Daily Trust (Abuja)

Nigeria: Ten Years of Trust's Dialogue (II)

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In my overview two weeks ago of Media Trust Limited's ten years of annual dialogue which started in 2004, I said the four most exciting - and should have added most interesting - for me were the third on the scourge of corruption in Nigeria, the seventh on African women in politics, the ninth on politics and the media and this year's on nation building.

The other six were, of course, exciting and interesting enough. The first, as the regular participants would know, was on the same theme of nation building as this year's. The second, though on the dismal science, was made interesting by the panel of three of Nigeria's leading economists, Professors Sam Aluko, now late, and Mike Kwanashie of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and the prolific and ever controversial Malam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the Central Bank Governor, but at that time the risk manager of United Bank for Africa.

In their subject matter alone, the fourth (2007) on how to conduct free and fair elections in the country, the fifth (2008) on the challenges of democracy on the continent and the sixth (2009) on how to restore public faith in the country's politics, were also exciting. But their various panellists - Professor Maurice Iwu, probably the most discredited chairman of the country's election commission, Alhaji Ahmadu Kurfi, its longest serving executive secretary and Chief Segun Osoba, one of the five Action Congress governors in the South-West President Olusegun Obasanjo knocked out for six in the 2003 governorship elections through sheer cunning (2007), Ghana's President Jerry Rawlings (2008) and the trio of Anambra's Governor Peter Obi, former House Speaker Bello Masari and Comrade Oshiomhole, then still legally contesting his defeat at the Edo governorship elections in the 2007 elections (2009) - ensured there were no dull moments during those three dialogues.

The eighth dialogue in 2011 on the challenges of good governance in Africa was also a natural crowd puller if only because of the prevalence of bad governance on the continent. It was the more interesting because one of the three billed to lead the dialogue, Dr Mo Ibrahim, the telecommunication billionaire, had instituted a well-endowed prize for good governance on the continent which is Africa's closest answer to the Nobel Peace prize, in the sense that much of the widespread conflict on the continent can be traced directly to bad governance by its leaders.

As things turned out, the audience did not get the benefit of Mo Ibrahim's rationale for instituting his prize, among other things the audience would have loved to hear from him, even though he turned up for the event. He could not speak because he fell ill on the night before the event. It was then left to the pair of Mr Fola Adeola, a highly successful banker and reformer of the country's pension scheme, and Ms Arunma Oteh, the boss of Nigeria's Security Exchange Commission, to lead the dialogue. For me the most memorable remark to come out of that year's dialogue was Adeola's profound statement that Nigerians seem to have outsourced their problems to God, instead of taking responsibility for what they say or do, good or bad. Since then God, it seems, has remained the patient refuge of every scoundrel, probably even more so today.

All of which brings me back to the four dialogues I said were the most exciting and interesting for me, i.e. those of 2006, 2010, 2012 and this year's. The first of this lot was the subject of this column two weeks ago. The problem of this country, I said, was not corruption as such but the brazenness with which it is practiced and the fact that, far from punishing corruption, we indeed celebrate it from the top to the bottom of society.

It is this attitude towards corruption which has made it all so easy for many of our leaders to "chop and clean mouth," to use the peculiar Nigerian expression for the complete lack of shame among our leaders about their sordid past, even the immediate past.

This, more than the topic of the 2010 dialogue about the African women in politics and the formidable panel of Winnie Mandela, Kofoworola Bucknor-Akerele, Naja'atu Mohammed and Ms Samira Nkrumah, was what I found interesting about the year's dialogue. It was truly amazing, at least for me, how President Obasanjo, as the chairman of the occasion, could look Nigerians straight in the eyes and tell them he did not know Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar'adua, then governor of Katsina State, was a sick person when he imposed him on his party as its presidential candidate and went on to impose him on Nigerians as their president in 2007.

But then Obasanjo knew his Nigeria like the back of his hand, as they say. So he proceeded to wash his hands off his handiwork and asked Yar'adua, who he knew was at that point not in charge of his faculties, to "take the path of honour" and resign as president. A few voices were raised against the immorality of his pretence but the overwhelming majority, as he must have reckoned, focussed on the message rather than on the messenger. In any case, the following day, the message virtually drowned out the subject of that year's dialogue.

As a veteran journalist and political pundit, it is not surprising that I found the subject of the 2012 dialogue among the most exciting and interesting. Image, as America's Abraham Lincoln once reportedly said, is everything, or almost. This explains, at least partly, why journalists and politicians have been in a love-hate incestuous relationship of use and dump for as long as anyone can remember. This was clearly demonstrated by the way Governor Adams Oshiomhole, as much a man of media image as he is of his actions, condemned the media during the dialogue as all too often a purveyor of fiction, not, I must say, without justification.

Two telling examples lend support to Oshiomhole's charges, one ancient, and the other recent. The ancient was reported by the late Alhaji Babatunde Jose, the doyen of Nigeria's press, in his 1987 autobiography, Walking a Tight Rope: Power Play at Daily Times. This was in his account of the 1953 so-called Hausa/Igbo riots in Kano. At that time he was a senior reporter with the newspaper and was on a familiarization tour of the North. "I," he said in the book, "had quite correctly reported it in my copy as a riot between Hausas and Yorubas. Somehow it appeared in Daily Times as a riot between Hausas and Ibos, a very different matter and potentially a very dangerous error."

The edition was seized and pulped by the colonial authorities and another with the correct version printed for circulation but not, unfortunately, before the damage had been done. "We," he said, "never found out how the mistake occurred. Was it an accident or was it a deliberate attempt to foment trouble?"

Whatever the motive, the acorn of distrust that story planted in the geo-politics of this country has since grown into an oak tree, perhaps bigger.

The recent example of the press malice comes from a 1996 book, NIGERIA: Guerrilla Journalism by Michele Maringuez, by no means an enemy of the Nigerian press. On the contrary she had a lot of positive things to say about the country's press in her book. Even so she lamented that it was "often astonishingly negligent about checking and confirming its sources or even statistics. Errors and glitches abound and are seldom corrected in the next edition."

She gave an example of how AFP, the French news agency, and The Guardian, the self-styled flagship of the Nigerian press, published different statistics from an IMF press conference in Lagos about Nigeria's economy. When the worried AFP correspondent cross-checked with the IMF it turned out the flagship was wrong.

Maringuez's second example was even more egregious. In December 1993, she pointed out, three of the country's leading news magazines carried a sensational story that former self-styled military president, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, was on the run from the General Abacha regime. The News' banner headline on its cover read "Babangida's dramatic escape." African Concord's was "A dictator on the run." Tell's was even more dramatic. "Why IBB is on the run," it said, with his picture along with his late wife, Maryam, getting off a plane.

It turned out that, far from being on the run, the man and his wife had only gone for lesser Hajj in Saudi Arabia and for holiday abroad only to return a few weeks later. None of the magazines ever mentioned his return.

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