i wrote more than six years ago that Nigeria is one country whose reputation has been tarnished by the criminal activities of a minority of citizens. Unfortunately, the cardinal sins of that minority influence significantly the way Western news media report Nigeria and its citizens. They also define how the West perceive us.
While every country has a mixture of well-mannered and upright citizens, as well as people who have carved out a reputation for breaking the law, Nigeria’s image in the international community has received exceptionally negative coverage in the media, particularly the coverage of financial crimes and other moral misconduct by politicians, pastors, swindlers, lecherous university lecturers, students, business people, and other classes of conmen and women. To identify as a Nigerian in a foreign country attracts a certain level of dislike or hatred. It is like being sentenced before you have had time to face a magistrate or a high court judge. It does not matter whether you possess a criminal record or not.
I have seen some Nigerians in the Diaspora lie openly about their nationality. They do so because they don’t want people to stare at them as if they are convicted criminals, or as if they possess a kind of terminal illness. In the West and in Africa, negative public perceptions of Nigerians exist but those assessments did not start yesterday. You could now understand why we react angrily to stereotypical reporting of Nigeria by Western media.
Research evidence suggests that Western media tend to cast Nigeria and its citizens into one prejudiced basket. It is that template that informs unsound conclusions about Nigeria and the Nigerian people.
On a continental level, former United States Secretary of State George Schulz criticized the ignorance and misrepresentations that underpin the way Africa is portrayed in the US media. He said: “Many Americans have images of Africa that are anachronistic, partial, and often inaccurate… The perception of Africa that most of us grew up with – unknown lands somehow exotic and divorced from the rest of the world – has unfortunately persisted in some quarters despite the last 25 years of Africa’s independence and increasing presence on the world stage. It is a misconception that ignores compelling realities.”
We can whinge and yell about how we are misrepresented in Western media but we cannot deny that some citizens engage in criminal activities at home and overseas. To cleanse ourselves of that odious association with criminality, we must reinforce much more vigorously the point that all Nigerians are not criminals. In every country, there are good and bad elements in the population. You do not condemn an entire country because of the activities of a few citizens. Western media should not project Nigeria as a country that is contaminated with criminals.
The question has been asked: Why is Nigeria and indeed the rest of Africa portrayed in the Western media as a wilderness inhabited by primitive people? As I queried some years ago: Does bad news about Africa make good news copy for Western journalists?
One of the reasons why Western journalists with little contextual or background knowledge of Africa take delight in negative portrayal of the continent is because African news has to be constructed in such a way to make it match the pictures in the heads of Western audiences. In most cases these are misleading images about the strange life and characteristics of African people.
Other explanations that account for the sloppy reporting of Africa in Western media relate to ignorance and laziness. Here is one example drawn from an unspeakable crime that was committed on the streets of London in 2013. I refer in particular to the callous murder and beheading of British soldier Lee Rigby in an open street in London on Wednesday, 22 May 2013. Soon after the crime was committed, British and other Western media found a sneaky way to connect, at that time, the two criminals to Nigeria.
The journalists framed the event as a vicious crime committed by two Nigerian men. In various British and other mainstream and online media, the two men, 28-year-old Michael Adebolajo and 22-year-old Michael Adebowale (already convicted and jailed) were not correctly identified as British citizens. Their nationality was not disclosed. The reports failed to mention that Adebolajo and Adebowale were born in Britain and therefore were British citizens.
Reports of that incident also failed to state clearly that, prior to the crime, the two men had lived all their lives in the UK and not in Nigeria. The only connection the two men had with Nigeria was that they were born by Nigerian parents and their names typically originated from an ethnic group in Nigeria. Of course, none of these elements made them Nigerian citizens by any stretch of imagination. They were not Nigerian citizens either by birth or by grant.
This was a case in which journalists and editors reported falsehood as fact. Journalism is about truth-telling. However, when journalists report lies as truth, they damage an entire population of citizens whose reputations took years to build. It is so easy for the news media to destroy a country and its people, as depicted in the case of Nigeria. It is quite difficult to re-establish a good name once it has been sullied. A reputation is like a piece of glassware. Once broken, you cannot repair and restore it to its original form.
Inaccurate reporting can cause irreversible damage to the good name of people. The wider consequences of reporting incorrectly must remain etched in journalists’ and editors’ consciousness. It is critical to stress this point. Nigeria is not a country of criminals even if a minority of people in the country are complicit in various crimes.
Lack of context is another problem that has affected or undermined Western media reporting of Africa. Former editor of Punch, Azubuike Ishiekwene identified lack of context in Western media coverage of Africa as the main reason for the emphasis on negative news about Africa. He wrote in his column in 2008: “… when people have complained about how Africa is reported, it is the context question that is at the heart of the debate. Context that does not deny that corruption is endemic and must be confronted head on, but one that also recognises that in some of the worst corruption cases in Africa, big foreign firms such as Halliburton or Siemens have been implicated as well. Context that recognises that one-pill-cures-all prescriptions from international financial institutions, especially the IMF, have sometimes worsened some of the basket cases. Context that recognises that Africa is a continent that is as diverse and complex as it has a lot in common.”
Owing to lack of contextual information about Africa, the mental and psychological image of Africa that is ingrained subconsciously in the minds of Western media consumers over many decades has remained an Africa that is politically unstable, economically backward, an Africa in which food scarcity is widespread, and poverty, joblessness, crime, and diseases are endemic.