Brown Envelope Journalism: How Nigeria Came to this Sorry Pass
Nigeria is no longer just a “geographical expression;” it is also an “expression of rumours.” Every aspect of Nigerian life is dominated by rumours. This is because there is no individual and collective inclination to base their thoughts and opinions on ‘verifiable fact.’ “If it sounds right it has to be true,” is the motto.
The deplorable situation is a serious intellectual and civic let down for Nigeria in that journalism, which traditionally relies on the bedrock ‘verifiable fact’ for its credibility and acceptance, has been taken over by falsehood and rumours due to a culture of brown envelope journalism or ‘cash for news reports.’
In this campaign period of the 2015 general election, fuelled by online print journalism and social media, we have entered the era of “rumours as campaigns” as a dominant electioneering strategy. Former Lagos State, Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu and incumbent governor Babatunde Fashola (his successor) have been recently reported to be corrupt, big thieves milking Lagos State revenues and allocations rapaciously. Muhammadu Buhari has been “diagnosed on-line” as terminally ill and also reported to be a backer of Boko Haram. Goodluck Jonathan is reputed to be planning to hand over to an Interim Government. The rumours are endless, evidence of growing political polarisation.
Have any of these stories been based on verifiable fact? More precisely, were any of these stories intended to be based on verifiable fact? It is hard to believe they are. Right-sounding rumours appeal to the emotions and biases of polarised supporters, but when they are wrong-sounding they meet with disbelief from the very same people. Sahara Reporters’ Supremo, Omoleye Sowore, was said to have been bequeathed a multimillion dollar house in the USA by a Nigerian opposition party in order to discredit him. Sowore is a strong journalist and effortlessly proved the smear against him was totally false and was believed. If he was contesting elections it might have been different.
Arguably, “rumours as campaigns” started in Nigeria visibly during the later period of the Independence Movement. Independence champions like Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo owned and edited major newspapers. However, as pragmatic politicians they knew they could not rely on their political messages to the masses through their newspapers; there was overwhelming “illiteracy” at the time and might have been a motivation for universal free primary education and television; Awolowo did them first. These Independence politicians decided to use “opinion leaders” to get their message to the masses. From then opinion leaders left word of mouth and entered the media.
Opinion leaders were usually influential local political party activists who represented the interests and messages of their patrons. Their strategy was to prey on the ignorance of the masses. This was aided by the territorial and ethnic nature of Nigerian politics. The strategy (by rule of thumb) was 10% fact, 40% half-truths and 50% myth. The myths were dominated by lies, magic and superstition. The “superhuman-ness” of patrons coupled with “curse” of the opposing patrons not “public persuasion” won and kept support for politicians. Fact was hard to come by and only appreciated by at most 2% of the population. Nigeria was ripening for its “expression as rumours” at least politically.
The first form of crap journalism I ever witnessed as a teenager was in the Nigerian Tribune newspaper owned by Obafemi Awolowo of the Unity Party of Nigeria. I was in Ibadan at the time. The 1983 general election results presented in the paper; Ijebu-Ode Local government Unity Party Nigeria won 134,000 votes while the combined opposition won fewer than 50,000 votes while a local government in Sokoto State, the National Party of Nigeria won 5 votes while the combined opposition had 0 votes. This was at a time when local government were mega sized! Yet I witnessed academics (not illiterates) at a ceremony in Bodija, Ibadan swearing to the veracity of the results.
In 1984 I was relaxing in the in the boys quarters of the house of the late Aiken Uduehi (we were related by marriage) in Benin-City when he and a colleague left the main house into the backyard. In very indignant maintained low voices, they were furious that some journalists were reportedly taking bribes for writing and publishing stories. Uduehi had just left his job as Editor-in-Chief of the Nigerian Observer and the person he was discussing with was a top man at the paper. When Uduehi realised I was in the boys quarters he was so furious I was there [I might have over heard his confidential conversation]. I was scared. That was the last time I ever saw him.
In 1987, a young man met my uncle in Warri, Delta State. The young man had just returned from the United Kingdom and wanted to regularise his papers over there. He asked my uncle if he knew anyone in the newspapers. Reason: he was willing to pay a bribe to journalist to publish a story in a newspaper that mentioned him as a victim of an ethnic clash in which his entire family was wiped out; a total lie. My uncle was transfixed and the young man simply went elsewhere. Brown envelope journalism was now alive and kicking in the open market place. If a small hustler could have news fabricated for him for a bribe how about the power elite?
Many claim that General Buhari with Decrees 2 and 4 and General Abacha’s brutality to journalists did the most damage to journalism in Nigeria. The question that arises is, between the suppression of verifiable fact by government and the manipulative disregard of verifiable fact by journalists, which is worse?
Today, everything Nigerians strive for in the ‘real world’ is a product of the Age of Enlightenment, an age when European intellectuals decided the time has come to start using rationality, verifiable fact and useful knowledge as their cultural and common guide in all affairs; it is the basis of their prodigious intellectual heritage. Nevertheless, Nigeria’s intellectuals are apparently making assiduous efforts to take us back to the ways of pre-Enlightenment and keep us there.
- PERSPECTIVE is published every Monday. Dr. Nane is an errant scholar and economist. Follow him on twitter: @Grimot