A Libertarian press searches for democratic consensus under authoritarian regimes (3)
In 1975, about five years after the bloody Nigerian civil war, the military government began the process of dismantling parliamentary democracy, a British colonial legacy. The Daily Times of October 19, 1975, observed that the objective was to “discourage institutionalised opposition to the government in power, and instead develop a consensus politics.”
Obviously, the military thought that a nation could have consensus without conflict or opposition. According to Larry Diamond, the driving goal of the military was always to use autocracy in the “containment of political conflict within certain boundaries of behavioural restraint.” Under the military the 1980s and 1990s reflect the tense relationship that can exist between the press and the state, in the contest for hegemonic space.
Yet, without the press serving as a public square where differing voices can be articulated, resolution would be near impossible. And this has been the case of democratic Nigeria
British communication theorist, Dennis McQuail called the media a major “barometer of influence and lever of power.” Dr. Reuben Abati said the media is the “epicentre of national politics.” Thus, it is no longer contestable whether the media has influence; it does – positively and negatively. Essentially, the media helped to define and establish the culture of politics in Nigeria. As such, they have a prime place in understanding Nigeria and its politics. Our crisis of nationhood is reflected and contested in the press.
However, rulers, since the colonial era, did not understand the peculiar role of the media. The military in particular, left a culture of impunity and arbitrariness which subsequent civilian admirations adopted without question. Yet, without the press serving as a public square where differing voices can be articulated, resolution would be near impossible. And this has been the case of democratic Nigeria.
Prof Jean Seaton and James Curran outlined the functions of the media: “To inform, to discuss, to mirror, to bind, to campaign, to challenge, to entertain and to judge – these are the important functions of the media in any free country.” However, these are functions which are almost impossible to deliver on without conflicts. To compound the problem, the Nigeria media (operating under an autocratic system) imagined itself in the mode of libertarian press system of the West, where stirring up conflicts comes with the territory, and it is expected.
We seemed oblivious to the fact that political and media systems in most other nations are ideologically aligned, with roles clearly spelt out. For most of time in our existence, we have operated in an ideological vacuum under autocratic political systems, irrespective of the type of administration – colonial, military, or civil (democratic). Our fundamental misalignment and ideological disconnect have resulted in the media’s insistence on “the right to publish anything… without any constraints, and particularly free from government control.
This lack of, or poor understanding of roles has meant that even mundane issues are seen as controversial. This has turned the government and media to frequent sparing partners on almost any political matter. The point here is not that the media should keel over and resign its fate to the control of any government in power. The point is that the media ought to acquaint itself with and understand the boundaries of its (political) operating environment. The media should not necessarily feel entitled to freedom – and unattainable position.
For James Curran, the challenge has always been for the press to prove itself a worthy “agency of information and debate which facilitate[s] the functioning of democracy.” The current state of democracy in Nigeria, whether you judge it a success or a failure may be the best proof of how successful our media have been.
Elite politics: When democracy is aspirational
The vacuum created by a lack of a national ideology has formed a gaping hole in heart of Nigeria’s version of democracy and made it, at best, a mere aspiration. What this produced is endless contestations among the elites and the media providing the ready platforms.
Indeed, Agbaje calls modern mass media “bearers of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic symbols.” In this role, the press constructs, distributes, and mirrors a society’s common sense in its politics, everyday over consent and dissent.
It is in this respect, I believe, that Adebanwi also said that there exists a “media-nation interface,” the understanding of which is “critical to the analysis of the crisis of nationhood in post-colonial states.” A key determinant of outcomes of events in this hegemonic contestation is the role of the elite – in politics and media – whose largely unseen hands manipulate everything.
Early journalists, who were also among the elites of the colonial society, were successful in their trade, and their success elevated the press industry to “the centre of the stage,” and as “an important instrument of resistance to foreign domination.
Soon enough, elite groups took an interest in the press and began to establish newspapers to serve their ethno-political ambitions. Their brands of newspapers seethed with bitter rivalry and enmity; gradually, they introduced vehemence and antagonism into politics. Omu laments this development as one of the tragedies of Nigerian history in that in the crucial period leading to independence, newspapers were engulfed “in the vortex of partisan politics” and could not in any way prepare the people for the challenges of a post independent nation.
What Omu proved is that the newspaper press was instrumental from the beginning of organised politics in forming the type of politics we inherited, particularly in the manner that the political elite captured the press, thus validating my point; very little has changed since the days Omu investigated.
Elites are the architects of Nigeria’s incoherent, fragmented, and divisive politics. These political actors are the predators; the press as well as the people are both victims. Thus, the elites whose undisguised motivation is dictated by strong hegemonic interests have held the press captive from the beginning, being owners.
An imaginary mass-media in the captivity of the elite
On the part of the press, there is a pervasive assumption in which it imagines that it speaks for all and to all, even though this is hardly ever the case. The press in Nigeria is an elite press, and it mostly speaks to and for the elite.
For example, Agbaje found that government and the elite form the main sources of news reported in the press. The urban poor, the rural areas, women, and other non-elite are generally marginalised, “except in instances where they are seen as adjuncts to more powerful social and political interests.” Yet, the press continues to imagine that it serves the people. The often-unacknowledged truth is that “the Nigerian press mobilises “the nation” for strategic elite interests.
Bottom line there is glaring collusion between the media and political elites. Media power is power held in trust for the people, not for a small faceless elite group. As such with little hesitation, some will label the situation in Nigeria as an oligarchy where elite groups own, control, and manipulate media and other institutions to serve their narrow (political and economic) purposes.
And the victimised media is sometimes (deliberately) underfunded, its staff perennially underpaid to make it financially dependent and pliable. In its powerless state, it easily acquiesces and faithfully serves the ethno-political interests of its elite paymaster, rather than the interests of all the people. The result is that democracy and all Nigeria remain poorly served. And the nation will remain divided along innumerable fault lines, as long as the press serves mostly the interests of one elite group over the interests of another elite group, to the neglect of the people.
In 1965, the Nigerian Tribune in an editorial wrote:
The country’s press, unfortunately and inexplicably too, have pitched up their tents with this or that tribal war crier. Principle of national unity has been sacrificed on the altar of petty tribal gods (The Nigerian Tribune, 1965, p1).
More than 55 years after the editorial, the situation has not changed. The press is still openly and politically serving partisan interests. According to Osaghae, the media now needs to be “conscious of its national role as a civil society constituent.” As long as the press is unable to uncouple itself from the political elite and regards its reason for existence the service to ethno-partisan politics, so long does the jeopardy remains.