Courage under Fire: A Review of Trials and Triumphs


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Courage under Fire: A Review of Trials and Triumphs

  1. 1. Courage under Fire: A Review of Trials and Triumphs – The Story of The News by Wale Adebanwi By ‘Kayode Fayemi1Chairman, Excellencies, Media Gurus, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen. We are here tocelebrate the fifteenth anniversary of a rare phenomenon in the annals of crusadingjournalism in Africa – The News and its associated publications. Fifteen years is not exactlya long time in the history of newsmagazines in Nigeria; and The News is certainly not theoldest publication of its kind in the country. However, when one considers the mortality rateof such publications and the context of birth of The News and its sister publication, the nowrested Tempo, both products conceived in the crucible of Nigeria‟s long and tortuous struggleagainst military dictatorship and nurtured in suffocating uncertainty, every year spent in thatcrucible is well worth celebrating.A fitting emblem of this worthy celebration of courage under fire, high patriotism andselfless nobility is the publication of Trials and Triumphs – The Story of The News – acommissioned study of The News‟ history written by that rare breed in the atrophyingchamber of scholarship, Wale Adebanwi, the irreverent Bill Gates Fellow from CambridgeUniversity, United Kingdom. Naturally, detached academics are skeptical of sponsoredstudies lest they be accused of hagiography rather than an objective study and Dr Adebanwireflects on this dilemma in his introduction to the book. While he shies away from the notionof value neutrality in assessing The News, he did not shy away from pointing out the faultsand foibles, indeed the challenges of internal democracy in an institution that espouses cleartenets of democracy and challenges all forms of injustice.Dr Adebanwi has done our country - well known for its predilection of collective amnesia –a huge favour by producing this wonderful work of political history and media studies.Although it is not the first in the genre I have referred to elsewhere as “Struggle memoirs”and which Dr Reuben Abati of The Guardian has once called “literature of resistance” –books detailing our sordid experience under military dictatorships of the Babangida andAbacha era, it offers a refreshing insight into the critical role played by the media in defianceof dictatorship and in the promotion of democracy. A reading of these books – Ken SaroWiwa‟s A Month and a Day – A Prison Diary, Wole Soyinka‟s Open Sore of the Continent,Chris Anyanwu‟s Days of Terror, Kunle Ajibade‟s Jailed for Life, the Wale Oshun‟s Trilogy– Clapping with One Hand, Open Grave and Kiss of Death and my own Out of the Shadows:1 Dr Kayode Fayemi was ICNL’s pioneer Head of International Operations, Editor of the exile politicaljournal, Nigeria Now, Radio Kudirat’s Chief of Operations and later Director of the Centre for Democracy &Development. He is a Fellow of the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies, University of Ibadan, Nigeria and anadjunct Professor of Security Studies at the African Centre for Strategic Studies, National Defense University,USA.. He is now at the Elections Petition Tribunal battling to retrieve his stolen victory at the lastGovernorship election in Ekiti State. 1
  2. 2. Exile and the Struggle for Democracy and Freedom in Nigeria – to mention a few in a longlist of this literature of resistance – serve as a sober reminder of the evil of military rule andhow Nigerians in their various ways resisted even as others also capitulated. Taken together,they also remind us of the risk of basking in the adulation of a democracy without democratsand highlight although this country may be experiencing genuine transition, it is one that isstill suffused with a large dose of authoritarian instincts. Indeed, we are still caught in thatcontradictory context so well depicted by the Italian Marxist scholar, Antonio Gramsci whenhe argued that “the crisis of transition consists precisely of the fact that the old is dying andthe new cannot be born. In this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear…”The morbid symptoms are all about this polity and many continue to wonder if they will everdisappear.Yet, the birth of TheNews represented a rebirth of possibilities, of optimism that the morbidsymptoms will disappear from our country. At the time of their unexpected resignation fromAfrican Concord Magazine for their journalistic daring, they were not oblivious for instanceof what happened to Dele Giwa, the irrepressible Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch Magazine,but more concerned about what the military was doing to their country. As Bayo Onanuga,the self-effacing leader of the troops put it prosaically in his resignation letter to Chief MKOAbiola, “journalism is not meant for making the environment cosy for the leaders of nations;it is meant to prod them to act in the interest of the larger society. It is meant to cause themsleepless nights”(p.11). Even Chief Abiola who at the time thought Nigeria was not worthdying for and urged upon Onanuga to apologise to General Babangida and his intelligencegoons and then move on with his life was to later realize the monumental risk ofcompromising with evil, he was eventually matyred by them.In seven captivating chapters, gripping in detail and racy in its narratives, Wale Adebanwichronicles The News‟ journey in and out of proscription, detention, persecution, triumph andtravails in the last fifteen years, and through them renders a vivid picture of how Nigeriatethered at the edge, danced at the precipice and then fortuitously pulled back from the brink,but not without a lot of blood on the street. The 204 page book with a prologue by ProfessorAdebayo Williams, described as a five-star essayist by the author, which offers a fore-tasteof what to expect in the book in his graphic painting of a robust team of steely determinationready to provide intellectual ammunition for the formulation, articulation andimplementation of ideas and mobilization of people against military dictatorship. The firstpenetrating insight one gets into The News‟ worldview is appropriately captured in ChapterOne in the way the publication treated its first major cover on Justice Olugbani – a cover thatearned its editors their first trip to detention.Although independent in its approach to news and analysis and even goes by the corporatename – Independent Communications (Nigeria) Limited – the independence of The News isno excuse for “opportunism and spineless neutrality in the major issues that affect the wellbeing of the Nigerian people”. Indeed, in the fifteen years of its existence, The News haslived up to the billing of being „partisanly neutral on the side of the truth, justice and good 2
  3. 3. governance.‟ The range of articles referred to by Wale Adebanwi depict intellectuallyengaging and incredibly versatile minds in the magazine‟s eclectic coverage. Certaincommon threads run through these articles – an uncommon courage, commitment to the corevalues of building a good society founded on liberal democratic framework with full respectfor human rights and fundamental freedoms. Theirs has been more of a crusading journalismin which the consistency of vision and the focus of progressive politics became very clearearly on.For The News and its journalists - the newshound must be actively involved in the trencheswith the subaltern classes in the society, working with them to help make the state relevant tothe lives of all of its citizens. In short, the journalist must link journalism to politicalactivism. For its founders, it is not just „all the news that is fit to print‟ as the famous dictumof the New York Times goes, but „all the news that is fit for the struggle‟. They certainlytook to heart Vladimir Lenin‟s counsel that „the press should not only be collectivepropagandists and collective agitators but also collective organizers of the masses.‟ For this,the journalists of The News and their sister publication, Tempo and AM News sufferedmightily. At a point, it was only the communist accountant amongst the founders, IdowuObasa left behind to keep the publication afloat from various guerilla locations, having lostcomputers, printers and sundry items to the security agencies. His other colleagues wereeither in jail, exile or given up on the dangerous life of uncertainty. By 1998, 14 out of the 26journalists and media workers in prison were from The News group. The Magazine also hadthe highest number of journalists underground or in exile. Indeed, if the maximum ruler hadnot expired on top of his Indian paramours, ACP Zakari Biu had already put finishingtouches on the final solution for The NewsThere is of course always a price to pay for holding firm to principles in the battle to ensurethat ideas shape society. Wale Adebanwi is in my view at his best in his analysis of thecrusading journalist as a corporate manager in the chapter – Beyond the Headlines –Consolidation and Growth; Disillusionment and Crisis. He argues, correctly I think, thatgiven the circumstances of its birth, there were exaggerated expectations from both itsinvestors and staff that The News group was going to be a contrasting model to thesuffocating antics of the Proprietor as just a Businessman. It obviously failed to fulfill thedreams of some of the people who bought into the agenda. Leaving aside the disillusionmentof the journalists and some investors in the team, (and The News really should be proud ofthe way it nurtured some of the best minds in today‟s media world – and I see many of themhere this evening), the central question to address is whether things could have been handledin a different manner.The broader question is whether the growing corporatisation of the media has a negativeeffect on the process of democratization. In his acclaimed book, Agents of Power, J. HerbertAltschull (1984) discusses the challenges and opportunities the press faces in a capitalisteconomy and concludes that „the notion of the heroic press fighting the overwhelming powerof the mighty and the corrupt in the interest of the grateful citizen…is more mythic fairtytale 3
  4. 4. than reality.‟ Even if the media has indeed succumbed to the wiles of a dominant corporateinfluence, I refuse to accept that it operates in Nigeria as an instrument of undemocraticpower. The fact that it is not a shadowy enterprise is certainly a plus. Its‟ open, publiccharacter certainly underscores its endearing quality for democracy.Yet democratization is not just about consolidation but also about contestation, a struggle forthe continuing expansion of communicative spaces within which people can gain the socialand political confidence needed to act more authoritatively in the political arena. This canoften only come about when the media is ready to play a watchdog, adversarial and anagenda-setting role, rather than a lap-dog role for the establishment; localizing universalprinciples of freedom of expression and re-ordering power relations. The News has certainlyplayed a frontline role in the struggle to open communicative spaces that may serve asenclaves from which further efforts to promote democracy may grow. The role of theindependent media in the fostering of a discursive public realm, in which issues of nationaland local concerns are ventilated remains of critical importance and publications like TheNews cannot afford to rest on their oars lest they fall victim of the Chomskian notion ofmanufacturing consent and inducing conformity on behalf of power.Of course, given Adebanwi‟s magisterial testimony in the book and our own livedexperience of what The News group has contributed to the opening of democratic space inNigeria, it is probably enough to ask all those who have been part of this enterprise to take abow. Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, the question that the book leaves hanging in themouth of any reader is: What next? Where does The News go from here? The Editor-in-Chief, Mr Onanuga has provided some answers in the current edition of the magazine whenhe talks about e-publishing and diversifying into non-media business, citing the example ofThe Washington Post making more money from its non-media ventures than from itsnewspaper sales.As for me, the possibilities are legion, but the most important challenge is ensuring that themagazine continues to define the present and shaping the future of our democracy.Congratulations, the best is yet to come. 4