The Vanguard said on Saturday that it was investigating a senior staff member at the newspaper who hurled an ethnic slur on the internet.
Ochereome Nnanna, a columnist and chairman of the paper’s editorial board, apparently disparaged the Yoruba ethnic group as “sophisticated morons” in a Facebook thread over the award of Nigeria’s highest honour to Moshood Abiola.
Mr Abiola, a prominent Nigerian of Yoruba origin was the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential election that was voided by Ibrahim Babangida, military dictator from 1985-93. President Muhammadu Buhari on June 6 conferred the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) on Mr Abiola, a posthumous honour that came 20 years after his death.
The move been warmly received across the country, but many Nigerians have also questioned its motive with elections months away.
Critics have accused Mr Buhari of seeking political advantage amongst the Yoruba, most of whom voted for him in 2015 but are now increasingly wary of giving him a second term in 2019.
Mr Nnanna was ostensibly debating the political dimension of the development with his Facebook circles on Friday when someone suggested it would be surprising if the Yoruba fall for the gambit as they are seen as “the most sophisticated ethnic group politically in Nigeria.”
“Sophisticated morons more like,” Mr Nnanna retorted. His comments elicited widespread condemnation, and his employers were compelled to issue a statement.
You can’t hold this much bile against an ethnic group, then go on to retain your position as Chairman, Editorial Board of a national newspaper. That is a timebomb right there. It’s like a bomb in the hands of a bigot. https://t.co/hGGURI02ZQ
— JJ. Omojuwa (@Omojuwa) June 9, 2018
Some social media users also exhumed Mr Nnanna’s past online activities to demonstrate a history of alleged bigoted rants by him.
“While we are carefully interrogating the circumstance that led to that comment, with a decisive response to the author, we wish to acknowledge that the statement was made entirely as part of a private conversation,” the Vanguard said in an unsigned statement sent to PREMIUM TIMES by its editor, Eze Anaba. “Vanguard dissociates itself totally from such unwarranted but careless, private outburst.”
The Lagos-based daily raced to contain the fallout on Saturday morning, saying Mr Nnanna’s conduct was not properly thought through, and did not reflect its institutional values.
“But we also wish to stress that Mr Nnanna’s position (as indeed like that of any senior editorial staff at the Vanguard) must always reflect a circumspect conduct that takes into cognizance the sensitive nature of our responsibility, and in particular, the need to maintain decorum and decency in all conduct and dealings, whether private or public, formal or virtual.
“We will like to re assure our patrons, readers and stakeholders that Vanguard newspapers will always remain on the path of correct professional etiquette, practice responsible journalism and adhere to the highest ethics of fairness, objectivity and just conduct, as these are essential ingredient for peace and growth in a plural and multifaceted society such as ours.
“We will like to place on record that Vanguard newspapers will continue to do all within its power to ensure that we do not betray the trust that has been reposed in us by the public,” the paper said.
Mr Nnanna told PREMIUM TIMES his comments were misunderstood because they were distorted and taken out of context by those who initially circulated it outside Facebook.
“The matter was misunderstood and taken out of context by people who are circulating it,” Mr Nnanna said in a telephone conversation Saturday evening. “Those who are ready to understand would allow this matter to go.”
The journalist said he has a long history of cordial interaction with people of diverse ethnic affiliations, including the Yoruba, and should not be seen as holding hatred against other ethnic, tribal or racial groups.
“As long as I am concerned, I have nothing against the Yoruba,” Mr Nnanna said. “These are my friends, bosses and subordinates in the office.”
He said he remained bounded by the statement issued by his employers and would cooperate fully with their investigation into the matter.