Media, Democratic Governance and Development in Nigeria

Media, Democratic Governance and Development in Nigeria


Dr. Obiora Okonkwo

Being lecture delivered at the 2019 Media Summit of the Anambra State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) on Thursday, September 12, 2019, at the Godwin Ezeemo International Press Centre, Awka.



Nigeria and Democratization: From Transition to Democratic Governance?

This year marks 20 years of Nigeria’s transition to civil rule, following decades of sometimes very autocratic military governments. Naturally, such an important milestone would be cause for celebration. But are Nigerians celebrating? The rather tepid, even apathetic response of many Nigerians to this critical milestone is perhaps a measure of how well we have fared in our democratic journey, especially from the perspective of our citizens who seem to have grown more despondent and distanced from political leaders and governments at all levels.

I guess that’s, what in part, inspired the organizers of this forum to propose this topic with the hope that we can better understand why we are where we are today and what role the mass media can play in fostering people-centred development in our dear country.

As with all academic endeavours, it is necessary to first attempt a definition of key concepts to help bring some clarity to our discussion.

Since I intend to deal with Media later in the presentation, let me start with the concept of democratic governance which presupposes some form of democratization of a polity. Democracy itself is an intensely contested concept which has changed a whole lot since its ancient Greek origins. Mindful of that, I will not bother you with any definitions of democracy here, but only to emphasize that there are over twenty variants of which a quick Google search will amply reveal.  However, for anyone interested in a more rigorous discussion of the subject, I highly recommend David Held’s beautiful and very detailed book: Models of Democracy.

Regardless of the model of democracy preferred by any society, most theorists of democratization view it as a two-step process- the initial Transition phase and the Consolidation phase. The Transition phase, as the name implies marks the change from some form of authoritarian rule to an elected government, even, as it is often the case, the elections that brought about the change are fundamentally flawed. The Consolidation phase which occurs over time, (as the name again suggests) is when the culture, ethos and structures of democracy have taken root in society such the government, is to a great degree, accountable to the people who freely chose them in a transparent electoral process. It must, however, be stressed that the projected change from Transition to Consolidation is not inevitable as there have been situations in various parts of the world where the process stagnated or even relapsed to authoritarianism.

In a 2004 lecture, Larry Diamond, the influential American political theorist at Stanford University, who has written extensively on Nigeria, identified the following as four key elements of Democracy, presumably when it is already consolidated:

  • A system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections

  • Active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life;

  • Protection of the human rights of all citizens; and

  • A rule of law in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

It is when these basic conditions are met that we can begin to talk about a system of democratic governance. 

Further, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the pre-eminent global development agency, squarely locates the protection of the human rights of citizens at the centre of any claim to democratic governance.

For the UNDP, Democracy is defined by human rights through:

  • Holding free and fair elections, which contributes to freedom of expression, thought and conscience;

  • Allowing free and independent media, which contributes to freedom of expression, thought and conscience;

  • Separating powers among branches of government, which helps protect civil and political rights; and

  • Encouraging an open civil society, which facilitates peaceful assembly and association. An open civil society adds an important participatory dimension, along with the separation of powers for the promotion of rights.

In privileging democratic governance over the more popular term good governance, the UNDP recognizes that not all forms of governance are compatible with or aspire to fulfil all human rights as democracy in the ‘majority rule’ sense can, among other things, legitimize the exclusion of minorities. A more inclusive democracy for the UNDP ‘emphasizes the quality of representation through the participation of all groups in democratic life, rather than focusing simply on the holding of elections and on majority rule’. There is also the recognition that good governance can sometimes be reduced to efficiency in public administration which some visionary dictators have delivered on.

So, 20 years since our uninterrupted transition to rule by civilians, has Nigeria’s democracy consolidated? Can we say we are now safely at the stage of democratic governance based on the criteria outlined above? The answer for many of you is likely to be resoundingly negative. While our democracy may not have relapsed or receded to full-blown dictatorship like we had under military rule (at least not yet and we pray never again), it certainly has not consolidated.  At best, it has stagnated at the inception transition phase, running as it were on the same spot.

This is not an indictment on Nigeria or Nigerians. After all, many of the more advanced democracies have been in existence for centuries and they remain work in progress. Truth told, it takes time to imbibe the tenets of democracy and in our own case, 20 years may not be enough given Nigeria’s complexity and our unique experience with decades of military rule.

Sadly, the apparent militarization of our consciousness- both leaders and followers- have made us something of recalcitrant democrats. While we all claim to support democracy, we are all too often unwilling to submit ourselves to its egalitarian values and principles. For instance, we invoke due process and rule of law, so long as it doesn’t apply to us; we criticize cronyism/nepotism in public life, but are often as guilty as those we accuse; we rage against corruption only when we are not the beneficiaries, and we do all we can to game the system to preserve our privileges.

Democracy, to paraphrase the late Prof. Claude Ake can be notoriously inconveniencing. Ask Nigerians and people around the world, they will rather prefer a much quicker system to get things done in public life than the laborious checks and balances that democracy demands. Many will readily point to China as a great example of how quick changes can happen without the shackles of the liberal democratic system of government. Yet, the checks and balances inherent in democracy among other things, help guarantee the rights, freedoms and dignity of the human person and ensures we do not return to the dreaded Hobbesian state of nature where life is poor, nasty, brutish and short. Twenty years since

Twenty years after Nigeria’s return to civilian rule, we cannot continue making excuses for the lack of substantive progress in our democratic development. After all, life’s success story is about overcoming challenges; making it despite all odds. We certainly can do better and must do better, given our immense human capacity and the enormous natural and other resources available to us. This should be our collective task as citizens of this immensely endowed country.

Democratic Governance and Development in Nigeria

Having discussed democratic governance, let me very briefly discuss the concept of development, which like democracy and other key ‘political’ terms are complex, ambiguous and intensely contested.

Development as a concept is used in various, sometimes, opposing ways by various groups. For example, the World Bank’s notion of development can substantially vary with those of other more progressive organizations. In the case of Nigeria, the notion of development espoused by the organized private sector is sometimes at odds with the view of the concept held by organized labour. So, such differences of ideology are key to understanding development and its application.

Without being tied up in specific definitions and schools, development in very simple terms is some form of a process of bringing about social change that makes it possible for people to achieve their human potential.  This process can be primarily political, economic, cultural, environmental, among others. However, increasingly, a more integrated and holistic approach that places the human person at the centre of all development efforts in now favoured. This is reflective of the UNDP democratic governance approach discussed earlier and reflective of what Indian Economist and Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen articulated in his famous book- Development as Freedom.

In pursuit of this, the UNDP developed the annual Human Development Index (HDI) in 1990 ‘to emphasize that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth alone. The HDI can also be used to question national policy choices, asking how two countries with the same level of GNI per capita can end up with different human development outcomes. These contrasts can stimulate debate about government policy priorities. The Human Development Index (HDI) measures three key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and having a decent standard of living with the average as a reflection of a country’s development strides or lack thereof.

While the HDI does not capture such other aspects of human development as inequalities, poverty, human security and empowerment, the Human Development Report Office (HDRO) try to fill that gap.

It was also in pursuance of a more holistic human-centred approach to development that the United Nations in the year 2000 adopted the 8-point Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) geared towards the following goals: to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; to achieve universal primary education; to promote gender equality and empower women; to reduce child mortality; to improve maternal health; to combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases; to ensure environmental sustainability and; to develop a global partnership for development.

In 2015, MDGs were replaced by a more ambitious 17-point framework dubbed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which countries of the world are expected to deliver on by 2030. Among SDG targets are: “no poverty; zero hunger; good health and well-being; quality education; gender equality; clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; industry, innovation and infrastructure; reduced inequality; sustainable cities and communities; responsible consumption and production; climate action; life below water; life on land; peace and justice strong institutions and; partnerships to achieve the goal.

I have deliberately outlined the MDG and SDG frameworks to underscore the fact that so much is happening globally in the area of people-centred development and Nigeria as part of the global community is committed to these frameworks. Like the MDG before it, the SDG is currently being implemented by various government agencies along with a host of NGOs with the support of key development partners including the United Nations.

To what extent are Nigerian journalists keyed into all these and are they aware of the implications of these frameworks for the future of Nigeria? While some of you may be committed to the reportage of these vital frameworks, it’s also quite possible that many of you are either ignorant of or care less about them.

Since our return to civilian rule in 1999, successive governments have introduced with fanfare a variety of development programmes each of them dubbed a game-changer of sorts. These include the 2004 National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) and its projected counterpart programmes at lower levels of government- State Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (SEEDS) and Local Government Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (LEEDS).  NEEDS, a 4-year medium-term plan (2003- 2007) aimed at sustainable growth and poverty alleviation had three core objectives – empowering people and improving social service delivery; fostering economic growth, in particular in the non-oil private sector; and enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of government while improving governance.

Similarly, in 2004, the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo launched SERVICOM to drastically enhance the service delivery of government Ministries, Agencies and Departments as the primary purpose of government is to improve the quality of lives of citizens. SERVICOM was established on the following core principles: affirmation of commitment to the service of the Nigerian nation; a conviction that Nigeria can only realize her full potential if citizens receive prompt and efficient services from the state; consideration for the needs and rights of all Nigerians to enjoy social and economic advancement and dedication to deliver services to which citizens are entitled, timely, fairly, honestly, effectively and transparently.

The question then is what became of NEEDS and other big and small development initiatives that various administrations have adopted since 1999? To what extent were Nigerians sufficiently sensitized about the programmes to elicit their buy-in? How effective have such these programmes been in meeting their vaunted objectives of fostering democratic governance and positively impacting the lives of Nigerians? I will return to these questions in a while.

Today, SERVICOM barely exists; except for some complaint boxes in government offices. But has SERVICOM enhanced the delivery of services in government offices? I expect answers from you because as journalists, you are supposed to be the watchdogs, the guardians of the public space.

After over a decade of civil society advocacy, the government of President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011 enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) which recognizes the right of citizens (regardless of age, class or occupation) to have access to government information in order to hold those in government accountable. The law was to foster transparency in government and help in the fight against corruption. Section 1 of the FOIA empowers a person to request information from a government institution whether he has a reason for requesting such information or not provide such information is not excluded under the Act for a potential threat to national security or may violate someone’s privacy or jeopardize someone’s chances of a fair hearing in a judicial process etc. This right is enforceable in court if the requested information is not provided within 7 days of making the request.

Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act (FOI) which is one of the most liberal of access laws anywhere in the world was hailed as a critical tool the media need to foster transparency in government by holding public officers accountable. Numerous studies have shown that the law is barely used as most journalists barely know of its existence and those who do hardly bother. Perhaps, you guys are busy with more important things. But what can be more important for a professional journalist in a country with endemic leadership challenges like Nigeria than the persistent and informed reportage of critical issues at the heart of governance?

The current government of President Buhari does not seem to have a signature national economic and development programme beyond encouraging more local production of food, particularly rice. This by itself should be a major cause of concern for the media and all of us as good national development policies require long term planning, technical inputs, consultations and engagement of citizens. It is not what you do ad-hoc or on a whim.

However, in an attempt to better coordinate existing social protection programmes in the country, the administration established the National Social Investment Office (NSIO) under the Office of the Vice President to manage the following 4 initiatives: National Home Grown School Feeding Programme, Conditional Cash Transfer to the poorest households through the National Social Safety Net Programme, N-Power a job creation and skills empowerment programme for young Nigerians of 18-35 and GEEP- Enterprise and Empowerment Programme more commonly known as Market or Trade Moni which generated controversy, especially during the last general elections for what critics and election monitors saw as vote-buying.

Obviously, even going beyond our return to civil rule in 1999, Nigeria has not been short on development initiatives many of which were launched with so much fanfare and dubbed transformative. But what became of them? What exactly was their impact? In what ways if any, did they advance Nigeria’s developmental aspirations? What measurable outcomes can we ascribe to each of them? We probably don’t have the answers to these weighty questions, in part because the traditional mass media (newspapers and broadcasting organizations) whose primary responsibility it is to interrogate these programmes and those tasked with implementing them have largely gone AWOL leaving citizens to either be inundated with an endless flow of government propaganda or rely on conspiratorial and sometimes shadowy online blogs for critical news reportage. One thing is clear though, in terms of developmental strides, political leaders of the first and second republics seem to have fared much better than we have done since the return of civilian rule in 1999.

Let me quickly add here that if the traditional mass media abdicates its time-honoured responsibility as the watchdog of the public space, it stands the risk of becoming irrelevant as citizens hungry for critical information look elsewhere for sources to satisfy their news needs. You may not be aware of this, but most Nigerians in their despondency, still look up to the media as the only sector that can help save them from Nigeria’s endemic political failure. As media professionals, this is a trust you should not take for granted. Today, average Nigerians who have completely lost faith in our institutions, including the Police and the courts look up to such radio personalities like Ordinary Ahmed of Human Rights Radio, Abuja for help.

Media, Democratic Governance and Development

Having briefly discussed democratic governance and development, it’s now time to look more closely at the role the mass media can, and should, play in these processes, especially in the context of a young democracy in a complex country like Nigeria.

The media in any democratic setting wield tremendous power, but with that also comes responsibility. It has been long established that with the media’s twin agenda setting and framing capacity, it not only has the power to influence the issues people think about but, even more importantly, how they think about them. Reflect on this for once my friends the enormous power you have. Not even the most powerful President of the richest man on earth wields such power as they still have to rely on you journalists to get their messages out.

How then can the media help advance Nigeria’s development agenda?  Here are a few pointers.

  • Bold and courageous reporting on critically important but contentious issues politicians lack the courage to address. Public officers are not perfect people; like all of us, they are flawed and think primarily about self-preservation. The job of the media is to hold them accountable by keeping their feet to the fire. Let me illustrate this point with the tendency of every incoming government to abandon the policies and projects initiated by its predecessor. This has been identified as a key reason for the very high number of abandoned projects across the country. Without some degree of continuity in policy, there will be little to no development as no government can accomplish much in 4-8 years. For the media to help foster development, it must instil in our politicians the importance of continuity of programmes and policies. Yes, there may be situations where a policy may be fundamentally flawed, in that case, the implications of continuing with it must be seriously weighed against abandoning it all together given the immense resources that have been put into it. In such a situation, it may be necessary to find creative ways of modifying the project rather than abandoning it altogether. But that’s not even the situation in most cases where the policies and projects are jettisoned out of spite and pettiness. Again, most transformational development programmes usually require long term planning. As Linda Lingle admonished- Politicians think about the next election; Statesmen think about the next generation. A key developmental goal of the media is to help transform our politicians into statesmen.

  • The above also brings me to a related issue- our tendency to embark on projects that have little to no impact on the lives of a vast majority of our citizens. These are what we commonly refer to as white elephant projects. Today, many governors are determined to build airports even when they are in very close proximity to other airports. As is sadly the case, no aircraft go to these airports other than the private jets the governor and his rich friends charter. Is this a judicious use of public funds when such money should have been better spent on projects with the capacity to create jobs and transform the economic fortunes of the state? The media should also help address such gross misplacement of priorities so rampant at all levels of government in Nigeria.

  • Need to develop a new mindset and ethos of journalism practice different from the prevailing adversarial culture: Nigerian journalism from colonial times was born and bred on the crucible of struggle and advocacy. From fighting colonial rule to taking a stand against decades of military rule, most non-government owned media establishments, sometimes unconsciously developed an adversarial attitude to government seeing themselves as some form of opposition when no formal or strong one existed. With the continuing failure of the political class to deliver on the dividends of democracy, some of that mindset persists. Nigerians and the media have good reasons to be cynical about the political class. But in a complex country with a young and struggling democracy, it behoves on the media to help provide some direction. This may require sometimes moving from the more adversarial approach to offering constructive criticism and proffering solutions. Yes, the media can be effectively constructive in its reportage without losing its responsibility as a watchdog because once that is lost, the media becomes irrelevant to the citizens. It is not for nothing that virtually all government-owned newspapers in the country have long died leaving only the private ones whose more balanced approach to reporting events resonate with the people. Even in broadcasting, the privately-owned broadcasting entities are doing much better than their government-owned counterparts, especially with viewership. Constructive reporting is reflective of an emerging trend in media called Solution Journalism which as the online dictionary Wikipedia defines as rigorous, evidence-based reporting on the responses to social problems…They identify the root causes of a social problem; prominently highlight a response, or responses, to that problem; present evidence of the impact of that response; and explain how and why the response is working, or not working. When possible, solutions stories also present an insight that helps people better understand how complex systems work, and how they can be improved. Despite our understandable collective frustration and despondency as a result of bad governance, the media have a responsibility to help identify and promote the few good initiatives that may be out there as paragons of governance for others to be replicated. An example of this could be the rice revolution going on in Kebbi state and its partnership with Lagos state on the initiative that gave rise to Lake Rice.

Finally, the media needs to understand that its watchdog role is not synonymous with reckless and biased attacks on people in public office. Democracy takes time to develop and the media have a huge role to play in nurturing this notoriously slow and sometimes frustrating process. Yet, it must remain unwavering in holding public office holders accountable and rigorously questioning the vision and antecedents of those aspiring to public office.

  • Understanding the Global Processes including Training and Retraining- The world is shrinking and becoming more integrated every day as the processes of globalization intensifies. In the early 1960s, the Canadian Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the now-famous phrase the global village. Not many know that he was actually talking the revolutionary capacity of the new satellite technology to transmit real-time events. Fast forward today and see where we are with the internet and all the apps it has spurned. The point here is that increasingly, we are inching towards what international relations experts variously refer to as Supranational, Cosmopolitan or World Governance. MDGs and SDGs discussed earlier fall under this. How knowledgeable are Nigerian journalists to these emergent processes and the frameworks that guide them?

Another example. Since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, global socioeconomic processes have come to be defined by a set of pro-market principles called the Washington Consensus. How well versed are our media professionals in these processes? It stands to reason that you can’t effectively report them if you don’t understand them. And that includes guiding our political class and public officers in the direction the world is moving.

For instance, under the Washington Consensus, which the World Bank, IMF and major economic powers adopted in 1989- 1990, the era of command economies run by governments was effectively over. With this framework, the core responsibility of government shifted to creating the right environment and policies including smart regulations for the private sector to drive economic growth which includes partnering with government in critical areas like infrastructural development in what is generally called Public-Private Partnerships (PPP). It was these initiatives that brought about the drive towards privatization in Nigeria in the early 1990s even if the process was compromised in many respects. The media should help educate our public officers on where the world is heading as we can’t afford to be swimming against the tide.

Understanding these global processes and the current complexity of contemporary development approaches requires constant training and retraining of journalists. For one, many of you don’t have any training in economics and related disciplines. Even those of you who do, require updates from what you learned at the university. In this information age, you need to be very curious about knowledge to succeed. It is that curiosity that will drive you to succeed even when your organization does not prioritize training and retraining. There are so many wonderful materials on the internet on literally every subject, including empirical approaches to monitoring and evaluating projects and governance. How often do you make efforts to update your knowledge on subjects that can enhance your professional capacity? Like everything in life, it depends on how much you want it, how good and influential a journalist you want to be. As the anonymous quote goes: Your attitude is your altitude. It determines how high you fly.

  • The Fight against Corruption– Endemic corruption has often been identified as a major impediment to Nigeria’s development. The scope of it in the polity is sometimes compared to a cancerous tumour which has metastasized and will inevitably kill the patient. A key tool for fighting this scourge and fostering transparency in public life came by way of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) which was enacted in 2011 by the Jonathan administration. The law was celebrated as an opportunity to substantially boost the investigative skills of reporters. Why journalists have abysmally failed to use this law to help address our governance challenges remain a puzzle. Yet we continue to whine about how bad things are. We all need to recognize that there can be no real development in Nigeria with the level of corruption we are mired in. It is simply not sustainable.

  • Sensitivity in Conflict Reportage: Nigeria is undoubtedly a very complex and diverse country; diversity of religion, ethnicity, language, culture, politics and much more all of which have been exacerbated by poor governance. Each of these is a major source of or potential trigger for serious, often violent conflicts as has been the case in various parts of the country. The media must exercise a great deal of restraint in conflict coverage. Words and images have power and media reportage in some case have life and death implication for conflict parties. Conflict sensitivity demands that media be part of the solution and can’t be seen to be stoking a smouldering fire. Conflict sensitive reporting is a fast-growing movement in journalism practice which I encourage every Nigerian journalist to be familiar with. Again, this should be part of the training and retraining efforts discussed earlier as the internet is replete with excellent resources on the subject there are tons of which you can avail yourself of. This should be an integral part of all Mass Communication and Journalism programmes in Nigeria as no development can take place in an environment of conflict. Diversity is not necessarily bad. Nigeria’s diversity can actually be a source of strength. It all depends in part on how the media frame and project such differences.

Any liberal democracy, particularly the presidential representative type we practice is as good as its media and a media system is as good as its journalists. For our democracy to consolidate, we must have a robust media of well trained, courageous and socially conscious journalists who serve as custodians of the democratic public sphere.


In a recent lecture in Enugu on Media and National Integration, I challenged Nigerian journalists to develop new imageries about the immense possibilities of our country and to try to communicate same to Nigerians by crafting new narratives. Every endeavour, including nation-building, first starts in the mind. It starts with having those wonderful dreams about setting off to those beautiful distant shores and then figuring out how to get there. It is first and foremost about belief in the immense possibilities of everything and confronting the challenges as they come; not whining about how nothing can be done. This is the story of all great individuals and countries. President John F. Kennedy had an intense vision to get to the moon. That imaginary, as implausible as it seemed then was driven by the media to the point it became an American obsession. In a few years, that dream became reality

As journalists, you belong to one of the most influential professions in the world despite the severe limitations of the context in which it is practiced in Nigeria. All too often, many of you have become overwhelmed by the system and have thus decided to join the rat race, or ‘go with the flow’. As fishermen will tell you, the only thing that goes with the flow is dead fish which moves with the tide. At the end of the day, your professionalism and integrity are what earn you enduring respectability both among your peers and everyone you encounter in the course of your job. Those who hand out ‘brown envelopes’ to you barely respect you, because for them, you have a price and a cheap one at that.

If I have been sometimes critical in this presentation it is because I appreciate the capacity of the media as transformative change agents in our country and can’t wait to see you seize the initiative because if you do, Nigeria will be fixed. It is as simple as that.

Let me end by hopefully inspiring you with two quotes that underscore your immense influence as journalists. According to Shannon Alder, ‘If you were born with the ability to change someone’s perspective or emotions, never waste that gift. It is one of the most powerful gifts God can give—the ability to influence.’ As journalists, you certainly have that gift as well as the platform to use it to change our country for the better.

Finally, our late brother and compatriot, the supremely talented novelist Obi B. Egbuna, from Ozubulu (just a few kilometres from Onitsha) once wrote: the role of a writer (journalist) is to wake people up from sleep. You cannot do that if you’re sleepwalking yourself’.

As journalists, you have an enormous responsibility to help change the course of governance and development in Nigeria and we can’t wait to see you embrace that responsibility. The future beckons!

Thank you!


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