Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

British Media and the Nigeria Coup d'Etat

John Hughes

The charge that has often been made of the Western media that only chaos in Africa seems to interest them has been vividly demonstrated by the tune and scope of reportage of the Nigerian coup d'etat.
Advice to prospective African leaders whatever you do, get a British education or anything that might qualify you to be called "British trained"; even a two or six week seminar on any subject will do, as long as the course was held on British soil.

The one thing that has been most consistent in the reaction to the Nigerian coup is that Major General Muhammad Buhari is "British trained". Newspaper reports, columnists, radio and television commentators have all gone to great lengths to point out that the head of the new regime in Nigeria is British trained.

Obviously, the implication is that great things can be expected from the regime now that it is headed by somebody trained in Britain.

The Guardian, supposed supporter of liberal causes and progressive stands in the world, could hardly keep the glee out of its coverage of the coup that toppled a constitutional and elected government by force of arms four months after it had been returned to power.

According to the paper, four years of civilian rule "had plunged the country into economic and social crisis" Ms Victoria Brittain, writing the front page story of the coup, said: "General Buhari is reputed (nobody knows who by) to be a careful and thorough planner ... he is British trained."

Apparently, The Guardian has also been in possession of some security intelligence for some time but, quite uncharacteristically, opted to keep its scoop unprinted, for Ms Brittain ends her story by stating "a military coup had been widely expected in Nigeria since the deeply discredited election exercise of last August..."

The charge that has often been made of the Western media that only chaos in Africa seems to interest them has been vividly demonstrated by the tone and scope of reportage of the Nigerian coup d'etat.

The Guardian found, for example, that Alhaji Shehu Shagari had made the Army a northern one. It is not likely that this is a fact that has come to light only after the toppling of the government. Seeing that this is such an important thing, how come it was never made public till now?

The same must also be said of the categorical assertion that there was widespread public disenchantment and a public feeling that the soldiers are "the only alternative to a democratic system that had become so bad that there was no hope of positive development from it".

If the paper's correspondents were unequivocal in their support of the coup, the leader comment despite claiming to follow the example of the Nigerians in taking the news calmly (in other words adopting a wait and see attitude) it is quite obvious that the paper also sheds no tears for the overthrow of President Shagari.

The paper has undeniable evidence for most of the long list of charges made against the ousted government, ineptitude, corruption, economic and social mismanagement, profligacy, nepotism, damage to Nigeria's image abroad... it does not occur to the paper, or any other commentator in any British paper for that matter, to consider that these are all charges routinely made by soldiers every time they overthrow a civilian government, nor, more importantly, that these are charges that were made against the military the last time they were in power in Nigeria.'

Corruption is the one charge that all the commentators seem to latch on to. The "Africa experts" for the BBC's World Service join in he chorus and even though The Times editorially, at least, lamented the fall of the constitutional government, its Africa expert was pointing to the fleet of private jets at Kaduna Airport and the Rolls Royce cars the ministers keep in London which they couldn't have bought on their salaries.

What nobody has pointed out is that the first private jets in Nigeria were bought under military rule, the conspicuous consumption of wealth has never been equalled under the civilians. The speed with which the British media rushed to condemn the Shagari administration must surely serve as a good lesson to all African govern- ments. The only surprising thing really is that seeing that nobody has accused Alhaji Shagari of intolerance, one wonders why all these commentators had to wait until his overthrow to tell the world about how terrible Nigeria has been.

It is now noteworthy that apart from the Daily Telegraph and The Times the overthrow of an elected government by force of arms drew no sympathy. The day before the December 31st coup, all the British newspapers had been con- spicuous in the scant attention paid to President Shagari's budget that he had introduced. Even the Financial Times was only interested in Nigeria as a big market for Britain, the wide ranging measures taken to tackle the economic problems did not interest anybody.

The Channel Four television teletext service headlined its background to the coup story "The Decline of a Nation" and attributed the coup to the expulsion of over two million West Africans, mostly Ghanaians, from Nigeria a few weeks earlier - an action that had drawn world wide horror...

The ITN oracle service ended its story the first day with "the government of Mr Shehu Shagari had become increasingly unpopular..." how they came by this conclusion was not clear as no mention was made of the fact that general elections had been held on time four months earlier and the President had been returned with an increased majority.


A cynic might be tempted to say that the coverage of the news had been swayed by "the major British market factor" and a desperate wish not to endanger "British interests". One can only hope, for Nigeria's sake, that Major-General Buhari does not disappoint his newly found praise singers in the press in the UK. The media seem to be convinced there will be a corruption-free and progressive administration and Nigeria's image abroad will be improved.

In the recent general elections in the UK, Mrs Margaret Thatcher's government was returned to power with a big increase in Parliament inspite of getting a reduced majority of votes. Many members of the Labour Party and media pundits have said that the Conservative Party won the elections because they misrepresented the facts to the electorate and got a smart advertising agency to package and sell the Prime Minister to the people.

Everybody agreed that Britain's economic problems are legion even if she is not having talks with the IMF, and there are over three million unemployed.

It looks as though nobody is going to defeat Mrs Thatcher at the polls if the Labour Party and media pundits are to be believed, for as long as Messrs Saatchi and Saatchi are in business and that sounds to me like electoral fraud if ever there was one.

And yet nobody seems to be suggesting that now that there is widespread public disaffection to Mrs Thatcher, a group of Sandhurst or Aldershot trained military officers should intervene to save the country from total collapse.

Could it be that the United Kingdom has no British trained officers? Could it be that the British media is more at ease dealing with African dictatorships because those fit in more with what they imagine African governments to be like.

talking drums 1984-01-09 coup in Nigeria Africa's day of shame