The Place of Satire in Nigerian journalism

Satire is a genre of literature usually written with humour to ridicule or make fun of vices in the society. Yet, it is not uncommon to find people attacking satirists for their work(s).

The Oxford Dictionary defines Satire as “A poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary.” 

Satire is usually written or produced for humour by the deliberate provocation of ills. It is presented in multimedia forms such as cartoons, text, video, and audio.  

The most popular satire on TV is America’s ‘The Daily Show.’ Nigeria had a similar TV programme, ‘The Other News,’ on Channels Television.

In Nigeria, satires in cartoon forms usually occur in newspapers and magazines.

Several Nigerian authors have also infused satire into their writings. Some of the popular books written in this form include; Elnathan John’s Becoming Nigerian and Wale Okediran’s Tenants of the House.

Even though satire is largely meant to evoke fun, satirists usually face attacks for their works when a person or group feels attacked by their work.

The multi-ethnic and multi-religious nature of Nigeria makes it even more difficult to make a joke about public issues without stepping on some political, religious, or ethnic toes.

For example, in the first Republic, a (satirical) cartoon in the June 1966 edition of the popular Drum Magazine is believed to have played a role in fueling the 1966 riots that led to the attack and killings of Igbos in Northern Nigeria.

The cartoon depicts the late Northern Premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello, (Hausa) as “confessing” his “foolish” misdeeds and asking for forgiveness. The cartoon was accompanied by an article by Coz Idapo (an Igbo) “Sir Ahmadu rose in his shrouds and spoke from the dead.”

Sometimes in 2017, faced with the task of writing the first episode of Nigeria’s first TV Show ‘The Other News’, a team of writers, mostly Nigerian, had a long debate on whether or not they won’t be causing an uproar by making fun of the Ooni of Ife on the action of his entourage at an airport.

The biggest problem was that the anchor of the show was from the Igbo ethnic group, so they were sceptical about mocking a first-class Yoruba monarch –both major ethnic groups in Nigeria. 

That episode was finally produced successfully, but the situation mirrored the kind of environment satirists have to work in.

Even more recently, in September 2020, DailyTrust’s cartoonist, Mustapha Bulama, upset the wife of Nigeria’s president for his cartoon after the wedding of one of the president’s daughters, Hanan Buhari.

The spokesman to the first lady, Aliyu Abdullahi, condemned the drawing, describing it as “very unfair” to the president’s family because the wedding was held without fanfare. Bulama said he “mean(t) no harm” with the cartoon and that he “was just trying to show aspects of the current experience of Nigerians”.

Satire as Freedom of Expression

Staunch defenders of satire as a cultural form usually cite how it is a form of Freedom of Expression. Freedom of Expression is a Fundamental Human Right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of which Nigeria is a signatory. It is also recognized in international human rights law. 

Article 19 (2) of the ICCPR states that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information, and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

Satire and a Libel Case

One of the notable cases of Satire and Free Speech is the ‘Hustler Magazine v. Jerry Falwell’ case of 1988 in the US.

In the case, a Satirical Magazine, Hustler Magazine, depicted a televangelist and political commentator, Jerry Falwell, as an incestuous drunk.

The magazine published a photograph of Jerry Falwell and an interview with him about his “first time” in an drunken incestuous encounter with his mother in an outhouse, followed with a disclaimer at the bottom of the page; “ad parody — not to be taken seriously.”

Falwel sued the magazine to recover damages for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

However, in a ruling considered to be a landmark court decision for freedom of speech in the US, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that “parodies of public figures, including those intended to cause emotional distress, are protected by the First Amendment.”

Before the supreme court Judgement, a lower court had ruled in favour of Falwell on the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

 However, a lawyer, Muazu Liman Yabo, observed that there is a limit to freedom of expression and how provoking a satirical piece should be.

“At times satirical expressions may be seditious, may be inciting,” he said, citing how a cartoon by Coz Idapo of the Drum Magazine aided the uprising that led to the ‘1966 anti-Igbo pogrom.’

“In the drum Magazine, what triggers the first problem of the Nigerian civil war was one of artistic impressions of the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, by one Coz Idapo, and that was the last straw that broke the camel’s back when the uprising, killings started,” he said.

“The limits (of freedom of expression) are where the right of the other person begins,” he said, adding that “Somebody’s right should not be infringed in the name of somebody exercising a right guaranteed by the constitution. So the law protects both.”

“Where the law allows you or gives you the right to do something, that right is notationally assumed with responsibility”, Yabo concluded.

Ethical Silence

There is a deafening silence on the ethics of satire in Nigerian Journalism. A good look at the ‘Code of Ethics for Nigerian Journalists’ shows no mention of satire in any way. 

Former Managing Editor of TheNation online, and Executive Director, Media Career Development Network, Lekan Otufodunrin, said “the ethics of Nigerian Journalism does not in any way mention satire.”

Otufodunrin, therefore, advised that satirists should write or create what they can defend.

“No matter what you write, if people are going to be angry, they are going to be angry,’ adding, “So to protect yourself, do it in a way that the generality will understand where you are getting at.”


Across the globe, satiric pieces have led to disapproval, uprisings and terror attacks. Yet, the debate as to whether or not there is a limit to how provoking it should be as a freedom of expression is yet to have a single conclusion. It’s place in Nigerian Journalism is even more confusing. There is a need for a good understanding of what Satire is, and why people should or should not take it seriously.

The researcher produced this fact-check per the Dubawa 2020 Fellowship partnership with Vision FM to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.

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