Tuesday, May 28, 2019 1:40 pm
By Kayode Fayemi
It is an honour to be here today to celebrate one of the contemporary embodiments of the finest traditions of journalism in Nigeria’s history, Dapo Olorunyomi.
I have been asked to speak to the theme of the media’s role in elections and democracy. I intend to do so by putting the sacrifices and vision of the radical and progressive journalists and media intellectuals such as the man popularly called Dapsy, in context. It is important that we reflect on the role of the media in contemporary elections and under democratic rule in Nigeria, however, what we shouldn’t forget on occasions like this is to look back and also celebrate the contributions of those who worked in and through the media to ensure that we have self-rule as well as democratic rule in Nigeria. Whatever the imperfections of our current democratic system and the elections which have become, for two decades now, the only legitimate means of deciding our leaders, we cannot but celebrate the fact that our national fate is no longer decided among a clique in military barracks – or, as under colonial rule, among some foreigners who imposed themselves on us.
The subject of the book being presented today, Dapo Olorunyomi, is not only an exemplar in public affairs or, more specifically, guerrilla and investigative journalism, one with a fierce commitment to the pursuit of truth in the service of the creation or sustenance of human liberty, justice and equity, he is also a consummate instigator or generator of civil dissension and public contention targeted at the regeneration of society. Yet, all these constitute only one aspect of his public engagements and interventions. In the other less publicly known or less acknowledged aspect, Olorunyomi is additionally a subterranean engineer of social and political combines or machines for the simultaneous stabilisation and correction of public institutions. At one level, he is a destroyer of hegemonic structures and tyrannical regimes; at the other level, he is a builder of maintainable institutions for the generation and nourishment of sharable public good. A non-doctrinaire ideologue who is uncompromising or unyielding in his commitment to the building and sustenance of a good society, still, Olorunyomi is capable of building underground political alliances and networks of information-sharing and political intelligence among even the most seemingly irreconcilable elements or forces towards accomplishing otherwise impossible social goals. While many of you are familiar with his work in the one aspect of his life I described earlier, for the sake of protecting my sources – a practice not unfamiliar to the consummate investigative journalist himself – I shall not disclose confidential examples of the second aspect, particularly in the post-military era. A few books, and some of the contributors to the book being presented today, Testimony to Courage: Essays in Honour of Dapo Olorunyomi, have already hinted at some of the covert operations in which Olorunyomi was involved towards the resolution of Nigeria’s perennial challenges.
As a fellow traveller in exile during the darkest days of military rule, I can attest to Olorunyomi’s strategic mind, readiness for sacrifices, capacity for risk-taking and intense commitment to democratic rule and Nigeria’s greater glory. Whether in the sustenance of the opposition radio station during the late military era, that is, Radio Kudirat, or in the circulation of rival motifs underground or above ground during the pro-democracy struggle, Olorunyomi was always there with the forces of democratic change and national renewal. I tell some aspects of this story in my book, Out of The Shadows: Exile and the Struggle for Freedom & Democracy in Nigeria. When we were moving the equipment for Radio Freedom Frequency – which was later renamed Radio Kudirat – into Nigeria, we had to go through the Republic of Benin. I flew to Cotonou where I met General Alani Akinrinade and others. I read now from page 165 of Out of the Shadows, after we
“tested the equipment successfully … our contacts took on the task of transporting the equipment [to Nigeria]. At home, Beko [Ransome-Kuti] took delivery from General Akinrinade’s contact, Dr Amos Akingba, and then the team responsible began the planning towards the June 12, 1995 D-Day. The three key people that worked with Beko on this project were Gbolahan Olalemi, a versatile computer technologist and broadcaster completely dedicated to the cause of democracy in Nigeria, who was later to join us abroad as the Engineer in charge of Radio Kudirat. The other was veteran journalist, Dapo Olorunyomi, one of the founders of The News magazine and Wale Oshun who discreetly monitored the reception of Radio Freedom Frequency around Lagos as Lemi and Dapo went to work on installing the transmitters.”
In case anyone has forgotten the state of affairs in Nigeria in 1995 or for the young people here who were too young to know what was happening 24 years ago, Dapsy and Lemi were installing the opposition radio transmitters under not only a tyrannical, but also a murderous, regime. This is the kind of courage that Dapsy has displayed in the pursuit of democratic rule.
In another page of the book, I added that: “On account of what was suspected as their own leaning towards the democratic forces however, the two main operators, Dapo Olorunyomi [were] declared wanted and [Olorunyomi’s] wife, Ladi, was even detained in his place when he couldn’t be found and ‘Lemi also ended up in the Inter-Centre dungeon.” Olorunyomi was eventually persuaded to go into exile.
Olorunyomi risked not only his freedom, but also his life to ensure that Nigeria became a democratic state in which every citizen will enjoy their natural and constitutional liberties, including the fundamental freedom to choose their leaders. I must say that while Dapsy has been acknowledged as a leader among the class of journalists whose style of journalism and public engagement led to their description as guerrilla journalists, what is yet to be acknowledged about Dapsy’s natural proclivity, intellectual nurturing and political inclination is that if he were not a journalist, he would still have been a guerrilla!
In working towards a state and society in which freedom, justice, and equity are the norms, Olorunyomi’s life and work therefore represent useful angles for us to re-examine the role of the media in elections and democracy.
Media intellectuals and the Struggle for Self-Determination
It has often been stated that the history of the media formation that was later identified as the Nigerian press is older than the history of the colonial and later postcolonial entity named Nigeria. This fact, a media scholar has argued, ensured and still ensures that the Nigerian press was and is able to tap into associational connections, commitments, and loyalties within and across social, cultural and political divides crucial in the empowerment and defence of non-state and also anti-state actions. This is evidenced in the pivotal role of the Nigerian press in the struggle against colonial domination and the struggle for political independence as well as in the struggle against military rule, civilian misrule and in defence of democratic governance. Sadly, some times it is also evidenced in the divisive role that the press has played in moments of national crisis, such as the years preceding the Civil War.
Other scholars have alerted us to the fact that the nature of the history of the Nigerian press vis-à-vis the formation of the modern state in Nigeria has also helped the Nigerian press in developing and expanding spaces of autonomous action and manoeuvres in relation to powerful forces and dominant interests in the state and society. While these points are crucial in understanding the public role of the Nigerian press, it is also important that we underline the initial role of intellectuals, thinkers and social visionaries in the formation of what was initially identified as the West African press and eventually became the Nigerian press. The founding intellectual traditions of the Nigerian press from the second half of the 19th century which the likes of Olorunyomi has carried into the 21st century should be one of the critical pivots for the analysis of the contemporary role of the media in elections and democracy in Nigeria.
As Fred Omu asserts in his highly regarded work, Press and Politics in Nigeria: 1880-1937, “What distinguished West African newspapers from the earlier mission newspapers [in the 19th century] was their high radical potentiality….[T]he early newspaper press was inevitably a political press.”
Adds Omu in what might appear as a commentary on the work of the media in the age of the Olorunyomis: “It followed that the press assumed the role of the opposition and sought to rival the government, encouraging political awareness and involvement by providing a means of criticism of the authorities and spreading dissatisfaction with official plans and policies.”
Though the pioneers were originally not journalists but public intellectuals with different professional training in law, medicine, engineering, architecture, even priesthood, or technicians and merchants, most of them became media intellectuals because they recognised that the battle for the validation of the humanity of the black people in the West Coast of Africa and the elaboration of our cultural heritage in relation to the Enlightenment project was an important task in building a modern society founded on the ideals of the Enlightenment, including human subjectivity, Liberty, Progress, Reason, Tolerance and Fraternity. These pioneers included the Jamaican-born Robert Campbell of the Anglo-African newspaper, Richard Beale Blaize of the Lagos Times, Owen Emerick Maucaulay of the Eagle and Lagos Critic, John Payne Johnson and his son, Horatio Johnson, both of the Lagos Weekly Record, George Alfred Williams of the Lagos Standard, James Bright Davies of the Nigerian Times, Kitoye Ajasa of the Nigerian Pioneer, Ernest Ikoli of the African Messager and Herbert Macaulay of the Lagos Daily News. Though these pioneers had different professional skills before becoming public intellectuals, Enlightenment touch-bearers and, later, anti-imperialist agitators, by and through their work in the press, they recognized that the important tasks of their age could not be accomplished without using the press to conscientize their people and build the public sphere that was necessary for the work of mental, social and political emancipation. The pioneers of the Nigerian press began their engagement with the pressing questions of their age through a careful and thoughtful analysis of the conditions of liberty and progress. Thus, they had an epistemological, philosophical, and historical understanding of the project they were embarking upon. They were prepared.
This was the tradition seized and renewed by the generation most ably represented by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. When Dr. Azikiwe returned to Nigeria in the 1930s and started the West African Pilot, a new era of political journalism anchored on intellectual skills and focussed on political emancipation dawned in Nigeria. He mobilized the press not only as an instrument of the struggle for political freedom, but also as the core institution for the articulation of a vision of an open and good society. He helped to reclaim the earliest traditions of the political press in Nigeria, that is, as the vanguard of the intellectual leadership of the civil and political society. At the centre of the project of the Azikiwes in the 1930s and 1940s was the clarification and articulations of the conditions of the democratic mode of governance and self-rule. The unbroken ties that bind the press and representative democracy is symbolized by the fact that the political party that first elected representatives into the colonial legislature, the Nigerian National Democratic Party, was founded by a journalist and newspaper publisher, Herbert Macaulay who also worked with one of those who practically reformed the Nigerian press in the first half of the 20th century, Nnamdi Azikiwe, to form another political party, the NCNC, in 1944. Later, on the platform of the party, Azikiwe became the first president of Nigeria.
However, for many years after independence, the tradition of intellectual leadership of public life by media intellectual waned as ethno-regional politics, military rule and all sorts of sectarianism sucked the energy out of the intellectual wing of Nigerian journalism. However, this tradition was revived as the Second Republic collapsed. Two important media organisations represented the revival of this tradition in the 1980s. This included the founding of The Guardian newspaper in 1983 and the Newswatch magazine two years later. As the era of high impact media intellectuals was resuscitated in the 1980s, Nigerian journalism embraced a new mandate of ensuring intellectual clarifications of the most urgent problems of state and society. This was a heavy burden under military rule, as the experiences of these two organisations and their editors and reporters show. Represented by Stanley Macebuh and Dele Giwa, The Guardian and Newswatch paraded first-rate media intellectuals backed by an excellent reportorial team that exercised caution but exhibited fearlessness in reporting and commenting on public affairs. The opinion pages of The Guardian and TheNEWS were the go-to forums for the clarification of the most crucial public issues. They paraded some of the most articulate analysts of the Nigerian condition. Even in the reality of autocratic rule and the subversion of the tenets of human freedom and the right to self-rule, these intellectuals and the reporters working with them, ensured that the questions of national unity, democratic freedom, justice and equity were at the centre stage of our national debate, despite threats of assassination and actual assassinations, imprisonment and threats or actual closures of media houses.
When the likes of Dapo Olorunyomi inherited this tradition and joined the battle in the 1990s, something qualitatively different happened to the intellectual tradition that I am describing. I stated earlier that the Macebuh-Giwa era paraded first rate media intellectuals backed by an excellent reportorial team that exercised caution but exhibited fearlessness in reporting public affairs. What happened in the era led by the Olorunyomis was that they threw away the caution as they exhibited greater fearlessness – some critics would even say that they embraced recklessness. And to that we would say, “reckless for a reason”!
As perceptive observers of the Nigerian condition and as students of the history of the death of nations know, Olorunyomi and others recognised that the brand of military adventurism that Nigerian confronted from the late 1980s to the early 1990s was one that could turn Nigeria into a Banana Republic. The end of Nigeria’s history was in sight, unless something urgent and desperate was done. They recognised that we were moving towards the endless dictatorship or the imperial autocracy of Mobutu’s Zaire, Eyadema’s Togo or Quadaffi’s Libya. Thus, while the intellectual tools of the earlier eras of the Johnsons, the Azikiwes, the Macebuhs and Giwas were critical, the Olorunyomi generation realised that those tools needed to be augmented by a certain intellectual audacity and ideological daring that were critical for confronting murderous regimes. Therefore, in throwing caution to the wind, the radical and progressive media intellectuals of the 1990s recognised that in the absence of democratic rule they were not only the surviving ‘People’s Parliament’ – as TELL described itself – they were also the most organised and the loudest ‘Voices of the People.’ Starting from the cover story in the African Concord magazine anchored by Olorunyomi, entitled ‘Has Babangida Given Up?’, radical journalism in Nigeria entered a new stage of direct confrontation with military autocracy that could only have ended in defeat for one side. Armed with the pen – and I must add, aided by the restructuring of the associational connections, commitments, and loyalties within and across social and cultural divides which included labour, local and international civil society organisations, and even subversive state agents – the media intellectuals of the 1990s became also democratic activists using the press to end military rule in order to push Nigeria into democratic rule. Those who thought the popular maxim that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ was a mere metaphor knew better when Abacha’s autocracy collapsed in 1998 and the succeeding military regime hurriedly handed over power to a democratically-elected government.
The radical press and their allied organisations didn’t directly end General Sani Abacha’s misrule or chased out the General Abdusalami Abubakar regime. However, they provided the necessary conditions that eventuated in the end of autocracy and the return to democratic rule. When TheNews and TELL emerged on the scene to send the soldiers back to their barracks, they worked with many organisations and concerned individuals, home and abroad – including some of us who had left everyday journalism for studies and work abroad – to ensure that the military didn’t end Nigeria’s history. That we still have a country to call ours today is in no small measure due to the efforts of the hardworking and self-sacrificing men and women of the Nigerian press, represented by the likes of Dapsy.
I have provided this background to understanding the role of the media in elections and democracy in Nigeria not merely to underscore the role and sacrifices of Nigerian journalists, but also for a number of other reasons.
In most countries in Africa, including Nigeria, for mos parts of the second half of the 20th century, the absence of democratic rule and/or the infrequent nature of elections meant that the dominant trend was the struggle by the media and other social forces to force the ruling elites to reinstate electoral rule and to ensure periodic elections. Since the 1990s when many African countries returned to democratic rule, the struggle has shifted to one concerned with democratising the conduct of elections and ensuring transparency and fairness in the electoral processes. It is therefore relevant that we examine how the media have fared in this role.
The Media, Elections and Democratic Rule
The media’s influence in a democracy and on elections have become conventional wisdom. Media experts have argued that the mass media “are the connective tissues of democracy. They are the principal means through which citizens and their elected representatives communicate in their reciprocal efforts to inform and influence.” In democratic societies, it is assumed that through the information they convey to mass audiences, the media “serve as key guarantors of elite accountability and popular control of government.” In light of this, a democratic media system has two important characteristics. One is that, because the media enjoy constitutional guarantees, citizens are assured of free access to political information all of shades. This ensures that citizens can challenge their government and also vote the government out of power, if it fails to serve the interest of the people. Two is that the media are protected from arbitrary power and that media pluralism is institutionalised. As experts have argued, this ensures that “Democracy is strengthened and its integrity ensured by the free flow of information and competition among public and commercial media articulating … a variety of political viewpoints to educate the public and allow it to make informed choices, particularly at election time.”
In any liberal democratic state, the media are expected to perform certain functions within the political system. These include:
It is now widely accepted that the best way for the political system to ensure the greatest benefits for the greatest number is to ensure that the representatives of the people are chosen by the people. The most effective and efficient way to do this is certainly through elections. Therefore, the purpose of elections is not just for the people to choose their representatives, more crucial is that elections constitute a way to enable citizens protect their interests. Therefore, it has been argued that elections “are one of the central instruments employed by nation-states to ensure that the democratic right of citizens and the will of the public are channeled into the political decision-making process.”
The mass media is crucial in this process. This is because the dissemination of news and commentary and the vigilance as well as the oversight on the electoral and democratic process provided by the media are imperative for accountable and sustainable structures of governance. The media not only provide opportunities for contending political parties and interests to present their programmes and plans to the electorate, they also provide the opportunities for the electorate, and the public in general, to analyse the programmes and plans of the political parties as well as evaluate the character and principles of those who want to represent the people in power. It is in the light of this that media scholars have concluded that “a democratic system of government that is not supported by a free, vibrant, and healthy media system represents a nominal rather than real system of democratic decision making.”
One of the most important challenges of the media in the context of democratic elections is the question of autonomy. Perhaps the Nigerian media need to examine why they are always often able to make huge sacrifices in crucial periods of history such as during the colonial and military era, to help in ending colonial and military rule but often fail to mobilise the comparable level of strategic vision and sacrifice during the democratic era. Why is the Nigerian media able to demonstrate greater autonomy in non-democratic periods of our national history than during the democratic period? When an election was annulled in the Third Republic, the critical section of the media fought the military government to a standstill, but when elections are stolen in the Fourth Republic, the media if often tepid in their responses. I recognize that the media cannot use the same tools it uses against a despotic government against a democratic government lest they provoke the overthrow of that government, as was experienced in the First and Second Republics, yet, a middle ground must be found which protects the sovereign rights of the people to elect their leaders without encouraging anti-democratic elements to hijack the people’s frustrations.
Modern mass democracy is possible in part because of the mass media. The access that the media affords ordinary citizens, it has been noted, creates conditions of dialogues between the rulers and the ruled. The media’s role in the periods between and immediately before elections are critical because this are moments when the civic impact of journalism is fully obvious. One potential role of the media in this context, particularly before elections, is to act as what has been described as “civic catalyst.” To act as a civic catalyst in regard to election, the Nigerian media has to balance between critical and cynical coverage of political campaigns. While they must be very critical in their coverage of political activities and analysis of the political parties and candidates, they must ensure that they refrain from promoting cynicism among the electorates such that many people will decide not to be part of the sovereign process of electing their leaders. Since whoever wins an election takes office, even if it is the minority of the electorate who participate in that election, the media need to do their best to ensure that more and more people continue to express their trust in the ballot box. In the 2015 presidential elections, the turnout was just 44 percent. Nigeria was thus in the 41st position out of 44 African countries – as measured by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. If we thought that was below expectation, the 2019 presidential election recorded even a lower percentage. In fact, it is the lowest voter turnout in the Fourth Republic. Only about 35 percent of those registered to vote did. We therefore have a crisis in our mode of mass representation, particularly given that we recorded 64.8 per cent voter turnout in the 2003 elections. I am not saying this is exclusively the problem of the media – politicians and political office holders, no doubt, carry a substantial part of the blame. I am only stating that the media have a civic role to persuade the electorate that the solution to disappointing outcomes from elections is not refusing to vote.
Additionally, the media in the Fourth Republic have to re-commit to “producing” citizens. By this I mean, helping to produce well-informed citizens who are enlightened and active. There are many ways to do this. These include presenting factual, accurate and multidimensional information that will ensure that citizens have a deep, and not a just surface, understanding of issues. Governance is a complex process. Reducing it to superficial reporting subverts the purposes of democracy, which is to empower citizens to choose the best possible leadership. This role of producing citizens requires the media to challenge candidates for elections as well as the elected representatives of the people. The quality of interviewing in the Nigerian media, if truth must be told, has declined sadly. With notable exceptions, many interviews conducted with political candidates and office-holders do not appear as if they are conducted to elicit the kinds of information and intelligence critical for the pursuit of public good. Any critical media observer can easily find countless examples in which journalist who conduct interviews show that they have not done their homework about the person being interviewed or about relevant issues. Some journalists start interviews with notable public figures by stating “tell us about yourself” or “may we meet you”. If you are yet to meet your interviewee, why are you wasting the time of your readers or viewers! Good interviewers are expected to disturb, upset, and demand transparency from office holders or those demanding public trust. Critical questions force politicians and officeholders to betray themselves and let out the kinds of frustrations that can become useful for citizens in making a decision about the quality of the minds of leaders. It is the kind of uncomfortable questions that led President Goodluck Jonathan to say “I don’t give a damn!” He never recovered from that expression of disdain for public dissatisfaction, among other factors. The electorate showed him in 2015 that they gave a damn!
In the age of fake news, the media have even a greater role in defence of truth, openness and transparency. As witnessed during the last elections in Nigeria, and as the 2016 elections in the United States and the referendum on Brexit in the United Kingdom show, protecting the integrity of elections starts with preventing massive disinformation and preventing small-scale misinformation. Technological revolutions have pluralised the means of getting information and news around the world. The social media are now the favourite information outlets for many young people. It is remarkable that the Nigerian media have done a lot to move online. Yet, the challenges that the social media pose to traditional media in terms of ensuring that the citizens have access to the truth and facts are enormous. Yet, how the media respond to this challenge now and in the near future will largely determine the fate of our democracy.
The media’s role in highlighting and pursuing gender equality in Nigeria democratic life is also critical. All the elections in the Fourth Republic have constituted a demonstration of patriarchal power in the country. Though an average of about 47 percent of registered voters are women, women have limited representation, as many observers have noted in their reports, and civic and scholarly analyses. We are yet to elect a female governor in Nigeria when three countries in Africa that do not have comparable human and material resources have elected female presidents (Liberia, Seychelles and Ethiopia). We need a dramatic increase in the number of women at every level and arm of government and in every stratum of political power and institution. A woman. Mrs Oyibo Odinamadu, was the Deputy National Chairman of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) in the Second Republic. Today, most political parties have women leaders only in the party’s women’s wing. Yet, we cannot claim to be a truly representative democracy when a gender that represents more than half of our population is not well represented. This must be the case in the media houses as well. We need more female editors, directors, managing directors and chairpersons of media houses and corporations.
As a “platform for discussion, representation and debate,” the history of media’s role in Nigeria’s general elections is not by all means ennobling. Historically, periods of general elections are often periods when the country ran the risk of democratic collapse, violence and crisis. This was particularly the case in moments of possible transition from civilian to civilian government, given that this represents a major test of democratic consolidation. In the First and Second Republics, the media were used with reckless abandon along the lines of party-political affiliations as well as ethno-regional lines. However, one of the most significant outcomes of the Third Republic is that, because the two military-imposed parties were devoid of serious ideological contents, the most significant election of that Republic, the June 12, 1993 president elections was not so much a contest between the two political parties, that is the SDP and the NRC, but a contest between the electorate and the self-perpetuating military regime. Thus, though the annulment of that election created national tension and led to the collapse of the Republic and almost led to the collapse of the country, the experience taught the national elite a lesson that seemed to have been forgotten since the end of the Civil War. This lesson seems to have manifested in the Fourth Republic. The lesson is that no contest for power is worth the collapse of Nigeria. For political power to be in contention, the Nigerian state has to survive. This is what produced the unusual and unprecedented consensus that diffused tension in the country at the start of the Fourth Republic. I will like to argue that, among other factors, the June 12 experience also created an important background that ensured the peaceful transfer of power in 2015. It is easy to say that Nigerians do not learn from history. The defeat of a ruling party in federal elections in Nigeria, followed by a peaceful transition of power from one party (the PDP) to the other (the APC) in 2015, is an indication that Nigeria has fully embraced democratic transition as the only legitimate means of power transfer. It used to be that losing parties and disaffected sections of Nigeria looked to the military after two rounds of elections for a change of government. Now even the soldiers who are interested in power have found that it is far less dangerous and certainly far more legitimate to seek power through the ballot box – as many of the former soldiers have done. This is partly why for the first time in our history, we have not only had a peaceful civilian-to-civilian transfer of power and a transfer of power between candidates of different parties, but also experienced the longest run of democratic government in Nigeria’s history.
This has also had some positive effects on the role of the media in elections. The dominant section of the Nigeria media, with the exception of a few, is no longer organised along inter-party rivalries and enmity like in the First and Second Republic. Though sections of the media retain some elements of ethno-regional alliances, the complex of Nigeria’s developmental challenges and the important role of technology, including online media and the social media, has ensured that the two dominant political parties do not have exclusive ethno-regional character. On the basis of this, we can say with a measure of confidence that most sections of the media, again with the exclusion of a few, no longer give blanket support to a particular dominant party to the total exclusion of the other dominant party. Even where particular media houses are biased in favour of, or against, a particular party or candidate, to an appreciable extent they still give some space for the ventilation of the positions and grievances of the party or parties against which they are biased. This was hardly the case in the First and Second Republic, as the studies of newspapers like the Morning Post, Nigeria Tribune, Daily Sketch, New Nigerian, National Concord, among others, in the two Republics have shown.
Again, while the space for plurality of parties was supported by the media even when two party system was decreed in the Third Republic, the experience in Nigeria has also led the dominant sections of the media to see the wisdom in a two-dominant party system, while allowing for the existence of other parties. This has meant that the possibility of single issue parties or parties along certain group of issues can blossom and win in certain areas or on certain issues in different parts of Nigeria. Also, while rotational presidency along bi-regional lines has failed to become law, in the Fourth Republic, it is increasing becoming the practice.
The scholar and civil society activist, Dr. Jubril Ibrahim, has stated that “successful elections in Nigeria can provide a more solid footing for building political harmony and stability.” After the first round of elections earlier this year, he added that “It is true that the elections have been very divisive due to the extremely negative campaigns that were conducted. Precisely for this reason, organising the final round in a manner that is clearly free, fair, credible and violence-free is the first step towards national reconciliation.”
While we are still working out how to solve the long term structural problems of the Nigerian federation, wherever you stand in that debate, I don’t think anyone can disagree with Jibo Ibrahim’s conclusion that “successful elections in Nigeria can provide a more solid footing for building political harmony and stability.” This is why many of us, even when we lose elections in situations where elections are neither free nor fair, never fail in our duty to ensure a peaceful transfer of power. I am proud that Ekiti State is the first example of a state in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, if not in Nigeria’s democratic history, where an incumbent governor recognised the declared victory of his opponent and invited him to a meeting the next day after the results were announced. This examples, I am happy to note, has since been followed by President Goodluck Jonathan and other governors in the country. I am also happy to note that the media strongly praised our efforts in Ekiti in ensuring a peaceful transition and encouraged others to follow the example. The fact that I was able to return to office four years after that fateful election, to say this least, is not only a pointer to the fact that there is life after any election, it is also a validation of the fact that the popular choice of the electorate, in the end, will be obvious.
For the Nigerian media to be even more relevant in facilitating free and fair elections and expanding the boundaries of democratic rule, they have to, in the words of J. Rosen “rethink [their] relationship to all the institutions that nourish public life.” These will include both state and non-state institutions, such as the local government, legislative bodies, the administration of justice, the civil service, public corporations, the police, educational institutions, health and social service institutions, regulatory authorities, civic associations, charities, social clubs and societies, professional associations, etc., etc. These institutions, in different combinations, determine the quality of our collective public life. They also determine and are determined by the nature and quality of public governance. They help in defining the nature and orientation of the electorate. Ultimately, they determine the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of democratic rule.
To give two illustrations of the connectedness of these public institutions and how the nourishing of public life is determined by them, take the case of education and elections and education and civil service. Adult literacy rate in Nigeria is 68 percent. At least 30 percent of our population, that is about 60 million people cannot read and write. Imagine the challenges of explaining difficult issues to 60 million adults among the electorate who cannot read or write. By the way, Africa’s richest oil state and the most populous black country in the world is number 21 on the adult literary list in the continent. Even the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been facing either full scale or low intensity war for most of its post-independent era has only one percent less adult literacy rate than Nigeria. This is a statement on the quality of our public life. As scholars have noted, “a broadly and equitably informed citizenry helps assure a democracy that is both responsive and responsible.”
That the totality of the quality of the personnel in our civil service has deteriorated in the last three decades is not in question. There are many factors responsible for this that we cannot dwell upon here. However, one of the major reasons for the decline in the quality of our civil service is that, unlike in the 1960s and 1970s when the best and brightest were attracted to the civil service, very few people who do very well in school and have other options will seek to enter the civil service. One implication of this is that, even where you elect excellent people into office, the civil service that will deliver on their programmes and projects is in crisis, to say the least. Thus, the decline in the quality of our educational institution, public morality, reward system, etc. have a direct effect on the capacity of the civil service to nourish public life. Also, the decline in the capacity of the civil service to nourish public life has debilitating implications for the execution of the business of public governance.
These examples show that while it is important for the media to pay attention to the most important and most visible institutions of electoral democracy, there are several other institutions of public life that must also attract serious attention because when and if they don’t function well, electoral democracy cannot function well.
Doubtless, there are many factors which are responsible for the relative strength of any electoral democracy. My focus here has been on the role of the media. Even in that context, I have emphasised the role of media intellectuals – symbolised most ably by the subject of the book being presented today. Most people would agree that intellect is the greatest asset that the media intellectual brings to the fore in his or her intervention in public life. I agree too. However, I will add that as important as the intellect of the media intellectual is in the project of public life and the pursuit of public good, equally important is the civil courage of the media intellectual. Few media intellectuals in contemporary Nigeria can claim to rival Dapo Olorunyomi in intellect and civil courage. We thank him for deploying both in the service of our fatherland and humanity, in general.
I thank you for your attention.
– Keynote Lecture Presented by Dr J. Kayode Fayemi at the Public presentation of Testimony to Courage: Essays in Honour of Dapo Olorunyomi. Monday, May 27, 2019, International Conference Centre, Abuja.