Eyeless in Nigeria: reading upside down and inside out or how the lack of communication becomes an instrument for creating perceptions

28 Jan

No, this time nobody has banned the journalist access to the country and yet we are still eyeless: this time not in Gaza but in Nigeria. Why? Because of words, because of semantics! It’s amazing how a single word can turn the whole story upside down! I have been following hot topics like the Arab spring and the current unrest in Nigeria for quite some time trying to see things from all possible angles and what I found out didn’t surprise me at all: misuse of language and lack of communication resulting in rather controversial media coverage of the issue.

It wasn’t something unexpected because sadly enough nowadays such poor journalistic attempts have become a matter of course. The saddest part is the fact that most of the time it wasn’t done purposely…The result? Outrageous comments, misunderstandings and more tensions making everything worse that it was. For example, last night I read an article in the Economist about the oil subsidy removal. To be honest, I paid more attention to the comments following it because in the end of the day what your audience gets after reading it is what matters.  I’m not going to do a content analysis of the article but if you just pay attention to certain words, especially to the headline, you would probably get the impression that the whole nation is simply dumb and doesn’t understand the benefits that the subsidy removal would bring and everybody is protesting only because they want cheap oil. That’s what many people who are not familiar with the history behind would understand by only reading this article, right? The truth is there is more to this than meets the eye and I myself would have got confused if I hadn’t spoken to people, followed facebook activities or read more about the whole thing. However, not everyone has the time or would bother to research which is totally fine. On the other hand, news are supposed to be straight to the point and not too long (depending on the audience and the free space available in the newspaper/journal). Have you ever thought why most newspapers lack ads and long articles in August? Well, think about it and you would figure out that’s the holiday month and there is almost nobody to read or to write stuff. So what’s a newspaper? That’s big business, it’s just a money machine. Anyway, that’s another topic I’m planning to blog about later. So, in the end of the day Nigerians actually protest against the organised crime and corruption in the country and that’s why they feel the oil subsidy removal would just create more opportunities for the ruling elite to steal. In other words, everything has its context. The government decided to remove the oil subsidy because they want to create long-term opportunities. People started protesting because of the impact that the removal will have and is having on the costs of living of millions of Nigerians that live below the poverty level. And it is because the government fails to stick to its promises and improve the quality of life. Which is  because….The problem is the context of the story can go on and on forever dating back decades ago. The history of the problem repeats itself, only the frequency is increasing and this all reminds me on a conversation I had with  Robert Fisk regarding media reporting – the media coverage of the Israeli/Gaza conflict in particular. I clearly recall something he said that still sticks in my mind:

“I believe a journalist’s job is to be neutral and non – biased. When one goes to a journalistic school one is told to equal space to both sides. This is how you report a football match. But the Middle East is a tragedy and it should be reported as it is”

Substitute the Middle East with Nigeria and you get the same story…Why should a story be reported equally? As Fisk said – that’s not a football game! Things should be reported as they are! And to do that journalists should maybe look at the context a bit more and be careful what kind of words they use because the whole story gets minimized.  Here I’m also not tolerating how the government communicated its decision to remove the oil subsidy. As a matter of fact I see no attempts for communication. I remember an Ethics lecture where my tutor asked us to give an example of bad crisis management. Well, I said BP (they have been doing the same mistakes for 20 years, poor things) but now I would give the Nigerian government as an example. You cannot introduce such a change out of a sudden without even informing and educating the citizens about the reforms! First of all, people are generally resistant to change – it scares them even if they know the change would bring them benefits. That’s how it is – you are used to certain things and the unknown scares you. Second of all, that’s a goal you should achieve gradually! It is called a strategy, e.g. your overall idea of what you want to do. Then you have your objectives, tactics, timeline etc. So, if you simply communicate this to people they would certainly support it! I don’t think the nation is dumb – it’s all about the way you present things and communicate them.

See some comments after that article:

“…we all know the benefit of removing the subsidy, but the government have never been accountable, transparent, effective.”, dele adedapo January 21st, 01:00

“In conclusion, if the government is certain and convinced about its intentions, let explain its position to the people in a coherent manner. It should be democratic in the commencement of the removal policy. “, Greattomorrow January 25th, 11:10

If you continue reading the comments you will see that there are so many points of view and that actually everybody is right to a certain point. Obviously, it means to me that the solution is not and cannot be simple. It reminds me on the “democracy” on the Balkans – it’s just the same story. The government is corrupted, people are poor and unhappy and at the same time they think of their pockets first and are not resistant to all those things.

“… it hardly helps anyone that everyday Nigerians think first of their pockets and respond with vituperative invective against the FG when called to assist. They should save their venom, instead, for their party leadership and ensure that they press them to clean up the legislative, executive and judicial branches, on pain of losing their jobs and being committed to prison, where these “leaders” are found to have been corrupt. Too many Nigerians have proven willing to accept a lack of prosecutions or insignificant fines/sentences for those who were otherwise deemed “strong men” of use to the country in exchange for some temporary advantage to themselves, to their villages or to party cadres. When everyday Nigerians stop allowing themselves to be bought off and insist, instead, on real reform, real prosecutions, and real consequences for corrupt acts, that’s when things will really begin to change for the better.”, NdiliMfumu in reply to bmakanju January 26th, 21:12

Well, this is because Nigerians (or any other nation in the same situation like Bulgaria or other Balkan countries) have to provide their basic services by themselves. Which is because…So there we go again – the context and the way it was reported and communicated.Even the facebook pages that are supposed to create awareness and educate people about the benefits of the oil subsidy removal seem to me unsuccessful because they actually do not communicate much and it seems to me there isn’t much buzz created around them which subsequently cannot lead to knowledge or any action taken by the stakeholders…It is a change of behaviour that is supposed to be aimed after all – not simply awareness, right?

“Words, it is true, do not kill; but words can ease the work of killing”, Gideon Levy “The Punishment of Gaza”

This journalist referred to the Israeli/ Palestinian virtual war of words on editorial pages, facebook, TV and radio where the only language newspapers invoke to describe the Israeli/Gaza issue is the language of violence – the only language that is articulated as if there were no other. These same concept and patterns could be applied here, just the frames of the story are different, aren’t they? As somebody suggested, it is time for the government and I would say media to be transparent and maybe things would look a bit different if communicated properly. Because as Augustine of Hippo once said (in a different context of course, related to faith), “crede, ut intelligas” – believe so that you may understand. Unlike Augustine of Hippo, I’m not suggesting believing and following blindly: for people to believe the government it has to be transparent and honest.


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Posted by on January 28, 2012 in Africa, Media and Politics, Politics


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