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Nigeria during the Abacha Years (1993-1998)

 | 
‘Kunle Amuwo
, 
Daniel C. Bach
, 
Yann Lebeau

The Nigerian Press: Current state, travails and prospects

Michèle Maringues

Texte intégral

Introduction: A historical overview

1The Nigerian press is not the oldest on the continent, or even in the West African sub-region. Nigeria’s earliest newspapers emerged after those of Sierra Leone (1801), Ghana (1822) and Liberia (1826), and were started by Anglican missionaries. By opening schools which provided a Western-oriented education, the missionaries also trained their first readers, for, unlike the North, influenced by Islam and the Arabs – or at least the Hausa-Fulani elites – the peoples of Southern Nigeria did not learn writing until the Europeans arrived.

2The birth of the Nigerian press dates back to 3 December 1859, with the appearance of the magazine Iwe Irohin fun Awon Ara Egba ati Yoruba (literally: Newspaper for the Egba and Yoruba). This first publication in an African language, Iwe Irohin, was published by the Reverend Henry Townsend, who later added an English language edition. In a letter to a European friend in 1860, the cleric averred that: ‘My objective is to get the people to read, ie, to beget the habit of seeking information by reading’. Iwe Irohin, which focused on religious activities, but also devoted a lot of space to subjects like the abolition of slavery, education and civil rights, quickly fell foul of the colonial authorities in Lagos, and Townsend was consequently sent back to Britain. The magazine’s premises were finally burned down in 1867 during anti-white riots in Abeokuta.

3Newspapers linked to the Christian churches continued to emerge, then a more politically oriented press founded by Africans made its appearance in Lagos between 1880 and 1920, providing a forum for anti-colonialist and pan-Africanist opinions. Titles included The Lagos Times, African Challenger, Lagos Observer and Lagos Echo. The most radical was the Lagos Weekly Record, which was started in 1890 by John Payne Jackson, a trader from Liberia whose fiery editorials greatly irritated the colonial establishment.

4During this period some of the characteristics of the contemporary Nigerian press were already discernible: founders of newspapers acquired great personal wealth and thus enjoyed a certain degree of independence from the government; the most widely read newspapers were those that were most critical of government. However, a few newspaper proprietors towed the official line. One example was Sir Kitoye Ajasa, a great friend of Lord Lugard and founder of Nigerian Pioneer. Although Africans refused to buy it, this newspaper received government subsidies and advertising from colonial companies.

The first press laws

5It was also during this era that the colonial administration introduced legislation aimed at controlling the press. In 1903, a set of ‘publishers’ obligations’ was introduced which made it mandatory for a copy of every issue of a newspaper to be submitted to the authorities. In 1909, an anti-sedition decree was promulgated whjch threatened two years’ imprisonment for those who ‘through speech or writing’ encouraged anti-government sentiments. In 1917, taking advantage of the First World War, Lugard introduced censorship during states of emergency.

6Naturally, the newspapers which were affected criticized these laws. In the columns of the Lagos Weekly Record, Sapara Williams, one of Nigeria’s leading barristers, recalled that ‘press freedom is the palladium of British liberalism’ and expressed fears that in future ‘over-sensitive officials’ might see ‘sedition in any criticism, and a crime in any mass gathering’.

7The colonial authorities, however, soon came up with a more subtle tactic by taking financial control of a leading newspaper, the Nigerian Daily Times, and appointing a talented journalist with nationalist views as editor. The Daily Times, launched in 1926, is the oldest surviving Nigerian newspaper.

8Until then, printing was largely a domestic affair. None of the early newspapers had the resources to appear daily. It was not until the mid-1930s, with the return of Nnamdi Azikiwe, a political science and anthropology graduate, who had worked as a journalist in America and Ghana, that the Nigerian press became modern and nationalistic.

9In the 1940s, after successfully launching the African Pilot, Azikiwe became the first person to set up a true English language ‘newspaper chain’ covering various parts of Nigeria. Starting with Onitsha, his home town, the newspaper moved to Warri, Jos, Enugu and even Kano, in the North. He was soon to be imitated by his political rival and fellow journalist, Obafemi Awolowo, a Yoruba, who was the first person to grasp the importance of owning a printing press as a source of extra income.

10For 20 years, ‘Zik’ and ‘Awo’, as they were affectionately known to Nigerians, blew the nationalist trumpet without provoking any significant repression from the colonial authorities who, since the late 1950s, had begun to attune themselves to the reality of African independence. According to Paul Adams, the current Financial Times correspondent, this attitude can be explained by the fact that the British saw the press in Nigeria as a ‘stabilization factor’. Indeed, it allowed radicals to voice their impatience loudly in Lagos or Ibadan. Meanwhile in the North, the feudal elite led by Ahmadu Bello, were gradually getting used to the prospect of independence.

The expansion of the government and private press

11After independence in 1960, the press in Nigeria underwent some major technical and structural changes. The Daily Times acquired a Foster rotary press from the Mirror Group in London, which revolutionized newspaper production in the country. By the end of the same year, the Kaduna-based New Nigerian was 100 per cent government-owned. In 1980, the federal government set up a large web offset printing press and took control of the leading dailies that shaped public opinion. In Lagos, government acquired a 60 per cent stake in the Daily Times through a military decree in 1973, and consequently put its own men in charge and controlled the editorial line.

12The increase in the number of states following the Civil War encouraged the proliferation of government dailies as well as local radio and television stations. Soon there were four dailies, four weeklies and two magazines controlled by the federal government, 14 dailies and 12 weeklies belonging to state authorities, and almost as many radio and TV stations – creating many job opportunities for young graduates from the new universities.

13The return to civilian rule under the Second Republic of President Shagari (1979-1983), led to the explosion of the privately owned press. Although The Punch came up with a visually more aggressive style in 1973, with front page pin-ups and satirical cartoons, which pleased the emancipated Lagos public, the 1980s witnessed the emergence of powerful groups financed by ambitious businessmen for whom a press company represented a way of increasing their influence. In 1980, National Concord was set up by billionaire Moshood Abiola; and in 1983, The Guardian, by Alex Ibru. On a smaller scale, came the daily Vanguard, launched by Sam Amuka-Pemu in 1984, and The Reporter, launched by former general Musa YarAdua in Kaduna in 1987. The Reporter was the first Nigerian newspaper to be entirely computerized.

14The example of National Concord provides a good illustration of the aggressiveness that characterized those years. Abiola, a junior accountant, rose rapidly in the multinational ITT, handling telephone equipment contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He stormed the Nigerian political terrain by becoming one of the pillars of Shehu Shagari’s National Party of Nigeria (NPN). He thus needed a newspaper to boost his political fortunes.

15Abiola mobilized enormous resources to ensure that his press group excelled: the best journalists were recruited and a massive advertising campaign was launched. For the first time, two newspapers were launched by the same media house only days apart – the daily National Concord and the weekly African Concord were launched in the same week, and were soon joined by other magazines (many of them financial) and editions in the three main vernacular languages: Isokan in Yoruba, Udoka in Ibo and Amana in Hausa. Another first: Abiola used his airline to guarantee the distribution of his newspapers almost simultaneously all over the country, thus reducing the gulf between the South and the North. The Concord group, which devoted a lot of space to sports (another sector that benefited from the patronage of its boss), thus came across as resolutely national and modem.

Journalists up against an authoritarian state

16Although the principle of freedom of expression (if not specifically freedom of information) has been clearly enshrined in every Nigerian constitution, especially the 1979 version (modified in 1989 and 1995), what obtains on the ground is obviously different. In response to a questionnaire sent out by the Constitutional Rights Project (CRP) in 1992, more than 75 per cent of journalists expressed the opinion that press freedom was better protected under a civilian government than under military rule. For 30 years, Nigeria has been run by the army almost continuously, apart from the Shagari interlude.

17The Obasanjo government (1976-1979) blazed the trail of repression by taking control of radio and television stations, making it an offence to publish information ‘which embarrasses the government or a public officer or brings him to ridicule or disrepute’, and it banned the magazine Newbreed for two years. The repression got much worse under General Buhari, who in 1984 promulgated the infamous ‘decrees 2 and 4’ making it possible to imprison without trial any journalist who published information ‘threatening national security’ or simply made fun of a civil servant. Two Guardian journalists who had written a story about diplomatic postings were the decrees’ first victims.

18When General Babangida (IBB) took over in August 1985 he won popularity with journalists by repealing decree 4 (but not decree 2, which his government continued to use indiscriminately) and by freeing political prisoners. His liberal image was soon tarnished by the dramatic ‘Dele Giwa’ affair. A few months earlier four excellent journalists (Dele Giwa, who trained with the New York Times, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese and Yakubu Mohamed) had started the magazine Newswatch, the first Nigerian example of investigative journalism which based its allegations on thorough inquiries using the best sources. It was an immediate success, and its troubles were not far off.

19On 17 October 1986, editor Dele Giwa was invited for a ‘little chat’ by the deputy head of the State Security Service (SSS). Two days later a parcel bomb with an official stamp was delivered to his home. The bomb exploded as he tried to open the envelope and he died a few hours later. Despite the efforts of opposition lawyer Gani Fawehinmi, the killers have never been brought to book because the head of military intelligence under Babangida, Colonel Halilu Akilu, always denied that his staff were involved. Persistent rumours that were never confirmed claimed that the magazine was about to publish reports accusing Mrs. Maryam Babangida of being ‘close’ to international drug peddling networks.

20The death of Dele Giwa ended the ‘state of grace’ which the new military regime had enjoyed in the beginning. Although many journalists maintained a flattering tone when talking about ‘IBB, the Maradona of politics’ who read Machiavelli and admired Zaka, the great Zulu leader who resisted colonization, part of the press became increasingly radical a§ The purchasing powerof the middle class shrank and politicians became even more corrupt, always willing to be manoeuvred in exchange for political appointments or plum contracts.

21The corruption of the political class came to a head in the years 1993-1994, strengthening the feeling many journalists had that it was no good looking up to politicians to save the nation. The opposition press was able to describe in detail how Babangida’s ‘assistants’ roamed the corridors of the Sheraton Hotel in Abuja – where members of parliament were staying -during the crisis of the summer of 1993 to offer senators piles of banknotes (hastily stuffed into hotel linen bags) in the hope of persuading them to vote to maintain the regime. Most of these attempts were successful. Another shady incident occurred when Abiola’s running mate in the presidential election, Babagana Kingibe, and some previously respected opposition figures (including the former governor of Lagos State, Lateef Jakande, and human rights lawyer, Olu Onagoruwa) were drafted into General Abacha’s first cabinet, only to be disposed of a year later.

22‘In a normal country, ministers resign when their honour or reputation is in question. But not in Nigeria’, commented a disillusioned Olatunji Dare, then editor of The Guardian and one of its most incisive editorial writers. In fact, as we shall see later, journalists have often been the only people, in recent years, who have resigned in order not to compromise on matters of principle. So it is hardly surprising that some of them ended up considering themselves vigilantes and guerrillas and taking over most of the social responsibilities of a discredited political class. Especially since 1986, the irrelevance of the traditional political class has been further accentuated by the emergence of new opposition forces in the shape of civil rights organizations and religious movements.

The Methods of the Press and the Strategies of the Government

Condemnation, investigation, exaggeration

23The press in Lagos and Ibadan gives a lot of space to the work of human rights activists and, especially, to what might be called ‘legal activism’. Olisa Agbakoba, a lawyer who founded the Civil Liberties Organisation in 1986, recalls: ‘Between 1987 and 1990, we brought 400 cases about the condition of prisoners before the courts. This is the concept of ‘public interest litigation’ that enables us to draw up a model and repeatedly draw attention to a specific point’. This policy of continuous attack by the press sometimes yields results — the government recently launched a programme to improve prison conditions.

24Generally speaking, the activities of the courts occupy a disproportionate amount of space in the Nigerian press (in Lagos, The Guardian began to publish law rulings, in very technical language, at least once a month). As democratic institutions have in most cases been ‘put on hold’ by the military for more than 30 years, the courts have become one of the few areas where political battles can be carried out in Nigeria. Like the press, the courts often take the place of parliament, with experienced opponents putting before judges what in other countries are called ‘no confidence motions’ over government actions. The presidential election of 12 June 1993, was preceded and followed by a legal tussle between those who supported holding elections and those who opposed the idea.

25Human rights activists and journalists often work together, helping one another out when an arrest takes place. This unity furthers their common cause. For instance, when lawyer Gani Fawehinmi, the outspoken pioneer of civil rights activism in Nigeria, decided in 1994 to start his National Conscience Party, he immediately found in five Lagos magazines supporters so full of respect for their hero that they let him fill pages on end with his views without asking him any penetrating question about his plans.

Magazines of the ‘third kind’

26Nonetheless, with Newswatch and then Tell (started by a group of Newswatch ‘dissidents’), the Nigerian press spawned a ‘third kind’ of magazine in the late 1980s — neither government-owned nor beholden to a boss in the traditional sense, but financially controlled by the journalists themselves. The four founders of Newswatch each owned 15 per cent of their publishing company, with the other 40 per cent allocated to outside shareholders. Tell was set up along similar lines, as was The News Group (Independent Communication Network Limited) and The Sunday Magazine.

27This relative financial independence enabled them to launch into a type of investigative journalism inspired by American and British methods, based on thoroughgoing inquiries and nurtured, as in Europe and the United States, by exclusive information supplied in confidence by high-ranking officials anxious to settle scores with the government... or with their predecessors. So Newswatch had access to reports that the government was reluctant to publish officially, especially about the misuse of ‘special’ extra-budgetary accounts or the embezzlement of surplus oil revenue generated by the Gulf War.

28In at least one case, it could be considered that this magazine really influenced the political situation when, in April 1994, it published a long interview, headlined ‘Hope Betrayed’, with General David Mark, one of those who five months earlier had helped General Abacha take over power. According to General Mark, the constitutional conference was only a ‘ruse’ by the junta to keep it in power until 1999, whereas Nigeria’s new boss had initially promised a ‘short’ transition. The interview really stirred the hornet’s nest, forcing the opposition to move the government to finally get the conference going.

29The authorities’ first reaction was to arrest the managing editor and editor of Newswatch under decree 2 and to summon the magazine’s permanent correspondent in London, where it was suspected that the interview had taken place. Meanwhile, the government press attacked the magazine’s credibility, stressing that it published old pictures of General Mark and did not specify when and where the interview took place. But these revelations by someone who had been a member of the military’s inner circle caused quite a stir. A year and a half later, the Provisional Ruling Council — the junta, in other words — gave itself until the end of 1998 to complete the transition to the ‘Fourth Republic’.

Fanciful information

30If the government is able to question the truth of information published by the so-called serious news magazines, it is because the Nigerian press is often negligent about checking and confirming its sources or even statistics. Errors abound and are seldom corrected in the next edition. A former Lagos correspondent of the French news agency, AFP, recalled comparing his own story about a press conference given by a representative of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) visiting Nigeria with the report by the financial correspondent of The Guardian, which was the leading daily in Lagos at the time: none of their figures were the same. When he checked with the IMF, the AFP reporter found it was The Guardian that had got them wrong.

31Sometimes the urge to condemn the hated regime leads the more militant opposition press to print fanciful information or outright lies, using the most dubious editorial methods. Here is just one example. When in December 1993 (shortly after his friend, former defence minister Sani Abacha, had seized power), former president Ibrahim Babangida decided to make a stopover in Cairo with his family before going on a ‘small pilgrimage’ (umra) to Saudi Arabia. The News made ‘Babangida’s dramatic escape’ its cover story, alleging that he had ‘hijacked a presidential plane’. Tell published a picture of Babangida and his wife getting off a plane with the headline ‘Why is IBB on the run?’, and the magazine African Concord splashed the headline ‘A dictator on the run’ in red type over a photo of Babangida wiping his face with a handkerchief. In fact, the former president had made a trip abroad lasting several weeks before returning to lead a quiet life at his home in Minna, northern Nigeria.

The influence of religious preaching

32Sensational headlines are practically the rule. It would take too long to count the number of weekly magazine covers which in the past four years have foretold the final disaster, the disintegration of the nation, civil war or simply war (with Cameroon, for instance, over the Bakassi peninsula). When in May 1994, the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), introduced a plan to put Abiola in charge of a transition government, the militant press immediately trumpeted ‘Abacha’s days are numbered’ (Tell), ‘All set for Abacha’s overthrow’ (The News) and ‘Abacha’s government quakes!’ (TSM). The outcome is a painful contrast between these apocalyptic exaggerations and threats to the military on the one hand and the weakness of a political class that considers compromise an essential virtue for its own survival on the other.

33Even more serious than this observed impotence is the fact that the press has become insidiously accustomed to a melodramatic style, with the most emotive words becoming a substitute for both action and serious discussion. This is probably a sign of the extensive influence of the preaching of religious groups, which often take as their theme – apart from the ‘miraculous’ effect the followers believe it can have on their lives – the Last Judgment and the punishment of the wicked. Admittedly there are no statistics or even a detailed study on this subject, but there are several indications (the interviews carried out for this article, for instance) that most journalists are regularly involved in activities run by churches or mosques because, like many people from the impoverished middle class, they derive moral comfort and material support from them. If Nigeria continues its ‘descent into hell’, along with the continuing deterioration of its educational system, this could encourage irrational attitudes, even among those whose work theoretically consists of ‘enlightening’ public opinion.

‘Brown envelopes’ and hidden subsidies

34The practice of corrupting journalists is almost as old as the press itself: the colonial authorities used to give money to some Lagos newspaper editors if they agreed not to publish embarrassing information. One such editor exposed the British governor’s attempted bribery in a front-page story in order to emphasize his own incorruptibility (and, of course, to sell more newspapers).

35In Nigeria, the gifts which the rich and powerful give to journalists at the end of an interview to make sure that it is published — or, on the contrary, to ensure that harmful information is not revealed — are commonly known as ‘brown envelopes’. The colour is both a reference to the cheap envelopes into which banknotes may be inserted and to the inadmissible yet barely concealed nature of the practice. Many journalists simply take it for granted: ‘Haven’t you got anything for me?’ a young reporter may ask after an interview with an industrialist or foreign diplomat, with the same candid cynicism a pretty girl would ask for ‘some money for the taxi’ after meeting her lover.

36These gifts range from a meal served after a press conference (often necessary to make sure reporters attend), to cash or the promise of an apartment or even a job as a press officer in the presidential administration. The borderline between journalism and public relations is often blurred in Nigeria and the press has proved to be an ideal stepping stone to politics — much more so than being a lawyer or parliamentary candidate. As the editor of Abuja Newsday, a privately owned daily in the federal capital, pointed out: ‘What can you expect from a journalist who has been covering an election campaign for several weeks while allowing candidates to pay his hotel bills?’

Hagiography as an art form

37Many journalists do not hesitate to sing the praises of generals or other influential figures, either under their own names or by ‘ghosting’ for the people concerned. At the end of Babangida’s reign, half a dozen books were published that read more like hagiography than political analysis, for example Babangida: His vision, his mission, his courage by Dayo Duyile, the current head of the Institute of Journalism. Publications of this kind are subsidized by the government through the typically Nigerian practice of ‘book launching’ in which individuals publicly buy up as many copies of the book as possible at high profile ceremonies. In March 1993, the magazine African Guardian revealed that no book by Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe (two of Nigeria’s greatest writers) had ever brought in so much money in a single session as The Babangida Years, written by Gabriel Umoden, an obscure businessman, but daringly subtitled ‘The first authorized biography of Nigeria’s most visionary leader’.

38If journalists are easily corrupted, it is because they are often very badly paid. It is significant that efforts to make the profession more resistant to corruption dates back to the oil boom period, when the general level of salaries in Nigeria went up and better educated and more demanding young professionals took over the labour market. The image of the profession also improved significantly in the eyes of the public, if journalism historian, Dayo Duyile, is to be believed.

  • 1 The exchange rate in 1996 was 85 naira to one US dollar.

39Nowadays, as the recession bites, many young journalists have once again become the starving figures who rush to buffet-debates organized by the British Council or the USIS just to fill their paper plates. ‘Many earn less than 5,000 naira (about 63 dollars)1 a month’, Kola Adebayo, deputy secretary of the journalists’ union, explained. ‘To live decently in Lagos, where rents are at least 1,500 to 2,000 naira, you need a minimum of 8,000 naira.’ An experienced journalist like Bilkisu Yusuf, who lives in the northern city of Kaduna (where the cost of living is admittedly lower than in Lagos), makes do with a salary of 4,000 naira while waiting for his magazine Citizen to be relaunched.

40Admittedly, magazines like Tell or The News make it a point of duty to invest money in investigative work and to guarantee all their staff a decent wage: ‘None of our employees earns less than 3,000 naira’, said Bayo Onanuga, one of the directors of The News group, in the spring of 1995; but production costs have gone up a lot since then. A tonne of newsprint, which cost 18,000 naira in December 1993 went up from 75,000 to 130,000 naira (around 1,300 dollars) last year (1995) – and the group uses 15 to 20 tonnes a week. In March 1996, AM News lost three journalists who were tired of salary delays. The cash-strapped newspaper eventually folded up in June.

41Privately-owned publications are even more vulnerable economically because they do not receive any state subsidies and therefore have to rely on sales, a few private sponsors and occasional advertising to cover their costs. About 60 per cent of all advertising is from government or quasi-government sources -ministries, big state enterprises and so on – and the recession of the past five years has considerably reduced the amount of advertising by the private sector. Moreover, as a reprisal against the independent press, General Abacha’s government has banned public bodies from buying advertising space in private publications, and particularly in news magazines considered hostile to the regime.

42However, the recession has meant that even pro-government titles face great difficulty financially because all the government departments that are potential advertisers have seen their budgets shrink. In February 1995, the production cost of one issue of the Daily Times (32 pages on average) was estimated at 50 naira, or double its cover price at the time, and the situation has definitely worsened since the print media has had to face competition from private radio and television stations for a slice of the shrinking advertising cake.

43Restricted by its own austerity policy, the government has dragged its feet in bailing out the Daily Times and New Nigerian. Worse still, the regime has increasingly forced the two papers to publish ‘editorials’ faxed from the president’s office. This editorial interventionism was keenly felt in three critical sets of circumstances: after the serious disturbances of May 1992 between Christian Katafs and Muslim Hausa in Kaduna State; after the cancellation of the presidential election in June 1993, when the editor of New Nigerian, Yakubu Abdulazeez, resigned in protest against presidential interference; and throughout the Ogoni crisis.

44So the NewNigerian, adaily with a strong regional identity but still respected at the national level, became his master’s voice and its circulation dwindled to sometimes as low as 2,000 — just enough to supply the ministries. Meanwhile the Daily Times, which was still selling 350,000 copies in 1993 (and the Sunday edition over a million), dropped to 200,000, and then to an average of only 20,000 by the middle of 1996. At this point, the government might have been tempted to close down its ‘northern’ title and invest the money it saved in ‘hidden subsidies’ to privately-owned newspapers that were sympathetic to the regime. It chose to keep the two federal dailies going, probably because this allowed it to pull in advertising revenue that would otherwise have gone to private publications.

45Another reason was that these newspapers remained like state television – convenient vectors for peddling the government’s version of events, and fomenting a state of confusion whenever the need arose. Thus, in December 1992, the New Nigerian reported on its front page the discovery of an ‘American plot’ to destabilize Nigeria, quoting ‘highly placed diplomatic sources in Lagos’. The aim of the plot, an anonymous ‘correspondent’ said in all seriousness, was to keep the country busy with a ‘perpetual crisis’ in order to prevent it from becoming ‘the only hope for Africa’ and a ‘black man’s refuge’. To quote another more recent example: when in early February 1996, the owner of the Guardian, billionaire Alex Ibru, was shot and seriously injured in an attack later claimed to have been carried out by the previously unheard-of ‘Revolutionary Movement for Hausa-Fulani Interests’, the secret service was the chief suspect, but an editorial in the New Nigerian accused civil rights militants, Femi Falana and Femi Aborisade of inventing the movement in order to stir up ethnic strife. The two militants sued the newspaper for libel.

Seizures, arrests and sentences

46In its battle against the opposition press, the government employed a range of techniques, from brutal repression to bringing out fake newspapers. It should be stressed here that although international opinion was recently made aware of the Abacha regime’s misdeeds, it was his predecessor, General Babangida, who started the ‘war’ against the media, while civilian governors tightened their grip on media owned by the states.

47In 1993 alone, some 300,000 publications were seized, 54 journalists were arrested, more than 20 of them were summoned to appear in court, six reporters or photographers were assaulted or injured, four publications and one radio station were suspended or put under pressure by the authorities, 17 titles were banned by decree and 17 journalists were dismissed or disciplined for political reasons; ten of them resigning in protest.

48It is even more telling that these measures also affected media organizations that are not as radical as Teli and 77?e News. Other victims were Classique, the Concord group, Sketch, Punch, Newbreed and The Guardian, as well as the Kaduna newspaper The Reporter and Abuja Newsday. Equally affected to some extent were gossip magazines like Quality, Fame, Vintage People, Satellite and Good Time, pro-government dailies like the Nigerian Standard, and Champion, and local radio and television stations. In all, 24 publications and five radio stations (including the BBC) were hit during this troubled period.

49Although the aim here is not to draw up an exhaustive list of all the infringements of press freedom in Nigeria, four main types of repression often used over the past three years can be distinguished.

Obstructing distribution

50The first type of repression is putting obstacles in the way of the circulation of the independent press, confiscating copies before they are distributed and persecuting street vendors.

51Between March and late August 1993, SSS agents raided the Lagos offices of The News several times, seizing tens of thousands of issues of the weekly. The magazine Tempo was also seized from the time it was banned in June (aware of this threat, the publishers had taken the precaution of having several titles commercially registered). Between early May and late August 1993, when General Babangida was forced to step aside, more than 200,000 copies of Tell were seized. In early January 1994, policemen burst into the Academy Press printing works in Ilupeju, and took away 50,000 copies of Tell with the lead headline ‘Return of tyranny: Abacha bares his fangs’ (on a story condemning ten new decrees that restricted basic human rights). The justice minister, pro-democracy lawyer, Olu Onagoruwa, put this incident down to ‘overzealous security agents’ who had not yet understood the difference between the Abacha and Babangida governments.

52Police also harassed street newspaper vendors. In Akure, Kaduna, Owerri, Calabar, Abuja and Warri, several had their wares confiscated and were arrested, threatened and even ordered to appear in court for daring to sell Tell and The News. In March 1996, the manager of the only news-stand in Ogoniland, Jude Sinne, started a hunger strike in protest against his arrest by the Task Force (which is specifically responsible for repression in the region) because he had continued to sell newspapers sympathetic to the Ogoni cause despite official threats.

Blurring the picture with fake editions

53The second, much more subtle, method is putting into circulation fake editions of opposition titles. The security service produces these newspapers, using the anti-establishment image of the originals to put across a message favourable to the government and create confusion in readers’ minds. Tell was often subjected to this tactic which the Abacha regime began to employ in March 1994; later victims, especially early in 1996, included Tempo, The News and TSM. According to a report by the Constitutional Rights Project entitled ‘The press and dictatorship in Nigeria’, the management of Tell had to issue a press release denying that it was connected with a fake version of its 20 March edition. Several reports had been cut and the false front page sang the praises of the military ‘New Messiah’.

Preventing production

54The Nigerian authorities also tried to prevent the production of the independent press, for example by systematically disrupting the work of the Academy Press printing works in Ilupeju. Until its owner capitulated to pressure in 1995, Academy Press printed no fewer than five anti-establishment magazines, including The News and TSM. In fact, in 1994, the staff of Tell and The News grew accustomed to working clandestinely, far from their official offices, and managed to get their magazines out even when the police seized the plates and films of one issue at the printing works. This became known as ‘guerrilla journalism’.

55Although these smaller, mobile teams of journalists manage to escape surveillance, the larger newspapers are much more vulnerable to legal repression. In 1994, during the opposition offensive boosted by an oil sector strike, the Abacha regime went a step further by banning several press groups responsible for the livelihood of thousands of employees. From June onwards, Moshood Abiola’s Concord group and the Punch group were cordoned off by the police on the pretext that weapons and ammunition had been hidden in their premises. In mid-August, it was the turn of the Guardian group — whose owner, Alex Ibru, was interior minister! Despite protests and a ruling by a Lagos court, the government stood firm and in early September issued a decree banning a total of 19 titles belonging to these three press groups. The ban lasted over a year and was only lifted in October 1995. It was the longest press ban ever imposed in Nigeria and had a noticeable effect on the press.

Arresting and threatening journalists

56The fourth and more traditional method of repression used is to silence journalists by arresting them or physically threatening them. There have been too many arrests in the past three years to list here, but since Abacha came to power, substantially longer periods of detention have been imposed. Instead of a few hours or days, journalists sometimes have to spend months in a cell in very harsh conditions – which is sufficient to quell the enthusiasm of many who have families to look after. In order to ‘flush out’ a journalist who has gone into hiding, the police do not hesitate to lock up his wife, even if she has a young baby. This happened in June 1993 to the wife of Dapo Olorunyomi, a member of The News staff, and the wife of Shola Odunfa, the local BBC correspondent. With such attacks and sabotage on the increase since 1995, journalists are forced to take seriously the threats sent to them either directly or through relatives or friends working in the security services.

Giving journalists long prison sentences

57In 1995, the military regime set a new precedent by sentencing to life imprisonment- later commuted, under international pressure, to 15 years – four journalists charged with plotting to overthrow the government of General Abacha. They were tried in camera by a military court in July 1995 alongside several dozen Nigerian army officers. The journalists were George Mbah, deputy editor of Tell, Ben Charles Obi, editor of Weekend Classique, Kunle Ajibade, editor of The News, and Christine Anyanwu, editor of The Sunday Magazine (TSM). These four weeklies personify the anti-government press in the eyes of the military.

No-go areas

58The imprisonment of Chris Anyanwu and the other magazine editors indicates that there is a ‘red line’ which journalists are not expected to cross or ‘no-go areas’ which they are expected to avoid. These are:

  • anything relating to internal army affairs and military interventions in political life
  • anything that may stir up feelings of rivalry between ethnic groups or remind people that power is shared very unequally between the various communities
  • anything liable to cause religious conflicts

Introducing Professional Ethics: The role of the Nigerian Press Council

59The Nigerian Press Council (NPC) was set up in December 1992 by government decree. The idea of a body to control the press goes back to the 1970s, under General Gowon’s regime, and was revived by President Babangida in 1988. It came up against strong opposition from the profession which was wary of a committee set up by the government and would have preferred a totally independent authority along the lines of those in Britain and other countries.

60The Nigerian Press Association found the first draft of the decree unacceptable and protested loudly against the new body’s far-reaching powers. The council would have been able to ban journalists, go into editorial offices without a search warrant, force journalists to reveal their sources and even put them in prison. As a last resort, it was the information minister who had the right to decide the appointment of council members, including trade union representatives. The Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO) supported the idea of a committee to which the government or members of the public could make complaints if a newspaper did not respect the code of conduct drawn up by the NUJ. Eventually, a compromise was reached.

61The Nigerian Press Council has 17 members, which, according to its statutes, must include four NUJ representatives, two members of the Guild of Editors and two from the NPAN, two representatives of the public and one representative of the information ministry, who must be a working journalist. The Head of State retains the right to appoint the council chairman after consulting the NPO. It should be stressed that Doyin Abiola, editor of Concord and wife of billionaire Moshood Abiola, and Chris Anyanwu, the jailed editor of TSM were both members of the NPC when it was set up.

62However, there have been allegations that government deliberately sidelines the NPC when seeking redress. For instance, the Constitutional Rights Project (CRP) claims that rather than approach the NPC, government increasingly resorts to extrajudicial methods, such as arresting journalists and closing down newspapers. In spite of its limitations, the NPC is one of the few ways of resolving conflicts between the press and the government. Given the current balance of power, the press is bound to be the loser in any outright battle. The CRP would like to see the government go to the NPC more often to settle its differences with the press, but also advises journalists and their employers to ‘cooperate with the council by honouring invitations to give evidence and by complying with its decisions’.

The Private Press and Influence Groups

The English-language model

63Like the rest of the English-language press on the African continent – which has almost always been more dynamic and forceful than its French-language counterpart – the Nigerian press is still steeped in liberal British and American values. Private ownership of companies is considered a guarantee of democracy and individual freedom.

64Investigations carried out by the Constitutional Rights Project confirm the validity of this model in the eyes of Nigerian newspaper professionals. At a debate organized by Media Review on the behaviour of the press during the crisis occasioned by the cancellation of the presidential election in 1993, editors proudly related one after another how they had fought to preserve their integrity and to resist pressure not only from the government itself, but from politicians of all shades of opinion. Nonetheless, most of them felt that this achievement would not have been possible ‘without the substantial increase in the number of private newspaper owners’ since the 1980s.

65The influence of British dailies and the main American weeklies can be seen in many ways, at least in the big cities of the South. Magazines like The Economist, Time, Newsweek and Ebony are sold at relatively modest prices by street vendors and one copy is usually read by several people. The Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Sunday Times, Observer, Guardian and Independent remain models for most of the Nigerian newspapers that subscribe to them. Liberal billionaire, Alex Ibru, gave his own newspaper the name of the London daily he admires most: The Guardian.

66It is pertinent to note, however, that Nigeria’s independent dailies have got into the habit of reprinting other publications’ stories about Nigeria in full and sometimes in facsimile form (totally ignoring the question of copyright). The Guardian in Lagos does this with the Financial Times’ annual supplement on Nigeria, which often adopts a very critical tone. From the time it was launched, This Day, which has become one of the leading dailies in the South, reached a proper agreement with the Financial Times management to reprint its reports – mainly the financial pages. This Day still practices this, even though the agreement has been broken because no payments were made.

67The Lagos and Ibadan press make no bones about copying the layout of the British tabloid press and pirating its stories (the love life of members of the British royal family go down just as well south of the Niger as they do on the banks of the Thames). The American press provides another model, with Reader’s Digest an evergreen favourite.

The spread of junk publications

68Over the past three years there has been an observable drop in the quality of the Nigerian popular press, which has adopted the worst features of the London tabloids: enormous headlines, the systematic quest for scandal, stories invented from start to finish and flagrant attacks on people’s privacy. The prototypes for these junk publications were Fame and Razor (which were condemned last year by the NUJ for continual breaches of journalistic ethics), but they have spawned many imitators. In a survey conducted by the Constitutional Rights Project in 1993, 83 per cent of journalists questioned regarded the recent ‘proliferation of newspapers and magazines in Nigeria’ as a ‘positive development’. Today, many take a more critical view.

69Some experts believe that it was the boom in the sales of the independent publications in the South, after the June 1993 election results were cancelled, that provided an opportunity for the more ‘commercial’ press to expand. In other words, the political crisis created a demand for news from sources independent of the government This demand is now being satisfied by junk publications. Meanwhile, the market for higher quality publications has shrunk as repression has worsened.

In the North, the Press is Still Underdeveloped

70The link between the dynamism of public capital and the existence of independent newspapers can be inferred from the relative underdevelopment of the press in the North. It was not until just before the Second World War – following wild rumours that Britain was going to give its West African colonies to Hitler’s Germany — that the colonial authorities in Nigeria finally felt the need for a means of mass communication to which the literate population of the North could refer. On 1 January 1939, the government weekly in the Hausa language, Gaskiya Tafi Kwabo (Truth is worth more than money) was launched in Zaria. Other government-controlled newspapers came after independence: the Daily Mail (published by the dominant party, the Northern People’s Congress) and the Nigerian Citizen, replaced in 1966 by the New Nigerian. None of these newspapers ever achieved the circulation figures of their southern counterparts.

  • 2 The most important Muslim dignitary after the Sultan, Ahmadu Bello, was a direct descendant of the (...)

71The underdevelopment of the press in the North can to some extent be explained by economic factors: capitalist competition is still weak and wealth is linked to sinecures, mainly in the civil service, and to political sponsorship. But social factors also play a part, since tradition teaches the often-illiterate ‘talakawa’ (masses) to be submissive to feudal-style overlords. Then there are political reasons: journalism historian Dayo Duyile may not have been wrong when he said that the North had (and to a large extent still has) a ‘single party culture’ which reduces proportionately the need for a diversified press. ‘One North, one voice’, the Sardauna2 of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello, was fond of saying. His strong personality left its mark on northern politics long after his tragic death in the 1966 putsch.

72Suffice it to say that the radio is far more popular with the Hausa than the print media. Transistor radios are indeed found in even the poorest villages of the North, and in the bags of nomadic Fulani shepherds (Peuls). In a Nigeria that is 65 per cent rural, radio is by far the most widespread means of communication and providing news. Millions of listeners follow the programmes put out daily by the BBC, Voice of America and Deutsche Welle in the Hausa language, which in the past 20 years has become the lingua franca of the North. That is why these foreign stations in Hausa are closely monitored by the Nigerian authorities and why their local correspondents — the BBC has a good dozen — are forced to be very careful, especially when they report on ethnic or religious conflicts.

73A handful of Muslim politicians, businessmen and intellectuals from the North decided to move into the world of the private press. They drew lessons from the takeover of the New Nigerian by the government, which in 1983 controlled eight titles in the North, compared to only six in the South. They were, no doubt, also motivated by the commercial success of the southern press. Of course, some remained directly linked to the government; for example, Adamu Ciroma and Ismaila Isa, businessmen with huge public contracts launched the daily, The Democrat in 1983, and Sani Kontagora, a businessman close to General Abacha, edited the magazine, Hotline, and became known for his virulent attacks on southern ‘democrats’.

74Two experiments are noticeable. The Reporter, a daily which was initiated in 1987 in Kaduna by Musa Yar’Adua, a wealthy former general and number two in the Obasanjo regime, adopted a modernistic approach from the beginning. Production was entirely computerized and a lot of space was devoted to sport (important in promoting national unity) and financial affairs, while a fairly conservative Muslim tradition was observed. The Reporter hit out at investigative journalism, which was booming in the Lagos press, alleging that it could bring down high-ranking state officials too easily. Towards the end of Babangida’s reign, then again under Abacha, the newspaper adopted an increasingly critical line that followed the direction Yar’Adua was moving to. He had taken up the challenge of achieving power through the ballot box, using his enormous fortune, of course, but also taking the trouble to build up a formidable political machine that transcended ethnic and religious divisions through the Social Democratic Party (whose 1993 candidate was Abiola).

75Meanwhile a group of young journalists from the New Nigerian who had trained at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria decided, in 1990, to start the weekly magazine Citizen with an initial investment of 1 million naira. It quickly became the voice of young Muslim intellectuals in the North, treating burning issues such as continual clashes between Christians and Muslims in a forceful yet balanced fashion. The magazine’s print run was between 10,000 and 15,000 copies. However, the Citizen still had problems balancing its books. At first, for fear of losing their independence, the staff refused offers from potential investors such as Musa Yar’Adua and Adamu Ciroma, another ‘heavyweight’ in the north. Later, the editor, Mohamed Haruna, when strapped for cash, let his friend Babangida refloat the company, while firing off some ‘friendly’ criticism at him in the magazine. In August 1994, Citizen went under, a victim of both financial problems and the extreme political polarization that followed the cancellation of the presidential election in 1993.

76All the same, Haruna turned down another tempting proposal from Babangida, who offered to put him in charge of Heritage Press, the gigantic media complex he had in Abuja. The complex, which had so far remained closed, had all the equipment needed to run a newspaper, a printing works, and private radio and TV stations. Haruna is hoping to relaunch his weekly very shortly, this time with a capital injection of somewhere between 30 and 50 million naira.

Normalization and Commercialization

77Everything points to the fact that, in the short term, the military regime will succeed in getting the Nigerian press back to ‘normal’. It will probably be more commercial and less political, forced to adapt to a more repressive environment and with no real prospect of change. With the most determined opponents in exile and the more moderate ones having accepted the timetable imposed by the military, a dramatic outcome is foreseeable, especially for the press in the Southwest In essence, there is likely to be what one might call a reshuffling in the press, with some titles disappearing and others emerging.

  • 3 By way of comparison, South Africa has about 290 publishing groups and 5,000 different magazines.

78The process has already begun in earnest. Even if the number of titles available has doubled in the last two years, circulation figures have gone down considerably. There has also been a boom in publications devoted to finance and business (about ten magazines) as well as sports (eight magazines). According to Dayo Duyile, Nigeria had about 30 dailies and 29 weeklies in 1986. Now the NUJ says there are 24 dailies (11 are owned by states and two are controlled by the federal government), about 20 weeklies, and 32 monthlies, mostly belonging to the private sector.3

79An interesting trend observed by Kayode Soyinka, editor of the London-based Africa Today, is that newspapers and magazines are now being run by the journalists themselves, rather than by the government or billionaires, with the help of external capital. Newswatch, which launched this trend ten years ago, has kept its initial structure. Four journalists each own 15 per cent of the shares, but the remaining 40 per cent is held by businessmen covering more or less the whole ethnic spectrum, including Mike Adenuga, chairman of Devcom Merchant Bank and Consolidated Oil, and in particular, Ahmed Dasuki, of the Sokoto royal family, who heads a holding company of 35 businesses operating in at least 16 countries, including Germany, Switzerland, the United States and China. True, Newswatch now only sells 50,000 copies, compared to between 80,000 and 100,000 just after it was launched, when there was less competition. It has adopted the formula that is probably the key to success, or simply survival in these politically uncertain times: a fairly moderate line and a firm financial base. Its editor, Ray Ekpu, agreed to join the National Commission for Human Rights started in June 1996 by General Abacha.

Deregulation of broadcasting

80Commercialization has increased over the past three years due to the liberalization of the broadcasting sector, which for a long time was the exclusive preserve of the federal government or individual states (19 of Nigeria’s 30 states and the administrative capital, Abuja have television channels). The sector employs some 5,000 reporters and presenters, who are not recorded by the NUJ as full journalists.

81In accordance with the principles of deregulation introduced by Babangida, government decided in 1992 to grant licences for the establishment of private radio and television stations. This turning point was carefully negotiated by the head of state, who had personally invested millions of dollars in a luxurious multimedia complex in Abuja. Triple Heritage Communications naturally figured among the 14 granted licences in May 1993 by the National Broadcasting Commission. Eleven other companies have secured the right to transmit programmes by cable or satellite.

82Only a minority of the chosen few, however, have been able to put their rights into practice. Seven commercial TV stations have been more or less operational since early 1995. Five are based in the South-West, in Ibadan and Lagos (Galaxy, DBN, Clapperboard, Horizon and Channels) and only one, DITV, in the North, in Kaduna. All are subscriber channels which broadcast mainly American films and often retransmit CNN programmes .

83With regard to privately-owned radios, Raymond Dokpesi’s Ray Power FM has in the past year become the Lagos station with the biggest audience, putting out music round the clock with American-style DJs and attracting a good proportion of advertising. There is no room for political debate, except very indirectly via a review of the press that gives listeners access to some opposition magazines (at 70 naira an issue, and 30 naira for a daily newspaper, and with the minimum wage around 2,000 naira (in 1996), the printed press has become a luxury for many people). The purely commercial outlook of these radio and TV stations, which receive no public subsidies, may aggravate an already marked tendency to use advertising features. News is not selected according to its importance or public interest, but according to the ability of certain individuals to pay for it to be broadcast. It should be made clear that there is no question here of bribery or ‘brown envelopes’, but a perfectly legal type of transaction that had already become common practice in state television channels.

84The success of Ray Power did not shield it from the same financial problems which its competitors faced at the onset of the recession that reduced the amount of advertising available. Another difficulty was the high cost of imported electronic equipment, which was linked to the exchange rate against the dollar. Only public companies continued to get 22 naira to the dollar; the others had to pay 82 naira (1996). Daar Communications, which owns the radio station, is planning to expand its capital to finance a satellite channel based in Abuja.

85On the symbolic date of June 12, 1996, a clandestine opposition radio station began broadcasting slogans hostile to the military government on shortwave. It called itself Radio Democrat International. According to one of its founders, it was started by NALICON, whose European branch is based in London and run by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. The next day the author called for a revolution and rejected ‘facile solutions and easy compromises’. He said ‘civil disobedience at all levels’ was essential to get rid of the regime.

86In this atmosphere of stiff competition, can any sort of united front be put up by the commercial media in the broad sense -including radio, television and the ‘political’ press? Olisa Agbakoba, a CLO lawyer, believes that the new regulations the government has been trying to impose since 1992 are unacceptable. They cover the legal registration of titles (made much more difficult for financial reasons) and the training of journalists (who must now have a university degree plus at least six months’ training at a professional college). The NUJ, which sees a positive side to the decree on journalists’ training, opened, in March 1996, an international institute of journalism in Abuja, where the union has its headquarters. It is open to students from other African countries and the Middle East.

87The process of normalization through ‘depoliticization’, which is easy enough in the field of broadcasting, comes up against limits in the press. A newspaper like This Day, for instance, which now tends to occupy the slot the Guardian had before the 1994 crisis, can only retain its credibility, and therefore its readers, if it maintains a certain level of independence and a critical attitude towards the government – especially as readers, exasperated by the political stalemate, still assign to the press the role of challenging the authorities.

Who Controls What Media?

88It is sometimes not so easy to answer this question either because the true source of financing is not transparent or because revealing this information could endanger sponsors of the more ‘militant’ press. What follows, then, are a few pointers and general remarks that do not claim to provide a complete and detailed picture.

  • 4 The total circulation of South Africa’s 29 leading newspapers is 3 million. The three leading (gov (...)

89Circulation statistics are often difficult to evaluate because there is no central distribution office in Nigeria with which the figures given by the newspapers themselves could be checked. They vary from between 5,000 and 10,000 for the North and most regional titles to an average of 70,000 for the leading Lagos dailies (and 100,000 for The Guardian). Because of economic restrictions, both for the producers and for potential readers, circulation has in many cases dropped by half in the space of three years. All things considered, this gives a total figure of less than one million newspapers, probably close to 850,000, for both dailies and weeklies,4 which indicates that in a country of 100 million inhabitants there is one copy per hundred people. Even though every issue is likely to be read by several people, it may be presumed that Nigerians are reading fewer newspapers and more are turning to radio, which is ‘free’.

90It should also be emphasized that Nigeria does not have a single organization for distributing publications, such as the ‘Nouvelles messageries de la presse parisienne’ in France. Every attempt to start one (Abiola tried several times) has ended in failure, partly due to practical problems, but above all because of political and ethnic differences. So every publication is responsible for its own distribution — a costly operation.

The government press

91In 1993, according to a CRP survey, the federal and state governments controlled 18 dailies, 18 weekly publications (almost always the Sunday editions of the dailies) and the monthly Headlines. The leading titles today include:

  • The federal dailies. Daily Times (distributed nationally, but focusing on the South), New Nigerian (now distributed almost solely in the North) and Abuja Times (distributed locally)
  • The regional dailies. Nigerian Observer (Benin City region), the Daily Sketch in the Yoruba West, the Nigerian Statesman and Daily Star in the Igbo East, the Standard in Jos and the Nigerian Chronicle in Calabar.
  • The Sunday Times, and the magazines, Business Times and West Africa (which cover the whole continental sub-region, with a strong focus on Nigeria).

The private press

92In 1993, the privately-owned press comprised 17 dailies and 35 weekly publications (including the Sunday editions of many dailies and 17 magazines). There were also five specialist monthlies, including Media Review, the CRP’s Constitutional Rights Journal and the Law Mirror. Since the 1994 crisis, several weekly supplements have failed to reappear for financial reasons. Among them were about ten titles from the Concord and Guardian groups that had already been hard hit by the long government ban. The main private publications now are:

  • This Day, controlled, like the magazine This Week, by Nduka Obaigbena, from Benin City. Independent, but on friendly terms with some members of the government. Admits that it models itself on the Financial Times.
  • The Guardian, another daily, owned by billionaire, Alex Ibru. Independent: since the 1994 ban, it has regained its leading position.
  • The daily National Concord, which belongs to billionaire and opposition figure, Moshood Abiola. Severely weakened by a ban lasting from June 1994 to January 1996.
  • The daily Vanguard, controlled by elderly journalist, Sam Amuka. Independent and often critical of the authorities.
  • Olu Aboderin’s daily, The Punch. Also critical, it was banned in 1994 and has faced severe difficulties since.
  • The pro-government daily Champion, owned by Ibo billionaire, Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, who recently launched a new daily in the East, the National Post.
  • Sunray, the first daily to use colour. Published in Port Harcourt. Played an important part in the Ogoni crisis, often giving space to Ken Saro-Wiwa. But its owner, a businessman, came under strong pressure.
  • The daily Nigerian Tribune, owned by Mrs. Awolowo, widow of the great Yoruba leader, Obafemi Awolowo. Distributed in Ibadan and Lagos.
  • The daily Lagos News, owned by Yoruba politician, Lateef Jakande, who has lost a lot of his popularity since joining the Abacha government.
  • The Democrat, a daily, and the magazine, Hotline, published in Kaduna by two northern businessmen close to the government, Ismaila Isa and Sani Kontagora. Defends the northern establishment.
  • The Reporter, a daily started in Kaduna by billionaire Musa YarAdua. Originally taking a conservative Muslim stand, it switched to an anti-government line in 1993. In difficulties from the time its owner was jailed.
  • Third Eye, founded by a Yoruba businessman based in Ibadan, Akanni Aluko. Close to the army.
  • The evening PM News, sister paper of AM News, which is currently suspended for financial reasons. Sells for only 10 naira (a third of the price of most newspapers). Lighter and cheaper to produce. This may be a formula for the rest of the popular press to adopt.
  • Last but not least, The Post Express, launched in 1996, is printed simultaneously in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. Led by Dr. Chidi Amuta.

93The weekly news magazines include:

  • Newswatch, 60 per cent owned by its journalists, 40 per cent by a wealthy businessman. Dominated by the personality of Ray Ekpu. Independent, known for its investigative journalism.
  • The News group (the dailies AM News and PM News, the weekly Tempo). Launched in 1993 by Concord group ‘dissidents’. Financed in particular by former senator and opposition figure Bola Tinubu. Anti-government. The inventor of ‘guerrilla journalism’.
  • Tell, started by dissidents from Newswatch. One of the most persistent opposition voices, which is why it has suffered severe repression.
  • Chris Okolie’s Newbreed. Takes courageous stands. Often banned over the past ten years.
  • The Sunday Magazine (TSM), started by Chris Anyanwu with the help of private capital. The voice of the opposition in the Igbo community.
  • Citizen, launched in Kaduna in 1990 by Mohamed Haruna and other New Nigerian dissidents. Indirect ties with General Babangida. Resumed publication in summer 1996 after two years. Defends northern interests but is critical of the government.
  • The Masses, newspaper of lawyer Gani Fawehinmi’s National Conscience Party, which came up with several scoops during the trial of Ogoni militants. Appears irregularly.

94On the whole, our exploratory analysis highlights the Sisyphean nature of draconian actions aimed at ‘annihilating’ the press. General Abacha’s regime has an army of 80,000 men (compared to the Central African Republic which has about 100,000) and about the same number of policemen. This is not a lot for a country with a population of 100 million. It would, therefore, be wrong to confuse the Nigerian regime – either by its nature or its resources – with former dictatorships elsewhere in Africa (Ethiopia, Uganda) or Latin America (Chile or Argentina), where the cost in terms of human rights was incomparably higher. The Abuja regime, isolated by the international community, will inevitably have to negotiate its own survival with the Nigerian society. And sooner or later, it will doubtless have to acknowledge the role of the press.

95Since the army is now convinced that some journalists are ‘public enemies’ and pose a threat to the stability of the nation, would they understand what Father Matthew Hassan Kukah, chairman of the National secretariat of the Roman Catholic Church in Nigeria, said at a conference in June 1995 about Nigeria’s image? According to the priest:

Stability is a mythological concept. In reality, political instability is an inevitable component in the quest and attainment of nationhood... Stability is not to be taken to mean an atmosphere of solemnity and serenity, and the absence of any form of opposition or political protest... Two options are available in this circumstance: the opposition goes underground or abroad and bides its time, or the government resorts to cooperation by offering a slightly bigger carrot and a smaller stick. When the government does not listen, then instability can deteriorate to chaos, and this is its worst form.

96Thus, Nigeria’s socio-economic and political prospects depend to a great extent on how the two actors studied in the present essay — the military and the press — play out their contradictions in the country’s much traumatized public space.

Notes

1 The exchange rate in 1996 was 85 naira to one US dollar.

2 The most important Muslim dignitary after the Sultan, Ahmadu Bello, was a direct descendant of the famous Fulani conqueror, Usman Dan Fodio, who at the start of the 19th century brought the “Holy War” to the heart of the Yoruba south.

3 By way of comparison, South Africa has about 290 publishing groups and 5,000 different magazines.

4 The total circulation of South Africa’s 29 leading newspapers is 3 million. The three leading (government) dailies in Egypt have a circulation of between 500,000 and 1 million each, but their true rate of penetration is doubtless much lower.

© Institut français de recherche en Afrique, 2001

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