By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
America’s mainline news media deploy a really curious reportorial technique to narrativize Nigerians: They amplify our national identity in negative, unflattering news stories and suppress—sometimes even outright erase—it when stories cast us in a positive light.
Three events in the past few weeks instantiate this invidious reportorial temperament. First, on June 11, CNN and other American news media excitedly went to town with the story of two American “Marines [who] showed extraordinary bravery 'when the world became fire'.” It’s about two military men who were honored with the American military’s second highest honor for their uncommon valiance while on a mission in Afghanistan. The honor, called the Navy Cross, is second in prestige only to the “Medal of Honor,” the highest U.S. military decoration awarded for bravery and valor in action.
It turned out that one these two brave Americans is a man named Capt. Ademola Fabayo. Although his name is noticeably Nigerian—or at least “non-American”—CNN didn’t disclose his natal nationality until toward the end of the story. Even so, his association with Nigeria was undermined with the tidbit that he regards himself as more American than Nigerian. “Fabayo was born in Nigeria,” CNN writes, “but considers himself a New Yorker.” Would CNN have respected his preference to be considered more American than Nigerian if he were a criminal?
|Capt. Fabayo and Rodriguez|
Two issues are worthy of note here. Americans celebrate, even worship, their military in more ways than I have seen anywhere in the world. It is one institution that is practically immune from criticism in American popular discourse. Association with the military confers not just social prestige but also profound acceptance and reverence. As you can imagine, an award for valor by the military bestows even greater esteem and veneration on people. So if the news media had cast headlines that called attention to the national origins of the two brave American marines, the story would probably have inspired warm feelings toward Nigeria (and Mexico, the country of the second marine) in the minds of Americans who otherwise hear about these countries only in negative circumstances.
It is telling that all the American news media that reported on this award mentioned the original nationality of the marines only in the last paragraphs of their stories. As media scholars and practitioners know only too well, we live in an “age of skimming” where people only read the first few paragraphs of a story and then jump to the next story. I can bet my bottom dollar that more than 80 percent of Americans who read the story didn’t get to the point where the original national identities of the marines were revealed.
This seems like petty griping until you contrast this with what happened to another Nigerian-American exactly 19 days later. On June 30, the American news media overflowed with the story of a “Nigerian man,” identified as Olajide Oluwaseun Noibi, who boarded a flight from New York to Los Angeles with expired and stolen boarding passes.
The first sentence in The Associated Press’ reporting on the story reads: “A Nigerian man boarded a Virgin Atlantic airplane last week with an invalid boarding pass, according to the FBI.” For those who didn’t know, The Associated Press is America’s (and the world’s) biggest news agency. More than 50 percent of the editorial content of America’s news media is derived from the agency’s stories. As you would expect, most of the American news media coverage of the Noibi incident merely reproduced the AP story. Many headlines—in online, print, and broadcast media—identified Noibi as a “Nigerian man.”
|Olajide Oluwaseun Noibi|
However, Noibi is actually an American citizen born to parents who are originally from Nigeria. He was born in the city of Ames in Iowa, a state in Midwestern United States. That means he enjoys what is called birthright citizenship. The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution states that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
So, Noibi, an American by birth, was identified as a Nigerian on account of the nationality of his parents, but Fabayo who was actually born and brought up in Nigeria was identified merely as a brave (immigrant) American marine. His association with Nigeria had to wait until the last paragraphs. Even then, he was described as more American than Nigerian. I find this contrast intriguing.
But, most importantly, from all indications, Noibi is clearly mentally disturbed. A Nigerian blogger has chronicled Noibi’s awkward Facebook status updates and incoherent rants on YouTube. He clearly cuts the picture of a brainsick loony, but the American media haven’t even pursued this angle. The media were, instead, initially interested in linking the man’s freaky behavior with Umar Farouk AbdulMuttalab’s 2009 attempted “underwear bomb” plot. But the realization that Noibi is a self-professed Christian evangelist destroyed this potentially sensational media narrative.
Nevertheless, the name Noibi is clearly a Yoruba rendering of the Arabic name Naib, which means substitute, delegate, or deputy. In Muslim societies, the second person in hierarchy to the Chief Imam is called the Naib. Most African languages add “i” after the “b” to have Naibi. And Yoruba people almost always change the “a” sound to an “o” sound when they borrow words from other languages. It seems probable that the man’s parents were originally Muslims who converted to Christianity. Thank God for small mercies! Had that not been the case, the man’s demented act would have been linked with “Islamic terrorism.”
Finally, on July 7, another stunning story involving a Nigerian by the name of Ikenna Njoku, who was unfairly racially profiled by a bank, came to the open. Njoku was arrested, sent to jail for four days, and had his car auctioned off when he went to cash a check. Njoku, a construction worker, worked hard to buy a home. The American government has a program called first-time home-buyer rebate, which gives back a large chunk of taxes to anybody who buys a new home. Njoku qualified to receive $8,463.21 (about 1.3 million naira) and got a check worth that amount, which was issued by Chase Bank, the very bank that caused him to be arrested!
When he went to cash the check, the cashier looked at his foreign-sounding name. She didn’t believe a black man with a funny name could own a home much less qualify for a home-buyer rebate worth that amount. Instead of honoring his check, the cashier called the police on him. He was arrested and jailed for days until the bank realized that he was genuine. Meanwhile, he lost his job, his car, and never received an apology from the bank. He will certainly get millions of dollars in compensatory damages from the bank, especially because the national media are sympathetic to his travails.
For some reason, however, the man has never been identified, even for once, in the mainline U.S. media as a Nigerian. He is simply called “an Auburn man.” (Auburn is a city in the northwestern U.S. state of Washington).
Why is he not identified as a Nigerian? Is it because he cuts the image of a hardworking, honest immigrant who is the victim of an odious racial profiling, an image that doesn’t sit well with the media stereotypes of Nigerians? Had he been found guilty of check fraud, would the headlines still have referred to him merely as an “Auburn man”? I bet he would have been called a “Nigerian man” at best and a “Nigerian scammer” at worst. And he would have been linked with 419 scams.
The truth, in the final analysis, is that every media formation is guilty of cultivating a set of narratives and imageries that it then tries hard to nurture and defend at all costs. The Nigerian media has its own peculiar sets of ethical infractions. But as a Nigerian living in America, I can’t help being miffed by the hypocritical portrayal of Nigerians in the American media.