Journalists, lawyers and national unity, by Hassan Gimba

Let’s talk hope, by Hassan Gimba
Hassan Gimba.

The Arbiter

The Nigerian media has come a long way since Iwe Irohin fun Awon Ara Egba ati Yoruba (literally Newspaper for the Egba and Yoruba) was birthed on December 3, 1859, by the missionary, Reverend Henry Townsend. It was shortened to Iwe Irohin and the English Language edition was added.

Reverend Townsend stated: “my objective is to get the people to read, ie, to beget the habit of seeking information by reading”. The missionaries trained their first readers. Unlike the North, influenced by Islam and the Arabs and so could read and write, the people of Southern Nigeria did not learn writing until the Europeans arrived. And so it was that Iwe Irohin focused on religious activities though devoting a lot of space to issues like the abolition of slavery, education, and civil rights.

The Nigerian media has always been politically oriented, providing a forum for anti-colonialist and pan-Africanist opinions.  The earlier titles included The Lagos TimesAfrican ChallengerLagos Observer and Lagos Echo with the most radical being the Lagos Weekly Record started in 1890 by John Payne Jackson, a trader from Liberia who irritated the colonial establishment with his fiery editorials.

Nigerian media have also been at the vanguard of nationalism, giving platforms to those fighting colonialism, and fiercely promoting human rights, freedom of expression and association, national unity, and good governance. Our first nationalists founded newspapers to espouse these values. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe founded the West African Pilot in 1937 for these reasons. Though regionalism was an issue, nationalism was more of a driving force.

The ‘80s through the ‘90s, with the advent of National ConcordeToday newspaper, NewswatchCitizenTell, and The News magazines can be said to be a period one can arguably call the golden age in Nigerian journalism as the media shifted gear and became more incisive and investigative in the manner obtainable in American and European media. Even though some of them at times went to extremes just to get at a government they did not want, generally, the media then aimed at holding governments to account.

However, with the advent of the current republic came many unpalatable behaviours that have affected the media. The media has been dubbed a mirror of society and its watchdog. But our society, unfortunately, is unravelling at its weakest points. Where formerly you had the wider regionalism in which journalists stood for their regions, now ethnicity and religion have taken the front burner. The press mirrored society and became the mouthpiece for ethnic jingoists and religious extremists.

One may say the average journalist is not only hungry but under-trained. The newsroom has jettisoned its gate-keeping role and proprietors are eager to pander to the whims of the first, second, and third realms of the estate, leaving theirs, the fourth, unorganised and unfocused, losing its bearing.

The reporter, being the first gatekeeper, is unpaid or underpaid. Sometimes he is owed salary for several months and years and virtually depends on his identity card for survival. He looks forward to “brown envelope,” a name for handouts given to them at the end of an event to ensure the event gets mentioned in the paper or to ensure that harmful information is not revealed. Their conscience is bought cheaply with what the cheap brown envelope conceals.

Rather than being the society’s watchdog, guiding it and barking at, sometimes biting, the leaders going off tangent, the press has become a dog on a leash being shepherded from behind by mischievous rabble-rousers.

If not, how can a responsible media, for instance, publicise, not to talk of even leading with, a story that the president of its country is a clone, that the real president had died years ago? To borrow from Femi Fani Kayode, that is stupid journalism. How can a nationalistic press not only give space but lead gleefully with someone’s statement that its country is a zoo? Yet the same press will come and lament that their country is not taken seriously by other countries. What is the difference between these from giving Shekau’s tirade prominence?

When in a parliamentary debate in 1787, the Irish statesman, politician, and philosopher called the media the “Fourth Estate” of the realm, it is because the media is expected to, in a democracy, play the role of creating, moulding, and reflecting public opinion. It is also as a result of this onerous task that Thomas Jefferson, the third US president (1801-1809) said, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter”. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was also quoted to have said, “I would rather have a completely free press with all the danger involved in the wrong use of that freedom, than a suppressed or regulated press”. Such is the power of the media that in some quarters it is believed that John F. Kennedy might not have been president but for television.

Despite deeply rooted problems, generally tied to finance and in some instances law, the Nigerian media has done well. But it can do more. We need to wake up to our responsibilities of projecting our nation positively, holding our leaders to account, championing national unity, understanding, and development. We must give voice to the voiceless and shut out rabble-rousers whose craft is to sow national discord using the media as an instrument.

Don’t we have enough news stories that will compel our leaders to work to ameliorate people’s sufferings? How can someone say the world’s Fulani have met in Futa Jalon and have decided to come and take over Nigeria and we see it as news? Or that Northerners and Muslims have planned to kill all Christians in Nigeria? Or even saying the caliphate has decided to conquer the South to add to its Kingdom? Or that Fulani sleep with their cows or have contrived to poison them to kill Southerners? How these can be allowed passage in a serious news medium baffles. Where is our sense of the sacredness of facts?

Publishers must re-enact house styles, polish their guiding philosophies, vision, and mission. They must also endeavour to be more professional and give their employees the freedom to explore their potential and ensure that they get deserved, decent remuneration on time. They should also explore avenues for training and retraining of their staff who are their most valuable assets.

The Nigeria Union of Journalists must also embark on training and retraining its members as well as inculcating in them ethics and esprit de corps. Newsrooms must be vigilant and enforce the gate-keeping ideal so that only developmental issues can pass. Enough of giving precious time or scarce space to charlatans who can only make headlines through rambunctious statements meant to cause disaffection amongst peace-loving citizens.

New Nigerian Lawyers, Sho?

At a time when all well-meaning Nigerians were seriously running from pillar to post in a bid to strengthen our unity, a group of lawyers, saying they were up to date in paying their practising fees and calling themselves “New Nigerian” lawyers purportedly formed a faction of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, christened New Nigerian Bar Association.

According to its literature, the NBA, formed in 1933 with the motto, “Promoting the Rule of Law,” is a non-profit umbrella professional association of all lawyers admitted to the bar in Nigeria. With an observer status with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and working in partnership with many national and international non-governmental organisations, “it is engaged in the promotion and protection of human rights, the rule of law and good governance in Nigeria”.

I and many others may understand if they had done so because the NBA has refused to wade into governments’ (at all levels) disdain for the rule of law, a penchant for disregard to court orders, governance by impunity, and insensitivity to the plight of the ordinary Nigerian.

I and many others may understand if they are protesting against the use of two laws, one for the have-nots and the other for the crème de la crème, in a constitutional democracy. In Kano, a law was used on someone who insulted the prophet of Islam, Muhammad (SAW) while those accused of pocketing dollar bribes go scot-free. The law used on the man who insults the prophet knows no immunity. They can say, “OK, NBA is complicit through its silence so we are forming our own.”

I and many others can understand if they were protesting the NBA’s silence over the non-implementation of the reports of various panels that investigated elections and other incidences of violence and corruption in high places.

We still can excuse them if they are protesting the NBA’s silence over the way people with corruption cases get “forgiven” by the government or get appointed into serious positions or even run and win elections on the platforms of political parties.

But no, the association came into being at the time Nasir el-Rufa’i was refused the privilege of addressing lawyers at their annual NBA National Conference. Lawyers? Custodians of the law? The supposed conscience of the nation? The man they are assumedly protesting on his behalf has serially disregarded the court of competent jurisdiction’s orders. In July 2008, the Joint Senate Committees on Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and Housing recommended that he be banned from holding public office. Its interim report said that “Mallam Nasir el-Rufai is not a fit and proper person to hold public office in a democratic set-up”. Late Justice Bashir Sambo’s house, despite a court order, was demolished by El-Rufa’i’s administration at the FCT. Is the “New Nigeria” we dream of going to be a country that glorifies the abuse of the rule of law and the silence of conscience in the face of illegalities? But how can lawyers of all people want to use a politician to destroy their umbrella professional body?

Well, good luck to them. They should just wait and see how their association will splinter into many others like Northern Nigeria Bar Association, Southern Nigeria Bar Association, Northern Muslim Bar Association, Northern Christian Bar Association, Middle Belt Bar Association, Southern Nigeria Muslim Bar Association, Southern Nigeria Christian Bar Association, etc. Let us see if divided Nigerian lawyers can stand for anything.


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