Culture, Ethnic Rivalry and the Role of the Media, a paper delivered by the CPS to the Gov. Kwara State
- a paper delivered by the Rafiu Ajakaye, the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor of Kwara State at a one-day seminar organised by 400 Level Students of Kwara State University Malete on April 16, 2021.
I feel honoured to be asked to give an address on this important national discourse which, in my opinion, is at the core of Nigeria’s national security crisis. The topic - Culture, Ethnic Rivalry and the Role of the Media - is especially important because of this audience. In the next one year or thereabouts, many of you in this hall and your contemporaries nationwide will likely hold the key to what we read and how we read them in the media, whether conventional or the new media. Our perception of ourselves as Nigerians - Igbo, Fulani, Yoruba, Hausa, Ibibio, Muslims, Christians, farmers, herders, and many others - will be shaped largely by what you write, how you write it, and the language you choose to write it. In Kwara here, for instance, the language of the media in reporting issues bordering on ethnic and religious relations will go a long to determine whether a Fulani Prince from the Sheikh Alimi dynasty will be friend to an Igbomina Prince from Kwara South.
I implore the academics in this gathering to kindly let me jump over the niceties of defining what culture and ethnicity mean. I believe these are terms we are all used to. Going into definitions may tempt us into going into subtopics of the complicated issues of culture and ethnicity.
However, what we cannot run away from is the fact that we come from different backgrounds and had indeed been raised to see things in different ways — often time based on sociocultural and religious perception of things in our own 'environment'. This is sometimes called the implicit bias, which is considered to be unintentional or unconscious stereotyping. Nonetheless, it is agreed that people differ whether in their tongues, idiosyncrasies, physical frame, or even belief system. Above all things, however, we are first and foremost humans and descendants of Adam.
The interesting fact again is that our world will get increasingly more complex as we evolve, and it would take more than profiling along ethnic and cultural differences to build a society that can weather the challenges of the 21st century.
Shamit Saggar, author of the famous book Pariah Politics, made this point more pungently when he remarked that: "This century is likely to see more movement across the globe by more people than at any time in human history. To put it in another way, more of us would be encountering more people different in many ways from ourselves than any of our ancestors...
"We already know that increasingly, the first great battle for the twenty-first-century humankind will be to live sustainably with our planet. It is becoming clear that the second great struggle will be to live with each other 'graciously' in the words of Isaiah Berlin."
Discussing a subtopic he called Reputational Politics, Saggar added that "at the start of the twentieth century, British and American societies were filled with influential assertions that the absorptive capacity of either country immigrants had been reached. This was not based solely on calculations about homes, jobs, or hospitals, but rather couched in terms of foreign, alien threats to the perceived Anglo-Saxon inner character of these societies."
I believe those words of Saggar were as true of the identified American system yesterday and today as they are today about Nigeria where, despite attempts to bridge the gap, people are getting increasingly territorial and stoking the ember of discord under whatever guise.
So where is the media in all of these? The role of the media is critical in peaceful coexistence and development. Our perception of one another, the nature of our relationship, and the kind of rivalry that exists in our communities are largely influenced by what we read or see in the media. For example, headlines like Fulani herders burn churches in Katsina; Odua People’s Congress closes Igbo shops in Alaba market; Niger Delta militants kill Hausa traders in Port Harcourt are inimical to corporate existence of the country.
The media is encouraged to align with peace journalism, rather than war journalism which I'm afraid seems to be in vogue in our country today. War journalism plays up the so-called ‘elite positions’ which hardly represent the views or dreams of the majority. War journalism favours reporting only the differences between (warring) parties and downplays their similarities, previous agreements and progress on common issues. In its worst form, war journalism props up the concept of zero sums. Renowned scholar of international relations Joshua Goldstein says zero sums is an extreme case where a party feels that its own survival is guaranteed only when and if the other party ceases to exist. We have a perfect example in how a section of the media constantly frames the herders-farmers crisis in zero sums terms, often deploying ethnic slurs like Fulani herders in the process. It is assumed that farmers can only survive if herders are perpetually demonised and vice versa. This zero sums reporting style in a section of the media has led to a dangerous national narrative, the consequences of which are better imagined.
Conversely, peace journalism prioritises conflict resolution. A brainchild of Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, it is also known as conflict sensitive journalism or constructive conflict coverage.
The media, in my opinion, should consciously campaign for Nigerians to truly get to know and appreciate one another. The media should deliberately promote what unites us and play down divisive issues or report them in conciliatory tones. The current tilt towards war journalism — whereby a section of the media weaponises our differences in their style and language of reporting — is a disaster waiting to happen. We should never allow the mistakes of 1967 to happen again. Like many commentators have said, we are better off just reading and watching videos about Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia. I appeal to schools of journalism and media studies nationwide to ensure that their students are made to visit Oru town in Ogun State, where war victims from Liberia and other places were sheltered, and other landmark communities where the Nigerian civil war was fought. While Graphics and Media Law and Ethics are great courses that should temper would-be journalists, such as knowing where national security is at stake, I humbly suggest that schools offering media studies should make deliberate efforts to give students deeper classroom reflections on how ethnic slurs, unhelpful narratives and negative innuendoes in the media aggravated ethnic rivalry which quickly graduated to hatred and then the civil war in which millions of Nigerians died.
At this point of our national history, reporters will do well to understand the various socioeconomic challenges and global development issues like the climate change and the disappearance of the Lake Chad, for example, and how these developments influence migration and conflicts among various economic groups. This will help to put things in perspective, build empathy, and allow for a national consensus on sustainable solutions to what is purely ecological, humanitarian and economic problems. For instance, the stiff resistance to the so-called Ruga programme and its successor National Livestock Transformation Programme may have been inspired by negative media portrayals of the otherwise laudable initiative as an ethnic land grabbing agenda to foster an imaginary caliphacy. Sadly, apart from creating a wedge between different peoples, which is bad on its own, the negative portrayals may have denied Nigeria a golden opportunity to fight food insecurity and build a sustainable future for its growing population.
The media, in the final analysis, has a duty to use its manipulative influence to shape national discourse in manners that do not aggravate ethnic conflict. Reporters, editors and everyone alike must be conscious of the Chinese Tao te Ching principle to the effect that 'brambles grow where an army has been and bad years follow a Great War'. Conflict is good for no one and peace is a necessary ingredient for the growth and development of a nation.