by Richard Ikiebe
The genesis of organised politics in Nigeria is steeped in and the direct result of press agitation. At every stage in the evolution of the Nigerian state, the role of the media has been prominent. Very early in organised politics in Nigeria, newspapers took the front row positions of influence. Erudite media historian, Alfred Omu, tells us that the publisher of the Weekly Record, Thomas Jackson and Herbert Macaulay, publisher of Lagos News were the initiators and promoters of the first and most prominent political party – the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP).
The Clifford Constitution of 1922 enabled organised electoral politics; as a result, the NNDP was formed, and two new newspapers, the Nigerian Spectator and the Nigerian Advocate emerged, purposely as what Omu called, “electioneering newspapers”.
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Today, after 100 years since the nation’s very first stroppy experiment with elective democracy in 1922, it would not be entirely correct to say nothing much has changed. We have gone from tolerable experimentation to something far worse: we now have a firmly established pseudo-democratic political culture (the “neither bird nor fish” type), most of it curated through the media by the selfish political elite.
No doubt, the press led in the fight against the British Colonial Government for independence. But as Omu tells us, quite early in the political history of Nigeria, newspapers became “outlets for electoral policies and propaganda”. The Lagos Daily News, for example, became Macaulay’s “stormy mouthpiece”, and for the better part of 25 years, the NNDP and its leader, Macaulay, almost singularly dominated the Nigerian press and political scenes.
Politicians succeeded in stealthily dragging the media with them into ethno-partisan politics to fight real or imagined political opponents became apparent in the mid-1940s. Later, after the nation’s long romance with militarism, a shadowy political elite also prodded the media to revolt against the military rule; they did it as if with one voice for the return of the country to democracy.
In 1906, Lagos (which became a Colony of Britain in 1861), and Oil River Protectorate with headquarters in Calabar, were joined to become the Southern Protectorate. Eight years later in 1914, the patched work merged the contiguous British colonial Northern and Southern Protectorates – on paper. Thus, Nigeria is a geopolitical construct of the British by fiat through amalgamation in name only.
Professor James Coleman, in his 1958 book on the background to Nigeria’s nationalism stated that the nation was birthed from “Three separate, independent, and uncoordinated forces”. Ever since, the nation has behaved more like cobbled patches of ethnic nationalities, and barely the image of one united nation. As such, forces that fostered geo-political cleavages that would define Nigeria’s political structural contentions should not have surprised anyone; the surprise is that the entities have remained somewhat together, a perpetually unresolved problem.
The press in politics
The decade between the 1920s and 1940s marked a significant era in the history of the media in Nigeria. Several momentous political occurrences in the period defined the character of the Nigerian media and the nature of her politics, in the period leading to independence. A decade and a half earlier, media power had gradually begun to shift from the old and established elite – descendants of freed slaves – to the emerging young, indigenous, educated elite. What the new leaders lacked by way of experience, said Omu, they made up for in their unbridled zeal and adept use of the press to insistently demand for self-rule. The media of this period began to have a stronger influence on public discourse. Its influence and confidence grew beyond a small circle of the urban elite to include a growing number of ordinary literate Nigerians; it was the beginning of what could have been a populist press.
It was during this period that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and his newspaper, the West African Pilot, arrived from the United States of America by the way of the then Gold Coast (now Ghana) to set a new tone for the press and politics, redefining both. Chief Bola Ige in his political masterpiece said that Azikiwe and the West African Pilot infused the Nigerian press with an American brand of journalism, with vibrancy and colour in style, urgency in tone and assertive language, along with new production techniques.
In Prof. Alfred Omu’s impressive industry study of the early Nigerian press, which spans the first six decades, he called Nigeria’s early press a political press that played a crucial role in “cultural nationalism and in resistance to imperialism”. According to him, this early press “Attracted many people of intellectual competence and quality”, and it “Provided the most distinguished intellectual forum in Nigerian history”. They “Laid a good foundation for the new epoch of nationalism”. Sadly, their brand of promoted nationalism quickly derailed; it benefited the emerging Nigerian nation-state. Their specialty was the promotion of ethnic or regional nationalism, for which the press was a veritable tool.
In the immediate post-independent Nigeria (leading to 1966), true professionalism seemed to have vanished from most newsrooms of press organisations. The few that remained steadfast were torn between serving their ethnic groups or regions and serving the larger nascent nation-state. They were also torn between intersectional conflicts of allegiance: loyalty to the profession or to ethnic politicians who owned and used the press as stepping-stones to national political relevance and prominence.
According to Dayo Sobowale, the majority “promoted inter-ethnic hatred as well as inter-ethnic distrust and acrimony that eventually led to the collapse of the first republic” And Dare concurs, noting that through crude and overzealous partisanship, journalists transformed opponents of ruling parties into dissidents. Outside the commonly acknowledged but limiting role of the press in agitating for independence, the problem that the press may have contributed in the more fundamental manner to the forging of a dysfunctional post-colonial identity and character that modern Nigerian state currently has.
Dr. Ikiebe, who is the Chairman of the Board of Businessday, is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Pan-Atlantic University, Ibeju Lekki, Lagos.