Friday Discourse (108)
Goodbye, VOA Hausa Service
One of the foreign channels broadcasting in Hausa is about shooting itself in the foot. It is the Hausa Service of the Voice of America. If care is not taken it will lose it second largest overseas audience in the world. A combination of ethnic, religious and political forces from this country have recently influenced the station in the aftermath of the shift of power to the South. These forces have found support from the Christian establishment after the recent ethno-religious crisis in Jos and the September 11 attacks on America.
The chief accusation is that the station has an anti-Christian bias because their staffs are overwhelmingly Muslim Hausas. The administration of the Station has taken the accusations “seriously” and has already started taking measures aimed at correcting the ‘anomaly’ in accordance with the wishes of the present administration and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).
I acknowledge that the VOA is a property of America, hence its right to handle it anyway it likes. Nevertheless, I am worried, as a hitherto ardent listener of the station, about how a great nation like America would allow itself to be cheaply blackmailed and intimidated into becoming hostile to millions of its listeners. The forces behind this change in policy and the options left to the Hausa listener are the subject matter of our discussion today.
We are well aware that many ethnic groups are disgruntled at the patronage enjoyed by the Hausa language in many academic institutions and broadcasting stations overseas. They would like for example to have a Yoruba or Ibo service at the BBC. But their grumbles have not yielded any fruit from this perspective. The failure has resulted in frustration and hate. Perhaps the most blatant expression of the hate was when the ethno-centric Yoruba organization OPC threatened to destroy a local radio station – Ray Power - which broadcasts the BBC Hausa Service programs on their FM band under an agreement. Anybody with an objective mind needs to find what the newspapers and magazines published that time in support of these bigots to remind him of their despicable language and objective.
But the decision to use Hausa as a language of broadcast by foreign stations was not a decision of the Hausas themselves. Any disgruntled individual or group should ask the British, the Chinese, the Germans, the Egyptians, the Ghanaians, the Iranians and the Americans the wisdom behind their patronage of the language.
The truth is that before any language would be used by any of the media houses overseas, it has to meet the basic condition of relevance. Broadcasting in that language must be of strategic importance to the patronising nation. The population of its speakers must be meaningful. For the BBC and VOA, inability to understand English by the audience is an additional criterion because their world service broadcasts cater for all English-speaking people living overseas. It is not surprising therefore that the two stations in particular broadcast in all major languages of the world, both three times a day in Hausa.
Hausa and Swahili are the most popular in sub-Saharan Africa, hence the preference they enjoy. But Hausa has an additional advantage: the average Hausa man is radio-maniac. He keeps a radio wherever he is: in the house, shop and even while rearing cattle in the bush. The effect of this listening culture can easily be measured by the volume of correspondence such stations receive as feedback from their listeners.
There is another harsh reality for the ethnocentric protesters against the Hausa language and its use in the foreign broadcasts. Northern Nigeria, without any doubt, has no lingua franca except Hausa. So no matter how its people are despised, their language cannot be dispensed with. It was once reported by a correspondent of this weekly that when the champions of the ‘Middle Belt’ cause went to Obasanjo to tell him that their states are no longer part of the Hausa North, they did not have any language in common to use which will not be understood by Nigerians from other regions except Hausa. The whole thing became a drama. This is an additional currency for the language. In fact, at the rate which people in the North adopt it, experts have expressed the fear that it will wipe out many smaller languages in the region by the middle of this century. In other words, its indispensability is increasing by the hour. What a bad news for some quarters!
Also, in the age of democracy, number is the most fundamental determinant of political supremacy. In addition, the role that speakers of a language play in determining political trends is also important. That makes reaching Hausa speaking people of Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Cameroon, and other West African countries an imperative for America, for example, as long as it wishes to command support for its policies in the region. Some people may think that with ‘power shift’ Hausas will no longer be relevant. They are mistaken: the leadership of this country will always be based on the commission or omission of its Hausa speaking population. The foreigners know this well.
I think these are the reasons why Hausa enjoys the privilege of foreign stations, requirements that other languages can hardly fulfil.
There are many forces working against broadcasting in Hausa both within and outside Nigeria under the influence of politics, ethnicity and religion.
Let us first look at the political aspect. Broadcasting is only area in the media sector where the North has appreciably kept pace with other regions of the country. Both the leading northern newspaper and broadcasting house in the North – the New Nigerian and Radio Nigeria Kaduna respectively – have played a great role in keeping the northern spirit alive after the brutal assassination of the regional patriarch – Sir Ahmadu Bello – and its subsequent balkanisation. This did not favour two institutions: the military and the political establishment of the South.
The southern political class has always been apprehensive of northern unity since the North scuttled its dream of domination as a successor to the British. How Ahmadu Bello achieved this, and led the North on the path of rapid development has created the fear that allowing the North to combine population with development will be suicidal to the objectives the Yoruba political hegemony. His assassination was therefore meant to retard this development and create the chance to break the unity of the region.
In collaboration with some ambitious soldiers from the minority tribes in the North the region was balkanised into six states, independent of one another. But the two voices of the North earlier mentioned could not be silenced completely. They played a nationalistic role in the political affairs of the country so long as it did not result in injustice against the North. The military that has always wished a unitary state for the nation shared a common interest with the South in subduing the voices of the two media organizations. General Murtala Mohammad nationalized the New Nigerian in a move that got something to do with the nationalization of the Daily Times.
The two ambitions – of the military and the Yoruba – found a common champion in the person of General Olusegun Obasanjo, the closest friend to Nzeogwu – the Igbo army officer that led the assassination of Ahmadu Bello. Obasanjo, during his first tenure ordered the nationalization of Radio Television Kaduna and the reduction of its strength. To us it was all part of realizing the ultimate goal of 15 January 1966.
After the military coup of 1983, especially during the tenure of Babangida, censorship reduced the editorial strength of the two organisations leading to loss of audience and readers. At a time the New Nigerian was producing not more than 1500 copies! As for Radio Nigeria Kaduna, more than half of its news and programs are restricted to Kaduna and its environs.
The effect of these developments was to be seen the political crisis that engulfed the country between 1988 and 1998. The nation could not rely on any local source of information since freedom of the press was limited by government censorship, assassinations and lack of fund. The North was worse hit because while the South has domination over the print media and could rely on them to express its political standpoints, the North was left dumb, with no voice other than what government approves. And the governments were mean. They approved only little!
It was during this period that foreign broadcasts became most important to the Northerner than at any other time in the History of Nigeria. We thus relied on foreign stations for both foreign and domestic news that are not censored by the local dictatorship. For example, the common northerner learnt about the death of General Sani Abacha first on the BBC Hausa Service.
More important than the news however, and something of far greater concern to our discussion today, is the reliance of Northern political elite on the foreign media for the free expression of their opinion. Governments at federal and state levels, in spite of democracy, have continued to censor its media organizations. The most recent evidence of this was how the federal authorities under excuses that immediately proved false unilaterally cancelled a contract programme between Abubakar Rimi – a northern presidential aspirant – and Radio Nigeria Kaduna. The same station is forced to air programs intended to sell the Vice President perhaps in preparation for the next presidential elections since there is a strong rumour that Americans are not impressed with Obasanjo.
The foreign stations themselves, I suspect, have realized the rising profile of their relevance in Nigerian politics. For this reason they have increased their presence on the ground here. They are no longer relying on their English correspondents who were used to sitting in Lagos hotels and sending whatever rumour or fact would reach them. The Hausa service of those stations today have recruited Nigerian reporters, with each having an area of coverage and would send firsthand reports and interviews on events with dispatch to their client station overseas.
So far in our discourse we have been able to establish how Hausa came to be used as a broadcasting language by foreign stations. We have also seen the forces that worked against the Hausa having a voice, a development that forced them to rely on foreign stations for news, reports and freedom of expression. That was history.
The fight however did not end on May 29, 1999. We will soon see how the present administration is trying to block that last resort of our freedom of expression. In rhythm with the efforts of the government also is the role played by recent increase in religious and ethnic tensions in the North. These two forces have put the foreign stations under pressure. The VOA being the most liberal among them particularly came under incessant fire that it could not withstand. It had no option but to finally yield.
The first pressure came from Obasanjo and his presidency. As for the President we have cited above how he used his position in the seventies to reduce the efficacy of Radio Nigeria Kaduna for no other reason than it’s being the vanguard of the cultural and political unity of the North. He has returned today as the president of the federation and along with him was his old habit in his briefcase.
Virtually all his policies are against northerners, particularly the Muslim North. This section of the population understandably felt betrayed by his lopsided appointments in favour of his ethnic group and religion. It was therefore clear from the beginning of his administration that the so-called ‘Hausa-Fulani’ would form his strongest opposition.
The president did receive a deluge of criticism against his policies from the North as expected. The channels used to voice out this opposition were justifiably the foreign channels: Radio Deutch Welle, VOA and BBC. Blocking them thus became a priority of his administration. The person charged with the task was none other than the Minister of Propaganda, Professor Jerry Gana.
We are not at all surprised when Gana found a listening ear in the Americans. Two reasons have contributed to this. One, Obasanjo’s presidency is a project of the Americans; or say, he is their surrogate, as far as their foreign policy on Africa is concerned. Two, the Americans are also aware that northern Muslims are not their best admirers in the world. American administrations are therefore contemptuous of them while the Muslims on their part are suspicious of America. Not the best bedfellows ba?
For this reason the Americans did not find it difficult to welcome Gana and oblige to his complaints. Sunday Dare, the former editor of the ultra-Yoruba nationalist magazine – Tempo – was therefore appointed to head VOA Hausa Service. This was done in spite of the existence of far more qualified northerners, including a PhD in media relations, who have been under the service of the station for the past fifteen years. Trust a man with a mission! Within a short time the Hausa staff knew who their new head was and what was his mission in America. Queries, probations and censorship started flying left right and centre.
The second pressure came from Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the platform for championing ethnic agenda and violence in the North under the name of religion. In addition to the effort of Gana, who is a juggernaut in CAN, that of Alexander Lar also yielded fruits through a senator friend. There have also been several articles of protest published on the Internet and an American newspaper, The Weekly Standard (a patron of Nigerian Standard?). As recently reported by the Daily Trust, these forces accused the Hausa Service of “spreading pro-Muslim, anti-Christian and anti-American propaganda.” The campaign has succeeded as, according to the newspaper, the VOA Director has already assured it that a “very special attention” is now paid to the station.
The problem was compounded with events after September 11, when a flood of sentiments eroded the air-thick layer of whatever admiration and mutual understanding that existed between the Muslim North and America. Many Muslim northerners supported the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. (I was one of them. I wrote an article in this column condemning America and praying therein for the failure of their brutal campaign.) Their Emir called America a bully. The Kano demonstrations and subsequent riots might have impressed on the Americans that Bin Laden has supporters here. Then the campaign on Afghanistan started and innocent civilians were not saved the wrath of American bombers. Nigerian Muslims again condemned the attack. A Muslim cleric, Shehu Dahiru Bauchi granted an interview to a VOA correspondent in which he stated the simple fact that America was bombing innocent lives in Afghanistan. The VOA Director declared the comment as “totally unacceptable”. This earned the Nigerian reporter a prompt suspension.
The report of The Weekly Standard was published on November 12, exactly a month after the September 11 attack, which earlier coincided with the ethnic and religious riots at Jos. Was there a better time for the Christian propaganda to gain America’s acceptance than this period when its president waged a “crusade” against Islam?
The result, as the Daily Trust reported, quoting the American newspaper – was that “all broadcasts from the Hausa section are now being reviewed (or censored, to use the correct term) by both Dare and the regional director, Mr. Relly.” Other measures also taken include the dilution of the staff content of the service with non-Muslims to ensure a religious balance as suggested by the Christian protesters. Already, Mr. Dare is dictating who would be interviewed; the interview must be translated to him; and his permission must be sought before it reaches our ears. What a victory for the Yoruba nationalist!
In the remaining portion of the article I will not delve into the legitimacy or otherwise of the accusations made by our Christian brothers or the steps taken by the American government to censor the station. I must however say that I strongly doubt how VOA Hausa Service staff could use the station to promote Islam. It is something impossible. The news is the same news aired by other services of the VOA including the English service. The editorial is a translation of that in English that is nothing more than American government propaganda, devoid of any objectivity and humanity. Finally, all the programs of the station are secular. The only one relating to Islam is Musulunci a Amurka – Islam in America – that helps to educate Muslim listeners here in Africa that America is accommodating Islam. It only tells us about the proliferation of mosques and centres of Islamic learning in America. This program is in the interest of America, given the state of contempt and suspicion between their government and us.
As for the reports, I thought America should be interested in learning about the minds of other people regarding its policies. The chaps here are doing it a good job, though not to the appreciation of the VOA Director who, with the approval of his government, thinks that he will dictate to any northern Muslim what to say in an interview with his staff. This is a clear manifestation of the stupid state of the American psyche.
As for their partners in the coalition here in Nigeria, I will say that they are simply afraid of the truth. They should not expect to start a campaign of ethnic and religious cleansing and think that Muslim reporters will be afraid of sending the truth to America or wherever. They thought they would file in lies as done here at home by the southern media where whenever there is a clash with Muslims, they are to blame. This fear is clear from the reaction of the Plateau State House of Assembly to reports on the recent riots in Jos and the interviews given to many Christians in the aftermath of the sad events. It is unfortunate that a great like America will be intimidated so cheaply into becoming a partner in propagation of falsehood.
At any rate, America should not be blamed for siding with Christians in this country or with the federal government. It also reserves the right to take whatever measures it deems fit with its station. Should it close it, we must concede that it holds a natural right to its property. The same thing if it would decide to make the whole staff of the station Christian, thereby becoming another Christian Science Monitor or Muryar Bishara. We have been expecting too much, it seems, thinking that America will side with the truth given its claims to freedom of expression and democracy, forgetting that it sides only with its interest.
There is just one thing to remember: that in politics it is the consequences, not the legitimacy, of actions that matter. If the VOA wants to retain our subscription to its station it must champion the cause of truth and freedom as it claims. Antagonising us, even though we do invariably share different worldviews from its proprietors, is not the best way of borrowing our ears. Scientifically speaking let the Director of VOA look at the statistics of the correspondences written to VOA foreign services: the Hausa Service is surpassed only by the Chinese. Let him also sort out which section of the Nigerian population sends those letters to the station. Obviously, they are neither coming from the Yoruba chauvinists nor from the Hausa-speakers among the non-Muslims in the North. They are, by a majority of 98%, sent by the station’s actual listeners: Hausa Muslims.
The issue of conspiracy against Hausa Muslims at VOA has once more brought forth the vulnerability of the North, and northern Muslims in particular, to blackmail from their political opponents. This is possible because we have failed to appreciate the relevance of the press and the importance of allowing it the degree of freedom of expression it requires for healthy growth. It is shameful that we have to rely on foreign stations to know what is happening in our country with thousands of journalists on the payroll of our various state governments. Allowing them a freedom in sycophancy – the only concession the governments are ready to make – is not the answer; it is the problem in fact.
I will suggest that we increase our patronage of other foreign stations that have not shown us any hostility. The more tactical BBC is there, though not without its strategic motives, its broadcasts still remain what it has been for decades; it will remain hopefully so before it would be reached by the champions of ethnic and political crusades. Radio Deutche Welle is also there. Both stations broadcast every morning, afternoon and evening. In addition, there are daily broadcasts from China, Egypt (3 hours daily!) and Iran. Next week I will publish the frequencies and times they are on the air.
Finally, the good thing about the matter is that one hardly misses anything by boycotting VOA. But before you decide to do that, my dear reader, know that anything that reaches you from its Hausa Service is propaganda and packaged by the tripartite coalition of the imperial interests of America, the combined political goals of the federal government and Yoruba Chauvinists, and finally the ethno-religious cause of CAN.
As for me, I have decided to defect from VOA to Christian Science Monitor and Muryar Bishara. If you will eat a frog, I heard them say, look for one that is both fat and juicy. Sorry, the Hausa would say, in za ka sha giya, ka sha ta dubu. Goodbye VOA Hausa Service.