The Role of Journalism in Nation Building
A top politician was visiting a primary school when the teacher asked whether he would care to lead a discussion on the word "Tragedy" with the pupils. Without hesitation he agreed and asked any of the pupils in the class to give him an example of what the word meant to them. A little boy stood up, and said, "If my best friend was walking to school, and one of those crazy governor’s convoys ran over him, and killed him, that would be a tragedy".
"No," said the politician, “that would not be a tragedy: that would be an accident".
A little girl raised her hand: "If some Boko Haram fighters were to invade this school and killed one of our teachers, that would be a tragedy".
"I'm afraid not," said the politician; "That is what we would call a great loss."
For a long while, the class went silent. No child volunteered. The politician’s eyes searched the room. "Can no one here give me an example of a tragedy?" he asked.
At the back of the room, a little hand went up, and a quiet voice said, "If the private jet carrying you was hit by a bomb, killing you instantly, that would be a tragedy".
"God forbid!" exclaimed the politician, "But you are correct. Now, can you tell me how you come to know that would be a tragedy?"
"Well," said the quiet voice rather innocently, "It has to be a tragedy because, given the circumstance, it wouldn't be an accident and your death certainly would not be a great loss to anybody."
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to be here this morning to share in this great occasion as we celebrate a man who is to many of us a pastor, a mentor and a role model. But we are also aware that we are going through a period in the life of our nation when no word better describes the state of affairs than tragedy, even when most of our politicians may be oblivious to that fact.
However, that is not an issue for today even though there is a way in which the subject of my paper this morning connects with the state of affairs in our country. I have been directed to speak is on the role of journalism in nation-building in which case the two key concepts we would be dealing with are journalism and nation-building within the context of the challenges we face today in Nigeria.
In his book, “Understanding Politics: Ideas, Institutions and Issues”, Thomas Magstadt, who argued that the proliferation of post-war conflicts in Africa and Asia is an indication of how difficult it is to mould societies together as an integrated whole, defines nation-building as “the process by which all the inhabitants of a given territory, regardless of individual ethnic, tribal, religious or linguistic differences, come to identify with the symbols and institutions of the state and share a common sense of destiny.”
Going by that simple definition, which may be too broad or too narrow depending on the way we look at it, the basic idea behind nation-building is to mobilize human and material resources for the advancement of a given society. The implication of that, however, is that we can easily conclude that Nigeria has a long way to go in the process of nation-building but to the extent that it is a process and not an event and that it is a task that is never done, our nation is not a lost cause.
Broadly speaking, students of journalism are taught that their role is basically to inform, educate and entertain the people. It is indeed in recognition of the vital importance of this role that the right to freedom of expression and the press is enshrined in Section 39 of the 1999 constitution. But Larry Dailey, a Professor in Media Technology, has expanded that role to include the fact that practitioners must also be prepared to frustrate, to sadden and to scare certain elements in the society.
In every country, it is the responsibility of the leadership to protect the political, social, and economic interests of the citizens in the process of nation-building while journalism helps to remind those in authority of their obligations to the people which include finding solutions to difficult problems, stabilising the polity and guiding the society to peace and prosperity. But because regime protection is deemed to be the same as national security by a large number of the political leaders of who lack the vision, the passion, and the character to effectively deal with the challenges confronting us as a nation, it is no surprise that there is constant tension between them and the media. That has led to the accusation that journalism in Nigeria is not only adversarial but also that it does not serve the end of nation-building, just because we choose to play our role for the advancement of the society.
What most of our political office holders forget is that it is the responsibility of journalists to shape the national conversation by providing insights on critical issues as they affect their various audiences. The essence of this value-added role is to help overcome the tendency for people to focus on issues that do not advance their cause but help politicians to divide and conquer.
Most Nigerian politicians, especially those in positions of authority at practically all levels, believe that the interaction moderated by the media is skewed against them and that the Nigerian journalists do not always promote mutual understanding between government and the people. Our media, as far as majority of the people in government are concerned, serve only the interest of the opposition. In fact, I have heard it said in several quarters that Nigerian journalists are unpatriotic just for doing our job.
For instance, the challenge of insecurity in our country today manifests on several fronts: From the activities of kidnappers and armed robbers to the violent encounters between farmers and pastoralists in many theatres across the country to the perennial settler-indigene sectarian violence. To compound the situation, we now have the Boko Haram insurgency that threatens the corporate existence of our country. Given such a state of affairs, it is our duty as journalists to report the reality even while promoting only issues that will aid the resolution of many of the crises that are now tearing apart the fabrics of our society. But we can only do that effectively by reminding and challenging those in positions of authority of their onerous responsibilities to the people and many of our politicians do not always take kindly to that.
In December 2012, I was invited by the National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, Chief Olisa Metuh to be one of the faculties at their party’s workshop for all organizing secretaries and publicity secretaries in the 36 states. It was held in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. From the opening remark of then National Chairman, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur to the intervention of another former chairman of the party, Dr Okwesilieze Nwodo on the strategies for winning elections to the thesis of Chief Ebenezer Babatope on the efficacy of propaganda, I learnt a lot about the disposition of Nigerian politicians to journalists and journalism in our country.
But the most revealing presentation of them all was the one by Chief Ebenezer Babatope, who blamed the media for the negative perception of the government and the ruling Peoples Democratic Party in Nigeria. To quote from his paper, Chief Babatope said: “While the media will sensationalise or falsify achievements of our governments in order to sell their newspapers, the members of the party will automatically disseminate the achievements of the government to the entire country without any emmision or unnecessary punctuation marks. While the media will only report government events to the elite of our country that is not up to ten percent of the population, it is our own members who will ensure that the remaining 90 percent of the population are adequately informed of our government activities.”
Since he spoke the night before my presentation, I was able to challenge his position by asking for the platform through which the so-called 90 percent of the population would be reached. I also reminded the audience of what Colleen Lewis said in her essay titled, “The Declining Reputation of Politicians: Is it Deserved?”
Lewis puts the blame squarely in the arena of politicians themselves: “Politicians largely blame the media for their poor reputation and the public for expecting and demanding more than they are capable of delivering. The media blames the politicians - after all, they only report what politicians do. The community blames politicians because they do not deliver on their promises, ‘feather their own nests’ and put party interests before the interests of those they are elected to represent. These vantage-point explanations largely seek to displace blame. However, there is an element of truth in all of them.”
Lewis contends that politicians complain that they are often subjected to biased journalism, which treats them as a homogeneous group and portrays all of them in a bad light yet while they blame the media for the growing public cynicism toward them, according to Lewis, “research indicates that the public are discerning when it comes to the media: they do not believe all that they read. The public consciously selects and forms their own opinion about the media’s message; they do not simply accept it. Nor is the media the sole source of influence on people’s opinions.”
While I believe that the accusation of politicians is both unfair and unfounded, I am also aware that the process of nation-building in Nigeria can benefit more from the old traditional role of journalism. By investigating and reporting critical issues of governance, pressure, however fleeting, is often brought to bear on those that are in power who are then compelled to raise their game. The challenge, however, is that at this most critical period in the history of our nation, there is need for some form of collaboration between the media and the government. For instance, there is currently an intense contestation for power among the major geo-ethnic groups in the country with religion being gradually added into the mix. Tensions arising from the projection of such interests by the media could be distracting so it is important for practitioners to moderate the discourse in a manner that would promote the security of our country at a time we are contending against a dangerous insurgency.
As we move towards the 2015 general elections, there is a growing apprehension, in several quarters, of an impending national crisis. For that reason, the nation-building role of the media has become rather critical. Against the background that when Nigerian politicians become desperate as many are becoming today, they are usually very dangerous to the health of the larger society, it is important for us not to yield our platforms to hate mongers whose polarizing rhetoric could only push our plural society towards its delicate fault-lines.
As I stated earlier, the 2015 general election is crucial because Nigeria is going through a period in which we must ask questions of those who are leading us as well as those who seek to replace them and it is our responsibility as journalists to help moderate the conversation. We cannot continue to elect those we expect to lead us into peace and prosperity on the basis of ethnic or religious sentiment. We must know how they intend to revive the economy, reposition critical social sectors like education and health while the character of such people is also important. And when I talk about leadership, we have to look at it from all levels because the man we send to the state house of assembly or to the government house in our state is as important to our collective welfare as the man we send to Aso Rock.
It is unfortunate that today people are not asking questions and we as journalists are not either so we are practically going to the election blindfolded. Yet it is important that we demand of the people who seek our votes to participate in debates so that we can know what they stand for, beyond providing some “stomach infrastructure”. On this score, I think the Guild of Editors will be doing Nigerians a big favour by leading the effort. I am aware that PDP presidential candidates, from Obasanjo to my late boss, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and the incumbent Dr. Goodluck Jonathan have become notorious at dodging debates but we must hold them to account this time.
Debate is important because at the heart of democracy, according to Clarence Ayres, is the idea that each citizen has a voice, actualised in the right to vote. But democracy is not just about majority rule, it is the process of inquiry by which consensus is formed. Therefore, by enlightening the citizenry on what the real issues are, journalism helps to institutionalise the democratic process because the more diverse the information available to the public, the more accurate social valuations they can make. The other side to it, however, is that if critical issues are distorted or muted while promoting emotional issues that divide, the quality of debate will suffer and the democratic process will be unable to accurately assess society's problems or prescribe solutions.
Right now, many of the states cannot meet their obligations, including the payment of salaries to workers. Yet as bad as that situation may seem, things are likely not going to get better since our economy is still dependent largely on receipts from oil rent that is now on a free fall. On the security front, only during the civil war did we have the kind of situation which obtains today in a section of the country where a bunch of criminals are daily carving out territories for themselves. According to the figures released last week in Abuja, from July 2009 to date when Boko Haram terrorists attacked Maiduguri Prisons and freed 482 inmates, a total of 2,255 inmates have been freed from various prisons across the country in 14 different attacks while a total of 46 prison officers comprising 42 serving and four retired personnel have been killed. President Goodluck Jonathan two months ago put the figure of Nigerians that have been killed as a result of the insurgency at well over 13,000 while millions are now displaced.
The security situation is compounded by the seeming hopelessness of a vast majority of young graduates who cannot find jobs and I don’t think I need to bore you with the details of the Nigerian Immigration Service recruitment exercise tragedy since you were all living witnesses. These are some of the issues that ordinarily should dominate discourse as we move towards the 2015 general election and it is our responsibility as journalists to bring these issues to the fore. Whatever happens next year and regardless of the antics of our politicians, it is how we play our role as journalists (in the selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information and in keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premise) that will help shape the direction of the nation for good or for ill.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, let me now conclude by going back to the story with which I opened this intervention. The politician in question, like all politicians, is too taken in by his own self-importance. But since God in His infinite wisdom has also ordained strength in the mouths of babes and suckling, the pupil had to remind him that he was not as important to the society as he considered himself to be. The role played by that pupil is important in every society because some people would have to summon the courage, even at great personal risk, to speak the truth to power. Therefore, it goes without saying that many of us are here today because the man we are celebrating has for years demonstrated the kind of intervention done by that pupil. For almost two decades, Pastor Bakare has been a thorn in the flesh of inept and incompetent leadership in Nigeria and we must salute his courage and doggedness.
On a personal note, he is one man for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration and because of that, I have also not shied from telling him the truth, however unpalatable. Fortunately, he has tolerated me and it is indeed a measure of his generousity of spirit that I am invited here today. When in 2002 or thereabout, I thought Pastor Bakare was getting too personal in his criticisms of President Olusegun Obasanjo, his Egba kinsman, who at that time was not exactly my friend too, I used one of the sermons I once heard him preach to warn him in a piece titled “In the year that King Uziah Died”. That did not exactly earn me friends in Latter Rain Assembly. Yet, that also did not count against me with Pastor Bakare who in my hour of serious distress as spokesman to the late president or “spokesman to the cabal”, if you believe the story at the time. I can confess here today that Pastor Bakare was one of the few people whose counsel helped me to navigate the political landmines. I am very grateful Sir.
However, when on the morning of January 31, 2011, my wife woke me up in Cambridge Massachusetts in the United States where we were at the time, to show me news feed on her Blackberry, that Pastor Bakare had been nominated as the presidential running mate to Major General Muhammadu Buhari, I was taken aback. Since I was out of the country at the time, I was not in the loop about what was going on so it came right out of the blue. I waited three days before I called Pastor Bakare on phone and I am sure he will remember my exact words because they were few. I said: “Sir, I am sure you know why I am calling. I am not going to congratulate you but I will be praying for you.”
As Pastor Bakare marks his 60th birthday, and having regard to the totality of his sacrifices and contributions to our society, I have no doubts that it is most fitting to honour a man whose ministry advances the work of God and the service of man, a worthy example for members of my generation and the Christian faith. It is also perfectly in character that we are gathered here today not to launch another Private Jet (most often bought with ill-gotten money) but to discuss ideas that will advance the cause of our country. Without any hesitation, I say to Pastor Bakare today, congratulations. Igba odun, ojo kan!
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for listening and God bless.
Text of a paper presented at the 60th birthday lecture of Pastor Tunde Bakare, the Serving General Overseer of the Latter Rain Assembly, in Lagos on 10th October, 2014