The Guardian/Sonala Olumhense

This government will (not) be…televised!

I have news for the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN). It is Barrack Obama, not John McCain, who is running for the American presidency on the ticket of the Democratic Party.

True, there is no such word as “carbinate.” I will return shortly to let NAN know that neither are there words like “demonstrate,” “indegens,” or “grounspace.” Not in English.

First, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to resign from office, just days after restructuring the presidency, right after reshuffling his cabinet?

It ought to have smelt fishy, even to the least experienced news professional. At Channels Television, however even the least experienced news professional seemed to have had better things to do than mind the news.

So it was somebody—anybody—in the bowels of the newsroom who leapt out of his seat with the “scoop”, a NAN “bullaytin.” It claimed the President was going to resign.

It had to have been a “bullaytin” because it did carry a warning on the label. “President Umaru Musa Yar'adua may resign after carbinate reshuffle, on health ground,” it said.

Had that least experienced news professional at Channels TV been able to pry himself away from his after-lunch beverages, he might have wondered what NAN meant, exactly. It is called fact-checking. He might have made a few phone calls. He might even have opened the dictionary to see whether there was a word—or a medication, or a game—called “carbinate”. I mean, Yar’Adua may have received something like that in Saudi Arabia recently, as part of his treatment, or as a get-well-soon present. Sodium bicarbonate, quite conceivably a relative, has several medical applications.

But he was not there, that man or woman. Neither, it seems, was anyone of serious professional clearance. So the station ran with the story and into the laugh lines of the world.

We know now, what happened right away. The Minister of Information, John Odey, the same man who was lying to Nigeria two weeks ago about the whereabouts of the President, grabbed some “security” officials and headed for NAN. A man knows the kind of news that, were it to be true, almost certainly means he is job-hunting.

At the same time, Insecurity agents overran the private premises of Channels, violated the legal rights of self-respecting—if erring—journalists, and had some of them thrown behind bars. By nightfall, Channels was under lock and key. By the following day, its licence had been revoked.

You can always tell when a government is nervous. The government of President Yar’Adua was. How does a man replace military service chiefs across the board, fire the Secretary to the Government and set about restructuring and rearranging the furniture throughout the house only to be told he is resigning his office?

The man may have felt that his government was running away from him. It is otherwise difficult to tell why, for a man who swears by the rule of law, he seemed to betray himself the first time he came face to face with a tricky challenge.

But my principal interest here is not politics, not journalism, not even Channels TV. It is NAN.

When it became clear that the embarrassment had emanated from NAN, the agency came out fighting. It claimed the story was not its own, and that its internal mechanisms had been compromised. It even scoffed at the fact that anyone would think the agency would misspell cabinet as “carbinate”.

Really, NAN?

Well, I went to the NAN website right away. Until then, I did not even know they had a website. Now I regret I did not maintain my ignorance.

The NAN website (www.nannewsngr.com) that I saw on Wednesday, September 17, 2008, the day that its story embarrassed our country, made it impossible for me to accept the claim that the resignation story did not emanate from NAN. It was a picture of extremely poor professionalism.

Not only was the website badly-designed, it seems to be the business of nobody. Facts did not seem to be checked, bad headlines competed for prominence with terrible spellings and awful punctuations. The high standards that NAN used to be known for were nowhere in sight.

On the home page, NAN had a story claiming one John McCain to be the Democratic Party presidential candidate. But for the picture that was right next to the story, I might have thought they were referring to the People’s Democratic Party. Hopefully, one of my readers will leave a note on their front door telling them McCain is actually the Republican Party candidate.

That reader should also inform NAN that the current US President, George W. Bush, is also a Republican, as was his father. And that Barbara, the wife of the first Bush is the mother of the second; and that Mr. McCain is not man married to the lady called Michele, but to Cindy. Just to avoid ancillary embarrassments.

During my visit to NAN, it was obvious that in addition to lacking training, experience and leadership, they also need a dictionary. That may explain why the entire homepage read like a manual of howlers:

“Dwyane Wade, demostrates his worth,” “The Nigerian Economy. Since she gained independence,” “Mobil to grant academic and sports scholarship to indigens of warri,” “FAAN to extend grounspace of Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja, Nigeria,”

There was more. “Germany suffers loss to the United States,” NAN wrote. I feared that, somehow, the United States had burglarized Germany, or maybe seized a German territory somewhere, but I could find no confirmation of such a story.

Then I found NAN was referring to Olympic soccer match between the female teams of both countries. That means that had that least experienced professional known the address to his desk, NAN may have written: “US defeats Germany.” In any case, what was a four-week old report doing on the NAN storefront?

Yar’Adua’s government can go ahead and bully Channels TV all it likes. The station will lose revenue, but it is the government that loses face. It is fighting the wrong enemy, and with the worst of weapons. Its real enemy is indolence and mediocrity in the government and its agencies.

Now that we know the President is not resigning, and those irksome military chiefs are gone, and he has redefined the presidency according to his own image, and he is going to move some pieces on the cabinet chessboard, how do we know when he starts to govern?

By Sonala Olumhense

[email protected]

 

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