The Media In The Struggle For Democracy In Nigeria

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The media have become some of the most important institutions of the contemporary world.

Around the world, most of humanity forms opinions of events about them on the basis of the agenda set by the mass media. Major international events are today watched by billions of people tuning in through television, listening to radio sets or reading the newspapers. The internet has also become a major source of international media output as well as podcasting.

The statistics are equally overwhelming. Sawant (2000), quotes the Statistical Year Books of 1999, which say that there were 8391 daily newspapers in the world, by 1996. These papers had an estimated circulation of 548 million; readership was 96 per thousand of the population. As at the end of 1996, television users were 228 per thousand, while radio users were 364 per thousand. In the same year, there were 14 million internet users, and the figure reached 30 million people in 1998.

Media growth has also been very impressive in Nigeria. The Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria has it five national stations in Abuja, Lagos, Enugu Kaduna and Ibadan. It is also served by a network of thirty seven (37) stations around Nigeria and that will reach 97 stations totally, when all its stations come on stream.

Similarly, there are now 40 states owned radio stations and 32 states owned television stations. In 1992, the government of General Babangida established the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to regulate the broadcasting industry and also open up the spectrum of broadcasting to private operators. Today in Nigeria, there are three (3) Direct to Home (DTH) television stations; thirty five (35) cable stations using MMDS channels and two Direct Satellite (DBS) stations in one country (NBC: 2007). Verity communication (2003:132) pointed out that there are now over 105 newspapers and magazines in circulation in Nigeria, and about 90 of these publications are owned privately while the rest are owned by government at both federal and state levels. In an effort to situate the media in the context of the struggle for democracy in Nigeria, it is very important to always work out the international context within which the local operates; the general to the specific. McChesney (1999) says that our era rests upon a massive paradox.

He argues that the world faces an increasing depoliticization, with the shriveling of traditional notions of civic and political involvement. Elementary understanding of social and political affairs has similarly declined. McChesney argues further that what is called democracy in the USA, and increasingly around the world is better thought of as liberalism. “With the rise of capitalism, liberalism became an important set of principles to protect, among other things, private property” (1999:4). But a new phenomenon of neo-liberalism, associated with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher in the early 1980s, has boomed to become a global phenomenon over the past two decades.

McChesney went further that the nature and quality of democracy is always the result of conflict between contending forces in unequal societies. “Neoliberalism mostly reflects that the few are dominant politically and ideologically” (1999:6). Similarly, Curran (2000), argues that much of liberal analysis derive from earlier periods, when media consisted principally of small-circulation, political publications and in consonance with conceptions of watch dog role of the media in society. Those were views from the eighteenth century, when government was commonly thought to be the seat of power and the main source of oppression. He argues that contemporary reality demands a revised conception especially in the advanced capitalist countries, but I add, also increasingly, even in the neo-colonial capitalist periphery, with the spates of privatization.

Up to the 1980s, the media systems in most countries developed in a highly monopolistic form, with radio and television offering only a few competing channels. The media sectors that first became globalised, news agencies, film and musie, were dominated by a relatively small number of companies. The diffusion of new technologies: fiber-optic cable high powered satellite, digitalization, personal computers and the internet, transformed the media landscape during the 1980s and the 1990s. These technical transformations also triggered a new pattern of multimedia concentration.

Some of the landmark developments included the coupling of the film majors, Twentieth Century Fox and Metro media (television) under Rupert Murdoch in the mid-1980s; followed by Viacom’s acquisition of Paramount and Block buster in 1994; Disney’s purchase of Time Warner (itself the result of a 1989 merger) with Turner Broadcasting in 1996. (Curran, 2000).

The consequence is that the number of corporations dominating the United States media shrunk from an estimated fifty in 1983 to ten in 1997. The trend in the United States was duplicated in many of the advanced capitalist countries. It also led to the movement for global conquest of the media market, and this was aided by privatization policies around the world which led to the sale of state media assets in various countries. As the doctrine of neo-liberal capitalism entrenches around the world, this trend will be replicated from country to country, including Nigeria, where a government sworn to the implementation of neo-liberal policies has zealously been following the diktat of the so-called Washington Consensus, since 1999.


Traditional bourgeois perspectives on the essential prerequisites of democracy, often give three indispensable items on the check list of democracy. These are:

(a) a well informed citizenry

(b) participation of the citizens in the day-today governance of the society and

(C) the accountability to the citizens of those who exercise power on their behalf.

Sawant (2000) argues that unless citizens have adequate and accurate information on all the issues and problems confronting them, they are not likely to take enlightened decisions on them. Similarly, without information, citizens cannot comprehend the workings of government and would therefore be unable to participate in it. It follows that they will not be able to hold those in authority responsible for any acts of omission or commission. This means that in the absence of full and truthful information, from this stand point, citizens will not be able to perform any of their functions in a democratic society.

This is the reason why the media occupy a very important place in a modern society, and in most western societies are seen as the Fourth Estate of the Realm. Because of an ability to reach very large sections of the society, constantly, almost all the time, it is the media that help people perform the three-fold functions in democracy that we enumerated earlier. The media are also informers and educators of people, providing platforms of informed debate and discussion, in consonance with constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of speech and expression. The media as the voice of various sections of the society particularly the voiceless, gives democracy a true meaning as a representative regime. The media can act as a channel between the people and the authorities, conveying the grievances, needs, problems, hopes and aspirations of the people and the authorities, back and forth. This role helps the people to be constantly informed about governance.

It is also within the purview of the media to be able to act as the day-to-day parliament of the people, ventilating the grievances of the people, and helping to influence the content of legislation. Nigerians have a direct example of this important function of the media during the third term debate, over a year ago. The media can also act as an independent and constructive opposition to those in power. This is especially true where the parliament is weak, has been emasculated or corrupted. This has been the experience of Nigeria in the past eight years. It is also within the democratic mandate of the media to act as the watch dog of the people interests, and the use of investigative journalism to expose scams and scandals, helping to keep those in authority within the bounds of law and accountable. The media can help to preserve and promote harmony between different social groups in a country while it can also act as catalyst of needed changes and reform in a society. Of course the roles stated here in, are conditioned by a host of factors such as pressures which flow from social reality and the interplay of class forces and other dynamics of a society. Private media face peculiar sets of variables that might influence the ways it plays its roles in society and those run by government face another set of obstacles too.

As we have stated earlier, the emergence of a trends towards monopoly in the media operations in societies claiming to be democratic has become a maior issue of debate and concern. The strings of control of the media in advanced capitalist societies are falling into the hands of a small, wealthy section of society and this deepens the powers that these wealthy individuals have in society. Justice Sawant underlines the danger which a democratic society faces with this scenario: The power the media possesses gives tremendous clout to the owners of the media over the centers of power, which in turn leads to the domination over other fields of societal life as well. In an unequal society, the inequalities are further widened, and democracy in effect stands converted into oligarchy of the few as a consequence (2000:32). So the era of paradoxes that McChesney mentioned steers us in the face so clearly, because while there are more available channels for the transmission of information and entertainment than in the past, fewer people control these channels.

What is more, there is an increasing standardization of the fare which the media purvey, while lesser time frames go to news and education or investigation; the standard fare is becoming entertainment, reality shows and all such materials that would bring profit and that would not ruffle the feathers of the status quo in the capitalist world. Today, a few media moguls control what people around the world read listen to or watch on television. It is the world of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Reinhard Mohn in Germany, Rupert Murdoch in the United State and Australia, Ted Turner, Henry Luce and the Warner Brothers, Henry and Jack. It is not a coincidence that these are often very right wing and reactionary individuals, whose political life is built around the strengthening of the hegemony of imperialism around the world. They are the superstars of neo-liberal capitalism and it is their empire of domination, which the most powerful imperialist country in human history, the USA, actually deploys forces and money around the world to defend. This is the international context within which the Nigerian media operates.

The origin of the Nigerian press, a major organization in civil society equally preceded the Nigerian state and dates back to even before the formal annexation of any part of Nigeria by the British colonial regime… That the press and other elements in civil society preceded political society and state created room for the development of ties, loyalties and preferences within civil society crucial for the subsequent empowerment and defence of non-state and anti-state action and the terrain of associational life within the context of the emerging colonial and post state. ‘The press was, for instance, able where necessary to reach for and activate long-established and long-cultivated alliances with other clements in civil society in order to hold on to and expand its sphere of autonomous action vis-à-vis dominant interest in political society and the state.’ Agbaje (1992:28-29).

The constitutional basis for the work of the Nigerian media is located in Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution. It states clearly that “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people” But in order to situate the work of the media within the constitutional provision stated here, and the struggle for democracy, it is important to make a short historical excursion, which in itself, has conditioned the way that the Nigerian press has situated itself in the struggle for democracy.

The quotation from Agbaje, had emphasized the fact that the press in fact pre-dates the Nigerian state, has always been a significant institution of civil society, and has always attempted independent political interventions. This assessment is true, and is consonant with the origins of the Nigerian press. It is equally noteworthy, that politics has also been a central ware of Nigerian journalism, from the beginning. Fred Omu (1978: viii) stated that “the early press was essentially a political press. Of the more than twelve newspapers which appeared in Lagos between 1880 and 1900, for example, only one would not be classified as markedly political in bias”. The reason for this political attitude in the early press was also clear: “Many newspaper men were of the commercially frustrated elite forced into journalism by European monopolists who crushed them out of the Niger trade”, according to Omu.

It is equally significant that journalism provided the basis for the development of Nigerian nationalism, and it was not a co-incidence that some of the leading voices of the anti-colonial movement, also had their roots in the vibrant media, that is the newspaper tradition of the 1930s and 1940s. Herbert Macaulay, Namdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, S.L. Akintola, to mention a few, were all leading newspaper editors and professionals. It is in this context that the press has often been saluted as one of major institutions that helped to achieve independence for Nigeria.

Most of the early development in the media history of Nigeria, starting with the installation of the first printing press in Calabar, by the Presbyterian Mission in 1846; the emergence of the first newspaper, the IWE IROHIN (Iwe Irohin fun awon ara Egba ati Yoruba) by the Reverend Henry Townsend in 1859; to the emergence of the numerous titles located in the vibrant atmosphere of Lagos of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had always been media and political developments located in the southern part of Nigeria. This was an area of missionary activities, conversions to Christianity and the embrace of Western education. There was a rapid expansion of literacy in the area which provided the emergence of a critical elite of newspaper readers with a strongly political publie opinion. It was this critical mass that was to provide the early base for the nationalist movement (Omu 1978; Duyile, 1987).

The situation was different in Northern Nigeria; here the British operated a policy which endeavored to isolate the region from the intellectual developments and westernized modernization that was taking place in the South. Missionary activities were restricted only to the non-Muslim parts of Northern Nigeria ant the opportunities of education were restricted. The consequence was that the development of a public opinion critical for the emergence of newspapers and their readers did not develop in Northern Nigeria, until the emergence of the GASKIYA TAFI KWABO in 1938.

The background above in respect of the evolution of the Nigerian press is very important in gauging the role of the press in the struggle for democracy in Nigeria. This is because the regional variations in the media have also conditioned largely the attitude of the media to issues in the struggle for democracy in Nigeria. As we have noted, most of the press cvolved earlier in Southern Nigeria, and the so-called Lagos-Ibadan press would become the heart of arguably the most vibrant media tradition in tropical Africa. It is also part of the history that we are describing, that most of these media institutions were related in terms of ownership, political or ideological preferences, to the leading political tendencies of the region.

Oyovbaire (2002), draws attention to what he calls «the dominant geo-political and materialist location of the media from which it carries out its role and mandate”. He says that even when the audiences of the media were located outside of the south west of Nigeria “the historical location continued to provide the arrowhead for opinion formation, legitimization of media contents, agitation and agenda setting” (2002:13)

The Lagos-Ibadan press was in close ideological, political and proprietorial relationship with the political elite of the south west during the First Republic (1960-1966), and since this elite was in the opposition throughout the period, the press reflected the perspectives and ideological attitudes of the Awoist political elite. This attitude largely determined the way the press also operated during the Second Republic (1979-1983). The political elite of the south west was also in opposition and they went for the jugular of the ruling NPN, which was largely seen as northern in leadership and orientation. Examining the collapse of the Second Republic, S.G. Ikokwu (1985) noted the role played by the media: A large segment of the media was manipulated into a position of perennial vilification of the federal administration. The technique of the “big lie” was employed with reckless abandon; under the clock of speculative journalism… Nigeria was left with a limping federal government, held at bay on most issues, and vilified as incompetent at every turn (1985:72).

This background of opposition journalism and other factors provided the basis for the military take over of 1983. Nigeria had to endure sixteen years of military dictatorship.

During which an authoritarian pall was cast upon the nation and the basic rights of the Nigerian people were trampled upon. The implementation of a Structural Adjustment Program by the military regime of General Babangida proved to be a turning point in Nigeria’s development. A systematic retreat of the state from the provision of social amenities became the philosophical underpinning of state action, while the corruption of the military regimes led to the peculiar phenomenon of “privatization” of the state.

The withdrawal of the state and vacation of social responsibilities, led to the emergence of non-state actors coming in to occupy the spaces vacated: ethnic organizations, religious groups, civil society activists and even criminal gangs. Nigeria gradually began a transition from what Richard Joseph had described as a ‘prebendal’ state to a rogue state, by the end of military dictatorship. The annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections, widely believed to have been won by chief MKO Abiola, led to the deepening of the crisis of the Nigerian socicty.

The population had become totally disenchanted with military dictatorship and wanted a transition to a democratic system. The media were at the forefront of this struggle, largely because of a co-incidence of the underlying feeling for democracy, and the fact that the presumed winner of the elections annulled in 1993, was a leading representative of the political, cconomic and media elite of the south west of Nigeria. This is the background that led to the transition program of the regime of General Abdulsalami Abubakar, and the emergence of General Olusegun Obasanjo as a democratically elected president in May, 1999.

It must be underlined that the struggle for democracy could not also be divorced from a systematic demonstration of the political elite of the North, which the south west based press always described as being in cahoots with the military dictatorship. The disadvantaged position of the North, in respect of media ownership and control became particularly glaring during this period.

A.S. Mohammed (2003) analyzing the media in this period, pointed out that 80% of the Nigerian media was controlled from the Lagos-Ibadan axis, and that disturbingly, the lopsidedness was not only in respect of proprietorship but that the profession of journalism and allied trades are concentrated within the same ethnic group. Even the trade in the machinery, equipment and inputs of the mass media seemed to be concentrated or monopolized within the same ethnic constituency.

This lopsidedness makes it possible for the media to perfect a comprehensive and strong “anti-North agenda’. Their objective is to vilify and destroy the institutions, culture and leaders of the North with a view to consolidating the economic domination of the south west and the imposition of a political hegemony over the whole country (2003:18)

THE MEDIA AND CHALLENGES OF DEMOCRATIC SUSTENANCE IN NIGERIA emergence of the Obasanjo regime in 1999 came on the crest of the wave of tremendous expectations by the Nigerian people. It seemed that people wanted a quick fix of the accumulated problems coming from the years of military dictatorship. The situation was further heightened by the promises made by the president himself, from the time of his inauguration. However, Obasanjo proved to be a very incompetent president, unable to meet the yearnings of the Nigerian people. He then resorted to the shop worn tactic of playing sections of the country against each other: Muslim against Christian, north against south, and generally manipulating the well-known fault lines of Nigerian life. There was a reflection of these contradictions in the Nigerian press. One of the most contentious issues which arose in the early years of the Obasanjo administration was the decision to review and renew the implementation of Sharia Laws in some of the states of Northern Nigeria. Most of the southern based media were hostile and Sharia was presented as a political weapon to undermine the regime of a Christian president who also happened to be from Southern.

There were glowing double standards in the way similar issues were treated by most of the press; a good example was the certificate scandals which involved Salisu Buhari, a Northerner and Speaker of the House of Representatives and Governor Bola Tinubu of Lagos State. While the Lagos-Ibadan press feasted on the Buhari issue, the same press went out of the way to protect Bola Tinubu, whose case appeared to be even far more scandalous. I believe that the veteran journalist, Muhammed Haruna was very apt in his summary of the attitude of the southern press in these issues.

If any evidence is needed that these Southern publications are guided more by polities than by principles, their attempted cover up of the allegations that Governor Bola Tinubu of Lagos. perjured himself on his age and academic qualifications and the whitewash of several material and procedural lapses of president Olusegun Obasanjo so far, provides ample evidence (2003:45). It was however the attitude to the 2003 elections which revealed the weakness of the press, especially the south west press, and even other notable institutions of civil society, such as the Nigeria Labour Congress, as institutions of democratic sustenance in Nigeria. The elections observers were quite frank in their assessments, that the 2003 elections were flawed in every material particular. For instance, DAILY TRUST newspaper of Thursday, April 17^ 2003, carried the reports of the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) as well as that of the European Union Election Observer Mission (EU EOM), also that of the Labour Election Monitoring Team (LEMT) and those of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA).

Each of these groups had reported various aspects of the flaws they noted during the elections of April 12, 2003. There were recorded cases of electoral violence, denial of access to polling stations, improper counting procedures, stealing of ballot papers and boxes as well as ballot box stuffing. On April 22, 2003, DAILY TRUST newspaper’s lead story was that some of the observers of the presidential election of April 19, 2003 faulted the result. It named the groups as the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), the National Democratic (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI). TMG was quoted as saying that “there were scores of alleged fraud in many states across the country, often with collusion of electoral officials and security personnel”. The NDI team talked of places “where blatant malpractices clearly distorted the poll results in the areas where they occurred”.

The main political background to note was that the Alliance for Democracy (AD) party had entered an ethnic pact with president Obasanjo, not to field a candidate to run against him, in order to protect the Yoruba mandate which he was enjoying. This was sufficient for the south west press not to see evil, nor hear evil, in respect of the massive rigging which several teams of international and local observers had been reporting. Consequently, the media, the unions in the media and even a leading civil society group like the NLC, would not speak evil of the’re-election’ of Obasanjo. The columnist Adamu Adamu, writing in DAILY TRUST of April 22, 2003 caught the central plank of the development. AD had gone into an alliance, not so much with the People’s Democratic Party as with Olusegun Obasanjo. In the process, it had been absorbed by his party in a suicidal pact… Obasanjo enjoyed the best of all possible worlds and left AD carrying the can. In the bargain AD had given up its strident call for restructuring of the country and forgotten about convoking a Sovereign National Conference…. It also abandoned its traditional, if disloyal, opposition to the central government. And as its added bonus to Obasanjo, the Yoruba press and literati fell silent. Under Obasanjo, Yoruba anti-government social criticism was de-professionalized and sent into exile (2003:32).

Indicative of the acquiescence of the media establishment in the fraud perpetrated in the 2003 polls, was the statement of the Media Monitoring Group of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ and the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) reported by DAILY TRUST of May Ist, 2003 which declared the presidential election as “a clear testimony that democracy has taken root in the country”, despite “regrettable” “reports of irregularities, intimidation of voters and occasional fracas in some states” (2003:32) Not to be outdone in the endorsement of Obasanjo’s fraudulent re-election, Taiwo Alimi, the DG of Voice of Nigeria and chairman of the Broadcasting Organizations of Nigeria (BON), was reported to have blasted reports of the international media which highlighted the electoral fraud, including the 100 percent “turn out” in Rivers state during the election, with all the voters casting their ballots only for Obasanjo. Taiwo Alimi, with a sleight of hand dismissed these reports, because “they have not reflected a sufficient understanding of the problems, constraints and challenges before the Nigerian nation” (2003:32)

A triumphalist tone was generally discernable in the media’s reportage of the re-election of Obasanjo, as was noted by the editorial opinion of DAILY TRUST of May Ist, 2003, that tone, said the editorial, was “ringing loudly, in ill- concealed support of the apparent victory of the PDP juggernaut”. The editorial made a much broader sweep of the attitude of the press.

The broad attitude of acquiescence of the media… fits a frame that has underlined the attitude of very significant sections of the press since the advent of the Obasanjo administration in May 1999. That frame is to accept and in many national issues, even adopt the perspective of the executive arm of government as that which approximates with a nebulously-defined ‘national interest’. So whether it was in his perpetual effort to emasculate the legislative arm of government, his own political party or the long-drawn impeachment saga, a most undemocratic ‘consensus’ was built, which largely attempted to protect Obasanjo’s perspective in these different national problems. The obverse was a series of condemnations and negative archetyping of whoever stood against Obasanjo (200:32).

It is important for our understanding, to always recall that the media has always been a contested terrain, and in the context of the hegemonic fight to control Nigeria, the south west gained more than a head start on the rival power and political blocks from other parts of the country. It is this power rivalry which played out in the way that the different media establishments and media traditions responded to the massively rigged elections of 2003, which was perpetrated by an incumbent president, who comes from the region of the country that has always controlled the press. That should be contrasted with the attitude of the same media elite to the elections of 1983 and the sitting president, Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Or even the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election.

The degrees of media responses to issues of the democratic struggle or democratic consolidation are therefore uneven, they are conditioned by a variety of pressures such as the perceived interests of the owners of the media, the group interest (class or ethnic) which these outlets want to defend and even what Oyovbaire termed “a return march (sic) syndrome”, a tendency of vendetta. Yet the same media can also become vehicle for profoundly worthy contributions to the struggle for democratic consolidation, as we saw in the near unanimous rejection of the tenure elongation (or third term) agenda of president Olusegun Obasanjo. The media led the opposition to the effort to manipulate the nation’s constitutional order, set the agenda for the legislature, organized a nation-wide constituency to reject what would have amounted to a life presidency for General Olusegun Obasanjo. The terrain of the media mirrors that of the society; it is a contests one, and at every turn the contributions the media can play to help consolidate the democratic process in the country will always be hedged by the different social forces that condition the work of the media itself.

The Nigerian media industry has been at the centre of the country’s major political development. It has served the all important role of agenda setting and as a platform for the expression of popular preferences. The Nigerian media has also served as a meeting point for the variegated currents of thought flowing through the society. This task has led the Nigerian media to fight many battles which have both strengthened and limited it at the same time. To some extent, the media has been influenced and motivated by such factors as the business environment and geopolitics. These factors account for the creative tension that is observable in the Nigerian media and in addition the difference in the character of the various publications or media houses. Understanding the true nature of the Nigerian media and the ability to determine whether it is a free, objective media or a social or business institution that is perpetually held hostage by historically determined forces, depend on there factors (2003:132).







MOHAMMED, A.S. (2003): “The Media and Development in Nigeria: The Way Forward” IN HARUNA, MOHAMMED; SHARIF, UJUDUD; YUSUF, BILKISU (eds.), in OP. cit







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