the executive, legislature and judiciary on the one hand and the federal, the state and the local governments on the other are documented with legal instruments. Be that as it may, the philosophy of modern governance and especially of modern democracy conceives the media as a monumental force and as an institution similar to the tiers of government in Nigerian federalism and to the arms of constitutional government.

 Historically, the development of modern democracy as a product predominantly of the French and American revolutions in the 18th century acknowledged the media as the fourth arm or realm of constitutional and democratic government. In order words, it is difficult if indeed not impossible, to under-take a discourse on modern democracy and its practices without reference to the media.

 In the Nigerian experience, and without having to go into constitutional history, the media was mentioned only in section 22 of the 1999 constitution as part of the fundamental objective and directive principles of the state policy. We completely agree with and endorse the relentlessness with which Prince Tony Momoh among other press intellectuals and practitioners of the media in expanding the role of the media in strengthening democracy and good governance. In this connection, the obligation of the media as indicated in section 22 of the 1999 constitution, equally endows it with the duty not only to discharge its normal watchdog role in all aspects of governance and in guarding and advancing the frontiers of the people's liberties and freedoms but also the obligation to regard itself as "the policing institution over the fundamental objectives and Direct principles of state policy as well as the citizen's Fundamental Rights". The fact that the constitution imposes a duty on the media to monitor governance implies that it should undertake vigilance over the relationship between the people and the government.

 How the media discharges these grave responsibilities which involve unfettered access to information is an interesting subject matter that should engage not only the media itself but also indeed all civil society actors, both domestic and international.

 The point is that the media has a constitutional mandate in the advancement of the political and democratic process. It is equally true that the nature and character of the democratic process greatly impacts upon the performance of the media. It is in this sense that the nature and character of military regime can affect tremendously the performance of the media just as the nature and character of a democratic regime can do the same. Therefore, until it is fully researched and analysed, it is not enough to proclaim that democracy necessarily provides a much healthier environment for the media or that a military regime necessarily undermines or stifles the fundamental performance of the media. We have experienced in Nigeria's history instances in which government actors and functionaries within the democratic process had inflicted grave damage upon and constricted the press just as, naturally military rule generally and particularly under the horrible phases of faces of it under Sani Abacha and Muhammadu Buhari had brutalised the press and journalism.

 Whether in a military rule or in a democratic regime, the media suffers a huge array of poverty and disabilities the elements of which include the political and business interests of its ownership or proprietorship, the extent of limitation of patronage and manipulation of market forces, location and cultural preferences, values of the target or readership audience, the work conditions and salary of journalists, and the staff of the industry all of which affect performance of the media in its relationship to the democratic process.

 Some sociology of the media and the Nigerian society.

 Both in our endeavour to appreciate the limitations of the media in its relationship to the democratic process and in furtherance of the thesis of the lecture, we need to focus on the character of the Nigerian corporate society and that of the media.

It is common knowledge that the Nigerian society since its foundations by colonisation and colonialism is highly and deeply complex and pluralistic. The development of the Nigerian State in the post-colonial period has added new dimensions to the complexity and pluralism. We can categorise the Nigerian corporate society along several lines. There is the dimension of the multiple ethnic nationalities and especially of the rate of transformation of each nationality into the mainstream of the political economy of capitalist development. While it may be easy to acknowledge the ethnological visibilities and boundaries of the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo, it is certainly not easy to demarcate the boundaries of the minority ethnic nationalities. The use of sociological, anthropological, cultural and linguistic classifications could assign as low as 375 minority ethnic nationalities and as high as 1450 such groups in the country.

Geo-politically, the country used to be seen on the basis of north and south dichotomy; north, west and east trichotomy, and since 1963 when the defunct Mid-West region was created and more so since 1967 when the first wave of state creations was experienced, Nigeria today has a multichotomy of 36 internally complex and pluralistic states, 774 local government areas and the Federal Capital territory. Recently, the country's pluralism has acquired the additional vocabulary of a six zonal structure of South-South, South East, South West, North-Central, North West and North East.

 There are the complexity and pluralism of religion, religious sensibilities and religious organisations. While it is generally acknowledged that the two imported religions of Christianity and Islam together with their denominational and intra-denominational divisions dominate the human landscape. They actually compete with the variety of traditional or indigenous religions so much so that certain individuals and families can, and do, transcend these religious terrain simultaneously depending on the locations of such individuals and families and the depth of their faith in God through appropriate instruments, or their level of ignorance, fears about the unknown and afflictions of various forces such as poverty, disease and ailment, environmental and family inheritances and spiritualities.

 The development of the post-colonial state and of social relations of production has created additional complexity and pluralism in terms of social stratification, which cut across the other dimensions. In contemporary times, there is the pluralism of the very wealthy and the rich class as against the middle and lower classes, and as against the poor and the very poor. There is pluralism of the powerfully organised capital (both domestic and international) as the employer classes as against organised and unorganised labour and working classes. Global market forces have also introduced the elements of multi-national operators consisting of non-Nigerian and Nigerian actors against all other Nigerians. The traditional dichotomy of the elite, educated and skilled classes against the general masses of the uneducated and unemployed on the one hand and urban/rural stratification on the other have been added to the Nigerian lexicon of pluralism and complexity since the Nigerian civil war.

 The importance of drawing attention to the above categories of the complexity and pluralism of the Nigerian corporate society is to relate them to the media in terms of how media coverage of news and the opinion formation affect or detract from the totality of the human landscape in the country. More importantly, it is necessary to relate the complex Nigerian corporate society to the growth of the media itself in terms of world, the seminal history, we plotted earlier, that is, its dominantly geographical location from which it carries out its role and mandate and from which it derives the world-view that shapes the coverage of issues.

We have identified that the south-west of the country is the materialist location of the Nigerian media which coincides with the Yoruba nationality, early evangelisation of Christianity, propagation of western education and establishment of the seat of colonial and post-colonial government together with the large and flourishing market forces and patronage which aided the locational stimuli of the media. The readership audience for marketing its role, mandate and products was the South West initially, and even when in contemporary times other audiences could be located outside the South West, this historical location continued to provide the arrowhead for opinion formation, legitimisation of media contents, agitation and agenda-setting. From this perspective, as we have argued earlier in this presentation, the media is highly rooted in south-western Nigeria or in the famous Lagos-Ibadan axis which, to repeat ourselves, provides the materialist base for the world-view of the media

 What about the complexity or pluralism of the media? There is no doubt that the press has been transformed tremendously in structure, number of outlets, contents and out-reach since its narrow and localised appearance in Abeokuta and Lagos during the second half of the 19th century. Until the broadcast or electronic media was deregulated by the Ibrahim Babangida military regime in 1992, the print media was dominated by the private sector or private ownership, especially in its impact upon civil society. Government however monopolised and controlled the broadcast media until 1992. Although governments owned newspapers, most of them could not stand the rigour of market forces and were more of mere conduit pipes for leakage of public funds while some others were deliberately starved out of the media scene even by their owners. For the privately owned media, the economic reforms of about the middle of the 1980s in which the role of the state in the political economy of the country was rolled back with the intention to encourage market forces and economic freedoms along with democratisation of the political process, it blossomed as industry and service providers, as employers and as a profession. A large number of the print media outlets ranging from the serious-minded and professionally organised newspapers and magazines to the soft sell and junk magazines surfaced in the news stands. By sheer numbers therefore, it could be said that there have been complexity and pluralism of a kind. okay