All is not well between Godwin Obaseki, and with some members of the Fourth Estate in Benin City/Edo state. There are many accusations and counter accusations that the governor seems to have extended his resolve not to dash politicians fee money, to journalists. And they are miffed and on the path of war with the governor.
Prior to Godwin Obaseki’s administration, his predecessor Adamu Oshiomhole was said to have carried everybody along. Most journalists recall with nostalgia that the former governor had several journalists on a monthly stipend, and that he provided the NUJ with a bus and every once in a while sent his lieutenants to hobnob with the journalists at the NUJ Secretariat in Benin City. From there he would glean info on the state of his administration and make the necessary adjustments. Unlike what stakeholders say is happening now, the former governor left the dispensation of state advertorials to the media, at the discretion of his media assistant, who made sure that everyone was ‘carried along’. Most of the journalists who benefitted from this arrangement argue that it was from this that they survived the ordeal of non-payment of their salaries by their employers. For others who ran community newspapers, government patronage such as dispensed by the Adams Oshiomhole administration helped to keep journalism business afloat.
Here is what eventually happened – a journalismgate. It arose from that informal relationship that existed between journalists at the NUJ secretariat in Benin City and the former Edo state governor. As ‘parting gift’, Adams Oshiomhole allegedly gave some journalists the sum of N5million. By the time the gist came to the fore, the monies had been shared by a group which believed they were the actual recipients of the largesse from Mr Oshiomhole. Others believed otherwise, insisting that the monies were not for an exco or any individual for that matter, but that it was a ‘parting gift’ from the governor to all journalists in the state for their benevolent reportage of Mr. Oshiomhole’s administration.
The damage that that scandal exacted on the disposition of journalists and on the profession in Edo state, and indeed in Nigeria is yet to go away. In the next ten years, that incident will continue to have an impact on the way politicians deal with journalists. And that is because nearly everywhere, Nigerian journalists are seen as very small people whose existence depends on stipends and largesse from politicians, and thereby their allegiance. Pundits aver that instead of doing stories relating to the issues of very poor governance, rotting infrastructure, corruption and transparency and accountability in governance, some journalists abandoned their oversight responsibilities to the people and became loud megaphones for some of these politicians. They would look the other way, and turn a blind eye as soon as they would have collected their stipends or adverts or porridge.
But contrary to what had obtained during Mr. Oshiomhole, Mr. Obaseki is said to have directed that information and messages leaving Osadebey Avenue must be approved by his media assistant. What this translates to is a situation where one man is responsible for all sounds, images and words leaving any ministry, department or agency. The man too, decides which media house or agency he deals with and at whatever commission – which goes to this man exclusively, making him really rich. It seems though that before Mr. Obaseki embarked on regimenting messages from his administration, he may have laid hands on a book I recently read, Modern Business (Public Relations) by the Alexander Hamilton Institute, New York, (1965). On page 4 and 18 of that book, this book cites the AT&T as a classic example of the need for a public relations department responsible for the spoken, written, and picture messages, and in most cases to function as a one-man PR department.
In doing this however, Mr. Obaseki is said to have no human face. His traducers insist that even though he has resolved not to dash anyone free money, he lives a very lavish lifestyle and still dashes free money to a select group of politicians and journalists. According to these traducers, most of the journalists he prefers to deal with are not from Edo state but from Lagos, Abuja and Port-Harcourt.
At the base of these accusations leveled against Mr. Obaseki are issues of money. It seems therefore that just so the same way that politicians have arisen in arms against the governor’s refusal to dash politicians free money, so have the journalists. I remember the very celebrated case of a big newspaper owner in the North who fought Mr Buhari’s predecessor almost to a standstill – and over adverts that were or were not given. This is very depressing and leaves very much to be desired. We believe that Mr. Governor is Mr. Governor, and his decision to dash or not to dash anyone money is strictly his decision. We shouldn’t and cannot hold him to account on that. What we should do and be seen to be doing is subject him to the strictest measure of accountability and transparency in the conduct of governance. Subjecting him and his administration to the strictest measures of accountability and transparency in governance must not be because the governor refuses to dash anyone money but as a function of our first allegiance as journalists – to hold the powerful to account, and speak truth to power.
If we continue to do that and governors refuse to dash us money so be it. At least we have seen that whether or not you carry his story, or do a ‘friendly’ or ‘bad’ story, Mr. Obaseki is not caring a hoot. So, why not continue to be positive?
Edo state has a million and one issues – issues of poor power supply, gully erosion arising from poorly constructed roads, climate change issues, dilapidating public infrastructure and general hardship in the land. We have seen public primary and secondary school children being left in the sun and rain and being discriminated against in the public transport system in Benin City. We have observed to our eternal dismay, that Edo state markets are some of the dirtiest in Nigeria, with the cruelest mafia groups terrorizing poor traders. Things are very expensive in these markets mostly because 90% of all foods we consume come from the North – the rice, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, pepper and meat. Is anyone of us taking up these issues? Schools are shut and opened and shut at will, and if there is one or more journalists or two looking at the Edo budget, Edo Hospitals and bringing these issues to the strictest measure of scrutiny, the governor himself would know Edo journalists are not two for a penny as is being peddled around Nigeria. I have been to Edo government House on one or two occasions to get government perspective on some of the stories I was investigating but senior government officials refused to see me. I didn’t see why until I got the hint that most journalists who make such visits usually do so with the expectation to be dashed money from government. That was my last time visiting government house.
To get out of that circle of low self esteem of our colleagues, I would recommend that we ignore the governor and his money and concentrate on real journalism. I know this is very difficult, but we must, and as part of our oversight functions get into community activism, get involved in training and retraining programmes and get involved in capacity building issues. We must also develop a mechanism or a system which holds media employers who do not meet the obligations to their employees to account. Otherwise, all this grammar translates to nothing.