By Festus Adedayo
To many, the recent virulent attacks and counter attacks by top Nigerian journalists, served a la carte to the world in the last two weeks, are indications of an autumn for journalism practice in Nigeria. Nigerians have thus been treated to a disgraceful brew of damaging and ignoble exchanges from these media warlords. The public spat has made Nigerians to call to question the integrity of their media practitioners. To them, the media space, in the name of politics, has become a hostile jungle, revealing the patent biases of its practitioners in the coverage of society.
Three warlords are at the centre of this spat. They are Bayo Onanuga, Dele Alake and Nduka Obaigbena. Except for Obaigbena, publisher of the Thisday newspaper, whose current political leaning is a subject of intense guess-work, the other two have apparently gone to Thessalonica. As biblical Paul awaited execution, he lamented how Demas, his friend and associate, had forsaken him “because he loves the things of this life and has gone to Thessalonica.” Thessalonica signifies the world of perfidy. Judging by its abhorrence of partisanship, journalism profession seems to be shawled in lamentations today at the apostasy of these barons “because (they love) the things of this life.”
To be fair to both Alake and Onanuga, they possess lofty pedigree of media practice. After graduating in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos in 1980, Onanuga worked with the Ogun State Television where he began practice. He moved to The Guardian and thereafter to the National Concord and African Concord magazine before finally founding TheNEWS, TEMPO magazine, as well as P.M.NEWS. In 2014, Onanuga opted to contest the Ogun East district senatorial ticket of the All Progressives Congress (APC), an ambition which got botched. He thereafter became the DG of NAN.
Alake’s media foray is not totally dissimilar from Onanuga’s. After a degree in Political Science from the University of Lagos and an internship with the Ogun State Broadcasting Corporation, (OGBC) he joined the Lagos State Broadcasting Corporation (LSBC) as Senior Sub-Editor but in 1985, joined business mogul, MKO Abiola’s Concord Group of Newspapers wherein, in 1989, he was appointed editor of Sunday Concord and in 1995, editor of the National Concord. He held this post till June, 1999 when then governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu, appointed him Information Commissioner. Since then, Alake has literally gone to Thessalonica, away from journalism. He is implicated in virtually every sub-media construction, deconstruction and misconstruction of the Tinubu perspectives in the Nigerian media. In 2010, Alake also made an attempt to contest the senatorial seat of his Ekiti State home’s Central District but retreated in the heat of defeat staring him in the face. Onanuga and Alake are today major sharks in the Tinubu media ocean in his bid to clinch the Nigerian presidency in the 2023 election, having been appointed Presidential Campaign Council’s (PCC) Director of Media and Publicity and Director, Strategic Communication respectively.
The two have escalated their defence of public angst and disgust at their principal, Tinubu’s peremptory gaffes at public events, locating these gaffes at the doorsteps of a claimed disaffection Obaigbena and his media group have for Tinubu. While the gaffes and speech incoherence have made many to submit that Tinubu either lacks the mythical depth attributed to him by his lieutenants over the years or is suffering from an unnamed mental disconnect, Onanuga and Alake have pursued the narrative that Tinubu is neither of both. Obaigbena’s group has however doubled down, in an overarching manner, on the need for public scrutiny of both claims.
Two journalists in the Obaigbena Arise Television group – highly respected Reuben Abati and Oseni Rufai – have been held as culprits by the Tinubu group. Common sense should have dictated that the path to walk was to address the fears that Tinubu, if elected, would be a worse replica of Nigeria’s current infirmary-bound president. This view, if they care to investigate, is ten-a-dime on Nigerian streets. Rather, Onanuga and Alake have sought to make a victim of Tinubu, insisting that the Arise group’s invitation to him to attend a Town Hall debate it organized was designed to “embarrass” Tinubu. The result is that both Onanuga and Alake have gone very low in their pursuit of this mindset. This they did by dwelling on what they claimed was Obaigbena’s crooked media dealings. They have since vowed never to make available “our candidate” to validate a scheme which they said, “in the light of unassailable information at our disposal,” is nothing but “a racket by the Arise TV owner, designed to embarrass our candidate.”
Apart from their gambit to criminalize scrutiny into Tinubu’s past and any demand for him to attend any presidential debate, Onanuga and Alake’s plan is to make Obaigbena, Abati, Oseni and their Thisday and Arise TV media worthless to the public, giving them the Dan Rather treatment before the 2023 election. Rather, a CBS News icon, in September 2004, fell to his own and foibles. A few months to the presidential election of that year, he had commented on some documents that were critical of President George Bush’s Air National Guard service. The Bush Internet bloggers, within minutes, went into action and documents presented by Rather as forged. Rather’s thirty-three-year-long career on CBS came crashing and his worth reduced to the basest.
In response to Arise’s demand of satisfactory answer to the circumstances surrounding the forfeiture of funds to the US government by Tinubu in an alleged Chicago drug dealing, Onanuga and Alake went into the abyss of argumentative fallacies. They regurgitated irrelevant traits alleged to be their opponents’ and attacking their personal matters. For instance, they claimed that the Thisday founder owes taxes abroad and is a slave driver. While I am yet to know whether their principal’s media house is free of these charges, I submit that these are different and irrelevant matters entirely to the riveting allegation that is expected of them to defend.
The truth is that, the Nigerian public is wary of an impending inclination to elect a drug peddler as president and needs clinical answers to queries on Tinubu. What to do, methinks, is to offer documentary, unassailable evidence of Tinubu being above board. But as it is known with ad hominine arguments, Onanuga and Alake chose to deal in the person of their victims. Again, they committed what is called the Strawman fallacy in argument when, rather than provide irrefutable evidence that Tinubu didn’t do drugs, they brought out a third party, Buruji Kashamu, who became their referent and his association with Abati an apt response to the Chicago drug allegation. Is Abati running for the Nigerian presidency? Is association immoral, criminal or both? So, if every association is immoral, how does one rate their own association with Tinubu? Does it make them guilty of all moral/criminal drawbacks that Tinubu has been alleged to be complicit of?
One error made by the public is to see erstwhile practitioners of media in the same mould as when they were active in the profession. These are persons who have entered into liaison with politically exposed persons. Yoruba call this the horrific error of viewing the dead same way as they were when alive. The punishment for this error, Yoruba say of this error, is a call on the gnome – the Ebora – to de-robe such ignoramus. It is thus a great blunder to refer to the three main musketeers at the centre of the debate on the role of the media in these shameful exchanges as journalists. Dog tenders know that the moment a dog tastes blood, it is ripe to be excised from tame animals. Onanuga, Alake and Obaigbena can no longer be referred to as journalists, in the true sense of it. Judging by their current preoccupation, they can conveniently be referred to as merchants of news, who merchandize and have a consumeric relationship with news and journalism. At the least, they are journal-preneurs, if there is anything so called.
I have always maintained that the moment a journalist, columnist or even an activist, bails out of active practice and mingles with politicians, they most times lose their erstwhile objectivity. The people, who used to be their constituency, are substituted for the politically exposed persons who are now their employers. In this wise, it would be tantamount to waiting for Godot for society to expect such erstwhile media practitioners to preference the people, at the expense of their principals.
In the tiff between Onanuga and Alake on one side and Obaigbena on the other, ordinary Nigerian people are not in their consideration at all. It is the warlords’ bellies, businesses, political principals and their projected political positions in the federal government that are at issue. So when Nigerians now obfuscate the issues as if journalism practice is on parade and is implicated, it beats me hollow. Where they are today is comparable to that of a vulture which sees carcass from a purely gourmet point of view and not as a dying creation. The exchanges Nigerians read from these people are gourmand epistles.
As is the allegation Onanuga and Alake leveled against Obaigbena, most media houses in Nigeria and even in other democracies of the world, are explicitly linked to particular politicians. These politicians are their friends and associates. To many others, due to economic interests and political association or affiliation of their publishers or owners, they are forced to trade in politically tainted views. In the process, news and opinions reflect those political interests, leanings and loyalties and facts are relegated to the background.
In a chapter in a book entitled Reflections on a decade of democratization in Nigeria (2010), a project of the German Friedrich Ebert-Stiftung Foundation, edited by Prof Lai Olurode which we entitled A decade of democratization: The Nigerian press and ethno-proprietorial influences, authored by Prof Adigun Agbaje and I, we submitted that the Nigerian media has always been a battleground of interests. We looked at how the Nigerian press of the First Republic was not blameless in the fall of the First and Second republic Nigeria and how journalists, pandering to proprietorial, financial and ethnic interests, have, since the advent of the Fourth republic, been tossing Nigeria right, left and centre.
The strategy of shielding candidates from public scrutiny which Alake and his PCC are attempting was same path they trod with Buhari as presidential candidate. Buhari’s health and depth limitations were shielded from the Nigerian public, through all manner of shenanigans, by Alake as Media Director in the Muhammadu Buhari Campaign Organization in 2014, in company with his colleagues. Nigerians will be making another huge mistake if they allow a reactivation and effectuation of same strategy. It only led us to the Buhari doom in our hands. So, if Alake and Onanuga feel that the Arise TV of Obaigbena are attempting to embarrass Tinubu – which is a valid fear – let them bring their principal to the TVC which is public knowledge that he owns, for an organized debate. The debate must however be coordinated by respected Nigerians as anchors. Tinubu must answer critical enquiries that will help voters evaluate his mental depth, cohesion of thoughts and ability to govern Nigeria. Nigerians must refuse to be cowed by Onanuga and Alake at all.
AriseTV and Thisday group must also proceed from zeroing in on Tinubu alone into grilling Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi as well. We need to ask Abubakar questions about scandals that rocked his time in office. In 2007, The Guardian of London reported that senators accused Abubakar, then sitting vice-president, of diverting more than $100m (£51m) of public funds into companies he was connected to. His boss, President Oluesgun Obasanjo, was said to have petitioned the senate. A Senate inquiry, according to the newspaper, recommended that Abubakar should be prosecuted. Abubakar office’s reply was that “the legislative body should not allow its name to be dragged into the mud by a few members who may be pursuing their own hidden agenda”.
A plethora of other allegations, especially one flowing from William Jefferson and the Petroleum Trust Development Fund (PTDF) scandal which involved Atiku Abubakar and Obasanjo, must also be totally explained. Despite the senate indicting him and Obasanjo in the PTDF scandal, no action has been taken against them since 2007. It should be same for Peter Obi. Allegations of any fraud connected to him must be brought to the public space and he must be made to answer them. These two too must be brought to the open by the Arise/Thisday group and indeed on any Nigerian media platform. We cannot afford to have a country presided over by malefactors and journal-preneurs in Thessalonica who are prescribing and imposing on us their own brand of the Nigerian moral code.
What did Osun State buy with N407 billion?
When I was told that Osun State’s debt stock was N407billion, I asked my friends from that state what they bought that sold them to that farm of bankruptcy. I had reservations for the personality of the new governor of Osun State, Senator Ademola Adeleke. I felt that Yorubaland does not deserve his kind of Owambe carriage in leadership. But, as I wrote earlier, I raised my hands up in surrender the day Osun people’s votes for him were announced to be in tomes. It was my own way of showing deference to that ubiquitous mantra called the wishes of the people. I however pray that I will someday come back to this platform to praise him and apologize for equating or assuming that pedigree matters in the task of bringing redemption to a beleaguered people.
Last week however, the governor went a step lower in my very unflattering rating of him. He did well by talking tough as he assumed power, lest anyone hoping to try his will mistake him for a sissy. Don’t forget that the man he took over the mantel of governorship from had the reputation of one with the laudable management of the state’s finance, in spite of paucity of funds. Oyetola had announced to the world that he didn’t borrow a dime and wasn’t owing anyone. In a world where we were tutored that indebtedness was a virtue, that statement caught Nigerians gaping. No wonder that Adeleke’s dissembling arrow was to disorganize this parting kudos.
In a release issued by him that the press entitled “Osun is Indebted to the tune of N407.32 billion – Governor Adeleke,” the governor gave details of the debts he inherited. He stated that, “With high sense of responsibility, I am reporting to our people through our traditional rulers, the total debt profile inherited by my administration from Governor Oyetola’s administration.
“I am pleased to … present to you the official debt profile of Osun state as at November 30th, 2022 as submitted to me by the Accountant General of Osun State,” he said. He then went ahead to itemize the debt one after the other and in closing the speech, berated those he claimed had mortgaged “the future of Osun State with nothing to show for it. This is definitely not acceptable.” I was as shocked as anyone that a poor state was that rich in debts. What did it buy? Where are the projects that fetched that humongous debt figure?
However, subsequent rebuttals from the Oyetola administration got me thinking. Could the new governor be merely playing politics with this typecast? In a release issued by Bola Oyebamiji, the state’s former Commissioner for Finance, Oyetola literally tore the governor’s claims into shreds, alleging that it was “a reflection of (Adeleke’s) combative and vindictive posture,” and “purely a campaign of calumny against a people-centric government.”
Bit by bit, Oyetola repudiated every of Adeleke’s claim, asking that his claim could be affirmed or disputed by the Annual Auditor-General’s report and the reports from the Debt Management Office in Osun and Abuja. What later came to the fore was that Governor Adeleke was pointing his finger at the wrong culprit.
In trying to put a lie to the allegation that Governor Oyetola accessed a loan facility of N18billion after losing the July 2022 gubernatorial election, the ex-Commissioner for Finance said that the Adeleke government would have won an iota of credibility for itself if the details of the loan, including the name of the creditor, were mentioned. That was a major challenge which Adeleke should take up if there is any truth in it. I am sure I am not the only one interested in getting more words on that from the new government.
What has not failed to strike the discerning world watching the drama in Osun is that Adeleke has, apparently deliberately, tried to whitewash the real Judas in that state. The questions that then come in are, did he or didn’t he know who borrowed the said money? If he knew, was he, by that dramatic irony, paying his own 30 pieces of silver to Osun’s Judas Iscariot by not shaming and naming the real culprits?
With the graphic picture presented by Oyetola’s ex finance commissioner about the debt portfolio of Osun State, including when each loan was taken, it is obvious that if Adeleke is serious about going after those he called out for “mortgaging the future of Osun State” he only needs to take a trip to Abuja – not Iragbiji.
The man with a queer administration model in Osun, Rauf Aregbesola, is obviously the smelly shrew – eku asin – that Adeleke apparently knew but failed to mention because they are now political bedmates. Facts presented thereafter have shown that Aregbesola, who was known to revel in inexplicable borrowings and who single-handedly mortgaged the future of the state in the process, should have been given the back of his tongue by Adeleke. However, political expediency and the governor’s IOU to Aregbesola for the support he gave during the last election made Adeleke to speak tongue-in-cheek.
Unbeknown to him, what Adeleke did by that gubernatorial inexactitude – lest I call a governor a liar! – was that he helped Oyetola to reach for the limelight yet again. He afforded him an opportunity to explain his own role in the financial ruination of Osun State. At every forum I attended where the figures Adeleke gave were discussed last week, I heard people affirming that Oyetola did well by not owing salaries or paying half salaries – unlike Aregbesola who got billions of naira as salary bailouts from Buhari but refused to pay salaries. Now, those diverted bailouts and budget-support funds form the core content of the current debt stock of Osun State.
I am one hundred percent in support of Adeleke asking questions, but the questions must be directed at the right culprits. Now, Adeleke should go after the people who, by his own admittance, sold the future of Osun children unborn in a disastrous debt binge. How could a barely surviving state like Osun be owing that much, as if it is Delta? While Adeleke started well by availing the Osun public with details of debts he met on ground, it was sheer hypocrisy that he did not append the right culprit to it. Someone said if he had simply announced that the APC government owed that much, it would not have raised any uproar. I agree – because Aregbesola’s queer penchant for debts when he was governor was legendary.
Also, now that Adeleke has known the gravity of the debt and the real mastermind, he must let the world know whether the procurement of the loans followed due process, what it was deployed for and give his people a full disclosure, as well as conducting forensic audit into the state’s account.
In any case, Aregbesola was only yesterday quoted to have admitted taking those long-term loan facilities from the Federal Government which all made up the legendary N407billion. The man heartedly dismissed the huge loans as posing no threats to the state because the repayment periods spread over decades, some as far as the year 2046. Imagine that! How many years from now is that? Generations of innocent children will pay debts which they know nothing about.
Now that the right culprit has been found for the debts, I hope to begin my growing fondness for Adeleke. This I will do when I hear him readdressing the state, naming and shaming the debt baron and admitting his gaffe. He should find out how the Opon Imo nonsense and other elephant projects constituted the serpentine journey-of-no-return called the N407 billion debts. He should ask Aregbesola to explain what he did with the hundreds of billions from the Federal Government which constitute the bulk of the almost half a billion naira debt. He should also say sorry to Oyetola for calling him a name that belonged to Rauf Aregbesola.
I should also say that Oyetola too should apologise to the people of Osun State for spending his entire four years covering up the evil of his predecessor who mortgaged the fortune of the state. Or, maybe, what Oyetola suffers today is the punishment for not speaking up and doing the right thing when he should, and for not doing justice on the debts without fear or favour. A lesson there for all.