The Nigerian Press and June 12: Pressure and Performance during a Political Crisis

Article excerpt

Abstract

The Nigerian press faced its most turbulent years to date between 1993 and 1998, a span that has been described as the "darkest period of its 140-year history." This was the period during which the military annulled a national election and sought to perpetuate itself, a development that precipitated a political crisis that brought Nigeria close to another civil war. This study examines the fate of the Nigerian press during the crisis, which Nigerians refer to simply as June 12 in reference to the date of the annulled election in 1993. Specifically, the study examines the dynamics of a press system in which the forces of repression and the forces of freedom manifest strong oppositional trends. In this case, an illegitimate (and therefore insecure) military government sought to repress a press that was growing in size and independence in a volatile political context and difficult economic circumstances. The paper analyzes the interplay of the various factors and trends in engendering repression while also facilitating press resistance. The paper notes the implications for press systems analysis.

Minabere Ibelema is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is (as of spring 2003) on sabbatical in Africa conducting studies on the press and democratization. The author wishes to thank Cyril Ibe, a Fall 1999 Pew Fellow in International Journalism and currently host/executive producer of "Window To Africa Radio," a weekly magazine program on WVON-AM 1450, Chicago. He was of immeasurable help in connecting the author with several of the journalists interviewed for this study and in procuring some issues of the magazines analyzed and other sources of information. The author also wishes to thank Humphrey A. Regis, Associate Professor, School of Mass Communications, University of South Florida, for making helpful suggestions on the first two drafts of the manuscript.

The Nigerian press faced its most turbulent years to date between 1993 and 1998, a span that has been described as the "darkest period of its 140-year history."1 This was the period between a national election that was to lead to democratic rule but was annulled by the military and the sudden death of General Sani Abacha, which revived the transition to democracy. Though most of the repressive measures against the press were not new, their scope was unprecedented. Between 1994 and 1995, for instance, three publishing houses, which by an editor's estimate accounted for 50 percent of Nigeria's newspaper market, were simultaneously shut down for about 18 months.2 Moreover, there were unprecedented incidents of murder and attempted murder of journalists and pro-democracy activists.3 The atmosphere of fear was therefore unprecedented, except, perhaps, during Nigeria's civil war. Yet, the press remained considerably robust and outspoken during what Nigerians have come to call the June 12 crisis, in reference to the date of the annulled election in 1993. The election of a civilian government in 1999 formally ended the crisis; yet, it remains a strong undercurrent of Nigerian politics.

The Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka wrote of the Nigerian press milieu during the 6-year crisis that it provided "one of the most fascinating fields of research in the plethora of mainstream, underground, fake underground, pseudo-mainstream, and so forth publications.... "4 Indeed, the June 12 crisis provides significant insight into the dynamics of government-press relations in a transitional-democratizing press system. This study examines the dynamics and suggest the implications. It is an analysis of the Nigerian press's fate and performance during the June 12 crisis.

The events of the crisis will be theoretically situated in media systems analysis. The paper will examine especially the interface of the emergence of an independently oriented news media and a government's exercise of power in the context of a legitimation crisis. …