Nigeria – where the truth is hard to find


The confusion surrounding the weekend plane crash in Nigeria – when officials at first confidently said that many people had survived, before later back-tracking – shows how difficult it is to get accurate information in Africa’s most populous country, writes the BBC’s former Nigeria correspondent Anna Borzello.
It may seem astonishing to anyone who hasn’t visited Nigeria that a plane on a main commercial route can disappear, and for nearly a day no-one knows where it has gone.
How can an aircraft come down in a crowded part of the country without news of the crash spreading to the cities within half an hour?
How can officials confidently tell reporters there are survivors, when everyone is dead?
Reading the report of the crash on the BBC News website, all the frustration I used to feel trying to get to the bottom of stories in Nigeria came flooding back.
I was reminded of the time, about a year ago, when onlookers crowded onto a Lagos beach, convinced a plane had just plunged into the water killing all on board.
There were eye-witnesses, the story ran on CNN, and a police helicopter whirred overhead.
But the aviation authority said it had no record of a flight plan, and the wreckage was never found.
After a few days, the story was simply forgotten.
Fractured picture
So why is it so hard to get information in Nigeria?
Part of the reason is that the country is hugely complex and has many different centres of power.
In Uganda, which is a far smaller and more centralised society, information always seems to flow towards one point.
But in Nigeria it ends up fracturing, trickling down byways and getting lost in tiny tributaries.
No one person ever seems to be in overall control, or to have the whole picture.
Journalists have to piece everything together from multiple sources but even tracking down those sources is a struggle.
Some press officers are happy to talk, others never turn on their phones. Few seem to believe that Nigerians have a right to information.
Media spin
Even when there is someone willing to give an account of events, it is often to push their own agenda.
I was told before I left for Lagos that it would be a difficult place to report
Complicated stories become even more tangled as all the parties try to spin events to their advantage.
The oil-rich Delta region is particularly difficult, because so much money is at stake.
I travelled to a village with two colleagues last year to cover the alleged fatal shooting of eight civilians by soldiers guarding an oil installation.
We talked to grieving relatives and local officials, saw the fresh earth of new graves and were briefly detained by the military.
Our stories prompted a two-month investigation by the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell, which concluded that there had been no killings.
And yet at the end of all this, not everything we were told added up. My colleagues and I are still not certain how many – or if any – people died.
Poor communications
To add to this media manipulation, there is also the most basic impediment to accurate reporting – an inadequate infrastructure.
Mobile phones work but they can be erratic and they have limited range outside urban areas.
The country is vast, but road blocks slow down movement and travel is inadvisable after dark.
If something happens in a rural area it can take several days for the news to reach the main city, Lagos.
It arrives in a distorted Chinese whisper form and requires another (often fruitless) day’s efforts to confirm it.
And, as my trip to the Delta village demonstrated, on-the-site reporting doesn’t always make the story clearer.
Nigeria is so vast, so multi-layered and varied, so utterly complex and so totally eventful, that there is never enough time to tackle more than a fraction of stories.
I was told before I left for Lagos that it would be a difficult place to report.
What I had not anticipated was how hard it would be to ever know exactly what was going on.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2005/10/24 16:44:17 GMT

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