The media like the conference is an autonomous arena of public debate, which provides to forum for rational and critical deliberation. With or without the ongoing national dialogue, it has effectively and positively acted as agency of rationality and empowerment which the rich and the poor use to voice out their grievances. On the other hand, religion has served as a unifying instrument of brotherhood that binds its adherents to spiritually and emotionally pursue the goal of establishing oneness with the Creator. The media and religion are easily manipulated for mass-opinion and political struggle in Nigeria. Therefore, the threat to the ongoing conference may surely be how the media and religion are handled to serve the cause of the confab and Nigeria.
The President in his inaugural speech downplayed the impact of religion in our national life by emphasizing on political and economic issues that are desirable for a united and prosperous Nigeria. He, therefore, did not spare time to reflect on the implication of having the Chairman, Secretary and Deputy Secretary of the confab belonging to the same religious faith. He could not have also noticed the allegation that Muslims representatives in the confab are 160 against 233 Christians. Daily Trust and its sister publication, Weekly Trust, devoted much space to hammer on the lopsided composition of leadership and membership of the confab. In addition, respected Northern writers and columnists like Kabir Yusuf, Garbadeen, Sunusi Lamido Sunusi, Haruna Muhammad and Sam Nda Isaiah have argued amongst themselves on the alleged uncomplimentary remarks by Rev Father Hassan Kukah, Secretary to the conference in justifying the membership composition.
Some of the writers wondered why the clergyman made such remarks when he knows that he is highly respected by the Muslims and Northerners alike for his principles, nonpartisanship, intellectual prowess, eloquence and objectivity in national discourse. When Gen. Buhari was alleged to have made controversial remarks on sharia a few years ago, Kukah took the pain to visit the former head of state and later exonerated him of any blame. His tributes to Northern Muslims, like that on late Adamu Dan Kabo, portrayed him as someone who has fraternized with and understood Muslims more than any other Christian leader and has always been cautious on the Sharia and other sensitive religious issues.
While other groups like youth and women folk alleged marginalization in the composition of delegates to the confab, there was no fuss on the media nominees, possibly because the major media are geographically located in the South and owned by Christians. The disparity could only be blamed on the Northern elites, both Muslims and Christians, who do not value the importance of media but rather believe in other business enterprises and lobbying for public offices. The delegates representing Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena of Thisday and Chief Ajibola Ogunshola of Punch, are pragmatists who see their media as purely professional outfits. Nevertheless, Cultural and social interest of ownership cannot sometimes be divorced from editorial contents.
The global media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, Henry Luce, Sylvio Berlusconi and the Warner Brothers have used their empire to protect other businesses and deployed them to protect their political patrons. In the local scene, MKO Abiola, a southern Muslim used his National Concord to balance the equilibrium and occasionally influenced the promotion of Islamic values as is being done by Alex Ibru who supports the Christian faith with dedication of pullout (Ibru Centre) in the Sunday Guardian to promote charity programmes, ecumenism and ethics. Unfortunately, the Northern elites have constantly frustrated the efforts of young Northern publishers and media outfits and yet turn back to cry themselves hoarse over marginalization or play up religious sentiments whenever they lose patronage.
While one may argue that the media delegates merit the nomination, even though regionally lopsided, not all the religious representatives at the confab are truly representatives of their respective faiths. The composition appears more to be an amalgam of the political class. For instance, the list of Muslim delegates is short of reputable Islamic scholars and Imams and does not reflect prominent faithfuls from other regions, like Mujahid Asari Dokubo, a famous Muslim from the Ijaw minority tribe of Southern Nigeria, who could make positive contributions on equity and justice than politicians and businessmen.
It is unfortunate that whenever a religious issue crops up, the South-North dichotomy is replayed up regardless of the fact that in some least expected states, Muslim and Christian faithful are 50-50 like Ogun and Osun in the South and Plateau and Taraba in the North. That means to say that not all Northerners are Muslims, likewise not all Southerners are Christians. We can understand and appreciate our differences and united for a common goal. Given our background and experiences, it is necessary to advise that religious issues should not dominate discussions at the confab, because of its sensitivity and the disenchantment from a section of Nigeria on membership composition. Other sensitive issues like Fiscal Federalism, federal character principles, political structure, power sharing, resource control and the age long settler- indigene dispute can be the core issues for discussion. The delegates should also find solutions to youth unemployment, gender inequality, violent crimes, endemic corruption amongst the leadership, elite-induced sectional crises and the failure of our elders to address the seeming disunity in the polity.
The media can influence the agenda and outcome of the forum if it is sincere in its drive to save this nation. Afterall, the ongoing confab is an outcome of aggressive media agitations on the need for a national dialogue to chart a new course and proffer solutions to our myriads of problems. The media have only to ensure that it reflects the views and values of the stakeholders germane to the promotion of our unity and oneness. As the watchdog too, it should be kind enough to be fair and just when the government errs in its responsibility to the populace.
This article by Yushau A. Shuaib was originally published in The Guardian March 28, New Nigerian April 3, Daily Champion April 8, Nigerian Tribune April 15, Leadership April 17, Daily Trust April 19, The Punch April 29, 2005