History tangles the past with the present in webs of fact. Its practice is to treat things that exist here and now as though they concerned the past and to use them in new compositions designed to equip people for the future.
Undoubtedly, a society without a collective memory would be as disoriented, dysfunctional, incoherent and programmed for destruction as an individual without that critical faculty. The present, anchored on the past, is able to confidently navigate the future.
To lovers of history, President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent announcement of June 12 as Nigeria’s new Democracy Day as well as conferment of GCFR honour on the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola is a welcome historic gesture.
June 12 as a national day is a development that will not only connect the younger generation to a significant part of our history, but also inspire questions about Nigeria’s perceptible structural problems that Hope ’93 wanted to address. The posthumous honour conferred on Chief Abiola is a partial redemption of the June 12 watershed.
Now that June 12 has been officially recognized as our Democracy Day, it is proper to assess the state of the nation especially from the mirror of sacrifices that went into the struggle to revalidate the annulled election. Beyond the latest PMB’s declaration, it is saddened to conclude that nothing spectacular has changed in our socio-political landscape, 25 years after. Sadly, there seems to be little assurance that much will change, considering our present imbalance and disheveled political structure. What of the eminent space that anti-democracy elements still occupy in our political landscape?
One is particularly interested in the activities of the vibrant press in resisting repressive acts of the military in the dark days of military rule in our country. Now that we are building a viable democratic culture, it is crucial for the press to remain in the forefront of checkmating all tiers of government. If we are to foreclose a return to tyrannical acts which the press suffered under the military, hardly can the press afford to be dormant in its denunciation of anti-democratic postures of current political actors. To do that might consume the media itself.
In 1993 alone, some 300,000 publications were seized, 54 journalists arrested, more than 20 of them were summoned to appear in court, six reporters or photographers were assaulted or injured, four publications and one radio station were suspended or put under pressure by the authorities, 17 titles were proscribed by decree and 17 journalists (in government owned media) dismissed or disciplined for political reasons; ten of them resigned in protest.
Between March and late August 1993, SSS agents raided the Lagos offices of The News several times, seizing tens of thousands edition of the weekly. Tempo magazine was also seized from the time it was banned in June 1993. Between early May and late August 1993, when General Ibrahim Babangida was forced to step aside, more than 200,000 copies of Tell magazine were seized.
Many could still recount how the military junta flooded the space with fake editions of opposition titles during the June 12 struggle. It was alleged that the State Security Service produced fake editions of these notable pro-democracy newspapers to confuse the public. Fake copies of Tell, Tempo, The News and TSM Magazines were especially in circulation in March 1994 when the Abacha junta began to employ the dirty scheme. According to a report by the Constitutional Rights Project entitled: ‘The Press and Dictatorship in Nigeria’, the management of Tell had to issue a press release denying that it was connected with a fake version of its 20th March edition. Several reports had been cut and the false front page sang the praises of the military ‘New Messiah’.
In 1994, in the thick of resistance against oppressive military rule, especially with the highly successful oil sector workers’ strike, the Abacha regime went a step further by banning media houses. From June 1994 onwards, Moshood Abiola’s Concord and the Punch newspapers were cordoned off by security operatives on the pretext that arms and ammunition were stockpiled in their premises. In mid-August 1994, it was the turn of the Guardian newspaper — whose owner, Alex Ibru, was serving as Interior Minister to the despotic Abacha junta! Despite protests and a ruling by a Lagos court, the junta stood firm and in early September 94 issued a decree banning a total of 19 titles belonging to these three media groups. The ban lasted over a year and was only lifted in October 1995. It was the longest press ban ever imposed in Nigeria and had a noticeable economic and psychological effect on the press.
Perhaps, the most brutal method of repression used to silence journalists was by arresting or physically intimidating them. Thus, instead of a few hours or days, journalists sometimes have to spend months in a cell with very harsh conditions. The aim was to quell the enthusiasm of many who have families to look after. In order to ‘flush out’ a journalist who has gone into hiding, security operatives went as low as locking up members their families.
In June 1993, wife of Dapo Olorunyomi, one of the editors of The News as well as the wife of Shola Odunfa, Nigerian BBC correspondent were arrested. With such attacks and sabotage on the increase since 1995, journalists had to cautiously handle warnings they received either directly or through relatives or friends working in the security services.
In 1995, the military regime set a new precedent by sentencing to life imprisonment- later commuted, under international pressure, to 15 years – four journalists charged with plotting to overthrow the government of late General Abacha. They were tried in camera by a military court in July 1995 alongside several dozens of Nigerian army officers. The journalists were George Mbah, Deputy Editor of Tell, Ben Charles Obi, Editor of Weekend Classique, Kunle Ajibade, Editor of The News, and Christine Anyanwu, Editor of The Sunday Magazine (TSM).
In the light of the above, as we understandably bask in the euphoria of June 12 resurgence, the media, especially, must remain deeply committed to the entrenchment of democratic values and norms in the country. It is essential to draw some lessons and stay on the track of truth and objectivity in this period when the country is at the crossroads. If current holders of power in Nigeria, most of who were practically opposed to the spirit of “June 12”, are still characterized by the culture of brazen looting of public treasury, outright commercialization of politics and personalization of public offices, the press should know that it is not yet time to celebrate.
Musbau writes from Lagos