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.

The Asaba Massacre: A Living Trauma

By Fisayo

This article discusses the brother war to the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War — the 1967 Asaba massacre.


he Asaba massacre remains one of the under-told horrific events of the 1967 - 1970 Nigerian Civil War. Like other human tragedies that have occurred in Nigeria, the mass killing is clothed with repudiation. Save for the testimonies of the families of survivors and victims, the works of Emma Okocha1, Fraser Ottanelli2 and Elizabeth Bird3 and other existing literature, the Asaba massacre would have paled into historical oblivion. The closest to an acknowledgement that it has received is the Ohaneze petition to the Human Rights Violations Investigating Commission of the Justice panel in 2001.

Even at that, the report of the panel was never officially released. Five decades on, the Asaba massacre is still a living trauma and tragedy. An event that cupped an estimated 700 Nigerians in the hand of death, the carnage and destruction have defied time, season and space. As Ogubeshi Ofili Okonkwo put it, “every Asaba woman, man or child carries a memory of genocide...a communal memory of loss and anguish.”


Venom Vs. Carnage: Issue October 1967

Often termed as a brother’s war, the Asaba massacre began with the military campaign on the midwestern region on August 9, 1967. This offensive led by Colonel Victor Banjo, in a surprise move, crossed the Niger Bridge from Onitsha into Asaba, Delta State; lasting for five weeks and four days until it was halted at Ore - in present day Benin state.

Till date, the aim of this military adventure remains unclear though narrowed, speculatively, to two reasons. One: to deflect pressure and attention from the Federal forces siege on Enugu. Secondly, perhaps, to tarnish the image of the Nigerian military supremacy in order to set a negotiating table before them. Whatever the motive, these aforementioned speculations failed to materialise.

Instead, albeit temporarily, the military seizure of Benin city and the wider mid-western region by the Biafran ‘liberation army’ changed the dynamics of the civil war, on September 20, 1967. In a swift and strategic movea, the Federal forces under the Second Infantry Division recaptured Benin city; causing a retreat of the Biafran Army up until the River Niger4 in ten days.


E Kwenyego M: Surrendered Yet Slaughtered

The earlier recapturing of Benin city by the Federal forces was indeed tactical as it hastened the movement of the Federal army against the retreating Biafran army. As a cover for their retreat, the Biafran Army destroyed parts of the Niger bridge; inadvertently stopping the Federal Forces from advancing towards them. This forced a detour of the Nigerian soldiers into Asaba. On getting there, the Federal soldiers thus turned their angst on the defenseless people of Asaba.

Going by Bird and Ottaneli’s account, “the progress of Federal troops toward Asaba could be measured by the approaching sound of heavy guns and the rattling of machine-gun fire.” Within the first “twenty-four hours of “ferocious” shelling, ...Asaba suffered its first victims.” Twenty four hours of torture later turned to days, and from October 2 to 7, 1967, hundreds were slaughtered. Despite wearing akwa ocha - a white cloth that symbolises peace - and pledging allegiance to ‘One Nigeria’, the men were singled out, shot and ‘wasted.’ Women and children, raped and/or forcedb into marriage.

Agu (Umuagu) Ajaji (Umuaji) Onaje (Umuonaje) Ugbomanta Ugbomanta
Abudei Emmanuel Akwuele Cyril Alumona Ojume Anigbogu Nnando Awolor Henry Nwobi
Chako Ekenemechukwu Allanah Eugene Akazua Chacha Andrew C. Chidi Francis Nweke Biosah Eminian
Ebenuwa Francis Eloka Juwah George Echenua Chas Nwodigwe Ezeadiefe Ojei Chichi Daniel
Idigbe Michael Mordi D. N. Diabua Onwuka Gwamniru Onochie Dozie Edwin
Kebodi Clem Nduka Eze Rose Eziuno Etiaka Samuel Eloka Ijeh Ejima Konwea Okoji
Momah Chuks Nwoji Joseph Harry John Maduemezia Nwachukwu Oka Njoteah Chief Ezenba
Nwogalanya Nkadi Odiwe Silson O. Igodo Okoli Ndozi Oyana Nwabueze
Osaji Nwabueze Okafor Mma Ndah Ogom Onianwa Nkadi Sidi Hycinth
Rapu Anierobi Onyemenam Azubike Okonji Ifeanyi Uzo Mike C. Ujenna Okonji Modozia
Uzoechia Tolefe Gab Okonkwo Uwaje Sunday Ashiofu Emeka Odiatu Oge

Table: An abridged list of the Asaba massacre victims. Source: University of South Florida. Full list compiled by Sir Joe Oni Akaraiwe here.


Villains Wear Capes, Too

The surprise advance and invasion of the midwest by the Biafran ‘liberation army’ necessitated the hasty formation of the 2nd Division of the Nigerian Army. This 2nd Division would be responsible for the successful retake of Benin city from the Biafran army. At the time, the 2nd Division was commanded by Murtala Mohammed — thus the general assumption that Mohammed, ordered the killings. Though many ascribe it the assumption to his belligerent and recalcitrant posture and role as the most senior Commander of the Division, there remains insufficient and non-subjective evidence to conclude so.

As alleged by an officer who served under Murtala, Lieutenant Ishola Williams, ‘‘Murtala ordered the summary execution of Biafran prisoners of war.” The killings, Max Silloun states, were carried out as punishment to Igbo civilians in the Mid-Western region “for their sympathy for the Biafrans.” If likewise swearing by Silloun’s account that Murtala Mohammed, “buoyed by his Mid-West success, had his sight on the strategically important Biafran city of Onitsha”, it might be reasonable to assign the responsibility and conduct of his troops to him.

Corroborating this further, the late Chinua Achebe, in There Was A Country, equally revealed that Murtala Mohammed advance quickly, following the “abomination in Asaba” to cross the Niger River Bridge to Onitsha. This - he failed on three occasions - before he took another detour to Onitsha. The testimony of Major General Ibrahim Haruna at the Oputa Panel in 1999 claiming to have ordered the killings, however, provides a counter argument as to who called the shots, and erased men, generations and communities.

Be that as it may, Murtala Mohammed’s involvement in the Asaba massacre remains an eternal blot on his evergreen memory. While he may have ruled with an iron fist, had his names embalmed permanently in symbols of our national life; participated and benefitted from the art of coup-plotting (as the times dictated), his involvement in the killings at Asaba severely betrayed his imperfection and lowered his cult-like status by many degrees.


50 Years On: Still Suppressing Voices, Sidestepping Justice

If for anything, the killings in Asabac suffered from a deliberate persecution of information and free press. News reports either contained half-truths or hearsay accounts. There were no official records nor any acknowledgment of the killings. Certainly, Gowon’s ‘no victor, no vanquished’ post-war statement inadvertently sealed up atrocities committed by either of the sides. While Gowon’s apology to the people of Asaba in 1999 may have helped to lift the veil, it did not lessen the burden of the weak and heavy laden.

On the flip side, Major General Ibrahim Haruna at the Oputa Panel in 1999 offered no remorse. He declared: “as the commanding officer and leader of the troops that massacred 500 men in Asaba, I have no apology for those massacred in Asaba, Owerri and Ameke-Item. I acted as a soldier maintaining the peace and unity of Nigeria. If General Yakubu Gowon apologised, he did it in his own capacity. As for me, I have no apology.’’ This was akin to pouring sand on shallow graves or rubbing salt on an open wound.

50 years on, the Asaba massacre is still treated as a no-go area, and tagged “too controversial.” In October 2017, Cheta Nwanze, social commentator and Researcher, was sent off air in for discussing the massacre on Nigeria Info FM. This shows the extent to which the Nigerian authorities are repulsed by the events that demand transitional and restorative justice, and need to be constantly talked about, so that children unborn may learn; so it may not repeat itself. If Nigeria and the people of Biafra must heal, a commemoration of its historyd must be the balm.


1 Okocha E., (2006), Blood on the Niger: The First Black On Black Genocide. New York: TriAtlantic Books.

2 Bird E. S. and Ottanelli F., (2011), The History and Legacy of the Asaba, Nigeria Massacres. African Studies Review, Volume 54 (3), pp1-26.

3 Okocha E., (2006).

4 Bird E. S. and Ottanelli F., (2011).

5 Okocha E., (2006).

6 Bird E. S. and Ottanelli F., (2014), The Asaba Massacre And The Nigerian Civil War: Reclaiming Hidden History. Journal Of Genocide Research (Special Double Issue: The Nigeria-Biafra war, 1967–1970: Postcolonial Conflict And The Question Of Genocide), Vol. 16(2-3), pp. 379-399.

7 Silloun M., (2009), Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976). New York: Algora Publishing.


a Benin city was a link to the Western Region, and it was on the Federal side. The Biafran Army, on the other hand, had begun an early offensive into Ore, in present day Benin city. The recapture was thus strategic.

b A recommended reading on the atrocities committed during the genocide — Postcolonial Conflict And The Question Of Genocide: The Nigeria-Biafra War, edited by Dirk Moses and Lasse Heerten.

c A video documentary on the Asaba Massacre.

d A memorial website by the University of South Florida dedicated to Asaba massacre victims and survivors. This platform documents the happenings of the Biafra War in relation to the Asaba Massacre; it provides resources, pictures and research material on the subject area.


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.