by Levi Obijiofor
NOT often do I respond to opinion articles published in the Nigerian press, in particular articles published in other newspapers. But in the past 10 days, I've read two outstanding and provocative opinion articles that fit easily into the genre of works that qualify as those of ego massagers or image-makers. This week this column will analyse the first of the two articles. I refer first to the opinion article that appeared in ThisDay newspaper of Thursday, 2 September entitled rather robustly as "Torrents of inquisition journalism". The article carried the byline of Ben Lawrence, who indicated clearly in the article that he is a veteran of Nigerian journalist. In the article, Lawrence set out unashamedly to defend Babangida as former military president and as a man entitled to contest the undeclared post of president in 2007. In his defence of Babangida, Lawrence made many disproportionate representations and comparisons with people that should indeed not be compared with Babangida. In general, Lawrence's article heaped a torrent of insults on virtually everyone who did not practise journalism when he did many decades ago.
The second article, entitled "The achievements of Tafa Balogun", was written by Lanre Adeniyi and published in The Guardian of Monday this week. From its title, it was obvious that Adeniyi's mission was to polish the image of Police Inspector-General Tafa Balogun. One way that Adeniyi accomplished that task was by glorifying and exaggerating the achievements of Balogun. At the same time, Adeniyi cleverly avoided any references to Balogun's failures as Inspector-General. Owing to lack of space, it is not possible to analyse Adeniyi's article this week. That will be done next week. For now, let's examine Ben Lawrence's opinion about Babangida and about himself.
In his defence of Babangida's record in office as a military dictator, Lawrence wrote: "Professor Humphrey Nwosu and former President Ibrahim Babangida take credit for showing Nigerians that election could be conducted in Nigeria without rigging and shorn of ethnicity and regionalism. But the narrow-minded section of the press often shouts for the crucifixion of Babangida, while it quietly ignores the part played by others who are still very much in power and some, still very politically visible." This is simply an illogical argument presented as a twaddle. Lawrence has argued that Humphrey Nwosu and Ibrahim Babangida deserved adulations because they conducted elections that were not rigged and elections that were "shorn of ethnicity and regionalism". For this reason, Lawrence submits that Babangida should be garlanded and not be crucified. Yet Babangida, the midwife of the 1993 election, terminated the election abruptly and without any reasonable justification other than the highly convoluted argument that Moshood Abiola, the leading candidate, was not the candidate that Babangida wanted to win.
The questions that Babangida and his defenders (such as Lawrence) should answer are: why did Babangida invest and waste state resources " including everybody's time " in an election that he knew he was going to annul? Why did Babangida lead the entire nation to believe he was truly committed to a program of political transition when in fact he was committed to a merry-go-round useless political wild goose chase? When did it become fashionable for national elections to be cancelled on the basis of one man's swinging mood and whimsical preference?
Lawrence wrote that "the time has come to square the circle so as to bare the unprofessional tactics of the hacks villifying Babangida, for example, as a case of hired jobs". Lawrence should get on with his self-ingratiating job. Unfortunately that job has come unstuck. In Lawrence's perception, any journalist or media commentator who criticises Babangida's evil regime is a hack. But it is the contents of Lawrence's article and the timing of that publication (at a time when some foot soldiers are working surreptitiously round the clock campaigning for Babangida's return in 2007) that have exposed the real motives behind Lawrence and his public relations job. For clarity, fawning adulation is not a hanging offence. In this regard, I admire Lawrence's boldness in coming out openly to bat for Babangida (excuse the cricket metaphor used here).
In Nigeria, there are people who believe it is better to lead in hell than serve in heaven. As a Nigerian, Babangida has the constitutional right to aspire to a seat in heaven but Babangida's quest for that seat must be judged on his previous record. That record is abysmal, whether or not Lawrence likes the critical comments he sees in the Nigerian press. In democratic societies, people who aspire to high political office are subjected to thorough media scrutiny, including character checks and performance record. Media critique of Babangida's record as a failed military president does not constitute, in my judgment, a "hatchet job", as Lawrence consistently alluded to. In every free society, there are basic requirements and public expectations of the role the press should play in order to advance the cause of democracy. One of these is that the press should act not only as the "conveyor belt of public information", the press should analyse that information in the context in which the information is meaningful to the audience. Lawrence cannot expect Babangida's aweful track record (as a former leader) to be hidden from media scrutiny. Prior to his election as president, Olusegun Obasanjo was subjected to even worse media scrutiny.
In his determination to polish Babangida's perverted image, Lawrence lined up Babangida's name alongside the names of 1970s military and civilian leaders whom he considered to be "honourable". History will decide whether or not Babangida's name should be included in the Hall of Fame of honourable military leaders. Lawrence went further in his public relations job. He wrote: "Babangida was a very friendly, handsome and sociable young man... When he became Nigerian's leader, he was not known for crudity. He stretched his hands out to all Nigerians, never wanting people to suffer." This is a shameful and groundless basis for singing Babangida's praises. I can't remember the last time when a political leader offered as part of his credentials for high office such mundane qualities as level of handsomeness and sociability. Obviously Lawrence believes that these qualities should endear Babangida to Nigerian voters. As for Lawrence's highly litigious allegation that Olu Falae and Ojetunji Aboyade, among others, "conned" Babangida to swallow the western market economy pill, it's best to let Falae and Aboyade to defend their names.
If you have been looking for evidence of immodesty in comments carried in the Nigerian press, here is one from Lawrence. Writing about Babangida's love for Nigerians and the saints who offered immaculate advice to that government, Lawrence did not flinch to include himself as one of the people who offered faultless advice to Babangida. It's a case of blowing one's trumpet if no one else is willing to do so. In the manner of someone who lived in outer space during the eight-year reign of terror that Babangida imposed on the news media and sections of the Nigerian public, Lawrence asked rather indignantly: "Why should Babangida not aspire to rule his country if he wishes? Are we God to decide the fate of others? What crime did he commit?" These questions expose the emptiness of Lawrence's arguments. If he lived in Nigeria between 1985 and 1993 and was not wearing any blinkers that paralysed his vision, Lawrence should have realised that these questions make him look dim-witted in the estimation of average Nigerians.
It is not possible to respond to everything that Lawrence stated in his opinion article but one of the things that came across frequently was the faultless journalism that took place during the years he practised journalism and his consistent knock on the present generation of journalists in Nigeria. There is nothing newsworthy about this. It's easy to glorify the past and to condemn the present. Lawrence is free to glorify his days as a journalist but he should be reminded that he was not the best among the class of journalists who practised in his time. In any case, there is nothing that says the past is always better than the present. Celebrating the past is not an acceptable excuse to rubbish the present. Surely, there were celebrated and famous journalists during the decades that Lawrence practised his brand of journalism. These journalists have not been running around commenting on the wonderful days of their journalism practice. That's what modesty has instilled in them.
It is imprudent for Lawrence to suggest that the present generation of journalists are incompetent. In expressing disdainful pride in his years as a journalist, Lawrence asked: "When last did we see reasoned and well-delivered commentaries in the press?" My well measured and equally well reasoned response is: as recently as yesterday or today.