Abimbola Adelakun: CNN, Jonathan and Western Journalists

Published:31 Jan, 2013

GEJThere have been several analyses of President Goodluck Jonathan’s interview with the CNN reporter, Christine Amanpour, such that, I, not a Jonathan fan by any fanciful stretch of the imagination, have wondered what the fuss is all about. Let’s face it: the President is like dough without yeast; you can knead him all you want, he’s not going to rise.

Some even went to the extent of analysing the President’s grammar; he spoke about electricity and remarked, “…the bulb will light”. Well, his linguistic failing is no big deal. Most Nigerian pupils fail English language in the Senior Secondary Certificate Examination, and members of the National Youth Service Corps, we were told recently by the DG of NYSC, can barely write their own names. Mr. President, to me, merely (and thankfully) reflected an urgent social reality. And come to think of it, maybe he should resort to vocalising in Ijaw instead of speaking Ijawnglish? All he needs is an interpreter; his spin-doctors can sell it off as national pride.

My own vexation is that he granted that interview.

A quick caveat: I intend to sound petulant in this piece; I have no apologies whatsoever for it.

Here is why: He was inappropriately dressed for the weather and even though the President of Nigeria, he stood outside in the snow like a schoolboy before an annoyed school ma’am. His entire demeanour was undignifying. Was the interview so impromptu they could not have prepared him properly? Why interview the Nigerian president in such circumstances?

Could it be that the CNN crew didn’t think he was of much consequence anyway and anything was good enough for him? And if they did not imagine the Nigerian president deserved better, does that attitude mirror the sort of regard they have for Nigerians because, invariably, a president is the sum total of his people? When President Barack Obama bowed to Emperor Akihito, the Japanese Premier, his countrymen were outraged. They protested that he made them bow to Asians; a gesture of respect took a life of its own and we cannot divorce racial/nationalistic supremacy from their reaction. In the case of Jonathan/Amanpour, the entire outlook was deeming. Our man on display himself was seriously out of his depths and showed himself as a quibbler, straw man and, a barely literate administrator. I argued this point with a friend who detests Jonathan yet believed I was making too much of a non-issue until I asked him if he thought even the Syrian president would have been treated that way.

And this brings me to the nexus about Oyinbo journalists and what most times resemble a fixation with the spatial space they derogatorily refer to as “sub-Saharan Africa” and its peoples. When this column newly berthed, I did a piece on a documentary that sarcastically lampooned Lagos titled, “This is Lagos”. There was something unsettling about watching that film and which became clearer after seeing another journalist, a Briton called Louis Theroux, make a similar one, Law and Disorder in Lagos. It is about Area Boys phenomenon and the undertone of the documentary narrative was depreciatory. I felt uneasy at the pejorative manner Theroux was dealing with Lagosians and that he seemed to be inducing the single stories he was reporting. What was more worrisome was the apparent overcompensation of our own people in their interaction with this Oyinbo. They appeared excited that an Oyinbo took interest in them and too willingly yielded themselves up to him, indulged his silliness, and even told lies in the process.

Interestingly, these Oyinbos appear to have access to spaces that would be denied a Nigerian journalist. It’s complicated but says a lot about the psyche of the postcolonial subject; from Area boys to even gun-totting law enforcement agencies in the Theroux documentary, it was the same story. You marvel that the Chief Area Boy of Lagos, whose name I would rather keep away here, did something as silly as showing off the security of his house, went to the point of showing off his shoes collections and boasted he shops in Milan, Italy!


I was embarrassed when Diego Bunuel interviewed a pastor of the largest Pentecostal church in Nigeria who boasted they set up churches within five minutes walking distance from people’s homes because Nigeria, unlike the West, is a developing country where people do not have cars. The man admitted we are a country that invests in church buildings at the expense of enterprise.

Seriously, why are we so blessed?

It could easily be misconstrued as diligence on the part of Oyinbo journalists –that they work harder to get stories from ‘dark’ Africa than local journalists –but it’s not quite true. It is racial privilege; the Oyinbos too are not unaware of it and they wield it. Check out another documentary, Don’t tell my mother that I am in Lagos, where the director/narrator, Diego Bunuel, voices this racial asymmetry. You hear deprecation in Bunuel’s rhetoric when he says of Lagos, “Welcome to hell”, “Minivans are known to self-combust” and “I might end up as a spare part…(in Alaba market)”

It’s reprehensible how these journalists romanticise poverty, spectacularise the ghetto (can this “ghetto fabulous” be the reason Governor Babatunde Fashola wants to pull down Makoko?) and valorise brawn over brain. They make Black people look resolute in their destitution and blend effortlessly with poverty without offering criticisms of how their own society contributes to the problem. Bunuel made the electronic waste coming from Europe to Africa seem like we are a natural dumping ground.

My impression is that these journalists are not really looking for insights but out to pillory Africans. You only need to critically read the artifices they plant in their visuals to understand it is more than journalism.

Can our people stop making themselves prey to such entertainment ploys? Of course, Amanpour is a “serious” journalist but I cannot shake off the feeling she knew all along that President Jonathan was a “chicken”, not table tennis egg, and was never going to bounce; the interview was to confirm to the world we are lost.

I concluded that the President should stop giving interviews internationally because, really, it is a pointless exercise. He should keep the shame at home and restrict himself to the presidential media chat on NTAi (with their pretend international label) where the village style format enables him to parry questions, speak patronisingly to journalist-interviewers and even tell fibs with confidence. He should stop providing cheap entertainment and stay in the shadows.


Abimbola Adelakun (aa_adelakun@utexas.edu)

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