©FALL 1996

"Journalists In Peril"

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Defiant Publishing in Nigeria

by Dapo Olorunyomi

In June 1995 in Nigeria, the despotic regime of Gen. Sani Abacha sentenced to jail four editors--Kunle Ajibade, Charles Obi, George Mbah and Christine Anyanwu--after accusing them of conspiring to overthrow his martial order. Hardly had these editors begun to serve their 15-year terms when, in December of the same year, another editor, Nosa Igiebor, was arrested and jailedthis time without any charge against him and no benefit of a trial. Was it a coincidence that all these editors practiced within the tradition of the newsmagazine genre? No.

In a significant sense, the history of the latter half of the 1980s in Nigeria is the history of press-military conflict. If Nigerians continue to invest an abiding faith in the press, it is partly because the press has always represented a vital matrix for their civil society, going back to the 19th century when Lagos newspapers argued for democracy and independence. In our own time, the press became one of the first institutions to wrestle for its freedom and engage the dictatorship in low-intensity internal warfare by reinventing dissent through a return to the investigative tradition. This movement was led by the newsmagazines. Their struggles made the 10 years of 1985 to 1995 the most exciting phase of Nigerian journalism since those heroic days in the 19th century.

In 1985, the military in Nigeria was already marking two decades of a legal monopoly of power, during which its main concern had been to centralize politics and the economy and to pave the way for the strengthening of executive power, so that a tiny technocratic elite, working in alliance with a political segment of the armed forces, could impose an authoritarian vision on the whole of Nigerian society. The first casualty of this effort would be Nigerian federalism; after a succession of setbacks, it would climax in the final dismemberment of the civil order.

This effort took place in the context of economic stagnation, punctuated by resuscitative measures that inflicted hardships on the middle class and urban and rural working people. Predictably, as social tension systematically increased, human rights abuses became a logical recourse for the regime.

Repression was not new in Africa, nor in Nigeria. But the new dictatorship, headed by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, set out on a fascinating if not doomed experiment in an international environment characterized by Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika. The issue was simple: Can a dictatorship survive in an age of democratization?

Spurred on by the belief, famous during the Cold War, that "dictatorship is good for business," the authoritarian order in Nigeria attempted to answer "yes." It also basked in the illusion that it was the only institution with a monopoly over legitimate violence and that it could generate some kind of coherent regime.

The government also nursed the vision that it could deploy force to do "what is right." After brutally suppressing a civil protest of the urban poor and students in 1986 at the height of the resistance to a Structural Adjustment Program, Babangida himself boasted: "We are masters in the art of management of internal violence."

While excluding class organizations (though not class interests) from decision-making, the Babangida government managed to ensure a link between civil society and the regime by an ideology of co-optation. Individuals and groups like the press and labor were brought into a power circle that was rigidly controlled by security agencies and military commanders.

This plan to dismantle civil society had a profound implication for the press in particular. By quickly "co-opting" a significant section of the "leadership" of the press into its agenda of "saving the society from collapse" and by abrogating a decree from the previous regime that rendered journalists vulnerable to prosecution, the dictatorship hoodwinked a large section of the civil society into its brigade and helped to show the lack of character in a large section of the Nigerian elite.

The press would pay dearly for its own myopia. In 1986, one of the most flamboyant editors in the history of the Nigerian press, Dele Giwa, was blown off his breakfast table by a parcel bomb believed to have been sent by government security agents. Newspaper closings and the detention of journalists became the norm. Employing a mix of corruption, bribery and outright coercion, the Babangida dictatorship suppressed civil society and the judiciary, which was rendered prostrate by a series of ouster clauses, retroactive legislation and a growing wave of executive lawlessness.

With the repression of the press growing day by day, with the absence of any civil institution of social mobilization and with the added monopoly of radio and television at the behest of the regime, the morphology of the civil society, of which the press is a crucial segment, took on a disturbing new meaning. Would the dictatorship subdue the institution of the newspaper press that, since its founding in 1859, had built a strong, heroic, independent and pro-democratic tradition?

The return of the investigative tradition to Nigerian journalism challenged the military's sense of its own legitimacy. It bitterly reminded the martial order that in opposition to its "presumptive legitimacy" was a "presumptive parliament" of journalism. Indeed, the independent press of the latter half of the 1980s truly represented the first self-actualizing, consistent and articulate "surrogate parliament" in the history of the subdued civil order in Nigeria.

Unhappily, given the limits of the spoken and written word, this "surrogate parliament" was not always positioned to win. Yet the "power of the word," with all its limitations, remains the only medium for extracting accountability, good governance and openness in government under the present corrupt and ruthless dictatorship.

Since the collapse of Babangida's dictatorship under economic and political pressure and the relay of power to Gen. Abacha in 1993, the military has scored a string of straight As in its repression of the press. Nowhere in Africa, contrary to the vain claims of the regime, is the press assailed and persecuted as in Nigeria. Repression comes in many styles and patterns: detention without trial, imprisonment without due process, constant security and police visitation to newspaper houses, frequent "invitations" to journalists and editors for security questioning, proscription of critical newspapers and journals, arson against opposition newspapers, assassinations or attempts, death threats against investigative journalists or courageous newspaper commentators, massive product seizure so as to bankrupt newspapers, harassment and intimidation of vendors selling anti-government newspapers, telephone- and fax-line bugging of newspapers and news managers, travel restrictions, counterfeiting opposition newspapers to discredit them, smear campaigns against journalists, bribery and infiltration of media ranks to stain their credibility.

The intensive repression of the press in the late 1980s occurred as newsmagazines proliferated. Indeed, it was designed to nullify them and other media. Regular newspapers made salutary contributions to the cause of freedom and were also victims of random and ruthless repression, but the magazines suffered the most in human and material terms.

As the foster child of a new global sensibility that fructified in the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the very possibility of the press becoming a presumptive parliament in Nigeria owed its evolution to the yoking of two factors never discussed before now: an American-style tradition of investigative reporting seen in the 1985 founding of Newswatch magazine and the entrance into the profession of a well-educated and politically committed crop of reporters. Not only were these young men and women prowling their beats with the confidence of brilliant college graduates, they had also undergone an activist baptism of fire from the anti-apartheid and student movements.

These two factors dovetailed perfectly with the needs of the already troubled Nigerian middle class, the major consumers of the printed word, who demanded a new information and analytical compass to grapple with an increasingly complex global experience.

If the traditional readership class was content to consume "unmediated" news and entertainment, the new elite expected a modicum of editorial torchbearing to light the paths of a new and treacherous world. Suddenly, the sun was setting for the reporter as a jack-of-all-trades. The white-collar journalist with specialized training in finance, politics, human rights, aviation or even the delightful study of the stars was coming into prominence.

By promising to deliver the breadth and depth of news (and analysis) in a seductive and elegant style, while also advancing the claim that readers could save money now by buying fewer of the regular daily newspapers, the newsmagazine correctly defined its audiencethe Nigerian middle class.

But was this not the same class that provided the technical platform, as economic consultants, to counterbalance the crude ethics of the ruling soldiers? And would the commitment of the regime to deactivate the middle segment and popular sector of the society through its political and economic exclusion programs not ultimately destroy this class?

In their consistent proposal of a moral and political alternative to the ossified vision of the regime, since 1985 the magazineswhich functioned in collaboration with human rights bodies and organizations in the political oppositionbecame institutional enemy No. 1. The regime marked them for destruction. Newsmagazines, and their allies, argued that since the regime (and the military as a whole) presided over Nigeria's economic collapse, social instability and abortion of democracy, neither Abacha nor any military dispensation could lead the nation to recovery or democracy. In the binary mind-set of the dictatorship, this was treason. The totalitarian Abacha regime responded with the conviction of the four editors last June, the ongoing war against the media and a desperate campaign against the so-called imperialism of the Western media.

There are strong indications that the regime will soon roll out a new law to create a media registration agency that prescribes new and draconian guidelines to regulate the independent press. Under the new law, actually only a refurbished version of the controversial "Decree No. 43" of 1993, the independent press is characterized as a "source of incitement to civil war and physical disintegration" of Nigeria!

Resistance to these acts of repression has, however, developed in arithmetic progression. The year 1993 stood out: The regime issued four decrees (Nos. 33, 35, 43 and 48) to control the independent press, and seven media houses suffered from an unprecedented clampdown in July, a move now known as the "Great Shutdown."

One of the profound ironies of the '90s is that state brutality, as intense as it was, failed to completely drive the independent press under. Against all odds, the novelty of "defiant publishing" was inaugurated in 1993. An era of "defiant broadcasting" came into being in 1995 with a pirate radio, the Freedom Frequency Radio (F&F), emerging to challenge the state monopoly of the airwaves. A third dimension of the acts of defiance was the flurry of litigation brought against the regime to reveal its inherently lawless nature. Not surprisingly, in all the cases brought against the government, the court ruled in favor of the mediaNigeria has one of the most independent judiciaries in the Commonwealth. But the government disregarded the court's decision.

While "private radio" could broadcast for only an hour a day and only occasionally on the FM band, the phenomenon of defiant publishing, otherwise dubbed "guerrilla journalism," was a much more revolutionary event. In May 1993, when the regime proscribed The News magazine, its managers, in a courageous act of dissent, quietly floated an alternative paper, Tempo, to operate underground. So electrifying and dazzling was this experience that it rendered the security institutions dumb and helpless. For the civil society, it vividly illustrated the power of information in the assault against a decadent dictatorship. So paranoid was the regime that it started arresting people caught reading either The News or Tempo. Such was the case on June 25, 1993, when four men were arrested at the Federal Secretariat in Minna, Niger State, for allegedly buying and reading Xerox copies of The News!

The notion of a newsroom was transformed from a regular static setting into a dynamic, on-the-wheel experience. At normal times The News usually structures its week into two parts, a three-day editorial segment and a three-day production segment. The editorial segment requires that the three departments of the paper ("Back of the Book," "Business and Economy" and "Nation and Politics") meet to generate and discuss story ideas every Sunday in the newsroom. Bureau staff were expected to send in their stories before Sunday to a senior editor. A late Monday meeting of line editors would broaden and deepen the perspectives of the stories, especially the cover choices. That also required a newsroom setting. The production segment, which was basically an editing and postediting part of the job, also required a regular office setting, all of which assumed a proximity to a library, a telephone and fax machine. All these were turned around in the context of guerrilla journalism, and reporters and editors, constantly on the move, had to write, edit and publish clandestinely in surreptitious locations.

Between May and November 1993, week after week without fail, Tempo hit the streets. After a frustrating but futile attempt to halt the paper or apprehend its editors, the government declared that it could only have been published inside the American Embassy! The truth was that it was published in a private, nondescript office, a few blocks from Nigerian police headquarters!

Places like stadiums and theaters became the "newsrooms" where a highly decentralized structure allowed each department of the magazine to meet in groups of six under a disguised framework. Watch those soccer spectators wellsix men in the crowd are redefining the newsroom idea! Watch that yoga group at the gymare they discussing story ideas under the guise of meditation? Watch that small group sitting under the tree near the theater waiting for the movie to open--are these not guerrilla journalists!

Tempo set an example of defiant publishing under a ruthless dictatorship, but the costs were enormous. The government was unable to catch up with me, so my wife and three-month-old baby were arrested in 1993. A vendor selling Tempo was struck and killed by a fast-moving car as he was escaping from the police. Revenue returns on circulation became slow and irregular, deeply hurting the publishing effort. Editors had to maintain a status of strict internal exile, and for about six months I could not stay in my home. I hopped from one sleeping hole to another every night, moving about in crowded commuter buses to evade arrest. But the collapse of the Babangida regime on Aug. 26, 1993, was partly attributed to the efforts of the independent press. For the guerrilla publications, it was a golden moment.

The fact that Tell magazine in Nigeria also published underground in a quasi-guerrilla status for much of 1996 suggests the growing popularity of defiant publishing as a tool of combat against a repressive regime and an index of collective will serving as the carrier of demands for substantive justice toward the poorer segment of the population. Sadly, however, authoritarianism continues to prosper in Nigeria.

Nigeria is now a country that has seen the ethnic cleansing of Ogoniland, where a man who won a presidential mandate of 14 million votes ended up in jail because he would not deal with the regime, and where his wife, fighting for his release, was brutally assassinated; and where the list of assassinated political opponents of the ruling regime grows dailyas does the detention of human right activists and journalists. Nigerians are fleeing into exile, some on economic grounds, but many for political reasons: This has become a painful prelude to the chaos that is yet to come.

The press, therefore, has an added, though not necessarily new, challengea challenge made urgent with the low capacity for the formation of public opinion, the overbearing presence of executive lawlessness and the determination of the regime to impose "tacit" consensus by blood and fire. The press must draw from its illustrious tradition of 19th-century Lagos to remain as a redoubtable surrogate parliament. While the sheer magnitude of the mess in Nigeria and the dangerous prospects of defiant publishing make an absolute victory impossible, the press has no choice but to continue to push the government to keep clear in its mind that the age of guns and jackboots, having become absolutely anachronistic, will soon pass.

Dapo Olorunyomi edited The News and Temp magazines in Nigeria until March of 1996 when he was forced into exile. In April, he was awarded the International Editor of the Year Award by the World Press Review, and in October he will receive the 1996 Freedom-to-Write Award from PEN Center USA West.

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