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For a country brimming with diverse forms of violence informed by extremism of one type or the other, (resource nationalism insurgency, jihadist insurgency, armed banditry, kidnapping and the rest), it was the ‘NGO Paradigm’ at its best for Search for Common Ground, Northeast Regional Initiative, (NERI) and the United States Agency for International Development, (USAID) to seek to produce a critical mass of journalists who can penetrate the complex nexus between the media, conflict and Nigeria’s future. As Lena Slachmuijlder, the programme facilitator, was heard saying along the line, there is no greater impediment to progress in human development than poor management of conflict in any society, a process in which the primacy of journalists has no equal anymore. If conflict management is what makes or unmakes a country and a critical mass of journalists is what makes or unmakes conflict management, then it makes sense to take the collective agency of journalists seriously.
It ought to be recognised that something very positive has been inaugurated in that direction at this programme which can, in academic terms, be equated roughly to a Masters Degree in Conflict Reporting, all things considered. Between 8 O’clock in the morning and 5 O’clock in the evening for three days, the sessions went on, packing and unpacking concepts and practices through lecturing method, ‘active learning’ sessions and group works. There were no easy answers anywhere as the very senior journalists from government owned media, private media establishments and social media platforms contested, confessed as well as fought on thorny areas in the practice of journalism in the recent past while eyeing the future. They lived up to the billing of Nigeria as that country that nobody can claim to understand in the sense in which Bill Clinton used that phrase during General Abacha’s reign. The then US president said they just couldn’t understand Nigeria.
Reconnecting Nigeria as a Task
The country whose break-up is the staple of everyday narratives is also the country whose most active journalistic collective privileged the elimination of near total ignorance of each other by the ethno-regional components as a major impediment against improved reporting of conflicts. That cannot be taken lightly because of the confessions that followed. Someone whose education and experience places comfortably in the middle class is still constrained from ever travelling to Maiduguri because the mother says he should not attempt that. Meanwhile, the mother who is the source of the ‘directive’ has never been anywhere near the North. In fact, the fellow in question is still the only one from the family to have been to the North and the farthest he has gone in the North is Abuja. It was seeing very normal human beings from Maiduguri at this training session that shocked him into a countervailing, more positive narrative of Maiduguri.
Another testimony came from the participant who grew up into the orientation that the Hausas are such a horrible set of human beings; they would put you in a sack and run away. Then she got involved in gender politics and started going up North. Her encounters challenged the narrative of the North she grew up with. She encountered a different human agency of the Northerner. The trips became life-changing for her in terms of perception.
There were more such stories as in the case of yet another lady, this time from the North who, each time she travelled down south, was always confronted with the question: which part of Hausa are you? I am not Hausa, I am Kanuri, she would reply but only to get her interrogators more confused because they have grown up with the idea of the North as a place where everyone is Hausa and Muslims. Someone also told the story of when they had a programme somewhere down south and the response of the environment was: we don’t need this type of programme here, take it to the Northeast because that’s where they had violent extremism. The speaker tried to educate those behind the reactions the fact that there is thuggery in Ibadan, ‘Badoo’ in Lagos, etc and that they all take origin from variants of extremism.
So, the huge gulf of ignorance and fear of each other is part of the problem. It is not clear what the one sidedness of the repertoire of regional ignorance and fear of each other points to regarding which region is more ignorant of the other. What came out clearly is how ancient notions of Otherness mixed with colonially created narratives from colonial ethnic profiling, how all of those became powerful constructs in the hands of politicians who have recycled them in the media ever since independence. One outcome of that is the territorialisation of violent extremism. That refers to the tendency to think of certain conflicts as natural to certain places. Resource nationalism is something that Niger Deltans employ insurgency to pursue; Islamicist insurgency is a Borno/Northeast affair. It is the sort of thing the country could pay dearly for in the era in which re-territorialisation is a key feature. Nothing is specific to anywhere in today’s world and this is a major theme that has not caught on in Nigeria’s conflict management circles yet.
The Big Question for the Media
The leading question it raised was: how do Nigerians who have rarely interacted with each other on a mass scale come to acquire the Otherising notions exemplified above? They came through narratives which the media has, in contemporary times, been the strongest conveyor belt. It was thus important to pose the question as to whether journalists are in the mood to help Nigeria and Nigerians to ‘refuse to be enemies’. The response was a massive yes with no dissention. How is that to be accomplished? Either based on accumulated wisdom or the much of dosages of Peace Journalism, (PJ) that had been injected, the response again was: by changing the narrative. But what is a narrative? Here, a clarity hitch could be observed in that what came out from the individual answers clearly took the idea of a narrative as a story on the face value. It was thus life-changing experiences that were passed off in conceptualising narrative, not the deeper meaning of the word ‘story’ as a truth claim or a perspective and which determines how an individual sees his or her place in the world, who is a liberator, who is victim; who is a friend and who is an enemy and paves the way for one’s sense of destiny. The caution was that conceptual clumsiness could have implications for the journalistic peace practice of transforming violent extremism by changing the narrative from oppositional calculus to win-win outcome.
Someone asked how win-win outcome might look like between Nigeria and Boko Haram, for instance. Does it mean that Nigeria will concede to part with a portion of its territory to Boko Haram? No, came the answer. Win-win does not mean compromise and accommodation that grants every demand. Rather, it is about shifting the framing of the conflict in such a way that that allows conflict parties to understand their differences and identify shared interests and underlying needs.. Peace, not the ‘enemy’ is what is at stake in empathy and every other peace practice informed by PJ. The idea is that all wars do end, the winner/loser binary is always an invitation to another cycle of violence and everyone wants to move away forward. In this context, the fine line to work in highly polarising conflicts is a question of the frame journalists choose and by which they give voice or reveal causal factors. For this reason, PJ rejects the single story syndrome, (SSS), meaning that a PJ minded editor or reporter will not cast a headline which says one conflict party is winning. That would not be accepted as a peaceful framing of a conflict worthy of the journalist as an enabler rather than a watchdog, a communicator rather than a commentator and an observer rather than an independent as well as interdependent actor. In all cases, Peace Journalism insists against oversimplification that comes about when journalists represent a conflict in terms of black and white. Conflicts are rarely between two parties but many, many parties, many of the parties fuelling the violence from behind the scene.
PJ seeks to rescue journalism from positivist entrapment and its objectivity credo, partly because objectivity itself doesn’t exist and partly because objectivity is unjust. Objectivity could enable a journalist write about a fight between one weak, famished fellow and one hefty, strong guy as a fight between persons when in truth, it was a fight between two unequal parties. This was Christiane Amanpour’s defence against attacks of lack of objectivity in her coverage of the Balkan wars.
PJ and the normative sensibility it reflects are still under attack from the camp of Realism and their objectivity credo. Some of them even say that, without objectivity, there is nothing called journalism. The expectation is that, Realism in the Intensive Care Unit and Constructivism on the rise, objectivity in journalism will have shrunk to insignificance in the very near future, although habits die hard
In countries such as Nigeria, the greater threat to PJ ideals come from outside the media. It comes from neoliberalism and the destruction it has wrought on meaning. The problems might have arisen from shocks from retrenchment, massive unemployment, real poverty but it is in insular frameworks such as ethnicity, religion and villagism they are framed. Where it is framed in religious terms, then the polarity is such that the ideals of PJ have difficulty in finding purchase. It becomes a contest between the sacred and the profane.
If these are some of the contextual issues, how come journalists are confident they can counter-message violent extremism? Does counter-messaging work? What is the evidence from the field? Can Nigerian journalists guarantee Empathy? What is the scorecard for the social media at this point in time? Should it be regulated or not? Why is mainstreaming women in terms of voices such a difficult thing in conflict reporting? Why is the government media such a restrictive space for creativity in conflict reporting? And what sort of programmes are there by which counter-messaging can be achieved? Does the Nigerian media amplify or downplay Boko Haram? (this has been published as a standalone reportage on this platform) and how different was MEND from Boko Haram in the world of conflict reporting? The last report in the series will cover how the journalists answered these questions, the conclusions they reached and the puzzles they threw up.