The ‘Ngbati’ Press, By Odia Ofeimun
I should stress that the Lagos press would not be the distinctive estate it has become in Nigeria’s cultural economy but for the fact that it is really not under the thumb of anybody. The diversity of its ownership structure may be over-determined by economic class but not ethnic or religious suasion.
The term, Ngbati Press, has entered the lexicon of our times as a description of the Lagos-Ibadan Press. Ngbati, happens to be a word picked for its presumed frequency in Yoruba conversations, rather than for its intrinsic meaning. As a form of stereotyping, it is meant to dredge out the ethnic character of the press that it describes. It is a press that is voluble, if not cantakerous; a press that is buoyed by a no-holds-barred approach to matters of national interest, and with a capacity for advocacy and adversarial haggling against those it considers guilty of malfeasance. Objectively, this could be just a description of the Nigerian Press. Except that the critics, if I understand them, appear to be less worried about its character than they are that the Lagos-Ibadan Press is not federal enough: That it takes too readily the colour of its predominantly Yoruba environment. I must say that this charge comes from outside South-Western Nigeria as a form of power-talk.
As power-talk, the ngbati charge is based on the elementary Nigerian fact that any newspaper established outside Lagos would need to sell in Lagos if it is to survive well, and with more than passing impact. The preponderance of the Yoruba in the Lagos area is then seen as giving them undue hold over the pulse of the nation. It is power-talk in the sense that it is based on sheer gamesmanship towards a power-bloc whose key politicians have always been in opposition, never been in control of federal power, but have always had the means that organise consciousness away from all the conservative schemes of those in government. As power talk, it hides the wish to own, control or manipulate what is being criticised. At best it projects the power needs of the critic into whatever the Lagos Press is presumed to be up to. Of course, no one calls it an Ngbati press when it serves their interests or fights their battles. Or, maybe, one should say that what rankles, for the critics, is to find themselves always dependent on a press which they may not own, do not control and cannot manipulate beyond transient wheedling.
Otherwise, properly speaking, the Ngbati press ought to be seen as falling within what I have called elsewhere, though not very correctly, the Literature belt in Nigeria; the Lagos-Ibadan-Benin-Enugu Axis. There is a sense in which this axis created what is being described as the Ngbati Press. It has been the training ground for the ground-breaking in communication skills that has taken place on this and other axis in the country. It has sucked in talents from all parts of the federation towards a nationalisation of culture that does require one extra word of recognition. The interactions between the nationalities and the fights and factions of the key players on this belt have been a special resource, shaping, directing and formalising the features of this press. The trouble is that once cultural politics come into it, you can hardly get all those who created this press to admit their share of blame, if that is what it calls for. First to be occluded is the diverse base of ownership and diverse origins of personnel. The Ngbati charge is supposed to make us forget the emergence of Newswatch and The Guardian and the geo-ethnic spread of ownership implicated by the rise of Sam Amuka’s Vanguard, Iwuanyanwu’s Champion, and the revolution in new journalism that has blossomed since we first heard of Haroun Adamu, Dele Giwa, May Ezekiel and the many organs that, with time, would turn June 12 into a committed struggle. Since stereotyping does not allow for multi-layered but only one-sided abstractions, we may still find the press being called an Ngbati, not just as a geo-graphical but a cultural, ethnic fact. For instance, you can hardly get the disenfranchised Igbo, denied his birthright in the public sector, to agree to a share in the responsibility for creating this Press. But have they a choice? I think they don’t.
What it boils down to is that the term Ngbati is a mis-definition of what it presumes to describe. And my witness, if I need to call one, is history. It shows that the force of Ngbati as a descriptive word comes rather distantly from the fact that the first newspaper in our part of the world was a Yoruba language organ called Irohin Yoruba. Since its emergence, newspaper industries have tended to be largely domiciled in this portion of the country. To be fair, credit for it must go to the unmatched level of literacy which made the south-western-most part of Nigeria, the birthpad of national journalism. By 1859, the literacy rate in this part of Africa had risen high enough for the missionaries to ride on its back for the spread of the Word. It was this movement, if not development, with religion and literacy as pathfinders, that created the basis for the emergence of missionary political journalism of which the brightest star was Nnamdi Azikiwe. He was a beneficiary of the success with which newspapers already supplemented and benefited from the stoutness of the social questioning with which Lagos, Egba and Ijebu lawyers were flooring colonial officials in the law courts, pushing as far as the Privy Council, and winning. The lawyers, and defenders of native rights like Herbert Macaulay entrenched the culture of advocacy and agitative performances, which filtered into and have never deserted newspaper journalism in the country. Thus, you may say that missionary political journalism was, from the beginning, linked to that protean order of the educated classes who believed it was their duty, their right, their luck, not only to be able to have their say but to speak for those who could not speak for themselves.
…in narrating the history of missionary journalism in Nigeria, you cannot help but look at the tie of literacy to ethnicity. The matter of ethnic origins, however, misleads. It makes us forget that the fiercest battles in Lagos journalism were between Herbert Maculay and other Yorubas and between Nnamdi Azikiwe and a fellow non-Yoruba like Ernest Ikoli.
Since Lagos, the hot-bed of the Order of Literacy, was a predominantly Yoruba conurbation, there was bound to be a lot of the Yoruba in the culture that emerged. The dominant bourgeoisie, initially led by ex-enslaved returnees, tended to be Yoruba. As leaders of opinion who had been freed by Christianity and travel from loyalty to parochial nativism, these Yoruba returnees exercised the freedom to identify with whoever and wherever they pleased. Even when they had Igbo origins, they identified with the rising class of Yoruba bourgeoisie in Lagos. True, their principal identification was with the Lagos Yoruba, the Brazilianised and Christianised, rather than the ‘native’ Yoruba from the hinterland. In this connection, it may be recalled that on his arrival from the Untied States in 1937, and after he returned from his Ghanaian interregnum, Nnamdi Azikiwe actually felt more comfortable with this Yoruba milieu. As president of the Igbo State Union, he had to minister unto a constituency that was not Yoruba. But, like Ernest Ikoli, with whom he fought battles for centrality in Nigeria journalism, he had a close working relationship “with the owners of the land, who knew what gods to appease” – to paraphrase Achebe’s Unmuofians.
The short of the matter is that in narrating the history of missionary journalism in Nigeria, you cannot help but look at the tie of literacy to ethnicity. The matter of ethnic origins, however, misleads. It makes us forget that the fiercest battles in Lagos journalism were between Herbert Maculay and other Yorubas and between Nnamdi Azikiwe and a fellow non-Yoruba like Ernest Ikoli. This needs to be noted as a preface to the scam between the Daily Service and the West African Pilot, which at some stage almost led to Matchet Wars between the Igbo and Yoruba on the streets of Lagos. Whatever the particulars, it should be remembered that it was at a time when the level of literacy in many other parts of Nigeria was simply not high enough for them to join in the big fights, except in the tradition of newsletters. In any case, no matter who was in a position to join in the fight, there was no way it could be hidden that the struggles were taking place in a land that was predominantly Yoruba-speaking. Not even the declaration of Lagos as a federal territory, home to all Nigerians, could change that fact. Nor is it demeaned by the establishment of the Nigerian Tribune in Ibadan, incidentally on Zik’s 45th birthday. The Tribune’s emergence routinised the Ibadan link to the Lagos axis which, as an entrepot of trade and commerce and seat of the federal government, was home to more would-be newspaper readers than any other city could provide.
It can be surmised that, as the provincials from Ibadan and other parts of Nigeria besieged the metropolis of Lagos, they brought something of their own which sat uneasily at first but eventually meshed with what was already at the centre of things. Before long, you had to recognise the Enahoros, Abiodun Alobas, the Sam Amukas and MCK Ajuluchukus, all of the provincials set to make good in the trade. They had the license offered by the only part of Nigeria which deserved to be called the First Nigerian City. Yes, Lagos was, and is, the only Nigerian city with a genuine promise of a melting pot situation, hence its place as a prime incubator of nationalistic zeal in the federation. Not even the removal of the seat of government could affect this fact. For that matter, life in Lagos has had a greater tendency than anywhere else to predispose even the most ethnically centred and parochial public performers to learn to see beyond themselves to other Nigerians. Indeed, until the new capital in Abuja proves a better deal, the fact of the melting pot situation means that Lagosians are more right than wrong when they act as if only they constitute Nigeria and can speak for other Nigerians.
Come to think of it: The commonality of problems which Lagos imposes on all corners has forced a certain commonality of perspectives upon popular consciousness. It used to be said that this was a city of “so so enjoyment” in which the rich and the poor, irrespective of ethnic origins, could have fun. Even as hardships have become the common vernacular of life in the city, and ethnic banding has been on the upswing, the perception of Lagos as a leveller has refused to be cowed. Lagos remains a city dominated by the culture of those who wish to make good in quick time: It is the city of the unacknowledged commonfolk reaching for the sky. Lagos offers this common folk the choice anonymity which many of them need in order to be truly themselves, truly creative, outside the constricting family values of the provinces.
…the trouble is that the average critic of the Ngbati press of today does not see the universalistic venture underlining the seeming threat of the Lagos media nor do they want us to see or enjoy the melting pot that has really been with us. They even see the permanent identification with victims of oppression as a weakness, rather then a strength of this media…
It should therefore be no surprise that the newspaper culture which has grown to service this city is one that abrasively demanded and demands that things should get better. Whoever is seen not to be part of things getting better becomes its villain. Persons and newspapers identified with things not getting better tend to get punished with the withdrawal of patronage. Such withdrawals sometimes happened with drastic implications. In this regard, the death of the government owned Morning Post was perhaps the ultimate in folk judgment. Other equally conservative, anti-people newspapers had to learn that they could not survive by being too rabidly against the mainstream. Some were foolhardy enough to burn their fingers before retracing their steps. Others, depending on a permanent subsidy from government or government-engineered contracts and benefits, had to learn that they could be printing only for the guguru seller, if they failed to test reality aright.
I suppose it is this capacity of the masses of the people to ostracise newspapers that are perceived as being against them which troubles the critics of the Lagos-Ibadan Press. They are mystified by the peculiar kind of cultural solidarity at work; it is a solidarity even more mystifying because it is built up by masses of the people who know their friends in public life, as against the purchasable leaders prowling on the corridors of power who know only their purses. Besides, it is a cultural or call it moral solidarity which cuts across ethnic lines, although ethnic champions may be visible as its protagonists. What is missed by the critics is that only ethnic champions with a universalistic message have passed the test of this Lagos media. Awolowo was the best copy it ever had once Azikiwe, the only true darling they ever knew, abandoned them for the language of compromise.
Indeed, the trouble is that the average critic of the Ngbati press of today does not see the universalistic venture underlining the seeming threat of the Lagos media nor do they want us to see or enjoy the melting pot that has really been with us. They even see the permanent identification with victims of oppression as a weakness, rather then a strength of this media: Or may be it is better to say that they view the matter of the Lagos-Ibadan media principally from the link with one sophisticated ethnic champion, Awolowo, who is the best example that the media has had of a fighter who would not withdraw from a good fight. The point is that they are confused by the fact that a man rubbished as an ethnicist (or Pakistanist, in the language of the 50s) is also the one who appears to be the permanent inspiration in the fight for universalistic welfare against oppressive rule. It puts the born-again jingoist in a quandary. The matter is worsened by the Gani Fawehinmis, Falanas and Beko Ransome-Kutis whom the press is obliged to report in order, among other things, to retain relevance.
What is not often realised is that it was and it is by their insistent identification with activists of a certain political positioning, that the Lagos media have helped to realise the great challenge of the press that Herbert Macaulay, Ernest Ikoli, Azikiwe and Awolowo established: A press identified with public advocacies and the subscription to public, rather than private, solutions to national problems. One gets the feeling that the critics resent the love of public controversies and public advocacies which provide the ballast of the Lagos media. Of course, it must be conceded that there is a ragamuffin branch to the Lagos media which does not appear to abide by any codes of objectivity or ethics. It is a branch, a tabloid branch – Soyinka has called it a gutter press, junk press or what have you – which has taken on the role the The Sun and sometimes The Private Eye performs in Britain. This ragamuffin press can be quite unsettling to good taste. But it is a fringe catchment which ought not to disturb the equanimity of any serious mind. No serious lover of freedom in society ought to let the attack on the junkness or guttering of this catchment overtake the need for the arm of the Lagos press which does not suffer fools gladly. It is an arm of the Lagos-Ibadan Press which takes issues head on and would not let undue decorum occlude the need for public figures to be accountable.
Surely, the clout that this press possesses resides in aligning with political leaders who see a fight for the masses as the only meaningful cover for their own personal struggles. Although this has led the media to identify with leaders who engage in hyping for effect, its core instincts have been to celebrate the Balarabe Musas, as it does the Saro-Wiwas, those who do not just stand for their own persons but fight for other people.
On this score, I think one ought to draw attention to the illustrative case of the Igbo leader who sneaked behind everybody’s back to solve his personal abandoned property problems. The tradition of the Lagos media is simply to disparage such leaders, even when it is the case that they always make a good copy. If it had to take on the case, the Lagos-Ibadan media would have stretched the issue of one Igbo leader’s abandoned property problems to cover all Igbos and all other Nigerians who had abandoned property problems. It is a tradition that would not have supported a negotiation under the table. As a matter of wider public interest, it could have been deployed in the service of the less privileged. Surely, the clout that this press possesses resides in aligning with political leaders who see a fight for the masses as the only meaningful cover for their own personal struggles. Although this has led the media to identify with leaders who engage in hyping for effect, its core instincts have been to celebrate the Balarabe Musas, as it does the Saro-Wiwas, those who do not just stand for their own persons but fight for other people. Surely, this Press stood for the principle of a fair trial for a Lekwot, as it once did for even politicians whom it suspected of being guilty of charges of corruption. No doubt, a press which knows how to identify in this manner is merely learning how not to die: Leaders who do not know how to be friends with such a press are merely learning how to be irrelevant. This is the case, no matter how much such leaders may court relevance by attacking this same press which they love to have on their side.
I should stress that the Lagos press would not be the distinctive estate it has become in Nigeria’s cultural economy but for the fact that it is really not under the thumb of anybody. The diversity of its ownership structure may be over-determined by economic class but not ethnic or religious suasion. The preponderance of given ethnic personnel in its make-up may discomfit but there is also a certain norm of perfect competition locked into it which annuls over-determination of information. There has emerged a crop of journalists with enough backbone to withstand even the proclivities of lily-livered proprietors. In this regard, those who thought that transient governmental power or even a letter bomb could give them control over the press had to learn to their chagrin that this press has a momentum and drive within a logic that passeth all the contrivances of power. Perhaps, this logic explains why Uche Chukwumerije, as Information secretary thought during the June 12 imbroglio, that if you couldn’t beat them, you had to disband them. Mass banning of newspapers was seen as a means of re-distributing national resources away to areas where the press would not be controlled by an entrenched media class. Chukwumerije did not consider that the print media could not survive where there wasn’t enough literary or buying power to reach out for the papers. His love of re-distribution of newspaper resources merely told other ethnic groups in the country what they already know: That there are more newspapers in some parts of the country than others. It did not tell them what they needed to know: How the banning of the newspapers would protect their own interests and their contributions to the vibrancy of this press. Consequently, Chukwumerije jammed himself into the bizarre fix of ethnic politics: He gave credence to the notion that to equalise terms of citizenship across the country, some Nigerians in power prefer to destroy the good things in geo-ethnic areas other than their own, rather than create a basis for the spread of good things. It was a wierd position to take by someone normally paid to promote enjoyment of whatever achievements emanate from any part of the federation.
Which is not to say that the Lagos-Ibadan media has no predisposition towards an ethnic complex. The truth is that few newspapers and magazines in Nigeria appear to be able to avoid it. With specific reference to the loaded finger pointed at the Ngbati Press, the judgment has to be that inspite of its reaching for objectivity, it has not been able to avoid a parochial edge to its reports and comments. The average Lagos editor or journalist who may not even be Yoruba tends to seek the opinion of those closest at hand, who may just happen to be Yoruba. In opinion surveys, this can get to be literally obscene as happened during the June 12 struggle when the opinion of the Abeokuta, Ibadan, Lagos, Akure axis was superintended over all others. Although it would have made more political sense to know the opinion of other June Twelvers, who indeed were more relevant to giving June 12 a countrywide character, the Lagos-Ibadan Press simply got stuck in its turf. Some editors defended it from the line of least resistance, from the standpoint of not having the resources to range far afield or the need to save time before the next deadline or a matter of simply being hostage to the poor communication system in the country. For many of them, it was a simple case of bad habit: Wanting to hear the voices of the well known voices whose opinions would mesh with a precast notion of the scoop at hand. No doubt, it gave self assurance to savaged communal egos in a situation of national crisis. But, even when the message was universalistic, the personages airing it simply did not help the message. It was one period when the notion of geo-ethnic spread could not be shunted aside for the usual presumption of the Lagosian that he could speak for all of Nigeria. Although other Nigerians could not be comfortable if Lagosians were in trouble, this was one period when the Lagosian had to listen to other Nigerians from different parts and build them, albeit slowly, into a unitary voice. It was clear that the rest of the country was not spoken for once Lagosians had spoken. As such, all Lagosians, irrespective of ethnic extraction must take responsibility for the Ngbati complex. It is a common disease of the nationalities turned into the instinct of all the dwellers of our prime metropolis.
Odia Ofeimun, a poet, essayist, political and cultural historian, writes from Lagos. He is author of the acclaimed The Poet Lied, several other collections of poetry, dance dramas, and the book of essays Taking Nigeria Seriously, among others.