The Media and Democratic Rule in Nigeria
By Ayo Olutokun and Dele Seteolu
This paper analyses the watchdog role played by the media in Nigeria' s current
democratic dispensation. It discusses the role of the media in the transition period
between 1988 and 1999, as well as their championing of a cleaner and healthier
polity in exposing highly placed state officials who got into office through fake
credentials or by making bogus claims.
Case studies of the media's role in this respect include the disgrace from office of
Alhaji Salisu Buhari, former Speaker of the House of Representatives; as well as the
fall of Senator Chuba Okadigbo former Senate President, who was impeached in the
wake of allegations of corruption and misappropriation of funds.
To get to grips with the role of the media in these national controversies, the editorial
content of the publications, which championed these struggles, were identified and
collated. These were complimented where possible, by interviews with some of the
editorial personnel involved in these episodes.
The Media: An Overview
Nigeria has the biggest and most virile press community in Africa followed by South
Africa and Kenya (Park, 1993:1). Ogbodu (1996:1) conservatively puts the number of
publications (Weeklies, dailies and magazines) at 116,although a number of these
are fickle and are at the margins of survival. The period since 1999, have witnessed a
mushrooming of sorts in the newspaper industry with new titles like The Anchor; and
National Interest springing up as well as the re-launch of moribund or prostrate titles
such as The Concord. As political competition heats up more new titles are expected
to be barn, most of them with a predictably short life span. One consequence of the
economic downturn of the 1980's'and 1990's and specifically a result of hostile
authoritarian economic policies towards the media is that as at 1999, the combined
circulation of ail newspapers barely reach half a million, in a country of close to 120
million people. If we add the circulation figures of magazines and other publications,
to those of newspapers, they barely hit the 1 million mark.
The Punch, a privately owned newspaper is perhaps the most widely read
newspaper and its print run is between 60,000 and 80,000 copies per day. The
Guardian, a favourite of the intellectuals and respected for its independent, sober
views, had a print run in 1999 of between 50 and 70,000 copies per dlay.
Other newspapers such as the privately owned National Concord, This Day, Post
Express, The Vanguard, as well as the state-owned Daily Times, and the New
Nigerian do legs well in circulation terms than The Punch and The Guardian. The
magazine market is dominated by three giants namely, Tell Magazine, The News and
Newswatch, and have circulation figures of about 1 00,000, 80,000 and 50,000
One underreported, but increasingly assertive newspaper genre are the vernacular
newspapers, which in the Yoruba speaking region made a rebound in the closing
years of military rule. A rash of vernacular newspapers have sprung up in recent
years, trying to build on the success of Alaroye whose circulation competes
favourably with the most successful national dailies (See Dare 2000). In
broadcasting, there are close to 45 television stations, with about 10 of these in
private bands, while of the 44 or so radio stations, a handful are privately owned
following the deregulation of broadcasting by the state in 1994 (Bankole 1995;
Olukotun 1996). The most successful private electronic media are AIT and Minaj
televisions as well as RayPower Radio, all of which offer refreshing contrasts to the
heavily state-controlled contents of state electronic media.
As in Kenya, publications rise, fall and are sometimes reborn with dizzying regularity.
Media and Accountability: Case Studies
In this section, we consider in some depth media coverage of :
a. The transition to democracy 1998-1999;
b. The documentation controversy which led to the fall of Alhaji Salisu
Buhari, former Speaker of the House of Representatives ;
c. Media's role in the controversy which led to the impeachment of former
Senate President, Dr. Chuba Okadigbo.
It should be borne in mind that the watchdog role of the media in this period went
beyond these cases to include for instance, exposure of the irregularities in and
falsification of the biodata of Chief Evans Enwerem, former Senate President, which
led to his forced resignation, as well as the furore over the biodata of Lagos State
Governor, Chief Bola Tinubu, which triggered a political crisis. The latter, however,
narrowly survived impeachment, largely because the Alliance for Democracy –
dominated Lagos State House of Assembly ruled that the inconsistencies in his
Curriculum Vitae, arose from genuine mistakes. We only focus on three of /these
cases, however as mentioned earlier.
A. The Transition
The media, in the New World order, have emerged as a crucial part of the apparatus
for vetting and legitimising elections. Conceived here broadly as the print and
electronic organs of mass communication, they provide information to the voters
about the candidates, the electoral process, actual voting dates and the rules of the
All aspects of the transition to democracy (1998- 1999) were extensively covered and
intensely reported by the media. Following the de-freezing of the political space by
General Abdusalami Abubakar on 20 July 1998 and the release of a transition
timetable, a senior journalist, Mr. Tunji Oserri organised an agenda-setting seminar
for journalists in August 1998. Entitled "The Media and the Transition". It had the
declared aim of getting journalists to reflect on the transition programme. Oseni set
the hall rolling by listing the responsibilities of the media in a transition period. These
include, keeping the administration to its ward or promise on the hand over of Power
to civilians; being strong in the face of danger; offering where necessary, alternatives
to the transition agenda; serving as a feedback on government policies as well as
expanding the score of the transition to are as such as morality, accountability,
management of the national economy and the amelioration of poverty (Oseni,1999:
16). There is reason to believe that the media, by and large, and in spite of a few
excesses took its outlined responsibilities seriously.
To keep the transition on track, for instance Tell magazine did, week after week a
countdown to the hand over in every single issue it published between July 1998 and
May 1999. It read in its November 7edition (P7) 24 more weeks for Abubakar to
handover to an elected civilian president- in bold letters and boxed.
This was a kind of advocacy advertising for the transition programme. Indeed,
Onome Osifo-Whiskey, managing editor off Tell said that had General Abubakar
reneged on the handover date, "we would have gone back to the trenches to pick up
guerilla journalism. We left our underground paraphernalia intact for most of 1999"
To underline their watchdog role, the media criticized General Obasanjo's donation of
N130 Million to the People's Democratic Party (PDP) in the run-up to the December
5, 1998, local government elections.
For instance, the Tribune Editorial (24 Nov. 1998: 8) called on Obasanjo to supply to
the public "a full disclosure of the identities of those involved (In aiding him) - to help
members of the public in establishing the real character and motives of the
contributors - in the final analysis, however, the authorites most seriously consider
setting a ceiling on, the amount individual aspirants could spend in the course of
seeking public office".
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was put on its toes by the
media in the interest of fair elections. The Guardian Editorial comment of August 19,
1999 (P.16) suggested that INEC should put in place measures to avert rigging of
elections, it also counseled that INEC should distance itself from manipulation by
security agencies, state administrators and bureaucrats.
Inn terms of balanced coverage, the 3 competing parties got fair coverage, although
the effect of bigger advertising spending by the PD P was felt in enhanced coverage
(See Olukotun, 2000b). However, the regulatory guidelines of the Press Council and
the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission prevented any serious excesses.
Abuses and irregularities were fully documented and monitored by the media. In its
report of January 25, 1999 (P .27) Newswatch reported irregularities in the run-up to
the state Assembly /Governorship elections. These include underage voters in
Katsina, multiple voting in Abia State as well as bribery stories in Delta and Ekiti
States. Most print and electronic media did the same.
The Presidential elections of February 1999 were intensely covered by both national
and international media. Confronted with a choice, between accepting a flawed
election and its cancellation, the media mostly advised a grudging acceptance of the
results - without glossing over the hitches and the flaws.
Doubtless, the watchdog role of the media was at work throughout the transition and
B. Alhaji Salisu Buhari vs the Media
Alhaji Salisu Buhari, a business tycoon dealing in computers typifies the prosperity of
a military-assisted “contractocracy” under Nigeria' s rentier political economy. Taking
advantage of a flawed transition; especially the horse trading and politics of zoning
that went on in the PDP in the months immediately before and after the Presidential
elections of 1999, Buhari defeated Alhaji Sadiq Yar' adua, a journalist to emerge as
the nominee of the North-West zone for the office of the Speaker of the House of
Representatives. Given that the office, had been 'zoned' by the party to the North-
West, complaints about irregularity in his bio-data were brushed aside at this stage.
However, the young politicians luck ran out, when Sani Kabir a founding member of
The News Journal got wind of the allegations leveled against Buhari.
The News, one of the publications that survived underground under General
Abacha's despotic regime at first treated the issue with relative levity, when it was
first brought up by Kabir at its Sunday afternoon editorial meeting. Two weeks later,
however, and partly due to a dry spell in the flow of stories, the editors revisited
Kabir's juicy scoop, and found it a most shocking revelation.
In the best tradition of investigative Journalism, The News thoroughly researched
Buhari' s claims about his age, which was lower than what the constitution stipulated
for the office he now held; as well as debunked his claims to have attended the
University of Toronto. The American angle of the research was conducted by Dapo
Olonmyomi who had lived in the U.S on exile, since 1996 as well as Kunle Ajibade,
who was also in the U.S to recuperate, after his release from a 3 year detention
(Interview Kabir, Ajibade )." Entitled "The Crook in the House ", the story was on the
cover edition of 12 July 1999. The nation was aghast. Other newspapers and
magazines as well as human rights groups across the country enlisted in the moral
crusade to get justice.
Buhari, on his part denied the allegations, slammed a hefty multi-million naira libel
suit on The News, employing the services of Mr. Rotimi Williams, a well heeled legal
luminary, and played the ethnic card by insinuating that a Southern (Yoruba)
newspaper was out to get him, a Hausa-Fulani politician. Neither The News or the
other sections of the media relented nor were deterred by the threats.
In its second editorial on the issue within a week, The Comet(July 16 1999: 14)
“Meanwhile we reaffirm our position in an earlier comment. The Honourable
Speaker should climb down tram his high office until investigations are
The more influential The Guardian newspaper in a similar vein argued in its editorial
comment of July 20, 1999 entitled "Buhari: The Path of Honour" that:
“The House of Representatives has a constitutional responsibility in the
matter. The members should now rise up to the challenge by conducting a
thorough investigation to ascertain the veracity of the allegations. It would be
awkward for the embattled speaker to preside over the affairs of the House
during the course of the investigation. He should vacate his office until the
matter is over. This is the honourable thing to do ".
The News followed up its scoop by another cover story on 26 July, entitled "Buhari
Gate - An Inside Story". Neither was it deterred by the purchase by Buhari or his
supporters, of virtually all the copies of The News which originally came out with the
story, in Abuja, the Federal Capital. It was a gimmick, too late, for the issue had been
put on the national agenda. As a result of the media' s watchdog role, Buhari on 22nd
July dropped his bravado, pleaded guilty to the allegations and resigned his office;
thus paving the way for his prosecution.
C. Dr. Okadigbo vs the Media
The impeachment by 81, to 11 votes on August 8, 2000 of Dr. Chuba Okadigbo as
Senate President, over allegations of corruption and misappropriation of funds, had a
lot to do with media advocacy of a sanitized National Assembly. Okadigbo, it should
be recalled assumed office as Senate President on November 18,1999, following the
resignation of his predecessor, Chief Evans Enwerem, in circumstances similar to
that of Alhaji Salisu Buhari.
Although the media had generally put a spotlight on the National Assembly, which it
fingered for truancy, and for approving extravagant allowances for itself, no serious
allegation was levelled against Dr. Okadigbo until Senate itself in July 2000, partly as
a result of its own internal politics set up the Idris Kuta panel to take a closer look at
the award of contracts in the Senate between 4th June 1999 and 17th July 2000. The
other terms of reference of the panel include, (a) Identify the officers of the Senate
and other Senators that participated in the exercise of contract awards, (b) Identify
those to whom the contracts were awarded, the amounts involved and the purposes,
(c) Determine the extent to which laid clown procedures were observed in the award
of the contracts (CDRR Annual Report, 2000: 131).
The media's watchdog role of intently monitoring the proceedings and giving
prominence to the allegations of irregularities, corruption and perfidy should be
noted. Beginning from the stunning revelations of Alhaji Ibrahim Salim, clerk of the
Rouse at the Kuta Panel on July 24, the media consciously mainstreamed the issue.
Interestingly, even after Dr. Okadigbo was indicted for spending an unauthorised
N30M to purchase cars and another N37.5M to furnish his official cars among other
misdeeds, he continued to maintain his innocence and threatening not to resign.
At this point, especially following the release of the Kuta Panel report, the media piled
pressure on Okadigbo to vacate his office. They did this by giving front-page
coverage to the issues involved and the resulting controversy.
This apart, columnists and opinion writers condemned Okadigbo in strong terms,
calling on him to quit office. One of them, Segun Adeniyi, editor of This Day on
Saturday wrote in a representative article entitled "Just Go!" (This Day, 3 August
2000, back page) that:
"Okadigbo allowed himself the indulgence of situating his power and
responsibility within the number of contracts he could award to himself and his
cronies – it was even more tragic that the man would lie so blatantly to the
probe panel-If by now somebody has not surrendered his medal' (I did not say
mace) then he should be told in clear terms that the market is over" .
In spite of waving the ethnic card by rallying many Igbos behind him and making
threatening calls to editors, Okadigbo had to vacate his office, principally as a result
of media advocacy. Although in Nigeria' s fractious polity, Okadigbo' s faIl may have
been partly engineered by his political opponents, who made the most of his debacle,
the media insisted on a minimum standard of decency for high state officials. In the
next concluding section, we tie the issues together and look forward.
As a recent study eloquently puts it:
"Without information, there is no accountability. Information is power and the
more people who posses if; the more power is distributed. The degree to
which a media is independent is the degree to which it can perform an
effective public watchdog function over the conduct of " Public Affairs" (Pope,
2000 : 119-120).
As we have seen, the Nigerian media with a lively tradition of independence and
outspokenness take their watchdog role seriously, and have insisted on it under both
military and civilian governments. In the three cases examined, the transition; the
Buhari and Okadigbo affairs; we see the media providing information of a critical
nature, and shaping the discourse agenda in ways that deepen the quality and
content of Nigeria' s burgeoning democracy. In the three cases highlighted the media
were crucial to opinion fom1ation and to the eventual outcome of the events reported
and highlighted. There is every reason to believe, given Nigeria' s plural and robust
media, that this will continue to be the case in the foreseeable future.
The media is not immune to corruption, ethnicity or factionalism, all of which afflict the
Nigerian socio-polity. And this bas necessarily detracted from their moral profile and
consequently weakened their watchdog role. Self-cleansing, internal regulatory
mechanisms such as The Press Council as well as keen commercial competition,
help to restrain, in a measure some of these abuses. In any case, the committed
segment of the press, is still by and large free from the rot while the possibility of
disrepute or business failure serve as a check against grossness.
Our case studies show that the media remains a. cardinal institution for consolidating
and extending Nigeria' s young democracy, in view of their oversight functions with
respect to the three arms of government as well as their own ranks.