Africa’s Press: Missing in Action

In much of Africa, the challenge for journalists, editors, and readers goes beyond freedom of the press, and involves its very survival. Under Nigeria’s various dictatorships, for example, many journalists underwent a rite of passage that most prefer to forget: routine harassment, beatings, torture, frame-ups on spurious charges, and incongruously long prison sentences.

Among the numerous victims, perhaps the most bizarre case was that of a young journalist named Bagauda Kaltho. His body was found in a hotel toilet in the city of Kaduna with the remains of a parcel bomb after an explosion that no one heard. Yet there he lay, and with a copy of my book The Man Died beside him.

The implication, encouraged by the regime, was that Kaltho was a recruit of mine who blew himself up while preparing his next bomb in a campaign of terror aimed at Sanni Abacha’s dictatorship. This unconscionable fabrication was fully exposed only after Abacha’s death and the spate of confessions that followed it by the police agents who actually committed the crime.

The press fought back tenaciously, despite casualties. Journalists adopted tactics of underground publication, in the best tradition of East European samizdat. When police raided one place, copies emerged from other secure depots, to be sold in the streets by kamikaze youths who darted in and out of traffic offering the subversive contraband. It did not matter that these youthful hawkers, some no more than seven or eight years old, were often arrested, beaten, and locked up for weeks, occasionally months. When they emerged from prison, they returned to their dangerous work.