Media and Nation-building

When journalism professor Dr. Olatunji Dare talks about freedom of the press and other hallmarks of journalism, he speaks from experience. He has watched a government attempt to squelch public discourse by shutting down a newspaper and has found his colleagues have disappeared with no explanation. He has feared for his life and slipped across borders to safety in the United States. He also knows what it is like to be embraced by the Bradley University community and to make his mark on budding journalists. All the while, he continues to inspire and lead as a columnist for a major Nigerian newspaper.

A professor of journalism at Bradley, Dr. Olatunji Dare also is a distinguished newspaper columnist in his homeland of Nigeria. 

Photo by Duane Zehr.

Stepping into his office, visitors meet a friendly and gracious man. No framed awards or photos of him with prominent leaders reveal that he is a celebrity in his homeland of Nigeria.

There, he is a highly regarded satirist and newspaper columnist whose 70th birthday celebration was attended by leading politicians, scholars and media chiefs. At Bradley, he is a beloved professor whose research focuses on the role of the media in democratization and national development.

Dare’s path to the University was long and arduous. He is a former journalist for The Guardian, a respected newspaper in Nigeria that was shut down during a period of military dictatorship in 1994. Dare and his colleagues were placed under surveillance; some disappeared. Urged to flee for his safety, he did — “through the back door” into the Republic of Benin.

On an earlier visit to Nigeria, Dr. Chris Ogan, one of Dare’s professors at Indiana University where he pursued his doctorate, advised him to take a break from the difficult circumstances to teach in the United States. Dare demurred, saying there was work to do at home. But finding himself without a job and in danger, Dare turned to Ogan for help. He was offered a position at Bradley, where he has remained since 1996.

Dare continues to keep a finger on the pulse of his homeland. He writes weekly columns about politics, national and international events, social trends and other topics for the Nigerian newspaper The Nation.

“The media are thought to be a major force in planting democracy in countries where it has not flourished.”

— Dr. Olatunji Dare,
professor of journalism

Dare has written two books, Matters Arising, a collection of his newspaper columns, and Diary of a Debacle, an analysis of the failed transition from military to democratic rule in Nigeria. He has begun work on a third book and also has written numerous book chapters.

His writing, research and teaching meshed as he monitored conditions in Nigeria and other African countries such as Kenya, Cameroon and Ghana. “Beginning in the 1990s, we saw a wave of democratization, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Dare said. “In Africa, suddenly everybody discovered democracy and what it could do. The media are thought to be a major force in planting democracy in countries where it has not flourished.”

Gaining Public Trust

He noted that in the past, the media had been government controlled. “People didn’t trust the media and viewed them as propaganda organs. If the media didn’t enjoy public confidence, how could they advance democracy?”

As private newspapers and television and radio stations replaced government-owned ones, the media gradually built trust. “People who could not get their views in the media now have these sources. The media are giving a voice to the voiceless.”

He added, “The media themselves must practice what they preach and open up their pages and airtime to a wide range of views.”

He is concerned that today’s reporting is sometimes too strident. “I think it should be done in a constructive, not combative, spirit.”

The media have provided an outlet for scholars and analysts to share their insights and raise public awareness. “Governments wish they could get by with what they have done in the past, but they can’t,” Dare said. “The Internet has changed the game entirely. It’s more difficult to have government control and censorship, which is good.”

An objective media was not the only factor on the road to democracy. Once Nigeria and other African nations were independent, Dare said, “We learned that independence included the right to misgovern ourselves.”

In one African country after another, military dictatorships rose and ruled until soldiers overthrew the dictators. “Something that should have been a key component in independence struggles wasn’t there. Democracy was not an objective. But, a byproduct of the failure of military rule and the end of the Cold War was that democracy took firm root. It has become almost a newfound religion.”

Media’s Role in Westernization

Dare also discussed media and national development, another focus of his research. He said national development was often conceived as modernization or Westernization and noted people in advanced countries don’t understand the roadblocks involved and the structural constraints. For instance, people in many developing countries can’t take out a bank loan. Even if they increase their crop yields, there is a lack of storage.

Elder statesman Chief Ayo Adebanjo (left) and
Dr. Olatunji Dare prepare to cut the cake as General T.Y. Danjuma, chairman of the occasion and former minister of defense, does a countdown. Nigerian leaders gathered last summer to honor Dare at his 70th birthday celebration.

Photo courtesy Dr. Olatunji Dare.

He shared examples of good intent with disappointing results. In Zambia, farmers were offered a hybrid seed corn as an incentive to multiply yields. They had a bountiful harvest, but the corn didn’t taste as good as the local variety and was hard to grind. However, it made a very good beer, so people set up small breweries in their homes. The result was a nationwide epidemic of alcoholism.

In India, there is a shortage of water, which the hybrid seeds required. Farmers borrowed money to dig wells with the idea that the harvest would pay off the loans. They didn’t reap the harvest they hoped for and found themselves sinking deeper into debt. Being in debt is a stigma in India, and suicide rates among farmers grew.

“We must look at the constraints to national development and how the media comes into it. You have to take into account each country’s reality,” Dare said. “Most of the television programming is imported. When people watch these shows from a distance, it raises their aspirations, which often cannot be fulfilled. It can have a negative influence because if you strive harder and can’t succeed, it can breed frustration.”

Dare said his research gives his teaching a global perspective. “I have learned not to be too judgmental. Cultures are not good or bad; they are just different.”

He added, “It has taught me to be modest about what the media can achieve. The media are just one factor among many. They generate awareness, provide information and point out errors, but they operate within constraints. People say media sets the agenda. No, they don’t. They work with other social forces and institutions to build an agenda for national discourse.”

By Nancy Ridgeway