Former Executive Director, Programmes, Nigerian Television Authority, and member of the Media Complaints Commission (National Ombudsman) of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, Eugenia Abu, talks to ALEXANDER OKERE on the takeaways from the February 25 presidential and National Assembly elections and issues in the media
At a lecture you delivered at Salem University, Kogi State, last year, you stressed the need for the media to prioritise national interest. What are the trends in the Nigerian media you find worrisome?
Indeed, I delivered the convocation lecture at Salem University titled, ‘Beyond the 2023 Elections: The Role of the Media in Deepening Democracy’. It was quite an honour. The paper really deals with the role of the media in a democratic setting. It is my position in the paper that democracy is beyond the election cycle, the voting, the candidates, the wins, and the losses. Yes, democracy in addition to all of this, is what people do with power, how they treat citizens and how people hold leaders accountable, and how leaders carry the citizens along. This for me is what the media should dwell a lot on in the four years between the voting years.
The media remains an agenda setter, the society’s mirror, and the voice of ordinary citizens. Therefore, my worry has always been whether the media has risen to the occasion on these issues and whether we have provided the necessary information even during elections. Who are the candidates? What will they bring to the table? How will they make a difference? Overall, the media is doing its best but there are several issues in the way of doing their job. Professionally, the media in Nigeria is one of the finest but we continue to worry about the infiltration of fake news, the challenge of citizen journalism, and the complaints against some media outfits on balance, truth and fact-checking. In addition, there is the issue of capacity building for journalists.
You were alarmed at the 1.3 billion votes Big Brother Naija, an annual entertainment programme, received as against the 96 million votes garnered by winners of the presidential election in four different election cycles. What do you think is responsible for that? Or should the media be blamed for what interests the Nigerian audience?
BB Naija is an entertainment product. So, is the media responsible for what is being fed to the public? Some communication scholars say that entertainment news is a capitalist measure to keep us all apathetic and addicted to it in order not to ask leaders and people in authority hard questions. Soap operas, pornography, churned-out content, slapstick, etc, which is the same across the world while capitalists are smiling to the bank.
The deregulation of broadcasting was to provide leeway for the commercialisation of content, while dumbing down information dissemination as a public good. Whether the media has a role in making people watch BB Naija or not, they are complicit in their agenda-setting role by giving the people what is considered immoral because they make money out of it. Both the entertainment industry and the media houses have succeeded in creating an appetite for pornography, so in that respect my response is yes; the media helps to promote what people watch, although there are schools of thought that say everyone can watch whatever they want. I personally disagree with that. We don’t go out to vote but we watch BB Naija.
How will you measure the role and impact of Nigerian media in fostering political participation among the country’s youthful population with the just-concluded presidential election?
I think the media has done fairly well in providing voter education for all within their power. However, there are obstacles. They include the fact that traditional media is no longer the only media in the media space, and that new media is a strong contender. The effect of new media is unimpeachable. And that is where the youth live. So, one needs to pay attention to social media. But it’s also where fake news and disinformation live. So traditional media must embrace new media and reach out to the youth in their media space. Media literacy is important. So who educates us all, especially the youth, on disinformation and fake news?
Because of the viral nature of social media, false news spreads like wildfire. How does an average person know fake news from authentic news? Then there is the issue of capacity building for the media. Journalists need to understand their profession better, report better, research and analyse better, and provide the goods in an ethical manner.
Regarding last Saturday’s elections, what were the things you found striking about the level of involvement of the youth in determining who should lead them in the political space?
I think the youth were determined to make a difference in these elections. They trooped out in their numbers and faced whatever challenges and elements to cast their vote. They had campaigned hard for people to get permanent voter cards. I believe they made a huge difference. Off the top of my head, I think the upsets we saw in the elections were a result of their involvement. It should be encouraged. I had first-time voters in my house. Their passion was palpable. They woke up before me. The media should do more to let people know the consequences of not voting.
I think social media played a major part in the build-up to the elections in more ways than one. A lot of candidates used social media to campaign. The electoral umpire used social media for voter education. In addition, young people analysed and discussed the elections on social media, so it played a big role. However, the juxtaposition of old media and social media is important. The traditional rules of gate-keeping, research and investigative journalism, while looking at the gift of new media, which is immediacy and interactivity. We must not forget that fake news lives on social media. The youth need to understand the election process well enough to give informed commentary.
Many are still struggling to combat the prevalence of fake information in the media space. How do you think Nigeria and the conventional media have fared in addressing this menace capable of igniting conflict or even a war?
It is tragic. Social media infiltration has led to many unfortunate incidents. And among the youth, who are the highest users across the world, it has been unbelievable. Fake news abounds within that space and everything has to be fact-checked whenever one sees it there. I grew up in a traditional newsroom where you cannot air the passing of persons in an air accident until the families are informed or authorities with jurisdiction have released the names. But we are now in an age where people film people dying and upload it. Media literacy, public enlightenment and national orientation are the way to go. Nigerian academics must be brought on board to help with how fake news can be minimised, while media practitioners must show the way to manage this.
In every election cycle, there is always a call for women to vie for the nation’s highest office, yet only one or two of them manage to get the presidential tickets of political parties. Why do you think this is a recurring problem?
Concerning women’s participation in Nigeria’s election, it boils down to seven major things: culture, socialisation, lack of confidence among the women, few role models, media, education and religion. Let’s take culture and socialisation. Nigeria is a patriarchal society; so generally, women are to be heard and not seen. In fact, in most parts of Nigeria, women are generally considered second class, to cook and deal with the other room, while bearing children. Women in most cultures in Nigeria are the least educated, the less economically strong and the ones with the least agency. I have worked in this area for long enough to know that the boy’s club does not want women to come into leadership positions politically and when women hold those positions, many men are threatened.
Even affirmative action is being contested by a lot of demographics, from the political class to some religious and cultural leaders. Men have held the reins for too long; they are suspicious of women who have a voice and afraid of what will happen to the power they have enjoyed for so long. But all activists are asking for equal participation. In politics as in other areas, it’s a hard sell. To give women a fair chance, political parties must be intentional; it’s not about lip service, and political parties must allow women into leadership positions like national secretary and national chairman, not just women leaders, but also other roles where authority resides.
Even the ones who contest do not get the support of the womenfolk in society, making it seem like women do not support women in politics. Do you also share that perspective?
I do not share the mantra that women do not support women. It’s a thing men have manipulated women to believe. The percentage of that is not much. Men have epic fights and they can kill each other when they disagree but because they are less emotional, you hardly hear about it. They settle over a nice cold drink. Women tend to speak about their hurt for longer because that’s how we are wired. They hurt deeper and longer. Yes, women are better off if they hang together but the opposition prefers us scattered; so again, we need to be intentional.
How will you describe the operational changes recorded in the media since you retired from the Nigerian Television Authority over five years ago?
So much has happened within media operations since I retired from active public service broadcasting, but I still work in the private sector media space as a consultant, strategist, programme producer, advisor and media trainer. It’s been six years since I left NTA but the issues operationally remain the same albeit more urgent. Technology has rendered many equipment obsolete, convergence is going on so one device can do radio, television and social media. Print organisations are diversifying into television and there is media conglomeration. The social media space continues to inch into the erosion of traditional media at the speed of light. However, because of fake news and weak content, even new media is now working backward to learn the values of traditional media – balance, fact-checking, research and investigative journalism.
Can you recall how your last day as an NTA broadcast journalist went, from preparing for work and returning home? Were there memorable moments?
By the time I left the NTA, I had spent 34 and half years there. I believe that I had spent long enough to make my mark. I hope it is seen by others that way. I had spent the best part of my life there and I left at the apogee of my profession as Executive Director, Programmes. Of course, one will miss a place where one worked for all those years. But I believe I have paid my dues and moved on.
Many career people find it difficult to adjust to a new way of life after retirement. As someone who spent 34 years working in a fast-paced industry, what has been your experience, and did you have to reset your lifestyle?
I have adjusted well. I have retired well. I am probably busier now than I was when I was in NTA. It’s just that I pace myself better. I go to work on my time and the structured orientation in the public service makes me a better private sector individual. I pick and choose what jobs I want to do and I try to deliver every job at a premium. I am also a happy person by nature. I am not dealing with unnecessary office politics. I am more relaxed and have time for myself and my family. Since I retired, I teach at Bingham University and have joined a couple of boards as a member, run several courses from public speaking to broadcasting at the Eugenia Abu Media Centre, and have taken on the PhD in Mass Communication at BUK. I am happily busy. I was recently honoured by my selection to serve as a member of the media complaints commission (National Ombudsman) of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria. I am deeply honoured.
Can you describe your experience as a broadcaster during the military era?
In the military era, I worked as I had done in the civilian era, demonstrating professionalism, balance, and loyalty. I tried to give my best in any era.
Did you ever face situations where you were interrupted during a live broadcast by soldiers and forced to announce the toppling of a government through a coup d’état?
No, I never did. I only heard about it and I never had that conversation with anyone.
Some Nigerians believe that many TV presenters nowadays draw more attention to their appearance than the real or most important messages they are meant to disseminate. Do you share the sentiment?
Well, people are entitled to their opinions. It also depends on what they are presenting. Entertainment news lends itself to flashy dressing. News does not. I presented news and moderated discussions and also interviewed people. Presenters are not the news or the major content. They only enhance it. Moderate dressing, decent dressing and moderate makeup prevent you from introducing visual noise. You are expected to provide some clarity for your audience.
You are regarded as one of the most beautiful presenters the NTA has ever had yet you said you didn’t know if you were that beautiful when you were asked in 2016 how you were able to maintain your beauty. Has your opinion on that changed?
Thank you for your kindness. I am truly chuffed by your comments. But my position still remains that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. I guess I have been blessed. Deoxyribonucleic acid helps. Trying to live a stress-free life also helps. Overall, I am a happy person and I try to live a peaceful and contented life.
In 2020, your twin daughters, Oiza and Meyi, became singing sensations in the media. What have they been up to?
I am thankful to God for Oiza and Meyi. We are very proud of them. They have been performing across Nigeria and recording their songs. They are busy.
Is it true that you couldn’t differentiate them when they were babies?
For a while yes, but then I am their mum. It was only for a short while. They are identical.
You clocked 60 recently. What are you grateful for?
At 60, I am thankful for my parents who taught me all the values I still carry. I am thankful for my immediate family, my husband, and my children, who have held my hand. I am thankful for my support base, my siblings, and my friends and family. I am thankful for the opportunities my job at the NTA gave me. I am so grateful for the kindness of strangers; my fans have been incredible, and my teachers and professors. My life is a testimony. People still stop me on the streets when they recognise me. It’s a blessing. Above all, I am thankful for God’s mercy upon me, which has brought me where I am today.
I have no regrets whatsoever. If there are things I felt I could have done and did not do, I look back with gratitude. God propels us where He wants and that may not have been my calling. I am so thankful.