Dictatorship and Democracy Require Different Kinds of Courage
‘Officials begged the magazine not to pursue the story and then they enticed us with rewards. All efforts to derail our reporting failed.’
It was May 1999, and Nigeria's military ruler General Abdulsalami Abubakar had finally brought to conclusion a protracted political transition journey that lasted almost 14 years. The country was still awash in the euphoria of the exit of the disgraced military leader from power and, after conducting a successful election, newly elected President Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn in. The Nigerian media were also enjoying a honeymoon period; as military power was ending, a new dawn of journalistic freedom beckoned with the arrival of civil democracy.
Or so it seemed. But if Nigerian journalists, along with many citizens, believed that with the diminished power of the military such qualities as selflessness, determination and commitment to a just democratic cause were no longer essential, they were in for a rude shock.
With Nigeria's new democracy emerged a new breed of strange bedfellows — corrupt politicians, military apologists, and political desperadoes who were willing to do anything to remain in power. Early on, members of the news media were caught flat-footed when they failed to investigate information and rumors that emerged. The story would involve the third most powerful person in the government — the speaker of the House of Representatives, who had falsified his age, academic credentials, and other qualifications that he'd submitted to contest and enter elections. For nearly two months, journalists made feeble efforts to investigate these allegations. And during this time, repeated denials by the speaker and his aides were reported.
Why didn't the press act more aggressively to report this story? Perhaps many of them feared that in doing so they might harm the country's newfound democracy. Whatever the motivation, this lack of journalistic courage — the news media's failure to dig deep and find out the truth of these allegations — resulted in many journalists and news organizations simply ignoring the story.
Reporting in a Fledgling Democracy
People in Nigeria thought this story about the speaker was dead and that his hold on government power would continue. But The News magazine's editorial team met and decided this was a story that needed to be thoroughly investigated if Nigeria's new democracy was to survive. The magazine commenced investigations in Nigeria and overseas as it set out to uncover the facts about the speaker's qualifications.
As general editor of The News, I played a lead role in the investigations. After looking into his childhood and his family and academic background, conducting Internet searches and doing interviews, The News assembled compelling documentary and anecdotal evidence that the speaker was a fraud.
While our investigation was going on, The News staff were threatened by government officials but also cajoled by them, too. Officials begged the magazine not to pursue the story, and then they enticed us with rewards. All efforts to derail our reporting failed. Three aides of the speaker, who were the first ones to threaten me with demands that the story be dropped, visited me in my house in the early morning hours. I refused, despite their threats. Then they offered me the carrot of two briefcases apparently filled with cash. I told them their best option was to have the speaker defend himself in an interview or a court of law. I also advised them that any attempt to buy off the magazine would fail. They left my house furious.
The magazine hit the streets with the cover line "The Face of a Liar." The impact of our publication resonated throughout Nigeria. The issues sold out fast, so we did three print runs; in all, almost a half million copies were sold, which made this the highest selling edition in the history of magazine publication in Nigeria. Less than two weeks after The News published its story, and every effort to intimidate us to retract the story or face court action failed, a tearful speaker, Salisu Buhari, wept in front of national television as he announced his resignation and confessed to falsifying his age and academic qualifications.
In making sure this story was thoroughly reported and told, The News staff displayed an adherence to the rigors of investigative journalism and a commitment to finding the truth, all the while showing the necessary fortitude to resist attempts at bribery. Each reporter and editor who worked on this story faced great personal risk. What they did in reporting this story is courage in the practice of journalism.
The publication of this story about a powerful political leader disgraced out of office served two important defining purposes. For journalists, it offered a valuable lesson in courage, one that they can never afford to forget. For those in power, what The News did was to serve notice that no safe haven existed for anyone who had climbed or would climb to power based on misrepresentation and corruption. The News went on to do several similar reports in which solid reporting led to exposure of politicians, primarily governors and senators, who were elected using false credentials.
Reporting Under a Military Dictator
On June 12, 1993, a national election was stopped abruptly by the military government's orders. Only The News published the results, which were annulled by the government and nearly sent Nigeria on the path of war. Soon after, General Abacha, who went on to rule Nigeria with brutal power for five years, was installed in power. During Abacha's rule, The News reported on an alleged coup plot against his regime. After conducting a thorough investigation, our magazine scooped the special investigation panel report that cleared all the soldiers and civilians who had been accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Our reporting exposed Abacha's allegation of a coup attempt as untrue, a phantom charge orchestrated by his military government to eliminate opponents and deal with the critical media.
Because of The News' unfavorable reporting and interviews, successive military governments tried to cripple our magazine's operations. For example, General Babangida's regime went after The News fewer than six months after it began publishing in 1993. Repeated attacks on its offices, including the destruction and confiscation of thousands of copies of editions of the magazine and illegal arrests and detention of editors and reporters by government security agents, failed to stop the journalism that we practiced at The News. When those attempts failed, the military outlawed the publication as well as consumption of any publication related to The News. The editors of The News — Bayo Onanuga, Dapo Olorunyomi, Babafemi Ojudu, Kunle Ajibade, and Seye Kehinde — were declared on national television to be wanted by the military government. During this time, I was still a national correspondent.
Rather than stop reporting, the editors decided to take The News underground and thus defy the military's order. Soon we were doing "guerrilla journalism" for a new magazine we called Tempo, which in reality was simply a new name and face for The News. Even though government officials figured out what was happening, and knew the same journalists were behind this new publication, we were undeterred. The harassment and attacks and manhunts continued, yet in the face of so many risks our magazine was produced each week.
We worked under very difficult conditions. For months at a time, the senior editorial team and the production crew were holed-up in a one-room apartment on Lagos Island. Reporters dropped their stories at different locations. Meetings were held in odd places like churches, stadiums, bars and restaurants, car parks and in taxicabs. We became constantly mobile journalists who worked incognito; we had no fixed address and were isolated from friends and family. Magazine production was broken down into different stages and printing done in several printing houses, while circulation was done under the cover of the night.
We continued to write critical stories that government officials did not want published, such as when we exposed that it was the agenda of the military to continue in power indefinitely. Many of my colleagues, as well as journalists at Tell magazine, a sister weekly that endured a fate similar to ours, were arrested, tortured and jailed. My closest colleague at The News, Bagauda Kaltho, was abducted in 1995 and tortured to death; his body has never been found.
In the face of these travails and risk to our lives, we continued our work as journalists. The bravery and determination I witnessed during this time — to not desist from reporting when the risks of doing so are soenormous — is courage epitomized. The fearlessness I saw among these reporters as they dared to be different when other journalists were either quitting their jobs or supporting through their silence and inaction an illegal government is courage in action.
This determination of Nigeria's progressive media, alongside the actions of many brave people in civil society, eventually paid off when the military no longer could justify their stay in power, lost all legitimacy, and decided to allow an election to take place.
Institutional and personal courage often go together as reporters work to uphold journalistic ethics in their reporting and news organizations refuse to succumb to pressures to censor what is reported. The result of this partnership is courage, just as it takes courage to venture into enemy territory so an important story will be told. To display fearlessness in pursuit of a story, even when danger lurks clearly in the shadows, is courage. It is also about having the tenacity to keep going after an important story even when the odds seemed stacked against success. Courage is about seeing each new day as an opportunity — another challenge — to rely on the ethics of good journalism.
Without courage, the vitally important stories we, in Nigeria, have read, heard and seen in the news media through recent decades would not have been possible. And this continues to be true, even more so now. Though Nigeria has an elected government in place, the need for journalistic courage remains in high demand, such as during the dubious attempt to amend the country's Constitution to allow the incumbent president a third term of four years. Those who oppose this amendment, along with those who report on these critics, are under scrutiny and risk arrest.
In this current climate, it is essential that journalists remain vigilant and bold as they keep a watchful eye for any unconstitutional acts of Nigeria's powerful central government. If Nigerian journalists were under any illusion that with the exit of the military the courage needed to report on political developments would be lessened, they were mistaken. The events during the past five years demonstrate clearly that the level of courage needed to report events truthfully and not be compromised in doing the work of journalism remains very high.
Sunday Dare, a 2001 Nieman Fellow, is chief of the Hausa service for the Voice of America and is based in Washington, D.C..