To many, the recent virulent attacks and counter attacks by top Nigerian journalists, served a la carte to the world in the last two weeks, are indications of an autumn for journalism practice in Nigeria. Nigerians have thus been treated to a disgraceful brew of damaging and ignoble exchanges from these media warlords. The public spat has made Nigerians to call to question the integrity of their media practitioners. To them, the media space, in the name of politics, has become a hostile jungle, revealing the patent biases of its practitioners in the coverage of society.
Three warlords are at the centre of this spat. They are Bayo Onanuga, Dele Alake and Nduka Obaigbena. Except for Obaigbena, publisher of the Thisday newspaper, whose current political leaning is a subject of intense guess-work, the other two have apparently gone to Thessalonica. As biblical Paul awaited execution, he lamented how Demas, his friend and associate, had forsaken him “because he loves the things of this life and has gone to Thessalonica.” Thessalonica signifies the world of perfidy. Judging by its abhorrence of partisanship, journalism profession seems to be shawled in lamentations today at the apostasy of these barons “because (they love) the things of this life.”
To be fair to both Alake and Onanuga, they possess lofty pedigree of media practice. After graduating in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos in 1980, Onanuga worked with the Ogun State Television where he began practice. He moved to The Guardian and thereafter to the National Concord and African Concord magazine before finally founding TheNEWS, TEMPO magazine, as well as P.M.NEWS. In 2014, Onanuga opted to contest the Ogun East district senatorial ticket of the All Progressives Congress (APC), an ambition which got botched. He thereafter became the DG of NAN.
Alake’s media foray is not totally dissimilar from Onanuga’s. After a degree in Political Science from the University of Lagos and an internship with the Ogun State Broadcasting Corporation, (OGBC) he joined the Lagos State Broadcasting Corporation (LSBC) as Senior Sub-Editor but in 1985, joined business mogul, MKO Abiola’s Concord Group of Newspapers wherein, in 1989, he was appointed editor of Sunday Concord and in 1995, editor of the National Concord. He held this post till June, 1999 when then governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu, appointed him Information Commissioner. Since then, Alake has literally gone to Thessalonica, away from journalism. He is implicated in virtually every sub-media construction, deconstruction and misconstruction of the Tinubu perspectives in the Nigerian media. In 2010, Alake also made an attempt to contest the senatorial seat of his Ekiti State home’s Central District but retreated in the heat of defeat staring him in the face. Onanuga and Alake are today major sharks in the Tinubu media ocean in his bid to clinch the Nigerian presidency in the 2023 election, having been appointed Presidential Campaign Council’s (PCC) Director of Media and Publicity and Director, Strategic Communication respectively.
The two have escalated their defence of public angst and disgust at their principal, Tinubu’s peremptory gaffes at public events, locating these gaffes at the doorsteps of a claimed disaffection Obaigbena and his media group have for Tinubu. While the gaffes and speech incoherence have made many to submit that Tinubu either lacks the mythical depth attributed to him by his lieutenants over the years or is suffering from an unnamed mental disconnect, Onanuga and Alake have pursued the narrative that Tinubu is neither of both. Obaigbena’s group has however doubled down, in an overarching manner, on the need for public scrutiny of both claims.
Two journalists in the Obaigbena Arise Television group – highly respected Reuben Abati and Oseni Rufai – have been held as culprits by the Tinubu group. Common sense should have dictated that the path to walk was to address the fears that Tinubu, if elected, would be a worse replica of Nigeria’s current infirmary-bound president. This view, if they care to investigate, is ten-a-dime on Nigerian streets. Rather, Onanuga and Alake have sought to make a victim of Tinubu, insisting that the Arise group’s invitation to him to attend a Town Hall debate it organized was designed to “embarrass” Tinubu. The result is that both Onanuga and Alake have gone very low in their pursuit of this mindset. This they did by dwelling on what they claimed was Obaigbena’s crooked media dealings. They have since vowed never to make available “our candidate” to validate a scheme which they said, “in the light of unassailable information at our disposal,” is nothing but “a racket by the Arise TV owner, designed to embarrass our candidate.”
Apart from their gambit to criminalize scrutiny into Tinubu’s past and any demand for him to attend any presidential debate, Onanuga and Alake’s plan is to make Obaigbena, Abati, Oseni and their Thisday and Arise TV media worthless to the public, giving them the Dan Rather treatment before the 2023 election. Rather, a CBS News icon, in September 2004, fell to his own and foibles. A few months to the presidential election of that year, he had commented on some documents that were critical of President George Bush’s Air National Guard service. The Bush Internet bloggers, within minutes, went into action and documents presented by Rather as forged. Rather’s thirty-three-year-long career on CBS came crashing and his worth reduced to the basest.
In response to Arise’s demand of satisfactory answer to the circumstances surrounding the forfeiture of funds to the US government by Tinubu in an alleged Chicago drug dealing, Onanuga and Alake went into the abyss of argumentative fallacies. They regurgitated irrelevant traits alleged to be their opponents’ and attacking their personal matters. For instance, they claimed that the Thisday founder owes taxes abroad and is a slave driver. While I am yet to know whether their principal’s media house is free of these charges, I submit that these are different and irrelevant matters entirely to the riveting allegation that is expected of them to defend.
The truth is that, the Nigerian public is wary of an impending inclination to elect a drug peddler as president and needs clinical answers to queries on Tinubu. What to do, methinks, is to offer documentary, unassailable evidence of Tinubu being above board. But as it is known with ad hominine arguments, Onanuga and Alake chose to deal in the person of their victims. Again, they committed what is called the Strawman fallacy in argument when, rather than provide irrefutable evidence that Tinubu didn’t do drugs, they brought out a third party, Buruji Kashamu, who became their referent and his association with Abati an apt response to the Chicago drug allegation. Is Abati running for the Nigerian presidency? Is association immoral, criminal or both? So, if every association is immoral, how does one rate their own association with Tinubu? Does it make them guilty of all moral/criminal drawbacks that Tinubu has been alleged to be complicit of?
One error made by the public is to see erstwhile practitioners of media in the same mould as when they were active in the profession. These are persons who have entered into liaison with politically exposed persons. Yoruba call this the horrific error of viewing the dead same way as they were when alive. The punishment for this error, Yoruba say of this error, is a call on the gnome – the Ebora – to de-robe such ignoramus. It is thus a great blunder to refer to the three main musketeers at the centre of the debate on the role of the media in these shameful exchanges as journalists. Dog tenders know that the moment a dog tastes blood, it is ripe to be excised from tame animals. Onanuga, Alake and Obaigbena can no longer be referred to as journalists, in the true sense of it. Judging by their current preoccupation, they can conveniently be referred to as merchants of news, who merchandize and have a consumeric relationship with news and journalism. At the least, they are journal-preneurs, if there is anything so called.
I have always maintained that the moment a journalist, columnist or even an activist, bails out of active practice and mingles with politicians, they most times lose their erstwhile objectivity. The people, who used to be their constituency, are substituted for the politically exposed persons who are now their employers. In this wise, it would be tantamount to waiting for Godot for society to expect such erstwhile media practitioners to preference the people, at the expense of their principals.
In the tiff between Onanuga and Alake on one side and Obaigbena on the other, ordinary Nigerian people are not in their consideration at all. It is the warlords’ bellies, businesses, political principals and their projected political positions in the federal government that are at issue. So when Nigerians now obfuscate the issues as if journalism practice is on parade and is implicated, it beats me hollow. Where they are today is comparable to that of a vulture which sees carcass from a purely gourmet point of view and not as a dying creation. The exchanges Nigerians read from these people are gourmand epistles.
As is the allegation Onanuga and Alake leveled against Obaigbena, most media houses in Nigeria and even in other democracies of the world, are explicitly linked to particular politicians. These politicians are their friends and associates. To many others, due to economic interests and political association or affiliation of their publishers or owners, they are forced to trade in politically tainted views. In the process, news and opinions reflect those political interests, leanings and loyalties and facts are relegated to the background.
In a chapter in a book entitled Reflections on a decade of democratization in Nigeria (2010), a project of the German Friedrich Ebert-Stiftung Foundation, edited by Prof Lai Olurode which we entitled A decade of democratization: The Nigerian press and ethno-proprietorial influences, authored by Prof Adigun Agbaje and I, we submitted that the Nigerian media has always been a battleground of interests. We looked at how the Nigerian press of the First Republic was not blameless in the fall of the First and Second republic Nigeria and how journalists, pandering to proprietorial, financial and ethnic interests, have, since the advent of the Fourth republic, been tossing Nigeria right, left and centre.
The strategy of shielding candidates from public scrutiny which Alake and his PCC are attempting was same path they trod with Buhari as presidential candidate. Buhari’s health and depth limitations were shielded from the Nigerian public, through all manner of shenanigans, by Alake as Media Director in the Muhammadu Buhari Campaign Organization in 2014, in company with his colleagues. Nigerians will be making another huge mistake if they allow a reactivation and effectuation of same strategy. It only led us to the Buhari doom in our hands. So, if Alake and Onanuga feel that the Arise TV of Obaigbena are attempting to embarrass Tinubu – which is a valid fear – let them bring their principal to the TVC which is public knowledge that he owns, for an organized debate. The debate must however be coordinated by respected Nigerians as anchors. Tinubu must answer critical enquiries that will help voters evaluate his mental depth, cohesion of thoughts and ability to govern Nigeria. Nigerians must refuse to be cowed by Onanuga and Alake at all.
AriseTV and Thisday group must also proceed from zeroing in on Tinubu alone into grilling Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi as well. We need to ask Abubakar questions about scandals that rocked his time in office. In 2007, The Guardian of London reported that senators accused Abubakar, then sitting vice-president, of diverting more than $100m (£51m) of public funds into companies he was connected to. His boss, President Oluesgun Obasanjo, was said to have petitioned the senate. A Senate inquiry, according to the newspaper, recommended that Abubakar should be prosecuted. Abubakar office’s reply was that “the legislative body should not allow its name to be dragged into the mud by a few members who may be pursuing their own hidden agenda”.
A plethora of other allegations, especially one flowing from William Jefferson and the Petroleum Trust Development Fund (PTDF) scandal which involved Atiku Abubakar and Obasanjo, must also be totally explained. Despite the senate indicting him and Obasanjo in the PTDF scandal, no action has been taken against them since 2007. It should be same for Peter Obi. Allegations of any fraud connected to him must be brought to the public space and he must be made to answer them. These two too must be brought to the open by the Arise/Thisday group and indeed on any Nigerian media platform. We cannot afford to have a country presided over by malefactors and journal-preneurs in Thessalonica who are prescribing and imposing on us their own brand of the Nigerian moral code.