I often get criticised by colleagues for describing Nigeria as a young democracy. And interestingly enough, some senior journalists often compare the situation in the country to that of the developed democracies when commenting about the shortcomings of the Nigerian system. Unfortunately for such individuals, the fact that the independent media and the judiciary were allowed to flourish under military rule, which they are used to, does not mean we have developed democratically because periodic elections have now been added. Democracies depend on institutions that have nothing to do with individual office holders in ensuring the observance of due process, which is what we call the rule of law. These institutions include the law enforcement agencies, judiciary, professional organisations and the independent media. All these and more will rise to defend the interest of the average citizen in a developed democracy without the need to draw the attention of a state governor or president of the country for that matter.
But a young democracy is one where the institutions that guarantee due process in governance are still weak. Compared with the U.S or U.K, the Nigerian judiciary, mass media, law enforcement agencies and the individuals who run these agencies are just coming to terms with how things should be done in a democratic polity. Even for those who know, a fear of being victimised through dismissal or demotion is constant on their minds. Unfortunately in Nigeria , many political actors, whose major interest remain the spoils of office, often pretend as if democracy is all about periodic elections. It is the responsibility of credible journalists to write stories and analyses with an understanding that Nigeria ’s is a young democracy. In most cases, it is only politicians that the Nigerian media descend on. Law enforcement agents and judicial officers who occupy sensitive positions are often overlooked in critical stories by the media. These are individuals who have been thoroughly polluted by military rule and could constitute a cog in the wheel of our democratic progress through their conducts in office.
While it is true that there are other institutions that are NATURALLY expected to act as pillars for strengthening democracy in any country, the most important of all is the mass media. Without information nothing can work. Thus, any society which claims to be democratic must concomitantly have vibrant mass media organisations. Journalists in such a society must also have very high standards of training from the universities or polytechnics to the effect that the quality of their reports and ethical matters relating to the journalism profession are given priorities. In Nigeria, this aspect, which has a lot to do with the calibre of journalists, ultimately rests on the shoulders of those who monitors Journalism and Mass Communication courses in our universities and Polytechnics, i.e the National Universities Commission (NUC) and the National Board for Technical Education (NBTE).
Cognisant of the fact that without credible journalists, there cannot be democracy, the developed democracies have over the years put in place structures that continually monitor the training of media practitioners in order to get the highest standard possible from this set of professionals, who can make or mar democratic practice. In the United Kingdom , for instance, it is doubtful if any course in journalism would be accredited in a higher institution without Political Communication being offered by such a school as a core course. Without a proper understanding of how Political Actors continually make efforts to influence the process of governance, journalists in any society may not be able to play their assigned part in ensuring that the genuine wishes of the people are given room by those in public offices and the political actors who seek to influence them and what they do.
One is aware of the concern of a few credible media owners in Nigeria about the quality of Mass Communication or journalism graduates. This has to do with the ability of such graduates to write good English and ask sensible questions during interviews. But till date, it is doubtful if there has been any conscious effort to link Nigeria ’s democratic development with an urgent need to insist on Political Communication as a core course for all Mass Communication courses in our higher institutions. Coming from a background of prolong military rule, the practice of journalism in Nigeria requires urgent attention so that we could match up with what obtains in other democracies. And the place to start is the training institutions. It is time the NUC and National NBTE insist on this for the accreditation of Mass Communication courses in our universities and Polytechnics.
Naturally, there should be a law guaranteeing Freedom of Information and protection of the rights of those who squeal on the illegal activities of elected or appointed officials of government. Democracy presupposes that the citizens have a right to choose between competing individuals, political parties and ideas during regular elections. But it is also an established fact that only those who are well informed can make credible choices. Currently in Nigeria , information about government activities can only be given to interested members of the public ONLY if the officials concerned want to. This should not happen in a democracy. Ours is young. And that is why one is happy that the current National Assembly has initiated steps to pass an FOI law in Nigeria . In Ogun State , the Governor, Otunba Gbenga Daniel, joined millions of Nigerians to sign a petition asking for the FOI bill, which is currently in the National Assembly to be passed speedily. His Excellency was joined by Ogun State citizens from the 236 Wards of the 20 local governments in the state to sign the petition, which has since been forwarded to the National Assembly through the Freedom of Information Coalition in Lagos .
Because of the enormous power of the media, abuses also abound. Today in Nigeria a number of media houses are owned by persons who have a lot of things to hide. What obtains in such places is so sad that they continue to muddle the waters of Nigerian politics. But the public is not so deceived anymore. Statistics show that the highest selling newspaper in Nigeria today does a maximum of 50,000 copies per day. That is even on a very good day. In a country with a population of more than 100 million, it is a clear indictment that the average person does not want to read newspapers. If a similar study is done about radio and television, I have no doubt, the same thing will be discovered about how many people listen to news and analyses. Our educational institutions have a responsibility to train journalists that will restore confidence to the public. Apathy during an election or a general disdain for governance by the people depend on how much the electorate believe in what the mass media communicate to them.
Developed democracies have institutions that ensure minimal abuses by political actors. Employing rumour mongering as it is often done here to bring down a government can hardly work in the United Kingdom or United States where the citizens can easily access information. It is also very unlikely to bribe a journalist or media organisation to continually dish out fabricated stories to run down political opponents or others in a developed democracy. The law enforcement agencies, the judiciary and the professional organisations often ensure that such do not happen in the U.K. and U.S. , for instance. Above all, in the developed democracies those who take to journalism as a profession did so out of choice, not because they could not get other well paying jobs due to the economic condition of their societies as we have in Nigeria . They are well paid, and in some instances, often decide how much employers should pay them. Today in Nigeria , most journalists are not only poorly paid, some do not even get paid for a long time, while a few join the profession to ‘make it.’ These are symptomatic of a young democracy.
The challenge we have is to encourage the enactment of laws that will encourage the strengthening of our democratic institutions. Policemen and other law enforcement agents who perform their duties creditably should be rewarded, not victimised. Bad eggs should be shown the way out. Judges should not be denied due entitlements because they give negative judgments to those holding political offices. Journalists should not be selective in the stories they write simply because they want to protect some special friends. Many are those shouting about democracy and due process today, who are enemies of anything that has to do with the rule of law. Yet, journalists who know about such individuals and their background have often kept quiet.
An FOI law that will be used to check abuses by government officials is also good to ask questions from journalists who cannot explain the source of their sudden wealth. With an FOI law in place, rumour mongering, which is another prevalent issue in a young democracy will be a thing of the past. Journalists will no longer be made to dish out rumours as ‘facts’ to the people. Securing convictions against criminal elements by our law enforcement agencies will also become easier. Questionable characters should reduce in both the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary, a situation that will go a long way to restore sanity to the polity. Even some members of civil society who have ulterior motives for setting up Non-Governmental Organisations will be put I check as it becomes easier to expose corrupt persons and organisations.
* Mr. Adedayo, Chief Press Secretary to the Ogun State Governor, delivered this paper to students of Mass Communication Department, Olabisi Onabanjo University , Ago Iwoye, Ogun State on Thursday, 7 February 2008.