Yesterday's guerilla pressmen in today's democratic Nigeria: dissatisfaction and disillusionment

Seminar date: 
23 March 2010
Speaker(s): Ayobami Ojebode (University of Ibadan)

Ayobami Ojebode is currently a visiting fellow at the ASC

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One of the major questions that interest the Social Movement and Political Culture (SMPC) group is that of what activists and political actors in Africa do after their 'projects' have ended in success or failure, or after they have been co-opted or neutralised. This is in order to understand the changes in political culture and the emergence of new social movements or the reconfiguration of old ones. My study attempts to examine this question by studying the conditions and situations of the former guerrilla journalists that led the struggle for democracy in Nigeria. 

The struggle for democracy in Nigeria was a difficult one. From 1983 when the military overthrew the elected government of Mr Shagari, the press has mounted pressure for a return to democracy. The struggle got bitter at a point with the military government arresting, detaining and torturing many journalists. Some journalists, implicated in a phantom coup, got life sentences. Some were also killed. Newspaper houses were shut down, and one or two were even burnt by agents of the military government. Ten years after Nigeria returned to civil rule, it is important to examine what these journalists think about the democracy for which they fought and for which they were so brutalised.

Studies of resistance and post-resistance have focused largely on armed resistance even when definitions of resistance as purely armed combat have been described as narrow. This study hopes to bring into attention the need to broaden the scope of resistance study to include non-violent resistance as well. Though these former guerrilla journalists are few, an understanding of their conditions should shed some light on how well the civilian dispensation in Nigeria has integrated different segments of the society in governance.

I interviewed nine of the former guerrilla journalists and examined some of their current writings. My analysis showed that the return to democracy in Nigeria caught the entire pro-democracy group unprepared. The return was sudden occasioned as it was, by the sudden death of the Mr Sani Abacha, the military dictator of the time. The pro-democracy camp -- to which the journalists belonged -- was thrown into disarray. Lacking an agenda for response to the unforeseen solution, the group broke into factions: some partook in the elections, others stayed away and demanded for a constitutional conference. As a result, the pro-democracy group could not come with a plan that would integrate them into the emerging structure of governance.

My analysis showed a general feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration among the former guerrilla journalists. This feeling cut across those journalists who had served government and those who had remained in journalism. They all claimed that the conditions against which they fought -- human rights abuses, violence, corruption, and undemocratic governance -- were still very much in place in Nigeria. A major cause of frustration was the alleged seizure of power in Nigeria by the same people who ruled as military men or who worked with the military against the emergence of democracy. Another cause of dissatisfaction is that the government has done nothing to acknowledge the struggle of the militant press for the emergence of democracy, not even a mention in an official speech.

While some of the journalists were simply dissatisfied and believed that with repeated elections, democracy in Nigeria would improve, others were disillusioned and thought "the current dispensation is configured against change". The latter believed that what Nigeria needed was some landslide event such as a revolution.
Money plays a central role in the rising frustration. Former guerrilla journalists and magazines have stuck to the old combat journalism and some in this category have done poorly financially. One of them died of a minor illness having been unable to pay hospital bills. Some of their newspaper organisations are fund-starved. They alleged that government not only refused to give them advertisements, they also prevent commercial interests from advertising with them. Two such organisations have however managed to practice some level of critical journalism and still get substantial advertisements from government and politicians.

The situation of many of the former guerrilla journalists in Nigeria is better understood as a continuation of the struggle between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces in Nigeria, a struggle that spans the pre-colonial, colonial, military and now democratic dispensations. Alliances may have changed, persons may have crossed over from one camp to the other, but the contention between these forces goes on. The totality with which power is exercised in Nigeria means that those on the counter-hegemonic side will continue to be the losers.