A failing democracy?
Democracy failed early in Nigeria. The first elected civilian administration lasted barely six tumultuous years; it led to two military coups and a civil war that claimed over a million lives. The second attempt lasted only four years of wholesale and high-end corruption; it was overthrown by a vicious dictatorship.
In 1993, the third elected government never took off. Failures of elected democratic governments gave the military needed excuses to intervene in governance, again and again – a revolving door for successions of military rulers and dictators until 1999.
In the journey to nationhood, any effort to analyse “how far and how fair” the Nigerian state has travel is likely to be fraught with images of a much-troubled post-colonial nation-state now threatened by a complete failure of the democratic experiment.
Today’s Nigeria seemed perpetually at war with itself, an epitome of unending adversarial contestations among its component sub-nationalities. Religious and ethnic militias are driving the “political contests between the politics of identity and citizenship,” according to Gore and Pratten. Virtually all major ethnic groups now claim to have been disenfranchised; they speak of oppression, exclusion, or marginalisation.
Nigeria has become an open country for local and foreign terrorists, ethnic militias and vigilantes, and free-base bandits. In Zamfara State alone, one researcher from the University of Sokoto identified over 80 “bandit” groups roaming the state. Killings, kidnapping for ransom and other atrocities are rampart daily occurrences, given much oxygen to a continuous and bloody social unrest in all parts of the country. As a result, many small and large ethnic groups now openly invoke the spectre of separatism.
A critical sign of a politically distressed state is the obvious display of battle zone antagonism in which the opposition is an enemy to be annihilated
Everyone feels excluded. Segun Joshua, a political scientist, perhaps best expressed the feeling of discontent by virtually all ethnic groups in the nation:
The Ogonis felt neglected, the oil producing states felt cheated, the northern minorities felt left out, the West felt robbed, the core North felt they only held the titles but real power has been elsewhere, the East has always felt oppressed and marginalised”.
Question: What makes a person feel belonged? What earns a nation, its citizens’ loyalty?
According to sociologist, Nira Yuval-Davis, belonging is central to how the citizens of a nation identify and define themselves. It is about emotional attachment, about feeling ‘at home’ and, it is about feeling ‘safe.’ Self or group identity that emanates from a sense of belonging is at the heart of the concept of nationhood. A critical sign of a politically distressed state is the obvious display of battle zone antagonism in which the opposition is an enemy to be annihilated.
Toxic and divisive media conversations
Over half a century after independence, there is no agreement among Nigerians about a most basic concept of governance structure – federalism; or the elements that informs the Nigerian version, if such exists.
All over the media, there are toxic and divisive conversations about nearly everything. There is a general mistrust and suspicion for ethnicity. Yet there is room for optimism, for deep down most Nigerians desire a fairer, more equitable nation. After all has been said, democracy, however defined or interpreted, is an ideal that rests on the tripod of equality, fairness, and consensus, the same tripod that makes a citizen loyal and feel belonged to a nation, values that have only been selectively fostered by the press, when and if they serve an ulterior agenda.
What can be deduced from this analysis is that while the media may have done a lot in defending the nation against colonialism and militarism, not enough has been done about building an across-ethnic-national cohesion. The press may have fought against excessive state control, but it has not entirely been freed from the control and manipulations of its elite owners, who surreptitiously use the media to perpetuate ethnic rivalry and division.
The press may have proved independent of military captivity, but it has also become a captive of sectional loyalties and of business moguls. Our media have not taken advantage of many opportunities to push the boundaries of independence when there was room to do so. We have not provided leadership for the nation to engage in the articulation of domesticated ideology. We have failed to invite the nation into a dialogue with itself in a non-partisan, agonistic forum.
The media: A forum to re-imagine the post-colonial nation-state
The giving and receiving of nation-nurturing information is the oxygen of modern democracies, where contentions in politics are not unexpected or inexplicable. According to Prof. Larry Diamond, the stability of a democracy depends on “its capacity to resolve crises and conflicts effectively”. This approach calls for a new and complete orientation on the part of both the media and their elite owners.
Of all the functions of the media in a democracy, the forum function is, perhaps, the most dominant, though mostly unacknowledged. If used responsibly, this function acts as a key guarantor for success. Kwame Karikari credits Robert Hutchins, author of the 1947 Hutchins Commission Report, with a list of five key roles for the press in a modern liberal democracy:
First, the press must be truthful. It must give a comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.
Second, the press must serve as a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.
Third, the press must present itself as a means of projecting the opinions and attitudes of all the groups in the society to one another
Fourth, the press must make available to its reading public, a method of presenting and clarifying the goals and values of the society; and,
Fifth, the press must devise a way of reaching every member of the society with current information, thought, and feeling which the press supplies).
In true democracies, communication and other forms of information exchange, give every segment of society equal opportunity to speak and be heard. This in turn creates a feeling of belonging, a sense of common identity, which make fraternal relationships possible.
These are how a community dialogues with itself, defines self, and maintains the defined identity. As such, the role of the media in mobilising to unite ethnic fragments to build and shape a nation, imagined or not, becomes almost indispensable to the creation, nurture and survival of that democratic community.
According to Adebanwi, the narratives in the press are critical, even fundamental and indispensable. The indispensability of media narratives is even more reason its forum function should be taken seriously by journalists themselves and academics, equally.
Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach tell us that constructive forum function of the press provide enabling and ennobling environment for democracy to thrive especially in a large, diverse country like Nigeria. When measured against Hutchinson’s forum function, the Nigerian press may have been promoting what they have called “the argument culture” which turns politics into an antagonistic, acrimonious, and divisive engagement.
According to Mouffe, “The aim of democratic politics is to construct the ‘them’ in such a way that it is no longer perceived as an enemy to be destroyed” In order for an inclusive nation-state where all groups feel they belong to emerge, the elites need to reconcile themselves to the fact that all voices, not sanctioned homogeneous narratives emanating from one source, need to be heard. What this suggests is that the media should champion inclusive and integrative national discourses in which all sub-groups can feel belonged, without necessarily losing touch with the nation’s ethnic centres.
Nigeria must now identify middle grounds and compromises. The features that bind must be promoted and be made stronger and more rewarding than the features that divide. Winning ethnically motivated political points must be made to seem less attractive alternatives to genuinely all-inclusive projects.
If Nigeria must reinvent itself into a nation with a future, the elite must pledge themselves and commit to a common national destiny in which the hegemonic interests of one’s ethnic group are not above those of the nation and the other groups. The media must lead this charge!