Out of Nigeria: Invasion of the aliens divides nation

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The Independent Online
LAGOS - An invasion of Nigeria is under way, to hear some tell it, by that spearhead of US cultural imperialism, Cable News Network (CNN). It began last month when the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) signed a lucrative contract to broadcast CNN during free air time on weekday mornings.

The broadcasts sparked an outcry in Nigeria - a country with a love-hate relationship with Western culture - that NTA's decision would lead to the polluting of young minds with anti-Nigerian values.

The Secretary for Information, Uche Chukwumerije, condemned CNN's surprise appearance, and the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation ordered NTA to stop it. Its justification was that the CNN deal 'neither promotes Nigeria's indigenous cultures, moral and community life nor does it enhance the regulation of ethical standards and technical excellence in public, private and commercial broadcast stations in Nigeria'.

NTA countered its critics by pointing out that the CNN contract had brought in badly needed revenue at a time when the government had ordered state companies to start paying for themselves. The controversy was one of a series of incidents that indicate the authorities are losing their tenuous grip on this country of 88.5 million people.

The military government had to cave in recently to striking public sector workers, and now state governments are scrambling to find the money to pay employees. Last week, bailiffs impounded a Ministry of Justice car to offset damages awarded to the human rights activist Beko Ransome-Kuti for illegal arrest. In the past, the government has largely failed to pay damages for such transgressions. On 5 March, four days after the car was seized, newspapers reported that the ministry was to pay Mr Ransome-Kuti.

When the police announced they were checking all passenger buses for roadworthiness, the drivers simply stayed off the roads, stranding tens of thousands of commuters. The next day the police announced a two-week suspension of the operation.

The CNN episode seemed symptomatic of the government's growing weakness. The case against CNN broadcasts is severely weakened by the fact that wealthy Nigerians, government officials, hotels and even major newspapers watch it, as well as other foreign channels such as Sky, the BBC and Eurosport, through satellite dishes. Newspapers routinely use CNN as a source of news for their foreign pages.

Many Nigerians enjoy their access to CNN because it provides an alternative to NTA's drab programming. Television news in Nigeria, unlike the lively press, is boring and strictly pro-government, to the point of sycophancy. Camera crews have to use old equipment and recycled cassettes.

There is a growing suspicion now that lobbyists for the satellite dish companies are behind the attempt to shut off NTA's broadcast because they see it as a profit killer. But what is good for the rich is good for the poor, those opposed to banning CNN have argued.

One of them is the chief army spokesman, Col Fred Chijuka. On 5 March he came out against attempts to ban CNN, saying the government had no authority to take such a decision. What if CNN carried a report embarrassing to Nigerian soldiers serving in peace-keeping operations, such as Liberia or Somalia, he was asked. 'All that we will do is to react sharply to straighten the record,' he said.

Still it is hard not to sympathise a bit with the anti-CNN lobby. My first exposure to CNN in the Nigerian context was during the October 1991 riots between Hausa Muslims and Igbo Christians in the northern city of Kano. After the dusk curfew fell, guests huddling in the Central Hotel away from the slaughter of several hundred people on the streets outside spent the evening watching the US Congressional hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas as a justice of the Supreme Court.