On the 18th of November 2020, Cable News Network (CNN) released a disturbing mini documentary on the now infamous #EndSARS incident at Lekki Toll Gate, Lagos, on the late hours of the 20th of October, 2020. CNN stated that the report was an outcome of a meticulous investigation conducted by its journalists. It challenged the position of the Lagos State government that not even one of the #EndSARS protesters was shot dead by security agencies. It also put on the spot the statement of the Nigerian Army that claims that the Army did not use live ammunition on the peaceful protesters.
The CNN claims that its report was based on testimony from dozens of witnesses, and photos and videos obtained and geo-located by CNN. It painted a picture of how members of the Nigerian Army and the police shot at the crowd, killing at least one person and wounding dozens more.
The CNN account matches those of most of the protesters who were at the Lekki Toll Gate when the Army arrived at the scene. It also checks that of Obianuju Catherine Udeh, popularly known as DJ Switch, who was on ground during the incident and who live-streamed the event on her Instagram handle.
As expected, the CNN report has generated a lot of reactions. In Nigeria, mainly due to social media influence, there is only a thin line between facts and fiction. For some Nigerians, it was merely a confirmation of the unprofessional and unconscionable way security agencies killed and maimed armless, peaceful protesters who were asking for a reform of the Nigeria police. For most of those who belong to this school of thought, those who were guilty of the loss of lives should be entirely held accountable for their crimes.
However, the federal government, through the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, upbraided the CNN for a ‘blatantly irresponsible’ report that lacked professionalism and laced with sinister motives. He threatened CNN with sanctions and wrote a formal letter of complaint to CNN headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
The federal government’s three significant grouses with CNN were that: firstly, CNN relied so much on videos posted on social media which are susceptible to manipulations. Secondly, they did not seek to hear the government’s part of the story before going to press. And thirdly the CNN had no one on the scene during the incident which renders the news organisation incapable of rendering first-hand, objective account of the experience.
The government sees this last part as very important because a reporter with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Damilola Banjo, who was at the protest ground had a different account from the CNN’s. Damilola, who appeared in an interview with the BBC studio in the United Kingdom, revealed that soldiers were seen at the Lekki Toll Gate but shot “sporadically into the air.”
However, CNN has doubled down on its report. The news organisation insisted that their story ‘was carefully and meticulously researched.’ Escalating the issue, on Tuesday the 24th of November, CNN ran a second report titled: “CNN Exclusive: How a bloody night of bullets and brutality quashed a young protest movement” and showed the story to her American audience. Before that, the mini documentary on the Lekki Gate debacle was only broadcast in news programmes on CNN International, which is mainly accessible to viewers outside the United States of America.
The federal government through the Minister of Information has challenged the CNN report on the Lekki incident and there are some points of the Minister that are worthy of note. Firstly, the CNN report stated that the soldiers fired live bullets directly at the protesters. Most people may logically assume that this would have resulted in a stampede no matter the imbued heroism in the #EndSARS protesters.
Secondly, it is inexcusable for CNN not to seek to get the version of the Nigerian authorities on the incident before going to press. It is fundamental journalism practice that for the sake of objectivity and balance, journalists must present both sides of the story or conflict. This is to avoid what Chimamanda Adichie refers to as ‘The danger of a single story’ or what Chinua Achebe was talking about in 1994 when he stated that, ‘Until lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’
The DJ Switch version of the events, which the CNN relied heavily upon their reporting, is controversial yet straightforward. She sounds credible, and her audacious act of live streaming the incident on Instagram is most commendable. However, the fact she never showed dead bodies during the Livestream or captured the deceased on camera, even when she said that the corpses of 15 slain protesters were carried by their comrades and dumped on the feet of the army personnel who shot them. She is allegedly an ardent supporter of the opposition candidate in the last Nigerian presidential election, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, and this may put a question mark on her motives.
Furthermore, in as much as CNN reports are generally credible, the news organisation is not infallible. The incident in 2007 in which their then African correspondent, Jeff Koinange, admitted to staging a fictitious report on Niger Delta militants, which eventually led to his disengagement from CNN, has not been forgotten by many Nigerians.
Be that, as it may, the battle with CNN is one that the federal government cannot win. The changing narratives of the government and the Army put to question their credibility. The Nigerian Army initially denied that their men were on the scene of the protest at Lekki Gate but later recanted. Then they claimed that the soldiers only had blank bullets but later admitted at the Lagos State Panel of Inquiry that the soldiers had bullets but that only blanks were fired. Then there is the back and forth between the Army and the Lagos State government over who asked the military men from the Bonny Camp Barracks to confront the protesters even when the curfew was yet to commence. Truth seems elusive.
The government has railed against tagging the incident at Lekki Toll Gate that fateful Tuesday as ‘Lekki Massacre’ or ‘Lekki Genocide’, which denotes that the security agencies killed many people. The basis of their objection is the fact that there are no credible instances of piled up dead bodies or family members looking for missing persons. However, the Chief Coroner of Lagos State, Honourable Justice M.A Dada, put out a public announcement in newspapers, asking that anyone whose family members were missing between October 19th and 27th should contact the Department of Pathology and Forensic Medicine of the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, for possible identification exercise of the deceased. The stated dates include the 20th of October, the date of the alleged massacre at Lekki Toll Gate.
The famous dictum “he who goes to equity must go with clean hands” applies here. The government and the military’s prevaricating statements and shifting stances on the Lekki Toll Gate incident demean their ability to challenge CNN’s report on the incident effectively. We live in a country where truth and facts are elusive.
The Nigerian government degree of transparency in the conduct of affairs has diminished trust between the leaders and the citizenry. Communication in the right dose and at the right time is an important element of leadership. The government has set up many judicial panels of inquiry over the years and the outcome mired in secrecy and controversy.
In this circumstance, it is not to the interest of the government to engage CNN in a self-immolating battle. Aside the fact that one cannot see how the Nigerian government will impose the threatened ‘sanctions’ on CNN, the Atlanta-based news organisation is perceived to be a genuine behemoth. Those who watch CNN these days will often hear them repeat often and on that ‘More people get their news than any other news source.’
The judicial panel of enquiry set up by the Lagos State government should be allowed to do its work transparently and honestly so that Nigerians would know the truth of what happened those late hours of the 20th of October, 2020. The government should ensure that anyone found guilty of killing and maiming peaceful protesters, should be made to bear the full weight of the law, no matter how highly placed. Doing this is the only way the Nigerian government can disprove the CNN report (if facts go against the grain of their story) rather than probably mistaking CNN for our local news organisations which are susceptible to Nigerian government sanctions.
Besides, Nigeria must strengthen its media organisations to increase their capability for investigative journalism and enhance their credibility. Nigerians should not wait for a foreign news organisation like CNN to unravel the events that took place at Lekki Toll Gate that fateful night.
Local media houses who employ local journalists that understand the terrain and have easier access to eyewitnesses and major actors should take the lead in unravelling the truth behind events that occur in our country. There was a commendable investigative reporting on the incident by Premium Times released days before the CNN report. Still, it is a pointer on the attitude of most Nigerians to our local media that the report did not get half the traction the CNN report on the same incident got.
The Federal Government of Nigeria vs CNN is a contest that should not be.