Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Nigerian Observer and Exhibit 108

ON Tuesday, August 16, 1983, Dr. Samuel Ogbemudia addressed a press conference in Benin City. He was flanked on either side by Chiefs Tony Anenih, Ray Inije and Tayo Akpata. It was election time during the Second Republic, and Ogbemudia, running on the platform of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), had just defeated incumbent Governor of the then Bendel State, Prof. Ambrose Alli of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). Ogbemudia gave the equivalent of an acceptance speech at the press conference. So partisan and vitriolic were the state-owned media against Ogbemudia and the NPN, that there was palpable apprehension of severe repercussions that would surpass the mass purge of the Murtala/Obasanjo regime in 1975/76.

Ogbemudia calmed agitated nerves, reassuring civil servants of their security of tenure. Yet, while mocking the state-owned media, particularly The Nigerian Observer, for abandoning professionalism, Ogbemudia hinted that he would let bygones be bygones. In its lavish coverage of the press conference, an effort that was unthinkable and even considered heretical only a few days earlier, The Nigerian Observer reported thus: "Commenting on the three government-owned media, Radio Bendel, The Nigerian Observer and Bendel Television, he (Ogbemudia) said everything they did now belong (sic) to the past."

As Military Governor of the then Midwestern State, Lt. Col (later Brigadier) Ogbemudia had established The Observer newspapers in May 1968. The Observer blazed a trail and earned a well-deserved niche among the top-drawer publications of the era. But the after-shocks of the 1975 coup prefigured the paper's anaemia, while the advent of the Second Republic (1979-1983) accelerated the rapid decline of its fortunes. By then, The Nigerian Observer was being thrashed as omonot'oghe (a child that lies habitually). Faced with keener competition from better-run, better-planned and better-produced publications by the private sector, The Nigerian Observer became a virtual relic, provoking once in a while, nostalgia about its once glorious reign. Today, whatever few copies The Nigerian Observer churns out from its aged press are overshadowed by the products of far more prosperous print media organizations whose papers are glossy, attractive, and trustworthy.

Yet, this year, The Nigerian Observer has regained a most valuable component of its lost glory. One only need to read the judgment of the Election Petitions Tribunal as affirmed wholly by the Court of Appeal in the governorship election dispute between Comrade Adams Oshiomhole (Action Congress) and Prof. Oserheimen Osunbor (People's Democratic Party), to discover the endorsement of The Nigerian Observer as a newspaper of record. The kernel of that endorsement is to be found in Exhibit 108 and Exhibit 108(a) which were tendered in evidence during the hearing of the petition by the tribunal. In all, the tribunal admitted in evidence 117 exhibits, while Oshiomhole called 61 witnesses, Osunbor (32 witnesses), and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) called two witnesses. A copy of The Nigerian Observer of Tuesday, April 17, 2007 was tendered and admitted as Exhibit 108, while page 3 thereof was similarly tendered and admitted as Exhibit 108(a).

Exhibit 108(a) is a masterpiece of deadpan reporting. The newspaper simply blasted across half a page the results of the Edo State governorship elections of April 14, 2007, issued under the hand and authentic signature of Mohammed Abubakar Ahmadu, the State Resident Electoral Commissioner, who dated it April 15. That was the evidence of the collated fraud by which INEC declared Osunbor winner with "329740" votes, while Oshiomhole came second with "197472" votes. More importantly, the exhibit showed that the results in two local government areas (Etsako Central and Akoko-Edo) were cancelled, and thus no votes were recorded in those areas. Oshiomhole further subpoenaed Exhibit 110, a video playback of the press conference at which INEC announced the cancellation of the results in the two local governments. Both the tribunal and the Court of Appeal held that "Exhibit 108 (read: The Nigerian Observer) is a reliable document because the fact that it was published as a notice was not derogatory at all." Further, their Lordships said, "we hold that Exhibit 108 will stand on its own as proof that results in Etsako Central and Akoko-Edo local government areas were cancelled. Exhibit 108(a) also corroborates Exhibit 110 (that is, the video playback)."

But that is not the end of the intriguing story. On the basis of the results (Exhibit 108a) which the Resident Electoral Commissioner signed on April 15, the day after (April 16) Osunbor was issued with a certificate of return (Exhibit 71) as winner of the election. As a reflection of the counterproductive genius of the PDP master-riggers and their confederates in INEC, brand new results were collated by INEC on April 18. The new results now included the two local government areas which had earlier been cancelled. By the latter results, Osunbor was still the winner. By including purported results from the two local government areas, INEC in cahoots with the PDP, the latter secured three additional seats in the State House of Assembly. Thus, PDP was returned with 16 seats (two-thirds majority), while AC was given 8 seats. It did not occur to the electoral bandits that pertinent questions would arise as to why those two local governments (with three legislative seats) had results when the elections for the governorship, which took place at the same time, were cancelled.

I was not on Oshiomhole's legal team, and would therefore not know why they relied on The Nigerian Observer. Nor would I also know why Osunbor's team did not object to the paper's admission in evidence. The Nigerian Observer is not the only newspaper published or circulating in Edo State. The newsstand is brimful of a variety of publications, including one ragsheet edited by a squint-eyed scoundrel who revels in unbridled defamation of government officials. The choice of The Nigerian Observer can only mean that the parties considered it a paper of record, which is an invaluable asset for a newspaper. It is doubtful if the paper had anything near such an asset 25 years ago, when Ogbemudia addressed his press conference. In parentheses, there are, broadly, three important criteria which a piece of evidence must satisfy. Is it relevant? Even if it is relevant, is it admissible? And where admissible, what probative value (weight) will the court attach to it? The Nigerian Observer satisfied all three, with the tribunal and Court of Appeal attaching a lot of weight to it.

Without further assurance, then, those three Assembly seats purloined from the two local government areas, where the results were cancelled, are endangered. In particular, the bogus results as exhibited during the hearing of Oshiomhole's petition are ready material for the prosecution of persons who may have violated extant electoral laws.

I was a witness and contributory to the hour of redemption for The Nigerian Observer. Between March 2005 and May 2007, I was the Edo State Commissioner for Information and Orientation, having The Nigerian Observer and Edo Broadcasting Service as parastatals under my Ministry. The problems of the paper were - and still are - enormous: obsolete equipment, inadequate facilities, insufficient top-grade human capital, low staff morale - all of which amounted to miserable revenue. Sensing that we could hardly attract top-flight professionals with the indigent pay structure, and realizing that despite the best efforts, funding would be difficult to source for the total overhaul of the paper's operation to place it in the 21st Century, I resorted to organizing in my office workshops and brainstorming sessions with the paper's key editorial and management staff. I was joined at some of those sessions by my Permanent Secretary, Elder Joseph Obaseki, and the veteran Director of Information, Mr. Dennis Omoregie.

Our key pursuits at these sessions included professional integrity (showing sensitivity where the need arises), content development and renewal. We made some headway, but it was clear that down below, and even above, manpower challenges remained. Ultimately, the true test of the impact of our interactions came with the general elections of April 2007. As a professional with more than two decades of experience at The Guardian, I had never been under any partisan pressure. By late March, and more so early April 2007, the General Manager (GM) of The Observer, Mr. Isaac Igiebor, was reporting to me much more frequently intense pressure by party hirelings for the paper to publish or to suppress certain material. The editors too alerted me. At a point, they were receiving threatening phone calls. But none of the party operatives approached me. Always, when the General Manager or editors called me, I first sought their views, before giving my advice and directive. We were all agreed on the need for professionalism and integrity.

One day the GM brought to my attention a clearly libelous matter which some pugnacious party elements insisted must be published. I asked him who would bear the cost of damages if the person(s) defamed sued. That killed off the matter. Barely a week to the governorship election, the GM was becoming agitated, following threats of a sack by some party elements. I had received no formal complaint, and could not find any reasonable grounds for the contemplated action. However, in the afternoon of Tuesday, April 10, Igiebor came to my office, trembling. He said his suspension had just been broadcast on air. I was surprised but calm. I told him to give me some time, while I took the three-minute drive to Government House, where the suspension statement was issued. Satisfied that the suspension was symbolic, I returned to my office, and sent for Igiebor. I reassured him that his position was still tenable. But I advised him to see a doctor immediately to get a jab, if necessary.

I called the Chairman of the board of the paper. I informed him straight away that no acting GM would be appointed. None was appointed. I briefed the editors and top management. To the editors, I reminded them of the need for professionalism and integrity under very trying circumstances with the fear that the suspension of the GM was meant to inspire. Ten days later, on April 21, Igiebor, who was scapegoated, was recalled. By then, the governorship elections were over with the accompanying shenanigans. Above all, The Nigerian Observer had published what would become Exhibit 108 that, along with other exhibits, played a crucial role in the restoration of the people's mandate to Oshiomhole. I salute the paper and its team.