“THE FUTURE OF POLITICAL BROADCASTS IN NIGERIA: A FUTURISTIC PROJECTION OF THE 2015 ELECTION,” BEING A PAPER PRESENTED BY KINGSLEY OSADOLOR, ESQ., SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE HON. MINISTER OF INFORMATION, AT A RETREAT FOR DIRECTORS AND DEPUTY DIRECTORS OF THE NATIONAL BROADCAST COMMISSION, ALONG WITH SELECTED MEDIA OPERATORS, AT THE IBOM MERIDIEN HOTEL, UYO, AKWA IBOM STATE, FEBRUARY 4-8, 2013.
1.1 Political broadcasts include news, news analyses, talkshows and current affairs programmes with substantial political content, advertisements, as well as documentaries aired on radio or television, or both. Among the sources of political broadcasts are political aspirants, election candidates, staff of the host station, guests on programmes, and third parties---such as election observer/monitoring groups and relevant civil society organisations.
1.2 While political broadcasts take place all-year round, they gain in added significance during an election season typified by boisterous campaigns and the mobilisation of enormous financial and material resources to woo potential voters through posters, banners, advertisements, roadshows, rallies, radio and television programmes, among others. Promises, tall claims, defections, violence and accidents---all mesh together in a kaleidoscope of vote-catching behaviour. Reporting and analyzing these events, and providing a platform for the exposure of campaign messages and issues, as well as election outcomes and the aftermath, constitute the content of political broadcasts.
2.0 PATH DEPENDENCE OF POLITICAL BROADCASTS
2.1 A futuristic projection of political broadcasts in the 2015 general elections must of necessity derive from, or, at least, take into account antecedent history of political broadcast in the country. That would be a detailed exercise that is beyond the scope of this paper. Thus, what will be attempted here is a brief sketch of the nexus between politics and broadcasting in Nigeria.
2.2 Whereas the advent and growth of radio broadcasting in Nigeria was directly related to the colonial administration, television debuted in Nigeria---the first in Africa---for political reasons overlaid with the medium’s utility for educational purposes.
2.3 The pioneer television station was the Western Nigeria Television Service, Ibadan, established by the government of the Western Region on October 31, 1959. At the inauguration of the station, which was criticised initially by some as a waste of scarce resources on a prestige project, the then Premier of the Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, said the project was initiated because the government was convinced it could play a complementary role in public enlightenment and education. Yet, as Prof. Mike Egbon has noted, the immediate impetus for the establishment of the television service had a heavy political undertone. Chief Awolowo and some of his partymen had staged a walk-out in Parliament on the eve of independence. The walk-out was condemned by the Nigeria Radio Broadcasting Service, which reportedly denied access to Chief Awolowo to reply to the accusations. Rather than rely on voice alone in broadcasting, the regional government upped the ante by investing in television.
2.4 In 1960, the Eastern Region government set up its own television service (Eastern Nigeria Television Service); and was followed by the Northern Regional government in 1962, the same year the Federal Government established the Nigerian Television Service (NTS) in Lagos. Although useful in many other respects, the television stations were nevertheless deployed for partisan political ends. According to Prof. Egbon, “the accent was on regionalism and strengthening the power base according to the needs of the government in power. In short, programming was simply divisive and propagandistic, as the coverage traced a sectional pattern---reflective of the nation's political ideologies and diversities.”
2.5 The state creation exercises of 1967 and 1976 by which the country’s political structure became 12 states and later 19 states, triggered a rash of statism in which every state wanted facilities of its own, including educational institutions, as well as media establishments. Midwest Television took the lead in this regard, when it came on air in 1973 in Benin City. Soon, there were television stations in Jos, Kano, Port Harcourt, and Sokoto, which were state capitals. The Nigerian Television Authority was established by the Federal Government by a decree in 1977 with retrospective effect from April 1976. The NTA took over the pre-existing television stations in the country.
2.6 The advent of the Second Republic (1979-1983) witnessed another proliferation of radio and television stations by state governments, especially in states not governed by the ruling party at the Federal level. The use and abuse of political broadcasts was magnified in the 1983 general elections, with the NTA being heavily criticised for its tenditious Verdict ’83 programme, while the broadcast media in the old Ondo State incited the electorate to orgies of violence that made the state ungovernable for Chief Akin Omoboriowo, who had been declared winner against the incumbent Governor, Chief Adekunle Ajasin.
2.7 Up until 1992, broadcasting was regulated. Only the government (Federal or State) could, according to the extant provisions of the 1979 Constitution (as amended by Military Decrees), own and operate radio and television stations. With deregulation and the consequential establishment of the National Broadcasting Commission in 1992, the country entered into a new era of private ownership of radio and television stations, alongside the government-controlled organs.
2.8 Ownership and funding patterns have always played a key role in the disposition of the broadcast media in Nigeria. It is a classic case of he who pays the piper dictates the tune. For the government-owned broadcast media, even where there is no direct command for a station to treat a copy or an issue in a certain way, managers have been conditioned to a life of self-censorship and downright sycophancy, an anticipatory behaviour intended to please the supervising political authority.
2.9 Managers are scared of losing their jobs, knowing that judicial recourse to seek redress is a cumbersome process with no sure-fire guarantee of success, coupled with the starkness of survival challenges while the litigant is out of work. On the other hand, the superintending political authority is overbearing. Either politely, or more often brusquely, it reminds managers about the source of funding for the station being a government responsibility, and that an incumbent government cannot be so generous of spirit as to allow opponents to mount the platform of a government-controlled broadcast station to ventilate anti-government views. Neither the managers are courageous enough to remind the political authority that funding for the station derives from the commonwealth of the citizens; nor does the political authority reflect on that fact while haranguing broadcast station managers.
2.10 The situation is often testy during the election season. While the incumbent government seeks and directs that all its activities---whether newsworthy or not---be given the widest, and sometimes nauseating, coverage, the same government frowns at similar exposure being given to challengers during an election. Blackout of political opponents is not uncommon. No doubt, an election season is the most busy period for broadcast managers, who have to keep an eye on virtually every item that is broadcast on their station---a task that is humanly impossible, even with the most effective delegation. And because lower-ranking officers may have political sympathies for the opposing camp; or because such officers are moonlighting, they can sneak in or let go an occasional material that sometimes has a huge potential for embarrassing the station and the government. It is not unusual to see mass transfers of officers during the election season, because their loyalty is in doubt, or their judgment cannot be trusted. A broadcast manager is thus a vigilant watchdog during the election, acting as sentinel over insiders and outsiders with equal tenacity.
2.11 The privately-owned media face a slightly different kind of pressure, the response to which has implications for monitoring by industry regulators. Where the proprietor has a political interest, the pressure on managers to align with that interest is almost as intense as that endured by managers of government-controlled broadcast organs. Job insecurity is higher in the private sector, so the tendency to pander to the master’s directive could be high. But job mobility in the private sector also means that managers who cannot withstand the pressure for long often make their exit.
2.12 However, privately-owned stations have a business imperative. They must fend for themselves, usually by selling airtime, either by way of programming or advertisements. Sometimes the financial survival needs are so strong that the managers are more interested in the colour and quantum of money that they rake in, than in the quality and impact of their programmes. There is a particularly notorious station with a variety of sit-in programmes that host mercenary resource persons masquerading as disinterested analysts who pontificate on the subject matter at hand, while the often unprofessional anchors ask leading questions that guarantee a steady flow of patronage and fat wallets.
2.13 The situation can be aggravated during the election season, which is seen as boom time. This is when regulators must also have sleepless nights. Certainly, the NBC must have learnt some useful lessons from its recent experience in Ondo State, where the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) conducted the governorship election. Political campaigns kicked off in the media 11 months earlier, whereas the law allows for 90 days prior to voting. Campaign language was replete with innuendoes, abuse, and incitement. Political jingles lasted more than the prescribed 60 seconds, while access was denied to some political parties and candidates without just cause.
3.0 LOOKING AHEAD : 2015 GENERAL ELECTIONS
3.1 It is fashionable to speak of the general elections on the nation’s quadriennial electoral calendar. Even then, the notion of general elections has largely been restricted to elective positions at the State and Federal levels. Thus, state Houses of Assembly, governorship, National Assembly, and Presidential elections constitute the main polls in the general elections. Owing to the disparate operation of the local government system, elections into that tier are uncoordinated nationwide, taking place at the whims of state governments, a good many of which have taken liberty to impose caretaker committees in lieu of elected councillors.
3.2 However, on account of various judicial interventions, sometimes at the Supreme Court, not all governorship elections now take place on the same day. For example, governorship elections in Anambra, Edo, Kogi, Ondo, Ekiti, Osun, among others, will hold at different times. Thus, we can only speak of general elections in a qualified sense. But that does not diminish the intensity of the contest, nor the calculations of political pundits, who are interested in the outcome of the polls.
3.3 There is, for instance, a strong linkage between governorship and state House of Assembly election. Governors are more comfortable when their party controls the state legislature. On the one hand, this facilitates the passage of bills and smoothens executive-legislature relationships, although there is the downside of the legislature degenerating to the supine status of a rubber stamp. On the other hand, control of the state Assembly diminishes the threat of, or actual, removal from office by way of impeachment.
3.4 In other words, even though governorship elections are now staggered in the electoral calendar, state Houses of Assembly polls fall within the timetable of the qualified general elections. What this means, therefore, is that the election season culminating in the 2015 polls will not be any less intense. Add to that the ultimate electoral prize in the land---the Presidential election.
3.5 In the presidential election, the focus is on two levels: intra-party, and inter-party. As the evidence clearly shows, since the lead-up to the advent of the Fourth Republic in 1999, intra-party joust for a presidential ticket can be as acrimonious and fierce as inter-party polls. Squabbles over a party’s presidential nomination have been more pronounced in the ruling party, obviously because winning the party’s ticket is as good as winning the presidential election, as the last four elections have demonstrated. Hence, aspirants for the party’s presidential nomination campaign as vigorously and rancorously, as though they were in contest against other political parties. This is notwithstanding the fact that the choice of the party’s candidate is by a few thousand delegates at a special convention, rather than by the generality of registered voters. The quest for the ruling party’s presidential nomination for the 2015 elections is unlikely to be different. For, it would be a miracle if the legion of presidential aspirants that emerges each electoral season were to suddenly disappear.
3.6 Indeed, since last year, there has been a relentless focus on whether incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan will seek re-election in 2015. Interest in that question has not waned despite the earnest plea of the President that he be allowed to concentrate on governance, while the issue of seeking re-election is left for much later in his tenure. Still, the matter is kept alive by all manner of interest groups. It goes without argument, therefore, that as the 2015 elections draw nearer, bickering over the ruling party’s ticket will reach fever pitch, as aspirants and their opponents mount predictably rancorous campaigns on multiple platforms, including the broadcast media.
3.7 Given the recurrence of zoning as an eligibility criterion in the ruling party’s calculations, one can hazard a guess that some aspirants will inflame passions, and issue sulphurous threats about the corporate existence of the country, if they do not get the party’s nomination. Considering also the lax gatekeeping in both the print and electronic media, such aspirants will find ready outlets in talkshows, unscripted current affairs and sundry political programmes. This will heighten the tension in the polity, aggravate our national image challenges, and impact on investment decisions, even if it is in the short term.
3.8 Other political parties will also witness intra-party competition for the flagbearer, but the issues and challenges arising from these will be a distant echo compared with the blast and tremor from the antagonism within the ruling party. Intra-party rivalry is a significant prelude to the bigger inter-party contest for the Presidency. So that, after literally exhausting themselves within their parties, the leading candidates will square off against each other.
3.9 The fact that all presidential elections since 1999 have been disputed, and subject to judicial resolution that nevertheless reaffirmed the verdict of the electoral umpire, is a pointer to what might happen in 2015. This will be in spite of the widespread acknowledgement of the credibility of the elections, as was the case in 2011.
3.10 For the broadcast industry, the implications of the above scenario are two-fold. The heat of the presidential election campaign will spill over from polling day to the many months after the election. Hate speech, incitement to violence, abusive language, unrestrained disparagement and a cocktail of behaviours forbidden by the Broadcast Code have the potential of popping up with the force of a steaming cauldron. Already, there are talks and moves towards the formation of a mega-party (an amalgamation of convenience of fringe political parties) to challenge the ruling party at the presidential election. Formidable access to the media, financial resources, and the ambition of the personalities involved in the talks towards the creation of the mega-party are sufficient to warrant the inference of a ferocious presidential election in 2015, with storm clouds darkening over the polity in the months immediately before voting.
3.11 However, the foregoing bleak prognosis may be mitigated by two very important but related factors. The first is the disposition of the incumbent President who, whether he decides to seek re-election or not, has established a reputation for abhorring the extreme excesses in electoral contests. In the 2011 general elections, his mantra was that his ambition was not worth the blood of any Nigerian, in contradistinction to the sometimes incendiary and divisive campaign of his opponents. By toning down electoral rhetoric, a political leader/candidate can influence his followers.
3.12 The disposition of the incumbent President reflects his commitment to free, fair, and credible elections. He has kept faith with that commitment, as evidenced by the outcome of elections in states where he personally joined the train to campaign for his party’s governorship candidates, some of whom were trounced. The President has often been among the first to congratulate the victor. If, therefore, the incumbent rallies his supporters to conduct themselves in a manner antithetical to do-or-die politics, this will impact campaign message content and its related inflammatory adjunct.
3.13 The other important factor that may affect the scary prognosis is the commitment of the electoral umpire to conduct clean elections. This commitment is closely tied to the resolve of the incumbent administration to radically reform the electoral process, so that there is meaning and value in the votes cast at the polls, rather than the triumph of the machinations of political merchants. As has been generally acknowledged, there was a marked difference in integrity between the 2011 general elections and the three preceding polls. Indeed, instances of litigation arising from the 2011 general elections were considerably fewer than earlier years. Other elections conducted since 2011, especially the governorship polls, have earned wide acclaim.
3.14 Arising from the two factors, it is possible that a much wiser electorate, wearied by the security challenges that engulfed the country soon after President Jonathan’s inauguration in May 2011, may reject apostles of hate and violence, whose overweening ambition to rule is extinguished at the polls. Thus, the political desperadoes may engage a gear of propaganda, but they may have no audience for their message. Yet, considering the state of the country’s development, there are always the gullible, and the country’s airwaves can do without breaches of the Broadcast Code.
Underpinning aspects of the Broadcast Code that govern political broadcasts are the imperatives of equal opportunities and reasonable access to election candidates and their proxies, civility in language and decency in conduct, as well as a desire to ensure a healthy polity where elections are an important feature of democracy. Given the country’s experience, it is unlikely that all broadcast stations will adhere strictly to the Code at all times. Where managers are not overenthusiastic to please their supervising authority, the latter may be overzealous to extract the benefit of political control; and privately-owned stations may fall for the lure of lucre. Some may choose to be clever by half. They may employ highly discriminatory advert rates against opponents; they may, in pretentious fulfilment of the obligation of reasonable access, consign opposing candidates to unfavourable time-belts. The gauntlet is for the industry regulator to take up. Sustained enlightenment of, and interaction with, broadcast media managers is useful. But not to enforce the rules where there are infractions, and publicize appropriate sanctions for industry players’ attention, is to encourage more breaches.
Kingsley Osadolor, Esq.