Ajantala and the angels on life support – By Dare Babarinsa 

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*Photo: Babarinsa*

So, The Guardian is 40. In 1983, when it debuted, it staked its claim to the highest echelon of the Nigerian press. It announced itself as The Flagship of the Nigerian Press, even before the first copy rolled out of the press. It was a venture of breathtaking audacity.

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The newspaper came into a field dominated at that time by the likes of the Daily Times, New Nigerian, Observer, Chronicle, National Concord, the Tribune and The Punch. Yesterday, at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Lagos, the 40th anniversary lecture was delivered by one of Africa’s most credible modern builders, Dr Akinwunmi Adesina, the President of the African Development Bank (ADB).

When it is necessary, The Guardian can still pack a powerful punch. Adesina spoke on the topic,‘For the World to Respect Africa…’

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One thing that is clear: the press has seen both good and bad times. The current epoch is one of the bad times if the truth be told. Readership is low. Circulation is down. Training and capacity are ebbing. The influence and power of the press is under siege. The child of the woodcutter is worrying because he has no toothpick.

Yet, there was a time when the Nigerian press ruled Africa. From Rutam House in Lagos, the famed headquarters of The Guardian, Yemi Ogunbiyi, sometimes, joined by his publisher, the indefatigable Alex Ibru, ventured round the world to interview statesmen and towering figures of the 20th Century, including the likes of Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Muamar Ghaddafi of Libya. It was the era of limitless ambition, great dreams and ever-expanding capacity.

The Guardian was home to journalism greats. No reporter who ever passed through crucible of The Guardian would remain the same again. He would have been forged in the furnace and purified by fire. There were many keepers of the flame. There was the cerebral stylist, Stanley Macebuh, Lade Bonuola, the painstaking architect with words and Femi Kusa, the monk of the newsroom, who insisted that words must be sent into battle in definite order.

Every graduate of Mass Communication from the University of Lagos, wanted to work for The Guardian. Our teacher, the incomparable Professor Olatunji Dare, was the chairman of the Editorial Board. Many of our colleagues including, Tunde Olofintila, Niyi Obaremi, Eluem Emeka Izeze, Debo Adesina, Martins Oloja and Wole Agunbiade eventually found their way into the sanctum.

They were forever changed. Then, the military came.

It is tempting to assume that the decline in the circulation figures of Nigerian newspapers is due mainly to the advent of the military and the social media. Afterall, this is also the pattern in many parts of the world. Circulation is down and advert revenue has declined substantially. In the United States, the Playboy Magazine that used to be the king of sleezy; has been overtaken by cheaper offers on the Internet. But the Nigerian case needs closer study so that we know where the shoe is pinching us.

We know that despite the advent of the Internet Age, newspaper circulation, though not rising greatly, has held steadily in many countries. In Japan, with 127 million people and Internet penetration of almost 100 per cent, the newspapers have held steadily to their circulation figures.

The Yomiuri Shimbun, with a daily circulation of 9.1 million copies, is the largest daily newspaper in the world. Its rival, the Asahi Shimbun, has a circulation of 6.6 million.  In the United States, the USA Today still circulates N4.1 million. In India, the Dainis Bhaskar, a Hind India daily, has a print run of 3.9 million copies. In China, the CankaoXiaoxi has a daily circulation of 3.1 million while the Bild in Germany has a daily circulation of 2.3 million.

Coming nearer home in our continent where we were once the king, the newspapers are still alive and well in other countries. In South Africa, the Sunday Times, has a print run of 370,000 copies, while the Rapport, the leading Afrikaans newspaper, has a circulation figure of 193,000.

In Egypt, Al-Ahram, the country leading Arabic and English language newspaper, has a daily circulation of one million copies. It circulates 1.2 million copies on Fridays. Al-Ahram, founded in 1876, is the second oldest newspaper in Egypt and has remained consistently influential despite the weighty presence of government.  The Daily Nation of Kenya still circulates 170,000 copies daily despite the troubling economic circumstances.

The Yedioth Ahronoth, the leading Hebrew newspaper in Israel, has a daily circulation of 300,000 and during weekends, it may print up to 600,000 copies. Israel now has a population of about 10 million with only 7 million Jews. It has a literacy rate and Internet penetration of almost 100 percent.

Yet almost every household in Israel has access to a daily newspaper. Israeli youths have not been overtaken by the romance of ignorance and salacious rumour that are ensnaring the youths of Nigeria with their mobile phones.

Nigerian media managers need to thoroughly examine the industry to determine what are those things shackling the press. We need to find out what has happened to us. When Alhaji Babatunde Jose was removed as the Managing Director of the Daily Times Group in 1975, the group was the most powerful media house in Africa. Jose was not removed by the shareholders of the Daily Times, but by the new military regime of General Murtala Muhammed who felt a private company was too powerful to be left alone.

It was a capricious decision and all attempts to control the damage have failed. Newspapers like The Guardian and others tried to fill the vacuum. Events and circumstances have conspired to ensure that our industry decline since that singular action.

There are many factors, but I am going to mention only few that has seriously affected readership. The Federal Government invested heavily in the manufacturing of newsprints and set up giant factories at Oku Iboku in Akwa Ibom State and Iwopin in Ogun State. Yet up till today, no paper has been produced, no sanctions on those who wasted public fund, no updates from succeeding regimes on the states of these multi-million-dollar investments in the jungle. To those who control the Federal Government, it is as if Iwopin and Oku-Iboku never exist.

We have travelled a long distance. In 1960, all Nigerian governments agreed that access to newspapers and magazines were essential for the health of the republic. In the old Western Region, all secondary schools have libraries that must have supply of daily newspapers.

Magazines like Aworerin and other publications, were distributed by bicycle and motorcycle agents to primary schools across the entire region which has now been balkanised into Oyo, Osun, Ogun, Ekiti, Ondo, and Lagos states.

Every public servant, from level 8 and above, was entitled to at least one newspaper of his choice every day. The newspapers became part of the daily fare in almost every home where you find a member of the middle-class.

In our school, Ife Anglican Grammar School, Ile-Ife, we had access to most Nigerian newspapers and magazines including Drum, Trust, Sadness and Joy, Spear, Atoka, Reader’s Digest, Time and Newsweek.
Then, the military came.

In 1984, the military returned and cancelled the privilege of junior officers having access to newspapers and magazines. Only the big guns now have access. Denial of access to the written words became part of the instrument of power. The military love power, especially the power to deny others the power of access to information.

So, we elected our rulers, starting from 1999. The democratically elected leaders realised that keeping the public ignorant makes them feel safe. They would not restore the old regime where public servants have a right to access newspapers and magazines. They love the sound of silence.

The private sector, including banks, insurance companies and hotels, followed suit. Yet the press is an institution of national power, national prestige and national purpose. What would have been the fate of the Palestinians if there is no Aljazeera in a world dominated by the Jewish press?

It is good that many Nigerian newspapers are struggling to find their voices. The press is the Guardian Angel of Democracy.  No true democracy can survive without a virile press.

We celebrate the coming of age of The Guardian. For 40 years, it has become a dominant presence in the Nigerian media space. It came like Ajantala, the full-grown child-prodigy, in one of Daniel Fagunwa’s most enthralling stories.

Now The Guardian needs to help us resolve the logjam of why the Nigerian press is still on life support 40 years after the flagship set sail. I wish The Guardian a greater tomorrow.

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