Nigeria’s Press is not the oldest in Africa, or even in West Africa; as its earliest newspapers were established after those in Sierra Leone (1810); Ghana (1822), and Liberia (1826). Reverend Henry Townsend, established Nigeria’s first Press on December 3, 1859, which published the ‘Iwe Irohin Fun Awon Ara Egba Ati Yoruba’ (or newspaper for the Egba and Yoruba), in Yoruba language; before adding its English language edition. The paper reported on religion, abolition of slavery, education, and civil rights; and soon prompted the ire of the colonial authorities who recalled its publisher (Townsend) to Britain. The newspaper’s office in Abeokuta was later razed in 1867, during the anti-white riots in Abeokuta; but other newspapers established by churches, continued to emerge; as well as those that functioned more like ‘Zombie’ colonial Press outfits, which towed the colonial official line, (like the ‘Nigerian Pioneer’, founded by Sir Kitoye Ajasa, a good friend of Lord Lugard). Although Africans refused to buy the paper, the colonial government sustained it through subsidies, and adverts from colonial companies. In time, more politically-oriented press outfits, founded by Africans in Lagos, between 1880 and 1920, evolved, and provided platforms for anti-colonialist and Pan-Africanist opinions, including: ‘The Lagos Times’, ‘The African Challenger’, ‘The Lagos Observer’, The ‘Lagos Echo’, and ‘The Lagos Weekly Record’ (the most radical of the lot), founded in 1890, by John Payne Jackson (a Liberian trader), whose fiery editorials constantly rattled the colonial government. Then, the most widely read newspapers were the most critical of government.
The first signs of frost in the relationship between the press and the Nigerian government appeared during the colonial era, when the colonials introduced legislation to control the press. In 1903, they introduced ‘Publishers Obligations’, which mandated publishers to submit a copy of every issue of their newspaper to the authorities. In 1909, they promulgated an anti-sedition decree, which stipulated a two-year prison sentence for encouraging anti-government sentiments through speech or writing; and by 1917, during the First World War, Lord Lugard often censored the press during states of emergency. But there was still a vibrant section of the media, and civil populace, which stoutly resisted these restrictions. People like Sapara Williams (one of Nigeria’s leading lawyers at the time), and an activist of renown, took columns in the radical ‘Lagos Weekly Record’, to oppose the colonials; claiming that: “Press freedom is the palladium of British Liberalism” and expressing fears that “over sensitive officials” might soon begin to see sedition as “any criticism”; and “a crime in any mass gathering”. Under sustained pressure, the colonials changed to the more subtle tactic of controlling the then leading Nigerian newspaper (The Daily Times); and appointing a journalist with nationalist views as its Editor. The Daily Times, launched in 1926, is Nigeria’s oldest surviving newspaper.
In the 1930’s, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, a Political Scientist, Anthropologist, and Journalist, who had practiced in the USA and Ghana, returned to Nigeria, and established the first English language ‘newspaper chain’ across various parts of Nigeria, including: Onitsha (his hometown), Warri, Jos, Enugu, and Kano. His political rival and fellow journalist, Chief Obafemi Awolowo followed shortly in his footsteps. For the next two decades, the ‘West African Pilot’ and ‘Nigerian Tribune’ (Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Awolowo’s newspapers respectively), both operated like ‘Zombie’ Press outfits for their founders. They never published articles critical of them, and worked to promote their political interests and ambitions; but then, there was a good side to them; they both blew the nationalist trumpet, and provoked significant awareness amongst the colonials from the late 1950’s, that Africa was ripe for independence.
A virile press is the conscience and voice of the people; and can only play and optimize its role in a free society, where ideas, opinions, and information are expressed freely without intimidation, fear, or favor. No military regimes anywhere in the world guarantee such conditions, as they are subordinate to none, and accountable only to themselves. From medieval times, the hallmarks of dictatorship all over the world have consisted in whipping other segments of society into positions of their choice, rigidly enforced with iron bars; and dissent by way of thought, speech, action or opinion; expressed privately, publicly, or secretly, has always invoked summary reprisals. Instruments of intimidation and coercion have always included: arrest, torture, imprisonment, confiscation and destruction of properties; and even the death penalty for offenders, members of their families, friends, etc. One can thus conjecture the size of the challenge the Nigerian Press faced, with the advent of military rule in 1960. Ironically however, the military era, through several regimes, inspired a crop of intellectuals, critical thinkers, and a more vibrant press (comprising ‘hard-hitting’ gadflies of no mean repute); whose voices were heard; writings read; opinions respected; and services acknowledged all over the world. In concert with human rights groups, they rallied behind the people to protect them from abuse; and spoke up to shape and direct national conversation, vis-à-vis domestic and foreign policy; while sensitizing the world to the downward spiral (below international standards), of Nigeria’s media-freedom record. They confronted regimes responsible for the heaviest press censorships (particularly in the 1980’s and 1990’s), when tough decrees were enacted to stifle the press, and suppress the people and their ideas. Then, many media houses were shut down; many newspapers were seized and burned; authors of critical articles were harassed, detained, imprisoned, or worse; while other dissenting voices were forced underground, or into exile; yet the opposition never ceased to broadcast to the world through the most ingenious channels, the rapid descent of the discredited governments and their security agencies, into undisguised tyranny.
The practice of corrupting journalists is almost as old as the Press, as even the colonial officials gave money to some Lagos Editors to compromise them against publishing embarrassing information about them. During the military era also, many once-vocal pressmen; human rights, civil society, and pro-democracy activists; intellectuals, and critical thinkers, were appointed into positions of responsibility. This compromised them into acting the roles of military ‘Zombies’; while some, even publicly denounced democratic governments, to affirm their loyalty to their paymasters; whilst disadvantaging the political terrain, and postponing the advent of democracy. But then, there still remained a vibrant pool of the ‘die-hard’ variant who opposed military dictatorship, and won democracy for Nigeria in the Fourth Republic. In the democratic dispensation, one would only have expected this ‘variant’ to frown, to keep the civil government in line; but sadly, many of them contracted an assortment of social diseases, including succumbing to threats; external and internal inducements; or simply forsaking intellectual pursuit, for political power. They featured very prominently in the Fourth Republic government (between 1999 and 2007), and thereafter; and in their dispensation, the ‘Zombie’ press came back. Akwa Ibom Broadcasting Corporation (AKBC) Uyo, is one-such example, as it has not yet till date, reported the arrest by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), of Senator Godswill Akpabio, on corruption charges, on Friday October 16th or his return for questioning the next day (Saturday17th). The station aptly illustrates the kind of establishment the late legendary Afrobeat-King, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, mocked with the lyrics: “Zombie oh Zombie, Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go, and stop; left turn, right turn, about turn…”
Under civil governments ‘Zombies’ literally took over society, and comprised individuals, the press, and other outfits; private and government owned establishments; even schools and churches. In Akwa Ibom for instance, there was an unprecedented surge in sycophancy and the number of sycophants, between 2007 and 2015. This status quo directly contradicted Walter Lippman’s logical philosophy: “When all think alike, then, no one thinks very much”. A docile and compromised Press replaced Nigeria’s once vibrant variant; and the nation’s critical thinkers and intellectuals all melted into compromise with the political class. Journalists bade farewell to integrity and good taste; and functioned more like ‘pen prostitutes’. They laundered the images of dirty politicians, published favorable articles on their behalf, and sold or killed stories in their interest, for a fee. To them, journalism soon became an avenue to access money and power, and not to act as watchdogs in society. They hobnobbed with politicians, and secured the benefits of the compromise; which is why they lost their voices and couldn’t speak up to chide the government for error, or rouse the chamber of mainly tired, old hands, that formed the government, to their responsibilities.
There is no progressive society anywhere in the world without a vibrant press, an enterprising pool of intellectuals, and critical thinkers, comprising men and women of conscience, truth, ideology, substance, courage, and forthright-thinking, in whatever advice, suggestion, or recommendation they may proffer; whether or not they belong in the press. They act as the conscience of society; and without them, any society will regress and decay. The political class is full of ‘scum of the earth’, ‘vampire politicians’ who seek office for selfish ends; and should therefore not be entrusted with administering the nation according to their devices. Throughout history, governments have always asserted themselves over the citizens, and the trend will continue until everyone is equal. Governments without checks have also always attempted to venture down the paths of tyranny; and so positive criticism is good towards guiding governments aright, and helping confront and improve any society’s socio-political challenges.
The media, human rights activists, and the vocal civil society need to wake up to the fact that they are an indispensable class in any truly democratic dispensation; and should work together, to help order society aright. Governments have to accept the fact that the media is the engine-oil that lubricates the engine of democracy; and its censure in whatever form, is often aimed at preventing the truth, or ideas emerging, which put powerful people or governments in the negative spotlight; and is therefore unjustified. Press freedom should never however license pressmen to ‘rascality’; but should prompt them to responsibility in news gathering and dissemination. Default on the part of any journalist in the course of practice, should also invoke the appropriate legal sanctions including resort to the Nigerian Press Council, or the institution of civil suits against them for defamation according to Sections 22 and 39 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended). No law in Nigeria prescribes the arrest and detention of journalists in the course of their normal duties, so one wonders who breaks the law where such incidents occur.
Even our ancient forefathers (in pre-independent Nigeria) practiced a more robust form of journalism than we do today, through the ‘Akata’ masquerade cult in our rural communities. Initiates and practitioners were dispassionate, often invisible, but factual and forthright in their nightly reports and comments; not minding whose ox was gored. If any false claims were made against anybody by the Akata cult, the cult would simply renounce the report in a subsequent broadcast, and acknowledge its personal error. Otherwise, the cult’s representatives would meet with the aggrieved party in the presence of the Elders Council to sort the issue out. Such issues never generated enough steam to occasion arrest, torture, detention, or even death as have obtained today. This makes ‘Akata journalism’ more advanced than the sham that exists today; and urges for the practice of journalism to be reviewed, with a view to repositioning it along expected modern parameters. The Fourth Estate of the Realm should look inward, self-question, re-tool and re-invent itself into TRUE WATCHDOGS of the society, in the interest of a truly free and democratic society.