By Anietie John Ukpe
Prejudice and logic are strange bedfellows. Take the editorial in the Punch newspaper of April 28, 2017 titled “Jonathan’s Pathetic Apologetics.” This shocking display of vitriol, animosity and malice was so fixated on demonizing Nigeria’s immediate past president, Goodluck Jonathan, that it mortgaged decency and decorum. You must read it to disbelieve that a reputable newspaper can lend itself to such intemperate and sentimental opinions.
Editorials are always written by members of the editorial board. The editorial board consists of persons who may not have studied journalism but have a flair for writing. As such the editorial boards operate in a cocoon far removed from the action centres of journalism. They are the backroom staff who do not “play the matches” but make commentaries based on their interpretation of reality. Most do well, especially when they are not blinded by sentiments as the Punch editorial writer was.
However, let us excuse whoever penned that “editorial,” which was more of a political rejoinder than an editorial. A newspaper has several checkpoints to ensure that opinions are separated from facts before an item is put out in the public space. Editorials are about balance and persuasion – not name-calling and insults. The writer apparently did not want to persuade because he had somehow deluded himself into thinking that all Nigerians (including the over 15 million who voted for Jonathan in the last presidential election) would want him to face the firing squad. Preposterous thinking!
To again be fair to the writer, he did not even attempt to hide his bias even in the introduction – he loaded the gun in full public glare. An editorial’s introductory paragraph is supposed to analyze, not indict; to explain, not complain. But from the introduction Punch made it clear that it had Jonathan in its crosshairs and, thereafter, it opened fire on its hapless target with relish. Here is the introduction in all its jarring acidity: “Former President Goodluck Jonathan, reflecting on his electoral defeat two years ago, shunned deep introspection and remorse for his five-year reign of impunity. What comes out from him from excerpts of a new book is a potpourri of falsehoods, hypocrisy, lame excuses and blame for everyone but himself. But before Nigerians fall once more for his favourite tactic of playing the victim, they would do well to remember the devastating impact of his bad government.”
From there on the editorial used a tar brush to paint Jonathan as black as midnight. Jonathan, it intones, has no redeeming virtue – he is evil personified. Here are the highlights of this shocking editorial, “Jonathan left a limping economy and widespread corruption”; “(he was) an unmitigated disaster”; “he is the reason 170 million Nigerians are suffering today” (Haba! He ruled for only five years out of Nigeria’s 57 years of independence so how is he responsible for all suffering today?); “he left no major signature projects”; “he did not diversify the economy”; “he badly managed the privatization of power assets”; “his government was terrible”; “he was involved in sprawling corruption scandal centred on the abuse of N2.53 trillion petrol subsidy in 2011 when only N248 billion was approved in the budget”…. The inexhaustible list goes on! The entire essay reads like a vengeful prosecuting lawyer’s courtroom brief.
The editorial feeds its prejudice by referencing a comment from Former president Olusegun Obasanjo. Here it is “Former President Olusegun Obasanjo who broke all party rules to make him deputy to the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, is quoted in the same book as admitting that from his first days in office Jonathan proved that the office was too big for him.” If the editorial had more “heart” it would have wondered why Obasanjo made him VP if he did not know him enough. It would have wondered why Obasanjo did not diversify the economy. It would have remembered the age-old English saying, “show me your friend and I would tell you who you are.” Obasanjo cannot convict Jonathan without indicting himself.
But bloodhounds follow the trail of blood – not logic. The editorial skits around all salient issues and rather harps on the evils of Jonathan and calls on Buhari to give Jonathan a “fair trial” and hang him. In the editorial, Jonathan has already been tried and found guilty by Punch. The editorial is mad that he is still walking around free. This is a blemish on the Buhari government, Punch concludes.
While urging Jonathan to grow up (this should sound like an insult to right-thinking members of the society), the editorial insists that everything Jonathan has said so far about his government is false. The editorial blames Jonathan for not rescuing the Chibok girls. Then it drops the gavel, “But we hold President Muhammadu Buhari and the Nigerian people culpable for providing the leeway for Jonathan to trample on our collective memory.”
Editorials are supposed to be about issues not personalities. This editorial was supposed to be about a book which was to be presented last week. Was it a book review? No! Was it a political rejoinder? Very likely! A political rejoinder dressed up like an “editorial”. If it were a true editorial it would have identified issues and would have taken a stand for or against them.This editorial identified a person and took a stand against him. The rule book in editorial writing says that every editorial should present at least three arguments and recommend one. This editorial had only one argument – hang Jonathan.
From the standpoint that an editorial is the institutional view of the newspaper, written, formulated and expressed by the editorial board, every fair-minded reader of that editorial would come to the conclusion that Punch has declared war on Jonathan. Jonathan would be a fool to hope for fair reporting from Punch newspaper after that gutter editorial.
That is the most saddening aspect of this editorial. It spewed venom and compromised its integrity or commitment to fair reporting. It failed to consider the consequences of such brazen persecution of a former president. It did not care that so many Nigerians still hold Jonathan in high esteem, including some who think he made mistakes of the heart and not of the head. One believes that Jonathan did not do as well as he should have done as president – but he did his best. Obasanjo did worse – he sought for third term and did other terrible things. Buhari? No need to review the play before curtains up.
This editorial ticked all the boxes in how not to write an editorial. Alas, one hopes that a smart journalism lecturer would find some use for this editorial by using it to teach our children how not to write an editorial.
Anietie John Ukpe is a public affairs commentator and a journalist.