Since gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has struggled with regional and ethnic conflict. This is hardly surprising, given its origin as a patchwork of smaller kingdoms and tribal states stitched together by British colonial rulers. Over time, that patchwork evolved into three distinct regions, each dominated by a major ethnic group. In the landlocked, largely agricultural north, the dominant group is the majority-Muslim Hausa and Fulani; in the commercially developed southwest, it is the majority-Christian Yoruba; and in the fertile, oil-rich, yet economically depressed southeast, it is the majority-Christian Igbo.
For most of their history, these three regions had been separated not only by the natural barriers of the Niger and Benue Rivers but also by barriers of culture, religion, language, and loyalty. These were hardly erased with independence. On the contrary, the early 1960s brought coups, assassinations, and counter-coups, resulting in a series of highly unstable dictatorships. In 1967 the conflict grew deadlier when three Igbo-majority states attempted to secede and create their own independent republic, called Biafra. The government in Lagos responded with a brutal crackdown, including forced starvation, and in 1970 the Biafrans surrendered.
In the aftermath of the Biafran War (also called the Nigerian Civil War), the capital was moved from Lagos to Abuja, a planned city in the middle of the country, surrounded by a 2,800-sq-mi swath of savannah called the Federal Capital Territory. The idea was to affirm the government’s impartiality, and perhaps it did. The coups and dictatorships continued, but in the late 1990s Nigeria began the difficult transition to democracy. The present century has seen marginally greater stability, despite pendulum swings between polarized parties and the harsh suppression of recurrent revolts.
The highest-profile revolt (if you can call it that) is of Boko Haram, the radical jihadist group that viciously attacks fellow Muslims in northeastern Nigeria, as well as in the adjoining states of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. Now split into two factions, each claiming allegiance to ISIS, Boko Haram is only one of many such groups operating in the Sahel, or belt of semi-arid land just south of the Sahara, which stretches from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east. But Boko Haram may be the most important such group, because as noted by a retired senior commander at AFRICOM, “If Nigeria goes down it would make a giant sinkhole that would suck in six or seven other countries.”
In 2017 nearly 10,000 civilians were killed by Boko Haram, five times as many as were killed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And despite the Nigerian government’s rhetorical claims of victory, its efforts to crush Boko Haram have arguably made things worse. For example, the army, reinforced by foreign mercenaries, has driven almost 2.4 million rural farmers from their villages, razed their homes, and placed them in camps guarded by soldiers who extort favors and bribes from anyone attempting to enter or leave. Conditions in the camps are horrific, with frequent rapes of women and children, and thousands of deaths from starvation, thirst, and disease. A recent UN study reports that 71 percent of African jihadists say that their main reason for joining the radicals is corruption and brutality by government authorities. As an aid worker in the region put it to the Economist, the behavior of the military “feeds right into the recruitment strategy [of Boko Haram], which is that the Nigerian government doesn’t give a shit about them. It is like a factory for jihadis.”
Nor is radical jihadism the only form of revolt in contemporary Nigeria. Activists among the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani, Ijaw, and other ethnic groups are demanding changes ranging from greater local control of resources to outright secession. According to political scientist Jideofor Adibe, some Nigerian leaders have been calling for “a Sovereign National Conference to decide if the federating units of the country still want to continue to live together, and, if so, under what arrangements.”
In Adibe’s view, this approach is too top-down; what’s needed is a serious effort to resolve the issues democratically. As he writes: “There has never been a referendum in any of the areas agitating for separation, [so] it is difficult to know whether the leaders of the various separatist groups actually reflect the wishes of the people of those areas or whether the agitations are mere masks for pursuing other agendas.”
Many Nigerians would agree that the best way to deal with separatist demands is to put them to a vote. But there is a problem here, one all too familiar to the world’s liberal democracies. Extreme political fragmentation and polarization are hard to mitigate democratically, because they have such a corrosive effect on the very institutions that make democratic decision-making possible. One such institution is the media. When a country’s sources of information are themselves fragmented and polarized, its political divisions get worse. This is the situation now facing Nigeria.
In its 2017 report on press freedom, Freedom House gave Nigeria a score of just 50 percent. The reasons for this are not self-evident to the Western observer. Nigeria has no Ministry of Information dictating a party line and telling journalists what they can and cannot cover. Nor does it have an overweening state broadcaster ruling the airwaves and policing the internet. Its public broadcasting system, modeled on the BBC, is decentralized and hardly a monopoly. And in general, the media in Nigeria appear quite similar to their Western counterparts: privately owned, commercially competitive, politically diverse. Even Reporters Without Borders (RSF) declares on its website that “Nigeria has more than 100 independent media outlets.”
But appearances can be deceptive. The RSF website also states that “in Nigeria, it is difficult to cover stories involving politics, terrorism, and financial embezzlement by the powerful. Journalists are often threatened, subjected to physical violence, or denied access to information by government officials, police, and sometimes the public itself.” Curiously, RSF offers no explanation of how both statements can be true—that is, how “more than 100 independent media outlets” can exist in a country where journalists are intimidated, attacked, and otherwise prevented from doing their job.
The explanation lies hidden in the wording. Note that the report says “independent media outlets,” not “independent news outlets.” The distinction is crucial to understanding the challenges facing press freedom in the 21st century. The memory of 20th-century totalitarianism causes many Western observers to be especially wary of state-run media using heavy-handed propaganda to indoctrinate the masses in a particular ideology. This still occurs in a few countries, North Korea being the most notable. But it is no longer the main threat.
Instead, the main threat is of powerful officials and wealthy oligarchs using media to entertain, distract, and confuse the public, while at the same time suppressing any news and information that might impinge on their power. In authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China, and Iran, this is done in a planned and deliberate way, through a media system owned and controlled by the state. In a struggling democracy like Nigeria, the process is more haphazard, as corrupt elites—typically politicians and their private-sector cronies—acquire commercial media outlets and through bribery and intimidation strive to turn them into personal mouthpieces.
From the point of view of the average consumer, this new use of media is doubtless an improvement over the old totalitarian diet of mind-numbing propaganda. Just as the Roman emperors provided circuses, so, too, do today’s authoritarian rulers and corrupt elites provide the masses with movies, TV series, reality shows, and “infotainment” about sports, weather, fashion, and celebrity gossip. The masses are also regaled with an entertaining simulacrum of TV news that copies the worst practices of U.S. cable channels: female hosts chosen for their sex appeal; politically slanted coverage accompanied by editorial heavy breathing; “debates” that consist of shouting matches; and endless nitpicking chatter that serves mainly to obfuscate the issues.
American observers, especially those who came of age after the media deregulation of the 1980s, have trouble seeing what is wrong with the media in a partly free country like Nigeria. All the distractions filling the airwaves in these foreign settings is hard to get any distance on, because they look so much like the clutter we have here. But there is a difference. In the West, even in Trump’s America, the clutter still exists alongside fair, accurate, responsible journalism.
Unfortunately, the American people’s access to quality journalism is subject to the same growing inequality that exists in income, education, family life, and all the other indicators of the good life in America. For the literate online news-seeker striving to hear all sides of a story, the digital age is a goldmine. But for the everyday citizen who used to rely on mass-market magazines and network news, access to quality journalism is harder than it once was. Indeed, the lower you are on the socioeconomic scale, the more in thrall you are likely to be to the worst practices noted above.
The tipping point comes not when large numbers of people decide that the existing media are corrupt and biased, but when they decide that there is no such thing as honest, fair-minded journalism. There is such a thing, and it is easy to identify. Just ask a serious reporter in an authoritarian regime or struggling democracy what he or she is not allowed to do. The answer will be clear. Reporters in such places are not allowed to do factually based, dispassionate stories about politics. Nor are they allowed to engage in the sort of investigative journalism that in the West still manages to expose high-level corruption and malfeasance.
These are, of course, the essential functions of a free press as defined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But to perform them, the media require two things: resources and political cover. Resources are needed because quality journalism almost never makes money. And political cover is needed because powerful malefactors will always try to suppress the truth. Something to keep in mind when considering the similarities between the Nigerian media and our own.