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  • Nigeria's Embattled Fourth Estate
  • Ray Ekpu (bio)

Newswatch magazine was born on 28 January 1985, at a time when the iron-fisted government of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was clamping down hard on the freedoms of speech and the press. Soon after Buhari's seizure of power at the head of a military coup on 31 December 1983, his government promulgated a law, known as Decree 4, which sought to punish even truthful statements if they proved embarrassing to the government or its officials. The regime pressed ahead with this obnoxious measure despite press opposition. To demonstrate its resolve, the Buhari government arrested two reporters for the Guardian, a privately owned Lagos newspaper, and gave each of them a year in jail for violating the decree. From then on, the battle lines were drawn. They were to remain in place even after the new [End Page 106] military government of President Ibrahim Babangida, who toppled Buhari in August 1985, withdrew the decree and announced its intention to guide the country back to civilian democratic rule.

It so happened that this period of political change came at a time when the four young editors who were to found Newswatch were looking for a new journalistic enterprise to pursue. The founders of the magazine were Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed, and myself. Giwa, then 38, was a veteran of the New York Times and the Lagos Daily Times, and had been the pioneering editor of the Sunday Nigerian Concord since 1980. In 1983, the fourth and final year of Nigeria's ill-fated Second Republic, he was arrested and spent two weeks in jail for publishing government documents. After several court battles, he won both damages for wrongful detention and a public apology from the police. Dan Agbese, at 41 the oldest of the four, had worked at the Nigerian Standard, where he became editor in 1978. In 1982, he was made editor of the New Nigerian, a federal government paper where he had once worked as a reporter. In addition to these journalistic positions, Agbese had also held several important communications and information posts in the government of the state of Benue. Yakubu Mohammed, 35, had been the managing editor of the New Nigerian before moving to the Concord Group, where he became the editor of the National Concord. I was 37 at the time Newswatch was conceived, and was serving as chairman of the Concord Group's editorial board. My journalistic activities in the years before I joined Concord had twice earned me police detention; in 1983 I was arrested again and held for 17 days until freed by court order.

Together, Giwa, Mohammed, and I headed the Concord Group's three major organs. As chairman of the Group's editorial board, it was my particular responsibility to oversee the opinion pages of all three English-language editions of the Concord. Our boss was Chief Moshood Abiola, the multimillionaire International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) executive who owned the Concord newspapers. Chafing at Abiola's attempts to control editorial policy, all three of us resigned simultaneously on 17 July 1984. At about the same time, Agbese was coming under pressure from politicians who wanted him to subordinate the professional integrity of the New Nigerian to the interests of the government and the ruling party. Not surprisingly given these circumstances, he was glad to accept our invitation to join Newswatch as a cofounder.

Newswatch was thus the brainchild of a gang of disgruntled journalists who were far from satisfied with the existing state of things in the Nigerian press and who hoped that through their new, independent magazine they could contribute to the practice and growth of journalism in Nigeria. We were bound to one another by personal as well as professional ties, to be sure, but what proved decisive in bringing us [End Page 107] together was the profound respect we had for one another's journalistic talents, and our confident belief that the following each of us had among newspaper readers would make Newswatch a publishing success.

The first hurdle to be overcome was money. While our enthusiasm and professional expertise were abundant, our financial resources were not...


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pp. 106-116
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