Nosa Igiebor is the co-founder/president of Tell Communications, publishers of Tell Magazine. In this interview with The ICIR’s Executive Director Dayo Aiyetan, the veteran journalist criticises the Muhammadu Buhari-led government for trying to stifle the freedom of information space in the country. He urges Nigerian citizens and the media to resist the attempt and defy laws that trample on their fundamental rights. Excerpt:
What is your assessment of the Buhari government in terms of adherence to the rule of law, freedom of expression, particularly considering recent events, including the ban on Twitter?
I would describe it as a disaster in terms of the previous efforts in the last 16 years to develop and deepen our democracy.
We have celebrated the fact that for the first time in the history of Nigeria, we have had a system of continuous elected government, no matter how flawed the elections may have been. At least there has been some semblance of… people going out to make a choice and decide that this is the person we are voting for.
Of course, we also know that Rome was not built in a day. We did not expect our effort to develop a democratic government would be made perfect in just a few years. It is going to be a continuous process, getting all stakeholders to know what their roles are.
Against this background, however, if you look at the six years of this administration, you can conclude that it has been a huge setback in the process of developing our democracy.
Why exactly do you say that? Is it that it has failed in terms of the rule of law or strengthening democratic institutions or elections or freedom of expression…?
It is everything. And, I am surprised that people are aghast that there is some bill before the National Assembly that is clearly designed to muscle the media. Why am I surprised? In 2015, in the first year of this administration, we remember the clash between the Army and the Shi’ite group, where over 300 of them were killed.
Then, their leader, Sheik (Ibrahim) Zakzaky, and his wife were arrested. Numerous court decisions have declared that this man was being illegally detained and that he should be released.
Up till now, the man and his wife are still in detention – in a democratic system? In a democracy, the rule of law is supreme. That is the foundation of democratic rule.
So, when a government that is elected, led by a president who swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, turns around and turns his nose at the judiciary and ignores with impunity the decisions of the court that he finds unpalatable … I mean, those were early signs that this government pays only lip service to the rule of law.
That is why I say that the last six years of this administration has been a huge setback in the process of developing a democratic system in this country. What is so sad about it is that being the largest country in Africa by population and the single largest black African nation in the world, the rest of Africa, Africans in Diaspora and the world at large look up to Nigeria to set the benchmark.
That is why I laugh when people say that President Obasanjo didn’t do anything. But before Obasanjo came in 1999, Nigeria was a pariah state globally because of the years of military dictatorship. Obasanjo took Nigeria from that pariah state to where once again it became well respected globally and on the African continent.
Its leadership position was restored and celebrated. But look at where we are now. At least Obasanjo’s administration did not behave like this one in terms of respect for the integrity of the judiciary. Same with the Yar a’dua and Jonathan administrations.
This was one of the issues I had with people promoting Buhari in 2015. They said he is now a democrat. And I said, how do you define that, how do you assess that? That he has now changed. This man was never a democrat and he can never be a democrat. You do not transform from being an autocrat or somebody with autocratic tendencies overnight to become a democrat. For you to be a democrat, you must understand what democracy is, what it means to be a democrat and the responsibility that goes with it.
Of course, that is what people told him – tell them you are a democrat. So, he went to Chatham House in London and said that he would respect the rule of law so that he would get elected. And as soon as he got elected, he showed his hands. How do you under a democratic government because the Chief of Army Staff had a problem with a group on the road … they said the army simply levelled the premises of the leader of the Shi’ite group. Nobody has been brought to book till today – under a democratic system.
Apart from the issue of the rule of law, let us come to talk about the recent bills before the National Assembly – the NBC and NPC amendment bills. It is seen by many as an attempt to further stifle freedom of expression. The NBC amendment specifically aims to license online media.
Again, let me say that I am not surprised that the government is attempting to do this.
Is it the government or the Minister, Lai Mohammed?
Oh come on!!! Is Lai Mohammed working for himself? No, he works for the government. Will Lai Mohammed send a bill to the National Assembly without the approval of the president? Now that they have been caught with their hand in the cookie jar, they are saying it is not the presidency that sponsored the bill.
People have drawn a nexus between these bills and Decree 24 of 1984 as consistent with Buhari’s autocratic tendencies.
You know the problem? We don’t listen to the man. If we listen to him, there is nothing happening now that will surprise us. Why do I say that? Since 2015 after he became president, he told us he wished he became president when he was younger. Then he says he wants to fight corruption, but he’s constrained because they say he now has to do it according to the rule of law. And he said if it were not under a democracy, he would just arrest them (corrupt persons) and put them in detention and force them to return what they took.
The president even said that you cannot fight corruption with the rule of law.
Yes, that is his mindset. He has not changed from the Buhari of 1984. That is why I give him credit. He is honest about who he is. It is those of us who suspended our disbelief and said maybe he has changed that I blame because he has not changed. He can never change.
This bill before the National Assembly is nothing but an act of desperation. The government is totally confounded by its inability to control the narrative about its performance. That is what is driving them crazy. They have forgotten that they are no more in opposition.
They are now the ruling government and they will be held to the standards to which they held the previous government when they were in the opposition. They are desperate that they cannot control the narrative about their failure, so they lash out at Twitter, journalists, the media and everybody. They are looking for whom to blame.
But we know they will fail. They can only succeed …
What if they succeed with the kind of National Assembly we have today?
They can only succeed if the public goes to sleep, especially the media and civil society groups. This is where we need to step up to the plate and lead this battle against this egregious attempt under a democratic system to curtail freedom of speech. Because that is all we have left.
Exactly. Twitter has become the voice of the ordinary person on the street..
Even if there was no Twitter. How can we be afraid talking to each other without being afraid that somebody will be listening to go and tell the government that we are criticising it. That is what we have left in Nigeria, our freedom of speech.
We don’t have anything left. There is no security, the economic conditions are harsh, everybody is under the weather, and we are all living in pains. And that right to open our mouths and ventilate our frustration you want to also take that away from us. That is very dangerous.
They want to turn Nigeria into Uganda, Zimbabwe or Cameroon, where they have democracy … you know there are many variants of democracy because I cannot describe what they have in these countries as democracy. Let’s say elected governments, even that ‘elected’ is qualified. It is like what we have in Nigeria now. We have an elected government but there is no democracy.
They want to turn Nigeria into Cameroon where you criminalise criticism of the government and the president. Imagine that (Omoyele Sowore) organised a protest and he was arrested because they said he insulted the president. Tell me which law in Nigeria that says that if you insult the president it is a criminal offence.
Just this week, a student in Borno State was suspended for not going to welcome the president who was on a state visit.
That is how low we have sunk. They have built this culture of fear. They tried to build this cult personality around the man but unfortunately the man does not have the charisma to sustain that. Buhari is somebody that loves the taste of power. He loves the perquisites that come with power but he never owns the responsibility that comes with that position. Today, he is scheduled to fly to London at public expense. The same man in 2015 or 2016 said that he had directed that no public official would be entitled to medical treatment abroad at public expense. But soon after that he went to London for treatment.
So, back to bill before the National Assembly. Like I said in a recent article, it could succeed because of the sickening obsequiousness of the leadership of the National Assembly. Remember that the Senate president and the speaker of the House made it very clear that they would never have any issue with the executive.
They also said that whatever the president puts before them will be approved. With that reality of a National Assembly led by people who are totally beholden to the executive, especially the president, one will not be surprised if they pass the bill and even the nomination of the president’s aide as a commissioner of INEC. But I believe that if we sustain this pushback being led by the media and civil society and do not relent, we will stop them. And if they do not listen, we shut down the National Assembly. The problem is that we are too docile. This is not only about the media. Once you stop the media from talking, you have shut down everybody from talking.
Talking about Twitter, what they have done by banning it is laughable. It also shows you their limited understanding of what the social media is, how it works. That is why Lai Mohammed, the Information Minister cannot understand why Twitter would dare take down the president’s tweet. How dare Twitter. That is how their mind works. But they should be reminded that Twitter also brought down tweet by Donald Trump (former American President) and the heavens did not fall.
Some sources in government say that Twitter was not banned because of Buhari’s tweet but because some Nigerians were using the platform to destabilise the government and the country, even providing intelligence to enemies of the state?
That is a projection of their mindset that the government is beyond reproach, cannot be questioned. Like I said before, it is all a sign of desperation. The bill in the National Assembly is a desperate act; banning Twitter is a desperate act. A government that is afraid of its own people is only admitting that it no longer has any legitimacy. You no longer have any legitimacy because the people have found out.
When you say that they are using Twitter to destabilise the government, that is projecting their shortcoming and blaming the citizens. We say bandits are ravaging the whole place, you say people are the cause because they are always criticising government. We say they have not defeated Boko Haram, they you say (citizens) are the cause because they are always celebrating Boko Haram when they kill our soldiers. It is always excuse upon excuses.
I also think that the ban on Twitter is an infantile reaction to the tech giant’s snubbing of Nigeria by choosing to set up office in Ghana and not Nigeria. They cannot live down that snob.
But it is an economic decision …
They don’t see it that way. What they see is the numbers. The number of people using Twitter in Nigeria is maybe four times bigger than that in Ghana, but it is an economic decision like you said. Look at the car-manufacturing giant that went to set up its plant in Ghana. What is the population of Ghana compared to Nigeria?
But they chose Ghana because there are other factors they are looking at – stability, infrastructure, security, rule of law and so on. Why would any serious person invest in Nigeria apart from the telecoms sector and oil and gas? Can you point to any serious foreign direct investment coming into Nigeria apart from those two sectors? Even the telecoms sector … if it was just in its infancy, with this kind of government, we wouldn’t have the telecom sector we have today. Size and population are not the only things you consider in making investments in a foreign county. What about security? What about rule of law? You see, money is like a coward. Any little threat it sees, it flees.
Let me take you back to the media’s response to all this. How do we expect the media to perform any critical role when the leadership of the profession as represented by the NGE, NPAN and the NUJ are largely compromised or unserious at fighting this battle?
It is unfortunate that a large portion of the media is complicit in helping promote the propaganda that brought this government into power. We are all reaping the consequences of that catastrophic dereliction on our part. We never sat down to seriously assess Buhari’s candidacy and all the promises he was making. We suffered from self-induced amnesia about General Muhammadu Buhari. If not, the media should have been in the forefront of saying no we need to be careful about this man.
But now that we are faced with this challenge…
It is in fact an existential threat.
Absolutely. And if we fail to stop them, that is the end of our democracy. Our democracy is gone anyway. All this pretense that we are in a democracy is… There is no democracy in Nigeria. I can tell you that.
So, with this bill, if they succeed in passing it, that is the end. They would have ended our pretense to democracy and make autocratic rule official. So, we have no choice in the media but to stand up and be counted collectively as an industry – all our organisations, NUJ, NGE, NPAN and the broadcast ones should all come together and say no to these bills.
I also expect in every newspaper on their from page saying something like ‘this bill is a threat to our freedom, we will not have it.’ Put it out there on the front page every day. And then radio and television should also make daily announcements along the same lines. They sensitise the public. Let us use Facebook, WhatsApp and others they have not banned. The army of youths we have need to understand that these bills are not only a threat to the media or to the TV you watch, but to them as individuals. With these bills, they can take your phone from you and tell you that you cannot use WhatsApp or do this or that.
But more than that, the media needs to work with other foot soldiers of democracy like civil society organisations. Many of them are very organised and are able to mobilise local and international opinion. The media needs to work with civil society groups and come up with a strategy to stop this blatant and naked attempt at curtailing our freedom of speech.
We cannot afford to believe what they say that oh it is not a threat.
But we see the threat in sections of the bills. Like the NPC Bill, where the minister wants the latitude to control things. The minister wants to approve codes of ethics for journalists.
Like I said before, they think that by passing these bills, it would help them control the narrative about their performance, but they are mistaken because it is there in black and white for us to see. There is insecurity everywhere. You cannot change that fact. That is our reality that we deal with every day.
You cannot say we cannot talk about that. You cannot blame the media for reporting the reality. Is banditry a creation of the media? Is Boko Haram a creation of the media? Is it not a result of the government’s inability to deal with this pervasive insecurity? Is that the fault of the media or the ordinary Nigerian?
Some young Turks in the media say we need more drastic approach to respond to this.
Do you subscribe to blackout of government news in the media? On given days or times.
My suggestion , tweaking that a bit, is that we can serve a warning or notice to say both print and electronic will embark on total blackout. We would publish or broadcast no news, nothing, in protest.
No news at all?
Yes, total blackout for a whole day. We say that is a warning notice and that we are doing it to register our protest against the attempt by government to curtail freedom of speech. It is not just about freedom of the press. It is about the freedom of every citizen to express themselves. It means that if you appear on a TV programme, they can come and arrest you and the producer. So, it is about citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of speech. It is that fundamental right to freedom of speech that empowers the media to do what it does in addition to the specific provision of the constitution that says that the media shall have the responsibility to hold government to account on behalf of the people.
So, I agree that if they do not relent, the media and the public need to take such drastic measures to let them know that we would not take this lying low and that we would never accept it.
And I tell people this, that it is one thing for government to pass the law, it is another for it to work. The law will only be applicable if you obey that law. When a law is passed and you know this law is against your freedom, why would you obey it?
Because it is the law. If you do not obey, you have infringed the law.
No, no, no, no. Fine, it is the law, but the law infringes my freedom of expression. Why would I obey such law? Let them arrest everybody. Let them lock everybody up. You can make a law inoperable if you take a principal stand to say, ‘this law is immoral and illegal.’ When you make a law that curtails my freedom that is guaranteed by the constitution, by the UN Charter on Human Rights and so many other statutes and conventions, and you say I should obey such law?
Are you saying that the media should defy the law? You would expect them to go to court.
Go to court, fine. Then make that law inoperable. Is there no law that you cannot carry AK 47? Are people not carrying AK 47 in Nigeria today? And some people are defending it. So, if they make a law to gag us, why should we obey it. Yes, we can challenge it in court. But beyond challenging it in court, we are saying this law, we are not going to obey it.
This administration still has two years to go. If this attempt is defeated now, do you have fears that they will not relent? Many see this as a backdoor attempt to bring back the social media and fake news laws that were struck down.
Let me correct you, they will definitely keep trying. First, as we speak now, this government has zero credibility. That is why they are desperate. And they are going to get more desperate. They have no answer to our problems. Some were inherited but they have compounded them, like the issue of security, by their abysmal failure in responding when the challenges started metastasising.
So, they have zero credibility, and more and more Nigerians will tell this government, “We are done with you. You are no longer our government. We have no respect for you, we don’t believe in you…” If they want to admit it, they know that they don’t have any legitimacy. When you begin to blame the people, when you begin to harass the people, when you begin to be afraid of the people that elected you, then you no longer have any legitimacy.
So, they are going to get more desperate for the remaining time they have in office and they will continue to attempt the situation the way they want. But that is going to be difficult. They can pass the law but if Nigerians do not like the law, they can make it inoperable by simply ignoring it.
For me, this is an existential threat and our response must involve action that is drastic. If the government is breaking the law, why should we obey the law. The government swore to uphold the constitution, if they turn and ignore their oath, why should I obey any law that I know is unconstitutional?
Finally, let us look at the state of the media, particularly in terms of financial sustainability. Many newsrooms are haemorrhaging because we do not have sustainable business models to run the media. How can we deal with this sustainability problem?
I am glad you asked this question. For some years now, I stopped attending the annual meeting of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE). The last one I attended was in Benin when Oshiomhole was governor. The keynote speaker was Joseph Daudu (SAN).
Gbenga Adefaye was then president of the Guild. And I asked that as a media organisation, the NGE at our annual meeting, why do we not speak about our profession, our industry? The theme for that year was agriculture or something. What is our business with agriculture when the media is bleeding, the media is fragile? How do we get the media to be viable and adapt to the changes we were seeing with new technology and all that, the impact of Internet on our business?
At such meetings, why can’t we bring experts who will talk about media sustainability and how to make money from the digital space?
The problem is that there does not seem to be any media organisation, TELL inclusive, that is why Tell is in trouble today, that has a business model that says if we do this, we can sustain this business. That is because many of us do not approach media as a business. We approach it as a platform for some kind of advocacy. We do not know that you can advocate all you want but if that platform is not sustainable, you won’t have it to do your advocacy.
Second, there is no investment in the media in Nigeria. The media is very capital intensive, especially in the early stages. But there is no serious investment in the media in Nigeria.
The solution, for me, is every media organisation stepping back and saying, what are we doing wrong, what do we need to do and how do we make our business sustainable and viable. Then we come up with a plan and seek the investment. That is the biggest challenge we have – how to get the investment we need in the industry.
There is also this mindset of media owner or owners who do not want to let go. Tell is a typical example. Many years ago, around 2017, we had an offer from the biggest media company in Kenya, The Nation Group. We had a fantastic offer. They had done due diligence on media companies and they came to us and offered to partner with us.
They were going to make a first investment of $10 million. There were plans to do a daily newspaper, radio and TV over time, but most of the founders/owners of Tell said no because they wanted controlling shares. That was a huge opportunity lost. The $10 million at today’s exchange rate is about N5 billion.
So, the mindset of founders/owners of media organisations is a problem and has to change. Yes, you founded the business, but there comes a time when you can now longer handle the business and you need to let go and seek people who can invest in the company.
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