By Sonala Olumhense
First, I wish to acknowledge all of my co-travelers and complete strangers who were at my 60th birthday last weekend. A couple of my friends had gone online to publish very generous compliments, and were subsequently joined by others who sent the kindest comments. May God bless you all. Sonala Olumhense Syndicated
I take the opportunity of my transition into the land of the elders to make two disclaimers: one personal, and the other, public.
The first is my declaration of independence: that having become a senior citizen, I will no longer endure events governed by the so-called ‘African Time’.
It has been my misfortune over the past six decades to put up with this practice, where guests arriving at a Nigerian event on schedule become the victim of poor or insensitive planning, and unwittingly become hostages.
To be sure, it is sometimes unavoidable that an event commences a few minutes late, but that is not the same as the irresponsibility and embarrassment of institutionalized lateness. I encourage the younger generations to resolve to be neither victim, nor victimizer. If you cannot plan an event to start on schedule, don’t plan the event. If you schedule an event, don’t schedule layers of excuses.
My second disclaimer is about the trade which introduced me to most of the kind people to whom I referred earlier: journalism.
Of the institutions that have failed Nigeria in the past 16 years, the government is not the first. Not the legislature, not the judiciary. Not the police. Not the so-called anti-corruption agencies.
If we wanted to be honest—observers as well as those of us who are relatives of the press—we would have to hold the institution of journalism as being the biggest culprit. Nothing tells the story of the fall of Nigeria more eloquently than the capitulation that journalism seems to have suffered during the era of PDP-Nigeria.
It is the business of journalism to tell a story: of one minute or one hour or one day, but basically to tell a story. But that story must be true, or—in the words of the National Pledge—be “faithful, loyal and honest”.
It must also be complete. Actually, it cannot be “faithful, loyal and honest” unless it is also complete.
In the advanced world, journalism—specifically the print sequence—enhances public life as the so-called “fourth estate”, keeping a close and independent watch on the public interest through informed and committed story-telling.
It is evident that in our recent past, Nigerian journalism has found it increasingly hard to tell this complete story. All of the signs suggest that the press is thriving. But a rich press is not necessarily an effective one.
I do not mean that journalists are rich. Almost by definition, journalism pays poorly, especially in its lower rungs. But in terms of professional satisfaction, it is more enriching than any other, and few indeed are those who, having tasted life in a newsroom, do not long for it all their lives.
A rich press is one that is making a good profit from circulation or advertising, or both. There is strong evidence that the stronger arms of the Nigerian journalism trade have vigorous advertising revenue, but the first sign of the challenge before the industry is that there isn’t similar proof of relevance at the newsstand.
On account of the impact of the Internet and social media on the industry, it may be wrong to blame this last point on the press in Nigeria. Still, it is important to reflect on the dwindling popularity of the press with the readership, and therefore its influence as a fourth estate that is feared and respected.
That influence is normally a reflection of the ability of the mass media to tell that complete story that is the foundation of decent societies and powerful democracies. If the press cannot tell a complete story, its character is in doubt, and its influence in peril.
In PDP-Nigeria, this is exactly what transpired. I use “PDP-Nigeria” as a bookmark for an era in which politicians overran the press, and not because it was the practice only of the PDP. All of the major parties and their loyalists who invested their dubious funds in the press are equally guilty.
Today, however, I am looking only at consequence, not cause. In PDP-Nigeria, journalism is largely in name, not professionalism, and there is no better evidence than the institutionalized failure of journalists to follow up on their big stories.
The implication of failing to follow-up on a big story is that it did not deserve its space, especially on the front page, in the first place. Both the editor and his publisher are therefore guilty of conspiracy and fraud.
In the last 16 years, this has been a prevalent practice: a newspaper either abandons the tradition of investigations altogether, or it publishes key story after key story it conveniently neglects to update.
What this means is that, somehow, the newspaper has unprofessionally acquired the role of an investor not in the truth, but in that story and the persons or institutions involved. Conspiracy and fraud.
The response to this mess is that, two months ago, the Nigerian voter forced the election of a man he had previously ‘rejected’ three times not because he has a new degree or a new set of teeth, but because it found the weak link: integrity.
As a result, in three days Muhammadu Buhari will take control of a raped nation Goodluck Jonathan, his predecessor, once explained was “not poor” because “Nigerians are the most travelled people…Aliko Dangote [has been] classified among the 25 richest people” on earth.
In the tradition of the uninformed arrogance that brought him to power, Mr. Jonathan unveiled this warped logic: “If you talk about ownership of private jets, Nigeria will be among the first 10 countries, yet they are saying that Nigeria is among the five poorest countries.”
This week, Buhari will take control of a scorched earth where, Mr. Jonathan said, stealing was not corruption, and corruption was exaggerated; and where he said his government would evaluate itself.
As one who has had the honour of being part of the clamour for a better, fairer and stronger Nigeria, I know Buhari has much to do. I encourage him to make the press one of his secret weapons.
He can do that by challenging the press to be what it is supposed to be: independent, not infamous; vigorous not vainglorious. He cannot claim to be combating corruption and chasing accountability and transparency if his media people court unscrupulous journalists and publishers, rather than the truth.
Perhaps most of all, his media team department must open to the press 24 hours a day to respond to enquiries, and brief reporters daily. If Buhari wishes to retain the affections of Nigerians, he must keep them fully and fervently informed, no matter how inconveniencing that may be.
Three days to the new era, this much is clear: only the truth can set the Buhari presidency free.