“Informed comments have been replaced by Twitter fastfood” – Youth minister

 

The Honourable Minister of Youth Development, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi delivered these remarks at the conference on New Media and Governance organised by the Shehu Musa Yar’adua Foundation and EnoughisEnough Nigeria on 15 May, 2012. Clearly, he is not impressed!

The rise of the new media has more or less dismantled the last barrier to free press; which is a major pillar of any democracy.

Sometime ago, a former Minister of Information sparked a debate over what the word ‘Naija’ truly means. Her argument was that ‘Naija’ is simply a bastardisation of the name Nigeria; a derogatory term that tends to surmise all that have blemished our national identity, the least of which is our so-called desperation to get rich and do so quickly and by any means, fair or foul. ‘Naija’, she argued, signifies a Nigeria that has internalized its own irredeemably corrupt nature and the term is actively embraced and promoted by the Nigerian youth who are at conflict with their ‘Nigeria (n)’ identity and therefore have to find comfort in a colloquial identity expressed as ‘Naija.’

Even in the context of rebranding, some considered this issue trivial at the time. The counter argument however, which is the one I align myself with, is that ‘Naija’ is actually a postmodern Nigerian identity whose affirmation can be largely explained by globalization and the rise of popular culture. Rather than serve to deny who we are; Naija could actually be seen as an answer to the question “who are we?”

Viewed this way, ‘Naija’ would simply be a re-affirmation of the uniqueness of the Nigerian identity and character in an age of globalization and its pervasively homogenizing forces. As a post-modern identity, Naija generation also tends to subsume all the primordial sentiments that make us less Nigerian in the first place (tribe, religion, region etc) and affirms our common identity as Nigerians. Naija Generation is, in fact, that generation of Nigerians who has embraced the totality of its Nigerian identity.

Having settled the debate on ‘Naija’; we may conveniently adopt it as a generational identity for those Nigerians who came into adulthood post-cold war. The Naija generation is therefore a generation that is born into a global and globalizing culture that is driven by the media, especially the satellite television and the Internet, which are in turn part of a popular culture that is sustained by the logic of the mass market and consumerism, including the glamour and the glitz. The Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are only products of this culture. As children of this post-modern culture, the Naija generation is uniquely empowered and is aware of this power, especially the power of language, images, virtual relationships, and identity construction in the formation and promotion of ideas, beliefs, and actions.

In considering the dynamics between the Naija generation and the new media therefore, we have to start by examining the intersection where patriotism meets popular culture in the promotion of democratic values of participation and accountability. My argument would be that while popular culture has great potentials in mobilizing for citizens-engagement and participation in governance, the philosophy of mass market and consumerism that underpin it may render such engagement and participation merely farcical as ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’ become an end by themselves rather than an opportunity to actually affect how decisions are made and how the business of government is done.

The goal of youth activism is mainly participatory democracy, defined as “a political model in which empowered people associate and organize” in order that they can gain influence on issues and decisions that affect their lives. The question therefore is whether the new media can give real power to young people, not only to organize and associate, but also in improving the quality of participatory democracy and bringing about positive change.

Recent experience has shown that the new media, as component of a global popular culture are very powerful indeed. They have been deployed in crushing repressive regimes and have helped ordinary people to overcome extra-ordinarily powerful dictators. The new media can help in contracting the space for impunity and in strengthening accountability and transparency. They can help in making hierarchical systems more horizontal by multiplying arenas of participation and diffusing civil society powers across boundaries in a way that was previously unimaginable. The new media can do so much more; but most of these are only in the normative sense.

I will come back to itemize what I believe are conditions that must exist, if the new media must contribute meaningfully to democratic development in our country. But permit me to briefly expand on my earlier thesis on popular culture and popular participation. I argued that the popular culture is generally driven by the market imperatives and this ironically is also its major drawback as a vehicle for popular participation.

Hannah Arendt noted that where the media is driven by the logic of the market, real culture is soon supplanted by the dictates of entertainment. Our most persuasive values are then drawn from the entertainment industries. Rumours, gossips, sleaze and caricaturing soon take the place of real political education and informed debates as everything of value gets “dumbed down” for mass appeal and mass consumption. Out of this, a celebrity culture emerges which produces superstar “opinion leaders” drawn mainly from the ranks of entertainers and entertaining media. What is most sensible is then replaced by what is most marketable.

Even political mobilization soon becomes show business. Rigorous political campaigns on programs of parties and candidates are replaced with music carnival and dances. Politicians have realized that musicians and comedians are more likely to pull the crowd to the polls than a clearly thought out policy arguments and therefore have yielded the task of political mobilization to them. Politics then becomes big drama.

The rise of the new media has more or less dismantled the last barrier to free press; which is a major pillar of any democracy. This by itself should expand the scope for real participation by offering meaningful political education to a larger number of people. Instead, the market forces have invaded the media practice. Celebrity columnists, bloggers and publishers are emerging by the minute. Wild rumour-mongering, cheap sleaze and crass abusiveness have become the new definition of youth activism. Form has captured content and both have been hijacked by the quest for internet hits, media subscription and Twitter following and the quest for celebrity status. And, of course profits. The new media have become the virtual shopping mall where commerce determines commodities. Clearly thought out and informed comments have been taken over by 140-word “fast-food” content, which even if easily digestible has very little or no nutritional value. Even on television, politically educative drama and really informative documentary have since disappeared and given ways to all kinds of reality shows and “idol worshipping.”

Like I said earlier, the new media can so much help the cause of youth activism and truly empower the youth to actively participate in governance in a way that honours and enriches our democracy. However, for the Naija generation to truly take advantage of its unique power as offered by the new media, it must recalibrate quickly and begin to pay serious attention to the following.

1. We must seek and cultivate opportunity for knowledge and meaningful information on a broad range of policy subjects. We must understand how governments at all levels operate beyond what anecdotal reports and rumours have to offer. We need to be conversant with the legislative processes and the executive policy contexts. Access to government annual budgets is an important progress that has been made in strengthening accountability. But merely circulating figures and numbers does not amount to much if we cannot make that knowledge count to effect real change.

2. We must be interested and active in politics. Having a voice is not enough if we must do more than perch on our moral high grounds and criticize government and lament how bad things are. The only process of political recruitment is through the political parties. I am not suggesting that we should all become politicians or start contesting elections. But real participation can only come from real engagements with the political systems at all levels. The work that young people did to mobilize and monitor the 2011 elections remains commendable. However, the process of democratization goes beyond elections alone.

3. Youth Activism must also become more inclusive, democratic and representative. We all know that our conversations take place over the heads of majority of Nigerian youths, whose reality does not even get represented on the agenda. We must therefore create opportunities for multiple platforms for engagement and be more tolerant of alternative viewpoints even among those who are actively engaging in our conversations. We must forget the illusion that whatever we do on the Internet involves everyone or can be seen by everyone. We must also understand the nature of youth activism and not confuse it with labour unionism, gender activism or even pro-democracy activism that even though includes the youth is not limited to them.

4. We must seek to build mutual respect. As long as young people continue to create the impression that other people and government officials especially, cannot disagree with them without standing the risk of being insulted, cursed, and abused, they would not be able to create the right environment for constructive engagement.

I will conclude by arguing once again that unless the enormous power that is conferred on young people by the new media is harnessed to constructively engage the actors who have been vested with the power to act on behalf of the people, on the platform of knowledge and in an atmosphere of mutual respect; organizing and associating will continue to be their own justification as an end by themselves. An adversarial relationship that pitches “us” against “them” cannot bring about any enduring or positive change.


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