Why won’t Nigeria let foreign journalists cover its elections?

By Colin Friedman of The Telegraph

I was looking forward to being in Nigeria this weekend, writing a preview for the presidential elections at the end of the month. Not the way every Telegraph reader might want to spend their weekend, I grant you, but by foreign correspondents’ standards, it’s a Premier League fixture.
The contest will decide who rules West Africa’s most important country, and in the wake of last year’s kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls by Boko Haram, the wider world will be following it in a way they never used to.
Sadly, if it’s on-the-ground reportage you want, don’t come to me. Or The Times or Channel 4 News. Or any of the 20-odd other British media outlets that have asked for press visas to cover the elections, and whose applications still languish in a pile at the Nigerian High Commission in London. (Fee £300, non-returnable.)
Nobody has actually been refused outright. But given that the process normally takes only a week, and given that my application went in two months ago, I’m beginning to think the Nigerian government doesn’t want me there. Or, indeed any of the other foreign hacks whose applications are still waiting other at Nigerian embassies around the world.
Have I written something to offend them? Much as it would be nice to think that I have upset the rich and powerful as a result of previous reporting trips to Nigeria, I don’t think it’s anything personal. Rather, it seems that elements in the government – either in the presidency or the security services – have decided that it would be best if the international media were kept at bay.

Instead, West Africa’s biggest elections – in which a country three times the population of Britain will be casting its vote – will go ahead with only a limited foreign media presence, courtesy mainly of local representatives of the BBC, Reuters and Associated Press.
The Nigerian government accepted £305m of British aid this year, not to mention British help in training its military and hunting for the missing schoolgirls. But when it comes to elections, it would rather we minded our own business.
So why is this happening? Officially, it’s just a matter of bureaucracy: a few have been granted, apparently, but a lot of others are still awaiting “clearance” from no fewer than three different government ministries. The problem with that excuse, though, is that the applications were originally filed in time for a previous election date, February 15. That was then postponed until March 28, to allow the government to make more efforts against Boko Haram, and ensure polling booths could open in the north.
That’s an extra six weeks, during which it would surely have been possible to sift through a few hundred press visa applications. After all, Nigerian High Commissions around the world process thousands of routine business visas every day.

True, journalists’ applications aren’t as straightforward. We have to undergo “security checks” apparently. Although if anyone is useless as a terrorist, it’s a Western hack. Something to do with our habit of wandering around with notebooks and cameramen in tow, announcing our presence to all and sundry.
So what’s the real reason then? Nobody can say for certain, but most journalists, and a number of foreign diplomats, guess it is because of the deluge of bad press that President Goodluck Jonathan’s government got when the schoolgirl kidnapping story became big in May.
Not only was it harsh, it was probably the first time the world’s press had decamped to Nigeria since the Biafran War. Most Westerners, until recently, would barely have known who Mr Jonathan was. Now, thanks to the BringBackOurGirls campaign on Twitter, there are teenage girls from Peckham to Pakistan who have been told he’s useless.
Fair enough, much of the criticism was unjustified. The government’s initial response to the kidnapping was tardy, yes, but also reflected the fact that in north-east Nigeria, where communications are always patchy, it was far from clear at first what had happened.

But brushing off unfair criticism is part of what makes democratic governments what they are, and besides, Nigeria’s own lively domestic media were every bit as critical. Who, it should be noted, have probably far more influence than foreign media when it comes to Nigerians making up their minds who to vote for.
But having foreign press there is still part of the “free, fair and transparent” criteria to make sure an election result is recognised by both sides. This is especially true when the vote is close. Remember what happened, after all, in Kenya in 2008, where a dispute over who had won led to the deaths of more than 800 people in violence after the elections.

Nigeria is facing a similarly neck-and-neck race this time around, with Mr Jonathan equal in the polls with his rival for power, the ex-general Mohamadu Buhari. If he does retain power, he will already have handed Mr Buhari’s supporters plenty of ammunition to support their case that the contest wasn’t a transparent one. And given that violence almost always takes place after Nigerian elections anyway – 500 died in 2011 alone – the consequences could be very nasty.
True, the election isn’t until the Saturday after next, and perhaps my visa will arrive at the last minute next week. But that’s not great in terms of giving the elections proper coverage. The idea is to go out at least a week in advance to give the issues a decent airing ahead of the polls, not just turn up to record the vote.
Countries that only let foreign press in for a few days around election times are observing the rules of the game but not the spirit. Which is why it’s a tactic favoured in less-than-democratic places like Iran and Belarus. A category to which I will now be adding Nigeria, unless it proves me wrong by granting those backlogged press visas pronto. I’ll be happy to stand corrected.

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