Aribisala at Unilag
At J-School Temple University, we were taught that journalism take different forms. Straight news and feature articles, in which reporters seek out and present different points of view so readers can weigh the evidence and decide for themselves how they feel. Opinion, in which editorial writers and columnists present arguments designed to persuade. A good editorial writer and a good columnist will address countervailing arguments and explain why those positions lack merit. People and organisations that want to influence the public try to make their cases clearly and forcefully when being interviewed for a news or feature article or a roundtable discussion.

When journalists or publications become naive, cheap, lazy, or complicit, they deliberately misinterpret, distort, and fabricate a story to hurt or embarrass the individuals involved in the story. Journalism as a profession condemns that practice because it shortchanges and potentially misleads, misinforms, and miseducates the public on the subject matter. We need a free flow of balanced reporting and information about our government and about issues in order to maintain the health of our democracy. Without this, we are at the mercy of fabricators, liars, and quacks who would try to shape the thinking of our people.

Recently, Department of Jurisprudence and International Law of the University of Lagos held a roundtable on “Winning the War Against Corruption”, in which Femi Falana (SAN), human rights lawyer, who was the keynote speaker was represented by Wahab Shittu. Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, Professor Itse Sagay, and Femi Aribisala were the other participants.

The war on corruption has taken its share of body blows lately, and the roundtable on “Winning the war Against Corruption” was an opportunity to redefine and dissect corruption in a clinical setting as it were. Recent revelations on the extent and magnitude of corruption in Nigeria show that overcoming decades of corruption in our nation would be no easy task, and scalding forces have gathered against this endeavour.

I find two aspects of the roundtable on corruption worth commenting upon. The first part that fuels my rage as a journalist pertains to how The Herald newspaper reported the contribution of Ezekwesili. The second part that gets me scratching my head is how Aribisala conveniently tucked away the second part of Ezekwesili’s definition of corruption and mauled her contextual reference to Hong Kong and Queensland Australia.

Ezekwesili, a former World Bank Vice-president defined corruption as “the abuse of public space for private gains.” She then expanded the definition that, “It also includes what happens when in the private sector, a person abuses their position of trust for other stakeholders and personally benefits at the expense of the rest.” Ezekwesili called for three pivotal strategies to tackle systemic corruption: (1) a morally inclined political leadership that is able to mobilise the entire citizenry and all sectors to line up behind the #WarAgainstCorruption and embrace a new orientation to the costs and consequences of corruption. (2) Preventive measures that reduce the opportunities for corruption, in terms of structural economic changes in the areas of liberalisation and deregulation of sectors like energy, petroleum, and telecommunication that led to the demise of NITEL after many years of corruption and gave birth to mobile phone companies. (3) Commensurate punishment for corruption: “until people understand that predictably they will receive the appropriate penalty for bad behaviour they will continue to behave badly since it is profitable to do so.” Without effective enforcement of laws, investigation, prosecution, and adjudication of corruption, there is no way we will ensure culprits pay for their crimes, says Ezekwesili. She believes these comprehensive strategies had reversed the systemic corruption in Hong Kong and Queensland Australia.

The mischievous Aribisala, apparently consumed by the twin plague of pride and prejudice, in a ten-minute rant of distortion, shot back at the global definition of corruption by Ezekwesili, saying: “Corruption cannot be narrowly defined the way Dr. Ezekwesili defined it, only relating to public institutions… And we have not yet taken a decision, we have not yet gotten to a point where we are fed up.” “I mean, she (Mrs. Ezekwesili),” continues Aribisala, “had given example of Hong Kong where people became fed up and said enough is enough. We have not reached that situation yet. I don’t know why not, but we certainly have not.” Ezekwesili’s reference to Hong Kong and Queensland Austria is explicit enough even for an average illiterate to comprehend. Aribisala badly twisted this reference.

Responding to Femi Falana’s key note address, Aribisala denied there is a war on corruption going on: “There is no fight against corruption in Nigeria. And if there is no fight against corruption, you can’t even talk about war on corruption…” Aribisala said Buhari’s war against corruption is selective and one-sided, and targets only members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). “In fact when the PDP was ostensibly dealing with corruption, it addressed people in its own party. We are not having that now.” The fact is that the war against corruption is frustratingly slow and makes mockery of our criminal justice system. Equally, it is disingenuous of Aribisala to deny the arrest, detention, and prosecution of signature names in the corruption docket, like the Bukola Sarakis, the Orubebes, the Metuehs, and other prominent fiddlers with the Nigerian treasury. By the way, how many PDP’s members were prosecuted for corruption during their time in power?

Aribisala is reminiscent of a beatnik who would talk on and on, making no sense whatsoever. I’m not in the least surprised about how weak-minded and immature he appears in his thinking. Although Aribisala has advanced in age, he has not matured in thinking. It is difficult to understand how a seemingly well read and intelligent man like Aribisala manipulates, distorts, fabricates, and refuses to use historical facts or logic to formulate his thought patterns. His paranoid rantings are often child-like and based on sentiments and emotions. Aribisala’s repeated diatribes on national issues are products of political confusion, as well as an impoverished political vocabulary. He has for long been a polarising figure in national consciousness. He is likely to permanently remain so.

Now to the errant journalist(s) of The Herald. If “it takes a village to raise a child,” it also takes crass journalism to distort information, deceive and mislead the public. In bold typeface, The Herald headline screamed: “Many UNILAG Students Engage In Exam Malpractice – Ezekwesili.” The story written by one Fola (no last name) begins with an intro, “There was drama at the University of Lagos yesterday after a former Education minister, Oby Ezekwesili accused many students of the ivory tower of exam malpractice.”

The The Herald reporter quotes Ezekwesili as saying, “There are many whose exam malpractice is the basis upon which they have come to school. So when you are talking about the need to wage a war against corruption, they are completely disconnected from it. There is a complete dissonance from it.” However, contrary to what The Herald reported, Ezekwesili had reminded the students that, “the effect of Systemic Corruption is that it operates at every segment of society and causes people to become inured to the malignant consequences of the Cancer.” “So for instance,” continued Ezekwesili, “many who gained admission into school as a result of Exam Malpractice have engaged in corruption at their own level and will thus have a cognitive dissonance with any talk about #CorruptionWar.”

Half knowledge is dangerous, especially for a journalist. Many Nigerian journalists are traitors to the ethics of the profession, and mediocre reporting skills should greatly alarm society, as it leads to criminal misrepresentation of people like Ezekwesili who voice their opinions in the stand for progressive politics. The Herald reporter deliberately left out the three comprehensive strategies of fighting corruption that Ezekwesili advocated.

It is disturbing to note that prominent voices, like those of women, are usually subject to this sort of misrepresentation, whereas people like Aribisala, whose hallmarks are distortion, fabrication, and falsehood are not subjected to such. Not only does this sort of journalism do a disservice to society by spreading lies and misinformation, it also takes on the role of a fascist propaganda machine that single out individuals for misrepresentation, intimidation, and possible coercion into wrong-headed views. The crass distortion is an open invitation to those seeking to abridge press freedom. The late British national newspaper editor Brian Hitchen had Nigerian poorly trained journalists in mind when he said many journalists “are the product of half-baked courses and …haven’t a clue what a good story is…”

Ezekwesili may not be wrong, after all, when she said, “many who gained admission into school as a result of Exam Malpractice have engaged in corruption at their own level and will thus have a cognitive dissonance with any talk about #CorruptionWar.” It is an open secret that many students buy admissions into Nigerian universities; many are admitted due to parental connections; many through cheating at Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) exams, etc. Others trade sex for admission. And, as such, as undergraduates, the same corrupt practices continue: They trade sexual favours for grades; obtain grades by harassing and intimidating teachers; purchase grades, etc. These are forms of corruption that Ezekwesili was talking about.

Gone are the days of genuine students’ activism on our university campuses, as led by revolutionary student leaders like the late Segun Okeowo, Banji Adegboro, Omoyele Sowore (Publisher of SaharaReporters), to mention a few. The lack of clarity and understanding of today’s undergraduates present a pernicious form of blindness that reflects in our nation’s collective myopia with regards to tackling social and political issues like corruption, poverty, unemployment, etc, and finding sustained solutions to them.