I firmly believe that a significant portion of the chaos of Nigeria is owed to the frailty-in some segments, fall-of the press. A weak or compromised press cannot hold the government accountable.
This is why I kept an eye on the involvement of the press in last week’s state visit of President Muhammadu Buhari to the United States.
In Nigeria, Mr. Buhari positions himself as a democrat. But although now an elected leader, it is evident he considers a free press to be more of an irritant than as a critical component of a democracy.
For evidence: he shuns press conferences. Not in Nigeria; at least not to Nigerian journalists. The odd interview, such as during a national anniversary when he might reluctantly entertain a group of journalists, yes.
But routine press briefings, where he would be confronted with live and unaudited questions, No. Similarly, the work of his information operatives appears to be defined by denials and the manufacture of explanations and excuses concerning failures and gaffes, rather than routine provision of information about public policy and work.
Once abroad, however, in places where political thought and practice has evolved, where it is no favour to the press for elected officials to make themselves available, Buhari does.
In the US, public officials giving press briefings and being questioned are as normal as Nigerian public officials looting the public till or looking the other way while their colleagues or appointees do. When there is a state visit, the president and his guest are not considered qualified for anything else until they have answered questions from the press.
To be sure, even when there isn’t a high-profile visitor, the White House gives press briefings almost every day. It is in the interest of open and transparent governance, something Nigeria professes but does not practice. It is important to keep this in mind because following their bilateral meeting last Monday, President Buhari journeyed with President Donald Trump to meet with the press.
In his remarks, Buhari spoke of both countries “practicing a similar democratic model of governance and committed to the universal values of fundamental human rights and freedoms, free enterprise, social justice and the rule of law.”
I think he meant “profess,” not practice.
To convey the impression his government respects the press there were at least two journalists from Nigeria at Monday’s event. I assume they were journalists.
The first, identifying herself merely as “Juliana,” said to Mr. Trump: “Nigeria is in dire need of the Tucano aircraft to tackle the problem back home. Will you be kind enough to release at least two before 2020…?”
It was a bizarre, unprofessional plea over a bizarre subject burning up the political wires in Nigeria, where Mr. Buhari is accused of having purchased the equipment without legislative authorization. Nonetheless, in his preliminary remarks just minutes earlier, Trump had provided an update.
“…We recently sold Nigeria 12 U.S. A-29 Super Cutano aircraft — it’s a great aircraft — in the first ever sale of American military equipment to Nigeria,” he had said.
Would Trump be “kind enough to release at least two before 2020…?”
Release two before 2020? I was reminded that in Nigeria, a budget is approved, and then the work of obtaining “release” of funds commences. Perhaps Trump was hiding the 12 jets in the White House basement?
There were significant issues. For instance, Mr. Trump had just noted that the US gives Nigeria “well over $1 billion in aid every year,” and was owed “fairness and reciprocity” concerning Nigeria’s “substantial trade barriers.”
“[Dismantling those barriers] will make it easier for Nigeria and the United States companies to invest, and we will be investing substantially in Nigeria if they can create that level playing field that we have to, very much, ask for and maybe demand.”
Substantial investment has a nice ring to it, but “demand” is a strong term in bilateral relations. What did Mr. Trump mean? What had Buhari agreed to?
Juliana, focusing on her “two helicopters by 2020” mission, apparently missed that and other screaming questions, choosing to pray to Trump.
Also rising, the second “journalist” launched a more convoluted enquiry. “The fight against corruption is one of the major achievements the Nigerian government has presented to the world,” he announced. “And the records show that the United States of America is one of the major destination countries of illicit fund (sic) and assets from Nigeria. To what extent did you discuss the need to repatriate the funds back (sic) to Nigeria to fund critical infrastructure, to cut down funding for terrorism, and also to reduce illegal immigration from Nigeria to your country?”
The question carried tremendous energy but made no sense. Repatriate funds to… “cut down funding for terrorism, and also to reduce illegal immigration from Nigeria…?” Repatriation of funds will cut down funding for terrorism…[help] reduce illegal immigration? It is an example of how not to ask a government question.
Now, there was a clear difference between Mr. Trump’s self-serving remarks to Buhari and the just-published US report on Nigeria which contradicts many of the things Trump said. Among others, it affirms “massive, widespread, and pervasive corruption” at all levels of Buhari’s government, but nobody asked about it.
This illustrates the dilemma the Nigerian press must resolve in the quest for professional credibility, and to avoid pandering to the government.
The first element is the danger of pretending abroad to be what it is not at home. Why does the press lack the access to Buhari in Abuja it implied in Washington DC?
The next is whether it is possible to report the government fairly without being hostile to it. Ordinarily, yes. But in Nigeria, most media houses are owned by politicians and cronies to whom the concept of a press that is “independent” of the government is a joke. For trips such as Buhari’s to the US, they encourage-sometimes, solicit-of their semi-professionals (one half journalist, the other government advocate) gifts of air travel, hotels and-perhaps-cash, leading the recipient and his organization to sound semi-literate in reporting, and hollow in advocacy.
Last week, Mr. Trump treated Buhari with considerable patronage and condescension: “[Buhari] likes buying helicopters…they’re buying a lot of helicopters…” for example. Sometimes he massaged his ego: “Mr. President, we gave Iran $150 billion and $1.8 billion in cash — Nigeria would like some of that…”
But unlike Buhari excoriating Nigerian youths in the UK, Trump also aggressively marketed his country: “…great agricultural products…the best helicopters anywhere in the world, etc.”
All the time, he baited Buhari, daring him to say he would not end protection of Nigerian farmers. And then Buhari meekly said he was even satisfied the US no longer buys Nigerian oil.
Then he flew to the UK and-with no word to his country-disappeared: a liberty even Trump would never take. The question is what Nigerian journalists will question him about it, and when.
• Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense