Divided nation: Is the press to blame?

NIGERIA is increasingly polarised and divided along ethnic lines with the press fanning the embers of division and separation. – Olusegun Obasanjo, August 17, 2016.


Former President Olusegun Obasanjo is not famous for speaking in whispers, low tones or coded language when it comes to public affairs. Rather, and characteristically, he comes forth in bombshells, high decibels and unforgettable descriptions, leaving you in no doubt where he stands or what he stands against. His Keynote address delivered last Tuesday to the National Summit of Nigerian Journalists, and from where the opening quote is drawn, brims with trademark audacity and brutal frankness. Taking on the media, Obasanjo expressed disquiet about what he sees as their tendency to privilege sensationalism above national unity; warning that such a posture could trigger a Rwandan type civil war, and possible dissolution of the Nigerian state.

It is difficult to fault Obasanjo when he says that at no other time since the civil war has the country been so divided as it is today, citing as evidence close to 20 hot spots across the country. What is doubtful, however, is his apportioning of blame to the media, which he holds responsible for “fanning the embers” of disunity and ethnic conflicts. The media are best viewed as interlocutors, facilitating conversations between the state and society on the one hand, and among the components of society on the other. In this respect, the Nigerian media have, in keeping with their constitutional responsibility of monitoring governance, reported and commented upon the increasing fracturing of the state along ethnic and religious lines. They cannot be accused fairly of manufacturing these conflicts, or even of sensationalising them beyond drawing attention to them and the need to manage rather than sidestep them. It is not helpful, in this writer’s opinion, to shift our gaze away from the numerous ways in which political actors create or foment ethnic and religious conflicts and how discriminatory official policies such as lopsided appointments and a veering away from the politics of inclusiveness have further divided the nation in recent times.

If we bear in mind that even in the best of times and in the most lucid moments of the official mind, Nigeria is a nation waiting to be built, then we can better appreciate how chipping away at the tender cords that bind us together can easily ignite feelings of alienation and exclusion. Blaming the media or scapegoating them for sins of commission and omission of key political actors can only divert attention from the resolution of these problems, or from holding an honest conversation about their causes and solutions.

It is not often realised that the media, as businesses have a stake in national unity, which provides them with expanded market for their products. In like manner, newspapers and the electronic media, like other businesses, suffer severe losses in times of upheavals or breakdowns in law and order. There is no rational reason, therefore, why the media should invest in uproar by inciting ethnic divisions or hatred.

The bone of contention, however, is that the media have rejected a superficial unity that pays lip attention to federal character while denying its essence through official policies. It is in this context that several newspapers have repeatedly drawn attention to the dangers of a northernisation policy in federal appointments as well as a return through the back door of the politics of northern hegemony. In this respect, the media owe no apology to anyone for speaking truth to power.

Genuine nation-building cannot be carried out by media that are little more than the “Men Friday” or the stenographers or those that are temporarily in power, rather it connotes the cementing of national bonds through enhanced legitimacy rooted in healthy state-society relations defined inclusively in a geographic sense and in a social sense to carry along disadvantaged groups. It is for this reason that in recent times, the media has blazed the trail in situating the call for a national conference on the national discourse agenda. It is edifying that many elder statesmen and social groups have bought into this in the belief that it is the best way by which the component groups can renew their federalist vows.

In doing this, we recognise that the advocacy for a national conference runs against the grain of a military mindset with its mantra-driven approach underlined by the slogan that the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable. If we ask the question: Why have fracturing and divisive tendencies increased in recent times? The answers could possibly be that official policies and body language have increasingly neglected the federalist safeguards of our delicate unity in diversity; and because the economic crisis and the impoverishment of the states have exposed the bankruptcy of unitarist arrangements self-advertised as a federal structure. Certainly, the media cannot be held responsible for any of these failings, or for the poor overture skills of our leaders who do not seem to understand that real unity must be based on consent and governance mechanisms that elicit support and loyalty of every stratum in the nation vertically and horizontally.

Obasanjo can use his immense clout to draw the attention of our leaders to those areas where they are falling short of advancing national unity, and more importantly, by lining up with the unstoppable momentum of advocacy for a national conference as a vehicle for true and proper federalism.


  • Olukotun is a professor of political communication.