Morals and Slush Funds

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Dan Agbese

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By Dan Agbese  |

IT would be a bad mistake for Nigerian journalists to gloss over the depth of the moral and ethical dilemma the press faces in the wake of Dasukigate. You-know-what has hit the fan and the spots you now see on the face of the Nigerian are not beauty spots. It is a twisted tale of venality and influence-peddling. I fear the press might have yielded its high moral ground to sinister forces within and outside the industry.

The leadership of the NPAN has rubbed the face of the Nigerian press in the slush murk of the Jonathan administration. We cannot say that politely. We are in this dilemma together. It would take much more than water and soap to wash off the murk. This is not just about prettifying the face of the press; it is more importantly about that intangible thing that gives the press the right to lay the cane across the back of all those who stray from the moral and ethical path in the society – integrity – and reclaiming the high moral ground on which the press can stand and carry out its constitutional duty of holding the government accountable to the people.

Everything about the NPANgate is as murky as they come. The story is this: sometime in June last year, Nigerian soldiers fanned out around the country in search of bombs. Incredibly and laughably so, the military high command believed that the circulation vans of some twelve newspapers across the country were possibly being used to move these bombs across the country. The soldiers laid siege to the newspaper houses and prevented them from circulating their newspapers. I do not think the military high command believed in the fiction of newspaper circulation vans being used that way. But given the demonstrable incompetence of the generals in tackling their most critical professional challenge, Boko Haram, they went in search of a soft target. Shamefully, they only succeeded in demonstrating their naked show of primitive military power. It ill served them and the government.

The Newspapers Proprietors Association, NPAN, then came in, ostensibly to get the Jonathan administration to soothe the frayed nerves of the affected newspapers in the inexplicable and unnecessary show of military power by negotiating financial compensations for them. The total amount came to N120 million paid from the slush fund in the office of the then NSA, Col Sambo Dasuki. Under that settlement, each affected newspaper was to be paid ten million Naira.

At least two things instantly went wrong. Firstly, the NPAN sought to benefit from the payments. It laid down two conditions that each of the affected newspapers must fulfil. One, each newspaper must prove it was up to date in the payment of its annual due to the association and two, each newspaper must drop one million Naira in the coffers of the NPAN. I suppose this was intended as a commission for the NPAN.

Secondly, the N120 million was not paid into the accounts of the NPAN. Instead, it was paid to a company unknown to the NPAN called General Hydrocarbons. I am sure the president of the NPAN, Nduka Obaigbena, knows who owns the company. The reason behind this routing of the payment must be sinister in the extreme. Was the idea to hide the paper trail of the payment and protect the NPAN as a beneficiary? If so, this clandestine handling the payment made the motive for the compensation even murkier. Or could it be that the leadership of the NPAN needed to launder the money?  If so, if this was necessary, then they knew it was morally, ethically and professionally wrong.

It is painful that the NPAN has found itself in this murk at this time of fevered moral crusade in our country; a crusade whose standard bearer is the press itself. The association was set up many moons ago to speak for and protect the collective professional interests of the print media and, where possible, police its ethical standards. I think it has generally done a good job of the over the years. Its leadership was committed to the best practices in journalism. Its sudden descent into the gutter is, if we are in search of mitigating circumstances, a delicate matter of the enduring conflict between morals and Mammon.

We may also add that the Jonathan administration believed in the corrupting power of money. It used money, lots of it, as in fuel subsidy, etc., to buy support. No institutions or groups deemed to be critical to either his re-election or his staying in power was denied the right to feed fat at the table of the president. He must have reasoned that if it took money to win enemies and keep friends, it would be foolish of him to be tight fisted. Dasukigate will throw up more murk in the weeks ahead. When it does, we would know in stark terms what we had always suspected: the men and women, as in pastors and traditional rulers, that Jonathan loved so dearly on whom he so generously and cynically wasted what belonged to all of us.

The NPAN found itself and the press in this dilemma because it made at least two grievous mistakes in its response to the assault on the press by soldiers acting on the orders of their superior officers. Its first mistake was its failure to see that the assault went beyond the immediate financial interests of the affected newspapers. It was an assault on their economic rights as corporate Nigerian citizens. The legitimate right of all Nigerians to do business and earn a decent living within the confines of the laws of the country is not subject to the whims and caprices of khaki-wearing men with assault rifles in their hands. By engaging itself in financial negotiation and accepting slush fund on behalf of the affected newspapers, NPAN thrust upon itself the role of an arbiter in what it knew was a contest between the press and its traducers. The association accepted blood money and clearly compromised its own integrity.

Secondly, what the soldiers did was a calculated assault on the freedom of the press and of speech by the Jonathan administration. The obvious objective was to harass and intimidate the affected newspapers and possibly coral them into the Jonathan support group. You could not get more sinister than that.

The love of money and influence peddling in the corridors of power blinded the leaders of the NPAN to the proper step they should have taken in this matter. The right and proper step was for the association to go to court and contest the unwarranted assault on the affected newspapers. It would be up to the court to determine the culpability of the government and determine whether or not the affected publications were entitled to any monetary compensations. Sadly, the association abandoned that path and chose to cosy up to the former president who was too happy to whip the press with one hand and rub a soothing balm on its wound with the other hand. His N500 million toss to Obaigbena would go down in our history as the most generous presidential response to a newspaper house assaulted by insurgents.

All is not lost. This might be the watershed in the affairs of the association. If member-publications of the association were not sufficiently concerned about how the association is being led, given what this slush payment represents, they now know they cannot afford to be indifferent any more. The Punch newspaper, the first publication to denounce the payments, has suspended its membership of the association. The Guardian has told its own side of the story and denied receiving any such money. The Sun has since returned its N9 million cheque to the NPAN or General Hydrocarbons.

I welcome the spread of the moral revulsion in the print media. It may herald the self-cleansing necessary to free the association from the life-threatening embrace of government and restore the needed moral stature to its leadership.

—  Jan 18, 2016 @ 01:00 GMT

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