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When good journalism doesn’t matter

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[FILE PHOTO] Voting in Progress

As we plunge into the last lap of the 20 years of uninterrupted democracy in our country with elections that will hopefully begin this week, we should be bold enough to borrow some lines from Alan Paton’s ‘Cry, The Beloved Country’ in which the author wants us to cry ‘for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear….’

Indeed, there have been some curiosities in our democracy that should shape the outcomes of the February 16, and March 2, 2019 elections. Ordinarily, we should be celebrating democracy and strong institutions of governance for almost 20 years. But sadly, only party chieftains and political office holders are celebrating having benefited from the state of anomie in the land today. As one of my big brothers in Rutam House put it this week, there has been so much barrenness in the campaign fields. No notable quotes from the big campaigners who have been around since 1999. There is no one to generate enthusiasm in politics, policies and business. As Antony J. Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state in Obama administration had noted of the present crisis in his country: ‘No People. No Process. No Policy’.

Specifically, in Nigeria as we continue to grope in the dark over the future of democracy, we still find it difficult to identify heroes of democracy, brand ambassadors of democracy. Election, which is supposed to be a process we should enthusiastically look forward to, has become a dreadful event. One of the most odious things you should not associate with democracy in the world’s most populous black nation, ‘vote buying’ has become a lucrative business. And we call that transactional leadership recruitment process a mandate in a democracy?

Are we really going into elections from February 16 without elections benchmark, as the world has known? Elections are the central institution of democratic representative governments. This is so the world over because in a democracy, the authority of the government derives solely from the consent of the governed. And the principal mechanism for translating that consent into governmental authority is the holding of free and fair elections. It has been noted in journals of democracy that all modern democracies hold elections, but not all elections are democratic, as so many instances around us have shown. Right-wing dictatorships, Marxist regimes and single party governments also stage elections to give their rule the aura of legitimacy. In such elections, there may be only one candidate or a list of candidates with no alternative choices. Such curious elections may offer several candidates for each office, but ensure through intimidation or rigging that only the government approved candidate is chosen – as we just witnessed in Congo, DCR. Other elections may offer genuine choices – but only within the incumbent party. These are clearly not democratic elections.

Let’s simplify this within the Nigerian context. What are democratic elections? Jeane Kirkpatrick, scholar and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has offered a credible definition: ‘Democratic elections are not merely symbolic….They are competitive, periodic, inclusive, definitive elections in which the chief decision makers in a government are selected by citizens who enjoy broad freedom to criticise government, to publish their criticism and to represent alternatives’.

And so elections, in which the opposition is barred from the airwaves, especially public broadcasters, has its rallies harassed or its newspapers censored are not democratic. The party in power may enjoy the advantages of incumbency, but the rules and conduct of the election contest must be fair. An election process in which the opposition is barred from a public facility for campaigns should not be a source of inspiration to the people.

So, what we have been having since 2003 in Nigeria has been anything but democratic elections. We had some semblance of democratic election in 1999 but since then, the political class has been bereft of nobility and majesty that should nurture democracy in Africa’s only source of hope and development, Nigeria.

We had thought that President Buhari’s election in 2015 would deepen democracy and development with the power of his integrity and simplicity. Alas, we were all naïve as we were even insinuating in our simplicity that even his body language could increase electricity generation capacity and fight even corruption without doing much. We have all perished for lack of knowledge of the man, Buhari. We all overrated his integrity as I once noted here and now we know better.

At this time, we should be asking him to run campaigns on his performance in the areas of nation building, war on corruption, insurgency in the North East, and handling of the economy. We should also be asking him to tell us what his almost four years has done with education quality – the world’s only weapon of country and global competiveness.

We should also be assessing the government on critical infrastructure in key sectors and geo-political zones in the country. Specifically, we should be asking questions on how far the government has built bureaucratic institutions to destroy infrastructure of corruption – in the public service.

All told, most people including followers and gainers from the ruling party now know that the Buhari’s government is not leading Nigeria well at the moment. The country is generally known to be more insecure. The President’s far north remains the poorest in all indices. Even in the president’s home state, Katsina, the power elite have reportedly resorted to buying houses in the neighbouring Niger Republic where they now feel safer. What is the purpose of politics and representation? Just to give choice jobs to the power elite?

What is worse, no one has seen violation of federal character laws in the scale exhibited by President Buhari. His parochial and sectional appointments are capable of threatening national security. He said to the nation through Kadaria Ahmed the other day that he was well enough to continue to run the country. Yet at various campaign rallies, no one has seen presidential gaffes the way President Buhari has displayed them: he has introduced presidential, senatorial and ‘governortorial’ candidate at the same time. He has claimed that he was sworn in, ‘on May 19 and in 2005’. He has introduced a senatorial candidate in Ondo Central as Edo Central…These are not signs of wellness for a person who has been running the most strategic black nation on earth since 2015 and he is asking to be re-elected to continue.

These are very risky things to say about the ruling party and their candidate at this time. But whatever label anyone can give to any speaker and reporter of truth about the nation at this time should not matter anymore. We can put such a truth in a grave, but it won’t stay there as I have repeatedly noted here.

‘Challenge of independent press’
However, the most worrisome development now is that I have again seen the import of what one of our significant elders in the press, Sonala Olumhense was saying the other day about ‘the challenge of the independent Press’ at such a time like this. It is now clear that the Nigerian mainstream news media are not strategically equipped to cover the tragedy that Nigerian politics has become. Politics here in the last two decades has been deepening poverty. Today, it is reproachful that Nigeria is poverty capital of the world. Democracy we claim to be practising now should be more than the sum of its institutions. A healthy democracy depends largely on the development of a democratic civic culture. Experts in this area will tell you that culture in this sense, does not refer to art, literature or music, but to the behaviours, practices and norms that define the ability of a people to govern themselves.

Those who are aware of how the media have helped to entrench and deepen democracy in this country should have noted that there has been a totalitarian political system in this Buhari’s regime. The reasons are not too far to seek anymore: the current system is nurturing a culture of passivity and apathy. The regime has been seeking to build an obedient and docile citizenry – by creating fear.

No doubt the constitution provides that the only institution that should monitor governance and hold government to account even for excesses is the independent press. But it is curious that instead of covering the excesses and even corruption in this Buhari’s government, most organs have been covering up by failing to ask hard questions and writing robust editorials across platforms. What do we see? Some journals allow themselves to be used by state actors for unethical media trials of opposition. Some others specialise in giving media awards to scoundrels who have been part of the trouble with Nigeria, corruption. There is no elite consensus about who should lead Nigeria into a relevant nation. The elite in the Bar and Bench, are watching as a tyrannical executive has been systematically demolishing the majesty of the law. They get a lapdog media section to cover (up) this incipient tyranny. There are other weightier issues we have curiously ignored too:

Can you recall that the Senate the law empowers to confirm the EFCC Chairman has twice rejected the nominee for the office but the professors of law in power asked the president to ignore the law and the Senate. Behold, the EFCC chairman has been acting since November, 2015. No one asks why anymore. Immediate past National Security Adviser (NSA), Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd) has been in detention for more than three years – in a democracy. Do you know that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo may have been putting on a fine face but he has been through hell inside Aso Rock?. All the appointments he made while he was acting, among others have been reversed and we in the media have helped to cover up the travails of Osinbajo who has been unequally yoked with some strangers. These should be but they are not issues in elections in Nigeria, our Nigeria!

And here is the thing, as long as the news media remains a weak institution in a totalitarian political system such as we have now, democracy and development will remain a mirage. The challenge that we may have to grapple with after the elections will be how to strengthen media institutions. At the moment, we (the media) are ill-equipped to cover this wobbly democracy.

This is the time good journalism should matter to us. But when a newspaper could devote a full front-page editorial to insult a former president Olusegun Obasanjo for criticising a government in an election year, then good journalism doesn’t matter anymore. When a section of a country’s serious newspapers could continue to accept unverified data from state actors to destroy the country’s Chief Justice, the citizens should not expect a glimmer of hope. Why? Arthur Miller says, ‘a good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.’ If the independence of this important nation’s newspapers cannot be relied upon to defend the independence of the judiciary and freedom that the people deserve, at this time of consequences, there should be some cause for concern.


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