Nigeria vs. WSJ and The Economist, By Reuben Abati


The Federal Government of Nigeria has been in the eye of the storm with the international media recently, and there is a lot that can be extracted from that in terms of lessons and sub-text. I find that ironic considering the fact that between 2014 and 2015, in the lead up to the 2015 Presidential elections, the international media championed the cause of the main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), the then Special Purpose Vehicle under which all the political terrorists of the time had come together. It was an infectious moment. But today, the same international media appears to be up in arms against the same process that they helped to promote and sustain. It seems to me that this says something about the politics of the media as an institution, agent and business and the complex intersection between it, political stakeholders and society.

First, it was the BBC and the CNN throwing the Buhari administration under the bus on the matter of the October 20, 2020, #EndSARS protests. At the time and thereafter, officials of the Nigerian government insisted that nobody died at the Lekki Toll Gate during the protests against police brutality in the country and that both government and its agencies were completely innocent. But the international media promotes a different narrative, using security challenges in Nigeria as that thing that hangs around the government’s neck.  And second, more recently, there was the matter of a report in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in which the Nigerian Air Force was accused of making payments to bandits in exchange for weapons, specifically an anti-aircraft gun that had been allegedly seized from the Nigerian military, and which was to be used to gun down the aircraft of the President of Nigeria who was scheduled to travel to his home state of Katsina for the Eid el Maulud. The Wall Street Journal’s  report was very enticing. It painted a picture of the helplessness of the government of the day in Nigeria with regard to security challenges. It stated that the Nigerian Air Force had to pay N20 million for a 12. 7 calibre anti-air-aircraft gun, and that the money was delivered as the leader of the terrorists sipped tea and his boys dismantled the seized arsenal for onward return.  The ransom for the equipment was reportedly paid in crisp Nigerian notes totalling $50, 000.  The terrorists after collecting the money, so states the report, aired a series of grievances against the Nigerian state. The WSJ report gave the impression that the terrorists are better motivated and equipped than Nigeria’s security agencies.  

All of this was a week ago. The Nigerian Air Force, naturally and expectedly put up a robust response through Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet, its spokesperson.  Commodore Gabkwet’s point is that the Nigerian Air Force did not strike any deal with either bandits or terrorists.  He dismissed the WSJ report as fake news designed to cast aspersions on the image of the Air Force, totally false and utterly illogical.  He appealed to the media, local, international and the social media, to be more circumspect and co-operate with security agencies in the battle against terror. To be fair, Gabkwet’s position is consistent with the position of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that it would not at any time, negotiate with any criminal who should be subjected to the due process of law.  But there were other aspects of the WSJ report which the Nigerian state conveniently ignored. Could it be true for example that the terrorists, inflicting much anxiety on the land, are better equipped than the Nigerian military or any of its units? Is it true as the military readily claims, that the Buhari administration is winning the war?  Or do the terrorists have an upper hand?  

Within a week after the controversial report by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), The Economist another influential Western publication led its October 23, 2021 cover with the title – “Nigeria: The Crime Scene capital of Africa.” The London-based news magazine described the Nigerian army as: “mighty on paper” but weak on the ground with its ranks filled with  “ghosts on its payroll”. The magazine event went a step beyond the Wall Street Journal and accused the Nigerian military of selling arms and ammunition to the same terrorists it is supposed to fight. The Report accuses the Nigerian Police of being poorly trained, understaffed, under-paid and involved in the robbery of innocent Nigerians to augment salaries. The Economist was not nice at all. It accused the Buhari administration of ineptitude and mismanagement of the Nigerian economy. As expected, the Nigerian Army fired back. The Army spokesperson deployed all the grammatical epithets he could readily latch on to: “toxic concoctions”, “hatchet job”. “the antics of conflict merchants and agents provocateurs”, “failure to do due diligence”. The Presidency speaking through Garba Shehu followed suit by reiterating that the Buhari government deserves commendation for all the efforts it has made so far to ensure security in the country, and fight terrorism, an inherited situation, which its predecessors failed to handle but which the incumbent administration was dealing with in a decisive manner.

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The Nigerian Government and its agents have a responsibility to defend the integrity of their operations. I would have acted exactly in the same manner if I was still in government. The Wall Street Journal and The Economist are reputable publications with a wide range of influence. The latter for example, is over 117 years old. The former is one of the most authoritative media platforms in the world. The Nigerian Government would have been remiss in its duty if it failed to push its own side of the narrative, and seek to defend itself, and provide alternative facts about the true situation of things in Nigeria. But the big question is: who is telling the truth? What is the truth? Are the foreign publications cooking up stories? Has the security situation in Nigeria improved on account of the many claims by the Nigerian Military? Patriotism is useful at the level of emotion and identity, but what is the truth? About the same time that the two Western publications were raising questions about the security challenges in Nigeria and the capacity of the government to address them, the international community had been treated to such reports as the bomb attack on rail lines between Abuja and Kaduna, the abduction and killing of persons in Goronyo/Gada Federal Constituency, jailbreak at the Abologo Custodial Centre in Oyo, and the threat by the indigenous people of Biafra that the group would declare a total shut-down in the South East if its detained leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu is not released by November 4. Even if the Wall Street Journal and The Economist added “pepper and salt” in their reports, the material fact is that all is not well security-wise in Nigeria. Take for example, the claim by The Economist that the police in Nigeria are understaffed, under-paid and that they rob the Nigerian people to augment their salaries. Is that true or false? What I have seen is that the Nigeria Police Headquarters has respected itself by keeping mute. While the military and the Presidency offered robust rebuttals, it would have been foolhardy for the Nigeria Police Force to make any claims of innocence.

The Report by The Economist coincided with the one-year memorial of the #EndSARS protest of October 20, 2020 in Nigeria. The original theme was police brutality, repression of the people by state agents, the widening alienation between the Nigerian people and those who govern them, and an institutionalised culture of impunity. On the occasion of the #EndSARS memorial in 2021, the police and other security agencies in Nigeria simply repeated the offence. In Lagos, a certain Adedotun Clement, a passer-by, Uber, ride-hailing driver was caught in the middle of the conflict. He was brutalised by the police and officials of the Lagos Neighbourhood Safety Corps, and bundled into a Black Maria. His lawyer, Inibehe Effiong has petitioned the Attorney General of Lagos State, and issued a notice of warning to proceed to court if the state fails to address the specific demands that he has made on behalf of his client. His petition is supported by copious, documented, evidence much of which is in the public domain. As The Economist wrote that Nigerian policemen are “robbers in uniform”, there was also the reported incident of a comedian, popularly known as Mr. Macaroni (real name: Debo Adebayo) confronting a group of policemen who arrested a Nigerian and asked him to transfer a sum of N30, 000 into their accounts. Electronic banking was introduced by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to facilitate financial inclusion, make transactions easy and promote trade and commerce, but unscrupulous uniformed officials exploit it as a tool of extortion and extra-judicial conduct. No man can be tried or punished for an offence that does not exist under the laws of Nigeria. With the Nigerian policemen laying ambush for the average citizen on the streets of the country, it is considered a crime to be seen with certain kinds of phones, or cars, clothing or accessories, even when no law forbids the freedoms of movement, association, or the right to own property.

It may be difficult for the average Nigerian to verify other claims by the Wall Street Journal and The Economist about military capability, or the integrity of the Nigerian Army, but based on the evidence of their eyes, they can safely conclude that all is not yet well with regard to security in their country. Today, many are afraid to travel by road or rail to certain parts of the country. A Gubernatorial election is scheduled to hold in Anambra State on November 6. Some of the candidates are campaigning from a distance, far away from the same people whose votes they are asking for. When journalists, local and foreign, pick up these details and convert them into embarrassing narratives, it is counter-productive, beyond the denial, for state agents to morph into a combative mode. The right thing to do after the initial disclaimers and damage-control statements would be to subject the claims that have been made to careful scrutiny and analysis, for necessary leads. Journalists by the nature of their work, provide ready-made intelligence, and can be strong partners in the governance process.

It would not be out of place, however,  to assume that the authors of the reports in the Wall Street Journal and The Economist are very lucky that they are not local journalists. If they were Nigerian journalists working in some of our media houses, they probably would have been invited for a chat by the security departments of state. And when that happens, anything can happen to them, or their family, the media houses they work for or their sources. Many journalists in Nigeria walk the tightrope. Foreign journalists do not face a similar baggage. They have strong institutions that support them. They have more room to speak truth to power. They do not have to look over their shoulders or suffer the indignity of being told how to think. This does not however make them perfect or necessarily better.

Many of the so-called Western journalists reporting Africa to the world are biased or ignorant or both. They are victims of the dangers of parachute journalism. They travel around, make a few friends, pick up salacious gossip from so-called contacts, pretend to be good observers of a people and a system that they do not know, and then with the strong media institutions backing them, they compose narratives that promote profiles and prototypes. Their editors sitting in Europe and North America, who have no idea where Africa is, are driven by notions of Africa as the worst place where anything is possible, and so where there is small evidence within that framework, they are eager to build it up, play it up. The big problem in this regard is the imbalance in the global information order. Even with the democratisation of news and information on account of the cybernetic revolution and the rise of the digital space, there is great inequity in the flow of information and the relative impact of seemingly competitive media systems. The media in developing countries is grossly disadvantaged. Public officials in our countries – the more than 92 low to middle income countries of the world do not seem to get this or understand it. Hence, information management from their side tends to be overtly reactive most of the time, rather than being pro-active and constructive.

Information managers in Africa, be they soldiers or other agents, must learn to take charge of their own narratives.  The dominant single story often promoted by the West is somehow  a reflection  of the inequities in every aspect of global relations.

While stating this, I am in no way making excuses for the glaring failure of governance and the crisis of poor leadership in developing and underdeveloped countries. The victimhood of this category speaks for itself on the terms of its own omissions. Nigeria needs not engage in altercations with The Wall Street Journal or The Economist. All we need to do is to fix this country and we will all be fine in the long run. But who will fix Nigeria? 

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