27/05/2011 16:29

As our nation jubilates in her golden jubilee, it is totally appropriate that we should celebrate both the nation and the heroes of the struggle that led to our independence. In this regard there is no greater claimant to a pride of place in the pantheon of our heroes than the Nigerian media. No individual or group can challenge the decisive role the press played in the country’s journey to independence and development.

To begin with, the media as we know it today predates independent Nigeria by almost a century. It started with the establishment of Iwe Irohin in 1859 by the reverend Henry Townsend of the Church Missionary Society, (CMS) in Abeokuta. Although Iwe Irohin was more or less a provincial newsletter devoted to church and community news, it could not ignore the political events of the time. Soon the paper became a potent weapon for political agitation.

Later other newspapers were established in the tradition of Iwe Irohin. These were the Anglo African, in 1863, the Lagos Times 1880 and the Lagos Observer 1882, to name just a few.

But more than just a claim to longevity, the media spear-headed the nation’s actual struggle for independence. Our leading nationalists were quick to recognize that the pen was a much mightier weapon against the colonial masters than any sword.

The nationalists resorted to this new weapon in large numbers. The new Comet Newspaper promptly attracted the likes of Dennis Osadebay, Obafemi Awolowo and Fred Anyiam. The momentum accelerated in 1939 when Nnamdi Azikiwe, from exile in the Gold Coast, founded the West African Pilot.  Chief Awolowo followed with the Nigerian Tribune in 1949.

These newspapers recruited a whole new cream of urban journalistic Guerrillas who forsook the jungle of armed resistance for the new and more powerful weapon of the pen. It was in this new brigade that we find the great nationalists of our independence struggle, Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Hezekiah Davis, and of course Anthony Enahoro, the man who moved the motion for Independence.  All of them were, above everything else, acclaimed journalists.

Using various laws, the colonial rulers imprisoned nearly all of the nationalists at various times, not for carrying arms, as happened in countries like Kenya, but for what they wrote. With independence in 1960 and the nationalist-journalists now saddled with the task of governance, a new breed of journalists took over the mantle vacated by the Azikiwes and Awolowos. These included Lateef Jakande and Bisi Onabanjo. In the fullness of time they, too, became political rulers in Lagos and Ogun states respectively.

On the other hand, a very important comparison is worth noting here. The Nigerian army, which dominated our political life for over thirty years by frequently interrupting our march to national development, dates back to only 1863, four years after the advent of the Nigerian press.  There is something even more critical here.

While the press was making sacrifices for independence, the army, then called the Queen’s Own Nigerian Regiment, was being used to suppress local uprisings in Epe 1863; Brass River 1895, and Bida-Ilorin in 1897.

When the military assumed political power soon after independence, it was no surprise that the media had to confront a new threat to our democracy. The media’s traditional role as the nation’s watchdog inevitably produced a head-on collision with the anti-democracy posture of the military regimes.

Thus for the second time in a century, the media found itself back in the trenches of the battle for democracy and national development. It is a sad fact of this era that the media suffered more in the hands of the military than even the colonial government.  The more notable landmarks in these military-media conflicts include the humiliation of Minere Amakri in 1974.

The Military Governor of Rivers State, Alfred Diete Spiff, ordered the reporter stripped and shaved for reporting something he did not like. There was the shackling and imprisonment of Ray Ekpu and Dele Giwa by the Babangida regime, and, of course, the tragic death of Giwa in 1986. The jailing of Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor by the Buhari regime under the infamous decree four did not end the cycle. The Abacha regime’s kangaroo court imprisoned Chris Anyanwu and Ben Collins Obi on the charge of coup plotting.

And so as Nigeria celebrates her jubilee, we should raise a toast to the Nigerian media for their great sacrifice for our freedom and national development. It is a credit to our media that Nigerian independence was won without bloodshed. And that was entirely because our nationalists preferred the power of the pen to the violence of the sword.

As we begin the journey to a new century of nationhood, the task of preserving the gains of the last fifty years remains a constant challenge for the Nigerian media.