It is unfortunate that one does not have access to the full version of the recording of Tuesday’s event, where a former Minister of Aviation, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, lashed out at a journalist, Mr. Charles Eyo of the Daily Trust newspaper except for the edited version showing Fani-Kayode’s vituperation. It would have availed one of the opportunity to see how Eyo framed his question and properly situate Fani-Kayode’s outburst. That being said, this sobering event opens up various levels of dysfunction and negligence that have turned Nigeria into a jungle.
People have taken a hit at the former minister for the arrogance with which he talked down on the journalist, and very rightly so. However, Fani-Kayode did nothing different from what many members of the political elite, who have become used to a pliant media daily do. The contemporary Nigerian elite has got used to our tolerant, sometimes even subservient media, most of which struggle daily to outdo one another at forcing elite interests down the throats of the people, entertain idiosyncrasies of the political elite and condone the corruption of politics and political processes.
Before choosing to address the press conference, Fani-Kayode had probably looked forward to dominating the national media landscape as a poster boy of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party. He possibly had looked forward to using this press conference to rebuild his political future and reposition his party as a future option. Using the media as a launch pad for unverified personal ambitions is a regular pastime of the elite. The politician therefore possibly got the shock of his life when one of the journalists invited, possibly with the help of his host, became a “hostile witness” as lawyers would say. That Fani-Kayode insinuated that Eyo might have been paid to put that question to him is indicative of how much these people think of journalists! Was he also planning to hand over “brown envelopes” to those who would do his bidding from the assemblage?
Yet, the journalist made a very valid point regardless of whether it came as a question or assertion. This does not take away the politician’s right to object or even get angry at the hint that someone was bankrolling his self-appointed tour of the southern part of the country though. Fani-Kayode is understandably susceptible to all the fallibilities of men but after exhausting his anger, answering that question is one responsibility he owed and still owes the Nigerian people. That is so for at least two main reasons.
The first is that this press conference, before it went south, was meant to speak about his assessment of public officers elected by the people. One would imagine that Fani-Kayode wanted to be believed. In earning that trust, it makes sense to disclose the basis of his excursion. He is not the official of any political party and has not been appointed by any Nigerian citizen to represent their interest in the evaluation of the performance of governors. Asking about his motivation and mobilisation is therefore not just appropriate but also obligatory for a politician who wants to be taken seriously. True, Fani-Kayode is not in government but he was about to endorse top political office holders, who should be accountable to the people!
Then, journalists at the press conference represent the interest of the citizens, for whom Fani-Kayode’s message is meant and who cannot be physically present at the event. If one was to read stories about these missionary trips in the papers the day after, an average citizen would justifiably want to know why this man, who does not occupy any office, chose to impose this charge on himself, what benefits accrued from them and whose resources might have been deployed. This is an especially legitimate question in a country where politicians live with an appalling sense of entitlement, the type we recently saw in the acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, Prof. Kemebradikumo Pondei.
Fani-Kayode lost a unique opportunity to prove his worth as a selfless Nigerian by the diatribe he threw at his questioner. His riposte, which dwelt so much on the offices he had held in the past, is as lame as they come. In this same country where former ministers go back to take appointments as Special Assistants simply because they do not want to take their hands off the national pie is where Fani-Kayode thinks being a former minister conveys sainthood or untold and philanthropic affluence on anyone. And then, he goes ahead to brag about his short fuse! How does that do credit to any political leader?
However, the journalists did not show any better quality either. Before coming back to Eyo and his colleagues who were in the room with Fani-Kayode, the reaction of the Nigerian Union of Journalists did no credit to the professional body or the endeavour it represents.
In the headline of its media release on the issue, the NUJ made its first blunder by addressing the subject as Fani-Kayode! That is an unpardonable error for a body, which wants to be taken seriously. But it even gets worse. In the second paragraph, the release, signed by the National President, Chris Isiguzo, reads: “By denigrating the journalist, Fani-Kayode has exposed himself the more as an intolerant and UNSTABLE person…” No professional body, desirous of being taken seriously, should descend into the arena the way the NUJ did here. Besides, the use of the word “unstable” gives the NUJ away as a body, which rather than make a statement affirming the right of journalists, has more interests in matching the former minister in his capacity to vituperate. In any case, is the NUJ President or any of his executive members a medical expert who can tell about instability, shouldn’t they have just kept their eyes on the ball?
And then the fellows in that room with Eyo and Fani-Kayode tell the quality of understanding of a journalist’s responsibility by practitioners. These journalists (including Eyo himself) did not just show regret that a legitimate poser was raised, they blamed the one who had the audacity to ask. And from their conversation at the end of the conference, Eyo has grown a reputation to swim against the tide and they felt the harassment he got from Fani-Kayode was very well deserved. They do not realise that injustice for one is injustice for all!
While there have been suggestions that these guys might have been too frightened to speak up in defence of their colleague and profession, their disposition is most likely borne out of a consideration of the damage putting up a defence might do to their cosy relationships with Fani-Kayode’s hosts. Journalists feel so imperilled today that survival is dependent on patronage of the same people whose performance in office they are supposed to scrutinise and report. This fact that journalists fail in the performance of their duty as guardians of democracy is one of the reasons democracy is tottering in Nigeria.
Now, not all of this blame can go to journalists. Most media owners in Nigeria subordinate the calling to business. Fani-Kayode threatened to report Eyo to his publisher. He said that because he certainly had done it and got listened to in the past. This is because power peddlers like him present patronage that oil the mercantile mentality of some media owners. And for such people, sacrificing a dutiful reporter to massage the ego of the powerful would be nothing of worry.
However, media owners who have any care about the future of Nigeria must have a rethink. The gradual neutralisation of critical organs of society which has reduced the dignity of professions like law, teaching and journalism has the capacity to harm society in unimaginable ways and it should stop.
Concerning journalism, one-time Managing Editor of TIME Magazine and Editor-in-Chief of Time Inc once admonished: “Journalism can never be silent: That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.” The Fourth Estate of the Realm has crucial social functions which form the bedrock of democracy. So, journalism in Nigeria should not be reduced to a mere vehicle of convenience for and purveyor of the agenda and interests of our overfed, sinfully entitled elite class.