BALA DAN ABU e-mail: email@example.com
A lot has been said and written already about the banning and the unbanning of African Independent Television, AIT, from covering official engagements of the President-elect, General Muhammadu Buhari. But I can’t resist the temptation to add my voice, as I intend to do in this column this week because of the unfortunate history of Buhari’s attitude of hate for the media. It was General Buhari as head of state who introduced the notorious Decree 4 which clipped the wings of the media. He made sure that two prominent Nigerian journalists were jailed under that highly repressive and controversial law within the short span of time that he was head of state.
In and outside power, Buhari has never been the friend of the Nigerian media. And he makes no pretensions about this attitude. Not many Nigerian editors who have tried in the past to get him to grant their medium interview have pleasant stories to tell. They were always confronted by his humiliating disdain and rejection. He would rather be interviewed by the Hausa unit of the BBC. So if that same person is on his way back to the same seat from where he trampled upon the Fourth Estate of the Realm in the past, members of the media fraternity are bound to be sceptical. And they are indeed sceptical.
I’m not unaware of Buhari’s explanation on the AIT ban. In the heat of the controversy generated by the issue, he issued a statement in which he said he did not authorise the action, that his media office took the decision without consulting him. That explanation raised yet another question. Is it possible for such a profoundly controversial decision to be taken against a major media house by a media adviser without the knowledge of his boss? My answer is that it’s most improbable. That will amount to taking overzealousness to a ridiculous and reckless extent. It is even less likely in the present circumstances where most of the people working in Buhari’s media office are doing so in a kind of acting capacity and are praying and hoping that they will be offered formal and regular roles when the administration takes over fully. A sensitive action such as the one against AIT is most unlikely to come as a unilateral action. If, indeed, a media assistant did so, he must have assured himself that the action will greatly delight Buhari, given his not so friendly disposition to the media.
But we must give the Presidentelect the benefit of doubt. If he says he had no knowledge of the step taken by his media officials against AIT, I will not say it’s not so. That will be rude. But we can’t pretend that this incident has not set a sour tone for the future relationship between the media and the in-coming Buhari presidency. And this is unfortunate. Nigerians would be happy to be assured that President Muhammadu Buhari will not be the same as Muhammadu Buhari, the military head of state who imprisoned the Nigerian press. They will like to be assured that his long participation in party politics, the benefit of which is his recent victory and imminent assumption of office as elected president, has changed his perception of the place of the media in economic, political and social engineering.
The media is not the enemy that Buhari thinks. The media, as an institution, is a critical instrument of mobilization for development. For a man like Buhari who has sworn to fight corruption and improve the lot of the Nigerian masses, the media is the most reliable ally. It will, therefore, be counterproductive for him to treat the media the same way he did as a head of state – an enemy that must first of all be put away.
In arguing for a proper perception and place for the media, I’m not suggesting that it is a perfect institution. The media has its own share of the bad eggs that are working against the overall interest of the Nigerian people. But the media is not anywhere near the arms of government – the executive, legislature and the judiciary – on the scale of contribution to the woes of the country. At the risk of being guilty of bias, I can say that the media is the least of the enemies of the country’s progress.
Buhari told the world repeatedly during the campaigns that he’s a changed man. I believe him. But the new Buhari should see the media differently this time round. He needs the media to govern well. He needs the media to help explain his programmes to the people as part of the process of securing their confidence and support. But he should not expect them to be a stamp of endorsement even for programmes and policies of government that will not serve the interest of the public. The Nigerian media has come a long way and has proven over the years to be a reliable crusader for public good even in very difficult circumstances such as the one represented by Buhari’s period of military dictatorship. Every government that wants to serve the interest of the people must win support and confidence of the media. Buhari cannot afford to antagonise the media under a democracy. No, not anymore because we are in a democracy.