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Nigeria’s Citizen Reporters By Sonala Olumhense

The Guardian (Nigeria) has chosen WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange as its Man of The Year.  I object.

The Guardian (Nigeria) has chosen WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange as its Man of The Year.  I object.

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I object because there is a demonstrable philosophical gap between the high-minded principles suggested by the choice of Mr. Assange and what The Guardian itself is doing.  I regret that I am unable to separate The Guardian from the problem because its argument is different from its evidence.

The Guardian gave the award because it believes that through WikiLeaks, Mr. Assange has advanced the frontiers of our civilization.  In summary, that achievement is that by the publication of the leaked cables, the website questioned whether people and institutions who wield power on behalf of the people actually practice what they preach.  Trapped primarily in the headlights of WikiLeaks is the United States, which is being exposed in many ways that endanger its relationship with other countries, as well as its citizens around the world through possible backlash activity. 

The WikiLeaks cables, which are still being released, also shine tremendous light on many other countries, including Nigeria.  Among other things, it exposed the tenuous and tendentious nature of political power relationships in our country.  It also drew fresh attention to the “C” word, corruption, confirming not only Umaru and Turai Yar’Adua’s involvement with smuggling in Nigeria, but Umaru Yar’Adua’s duplicity.  It confirmed, for instance, that Yar’Adua lied in his 2007 declaration of assets as he avoided declaring a $10m house in London.

The Guardian concludes, correctly, that the lessons of the WikiLeaks cables are many: “that there are serious issues of morality in international diplomacy; that governments need to reconsider what is secret, and what is not, as well as their management of information processes, that nothing may be hidden forever in the age of technology…” 

Indeed, in the preface to the award story, The Guardian says: “By his actions, therefore, Mr. Assange seems to have raised the bar for public accountability among nations, and probably within individual governments. Officials now know that in an information age driven by technology, their opinions and decisions may sooner rather than later surface in the public space. He seems also to have redefined the word secret, and opened up for good, the murky world of bureaucracies to the public for critical examination. These are momentous developments which are stripping governments of their exclusive preserves, and handing to citizens, the function of determining the nature and scope of government activities.”

Handing to citizens “the function of determining the nature and scope of government activities” is a powerful concept, and The Guardian rightly asserts that “the course of history has often been changed by those who force the issues in such a manner that institutions and individuals are compelled to rethink their ways.”  In concluding Mr. Assange’s citation, the newspaper acknowledges the new media as “an emergent hegemony whose influence would reach far into the future.”

My problem with all of this is that The Guardian speaks in abstractions, like a doctoral dissertation the objective of which is not to demonstrate the student’s grasp of a specific concern. 

It is not.  If WikiLeaks is critical to emerging issues relating to governance, it can be of no greater relevance than what I call our under-developing nation, Nigeria.  If whistleblowing and unearthing official secrets that are of great importance to a nation is the subject, nobody has done that with greater dedication in the Information Age than Saharareporters. 

Somehow, however, in the past five or six years The Guardian—unlike several other Nigerian newspapers— does not seem to have noticed Saharareporters, despite the impact it has made on the nation. 

Now, my argument is not that The Guardian should have given the award to Mr. Omoyele Sowore.  But it does seem curious that the newspaper celebrates WikiLeaks while consistently ignoring Saharareporters, which is often recognized and quoted outside Nigeria for its character and its work uncovering Nigeria’s darker side. 

What is the problem?  Saharareporters is one year older than Wikileaks.  Like WikiLeaks, it is rooted in cyberspace and its founder lives in a country other than the land of its birth.  Like WikiLeaks, Saharareporters is driven by the determination of its founder to move society forward by taking advantage of emerging technology. 

Unlike WikiLeaks, Saharareportes is focused closely on corruption and good governance in Africa, particularly Nigeria.  It seems to me that this is something that ought to make true Nigerian patriots happy.  Mainstream Nigerian journalists have first pick of the free stories, which may be improved, but not ignored. 

I met Mr. Sowore a couple of years after he embarked on the daunting task of reporting Nigeria’s darkest demons.  In two previous columns, I have applauded the work of a man who has brought unprecedented commitment and energy into trying to place faces, cases and specifics on corruption in Nigeria.  It seems hypocritical, not to mention contradictory—especially if you are an honest journalist—to claim to hate corruption in Nigeria but dislike Saharareporters. 

This is critical because during its short existence, Saharareporters has covered the Olusegun Obasanjo era, as well as that of Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, aggressively reporting and exposing corruption and bad governance. 

Its editorial philosophy of Saharareporters is posted on its front lawn in cyberspace.  It proclaims as follows: “Our commitment is to ceaselessly report corruption and other kinds of official malfeasance. We are convinced that, by drawing attention to the corrupt and illicit activities of private and public officials, we not only arm the citizenry with the information to demand change but also force leaders to become more responsive to the tenets of accountability. The exposure of crime is the first step in its dismantling and elimination.”

This is a serious claim to make, but for six years, Saharareporters has pursued the agenda with an approach that shows that while faces may change around it, its focus has not.   I have become persuaded as to this commitment because I know that were Mr. Sowore so to choose, it would take him fewer than 10 minutes to become filthy rich in any currency of his choice. 

Are Mr. Sowore and his Saharareporters without sin? 

That would be ridiculous.  I sometimes read stories they could have done better, but I see the same in the mainstream media, such as The Guardian itself.  And The Guardian, unlike Saharareporters, is written by professional journalists.    Saharareporters is written by citizen reporters, supported by risk-taking whistleblowers, who volunteer their time and effort.

I question The Guardian’s ambiguous choice of Man of The Year because the newspaper seems to hold Saharareporters in contempt. 

Perhaps The Guardian feels that Saharareporters, as a byword for Nigeria’s whistleblowers, does not need to be acknowledged.  But you cannot have it both ways: it is either Saharareporters is a perpetual sinner which deserves to be shut up by having its stories repudiated through further robust investigations, or it has—like WikiLeaks—brought something important into our national conversation that ought to be encouraged. 

As a result, the converse is also true: perhaps, under Rutam House standards, the work of Saharareporters is thought to be inconsequential.  In that event, the case for Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks is impossible to make and the award is a joke.  We cannot justify and celebrate abroad paradigms that we reject at home. 

In the citation, I also found it fascinating that The Guardian observed the working partnership between WikiLeaks and such mainstream organs as the New York Times and The Guardian (UK), organs which rebroadcast and extended its reach.  I do not know what limits The Guardian of Nigeria in its definition of the public good.

Yet the newspaper declares: “The assault on Assange is almost farcical if not tragic” and that “What has really happened is that ordinary people across nations have been empowered with information: their right to know has been defended…”

In that case, what remains is for The Guardian of Nigeria, its conscience bolstered by these truths, to demonstrate that it has the heart and the character to function in the bold new world that citizen reporters in our country have grabbed.   Like WikiLeaks, they are not going anywhere, and not giving it back.

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