The main takeaway from #Kony2012 is that it will probably retain some salience—despite the widespread criticism against the film and its makers—for how most people, including some Africans, will engage with Sub-Saharan African issues for the time being. However, more promising for media are the implications of #OccupyNigeria, a series of protests that brought that country to a standstill for the first two weeks of January 2012 following an announcement by President Jonathan that he would scrap a fuel subsidy that most Nigerians considered their birthright. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians streamed onto the street to join marches and rallies. The national strike was only suspended after the Government, following a deal brokered with trade unions, partially restored the subsidy. By most estimates #OccupyNigeria was the largest and most sustained short-term protest movement in any Sub-Saharan African country in a long while.
Media coverage of Nigeria during #OccupyNigeria mostly focused on alleged violence associated with protesters or linked the protests to the violence of Boko Haram, which stepped up its attacks during the strike. Certain “expert” voices in the West supported the government of Jonathan, especially his finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. They would quickly face the backlash of Nigerian protesters. Cases in point: Jeffrey Sachs and Ethan Zuckerman. The latter to his credit, backtracked from his initial thoughts.
Much of that pressure came from activists on social media; crucially in the Nigerian Diaspora. The latter also took their protests to the streets. Online activists targeted celebrities (Nollywood actors and popular singers like D’Banj) who were forced to declare their allegiance with the strike. Yet the real focus of the anger was directed towards Nigeria’s political class, especially President Jonathan and finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who were both lampooned and scoffed online. Two websites stood out: the Nigeria-based Chop Cassava (which produces video reports) and Sahara Reporters based in New York City.
Of these, Sahara Reporters has had a larger impact. Sahara Reporters has become a media force inside Nigeria largely because it is not in Nigeria. The website’s base in New York City places Sahara Reporters “beyond the reach of the politicians and corporations that the site often reports on.” What appeals to its readers and audience is the nature of the stories they report. As Mohamed Keita of the Committee to Protest Journalists told Al Jazeera English, Sahara Reporters provides, “eye witness accounts, just raw information about sensitive issues that the press in Nigeria is too afraid to publish or report.” These include, extensive coverage of a huge oil spill in the Niger Delta; revealing the corruption of a state governor who was eventually tried in a British court; and events around the illness, absence from Nigeria and eventual death of President Umaru Yar’Adua in May 2010.
Ordinary Nigerians have warmed to Sahara Reporters’ reporting and support it publicly. It has also attracted the attentions of those in power. In some instances, Jonathan’s office has released media statements directly addressed to the site. In one celebrated case, Sahara Reporters’ story of 32 aides accompanying Nigeria’s first lady on an official trip to an African Union summit in Ethiopia, resulted in the presidential spokesperson releasing a press statement aimed specifically at Sahara Reporters.
Some concerns have been raised about sensationalism in Sahara Reporters’ style of reporting and writing. However, the conspiratorial and mocking tone of Sahara Reporters’ coverage should not be surprising. The sensationalism or the partiality to sensational stories is simply a symptom of a current Nigerian reality: that people know that they are getting screwed by the political system, and that there is a “real” beyond what is visible, dominant or apparent.
What makes Sahara Reporters’ reporting “global” is not just the fact that it is transnational, but also the flow and counter-flow of information between New York City, Lagos and elsewhere in Nigeria. There’s also the reciprocity between Sahara Reporters’ editors, its audience, contributors, sources as well as its targets.
Read the rest here on the SSRC’s site.