BABANGIDA AND THE PRESS
Let me begin by pointing out that I have modified the title of my paper from the original one listed in the programme of the symposium which is “Mass Communications for Public Service: The case of Babangida’s Regime.” My original idea for the paper was to do a judgemental piece on how the mass media covered General Ibrahim Babangida’s regime for eight years from August 27, 1985 to August 27, 1993. In other words, to determine whether the mass media was fair and objective or not in its coverage.
However, as I read through various books on the subject of mass communication and journalism and also went through newspaper clippings of events during Babangidas rule, it began to dawn on me that this idea was rather over-ambitious given the constraint of time, space and resources available to me for writing the paper; for such a judgemental piece to be definitive and accurate, I would have needed to read at least the major newspapers and magazines in the country, if not all of them, and to review the television and radio coverage of the period in question. Since I lacked the time, space and resources to do such a piece, I decided to modify my topic to a less judgemental one and make it essentially descriptive and restrict it to the press rather than include television and radio.
Even then I must warn that the paper is the result of a somewhat sketchy, as opposed to an exhaustive, review of the press during the period.
The press is universally acknowledged as the Fourth Estate of the Realm, tile other three being The Legislature, The Executive and The. Judiciary – even though in most constitutions the world over, including the United States, the mother modern democracies, it is not assigned any specific rule. The IIS Constitution does forbid the Congress (i.e. the U.S. Legislative House) from making any law “‘abridging the freedom of speech or of the press”, but beyond this constitutional protection from outside interference with it, the press has no constitutional role like the other three Estates have, i.e. the Legislature to make law, the Executive to enforce it and the Judiciary to intetprete it. However, through convention, the Press has come to assume the role of a judge over all three, making sure that each respects the checks and balances that should guarantee that Government functions for the greatest good of the greatest number of its subjects. It is noteworthy that this watchdog role was for the first time in Nigeria transformed into a constitutional role in 1979 as the Second Republic emerged. Section 21 of the country’s constitution titled “Obligations of the mass media” states quite categorically that “The press, radio and television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objective contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people.” This became Section 22 of the Constitution enacted into law by Babangida’s administration and has been so retained in the 1999 constitution.
This constitutional role of the Nigerian mass media has an interesting background. During the debate on the Draft Constitution of 1979, a populist tendency emerged for the adoption of Socialism as the directive principle of state policy. To stem this tendency, liberal minded elite that dominated the Constitution Drafting Committee, under Chief F.R.A. Williams, and the Constituent Assembly which modified the constitution under Justice Udo Udoma, decided to draw up a socialist oriented Fundamental Objective of State Policy but made them unjustifiable. These obligations include political, economic, social, educational and cultural as well as foreign policy objectives. There was heated controversy over whether or not these objectives should indeed be justiciable. In the end, the opposers won, but not without the compromise that instead of the courts, the mass media should be given the duty of holding Government up to its responsibility to implement them. Section 22 has been retained in all subsequent constitutions since 1979.
Thus, it was that the Nigerian press became one of a few, if not the only one, in the world to be given the constitutional, as opposed to the conventional, duty to hold the governors up to their responsibilities to the governed, along with the right to operate freely.
Two theoretical consideration
Before we examine how the press covered Babangida’s regime, it is necessary that we examine at least two pertinent theories, about the press in general. The conventional theory about the role of the press is that it is society’s watchdog. As watchdog, it alerts society of any danger to its existence, its harmony and its progress. The underlying assumption of this role is that the press is a neutral observer of the contending forces in society and that it possesses the institutional capacity to be an impartial judge. It is this assumption which had apparently led a one-time Managing Director of the BBC World Service, Mr. John Tusa, to conclude in a lecture he delivered in November 1991 on “Fourth Estate or Fifth Column – Media, the Government and the State” at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, that “The media are the Fourth Estate of government plural society. In a tyranny, they may well be a Fifth Column. The Fifth Column. And quite right too.”
In other words the press in relating to a military dictatorship like General Babangida’s, it would seem in Tusa’s view be quite in order to seek to undermine it. In recent times this assumption that the press is an impartial arbiter or that it is capable of being one has come under increasing attack. For example Paul H. Weaver, himself former editor at the American Fortune magazine, in his book News and the Culture of Lying, argues that news is largely “a fabrication. – a record of joint performances by which journalists and official sources foist a highly artificial sense of permanent emergency on the public.” Public officials, he says, play up to the gallery virtually all the time in order to promote their carriers through crowd-pulling images, while the press on its part, plays along in order to attract the size of readership or audience that can guarantee profit. The late-capitalistic nature of the press whereby its business rests primarily on selling audiences (or readers) to advertisers rather than selling information to readers and viewers is, Weaver says, the root cause of the press’s “Culture of Lying”.
Another skeptic of the conventional theory of the role of the press is Edward Jay Epstein also an American Journalist. Epstein argues in his book, Between Fact and Fiction: The Problem of Journalism, that journalists, by definition “are rarely, if ever, in a position to tell the truth about an issue for themselves, and they are therefore almost entirely dependent on self-interested ‘sources’ for the version of reality that they report.” This, he says, is simply because a journalist lacks the time, space, money, forensic or technical knowledge and the authority to establish the truth. What is more, the protection of sources of information is central to journalism, whereas revealing such sources is necessary for establishing their motives and the truth of their claims.
Weaver and Epstein are, of course, not alone in questioning the underlying assumption of the theory of the watchdog role of the press. Long before them, Walter Lippmann, one of the greatest theoreticians of mass communication, had sought to distinguish News from truth. “The function of news” he said. “is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring light to hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other and make a picture of reality on which men can act.” Lippmann had then gone on to conclude that though news and truth do coincide’. They rarely do so. Consequently, the press, he said, is “at its best a servant of institutions; at its worst it is a means by which a few exploit social disorganization to their own ends.”
The arguments by Lippmann, Weaver and Epstein suggests that far from the press being society’s watchdog, it is actually the lapdog of those who own or control it. The question is which one of these two opposing theories of the role of the press is valid? This is a difficult question to answer, but I am inclined towards the watchdog theory.
I believe there is absolutely no justification for the arrogant manner in which pressmen often behave seeing themselves not just as seekers of the truth but as defenders of same. The arrogance is unjustified because one has to establish the truth first before one can defend it, but as Lippmann, Weaver and Epstein have clearly demonstrated, pressmen are rarely in a position to establish the truth. Even then pressmen have a responsibility to seek it.
Truth itself may be elusive to pressmen by the very nature of their trade, but in seeking it they can achieve some of its attributes, namely fairness, balance, objectivity and accuracy of facts. These, rather than truth itself: are for me the practical test of being an effective watchdog. If pressmen approach their trade with – limitations of their trade, then they will be able to balance objectivity and accuracy and this way democracy such as in Nigeria with its multiplicity of ownership and control of the press, this approximation of the truth is not a particularly difficult objective for pressmen to set for themselves.
The big question is did the Nigerian press, on the one hand, live up to its role as society’s watchdog during the eight years of Babangida’s rule? On other words, did it live up to its billing as The Fourth Estate of the RealnrP On the other hand, did Babangida’s regime regard the press indeed as The Fourth Estate or did the regime see it as a Fifth Column?
The Press and Babangida
In his book, Prince of the Niger: The Babangida Years, Chidi Amuta, contends that “Babangida is easily the most documented Nigerian leader to date.” Few people will dispute this contention for, long after he “stepped aside” as military president on August 27, 1993, Babangida has remained on the centre-stage but probably more as a villain, that is, as Nigeria’s self-styled `Evil Genius.’
It is easy to see why Babangida is easily the most documented leader to date. As Chief M.K.O. Abiola is quoted as saying in Prince of the Niger, Babangida of all our former Heads of State, came to the job with the greatest preparation. “The truth from what I know,” the late Chief said, is that of all those who have prepared for high office in this country, he is the only one who did a thorough preparation, including preparation of his immediate family”
That Babangida did not become a leader by accident can be attributed to three things. The first is that of all Nigerian leaders he had cultivated probably the widest network of friends and acquaintances from all walks of life – the academia politics, military, business, religion, mass media- people of all ideological persuasions and ethnicities, long before he became a self-styled president.
Second, his very decision to style himself as President instead of Head of State showed a foresight that comes with a thorough home-work, a foresight which most Nigerians saw only with the benefit of hindsight. As Lt-General Domkat Bali (rtd) admitted in an interview with the Nigerian Tribune (January 11, 1990) after Babangida dissolved the Armed Forces Ruling Council of which Bali was a member – the first time any military leader would do so – the meaning of Babangida’s choice of president instead of Head of State became clear to him only some years later. “To me” said Bali, “at that stage what difference does it make, a president or a head of state as far as I am concerned, it is the same thing.” Bali was to discover too late that Babangida’s regime, in his words, `was not merely the normal military dictatorship but was becoming more a dictatorship of a person rather than the military.”
The third evidence of Babangida’s thorough preparation lies in the fact that within three months of his taking power, he had enunciated the basic outline of the political, economic and social legacy he intended to leave behind. They were all radical reforms that have since changed the face of the country, for better or for worse, in a way that no Nigerian leader had ever attempted. What were these reforms and how did the Nigerian press see them?
In the Beginning
When Babangida came to power in August 1985, he was, as the Economist of London (August 21, 1993) puts it in a survey which reviewed his eight years in power, “heralded as Nigeria’s soldier-hero, the beneficent general who would rescue Nigeria’s sinking economy, plant a lasting democracy and restore Nigeria’s dignity.’ Dele Giwa pioneer Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch, whose death on October 19, 1986 through lethal parcel bomb at his house, was to become a defining moment of the relationship between the press and Babangida, wrote on Babangida’s coming in superlative terms in his magazine (October 1980). Nigerians, he said, can “at last celebrate the dawn of the new hope held forth by Ibrahim Babangida, that his coming on August 27, 1985 was meant to give chance to start again that October 1, 1985 is the new date of Nigeria’s independence and the time to start building the nation anew.
President Babangida like those before him, inherited a mixed economy. As a mixed economy, it was supposed to be a partnership of the private and public sectors, with the public sector setting the pace of things through Government ownership of what were often referred to as the Commanding Heights of the Economy – sectors like oil, iron and steel, electricity, communications, education and other infrastructure.
Down the decades from our Independence in October 1960, it became obvious from the economy’s performance that it was more accurately described as up rather than simply mixed. The public sector, which was supposed to set the pace, was anything but efficient, the result of which was that the private sector in turn could not perform efficiently as it depended on the services provided by the public sector
With Babangida’s coming, for the first time a Nigerian-leader decided to do something drastic about the economy, rather than merely tinker with it as had been the case. What Babangida did was simply to try and reverse the role between the public and private sectors of the economy. This, as was to be expected of a long suffering economy afflicted with so much waste, incompetence and corruption, proved easier said than done.
Barely a few months after coming to power, Babangida flagged off a national debate on whether or not Nigeria should accept an IMF loan prelude to his plan to drastically restructure the economy. The outcome of the debate was predictable – Nigerians overwhelmingly rejected the loan from an organisation which had become notorious in developing countries for inflicting harsh measures that never seemed to work.
The rejection provided Babangida with the excuse he needed to impose what he insisted was a home grown solution to our economic problem. The rejection of IMF, he said, meant that the country now had no alternative to his Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). “We have” he said in October 1985, “therefore decided to face the challenge of restructuring our economy not through an IMF loan, but a determination of our own people to make all sacrifices necessary to put the economy on the path of sustained growth; doing so at our own pace and on our own volition.”
The general seized the moment to launch the outline of SAP in his first budget speech in January 1986. SAP, he said, was to last for two years between July 1946 and Junel988. Its objectives were to (a) reduce dependence on oil, (h), achieve fiscal and balance of payments viability during the period, (c) lay the foundation for sustainable non-inflationary or minimal inflationary growth and (d) intensify the growth potential of the private sector and lessen the dominance of the public sector while improving its efficiency.
SAP’s key elements, which had an uncanny resemblance to IMF’s standard prescription to ailing Third World economies, included the privatization of the public sector, the withdrawal of subsidies for such items as oil and fertilizer, the devaluation of the Naira and the deregulation of the exchange rate and lowering or altogether eliminating tariffs on imports.
Half way through SAP Nigerians started feeling the pains and became increasingly restive, especially as such socio-economic measures like rural empowerment, Peoples Bank and the Directorate of Employment which were meant to lessen the pains of SAP, were proving ineffective. So restive were Nigerians that The Economist intelligence unit in a survey of Nigeria was to suggest that Babangida’s hold on power remained “precarious,” and predicted the possibility that SAP could lead to a “lefting/nationalist” coup. The May 1989 nation-wide anti-riots made the prediction seem plausible and there was indeed a bloody coup attempt in April 1990, but Babangida survived them all.
By the time the general finally “stepped aside” three years later, SAP had signally failed in most of its objectives. Through SAP, however, the principle of privatization and deregulation of the economy gained currency such that it seems to have since become irreversible.
As with economics, Babangida tried to change the face of Nigerian politics in a way that no leader before him had attempted. Back in 1979, the Murtala/Obasanjo regime had radically changed Nigeria’s parliamentary system into American type presidential model, but then an executive presidency was very much in the spirit of the military rule that the country had been under since its first coup in 1900. Babangida tried to go much further than merely retaining the presidential model of government in two important ways. First, he tried to make a clean break from the past by banning the so-called “Old breed” politicians and second, he tried to impose a two-party system on the country arising from his firm belief that the multi-party system is too divisive for a plural society like Nigeria.
Babangida started his political reform by appointing a 16-member Political Bureau, under Dr. Samuel J. Cookey, which he inaugurated in January 1986. Its terms of reference included identifying the basic philosophy of government to serve as a guide for the activities of government and to search for a viable system of government, it was given one year to conclude its assignment. It took a little bit more and finally submitted its report to the president in March 1987. The government’s White Paper in May of the same year accepted the Politburo report with, of course, some modifications, the most important of which was government’s rejection of the Politburo’s recommendation of Socialism as the philosophy of governance. The Politburo itself was essentially in agreement with the 1979 Constitution but with two radical departures. namely that the so-called “Old breed” politicians should be banned from participating in the transition programme in order to make a clean break from the “discredited” political past, and that the country should adopt a two-party system instead of the multi-party system of old. Among other things, the two parties were to accept the national philosophy of government, which was not specified and they were to differ only in their priorities and strategies for implementing the national objectives.
In line with these recommendations, Babangida enacted Decree 25 of 1987, banning anyone who held executive or party offices between August 1975 and August 1985. That effectively froze the political career of virtually all First and Second Republic politicians. In July, Babangida also announced that the two-party system will be adopted. In meantime; the ban on party politics remained in place. Elections into the Constituent Assembly which was to adopt the constitution for the Third Republic was held in April 1988 on a no-party basis.
In May 1989 Babangida finally lifted the ban on party politics. With the announcement, he allowed three months for politicians not affected by Decree 25, 1987 to form political associations from which the National Electoral Commission, which had been set up in August 1987, was to select and register the top two for participation in the transition programme. Thirteen associations made their submissions in July. Two months later in late September, NEC recommended six for registration. A week or so later, the AFRO rejected all the six associations based ostensibly on NEC’s report that they were all linked to the so-called old brigade. Instead, the AFRO opted for the formation of the National Republican Party (NRC), “a little to the left,” and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), “a little to the right”.
The ban of the so-called old breed politicians coupled with the impossible deadline and other tough conditions given for party formation – politician, were for example, disallowed the use of the mass media. Government’s very insistence on a two-party system fueled suspicions that the general harboured a hidden agenda to perpetuate himself in power.
Most newspapers, including the Federal Government owned New Nigerian disagreed with the Government on both the ban of “Oldbreed” politicians and its insistence on a two-party system. The New Nigerian of November I, 1988, for example, repeated its objection to the ban when it said “as we have often said, the wisdom of this ban is questionable as it punishes both the innocent and the guilty…’
Babangida persisted in spite of these objections and in spite of the fact that the ban, at least, was futile guaging from the NEC report that the “‘old breed” were behind all the political associations. The futility of this ban became clear two years later when twelve leading politicians of the First and Second Republic – Abubakar Rimi, Jakande, Jim Nwobodo, Christian Onoh, Solomon Lar, Olusola Saraki, Arthur Nzeribe, Bello Maitarna Yusuf and Lamidi Adedibu – were invited early December 1991, to the Lagos Police Headquarters, detained and later brought before the Transition to Civil Rule Tribunal for violating Decree 25 of 1987. A little over two weeks later, they were all freed without any explanation and the decree along with its amended version – Decree 9, 1987 – were further amended to now allow any politician not convicted by any court of law or tribunal in the country, to participate in the transition programme.
In spite of this development, suspicions remained about Babangida’s self perpetuation plan. The suspicions remained for a number ‘of reasons. First Babangida seemed insistent on a tight control of the parties leading to the widespread perception of the NRC and SDP as no better than government parastatals. The control was exercised through government funding and provision of party offices.
Chief Gani Fawehimi, probably Babangida’s foremost critic, rather uncharitably referred to the two parties as “Babangida Babes”. In an interview with Tell (November 9, 1992), he said the two parties were no more than Babangida clubs. “They are”, he said “Babangida Babes. So he decides what to do with them anytime and since they are his babes, football babes, he plays the way he wants. But I think he has now dribbled Nigeria through them so much that it remains himself now at the goal post.” Second, Babangida seemed to change the rules each time it looked like the “old breed” politicians were about to wrestle control of the transition programme. For example, apart from laying very stiff, if not impossible, conditions for party registration, he also changed the rules of the presidential primaries when it became evident that the presidential candidates of both parties would be none of his preferred “newbreeed” politicians. This was after he cancelled the September 22 primaries following what seemed to be a contrived fiasco.
Vehement objections from the losers as well as from newspapers gave Babangida the excuse he needed to cancel the primaries and to change the rules to what was dubbed as Option A4. Many political analysts cynically referred to it as Option 419 because they saw it as a dubious method ensuring that Babangida’s preferred `Newbreed’ politicians emerge as the presidential candidates. This suspicion of Option A4 was reflected in several newspapers and magazines and voiced by several politicians. The cover story of the African Guardian of March 22, 1993, for example, read ” Abiola and Tofa: Are they running for Babangida?’The story itself said, among other things, that “Tofa’s and Abiola’s relationship with the military president as well as the manner of their entry into the race suggest that they may be willing tools to further the extension of the transition programme should they become candidates.”
Chief Anthony Enahoro, one of the country’s leading first generation politicians, shared the African Guardian’s view. He dismissed the new primaries based on Option A4 as a charade and said it was a tragedy that important people like General Yakubu Gowon, who had joined the race after the cancellation of the September primaries, and Chief Abiola and Alhaji Bashir TON had decided to participate in it. “It is a tragedy”, he told The News (February. 15, 1993),”Some of the names I see taking part in this charade. I think it is a tragedy that people of that status allow one man to be fooling all of them.”
Third, as he changed the rules and shifted the goal posts, it seemed more than mere coincidence that some leading Nigerians, with apparent connections to government, like Chief S.G. lkoku and Senator Arthur Nzeribe, began calling on him to extend his rule. Several of such people argued that the alternative to” such an extension was chaos. And all such calls were not only domestic. From outside, there were speculations that world leaders like Britain’s Margaret Thatcher were disposed towards such an extension. Certainly, the influential Economist of London supported it. In its edition of March 17, 1990, it urged Babangida to postpone his handover to 1995. Such a postponement, it argued, would please foreign creditors and the World Bank since it would keep the soldiers, who had run the economy rather well, in charge for three more years.” For the Economist this was a better opinion to Babangida either civilianizing himself, or (doing) a Brazil (or Chile),” the arrangement whereby the military strongman will install his man in power but remain in the army to retain control over it. All this was before Babangida was to shift his handover date from October 1, 1992 to August 27, 1993.
By the time he “stepped aside.” as president on August 27. 199 very few Nigerians believed he did so voluntarily. By then widespread disaffection within the rank and file of the military as well as widespread protest in civil society and vehement, if not virulent, opposition from the press, following his cancellation of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections which Chief M.K.O. Abiola seemed poised to win, had made it virtually impossible for him to continue either in Khaki or in mufti. His leaving his longtime friend, General Sani Abacha, behind ostensibly to stabilize his transition programme which he entrusted to the apolitical Chief Ernest Shonekan as interim Head of State, suggested that he did, indeed, do a Brazil (or Chile), albeit in a modified form.
As things turned out, the arrangement did not work out for Babangida as it did for General Pinochet in Chile, at least for a long while. Three months after he “stepped aside” his friend pushed Shonekan aside and thereafter ushered in what has turned out to be the most brutal and rapacious personal dictatorship this country has seen, a dictatorship whose dreadful aftermath we are yet to overcome, two years after the general died suddenly making it possible for the Fourth Republic to emerge with some-degree of integrity and credibility.
In the Eyes of the Press
On coming to power, one of Babangida’s first acts was to abrogate the offensive Decree 4 enacted under his predecessor. General Muhammadu Buhari, and to free The Guardian reporters, Nduka lrabor and Tunde Thompson who had been jailed under the decree. Decree 4 made it an offence to falsely accuse a public officer of any wrong- doing.
Instead of Buhari’s serious demeanour, Babangida displayed his now famous gap-toothed come-on smile and generally created a liberal atmosphere conducive to free speech. Besides, he was on first name basis with most of the leading newspaper publishers in the country, and knew most senior editors and reporters by name.
The combination of all these plus the impression he created of a leader who was determined to change the face of Nigeria like no leader before him ever attempted, these things were to make him the darling of the press.
As things turned out, however, the honeymoon was short-lived. It appears that the first serious breach in the cosy Press/Babangida relationship was what seemed to be a decision of his administration to take Nigeria into the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) in January 1986, barely five months after he seized power. The press, which is predominantly South-western and Christian, rose up in arms almost as one, in protest at what the semi-Government Daily Times, for example, called “the surreptitious admission of the country into the OIC.’ The action, it went on, “more than anything else tended to polarize the nation. Since the secularity of this nation is guaranteed in the constitution, that action should not have been taken the way it was taken.”
Daily Times was apparently quite right to say the OIC controversy had tended to polarize the nation. Generally speaking, the press, like the rest of the country, was divided down the line with the predominantly Muslim North supporting the decision and the predominantly Christian South opposing it.
In the end, Babangida set up a committee under his Minister of Internal Affairs, then Lt. Col. John Shagaya, to look into the heated controversy that surrounded the episode. Up till the time Babangida left office seven years later, it was never clear if a final resolution was made on the issue. The matter was to resurfacein late May 1990 when Archbishop Olubunmi Okogie then President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, (CAN) was to call a press conference in which he denied a National Concord (May 18, 1990) story which said he had dismissed an underground document allegedly circulated by CAN alleging that Babangida administration had given the OIC 21 billion dollars, at that time the equivalent of 147 billion Naira (The exchange rate then was 7:1), as part of a grand plan to Islamize Nigeria.
As if to support Okogie who said, as part of his denial of The National Concord story, that he was a man of God and not a government official and so it was not his responsibility to dismiss such rumours, The Guardian (May 30, 1990) said ‘Those rumours may have no foundation whatsoever in fact, but that will not stop even some reasonable people believing them in the absence of a countervailing evidence.” Obviously, the OIC had remained a festering wound long after Shagaya’s committee.
While the OIC episode soured the relationship between the press and Babangida, it was not until the tragic parcel – bombing of Dele Giwa that the breach apparently became permanent. The novelty of the bombing of a journalist sent a shock wave throughout the country especially as the circumstances of his bombing – along other things, a phone call to Giwa allegedly from one of government’s security agents wanting to know his address so as to send him a parcel- suggested government complicity in the bombing.
As if to make the relationship even worse, barely a month after Giwa’s death there were rumours of another bomb attack on a Superintendent of Police, Alozie Ogugbuaja, who had become a virulent critic of government following his retirement over his allegations that soldiers spent too much idle time at pepper soup joints planning coups. Ogugbuaja alleged that an attempt was made to kill him through a grenade attack on the night of November 19, 1986, but he escaped unscathed. The following day, virtually all the Lagos papers went to town without checking out the story. National Concord styled its front page headline, “Alozie Survives Bomb Attack,” Vanguard’s was alozie in new bomb attack, Punch’s, Killer Bomb Misses Alozie while Sketch’s was, “Bomb Again! Alozie Three Others Escape Death.”
It was a sign of the poor relationship between the press and Babangida’s regime that the press was prepared to believe that government was capable of killing yet another critic even though no conclusive proof was given. As matters turned out. If indeed there was any attack on Ogugbuaja, it was not a grenade attack. Investigations by the more restrained publications like the Newswatch, were to establish that if indeed anything was thrown at Ogugbuaja at all, it was a thunder-flash, a grenade like but completely harmless object used by the police to disperse crowds. There was therefore, the possibility, given the evidence at the scene of the alleged attack in Ikeja GRA which I saw for myself – there was no gaping hole or burnt grass at the scene as the papers reported – that the whole episode may have been contrived to further dent the already bad image of Babangida’s regime. Clearly the papers were not prepared to explore this possibility.
After Giwa, it was downhill in the relationship between Babangida and the press all the way to his “stepping aside” in August 1993. It was all as if after Giwa.
Babangida could hardly do, anything right. He did get the occasional good press like when he created states and local governments in 1987 and when he forged ties with Israel for the first time in May 1992, as well as when he hosted the OAU in Abuja in December 1991. The press also did rally round him when he survived the Orkar coup attempt of April 1990, an attempt which was probably the bloodiest in the country’s history. The press also endorsed his cancellations of the September 1992 primaries of both the SDP and NRC on the grounds that they were massively rigged. The Guardian October 5, 1992) even added that, worse than the rigging being shameless and on a massive scale, the likely candidates of both parties were “from the same part of the country the Far North.” This, the paper asserted, was “undesirable and unacceptable”.
In 1989, Newswatch actually nominated him as its “Man of the Year” for being the person who, for better or for worse, dominated the country’s political and economic terrain more than any other person or institution. Newswatch’s choice was not without justification. A review of 1989 would show that it was indeed Babangida’s year.
He started it with the unprecedented dissolution of the Armed Forces Ruling Council which he reconstituted from its 29-person membership into a more manageable 19. No head of state before him had ever wielded such power. Three months later in May, he lifted the ban on politics and created 49 local governments. In October the AFRC established the NRC and SDP thus signaling the start of party politics in the run-up to the final phase of the transition prcgramme. He also set up the People’s Bank of Nigeria under the much respected Tai Solarin. The bank was expected to empower the poorest people in society through financing their trades without a collateral. Also in October, Nigeria got the glory of the appointment of her son, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, as the first Black African Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. Babangida, himself, was nominated among 10 Commonwealth heads of state and governments to work on the future course for the body. In December, he reshuffled his cabinet and took over the Defence portfolio in the process.
The year was, or course, not without its downturns for Babangida. It started with the Flying Eagles losing the finals of FIF A Under-21 Cup to Portugal in March, a match for which Babangida declared the day of the finals work free so that Nigerians could watch it. The year ended in December with the country losing the right to stage the next FIFA Under-20 games as punishment for its alleged fielding of over-aged players in the 1989 edition or the game in Scotland. The punishment also included its ban from all competitions with age limits for two years. For a leading football nation in the world, this was a big blow.
Babangida’s greatest set back in 1989, however, was the nation-wide May SAP riots which was fueled by wild rumours that a United States magazine, Ebony, had carried a story in that month’s edition alleging that he and his wife, Maryam, had stashed away billions of stolen money abroad. However, as the publisher of the magazine was to point out in June, Ebony never carried any story on Babangida and his wife. But so rattled was the general by the SAP riots that he told the nation that he believed that. ‘. . . Detractors want to humiliate and disgrace the military out of office and destroy the credibility of the military as a group.” Many saw this as a desperate call to the military to close ranks.
As we have seen, Babangida did get several breaks from the press in terms of its coverage of his regime. On the whole, however, he got a bad press during much of his rule, as his economic reforms became increasingly regarded by the public as a failure and as his commitment to ending military rule became increasingly suspect.
In time, this hostility became mutual. Using a combination of sticks and carrots – but more sticks than carrots – he tried to retain the affection of the press. But the long list of anti-press decrees, shut down of newspapers and magazines and arrests and harassments of pressmen and even vendors, showed quite clearly there was no longer any love lost between the general and the press by the time he stepped aside after eight years as military president. This long list of hostile actions against the press included the shutting down of Newswatch in April 1987 for six months, for publishing the Politburo report ahead of its official release, the shut down of the defunct Republic in 1989 for a story on allegations by one Bashir Yar’aduwa that Vice-President Aikhomu cheated him in an oil deal, the shut down of National Concord Newspapers in 1992 for a cover story that said Babangida had admitted being out of his depth in tackling Nigeria’s economic problems, and the shutdown of The Reporter in April, 1992 and the detention of its Editor, Aliyu Hayatu, over an article highly critical of Babangida’s record in power.
Such list also included the shutdown of Abuja Newsday in 1993 for a story which speculated that Kola, Chief M.K.O. Abiola’s first son, was dating Aisha, Babangida’s first daughter. Jonathan lshaku, then Editor of the Jos based Standard was also sacked for criticizing the sack of Dr. Ibrahim Ayagi and Chief Oladele Olashore as Managing Directors of Continental Merchant Bank and First Bank respectively.
Among the many detentions were those of Abdulhamid Babatunde in 1987 as acting Chairman of the Editorial Board of the New Nigerian for an editorial critical of the trial of former politicians. Still within the New Nigerian stable, Kabir Dangogo as Associate Editor was detained in 1987 for carrying a story which said the Christian members of an inter-religious panel to look into the OIC crisis, had boycotted the meeting while Muhammadu Babanzara, the Editor of Gaskiya Tafi Kwabo, .was detained for an editorial highly critical of Babangida’s economic and social policies. I too, as the stable’s Managing Director, was detained for an advert in the New Nigerian by the Council of Ulama’a of Nigeria which the government regarded as offensive.
Apart from such specific extra-legal and sometimes illegal actions against the press, Babangida’s administration enacted several decrees which were clearly meant to curb press freedom. These included the Offensive Publications (Proscription) Decree of 1993, the Treasonable Offences Decree 29 of 1993, the Newspapers Registration Decree 43 of 1993, which was effectively challenged in the courts by The Guardian, and the Media Council Decree 59 of 1988.
In reviewing the relationship between the press and Babangida during his eight-year rule, we have seen that the press had played a critical role in trying to hold Babangida to his promise to end military rule in the country. This was consistent with its role as watchdog. In one respect, however, the press behaved in a manner that detracted from its integrity as a watchdog. This was in respect of its coverage of Babangida’s transition programme. For whereas prior to his cancellation of the June 12. 1993 presidential elections, the press was highly critical of the programme, joining others in denouncing it as a charade, especially after the introduction of Option A4 for the election of the presidential candidates of NRC and SDP, the press reversed itself completely and started referring to the cancelled elections as the fairest and freest ever in Nigeria. The contradiction that a weak and flawed foundation can produce a sound super-structure seems to have escaped the pressmen.
This about turn more than anything, seemed to suggest that the press, far from being principled in its attack of Babangida, was all along as partisan and self-interested in-the outcome of his policies and programmes as they accused the military president of being incumbent.
- Media Power in Politics, edited by Doris Graber (1990. Congressional Quarterly Inc.)
- Doing Public Journalism by Arthur Chamy (1995. The Guilford Press, New York. London)
- News And The Culture Of Lying by Paul H. Weaver (1994. The Free Press New York)
- Fact And Fiction: The Problem of Journalism by Edward J. Epstein (1975. Vintage Books)
- Nigeria: Guerilla Journalism by Michele Mamngues (1996. Reporters Sans Frontiers. Paris)
- Prince of The Niger: The Babangida Years by Chidi Amuta (1992, Tanus Communications and Zomax Publications, Lagos)
- The MisrepresEntation of Nigeria by Yusufu Bala Usman and Alkassum Abba (2000, CEDDERT, Zaria)