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Freedom under supervision in Nigeria

Culture and media are actually free in Nigeria. However, the state censorship authority has a watchful eye. Nevertheless, Nigerians do not allow themselves to be deprived of their right to freedom of expression.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari had already focused his election campaign entirely on change. When he took office in May 2015, he declared war on the rampant corruption in the country and on the radical Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. He also wanted to strengthen the media sector and freedom of expression. “Many artists reacted with relief,” reports Marc-André Schmachtel, director of the Goethe-Institut in the economic and cultural metropolis of Lagos. One of Nigeria’s best-known writers, Lola Shoneyin (“The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Women”), had even openly campaigned for Buhari.

Since the change of government, Marc-André Schmachtel has not been able to observe any major restrictions on media freedom. No reports have been withdrawn, nor have there been attempts to intimidate media representatives. “As far as I can judge, freedom of expression has remained relatively open, and I also believe that this is deliberately handled by the government.

Censorship with a history

This is surprising, because as a military dictator, Muhammadu Buhari himself had taken very tough action against dissenting opinions in the 1980s. His predecessor, too, had a very divided relationship to freedom of culture and media. In February 2015, the organization “Reporters Without Borders” warned: “President Goodluck Jonathan’s evasive nature when it comes to the media and the rights of the public in general is very worrying. Domestic and foreign media had been prevented from reporting on the anti-terror struggle in northeastern Nigeria.

This should now come to an end: Shortly after his appointment as Information Minister in November 2015, Lai Mohammed made it clear that he would not tolerate such intimidation. He announced closer cooperation between the government, the military and the media, from which journalists in particular would benefit through reliable information.

Mohammed encouraged the state media to report in a balanced and fair manner. They should also be able to report critically on government affairs without fearing consequences. This announcement has caused a sensation in the Nigerian media. “This is exactly what we need to ensure the quality of the news,” says Ifeyinwa Omowole, editor of the Nigerian news agency NAN. “This leaves no room for speculative journalism.”

Party media control

While the printed media in Africa’s most populous country have seldom minced their words in the past and even under military regimes, the comparatively young private television and radio stations are still under pressure. The Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) watches over them.

“The problem is that the chairman is appointed solely by the president,” criticizes Umar Saidu Tudunwada, manager of the North Nigerian private station Freedom Radio. That’s why the NBC is repeatedly used to enforce the position of the ruling party. Since the government controls the state media directly anyway, progressive private media, in particular, are quickly targeted by media regulators. Tudunwada therefore demands that the commission be appointed by parliament in the future. “Then at least the president can’t simply dismiss the chairman on a whim,” he explains his demand.

Caution with sensitive topics

In addition, private newspapers and radio stations very often belong to members of the Nigerian upper class who are closely associated with one political party or another. Many contributions are paid for directly by organisations or religious groups or are even produced by themselves. In deeply religious Nigeria, pastors and imams also exert direct pressure on the media. Topics dealing with religion, women’s rights or homosexuality are taboo in Northern Nigeria. “If you’re not careful, they mobilize the street and cause real trouble,” reports Umar Saidu Tudunwada of Freedom Radio, which has its headquarters in strictly Muslim Kano.

Wole Soyinka thinks Buhari is the lesser evil

Nigerian writers, who have become internationally aware again in recent years, can act more freely and address taboo topics more easily. They usually write in the official language English and have their audience mainly in the educational elite. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka is optimistic. “We have an enormous amount of literary talent, especially among our young authors.” Soyinka is certain that literature can contribute to the positive development of the country: “Literature can create awareness. With the means of literature, one can also make a government more aware that it is responsible to its citizens and that it is its task to overcome the division between rich and poor.

Censorship authority watches over Nollywood

Videofilms produced in their own country are much more popular than books. Nigeria’s film industry “Nollywood” is now considered the most productive in the world after the USA and India. The popularity of the films in this mass medium has also awakened the state’s need for control. The supervisory body even officially calls itself the “censorship authority”: National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB). As a rule, the work of the censors is unobtrusive. Two years ago, however, there was an outcry when the civil war film “Half of a Yellow Sun”, which thematized the split of the Biafra region, was not allowed to be screened. After many public discussions it ran, but in a changed version.

Marc-André Schmachtel tries to circumvent censorship

The Goethe-Institut does not experience any direct restrictions in its work in the megacity of Lagos. Marc-André Schmachtel emphasises that there are nevertheless topics that require a special sensitivity: “We are very careful with homosexuality, for example. Events that can take place in the relatively permissive Lagos without attracting much attention would probably meet with resistance in other parts of the country, says the director of the Goethe-Institut.

“Sometimes we have to pack things a little differently in order to be able to use the leeway,” Schmachtel explains, alluding to his experience with the liaison office in Kano in northern Nigeria. Through music and video projects, the Goethe-Institut was also able to address sensitive topics there between 2008 and 2012. However, due to the terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, the risk of kidnapping was too great for the German office manager. The northern Nigerian branch had to close again after barely four years.

The radical Islamic group is still raging in the north-east of the country – burning books and instruments, destroying cultural sites and everything that in their eyes is “pagan”. Journalists and musicians are also targeted by the terrorists. For Northern Nigeria, therefore, it is above all a question of whether the new president can put an end to the terror, only then will greater freedom for culture and the media open up again.