Why did the government of General Ibrahim Babaginda approve the opening of the media space in 1992 by allowing private broadcasting? Initial licenses went to friends of the general who wanted to stay on as president. It also came against the run of play for a government that was giving the media a hard time with bans, shutdowns as well as arrest and detention of journalists.
The conspiracy theory on the matter of the liberalisation of the Nigerian broadcasting space at the time it happened posits that it was part of the sit-tight plan of this veteran coup plotter. Until then, radio was the primary means of communicating a successful coup plot and even of legitimising it. Grab the studios of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, and you can make your announcement. Gideon Orkar took charge of radio as did Bukar Sukar Dimka and those who succeeded. Alternative broadcast organs would break the monopoly of the public broadcaster and provide a counter-narrative should something happen. Why did Babangida do it at the time he did?
Whatever the actual motive, liberalisation of broadcasting has brought many benefits to citizens and the media. As a critical component of the media, broadcasting is one of the pillars of the creative industries. The economy around radio and television is vast and increasingly diversified. It is growing in several new areas in programming, distribution and channels.
Approximately 380 radio stations operate across the country. Lagos alone accounts for 32 stations, enabling the entire SouthWest to dominate the radio scene with 104 stations across the six states. The North Central follows with 63 stations, including the 19 in the Federal Capital Territory. The South-South has 56 stations while the South East accounts for 53. The North West has 56 stations and North East 26. Add the 17 community radio stations licensed by the regulator.
Nigeria is now effectively Radioland. The multiplicity of channels provides an opportunity for the airing of news, sharing of information, debate and discussion. The multitude of channels and voices should be a useful antidote to coups and dictatorship.
More significantly, radio as a grassroots medium should be in the forefront in promoting and teaching values and attitudes that support democracy. This medium with the broadest reach to the masses is the one best equipped through strategic programming to nurture this system of government as Nigeria enters a significant milestone of 20 years of democratic government in 2019. Radio should join the print media in really applying the injunction of Chapter 2, Section 2, sub-section 22 of our constitution to hold government accountable to the people and ensure implementation of the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy of Nigeria.
It is interesting how we got to this point. Decree 38 of 1992 established the National Broadcasting Commission and charged it to accept and screen applications for the issuance of licenses for private participation in broadcasting in the country. Decree 38 created a significant paradigm shift. Until then, the government was the only player in broadcasting in Nigeria. The history of broadcasting in our country also contains an interesting paradox. Broadcasting commenced with a citizen initiative by the staff of the Posts and Telecommunications (P&T) department in 1935. They provided the successful test-run for a service that the government soon appropriated. Rediffusion served the interests of the Empire.
The colonial government created the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in 1951 and turned it into the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1957 as a body corporate with rights and privileges. Chief Obafemi Awolowo introduced regional radio and television in 1959 in response to the denial of airtime on national radio. In that competitive era, the other two regions soon commenced radio and television organs to inform citizens and amplify their messaging. Regionalisation of broadcasting made Nigeria unique in Africa as the only one with a two-tier ownership structure of federal and regional, later state-government-owned, organs. We have added to that a structure of federal, state and private ownership of radio and television operations. Nigeria today is a step ahead of the African Charter on Broadcasting (Windhoek 2001), promoted by UNESCO, that prescribes a “three-tier system for broadcasting: public service, commercial and community”. Save that community broadcasting needs to transit from mere approvals of about 17 stations to actual practice.
The government of Olusegun Obasanjo intervened again in 1975 and 1976 to centralise principal broadcast organs, creating the new Nigerian Television Authority and the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria.
More than ever, Nigeria needs to tap the benefits of liberalisation. These include broadening the public arena for discourse, enhancing the practice of the democratic ideal of freedom of expression, and broader latitude in programming. It has also improved professionalism in broadcasting, though many in the old school doubt this. Other benefits include the expanded options available to audiences. Then there is healthy industry competition and specialisation, with radio stations focusing on specific interests such as sports, women and music.
The power, reach and influence of broadcasting means that it has always held the attention of citizens but also the intervention of government. We cannot state enough the strategic role of the media in the days ahead. Radio and broadcasting would be central and contributory. Would it be positive?