Keeping Power in Check: On the Shrinking Media and Civic Space in Nigeria
After writing the foreword and a fairly long article in Testimony to Courage: Essays in Honour of Dapo Olorunyomi, I wanted to be excused from delivering this lecture at the Lagos presentation of the book. But, I happen to like the idea of a special fare for our ‘city by the lagoon’, after the Abuja date. I see it as a way of admitting that in the matter of guarding civic competence and standing by the public’s right to know, Lagos deserves to be allowed to have a special word: even if it were merely to update things by letting an extempore speech appear as a textual staking of position.
Basically, a Lagos presentation of Testimony to Courage happens to be a way of re-invoking our rights as citizens. It is to remind the elected, as well as the unelected minders of the state, that we must keep common cause with the vast majority of our people who are fervent lovers of this country; irrespective of the identifications they may have or are being given by security agents in the era of Operation Positive Identification. Now, with soldiers being given the leeway to perform police duties and to ascertain or establish identities on streets and highways, it is virtually an obligation to re-assert our grounds as citizens by speaking for ourselves and for all. The two editors of the book, Chido Onumah and Frederick Adetiba, happen to be stalwarts of the profession of journalism who are quite passionate about the necessity to celebrate those who, within and outside the line of duty, have always spoken for the millions who cannot speak for themselves. They make all of us wholesomely complicit in their mode of observance and commitment regarding the push for civic gold, that is, giving to every citizen his and her due in relation to rights that no one ought to be allowed to take away.
This was quite the firm standpoint at the book’s first presentation in Abuja where the reviewer, Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, gave testimony to the quite ecumenical spirit that has kept alive the defence of human and people’s rights as a general refresh of a patriotic mandate. Concerned about nation-building, it is a mandate beyond mere professional rectitude; a mandate that won’t allow impunity to side-line commitment to both the people’s right to know and the rights of those who stand up for those who may not know their rights. This makes it quite heart-warming that Femi Falana SAN, our all-time human rights lawyer, is Chair of the Lagos occasion in the company of many journalists who have turned the need for competence in their professional undertakings to a means of righting social wrongs. Well, we all recognize that, left alone, social wrongs disorder the integrity of professions and vocations. By which I mean that journalists, lawyers and all people of public affairs, who do not want the public space to be traduced, necessarily must assume a special responsibility. By defending their trades and professions, they are defending their own and our common interests as citizens. They are, as such, assets to the contexts which have made it possible for individuals and groups to be avid shapers of values in our democracy. Unfortunately, it happens to be a democracy that has progressively deteriorated the more we have described it as nascent.
Therefore, we need to be upfront with it that to celebrate defenders of the media and civic space like Dapo Olorunyomi is to uphold living tenets of democracy. We energize rather than cede the space to those who traduce our common rights in their bid to serve private or privatized interests. Indeed, we happen to know that such interests, if allowed to co-angulate, tend to keep power in the disorienting loop of those who, not knowing how to govern a modern state, imagine that it is about shutting other people off the public space. To be sure, shutting people off the media and civic space is what it amounts to, when leaders and agents of government wage unnecessary Punic wars upon what they describe as hate speech. Which is why we are here. The big snag is that the shrinking media and civic space has made it imperative to re-launch Testimony to courage, as reviewed on this occasion by Ogaga Ifowodo, the poet, critic, and lawyer who, once upon a time, had a taste of General Sani Abacha’s gulag.
Without over-anticipating his review, I want to address the issue (of hate speech) as it is being pursued by the Government of President Muhammadu Buhari whose shrinkage of the media and civic space is becoming more sensational by the day. And let me add quickly that, Hate Speech happens to be a ritually ill-defined term. It is applied so amorphously as to be whatever it is claimed to be in the eye of the beholder. Usually so loosely engaged, it has become a case of pushing mere expletives on the side of minders of the state.
Normally, it is about spurning the use of a language that defames, holds in contempt, hurts, ridicules, or damages the interests of ethnic, racial, religious or political groups. In a country of so many conflicts, region against region, tribe against tribe, Muslims against Christians, Sunnis against Shiites, Arewa against Biafrans, minorities against majorities, and gender activists against chauvinists, a country where power is zoned and easily identifiable with ethnic and sectarian overhangs, the concept of hate speech is bound to be highly contested. The implied discrimination against, or detraction from the humanity of those attacked, quickly becomes no longer the issue because of the manner of approach to it. What quickly asserts itself is the grisly attitude of the champions of supposedly saner speech who think we must all cease to be human beings, incapable of hating even the sheerness of evil, in order to stop hate speech. Often it is not even stressed that hate speech has a double-edged nature. In the heat of the slash and burn rhetoric, we are made to forget that a society does need to be capable of hating without losing its mind. A society that cannot hate, with passion, the negativities that divide people and disrupt civic welfare in society is doomed to swallow the hate projects of those who exercise power without a sense of fellow-feeling or empathy. Which is to say that the fight against hate speech can so easily become farcical and toxic unless it is constantly stressed that there are good and bad ways of fighting it.
The good way is based on a benign suasion, through public education and informed interactions, seeking to move citizens away from expressing hatred in forms of verbal assaults that incite violence. The odd and the bad way is beholding to those who stress the route of punishments that seek to criminalize it. In this connection, it pays always to be aware that, just as there are good and bad ways of fighting it, there isn’t only one model of hate speech.
Hate speech that leads to post-election violence, as we have known it in the Fourth Republic, may be distinguished from such as attended the pogroms, culminating in the Holocaust against the Jews, as perpetrated in Europe in a ritualized manner during the second World War. The early definers of hate speech were therefore careful not to press for judicial intervention or resort to forms of amelioration that could become in themselves a means of escalating hatred and creating a siege psychology to pulverize whole populations. They were circumspect. They did not want to reproduce the human errors that they were inveighing against. They were determined to dissuade insensate verbiage that could lead to violence. Mostly, they did not want to destroy the basis of popular freedoms of speech and association. The warriors against hate speech cottoned on to the civility of public discourses by seeking laws to engineer social behaviour away from the diminution of fellow-feeling and the assault on self-esteem. In fact, following the more progressive European models, Nigerian jurisprudence took a cue from the early definers who worked at improving laws of libel and defamation and even sedition. In the case of sedition, which tended to be misused against critics of government, it fell into disrepute when a nationalistic judiciary in Nigeria, prodded by radical lawyers, pruned its colonial facets in order to enable citizens in a democratizing society to enjoy due freedoms of speech and association.
To be square on this, let’s admit that, in the past, the seeming ease with which activist lawyers and judges pushed the frontiers of freedom for the whole society, made many to lower their guards while so much destructive jurisprudence was being emplaced by the legislators of the Fourth Republic and was being signed into law by absent-minded or conniving executives. This must explain why, in recent years, when the goblin of fake news and cyberbullying, and cybercrimes in general, began to overawe the waves, the Cyber Crime Act that imposed up to two million Naira fine and two years’ imprisonment for infringements, sailed through. It did not attract the deserved outcry because cybercrimes were obviously deemed to belong to a miniscule part of the population on the fringe of the internet. The evident movement towards exorbitance in the imposition of punishments did not register. It was considered civil enough even while it was so obvious that the penalty for infractions were for a different, much-better heeled, kind of society.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, a basis was being laid for turning life in the public space into an obstacle race that could mangle freedoms more than the crimes that the laws were meant to contain. Perhaps what made many of the highly over-punitive, and undemocratic laws to pass was that, bizarre as governance in the Fourth Republic was becoming, there was also the emergent shine epitomized by a President Olusegun Obasanjo who bluffed his way as a social engineer of sorts. As for President Goodluck Jonathan, he did not over-advertise his thin skin, and so was thought to be saving our nascent democracy from so much distress by his rather effortless capacity to take even the most outrageous criticism and ridicule. But, unnoticed, it seems, the making of laws, bad laws, in the Fourth Republic was turning cynical and distractedly foul. It was as if no one cared, since not all lawyers look up the laws until there is a case to go for. So, it seemed: until the emergence of General Muhammadu Buhari as President.
Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. Buhari’s in-your-face penchant for re-inventing the public space in a language that criminalized normal behaviour, turned debates, arguments, and civil disagreements into do or die simulacra of war. From him who had hoisted post-election violence as cure for malpractices, there was a wicked reformulation of everyday behaviour in a heinous light. Impunity was heightened with a special but woolly zeal to simply punish rather than correct. Yes, punish, as if for its own sake, rather than correct, without a proven understanding of the issues. In the process, civility was bound to be overtaken or overcome. Especially as there has been little interest in the necessity to ameliorate social conditions that roughen up and induce people to use hate speech, the downturn in concern was not long in becoming obvious.
For a party that had deployed an enormous range of sheer hate speech to pave its way to power, it took a while to follow the twist in form. For a party whose leader’s pre-election swipes and jibes had once yielded a dastardly post-election violence of unimaginable virulence, the campaign against hate speech was too good to be true. As a war on hate-speech, it caught many off guard. It seemed as if, for some moment, the apostles of hate-push misdeeds were converting to civility. The official message was mixed however because across the country, especially with the war in the North East and the herdsmen’s war for grazing spaces, conversations in the public space invited very strong language which sometimes turned into blood-curdling affairs.
The strong language of the social media was always there to match the devilries of the armed propaganda of sundry groups that state agencies were not managing to contain. In fact, the inability of state agents to pacify insurgents and armed propagandists was being blamed on hate speech which was more a result than precursor. It was a case of wrong diagnosis, specious official analysis, failing to yield a re-examination of the poor management of social upheavals. Calling it hate speech was easy labelling. What cannot be discounted is that the hideous poverty and neglect that has been a backdrop to the application of different moralities to different groups, has always been part of the issue.
Due to differences, according to whether some Nigerians are closer to the leader’s known predispositions than others, a sludge of immoderate arguments tended to emerge which deployed or empowered strong language. As it spilled into every area of Nigerian life, it poisoned cyberspace in a manner that the bad behaviour of one space soon turned into staple across a wide swipe. In particular, it was worsened by the lopsided actions of the government, favouring one group over another, rather than showing faith and belief in common law. This damaged the already testy environment arising from the invidious actions of armed groups. It might be said, in this sense, that the current situation of seeking to use draconian laws to fight hate speech, is what has turned every use of strong language into hate speech.
Properly speaking, much of what is officially regarded as hate speech in Nigeria is owed to the immoderate and disingenuous responses to social problems by political stalwarts, state agents and principal voices along the corridors of power. They, who have not been averse to inflicting their own batteries of hate peddlers on cyberspace, have simply jumped upon the fashion of dubbing every disagreement as hate speech. To stress the point well, it should be acknowledged that it was hate-inducing actions, not speech, that exploded into war in the North East. Nor did hate speech take over villages in Benue State for grazing purposes. It was Kalashnikovs, not hate speech, that first strafed the calm of the farmsteads in Plateau and Zamfara before hatred spilled into Cyberspace.
The free speech dividend of democracy and the technological aid to it were mere accessories to the gross realities on the ground. It so happened that the temper across the country, having been already ruined, and so fecklessly, by Federal Government’s divisive logics, it became necessary for state agencies to presume to be dousing the fires; not as umpires but by wheeling and dealing. In effect, they were working through the same kind of draconian insensateness that fertilized the grounds for hate speech in the first place. In this regard, agents of the Federal Government have merely been able to escape being taken to the Hague for crimes against humanity because of the incongruous power grids overawing Nigeria’s political landscape. Verbal exchanges that could very well have dropped like insignificant wafer in a sea of interpersonal exchanges have been promoted by sordid actions such as armed propaganda by military stalwarts and herdsmen and cattle rustlers pampered by discriminatory government interventions. Hate-propelled actions have been quite the unchecked, insidious, independent variables in the current hue and cry over hate speech. Sadly, the horrid legislative agenda of the National Assembly has entered the picture in the form of organized lynching of the freedom of the average Nigerian. Truly sad is that it is marked by a collusion of the ruling party, the executive and the legislature.
Let’s face it: the NBC bill, the Bill for the protection from internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019, seek to revamp existing laws in a gory direction. It goes leg in shoe with the bill to hamstring all civil society organizations, touting sinister additives of punishments and penalties that raise humungous fines, sending persons to jail for as much as three years for abuse of social media. Add this up to the bill that sets up an “Independent National Commission for the Prohibition of hate speeches”. (Poor language!). It has a penalty ratio that is so draconian as to offer no escape from the ultimate penalty. Between the bills, it is all so draconian. One provides that “Any person who knowingly utters words to incite feelings of contempt, hatred, hostility, violence, or discrimination against any person, group or community on the basis of ethnicity or race, commits an offence … (and) shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not less than five years, or to a fine of not less than N10 million or to both”. The question is: why do the punishments have to be so harsh? In a multi-ethnic, and multi-religious society in which governments have always deployed ethnic and religious criteria in determining who gets what, when and how, what kind of altruism allows a law to be so incensed? It would appear the aim is not to correct but ensure that the whole society is pulverized by fear. Such that anyone accused will know how foregone is the ultimate penalty.
The more murderous and bare-knuckle one concerns the bill on hate speech sponsored by Senator Sabi Abdulahi of Niger State. It states: “A person who uses, publishes, presents, produces, plays, provides, distributes, and/or directs the performance of any material, written and or visual, which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, commits an offense if such a person intends thereby to stir up ethnic hatred or having regard to all the circumstances, ethnic hatred is likely to be stirred up against any person or persons from that ethnic group in Nigeria”…… “Any person who commits an offense under this section shall be liable to life imprisonment and where the act causes any loss of life, the person shall be punished with death by hanging”.
Without blinking, this is hideous stuff. Death penalty is being anathematized across the world. But this is when a backward catchment of Nigerian legislators are awakening to the usefulness of its barbarity, to play God Almighty over their fellow human beings. Considering that Senator Sabi tried unsuccessfully to inflict the bill on the eight senate, it is evident that he and his cohort of death seekers for offenders are monomaniacs operating for backers who hate the freedom of their fellow Nigerians. It makes former Senate President Olusola Saraki appear like one with a halo for simply scuttling the barbarous counsel that would have made the draconian bills such disturbers of the peace in the Eight Senate. His successor may be asleep at his post but he should be asked, purely from a pro-life perspective, why should people who cannot create life presume to have the power to take it? Of all things, for verbal infractions. Too obviously, the bill on hate speech is intemperately directed at writers, journalists, artists, entertainers, laughomaniacs who may publish, present, produce, play, provide, distribute, and/or direct, perform, write and or visualize. It raises goose pimples when it is considered that the law is for a country where people have always taken pride in being free to do so much by way of self-expression; a country in which the capacity for self-expression has been a virtual elixir removing the drabness, toxicity, and ill-casting of life in the teeth of even the most hellish situations. Why would executives and legislators voted into power to make life better for all seek to hang virtual nightmares over all!
The point is that this is a society where people may not win but have never lost hope or the courage to go on daring. Even when surrounded by cultures of constraints, in the most heinous dictatorships, self-expression for the average Nigerian has always been taken as a right not only for people to speak for self but to stand up for those who cannot speak or stand for themselves. Besides, much tension has been reduced all around by people simply being able to speak up and speak out. Whatever could have led to endemic gloom and desperation has been defeated by this Nigerian penchant for self-expression. Clearly, it would have been laughable, if it were not so gory and real, to have these draconian bills being rushed into laws to turn the capacity to laugh and dare into risks and dangers potted with death sentences. It is like trying to finish off whatever remains of the quality of heartiness that once earned Nigeria a place among the happiest countries in the world. Why should a people so hearty have executives and legislators whose highest ambition, apart from self-serving projecteering, is to bring grimness and sheer sadism into everyday life?
What makes it all so gross is that it is government–contrived disruptions of everyday life that are central to the issues that have incommoded Nigerians and incensed people into anything close to hate speech. The ambition to pepper the country with draconian laws is simply too easy to see as a wish to torture out the good feel of freedom of expression that has always targeted and zeroed upon oddities in governance. Although freedom of expression does always include the freedom to err, the business of saying that it is human to err, is a misdirection of altruism.
The real issue is that even people who go hunting for and seeking to create error, abuse, insults, threats, and offense, need to be treated as human beings for all of us to retain our humanity. Unless the purpose of death sentences is generally to reduce the humanity in all human beings, it has to be seen that it thwarts justice especially in the worst case scenarios where as we know, from a past national experience, innocent persons get judicially murdered for crimes they did not commit. Especially for people who deal in ideas, and all of us in society have to deal in ideas, no matter in how rudimentary a form, it is a particularly stultifying prospect to have laws hanging so sheer for a whack over all in order to punish people ever so inhumanely, for verbal infractions. Especially for writers and journalists who have to speak not only for themselves but for others, it creates the impression of being watched by a literature police or culture police.
Frankly, anyone who would pass such bills into laws must be deemed perverse without making allowance for protestations to the contrary. The reason is that it is not possible to live in a society of so much diversity without there being a recourse to strong arguments. Nigerian laws have tended to be made just to provide for that. The draconian mess should have no place. Arguably, after the system of governance shall have been propped upon crappy divisiveness such as zoning of offices, quota system against merit, rude nepotism from on high, and threats and actualities of dire hegemony, even normal law-making is bound to enter a threatening and predatory grove. It looks truly bad because Nigerians are not seeing a reduction in the very bad conditions that predispose people to strong language or hate speech. Daily, common rules are applied lopsidedly or even made impossible across the country. Recruitment into the army and police and civil service have remained recourses to nepotism and ethnic arithmetic which generate grounds for hate. To be seeking to pass the bills in review is to grant the power of physical liquidation of opponents to those who are already in a hegemonic position. Such bills have a genocidal polemic yawning inside them, with a lack of empathy hidden in their entrails. It gives to those who have power even more power to define and to over-determine the relationship between different or competing groups. At a time when governments are being criticized for designing hate-filled programmes and projects, and government agents are awfully unable to provide information to douse popular resentments and dissensions, such laws appear tailor-made to inflame rather than temper the predispositions to hate. They add fuel to popular resentments which incubate bad blood that needs no hate speech to cause explosions.
On this score, it is always interesting, even if disturbing, to listen to the bosses of the campaigns against hate speech! They sex up their definitions of hatred to pre-empt the arguments and controversies that their commands of the airwaves unleash. They employ batteries of social media hyenas to drive civility out of what should normally have been civil conversations. They lob explosive responses into space to wallop critics and potential adversaries who have been ritually shut out of the precincts of serious social engagements. Except that: since they always have to stand on wrong footings, they are usually not able to convince even fawning sycophants and adulators to accept official falsehood as gospel. In the end, they merely succeed in making decorum impossible in public debates, as they thresh and distribute injurious verbiage which favour impunity in civic interactions. It’s such a paradox that they lay the basis for the scurrility, slurs, insults and smear campaigns, which they describe as hate speech. It might be asked: when last did we hear official megaphones offering healthy civic information rather than threats and condemnations which serve as their models and modalities for public intercourse! The answer is that the loaded verbiage with which the struggle for power was waged has been turned into staple also for the maintenance of power. Hence, they dish unacceptable rigour of assaults into all social conversations.
Usually, it is to cover up a spread of broken promises, and to further befuddle the climate of purloined information and ill-sorted governance. All they achieve in the process is the worsening of popular distrust, and the beefing up of the rumour industry which challenges official truth benders with fake news. Thus, even innocent moves that may well have been acceptable as normal in debates and controversies, even the most innocuous responses to strong language, begin to appear sinister when judged in the context of past hate speech. Wherever this happens, it causes opinion-making to degenerate to pure incivility. Not that incivility necessarily implies hatred; it describes a circumstance that can generate it. Nor is it being said that the falsehoods and vitriol perpetrated in the social media are not enough to cause concern. The point is that, unkind and disingenuous as some so-called hate speech can be on the social media, much of the rampages occur because of the missing culture of civility-by-example on the part of the government.
Now to be square on this: let’s admit that it is quite human to denounce, in strong terms, whatever tends to liquidate fellow feeling in human relationships! However, part of what it takes to defend freedom of expression is often left out. It is not appreciated enough for instance that there are correctives in the traditional and social media which serious-minded people can engage to remove the excesses of the baser interveners in public discourses! Readers of the multiplicity of opinions in Nigerian newspapers can attest that the ethnic and religious bigotries expressed on the pages usually always cancel themselves out. This is because forms of self-correction are being emplaced which have halted even sponsored riots on social media.
In the same way that gate-keepers in the traditional media provide avenues for self-expression and self-correction, the social media, by enabling overt ethnic, racial and religious views to be aired as part of a general enablement of free speech, often manage through sharing of different perspectives to remove the hate-prong of stigma. Consider this: that armed propaganda would become the only counter to armed propaganda where free speech is blanched out, words are banned, and people are left with only shooting sticks as responses to shooting sticks. The point is to improve the in-built gate-keeping cures for excess that are available. It’s simply a way of conceding that John Milton’s Areopagitica may not have anticipated the social media of today but its opposition to the craze for censorship is a universally indefeasible position from which to oppose the current campaign against hate speech.
The real bone of contention is that many leaders of government in the world today invite hate speech and fake news through inappropriate self-modelling. As if seeking to outdo the imperial roughages of the man in the White House, they let their uncivil performances propel assaults upon so-called perpetrators of hate-speech as if governments have no other business. The energy, time, and resources that Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information, Tourism and Culture, has devoted to organizing parleys and confabs on fake news and hate speech, ought to be devoted to organizing a specialized newspaper and online fact-checking across the history of Nigerian journalism.
In a country without proper newspaper libraries, all of them with horrid yawning gaps, the facilitation of a freedom of information trust ought to be more a part of the Minister’s portfolio, than the hard work on laws and directives that constrain free flow of information. I should quickly note in this regard, how such love of constraints in the area of media and culture once led the Minister, four years ago, to take bulldozers to the Artists’ Village at the National Theatre where he destroyed functions, establishments and livelihoods before he realized he was badly briefed by officials. Although he swore that he would pay for what the bulldozers destroyed, he never made appropriate recompense beyond verbiage.
Surely, as one of his victims, I should know how easily a proper response to his wilful destruction of ten years of props, equipment and costumes, and the mucking up of the grand creativity of dance dramatists, sculptors and other artists targeted by his bulldozers, can be reduced to, and denounced, as hate speech. Or as wailing, by government defenders of acts of impunity and malfeasance. It happens to be true that the more there is something for the government to hide, the more the playing up of the concept of hate speech. It indicates how the zeal and projecteering in the on-going war on the social media is largely more about Government’s disrespect for its own laws and due process. A government whose agents and apparatchik can tell lies, especially bare-faced ones, and engage in brazen destruction of the means for social creativity, applying different moralities and standards to different groups, is bound to turn falsehood into a national pastime. Why would the state and its agents indulge in and literally take pride in incivility, fake news and hate speech, and yet expect civic education to stay at the level of conversational civility?
Meanwhile, there are those even among professional journalists of high repute, without think-through, have allowed the hue and cry and the authoritarian vacuuming of the public space, to push them among those condemning perpetrators of hate speech and demanding draconian punishments. Whether as government agents or clones of government’s mismanagement of information, all they seem to be achieving is to criminalize normal work-a-day criticism of government. Even to call a President or Governor a fellow citizen and to seek to act as such is being entered into the region of hate speech to be trashed in a manner akin to a felony. Who are you to call the President a fellow citizen, they seem to be saying. Except that, deny it as they will, the President is a fellow citizen even if serious questions that may be put to him are being cavalierly ignored or treated as anathema. What is clear is that after leaders have raised themselves far above normal citizenship, they are usually unable to see that there are civil methods of ameliorating social problems. This is how come, in the name of pursuing and beating down upon real and imagined critics of government, the champions of the war on hate speech simply roforofo the ground with fake news that translate into impunity. Online or offline, they keep the old faggots of intimidation and harassment of the media burning virtually as the regimes of the militariat did through 38 years of misrule and clampdown on dissent and dissension.
Or, let me put it this way: in the face of the giddy legislative agenda that is seeking to put the media and all non-governmental organizations in manacles answerable to the dicta of the party in power, we need to be concerned about the particulars of the shrinkage of the media space accompanying the bizarre efforts to reverse the freedoms that Nigerian journalists and public intellectuals have managed to wrench from the hard jaws of past dictatorial regimes. On this count, it is important to monitor cases and put faces on them if only to show that the sexed-up complaints against journalists and media people in general are often proof of the guilt of state agents. There isn’t much far-fetching to do in this regard as we can simply rely on Amnesty International which has reported on how badly the Muhammadu Buhari Government has been doing in the past half-decade.
In its latest report titled Endangered Species; Attack on freedom of Expression in Nigeria, Amnesty International points to an escalating clampdown on journalists, bloggers, and activists, frustrating freedom of expression and the freedom of the media to maintain the people’s right to know as prescribed by the Constitution of the Republic. In 2019, says the report, about 19 journalists have been detained at various times. Beyond random statistics, bringing it home to many that the media in the country is truly under siege, a run through the contents page of the Amnesty International report yields pictures of heinous assaults. The items concern journalists arrested and detained for publishing about oil blocks in the Niger Delta; arrested and tortured for filming police brutality; assaulted and detained for taking photos of brutality by state officials; being forced to flee; stigmatized and harassed for investigative journalism; arrested and detained for refusing to disclose sources; accused of cybercrime; accused of defamation and cyberstalking for exposing corruption; a blogger arrested for a face book post; another for a blog he did not write.
Some of the cases may be treated as starred cases as in the case of the Daily Trust being invaded by security forces; Premium Times Publishing House being raided, Breeze 99.9FM demolished, and Fresh 105.9FM Ibadan demolished. The tightening civic atmosphere is not funny at all. It has a backdrop in the spate of detentions without trial and government refusal to obey court orders. There are the high profile cases of former security Chief Sabo Dasuki and Shiite leader El Zaky Zaky, being held without trial. They make a stereotypical turn out of the case of Omoyele Sowore who is said to have insulted the President (by asking for Revolution Now?). He, and his co-detainee, Olawale Bakare, have been denied bail through stratagems that are simply supposed to be unheard of in societies with a claim to a democratic ethos.
Thanks to Amnesty International Report, the world knows about less sensational cases such as Abiri Jones, a publisher of Weekly Source, held incommunicado for two years, released, rearrested and put on trial for terrorism and cybercrime; Ja’afar Ja’afar publisher of on-line Daily Nigerian issued death threats for reporting gubernatorial corruption; Kofi Bartels, a broadcast journalist with Nigeria Info 92.3 FM, a radio station in Port Harcourt, arrested detained and tortured for attempting to film policemen beating a teenager in the city; another case, Mary Ekere, a journalist with The Post, a newspaper in Akwa Ibom, assaulted, arrested, and her phone seized for filming officials of the Environmental Protection and Waste Management Agency who were beating street traders; Sai’fullah Mika’ilu arrested for a picture on Facebook which he denied posting, but for which he was arrested, “tortured during interrogation, and forced to confess a crime he did not commit”.
There is the bizarre case of Ahmed Salkida, stigmatized as supporting terrorism because of his reports on Boko Haram, just as it has happened, for the same reason that Premium Times was accused of “supporting Boko Haram”. In a lecture titled “The investigative journalist in a future without newsprint, oil and livestock”, as published in Testimony to Courage, I have pointed to the case of Dapo Olorunyomi, “arrested, together with Evelyn Okakwu, judicial correspondent of the Premium Times, following a complaint by the Chief of Army Staff, General Tukur Buratai”. This tallies, from the standpoint of media harassment, with security raiding of the Abuja and Maiduguri offices of the Daily Trust, arresting two reporters, and confiscating computers and mobile phones”. Also, “over the past two years, two radio stations critical of the government were stopped from broadcasting. The facilities of Breeze FM in Lafiya, Nassarawa State and Fresh FM in Ibadan, Oyo State were demolished by state authorities allegedly for their non-compliance with land administration laws” after being previously harassed by the authorities as “part of a targeted campaign to silence dissenting voices”.
The harassment of journalists and muzzling of the media in the past half-decade can indeed bear sensationalizing (because it is basically hate action, tactile, worse than hate speech) if only to draw wider public attention to the travails of journalists in the hands of all uniformed forces, Army, Air Force, Police, sundry security brackets, as they go about working in the public interest. It is approaching the manner of the jungle of military rule. What is at stake here is that public authorities do not provide, and would not want authentic information to get to citizens. They end up over-rationalizing fake news, and criminalizing the truth, as General Muhammadu Buhari had done in his first coming as head of state.
Of course, it is not good either for the government or the people; because it is a case of seeking to destroy the fundamental truism which says that only the truth can make the people free. Since the authorities, it seems, do not want the people to be free, they would rather heckle the right to know, removing the most critical restraint and check on power – free speech. This is how, it may be said, the country has reached the point where governance can be described as negotiating a bend into pure license.
The auguries indeed are not good at all. As we speak, legislators have been reported on the verge of passing a tax bill that they have not seen. This is worse than a case of the legislature being a rubber stamp. It tells of the degraded contexts in which we are discussing the draconian laws being pursued against hate speech and the social media. Also, it amounts to there being a certifiable seeding of stain and assault on legislative integrity. Although the passing of an unseen bill has been quickly revised due to media exposure, the stain and assault already exposed, speaks to a constant search on the part of the legislature for a means of escaping such exposure. It explains the horrific legislative agenda that seeks an anti-NGO bill, an Anti-Social Media Bill, and a Hate Speech bill.
Together, they are about hamstringing non-governmental organizations, making them amenable to direct authoritarian control, not to mention that the Hate Speech Bill proves the degeneracy of legislative minds that can seek physical liquidation of their fellow citizens who happen to be potentially in disagreement with them. Whether it is to protect malfeasant Senators or promote ethnic or religious groups that have earned regular hatred of those whose interests they continuously traduce, a law that makes death sentence appear normal for a speech infractions in a so-called democracy is seeking to turn society into a graveyard . Such a display of murderous instincts actually encourages murderousness as a national predisposition; making it a reflex of popular behaviour which compromises social vitality and basic institutions like the judiciary.
As for the judiciary, underfunded and forced to maintain a tattered decorum, in limbo, far from the ideals of a free estate, a judiciary whose judgments have been flouted serially by the executive, it is only by specializing on technicalities that it has managed some semblance of dignity, avoiding its mission of justice, to escape confrontation with the wielders of executive powers. Even then, whatever the courts may think, the reality is that a supposed democracy is being demonstrably in reverse, heading in a direction that affirms a definitive anti-democratic syllabus. What is clearly not supposed to be done or doable in a democratic republic has become the common fare, the done thing.
An executive that won’t obey the law courts, and has mineralized the legislature, with a President whom a combination of NGOs have had to try to conscientize by writing begging letters to foreign prelates who may know better how to influence him to obey the Constitution he has sworn to obey! It may be seen as a matter of a government that has missed the way but ascribes to itself not only the right to lose its way but to block all civic whistles that could alert all to an imminent crash. Too evidently, such a government does need to be reminded that we are all citizens and that even slaves in a camp have natural rights that slavers must respect if they don’t want to lose their slaves to revolt, revolution or sheer extinction along lines that some people may describe as unnatural selection.
No doubt, to talk about reminding a government of the citizenship of a populace is what it means to keep a government in check. Many have claimed that Nigerians are too docile in the face of thoroughly inhumane governments. But this is due to the belief that the check on power must come only in the ultimate terms of a revolt or revolution in the manner that many governments across the world have been having to face popular uprisings in recent months. However, there are alternative suasions capable of staying within the grain of effectiveness. Meaning that: no route to be considered should preclude the exhaustion of the avenues available within the system to reduce, or remove, bad governance. Even when it is correct to say that a society has moved too close to the jungle to be appraised along the lines of a democratic republic, the point is never to fail to constantly monitor it.
Silence may be prescribed by draconian laws. National legislatures may be hamstrung. And the judiciary constrained while non-governmental organizations may be formalized away from their self-descriptions. Always a line of prudence exits that demands the civic withdrawal of enthusiasm from governments whose actions are considered inimical to popular welfare. As during the dark days of General Sani Abacha, social vitality and self-maintenance by communities must depend on the government and its agents being ‘discouraged’ from undue interference in the affairs of associational groups, trade organizations, professional groups, and non-governmental organizations in general. Such interference, seeking to destroy diversity and to make the whole country amenable to dictatorial control, is usually aimed at flattening circumstances for easy over-ride by elected and unelected public servants. These days, it could include re-colonization by foreign do-gooders whose primary bid is to defend their own national interests by hijacking unconscionable national leaders who are enamoured of draconian rule.
What it calls for is a unique form of strategic thinking: to deal with immediate issues of tyranny and closure of the public space, keeping a government in check by never granting the benefit of the doubt to malfeasant and tyrannical leadership.
Looking far ahead, this is about never forgetting that only an ill-educated society can be so negatively over-determined as to be unable to achieve self-defence or self-maintenance against tyrannical regimes. Therefore, we must always talk about education whenever there is reason to look at the shrinking media space in this or any country. Beyond short term tinkering with social backwardness, the need is to look to lasting solutions that can cumulatively keep governments in check. The most effective step, which may be bounced off as trite, requires constant monitoring and pursuit of mass education. True, governments that require constant monitoring and checks are usually good at disrupting movements towards the development of mass education. They may not, like Boko Haram, openly disavow the need for western education.
But as in General Buhari’s closing of schools and universities established by President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, the carnage in the area of education can take place in the midst of frequent wildcat promises and discourses of educational advancement. We need to acknowledge that any government that fails to support and pursue mass education of a certain quality, is not merely proving that it has no respect for our rights as citizens but as human beings. By the same token, any respecter of the kind of mass education that can put even the most minimal check on government, ought to follow certain deft perspectives that have become quite a tradition, from colonial times, although inadequately pursued across the country.
What the tradition posits is that education is something to be given to all, not only to a fraction, not only to children of the elites, the sarakuna, or those who can afford it. From the fifties, the broadening of this tradition along Obafemi Awolowo’s educational ethic in the old Western Region, has pooled a strong sense of how to do it right. Against venomous criticism, it stood public spiritedness on a high philosophical pedestal to deal with the everyday realities of mass education.
Every Nigerian community and nationality was supposed to give education an ineradicable lift by transferring all the knowledge in the English Language into our indigenous languages and all the knowledges in our indigenous languages into the English language; thereby equalizing relationships between different Nigerian nationalities, and between Nigerians and the colonial masters; thus creating common bases for competing with anybody, everybody, and any country, under the sun. Even today, this is still the big deal and an all-time imperative that serious educationists ought to bend their energies to actualize. In a country where up to 15 million children of school-going age are carpeting the streets in distress among the 98 million of the Nigerian population under the poverty line, it tells the story of an emergency.
It is an emergency because many governments making loud noises about giving education to the masses, are offering a quality that amounts to giving poor education to poor people’s children in order to keep them poor, manipulable and ritually unavailable for genuine mobilization. The result is the consistent reproduction of an educationally backward and insecure populace. Sadly, Nigeria is in a circumstance that is now being practically dissolved by waves of un-schooled or ill-educated migrants from Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad whom we ought to know we owe a special education once we have conceded to their right to stay with the rest of us. We cannot build a proper country if as Nigerians, we allow an influx of migrants without creatively designing an educational format to fit them and our out-of-school children into a culture of mass education that leaves none behind. In a world where the building of smart factories and farms is the wave of the future, we need to cream disruptive idleness and under-employment off the streets with creativity that can turn factory culture into norm without waiting for civil service ways of multiplying and piling jobs in the name of fighting unemployment.
The happy reality, for those looking beyond such immediate roughages in governance, is that there is no part of Nigeria, indeed, no part of Africa that cannot afford the mass education ideal being envisaged by this argument. The struggle for it must be spelt into the validity and legitimacy of every government in power. Beginning with genuine pressure upon every and all governments, it calls for canvasing and campaigning for high quality, at all levels. The seriousness with which it can be done must be judged by how neighbouring countries are drawn into the loop of mass education at least for all children up to the age of fifteen. The ultimate ideal should be that of raising membership of the African Union to the imperative of a prior acceptance of mass education that no state must be allowed to escape. This, definitively, is not only about how the government of education is working; but how it is supposed to work within and between countries.
Despite the lack of motivation and the destructive engagement by hierarchies of corrupt undertakers in our midst, the struggle for mass education can become and remain a means of separating seed from chaff in the appraisal of truly legitimate governance. The struggle must be perennially invoked against the common recourse by governments to dirty jobbing that worsens situations with the shine of conspicuous consumption. It should be such as to restrain leaders and the led from leaping into virtual cargo cults that are waiting to be saved by foreign goods and foreign experts, without giving their own a chance. It should be a commitment to education that seeks to fit all into a life of gainful employment in the sense in which the ideal of full employment was once considered possible everywhere.
This is not to say that governments that have built up distrust almost as an industry against mass education will not remain cogs in the wheel of progress. It is to argue that the pursuit of public good requires all the pressures that can be mounted against governments that stand in the way of progress. Pressure groups that seek to occupy space around individual despoilers of collective welfare must withdraw enthusiasm from those who fail to build common cause with the people. The necessity to defend freedom of speech and the people’s right to know is fundamental to any such ideal of progress. Deservedly to be treated as an all-time imperative, is that when you defend a journalist, you are not defending an individual or a media house. Nor is the presumed freedom of the press and the role of responsibility prescribed by the provisions of the Constitution, to be a mere defence of the media as a collective. It is a defence of the whole society against the ravages of those who misuse power and traduce the rights of others. The defence of free speech is a stout defence of society. It is protection for the zeal with which people produce the visions that protect the positive ways in which society works.
This is to suggest that, as the combination of lawyers, journalists, intellectuals and people of public affairs at a common forum for the defence of society, will necessarily put up the back of undemocratic governments. The Buhari government, let it be clear, is not unique in this sense of pursuing sundry legislations to ensure that the media space shrinks, and all associational groups are hamstrung and made answerable to laws that will cripple them. Let’s always be reminded that General Sani Abacha tried it. He wanted all the non-governmental organizations and the media to be reduced to a manageable monochrome under his imprimatur.
DIFFERENT social organizations were to be reduced to appointing one leader to be pocketed by the state. I can recall how as a president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, associational activism became a question of bowing to or opposing all the culture-oriented organizations that were planning to attend General Sani Abacha’s constitutional conference. All that the dictator wanted was to bring various groups together, cork them into a common bottle of his own making, and forget civility. Snidely, he achieved the feat of having many political parties organized which, in the end, nominated only one man, himself, as presidential candidate. In the Fourth Republic, we are in a similar conundrum. A swearing shrine now exists in the Fourth Republic where Presidents declaim hatred for a Third Term Agenda while their cronies are avidly working for it without being ticked off. It cautions all citizens to learn to defend their right to be partisan without being steam-rolled into a dubious unity of stratagem with the powers that be. This time, learning to build common platforms, ready for partisan activism, not vacuous power without purpose or content, should be the rule.
Yes, the exercise of partisanship is a fundamental human right, and it is important for our civic health to have a capacity for it. It is a right that gives us the rationale for a shared hatred for whatever seeks to destroy our welfare, man-handle our sense of fellow-feeling and our commitment to humanity. Learning how to share without abandoning a chosen turf is the very basis of such organized political action. It is a factor that makes pursuit of mass education a fundamental necessity. Those who seek to stop the rest of us from having such dispositions must be trying to teach us how not to be human. When they come to the level of bidding for judicial murder, in the name of fighting against hate speech, let’s face it that they are morphing into criminals who, because they wish to rob us of our natural and civic rights, ought never to have been allowed near political power in the first place.
Odia Ofeimun, a former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) gave this keynote address at the colloquium of the shrinking media and civic space in Nigeria held in Lagos on Thursday, November 7, 2019.