Abike the Snake and Itunu the Fish: Now do you understand?

“Some people are capitalising on Itunu’s death to make money and to promote their blogs.”

With these words on Channels TV Sunrise Daily around this time last week, NIDCOM Chair Abike Dabiri-Erewa launched into a 30-minute attack on my work, while the presenter in the Abuja studio sat and listened to her talk. Lie after lie after lie would emerge – “Itunu’s father reached out to NIDCOM”; “She reported her issue to the Nigerian Embassy late”; “I only became aware of this matter 5 months ago…” Sitting opposite her, Maupe Ogun interrupted only with the occasional supportive “mmm” and a sympathetic nod.

The questions posed to Abike were not so much softball, as nothing-ball – questions such as “Does NIDCOM have the tools to deal with cases like Itunu?” This question, for the more discerning, is a clear and obvious way out for its subject who only has to answer “No,” and then proceed to shift the blame to whoever apparently did not fund NIDCOM to do its job. Abike duly took the opportunity presented and neatly transferred the buck from her lap to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Assembly.

As she took control of the conversation and almost became the host of the show while the actual host nodded sympathetically and offered the occasional softball non-question, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Abike Dabiri-Erewa was the victim in all of this. If someone were to tell you that the actual victim was lying in a mortuary in Abidjan due to the incompetence and malfeasance of the well-dressed lady making Maupe eat out of her hand, you might be confused. I was not.

This is what the snake always does

In this column a few weeks ago, I used the analogy of a snake and a fish to illustrate why I do not subscribe to the conventional notion of “balance” as it is understood in Nigerian journalism. I said that the very mechanism of “objectivity” in the Nigerian context is actually very subjective, and often ends up distorting the story in favour of the more powerful entity. Instead of presenting a truthful account of how the fish came to be inside the snake’s mouth, the simulacrum of “balance” in telling the story ends up amplifying the snake’s obvious lies while marginalising the fish’s already less powerful voice and making a mockery of its pain.

Not everyone who read that column understood the analogy (or perhaps allowed themselves to understand it because in the stuffy ivory tower that is orthodox Nigerian journalism, it is as sacrilegious as it is undeniably true). A response I got said something to the effect of “Who gets to decide who is the snake and who is the fish?” Now that Itunu lies in a freezer while Abike – the public officer whose specific job it was to protect her from that fate – embarks on the latest leg of her expensive nationwide “It-Wasn’t-My-Fault” media crusade, I hope the questioner sees the patent silliness in arguing pointless semantics and pretending not to see things that are blindingly obvious in our context.

Itunu was clearly the fish and Abike is the snake. You don’t need to be a genius to work that one out. Yet how did the generality of Nigerian media approach the story of yet another fish suffering misfortune due to the malicious actions or inactions of a snake? They invited the snake to use their platforms to tell lies about the issue unimpeded and without their precious “balance.” It’s funny how that works isn’t it? When someone gives the fish a platform to tell its story unimpeded, this is a crime against journalism because the snake is not there to provide “balance.” But when Channels TV allows Abike Dabiri to issue lies about Itunu Babalola for half an hour on their platform, the fish’s side of the story is not so important.

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Take your double standards and shove them

When David Hundeyin suffers through the actual dirty, unglamorous work and crazy experiences involved in investigating a story about a fish and he puts it out on his platform, he is a terrible journalist because he did not platform the snake to explain why a Nigerian Embassy staffer in Abidjan asking for Itunu’s fundraisers to pay N2m into his personal account is perfectly fine and not extortion at all.

When Maupe Ogun-Yusuf sits with Abike in an air-conditioned studio in Abuja and spends half an hour eating out of her hands and stroking her hair without asking a single difficult question, or bringing on anyone with actual knowledge of the case to “balance” the snake’s blatant lies, this is great journalism. Excellent journalism worthy of the 1,257,000-time TV Station Of The Year, in fact.

As I said in the column I referenced at the outset, the problem boils down to the fact that most of Nigeria’s journalism is subjugated to power and the status-quo. Ergo, any journalist that seeks to challenge power or upend any status quo in Nigeria will be attacked first and foremost by other journalists. Their job is to protect and defend the status quo because they see some short-term value for themselves in it. My job is to burn it down because I see no value in it for anyone in the long term. It is only logical that to that constituency, there can be no acceptance of the validity or impact of my work – we are conceptual opposites and that is OK.

Incidentally, I fully understand this, which is why I neither crave said acceptance nor do I intend to change my way of doing things for anybody. I am fully aware of the journalism WhatsApp groups where people with significantly more ego than any known professional impact make statements like “I’m looking for some of Nigeria’s best investigative journalists to work with on a project. Please don’t mention David Hundeyin.” Yours truly is not just OK with it – I genuinely love it. I love the fact that it is now clear that the “good” Nigerian journalist is a creature that pets the snake and pretends the fish doesn’t exist, while the “terrible” one does whatever it takes – travels long distances, risks violating his asylum, crosses maritime borders illegally in a canoe, spends his own money – to give the fish a voice. Things are great when they’re out in the open like this.

Ultimately, the big takeaway here is that the only thing us “terrible” Nigerian journalists who have some positive impact on the world, have in common with “good” Nigerian journalists in all their credit-stealing, zero-impact glory is the word we fill in under the heading “occupation” – which is to say, not much at all. After all, if you were to ask Lewis Hamilton and a Dangote fleet operative what they both do for a living, they might respond with the same word – “Driver.”

But Lewis Hamilton does not drive a cement truck.

Nor does he aspire to.

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