Book Review

Reviewer: Olatunji Dare
Associate Professor of Journalism, Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois

When the Western Nigeria Television Service began transmissions in Ibadan on October 31, 1959, its slogan, “First in Africa” was no idle claim. It was indeed first in all of Africa. Egypt, which had been a prominent international actor well before Nigeria won independence, established its first television one year after Nigeria blazed the trail. Ghana, which had won independence in 1957 three years ahead of Nigeria did not have television until1965. South Africa, fearing that television would explode the myth on which the white supremacist policy of apartheid was grounded, did not have television until 1976.

Television arrived in Australia, Austria, Spain and Sweden in 1956, just one year before it arrived in Nigeria. New Zealand and Ireland introduced television several years later, in 1960 and 1961 respectively.

Ibadan was only the capital of one of Nigeria’s three regions, not the capital of the Federation of Nigeria. And the proprietor of Africa’s first television service was the government of Western Nigeria, not the Federal government.

This development, which must seem a curious reversal of roles to those used to seeing the Federal Government as the sun around which the states revolve, had its roots in a political controversy between the Federal Government and the government of Western Nigeria.

As the story goes, back in 1956, an official of the colonial government based in Lagos had criticized some policy or programme of the Action Group-led government of Western Nigeria, of which Chief Obafemi Awolowo was premier, on the federal government-controlled radio. Awolowo demanded a right of reply through the same medium. But the colonial authorities refused.

So at the constitutional conference to prepare Nigeria for independence, Awo demanded that broadcasting be classified as a subject on which both the federal government and the regional governments can legislate. His proposal carried the day, and Awolowo went on to establish, first, the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service (WNBS), and then the Western Nigeria Television Service (WNTS).

The Eastern Nigeria Government followed in 1960, with the launch in Enugu, the regional capital, of the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation, and the Northern Nigeria Government and the Federal Government two years later.

Thus was born the television industry which today boasts more than 120 stations and cable channels operated by the federal and state governments as well as private organizations and individuals.

The development of the television in Nigeria is the subject of Nigerian Television: Fifty Years of Television in Africa, by Dr. Oluyinka Esan, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Media and Film Studies at the University of Winchester, in the UK. The book grew out of her doctoral dissertation for the University of Glasgow.

Originally, Esan who credits television with sparking her interest in broadcast journalism as she was growing up in Lagos, in what was then Western Nigeria, set out to identify what television programmes women were watching and what meaning they drew from television messages. She carried out the research for this phase of the project between January and March 1991 with a focus on South-western Nigeria, combining documentary analysis with interviews. The second stage, conducted in July 2008, was an inquiry into the experiences of television industry and personnel in nine cities drawn from four of Nigeria’s geo-political zones.

The book focuses only on the Nigerian experience. In that sense, its subtitle, “Fifty Years of Television in Africa” is misleading. Once past this misleading bit, however, the attentive reader will find the book rich in detail and textured in analysis.

In the first six chapters, Esan examines the social context of television in Nigeria, the early days of the medium, the proliferation of stations (what she calls the “second wave”) with the creation of states and the establishment of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), reports some case studies, reviews the industry following deregulation (“the third wave”), and examines the organizational structure of various television establishments. In the concluding Chapter 7, she sets out her conclusions and discusses the future of the industry.

As conceived by Awolowo, the mission of WNTV was “to serve as teacher and entertainer and as a stimulus ... to transform Nigeria into a modern and prosperous nation.” This emphasis on education reflected Awolowo’s belief, enunciated on various platforms, that “the freedom to know is the first of all freedoms.”

Awolowo also saw television as an important vehicle through which the Government of Western Nigeria would prosecute its ambitious programme of providing free primary education, and as a multiplier through which skills and knowledge essential for modernization would be taught to mass audiences.

In keeping with these goals, television sets were installed in schools to teach various subjects, and in community viewing centres to impart knowledge and skills in such areas as health and agriculture. But success was modest at best. The generators which powered the television sets often broke down and proved costly to maintain or repair. The television sets themselves hardly fared much better.

Soon, television became an entertainment medium which it has remained for the most part, in addition to being a medium for government publicity and propaganda.

The fate of the educational television emblematized one of the most formidable challenges of the coming of television into Nigeria: the paucity of technical expertise. Engineers and technicians had to learn on the job as it were. Programmers faced the challenge of developing local material to fill broadcast time. Artistes and dramatists had to perform live, at the risk of every mistake or miscue being seen by the audience.

Dr. Esan details the feats of innovation, adaptation and improvisation that went into television production in its early phase. Today’s engineers, technicians and artistes, operating from digitized studios and computer-programmed equipment going through this book cannot but marvel at the ingenuity of the pioneers.

The story of television in Nigeria is in a way the story of the behemoth known as the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), the biggest television network in Africa and one of the biggest in the developing countries (its 75th station was commissioned in early December 2009), and Dr Esan pays due attention to this story.

Established by decree in May 1977 but with retrospective effect from April 1976, the NTA was designed to coordinate what was essentially the network of stations established by the Federal Government in Lagos, then the national capital, and each state.

This was a time of frenzied forcible acquisition of assets belonging to the component states and even private entities by the Federal Government—among them universities operated by the former regions, the New Nigerian Newspapers, and the Daily Times, and the establishment of national institutions such as the News Agency of Nigeria.

The NTA decree enjoined the new body to ensure an independent and impartial service, to operate in the national interest, and to give adequate expression to the culture, characteristics and affairs of the different parts of Nigeria.

Not infrequently, it is said in criticism of the NTA that is has been operating more in the breach than in the observance of its mandate. While that claim may be open to debate, it can hardly be contested that the NTA decree brought television firmly under the control of political authorities and their appointees.

Dr. Esan frames the matter more delicately. In her view, television has been caught in a struggle between striking a “fair balance” between its duties to the audience, and accountability to the government.

This struggle is perhaps most starkly reflected in NTA’s editorial operations. The NTA Code forbids “outright partisanship.” Critics often charge that NTA news is permanently and overtly biased toward the authorities. This point of view is readily acknowledged, if not always endorsed, by some its senior managers, who consider “safeguarding national unity” as their primary charge—unity as perceived by the authorities, or as the managers think it is perceived by the authorities.

The trouble is that when television news fails to report events that members of its audience witnessed or reports them in ways that do violence to the facts in the belief that it is thereby “safeguarding national unity,” the audience loses faith in it.

More damagingly, television loses its vast potential mobilization. When a medium has been used to misinform or disinform the audience, it cannot be used to summon that same audience to higher purpose.

This dysfunctional practice of spinning the news, Dr Esan shows, is the result not so much of formal censorship as it is of self-censorship. As an editor interviewed for the book said, “No government will ever come out to say, ‘You must do this.’ We tend to self-censor for the fear of the unknown.”

The “unknown” is a clear and present danger of suspension, downgrading and dismissal, at the instance of ministers, powerful politicians, and other influential figures, expressed poignantly by a manager who said that if the station reported that the public was unhappy that an election petition that had been resolved in favour of the ruling party’s candidate, “I bet you will not last one hour here.”

This situation can only breed diffidence in news workers. As the same manager told Dr Esan, “At times, you file in a story and go to the club, a public place. You are sitting down . . . people don’t know you.” But as they discuss the news, “you can hear them say, ‘Look at them, NTA, stupid people.’ You just feel like hiding your face. It’s sad.”

Self censorship is by no means the only problem confronting NTA News. Because NTA itself is poorly funded, it adopted a controversial policy of commercializing the news. Under this policy, news is not what is newsworthy as determined by a news firm employing time-tested news values; rather, it is what an organization is prepared to pay for.

The NTA was created at a time when the military virtually abandoned the federal framework on which Nigeria had been built and turned the country into a centrally administered state. With increasingly strident calls for a return to true federalism, the desirability of keeping the NTA in its present form is likely to come under serious questioning. Besides, the logic of the government’s de-regulation programme calls for a re-examination of its structure.

If this was outside the scope of Dr Esan’s study, it is nevertheless an important issue that will become more salient in the years ahead.

As befits its origin in a doctoral dissertation, this book has the great merit of being grounded in carefully weighed evidence, painstaking attention to detail, and modesty of exposition. These qualities more than make up for any disappointment among those familiar with the glamorous side of Nigerian television that the book makes no reference to the racy stuff, the tidbits and gossip and scandals that are part and parcel of its history.

As a documentary history of television in Nigeria, its growth and development, its challenges and its prospects, it is a timely contribution to the literature on the subject. It is more: it is as far as I know the only book of its kind, and seems destined to become an authoritative point of departure for other scholars. The production is handsome, and the editing very thorough.

Students of history, mass communication, management, and broadcast media professionals will find the book valuable.

Olatunji Dare taught journalism and served as an editor and newspaper columnist in Nigeria for more than a decade. He is an associate professor of journalism at Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois