An experienced journalist and lawyer, Louis Onyia is aggressively tackling the problem of corruption in Nigerian society through a combined strategy of investigative journalism and legal and civil action.
The New Idea
Louis believes that efforts to curb corruption in Nigeria have failed in large measure because the focus has always been on top government officials. Yet corruption permeates every aspect of Nigerian life. So, to limit corruption in Nigeria, he argues that the focus must be on every sector of society: from the cooperative's head to the town union leader to the local government chairman to the country's president. Because it is often the cooperative's chief who later becomes local government chairman, Louis believes that it is paramount to curb corruption at lower levels.
Based on this belief, he has set up an altogether new type of newspaper to report corruption at the community, regional, and state government levels. To ensure that something is done about the corruption he reports, he follows up with petitions to the anticorruption tribunal and files cases in court against offending officers. He is also forming alliances with existing citizen sector organizations both to accelerate the campaign against corruption and to check on the cases he has forwarded to the anticorruption tribunal and courts.
This idea is new in Nigeria, evidenced by its being the first time someone has developed a combined strategy of investigative journalism and legal and civil action. Furthermore, Louis's strategy of involving other civil society groups in the fight against corruption marks the first time citizen sector groups representative of different interests (human rights, women, environment, youth) have come together to fight corruption.
Corruption is the bane of Nigerian society. In the 1970s, corruption was mostly limited to government officials in high places; today, it permeates every facet of life, from religious leaders to the lowest ranks in government. It was often assumed that Nigeria's corruption resulted from long years of military rule, but it has become clear that both military and civilian governments are burdened with the same problem. Many would even argue that corruption under civilians is worse because of the many tiers of government that give many more people access to public funds. Most efforts to curb this problem have failed because of the rampant nature of the problem, insufficient political will to persecute erring officials, and lack of citizen pressure.
The media, especially the print media, have highlighted isolated instances of corruption in government. But because of the undue harassment many faced during the military era, the zeal to keep reporting corruption has largely ebbed. As a result, most reporters stay clear of controversial issues that will induce the wrath of the government. In addition, economic instability means that most media depend on the government for funding and advertisement, making objective reporting of the facts difficult.
This situation has carried over to the new democratic government, and individuals who have challenged corrupt practices have been imprisoned, sending a clear indication to others that free speech entails many consequences in Nigerian society. Hence, most Nigerian newspapers are full of government propaganda, even while it is obvious that the present government is corrupt and doing little to improve the socioeconomic situation of the majority of its citizens.
Citizen sector organizations have made headway as crusaders against corruption, but many link corruption to military rule, which they succeeded in bringing to an end. However, this linking of corruption to military rule has made it hard to challenge the new democratic leaders with the same zeal, and many fear that doing so could give the military a reason to return to power, as it did in 1983. As a result, both the media and human rights groups have reduced dramatically their roles as agents against corruption. Nonetheless, even when citizen organizations and the media report corruption, it is often about corruption in high places, with little or no mention of corruption at the grassroots level. Yet, as Louis sees, it is grassroots corruption that feeds corruption at the high levels.
More critically, there is little or no link between the media and citizen organizations. Cases that are reported in the newspapers are hardly ever taken up by citizen groups, and cases being handled by these civil society groups are given little prominence in the media. As a result, the average Nigerian believes that there is no point in reporting corruption because little or nothing is done about it.
If this situation is not addressed, corruption will continue to thwart Nigeria's progress and deny opportunities for citizens to reach their full potential.
Having worked as an investigative journalist for years, Louis founded his own publication, The Independent Summit, in 1991 to report exclusively on corruption at every level of society. As a pilot, he decided to start with and concentrate on three states in the East of Nigeria, expanding later to cover news from additional states.
To get information on corruption, Louis has established a network of informants and journalists at every local government level where he works. The paper has made him many enemies in government, even under the democratic dispensation. Accordingly, he has devised an intricate security system for himself, his journalists, and the paper itself. For instance, to protect the identity of his journalists and informants, he encourages the use of aliases. Furthermore, the newspaper is printed in six different locations to avoid having one "easy target" central office. The paper does have an email address to contact staff. He plans to create a Web site for the paper, but Louis himself is constantly in hiding and can be reached only through a complex security arrangement.
Louis's newspaper is priced inexpensively to encourage wide readership and allow the poor to access news. This strategy makes financial sustainability a serious issue, but he is managing to overcome this challenge by applying for grants from trusted organizations and appealing to responsible individuals. He also enjoys a lot of goodwill in Enugu State where he is based, and people who identify with his project assume many of his costs. He often tells the story of how he hardly ever pays taxi fares in Enugu because the taxi drivers always give him a free ride as soon as they recognize him.
Louis knows that reporting corruption is not enough; instead, it is only a first, although fundamental, step in the fight against corruption. To truly eliminate corruption, reports must bring about legal reform. This realization started his critical strategy of writing petitions to the anticorruption tribunal and suing malfeasant officials. At present, he has three petitions before the anticorruption tribunal and many cases in court. To ensure that more time is dedicated to this strategy, Louis is setting up citizen sector organizations–now in the process of registration–to concentrate fully on legal and civil action against corrupt officials.
To complement the effort of this organization and his newspaper and to spread his idea, he is also developing a broad-based coalition of citizen sector organizations that will focus on the follow-up side of his initiative. For instance, if corruption has been identified at the Ministry of Women's Affairs and a petition sent to the anticorruption tribunal, the women's organizations in his coalition will pursue appropriate next steps. To spread his idea further, he is increasing the newspaper's circulation to more rural areas and planning to expand coverage beyond eastern Nigeria.
Louis came from a polygamous family where there was little peace and harmony. His parents quarreled constantly, and Louis found himself taking the role early in life as the family mediator. Furthermore, the injustice he saw his mother face at the hands of his father's relatives made him hate oppression, and soon he became the defender of the oppressed among his peer groups, fighting for them against bullies in their midst.
His interest in fighting for the oppressed led him to study mass communications and journalism; he felt that the best way to protect the weak was to highlight the oppressions they faced. In his naiveté, he felt that if the media highlighted oppression, the authorities would then do something about it. After graduation from the university, Louis joined a newspaper in Nigeria, The Tide, as a way to bring the plight of the oppressed to the fore. Despite his thorough investigations and reporting, nothing was being done about the oppression he highlighted. He soon realized that this was because government was the main oppressor and government officials were the greatest beneficiaries of the oppression, and they were in no hurry to correct the situation. He then decided to become an investigative journalist focusing mainly on corruption. He found The Tide uncooperative in terms of publishing articles critical of the government. After working there for a year, he moved to another paper, The Satellite, and met the same treatment. In 1995 he joined The Week Magazine and found a group that was willing to challenge the government. He worked there for five years, reporting corrupt practices under the military. His reporting brought him in constant conflict with the then-military government, and he went in and out of detention.
During this period, he decided to study law to arm himself with the knowledge and skills necessary to protect himself from the incessant harassment by the military government. He soon realized, however, that while he and others were focusing on corruption in high places, corruption was endemic to the whole system. He determined that to remove corruption in Nigeria, the paper would have to widen its scope to capture the corruption happening at the lower levels. The magazine was not interested and preferred to concentrate on corruption at the federal level. At this point he decided to publish his own paper to concentrate fully on corruption at all levels.