Free State Free Press: The State And The Media

By Oniye

This article discusses the relationship between the State and a free press under Nigeria's Second Junta.


he relationship between a government’s administration and the press has always been a conundrum across different countries, and Nigeria is no exception. Though, in comparison to other African countries1, it has historically enjoyed relatively freer press activity, this has not been without fault and flaws. As a republic, Nigeria has had eight military Heads of State and three stints of constitutional democracies. Tenure after tenure, the dilemma as to what level of access - if any - to grant to free press and accurate reporting ensued.

Post-independence, the Nigerian press actively evolved; with newspapers and radio broadcasts as popular sources of information and, over time, TV and magazines. Though at infantry stages of national freedom, the country and its people, as guided by Section 24(i) of the 1960 Independence Constitution, enjoyed an entitlement to the freedom of expression. When the military, however, seized power and yanked the roots of democracy, this sense of freedom started to wean under strict regulations.

Most notably, under the leadership of the Second Junta, the importance of effective social institutions such as a free and an active press was barely recognised. Freedom — between 1983 and 1998 — came with a level of subjectivity. Consequently, when Abacha died in 1998, Nigerians erupted with celebrations; his death, for many, was seen as a step closer to democratic freedom. It was an opportunity to rebuild and strengthena the connection between the State and the press, and in turn, the State and the populace.


Patronage Or Protection?

These leaders, particularly the Second Junta, understood the impact and reach that journalists had in educating the masses on issues across the country. Thus, needing to quell the press, each one employed a number of repressive tactics; enforcing differing levels of State control. Of them all, however, most crucial were General Ibrahim Babangida’s actions which set the tone for his successor - General Sani Abacha.

General Ibrahim Babangida - popularly known as IBB - came into power on August 27, 1985. In a bloodless coup, he ousted the previous Head of State, Major General Muhammadu Buhari, on the claims that he was “too rigid and uncompromising in his attitude to issues of national significance.” 2 On this note, Babangida promised to be a leader committed to human rights and restoring freedom of expression in Nigeria. To seal his intentions, he repealed the Decree 4 - Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree - created by Buhari’s administration.3 Notorious for saddling media houses and journalists against publicly expressing opposing views to the government, this decree also sanctioned, with arrests, those who criticised the administration.

As Babangida took such steps, his popularity began to increase and his image as a progressive leader was carefully painted. Emblematic of Nigerian politics, Babangida tactically formed alliances extending a hand of patronage to a few members of the press who had been vocal critics of previous administrations; offering public office positions to them. Most notable of those he converted were Duro Onabule and Nduka Irabor - editors at The Concord and The Guardian newspapers, respectively - as the Chief Press Secretary and the Press Secretary to the Vice-President.


Press Ownership: Public or Private

Though Decree 4 had been repealed, new decrees relating to press and media action were created; making it difficult for newspaper publications and journalists to produce, distribute and publish news. The first notable decree under Babangida’s rule was the Decree 59 of 1988 which created the Nigerian Media Council and authorised it to set entry qualifications for journalists and monitor their actions. Similarly, the Treason and Treasonable Offences Decree 29, popularly referred to as the Death Decree, was created.

The latter decree granted the presiding administration the power to seize copies of publications5 if they were considered against national interest. These actions were further legitimised by the Offensive Publications (Proscription) Decree 35 of 1993 which made any newspapers and magazine that reported any form of news deemed unfavourable by the government liable to proscription. Without surprise, by 1993, sixteen media houses - The Reporter, The News, Tell, Daily Sketch, Sunday Sketch, Newsday, The Observer, amongst others - had reportedly6 been closed down by the government.

These countless seizures, proscriptions and detention of journalists increasingly stifled the Nigerian Press in their fight to accurately report the events unfolding in the country. Further exacerbating this situation, the Newspaper Decree 45 was effected; making it compulsory for all newspapers to be registered lest they face a fine of approximately7 10,000 US Dollars. Journalists, in addition, were mandated to submit information of all owners, publishers and printers.


Friend, Foe Or Frenemy

The actions of this administration, thus, increasingly made it unpopular. Over time, it became evident that the repeal of Decree 4 and the free press promised in 1985 came with unwritten conditions. On one hand, IBB’s administration had appointed some of its greatest critics in several political roles. On another hand, his administration was cracking down on dissenters. By the end of Babangida’s rule in 1993, over 30 journalists had been arrested, detained or attacked. Different magazines, newspapers and radio stations likewise ceased functionality.

Notably, investigative journalist, Dele Giwa, was mysteriously murdered by a parcel bomb in his house on October 19, 1986. Pro-democracy activists such as Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti and Femi Falana - both of whom were members of the Campaign for Democracy - were detained in Abuja for their outcry against the government and its lack of transparency8 in transitioning to civilian rule. Ken Saro Wiwa, as with other journalists and activists9, was also arrested and detained on three different occasions.


Free Press: At What Cost?

The enforcement of these several decrees and restrictions increasingly made the fight for free press catastrophic. By 1993, there were 31 daily newspapers, 60 regularly published magazines, 50 State owned television stations and 40 State-owned radio stations in Nigeria.10 Free press had, paradoxically, been proven to come at a price. In some cases, it had a monetary value; in other cases, its asking price was a life, assault rendered or political imprisonment.

Notwithstanding, Nigeria was gearing up to be Africa’s press giant. In an attempt at civilian rule, democratic elections were held on June 12b that year, and later followed by an annulment. An interim civilian leader - Ernest Shonekan - was subsequently appointed by Babangida, and later ousted by General Sani Abacha in the same year. Under Abacha’s rule, Nigeria witnessed more arrests of journalists, the killing of the Ogoni Nine and a ban on all political meetings and associations.

About a score years later, though Nigeria may have since adopted a Third Republic constitution under civilian rule, the struggle to attain freedom of expression persists. The country continues to tow the line between censorship and freedom, with a score of 39.7 (0 = best, 100 = worst) on the Press Freedom Index. Press freedom remains volatile and the impactsc of various decrees created to suppress independent reporting and media are still abound.

Thanks to the proliferation of social media in recent times, however, civic engagement has spiked an uproar; with journalists and everyday citizens sharing their opinions and voice on government activities and public policy and demanding accountability. Even at this, freedom is still relative and threatened, as is evidenced by the attempt to create a Social Media Bill. Journalists are still attacked and intimidated; information is still partial and incomplete, and media is largely unindependent. So, how free is free?



1 Agbaje A., (1993), "Beyond the State: Civil Society And The Nigerian Press Under Military Rule." Media, Culture And Society, Vol. 15 (3), pp. 455-472.

2 Text Of General Ibrahim Babangida’s Coup Speech. August 27, 1985. Retrieved from Scan News.

3 Obotetukudo S. W., The Inaugural Addresses and Ascension Speeches of Nigerian Elected and Non-Elected Presidents and Prime Minister, 1960-2010. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc.

4 Newswatch Newspaper, (1992), “Our Desperate Ways” An Address To The Meeting Of National Council Of States By Olusegun Obasanjo in Newswatch, 23 November 1992, pp. 36-37.

5 UNESCO, Summary Of Media Laws In Nigeria 1903-Date.

6 Africa Watch, (1993), Africa Watch 1993 Reports, The Punch (Lagos), 20 May 1993.

7 U.S. Department of State, Nigeria Human Rights Practices, 1993.

8 Human Rights Watch Nigeria, (1993), Democracy Derailed, Hundreds Arrested and Press Muzzled in Aftermath of Election Annulment, August 27, 1993.

9 U.S. Department of State, (1993), Nigeria Human Rights Practices.

10 Adeyemi A., (1995), The Nigerian Press Under The Military: Persecution, Resilience, And Political Crisis, 1983-1993, Joan Shorenstein Center, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.


a This gives one an insight to how much a government is willing to protect the rights of its citizens.

b A bibiliography on the June 12th Elections and its winner, M. K. O. Abiola, compiled by The Book Banque.

c Political and civil unrest also play a huge role in the volatility of press freedom. In 2012, under President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria had Press Freedom score of 56.4 and then witnessed a sharp decrease in the following year - the year in which Occupy Nigeria protests and the bombing of the UN building in Abuja occured.

Through The Ranks: Nigeria's Military Regime

Like many other African countries, Nigeria’s postcolonial resumé is far from uncheckered. Coup after coup, the nation’s strive for democracy was overturned by military rulership. Between its independence in 1960 and its Third Republic commencing in 1999, Nigeria crinkled under eight military heads of state; all of whom, arguably, plunged the country into a deeper rabbit hole of the things they swore to fight against - division and corruption. In this article, we provide profile shots of Nigeria's military leaders.

Ghana Must Go: Containing The Mayhem of Migration

Image:  Nobukho Nqaba .


t is chequered. It is sturdy. It is used worldwide. There is some contention as to whether it can be deemed highly fashionable, but it gains some cool points for being waterproof and available in more than one set of colours. For many, it merely serves the primary function which most bags serve – to carry items which may be in large quantities or of large weight especially when travelling. In parts of West Africa, it is known as the ‘Ghana Must Go’ bag.

It is not an ordinary chequered plastic bag but one made of historical and political fabric. This famous ‘migrant bag’ played a significant role in West African history. It was used by several West African citizens, especially Ghanaians, to contain their belongings as they were forced to leave Nigeria during the 1980s — an episode worthy of unrelenting recognition and enduring space in the history books.


A Restless Journey

It began in the early months of 1983 when Shehu Shagari — the Nigerian president at the time — ordered the tragic expulsion of several citizens of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)1. Many of them had entered Nigeria as economic migrants during the 1970s without official immigration documents. In the case of Ghanaians, both skilled and unskilled migrants were pushed by the unbearable economic conditions in Ghana to seek refuge in Nigeria, which was widely known as West Africa’s economic utopia at the time.2

Being an Oil-rich country, Nigeria had been enjoying the benefits of elevated Oil prices during the 1970s. With the Oil boom came a growth in job opportunities, especially in the services and construction sectors. The notable increase in job opportunities in Nigeria, as well as the existing similarities between the Ghanaian and Nigerian administrative systems3, appealed to Ghanaians; prompting their relocation to Nigeria in search of better lives. Upon relocating to Nigeria, the Ghanaians worked in different industries: as labourers, traders, artisans, teachers, architects, lawyers and doctors.4

The economic success which befell Nigeria was, however, short-lived due to Oil prices plummeting in 1982; therefore causing socioeconomic hardships in Nigeria. The highly populous nation began hurting from austerity measures imposed in the hope of stabilising the economy, as urban employment fell5 drastically, and food shortages became severe. It was then generally believed that the influx of people from neighbouring West African countries instigated the deterioration of economic and social conditions in Nigeria.


The Scapegoats

The blame game, however, only advanced with the help of Nigerian public officials who exploited the presence of immigrants, and further projected it as the cause of economic decline in Nigeria. With the impending presidential election of August 19836, Nigerian leaders were determined to scapegoat immigrants in an attempt to mask other overpowering causes of Nigeria’s economic failure, including the mismanagement of Oil revenue, corruption as well as high volumes of short term debt and the ‘cement armada’ scheme.

The immigrants were given two weeks to leave Nigeria, lest they be arrested and tried; leading to the exodus of over 2 million immigrants from neighbouring countries. In the process of this displacement, Nigerian police physically harmed immigrants - beating and gassing them, in the hope that they would depart immediately. Many who departed Nigeria were, however, denied entry into other countries - such as Benin Republic - which were also reluctant to deal with an influx of immigrants.

As a result, expelled immigrants were forced to camp in the middle of the borders of Nigeria and Benin, uncertain as to whether they would reach a place they could once again call home. While some Ghanaians were lucky enough to depart Nigeria by air through assistance from the Ghanaian government8, others were not fortunate enough to step on Ghanaian soil again as they drowned9 in severely crowded boats, travelling by sea.


An Eye For An Eye

Interestingly, the expulsion of Ghanaians from Nigeria in the 1980s could be considered as a punch in the face of the Ghanaian government, in retaliation for expelling Nigerian immigrants in 196910. In November that year, Kofi Abrefa Busia – the-then Prime Minister of Ghana – demanded an expulsion of Nigerian migrants for reasons including economic concerns and xenophobia11. While some may deem this irrational, it is, however, difficult to overlook the plausibility of this theory.

This is because several global political events that have occurred recently have shown that politics can be personal, as well as manifest as a game of passions. As we know, experiencing passions can be temporary, yet they often drive actions which may yield enduring results. It can thus not be said with complete certainty whether the wounds felt by both Ghanaians and Nigerians have fully healed; though relations between the two countries have grown, albeit cautiously, in the decades since both cases of expulsion occurred.


Power And Identity Politics

Undoubtedly, economic factors play a significant role in the dynamics of immigration – be it in enabling migrants access or denying them access – it is not extreme to argue that the displacement of people which stems from unfair immigration policies also boils down to an obsession with national identity12 and, perhaps, the promotion of unequal (power) relations between people from different identity groups. Like most things in the political world, immigration policies can be shaped by unequal power relations.

Referring to Michel Foucault, power can be dual in nature – consisting mainly of juridical and productive elements13. What this means is that immigration laws that enable the prohibition of migrants from entering another nation-state are essentially a manifestation of juridical power being exercised. With the productive aspect of power, it can be argued that through unfavourable immigration laws passed, immigrants are also forced to live with constructed and flawed identities - to which they are subjected.

In other words, immigrants are forced to adopt the identity of aliens, unwanted creatures, or burdens. In the case of Ghanaian immigrants in Nigeria, many of them would have had to deal with the painful detachment from friends they made in what they probably imagined as their new home, as well as the flawed and fabricated image of themselves as aliens or ‘economic leeches’. Involuntary relocation is therefore even more difficult to manage alongside the psychological trauma from viewing one’s self as an outsider or a burden.

While identity politics can invoke benefits such as providing people with the opportunity to understand the significance of exercising mutual recognition, it can also be manipulated to produce negative outcomes like xenophobia and the maltreatment of people from different identity groups. Though not as severe as recurrent cases in countries like South Africa, the expulsion of Ghanaians in the 1980s, as with recent happenings, continue to represent a failed intra-African migration.


The Inevitability Of Migration

Beyond the sub-region of West Africa, members of the global community continue to endure extended periods of extreme political instability, as well as economic and environmental uncertainty. History tells us that when people find themselves in a place where peace, love and prosperity do not reside, they succumb to the pressures of migration - an inevitable phenomenon which we must learn to accept and manage more effectively and equally. It is important for leaders, not just in Africa, but also across the globe, to govern in a manner that prevents forceful relocation, and the ‘othering’ of people of different nationalities.

As some migrants continue to use the ‘Ghana Must Go’ bag in the hope of finding a place of permanent residence, today, they still face barriers. Too often, the hopes and dreams of migrants have soared only to crash into fabricated fortifications. Yet, as Alberto Rios writes in The Border: A Double Sonnet, “the border is mighty, but even the parting of the seas created a path, not a barrier.” And so, in a world shaped by dire uncertainty and constant mobility, one can only hope that there will be more paths created to prevent unwarranted exile and displacement.


1 Gary-Tounkara, D. (2016). A Reappraisal of the Expulsion of Illegal Immigrants from Nigeria in 1983. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, [online] 9(1), pp.25-38.

2 Adepoju, A. (2005). Creating a Borderless West Africa: Constraints and Prospects for IntraRegional Migration. [ebook] UNESCO.

3 Nieswand, B. (2011). Theorising Transnational Migration: The Status Paradox of Migration. New York: Routledge.

4 Nieswand, B. (2011).

5 Gary-Tounkara, (2016).

6 Gary-Tounkara, (2016).

7 Louis, E. (1983). West African Tragedy | News | The Harvard Crimson. [online]

8 Brydon, L. (1985). Ghanaian Responses to the Nigerian Expulsions of 1983. African Affairs, [online] 84(337), pp.561-585.

9 Brydon, (1985).

10 Gary-Tounkara, (2016).

11 Aremu, J. and Ajayi, A. (2014). Expulsion of Nigerian Immigrant Community from Ghana in 1969: Causes and Impact. Developing Country Studies, [online] pp.176-186.

12 Adida., C. (2014). Immigrant Exclusion and Insecurity in Africa: Coethnic Strangers. New York: Cambridge University Press.

13 Doty, R. (1996). Immigration and National Identity: Constructing the Nation. Review of International Studies, [online] 22(3), pp.235-255.