This is how democracy will end in Nigeria – Abimbola Adelakun
Once again, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission imposed a heavy-handed fine on Channels TV, following a petition by an aide of Bola Tinubu. Ironically, the petition was based on some comment by the Labour Party vice presidential candidate Datti Baba-Ahmed who, during a live interview, said something to the effect that swearing Tinubu into office in May would “end” democracy in Nigeria. This not-so-subtle manipulation of a state agency by the aides of an incoming president signals a pattern of power abuse that will only worsen.
Baba-Ahmed was wrong to the extent he assumed that swearing in the beneficiary of a flawed election would be the death of Nigeria’s democracy. No, that is not how the end will come. Democracy will be squelched to death in the hands of executioners claiming statesmanship; its end will be from the chokehold of maniac politicians whose bid to make the polity conducive for their characteristic lawlessness will drive them to use the instruments of democracy to undermine democracy.
If their obsessive focus with the Labour Party presidential candidate and his followers in the aftermath of the election process proves anything, it is that these declared winners are bothered. The resolute existence of the Obi-dients delays—and therefore denies—the legitimacy of the APC. That is why, though they won an election, they can hardly settle to enjoy their victory. They remain stuck on their opponent’s popularity. So acutely are these supposed winners unsettled by the Obi-dients, an army of self-motivated political contenders with a narrative capacity that substantially upends the Tinubu propaganda machine, that they are not even discussing the future under their government. Their mad preoccupation with making the Obi-dients go away will drive them to break many things, chief of which will be democracy itself.
Unfortunately, they will be indulged by agencies like the NBC who, like most Nigerian public institutions, lack autonomy. The NBC’s media arbitrating activities tend towards a studious calculation of partisanship politics that favour them personally rather than any well-considered principles of how media houses in a democratic society should run. Previously, I have pointed out the anachronism of agencies like the NBC in the age of liberalised media and global media technology. Their duties were meaningful in bygone eras when the government controlled the media and when the military ran the country.
The NBC code made sense at the time because you could rightly claim that since most people were exposed to a narrow range of media options, it was possible to manipulate society.
Now we live in an era where people’s media options are not only endless, but audience-ship itself has become quite fragmented. Hardly any media can claim primary influence over public opinion. The agenda-setting feature of the media is easily contested now, and the traditional ways we imagine media influence have changed forever. Communication is no longer between the media houses and the people sitting inside their homes watching TV or listening to the radio. The world we live in now is overrun with infinite sources of information, a chaotic field of endless chatter where people are more energised to talk than even listen.
Despite all these massive shifts happening in the media, the NBC insists on micromanaging media content (and even for private enterprises). To an extent, the high-handed manner they hand out fines to media houses based on some nebulous idea of what threatens the polity suggests they struggle with re-imagining their relevance in the 21st century. When you hear some NBC officials speak on their expectations of media “objectivity,” you know these guys are still stuck on old ideas. They are still regurgitating textbooks written by dead white guys (whose scions have long revisited those old ideas in the light of new realities!).
They seem incapable of rethinking and revising their roles to make themselves more relevant in the contemporary era, and that is why a serial petitioner like Bayo Onanuga could use them to run partisan errands. He knows he can send an agency like the NBC the message of a slave, and they will not summon enough wit to deliver it with the nobility of a freeborn. Their frigidity and the abject lack of moral reflexivity will end democracy faster than any comment by a single politician on a live television show.
Let nobody be fooled, our modern world is complex; it will take much more than Datti-Ahmed’s comments about ending democracy in Nigeria to incite people to the insurrection that will truly end democracy. Nigerian politicians base their media regulation antics on the conviction that the impulses of the people they insistently impoverish can only be stimulated into violent action by the media. They insist media regulation is equal to social tranquillity. Nothing can be more delusional.
Does the media tell the people what and how to think, or it is those who already harbour certain thoughts and grievances who are drawn to specific media channels to affirm their ideas? If the media exercises so much power over people’s will, how come the NTA that dedicates its contents to pacifying impulses has not succeeded in whipping us in line? Hardly anybody—not even the most virulent APC supporter—watches NTA. The version of Nigeria the NTA sells resonates with almost no one, not even government officials. The fact that those who complain loudest about a broadcast station like Arise TV and its unruly anchor are still stuck on the channel is more telling about the nature of news viewership.
As for the media houses who will be the target of these power drunks in the coming months, I hope they know better than grovel. Despite all the claims the media makes about informing and enlightening the populace, they are still—at the end of the day—a business. They ought to be free to exercise initiatives that help their enterprise without worrying that clueless civil servants will frustrate them with stupid fines. So, next time, before interviewing a guest likely to say controversial things, they should first write the NBC a cheque equivalent to the annual salary of their DG and send it ahead. Then go ahead and interview the person. If the NBC’s nostrum is issuing an invoice each time your initiatives run counter to their small-minded partisanship, then meet them halfway by buying off their nuisance.
Another option is to go to court and challenge the NBC code altogether. The open-ended nature of the code makes the media vulnerable to bad-faith actors who will continue to (mis)interpret its recommendations either to shrink public discourse or to deflect from their incapabilities. Any attempt to pacify vandalisers of civic freedoms will only make the media culpable in their own abuse. Do not let them diminish you; do not yield your freedom to these myrmidons of darkness whose actions do far more to infuse darkness into Nigeria’s democracy. Evil is implacable. You can only triumph when you beam the light.
Finally, is it not interesting that Onanuga, who earned his professional credibility for standing up to the military government’s clampdown on press freedom, is manifesting the same tendency under a democratic government? He could have asked Channels TV for an opportunity to refute Datti-Ahmed’s arguments, but no, he had to play the tyrant. It makes you wonder, did those activists of yesteryear stand up to those abusers of humanity because they once believed in human freedom or simply because they wanted to usurp their power? Did the military government pursue these one-time activists because they saw them as a threat to their dictatorial rule or because they saw through their pretences? On days like this, I imagine that from the interior of a hilltop mansion somewhere in Minna an old dictator watches these democratic tyrants adorn their little feet with his old jackboots. Observing them traipse the creaky floorboards of history, he roars with laughter at the uncanniness of a history repeating itself as tragedy and farce simultaneously.