Whenever Nigerian politicians resort to thuggery, blackmail and vote-buying in elections in Nigeria, journalists usually write about and criticise them to no end.
In recent times however, political activity within a member of the very Fourth Estate of the Realm – the Nigeria Union of Journalists, (NUJ) indicate that the journalists who supposedly set the agenda, influence public opinion and policies, are no different from their politician counterparts.
On Saturday, December 4, 2021, the Abuja chapter of the NUJ held its election. The day before the elections proper – the manifesto night – chairman of the credentials screening committee revealed that he had been threatened by certain individuals.
“They told me that if I did not include their names as having passed through the screening process, they assured me my wife and child would come to serious harm,” the credentials screening committee chairman said.
In an interview with Alltimepost.com, he related that one of the aspirants who did not meet the deadline for the purchase of forms almost held him to ransom, insisting that his name must be included on the list of aspirants.
But the credentials screening committee chairman is not the only one who had been threatened over the NUJ Abuja elections. When it was his turn to tell his colleagues his agenda if re-elected, Emmanuel Ogbeche, chairman of the Abuja NUJ said:
“In the past couple of days before the election to take place tomorrow, I have had to endure a series of harassment and blackmail from all kinds of interested parties. As I speak to you now, I just left the offices of the Department of State Security, DSS. I was invited to make statements over certain frivolous petitions that were written against me.”
After he was returned as chairman for another term, Ogbeche’s allies issued a strong warning to the DSS and allied security and interest groups to hands off the NUJ and focus on urgent security issues in Nigeria.
But it is not only in Abuja that journalists have been petty like the politicians they lampoon. December 17, 2021, the Edo State NUJ elections will hold. It is largely among three parties, namely Festus Alenkhe of Edo Broadcasting Service (EBS), Titus Akhigbe of the Daily Times, and the ‘Edo State government.’
Akhigbe is current secretary of the Edo State NUJ who vies to succeed Roland Osakue as chairman. In the election that brought in Roland Osakue as chairman for the second time, high-stake tribal and primordial interests were said to have been deployed.
Our investigation indicated that three years ago when Alenkhe vied to be chairman of Edo NUJ, the state government ‘worked’ against him because he did not appear to be an establishment man.
The government allegedly put pressure on him to step down and make way for Osakue. Alenkhe was said to have refused and was immediately redeployed from his desk at the EBS to an obscure beat. That same scenario is playing out today, but allegedly in favour of Alenkhe. Osarodion Ogie, secretary to Edo State government; Andrew Emwanta, commissioner for communications and orientation, and Crusoe Osagie, special adviser, media projects to Governor Obaseki, are alleged arrow heads of Edo government’s plan to install Alenkhe as Edo State NUJ chairman.
Sources told us that civil servants who are perceived to be supporting Akhigbe are being threatened and transferred from one office to the other.
Our source cited the case of a strong Akhigbe supporter, Ijeoma Umeh of the Nigerian Observer, who was redeployed to the Infrastructure Ministry because of her support for the opponent of the preferred government’s candidate.
“All members of staff at the information ministry and the Edo Broadcasting Service are under government instruction to vote for Festus Alenkhe,” our source said.
As things stand today though, supporters of both camps are ready for blood. If you are neutral, and/or are friendly with anyone on either camp, you are seen as a saboteur. Already, the terrain is charged up between those in Team Alenkhe and Team Akhigbe.
The two camps have been threatening each other, and have been known to have boasted to ‘break bottle’ if confronted. The background for this kind of behavior was laid in previous elections, where thugs and miscreants stormed the Edo NUJ secretariat and unleashed the sort of mayhem only known among fierce political thugs and juggernauts. Blood was spilt and eternal battle lines were drawn amongst colleagues.
Roy Osariemen, a social media commentator, said in a post on Facebook that there are prevailing cases of the intimidation and harassment of journalists who are from ‘non-government-owned’ media outfits. “Known media personalities have been deregistered from the delegates list,” he alleged.
But it is not only politicians, government officials, traditional rulers and captains of industries that are getting involved in NUJ elections. The Judiciary seems an interested party as well. Court documents at our disposal reveal that after the March 2019 NUJ elections in Ogun State conducted by its National Working Committee, (NWC) aggrieved parties contested the outcome of the election that brought in Soji Amosu as chairman.
After the contest in court, the NUJ Ogun State won, but the NWC, led by Chris Isizugo, nullified the Ogun State NUJ election. Eventually, those already sworn in as Ogun State Exco of the NUJ again challenged the decision of the NWC in court. We learnt that there was intense pressure from the NWC on the Ogun NUJ not to go ahead with the matter in court or risk sanctions. But the Chapter went ahead anyways.
The court, in interpreting extant sections of the NUJ constitution relating to conduct of elections, nullified the decision of the NWC and upheld the election of Amosu as duly-elected Ogun State NUJ Chairman. This was on February 24, 2021.
That set the tone for the war between Isizugo and the Ogun Chapter of the NUJ. At the national delegates’ conference in Asaba in April 2021, the NWC excluded Ogun State NUJ delegates from taking part in the conference.
Again in August 2021, at the NWC extraordinary meeting preparatory to the NUJ national election slated for October 2021, the Ogun State chapter of the NUJ was shut out of the proceedings.
Based on this, the Ogun State NUJ dragged the NWC to court in August, 2021. They prayed the court to stop all proceedings leading to the NUJ national elections. The court granted their plea and ordered the NWC to hold all arrangements leading to the elections in October 2021.
The NWC appealed to the Ogun NUJ to withdraw their case, promising to readmit them as delegates. Ogun NUJ withdrew based on this plea but didn’t get the recognition from the NWC as delegates for the coming election. Ogun ran back to court to reinstitute their case against the NWC. It got judgment against the NWC, with the court ordering it to halt the coming elections slated for October 26, 2021 in Abia State pending the determination of the matter.
An interesting twist in this case emerged. It was just one phone call. On the same day that the Ogun NUJ got judgment against the NWC, an official of the National Industrial Court put a call across to counsel to the applicants, Deji Eninseyin. The official ordered Eninseyin to make himself available at the court in Abuja October, 4 2021. On October 6, 2021 when the matter relating to the judgment she gave in favour of the Ogun NUJ September 30 came up, Justice Opeloye Ogunbowale told Eninseyin that she had received instructions from the President of the National Industrial Court, Justice Benedict Kanyip, to ‘vacate’ or cancel her own judgment.
Documents we cited indicate that Eninseyin was chided by Justice Opeloye Ogunbowale for alleged ‘abuse of court processes and forum-shopping, and asked to explain why he should not be recommended to a disciplinary committee for sanctioning.’ The Judge then went ahead to vacate her own judgment, and the rest appears to be history. The elections at the National body of the NUJ held as scheduled and the outcome was that Chris Isiguzo was re-elected.
Insiders allege that Isiguzo had boasted that that judgment would be vacated in favor of the NWC whenever the court would sit, and it did.
During the October 6 sitting, counsel for the NWC was said to have sat mum – he did not say a word, and did not announce an appearance as is the usual practice for counsel before a judge. All the fire and fury directed at counsel for the applicants were from Justice Opeloye Ogunbowale. Questions that arise from the above indicate the following: why was it the judge firing all the questions at counsel for the applicants instead of counsel to the NWC? Was it proper for the President of the National Industrial Court to call the Judge and compel the Judge to act in a certain manner?
The official who allegedly made the call to counsel representing the Ogun NUJ on behalf of the presiding Judge in the matter declined to tell us the reason for the curious call. “The matter was not heard in Abuja in the first instance. The Judge heard it in Lagos before she was transferred to Abuja,” he said.
Why did the NWC of the NUJ cancel the Ogun election in the first instance? Isiguzo, current NUJ National president, also declined to make any comments about the matter when we called him. “I cannot talk about that election. It has gone through different levels of litigation. If you browse through the internet you can get all the info about this matter,” Chief Chris Isizugo told us.
President Aigbokhan is a lawyer of many years. He told us that most lawyers who do not announce their presence in court on behalf of their clients may do so for many reasons.
“He may not have been paid by his client, and so why should he announce his presence on behalf of such a client? Another reason is that he does so on purpose so as to give the judge an opportunity to grill and punish his opponent,” Aigbokhan said.
Keen watchers say that part of the reason why elections in the NUJ appear a do-or-die is the monies involved. First, the Edo case. There are allegations that outgoing officials of the Edo NUJ have used their positions to increase the sizes of their pockets instead of focusing on welfare of journalists in the state.
“One of them whose salary has not been paid for months at his work place just bought a jeep worth ₦3million. This stealing game and working for self must stop,” a senior journalist in Edo state insisted.
Some NUJ officials are said to wield heavy influence among the political elite and this can translate to handsome financial gains. In 2017 in Edo State, matters turned bloody after a journalist was attacked with machetes over a ‘parting gift’ of ₦5million from former governor. Apart from the physical wounds that incident inflicted on the journalism profession in Edo State, the ethical, psychological blows, harm and tension it generated have not healed.
What makes matter a bit awkward with NUJ election is not in the interference of outsiders but the open support journalists themselves give to interference from government officials.
Some believe it is a mechanism to even score, or pay back for past injustices. Friday Osagie Otabor, a reporter with The Nation newspaper, is one such who supports government interference in NUJ elections. According to his Facebook interjection of December 12, 2021, there has been a history of ‘outside interference’, which others benefitted from.
On December 3, 2021, Business Hallmark newspaper carried a report titled “Brown envelope journalists ruining media in Nigeria – U.S. Ambassador.” According to the report, US Ambassador, Mary Beth Leonard, said during a town hall meeting with the Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE in Lagos, that “too often, Nigerian elections are personality-based and lose focus on critical issues such as unemployment, inflation, and lack of health care…brown envelope journalism undermines the public’s trust in the media, erodes journalistic integrity, and defeats the media’s ability to play a transparent oversight role over government actions.”