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Unbundling of Mass Communication is in the interest of scholarship, national development

By Kabir Alabi Garba
09 March 2019   |   3:42 am
Professor Ralph Afolabi Akinfeleye bestrides Nigeria’s journalism and communication sphere like a colossus. His impact is indelible both in the classroom and newsroom. An unrepentant apostle of communication for development as well as an advocate of accountable media that is alive to its responsibility of monitoring governance, Akinfeleye, for decades, has remained the iconic bridge…

Professor Ralph Afolabi Akinfeleye

Professor Ralph Afolabi Akinfeleye bestrides Nigeria’s journalism and communication sphere like a colossus. His impact is indelible both in the classroom and newsroom. An unrepentant apostle of communication for development as well as an advocate of accountable media that is alive to its responsibility of monitoring governance, Akinfeleye, for decades, has remained the iconic bridge between the town and gown, deploying his erudition and expertise to build a formidable communication industry for Nigeria.

This is reflected in the latest effort, in partnership with like-minds across the Ivory Towers in Nigeria, to unbundle Mass Communication studies in the Nigerian universities. The exercise, he insists, “is in the interest of promoting scholarship and national development.”

In this interface with The Guardian, Akinfeleye speaks on this process and other issues including the on-going 2019 General Elections as well as the merit award he bagged recently from the United States Government Exchange Alumni Association in Nigeria in appreciation of his outstanding leadership in promoting good and effective journalism.

What motivated the efforts to split the study of mass communication into different disciplines?
In the past two years, all the eggheads have been engaged in developing curriculum that is relevant and about four weeks ago, we had an interface with the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC).

Our presentation is an aggregation of the views of university lecturers, 76 altogether. We worked on the document that was presented for two years.

It is a draft proposal to revise undergraduate programmes being offered for the award of the first degree in communication and media studies in the country.

The effort was supported by a grant given by Mc Arthur Foundation and coordinated by Bayero University, Kano (BUK) under the chairmanship of Prof Umar Pate.

The exercise also involved the industry practitioners, regulators such as NUC, National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Nigerian Press Council (NPC), Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR), Nigerian Communication Commission NCC and others including Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ).

There were also professional groups such as Nigerian Guild of Editors, Nigeria Union of Journalists, Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON)… Proposed were seven courses, no university is obliged to start all the seven at once, but the proposal is to be approached with consideration for ways and means.

Two is the minimum you can start with. The seven independent degree-awarding departments which the proposed curriculum seeks to establish are: Journalism and Media Studies; Public Relations; Advertising; Broadcasting, Film and Multimedia Studies, Development Communication Studies as well as Information and Media Studies.

Before now, advertising and public relations were being taught together as PRAD, why the separation now?
Practitioners from the two fields were part the team, and each group canvassed and defended why the separation was desirable.

The combination, they argued, would not allow covering necessary aspects in each of the two fields. And the whole team agreed with them.

For the broadcasting, similar separation between Radio Broadcasting and TV Broadcasting could have happened, but broadcasters among us preferred the two being offered together.

However, it is important to observe that first degree in any of these seven disciplines, one should be able to work in any communication outlet whether print, broadcast or multimedia.

Another advantage is that a mass communication student from BUK who wants to transfer to UNILAG for instance, would be able to do so without loss of credits.

Similarly, a student from Nnamdi Azikwe University who wants to transfer to BUK would do so without any loss of credit.

The desire is to operate a seamless curriculum that is of international standard.

Hitherto, we had been having illogical inconsistence whereby some mass communication departments are in the Faculty of Social Sciences; some are in Faculty of Arts; some are management studies. The intention now is to streamline so that Mass Communication can stand alone.

The proposal is for a school/faculty/college of Communication Studies. In fact, here in UNILAG, we started as an institute of mass communication with appointment of a dean.

It was lack of consistence that the institute later became a department in the faculty of arts, so, the first set of the graduands got B.A. degree.

Later, it was moved to the faculty of Social Sciences that doesn’t speak our language! As a result, there was a heavy struggle to get out of the ‘unholy’ marriage even before Lagos State University created its School of Communication.

We were almost succeeding only for some uncivilized Deans who frustrated our efforts and we remain where we are till date as a department of Mass Communication.

At a point, UNILAG’s Faculty of Social Science became a faculty of social disorder and disharmony! But with efforts of the current Dean, Prof. Oni, the faculty is now regaining its lost glory.

Then, the disorderliness was severe as one department was already dead, another one under life-support, and the third one was under intensive care! The surviving ones then were Mass Communication and Geography.

With this new arrangement with the NUC, the desire to stand alone will materialize in no distant future. Above all, it is the current trend all over the world.

How soon will the new plan materialize at UNILAG?
The journey so far has been on a progressive lane. We have moved from ‘noting-casting’ to narrowcasting, and now, digital broadcasting.

At the beginning, we were not casting anything, but degree was being awarded in ‘broadcasting’, later with the support of the UNESCO, we began what could be called narrowcasting. And by the grace of God and the support of World Bank, we are now doing digital broadcasting. UNILAG is not only the first to operate campus radio, we now have UNILAG TV.

Our TV licence is unique, a commercial one operating on digital satellite frequency.

This was procured with the tremendous support of the former Vice Chancellor, Prof. Rahamon Adisa Bello. This legacy has been sustained by the current VC, Prof. Ogundipe.

These are fantastic people, well exposed and appreciative of the significance of communication in the 21st century.

For the UNILAG TV, efforts are on to upgrade our reach, we want to go also on DStv and GOtv to reach out to more audience, thereby increasing our advertising revenue.

Already, the proposal to create UNILAG Media Ventures has been approved to operate radio, television and the print media independently as business.

We are now in the process of securing another commercial radio licence for this purpose. The present 103.1 FM station is mainly for training purpose.

Why is it that nothing much is being heard about the print product from UNILAG?
The gap has been noticed. Efforts are being made to fill it.

The Media Ventures has been asked to liaise with the Mass Communication department to facilitate production of a vibrant newspaper or a magazine on a regular basis. We are working towards achieving that.

Do you think Nigeria, from the market perspective, is ripe for this unbundling?
I am absolute sure that Nigeria is ripe for it. And that was why industry practitioners were involved.

The issue came up during our discussion and the consensus was that it was long overdue. Market! Yes.

For instance, the college of medicine, it was originally a department, later it became a college and today, four faculties have also emerged: faculties of pharmacy, physical sciences, clinical and dental sciences.

So also is the law which can be described as a faculty of one department and it is doing fine. Mass Communication is a diverse discipline.

The unbundling has become a necessity. Besides, it is the current trend all over the world. There are over 65 programmes in the US and Canada operating as schools of journalism and media studies.

What about the human resources to pilot this trend?
Human resources are there. Besides, the proposal is not going to be embraced wholesale where all the existing universities will start off with all the recommended seven courses.

Also, it is recommended that a synergy between the classroom and newsroom should evolve whereby experts on the field will come and do their sabbatical at the classroom and vice versa.

Many principles that define practice of journalism and communication are learnt inside the newsroom. We need reciprocity of cordiality whereby cross-fertilisation of knowledge is encouraged between the classroom and newsroom.

When is the kick-off likely at UNILAG with the kind of facilities available?
Very soon! Already, the Senate under the leadership of Prof. Rahamon Bello and supported by the current VC, three sequences – Journalism, Radio Broadcasting as well as Public Relations and Advertising – have been approved.

The fourth one Multi-media Studies is near approval. We are lucky at UNILAG, resources are not our problem. We have them in abundance.

With the grant we secured from the World Bank, we have 35 High Definition cameras including the Red Camera, so sophisticated. We have OB Van and other facilities that can aid our take off quickly and it will happen in no distant future.

What is your assessment of the on-going 2019 General Elections in view of the fact that the time-table had to be shifted by one one-week?
Fortunately, all the stakeholders including the electoral umpire led the creation of interest in the voting process after the postponement on February 16. But with the outcome of the Presidential and National Assembly elections on February 23, it has become clear that the expectation that all the 84 million accredited voters would participate was not practicable, even if the date was not shifted.

Besides, it is public knowledge that not all the accredited voters have their permanent voters cards, so, a lot of people did not come out to vote no matter the strength of the voter education activities.

Meanwhile, some steps taken by the Federal Government and other stakeholders help to tip the scale a little.

For instance, Friday, February 22 was declared public holiday for people who would need to move to their respective voting locations.

Transport operators including the airlines also reduced their fares, political parties too embarked on another round of mobilizing voters across the country, especially for today’s governorship and state house of assemblies’ elections.

With all the efforts and incentives, it is expected that large number of Nigerians will come out today to exercise their civic right.

Moving forward, the National Orientation Agency (NOA) need to rejig its strategies by getting involved more actively in voter education. It has to be continuous. We shouldn’t wait until election year before NOA come out forcefully and tell people why it is important for them to come out and vote for the party of their choice.

At this moment, the NOA is not doing enough. The mandate especially from its nomenclature is to orientate citizenry, this is the time to be alive with that onerous responsibility. If this is done, the level of voter apathy that has characterized the 2019 elections would be reduced.

How did you react to the postponement in the first instance?
I wasn’t happy. Ditto all Nigerians. But with the explanation offered by the INEC Chairman, I could understand why. I really sympathize with the INEC.

Certainly, so much information would be available to INEC that people do not know concerning the postponement.

The Chairman, being a professor of History and Strategic Studies, I am sure he would like to dispense with this national assignment on a good note and go back to the university. He wouldn’t be interested in postponement deliberately, but there would be so many variables that made the postponement inevitable.

His case could be likened to a pilot who decides to discontinue a journey, stop the flight to do air return to base for the safety of himself, the crew, the passengers and the aircraft. Prof. Yakubu tried his best to ensure that our election did not crash-land.

Thank God, we have taken off since February 23 and the ‘flight’ so far has been smooth. The optimism that we will land safely after today’s exercise is very high.

Although, the INEC Chairman gave reasons with emphasis on logistics challenge.

To me, the main reason is known to him and probably, some of his officials and as a strategy expert, such reason could not be disclosed to the public at this time.

I hope when election is over finally, we will get to know the main reason. Mr. President said something to that effect. We should wait till that time.

But in my own assessment, part of the reasons should be the alleged installation of what the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar called Parallel Voting Tabulation (PVT) technology.

It is a system that appears like another INEC, while the INEC is giving its own figure, the PVT will be given another figure! Nothing could have come out of this except confusion, disharmony and violence.

The announcement of the installation of PVT technology was made on the eve of the election. And to me, that was illegal, unlawful… I believe the postponement was for the INEC to take their time to study the technology so that they do not encounter turbulence.

Thank God, the dust has been settled on the PVT. We expect that the voting today, as it happened two weeks ago, will represent the desire for free, fair and credible election by all Nigerians.

The trouble we have in Nigeria is that many of the politicians are not only desperate, they are also deadly! And because of our size, Nigeria’s election is very critical not only to Nigerians but also to the rest of the world. Our politicians need to approach politics and quest for power with decorum.

Nothing is wrong for you to be desperate about your ambition, but please, don’t be deadly! It is gratifying to note that INEC quickly retraced its steps and so much confidence, in the last two weeks, has been built into the process. We can only be hopeful that the remaining part of the general elections will go peacefully as envisaged.

Nigeria can’t afford to do otherwise. We are prayerful that today’s exercise will serve as the beginning of new dawn in Nigeria.

What does the award of outstanding leadership in promoting good and effective journalism in Nigeria mean to you?
I am delighted and happy when your peers try to recognize you based on their own assessment that you have distinguished yourself in the profession.

The award, I was told, went through peer review. I am happy for being the first and only Mass Communication Professor that would be so honoured by the United States Government Exchange Alumni Association in Nigeria.

The membership of the association is large, comprising all people who have benefitted from any kind of training in the US. It is similar to the British Chevening scholars.

Last year, the group organized an award ceremony and under the media category, I was chosen. I see it as a challenge to do more for the profession of journalism.

It is very dear to my heart, reason I have remained a bridge builder between the industry and practice. I was at the Concord Newspaper to midwife the first community newspaper in the country.

I was in the Punch to help upgrade the standard, so, also The Guardian when it started in the 1980s.

I had served as Chairman, editorial boards of several newspaper companies including the Anchor Newspaper.

In radio, I am privileged to lead the team that facilitated the procurement of radio licence for the University of Lagos. As a result, it became the first university in the country to get a radio licence.

Now, new feather has been added to that record as the first university to secure TV licence. We are live on Channel I84 on Startimes.

Through these efforts in collaboration with my other colleagues, our discipline (Mass Communication) has remained a profession.

I am indeed happy about the feat. But what really gladdens my heart is the fact that the genesis of journalism profession came from the Book of Genesis. The narration goes thus: “the Lord created the world and everywhere was dark, and the Lord said, ‘let there be light’ and there was light.”

That event was recorded by the recorders as they were known at that time, which have become, nowadays, reporters. It is also important to know that even in the heaven, people will continue to communicate.

This is because, in heaven, there would be no need for policemen as everybody will be orderly; there would be no need for lawyers/judges because there would be no litigation; so also politicians as there would no need for politics of bitterness or without bitterness; there wouldn’t be any need for medical doctors because people will not be sick.

But in heaven, there would be need for communicators/journalists because people living in the southern part of the heaven would want to know the situation of their counterparts in the northern part of the heaven, vice versa in the eastern and western parts of heaven.

This is an evidence that communication is a profession that continues to be relevant here and in the hereafter.

This is because information is power while communication is empowerment. That is why the profession needs to be jealously guided.