By Prof Moses Ochonu
Nigerians and their penchant for denial, deflection, and escapism. I raised the issue of the silence of our civil society, the press, and other political activists regarding the official silence on the President’s health status, and secondly, the resulting, ongoing battle between the camp of the President and that of the Vice President, a turf war that has taken a toll on governance and engendered uncertainty. This is of course reminiscent of 2010 and so a reference to that crisis is inevitable and suggests itself.
Predictably, instead of focusing on the issues I raised, several respondents, mostly supporters of the current administration, have chosen to focus on the differences between the presidential health crisis of 2010 and that of 2017; invoking the fact that Buhari handed over power to his deputy while Yar’Adua did not.
They proceeded to ignore the parallels I raised, and the disturbing failure of activists and civil society denizens to ask the same questions they were asking during Yar’Adua’s illness, long absence, and failure to level with Nigerians on his health.
Some interlocutors have even gone head to raise non sequiturs and strawmen, all in an effort to avoid dealing with the hypocrisy and tactical silence of familiar political activists – strawmen such as reading the reference to Lagos-Ibadan press, activists, and civil society as a reference to “Yoruba.”
Let me break it down for them since they are deflecting and pretending not to see the parallels and the larger points being made:
The Lagos-Ibadan press is not a Yoruba press. A reference to it is not a shorthand for “Yoruba.” My assertion was not an ethnic one but a reference to influence. Lagos is the headquarters of the press in Nigeria, so the term “Lagos-Ibadan media” is actually synonymous with “national media.”
Many, if not most people who work in that media universe are not Yoruba. Much of that media is however funded and controlled or at least heavily influenced by entrenched Southwestern power brokers. MKO used to represent the face of this overarching media influence. Today it is Tinubu, who owns several of the dominant media enterprises in the Lagos-Ibadan axis and exerts influence on others.
It is not peculiar to Nigeria. Media owners and benefactors dictate the editorial and reportorial directions of their media organs everywhere. To say the Lagos-Ibadan press axis is silent in the face of what is going on therefore is to say that it is taking a cue from the prevailing political and elite consensus in the Southwest. This political elite, which is multiethnic I should repeat, is deeply invested in the present government through the instrumentality of the “owner” of Lagos, Bola Tinubu and his protege, VP Osinbajo.
Tinubu would obviously not unleash his press hounds to fight himself, to fight his own political and financial interests. The media, in turn, know who their political and economic benefactor is and cannot work against their own interest. It is a symbiotic relationship.
Secondly by ethnicizing the reference to the Southwest and Lagos-Ibadan press, some people proceeded from that premise to make the straw man argument that the Yoruba should not always “bell the cat” or lead the struggle, and that other ethnicities and regions should lead the demand for transparency and information this time.
First, the Save Nigeria Group, SNG, and other popular civil society struggles were not Yoruba struggles. Lagos-Ibadan just happens to be the headquarters of Nigerian civil society and the national press. The emergence of Abuja has not changed that.
Lagos is traditionally where popular struggles are incubated and fought out, and such struggles are usually very pan-Nigerian, ethnically speaking. The June 12 struggle was not a Yoruba struggle. The SAP struggle during IBB’s regime was not a Yoruba struggle. SNG was not a Yoruba struggle, nor was the anti-fuel price hike struggle. These were all struggles that Nigerians from all ethnicities participated in. They just happened to have been planned, funded, and organized in and from Lagos.
The pertinent question then is, given this traditional role of Lagos-Ibadan in Nigeria’s recent history of political activism, why is Lagos silent today in the face of the ongoing conspiracy to keep Nigerians in the dark about their President’s health status?
Second, the argument about the Yoruba having done their part and about the need for other ethnicities and regions to lead the struggle this time is escapist and illustrates my point. Other regions, namely the Southeast and South-South are leading the struggle that the Southwestern bastion of activism is failing lead, but here too the activism is strategic, situational, and Machiavellian as there was a tactical silence in those two regions during the Jonathan administration and their activism today can be understood as an expression of their displacement from the commanding heights of power at the center.
Strategic, hypocritical, and convenient political activism is a national affliction. It is not a Southwestern franchise. I know several northerners who passionately participated in the SNG struggle of 2010 and the anti-fuel price hike struggles of the past but who today would not only not ask the same questions they were asking then but would even attack anyone who poses those same questions.
Do not lecture us about the difference between 2010 and 2017. Do not over-blow the difference and dismiss the parallels. Actually, except for the proper transmission of power in the current crisis, the two situations are exactly the same. The aides of the current president have handled the situation in the same way that the aides of Yar’Adua did in 2010. They have also treated Nigerians’ right to know with levity, similar to what happened during Yar’Adua’s health crisis.
Furthermore, there is a quiet turf war going on between two camps in the presidency, just like what happened in 2010. Yet, the reactions of the national media and civil society activists headquartered in Lagos have been markedly different this time around.
In 2010, Pastor Tunde Bakare, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Dr Joe Okei Odumakin, Kayode Ogundamisi, and others led several demonstrations carrying placards that said “YAR’ADUA TELL NIGERIANS WHERE YOU ARE,” “TELL NIGERIANS WHAT’S GOING ON,” “YAR’ADUA, ARE YOU ALIVE?,” and so on. It was a demand for transparency, for information and disclosure, a demand that Yar’Adua’s aides respect the right of Nigerians to know their President’s health status.
Today, we’re faced with the same situation of Nigerians being in the dark regarding their President’s health, but where are the marches? Where are the activists? Where are similar placards challenging the current presidential silence on Buhari’s health and demanding answers and disclosure?
If you want to know how utterly compromised and co-opted political activists, civil society, and the agenda-setting Lagos-Ibadan media has become under Buhari, consider this.
Yar’Adua increased the pump price of petrol by about 10 Naira. Jonathan increased it by about 30 Naira. On both occasions, the Lagos-Ibadan activist and media hub played its familiar role and led a popular opposition to them with massive street demonstrations. Buhari almost doubled the price of petrol from N86 to N147. The Lagos activists remained quiet. No protest or demonstration.
Some even spoke approvingly of the price increase. The Lagos-Ibadan press whimpered a faint opposition. The big difference in these different responses is the Tinubu factor as well as the media factor and their catalytic roles in instigating, financing, and approving popular struggles that are directed at their political enemies or non-benefactors -IBB, Abacha, PDP, and many more.
Today, the Lagos-Ibadan press is in Tinubu’s back pocket. Being based in Lagos and aligned to a Lagos-based national media, the activists traditionally have had to be in sync with the dominant Southwestern political consensus. Today that consensus is to support the current government, with Tinubu enjoying many sweetheart deals in it and his protégé an earshot away from the presidency. MA
Ochonu is a professor of History at the Cornelius Vanderbilt University Nashville, TN United States.