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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The New Press in the North

The New Press In The North

This piece is an expression of support to the noble effort behind the establishment of This Era, Zamani and Daily Trust. I had wanted it to appear last week. Unfortunately it could not. The founders of the newspapers have done a great job for the entire region and the country in general.
While extending my good will message to them, I would like to cease this opportunity to discuss about the press as it relates to the North. I would wish to concentrate give some piece of advice to the Editors of Newspapers after dwelling a bit on history. At the end, my emphasis is that the success of our young newspapers would largely remain our collective responsibility.

We came to know about the press through the West. Our ancestors largely relied on patake, trans-Saharan merchants, to learn about news from distant lands. That was slow because it depended on the physical movement of the person. Occasionally emissaries were sent to deliver letters and news regarding security from one ruler to another, and that was largely in connection with security. Later, during the Sokoto Caliphate, a better means of information dissemination was introduced through pamphlets that were quickly copied and circulated as quick as possible; through poems that are quickly written, circulated and memorized by many including housewives. But the concern of the pamphlets, numerous as they were, and the poems, nice as they sounded, was largely educational and meant to specifically address social ills. The two other functions of the media – informing and entertaining - were largely left out.
The rest of the Muslim world also had a late start in the media as reviewed in The Muslim Discovery of Europe by Professor Bernard Lewis. The first news gazettes in the Muslim world were Courier de L’Egypt and La Decade d’Egypte published in 1798 and 1800 respectively. The first Arabic newsletter, which lasted briefly, Al-Tanbih of Abdullah Menou, came out on 16th June 1800. A regular official gazette was first published on 12th November 1828 in Egypt under Muhammad Pasha with an Ottoman equivalent in 1832.
Egypt had the ‘advantage’ of earlier contact with Western civilization. While Napoleon Bonaparte was invading Egypt in 1798, Shehu Danfodio was yet to finish his conquest of Hausaland. The North was not to engage in printing Newspapers until about 140 yrs after the first publication of Al-Tanbih.
Sixty years later after the debut of the press in the North however, the position of the region in the media sector has remained pathetically poor. It is far from being enviable. Last week I learnt that over eighty percent of our national dailies are published within a circle of not more than 20km radius. The North that can boast of hundreds of thousand square kilometers cannot boast of a single newspaper with a circulation as wide as the majority of the Lagos-based newspapers.

The reasons behind this are not far-fetched. Different reviewers have discussed it on different occasions. They have largely concentrated on issues like adverts, funding and readership. Without underestimating the magnitude of such factors, which I will briefly touch later, I would, nevertheless, like to say that perception, more than any other thing, has contributed to the poor state of our press. I do not think we have been quick in perceiving the relevance of the media, just as we have been slow in accepting the relevance of Western education and any other thing introduced to us through government.
We seem to underestimate the relevance of the media. Unlike other parts of the Muslim world, we have not been dynamic in capturing the significance of the press and other issues. On the contrary, when an Egyptian scholar, Sheikh Rifa’a visited Paris in 1826, he was quick to alert his people on the power of the press as reported by Professor Lewis. Readers may find the quotation long, but 174 years later, I can hardly find a better reference on the importance of the press. Rifa’a wrote:
“Men learn about what goes on in the minds of others from certain daily sheets called Journal and Gazette. From these, a man may learn of new events which occur both inside and outside the country. Though he may find in them more lies than can be counted, nevertheless they contain news by which men can acquire knowledge; they discuss newly examined scientific questions or interesting announcements or useful advice, whether coming from the great or the humble – for sometimes the humble have ideas which do not occur to the great…
“Among the advantages of these sheets are: if a man does anything good or evil and it is important, the people of the Journal write about it so that it may win approbation for men of good deeds and condemnation for men of evil deeds. Likewise, if a man is wronged by another, he writes of his grievance in these sheets, and everyone, the great and the common people, become aware of it and know the story of the oppressed and his oppressor, exactly as it happened, withholding or changing nothing, so that the affair reaches the place of justice and is judged according to fixed laws, so that this may be a warning and an example to others.”
We started by depending on the effort of government. The Northern region tried by establishing Gaskiya Ta Fi Kobo, the Nigerian Citizen (which later metamorhosized into New Nigerian), Redio Nigeria Kaduna and so on. There have been some individual efforts particularly from the opposition. Unfortunately, these powerful newspapers could not withstand the test of time. As part of our sacrifice towards the realization of the military dream of a unified Nigeria, the New Nigerian and other bodies established for the North were taken over by the Federal Government under the leadership of General Murtala Mohammed. Obasanjo later insisted on reducing the transmission power of Radio Nigeria Kaduna.
Political imperatives and in many cases, sheer expedience, gave rise to a proliferation of newspapers and radio houses in the Second Republic. A principal defect of most of the publications was government sponsorship. They were founded and maintained by government. Even the few private ones, like the Democrat, could not survive long after the demise of the Republic. It slumped back into the coffin when it attempted to return in 1986 or 1987 (I cannot remember exactly). The Reporter and Citizen also suffered the same fate. So if a Northern newspaper was not founded by government, it was certainly based on a personal interest of its founder which was as temporary as it was shallow and near. Forget about the New Nigerian. It is long become a ‘national’ newspaper.
In contrast, Southern media hardly crash in the same way. They have proved to be more resilient and their proprietors, knowing fully the significance of the media, continued to invest in newspapers and magazines. At its peak, the National Concord was ambitious enough to establish community-based newspaper called Community Concord throughout the country.
Journalists in the South that part ways with their masters are always establishing new newspapers and magazines. The Newswatch for example was an offshoot of Concord in the early eighties just as the National Interest is today an offshoot of Thisday, and the Comet of the Guardian. Their journalists have maintained what they have established, the difficulties not withstanding. As for us in the North, except for the exemplary effort of people like the Hassan Sani Kontagora, the founder of Hotline, we have long been waiting for government do it for us. If it does not, we do not give a hoot. Now we have realized that we are wrong.

The situation is however changing, as part of the reawakening that followed the political misadventures of the North in the last decade. We have now realized, more than ever before, that without a press, we cannot maintain our political rights. For example, even our intellectuals were brainwashed into believing that our leaders were inordinately corrupt. We can hardly forget their campaign of calumny that led to the 1966 coup; their exaggerations of the corruption in the Second Republic that led to the Military coup of 1983; the political misinformation, threats of secession and the shameless trade in lies and twisting of facts. In the absence of any voice that represents the North in the media, the region caved in.
The situation is now changing for the better. We have all realized that we need newspapers that can articulate northern views and pursue its interest with all the vigor it deserves, without necessarily being unfair or apologetic to anyone or equally indulging in lies, blackmail and so on.
It is interesting that we are not wasting much time by depending on government to do it for us. Individuals, different from those motivated by personal political or economic interests are taking up the challenge. They are humble academicians who have a deep feeling for the future of this country, not in the sense of sacrificing their regional interests, but through articulating them for the benefit of mutual understanding. This time, they will succeed. Nothing spoils the work of a servant like bad intention. Once personal interest is put before the collective, or things are done not for the cause of justice and fairness, failure becomes inevitable.

The pace
Without blowing our trumpet too much - I think a bit of it can be forgiven – Malam Kabiru Yusuf, a former colleague that founded the Weekly Trust has set the pace. As a former academician, he thought of how best to utilize his talent outside the ‘ivory tower.’ With the assistance of about nineteen financial contributors, he started the weekly that has become our voice. He has maintained the fairness and balance required of a Northerner. He fought against the innervating tendency of sitting on the fence that is common to post-1966 Northern newspapers. He has allowed us, and myself in particular, to express our views on national matters without ever editing a single word. This is great. The unimagined acceptance the paper enjoyed in all parts of Northern Nigeria is a testimony that Northerners are still interested in reading once they are assured that the truth will be reported as accurate as possible. If you want to win the heart and respect of the average Northerner, tell him the truth, as much as you can. The fact that Weekly Trust has insisted on reporting only the truth has endeared it to us. It is our darling. The acceptability it enjoys testifies to our gratitude and love.
Malam Kabiru Yusuf has started a daily, last Monday, leaving the weekly in the able hands of another colleague at Sokoto, Mal. Isyaku Dikko. The demands of a daily, as he has always told me, are many whether on the side of the publishers or on the side of readers and contributors. Here, our commitment will be put to test. Would our laziness and nonchalance force us back into the blackhole that has consumed earlier newspapers or are we ready to prove the world wrong? I pray that we have learnt our lessons.
Another magnificent effort is that of Mal. Mande Faru, in founding This Era and Zamani Newspapers. I know Mande very well as he was also together with us lecturing at the University of Sokoto. I was not surprised at the fantastic work he did as the Editor of the Hotline magazine. I do not doubt that he will display another brilliant performance with the new magazines. With the precedence set by Kabiru and the experience he gathered while working under the indomitable Magajin Rafin Kontagora, Mande has all the tools required for success at his disposal. Once he is able to report the truth as accurate as possible, he will find that our hearts are large enough to accommodate more than one darling. Monogamy is not our culture. I am glad at the support given him last Saturday when we gathered at Arewa House for the formal launching of the Newspapers.
That is what we want. People who will take the bold initiative of standing up and doing what the situation demands. Shifting blame to elders will not take us anywhere. We have to behave like Tarafah, ibnul’ ‘ishrin, the pre-Islamic Era young Arabian poet. Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, was once asked in his final orals at Dar al-Ulum of the poets of that era. He said he is most fascinated with Tarafah because of the verse in which he said: “If the invaders say who is the courageous youth among you, I feel I was referred to. (I would stand up) without feeling lazy or wasting time.” It was not surprising that modern Egypt has never produced any youth like him. That is the youth needed by the North today.

Our part
They have taken the risk and the challenge. Their noble intentions not withstanding, they need our support to survive long enough to attain their goals. We are not blind to the fact that they will be operating in a ‘dry’ environment. As such, any advert given to them will go a long way to settle their enormous financial needs. Subscription of individuals and offices of government and private sectors will be most welcome.
Individuals have a lot to contribute. Alhamdu lillah, the readership is gradually regained after it was lost for over 15 yrs. The average northern elite might not afford a daily patronage, but he can definitely continue to patronize the weeklies. More commitment is required from intellectuals in form of written contributions. They sit down daily with friends to express their strong views on national matters. I see no reason why they should not endeavor to maintain regular postings of such views in these newspapers. Little as they may appear to them, contributors will be surprised at the interest and debate their contributions will generate.
Finally, I would like to advise that the Editors of these newspapers should intensify effort in their search for talents that will articulate views of interest to the nation and the region. We are also reminding them to cease the opportunity which modern communication technology presents in cutting costs and enhanced efficiency. Adverts do not come easily. You have to fish them out, sometimes beg them. They must abide by the principles of journalism for which Northerners are known: transparency of ideas, honesty and fairness. No sitting on the fence.

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