FREEDOM TO BE SILLY

By NBF News
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Sometime ago in Zimbabwe, someone painted a set of horns on a photograph of President Robert Mugabe. It was a satiric jab which got him the required laughs. But the civic authorities in that country did not find it funny at all.

They dragged him before a magistrate, who found the satirist/cartoonist guilty of ridiculing the Office of the President and sent him to a few hard years behind bars.

In the chequerred contemporary history of Nigeria, the offence of bringing the Office of the President to public ridicule is yet to be cited as grounds for arrest or prosecution in court. But politicians are regularly hauled to the bar of public opinion and pilloried for adverse comments on the powers that be. You can hardly blame these politicians for that ingrained predilection for controversy, which constantly sets them in collision course with accepted standards of polite discourse.

In recent times, however, no one has pulled this stunt with greater success than Joseph Waku, the senator who called for a coup to unseat President Obasanjo in 2001. The uproar that trailed that perfidious outbursts was enough to ensure him a front seat on the iconic theatre of infamous political actors.

Joseph Waku was hardly deterred by his sunken political image but appeared to revel in these dubious credentials of a rabble rouser, even as he lost his Benue senatorial seat in the 2003 elections. He soon found relevance in the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) where he held the vice-chairmanship position on behalf of the North Central zone.

During the turbulent national argument on the PDP zoning policy, Waku lived up to billing with regular pronouncements that fuelled the controversy. Needless to say, he did not add any grain of enlightened opinion to the debate, but stuck to a worn, discredited north-south divide in national affairs.

Not surprisingly, Waku, fresh from his bungling of the PDP primaries in Anambra State, has thrown in his lot with these conservative interests. In a press interview last Saturday, Waku lowered the bar of uncouth commentary with salvos of insults against the person of his party's presidential candidate.

The exact words do not bear repeating here. It is most instructive however, that sections of the PDP in Anambra State for whom Joseph Waku conducted the contentious primaries, are calling for his arrest - not on account of the primaries - but for abusing the person and office of the president of Nigeria.

Waku had degenerated to calling President Jonathan names merely for having the good fortune to outsmart Atiku Abubakar at the January 13 PDP primary polls.

He went on thereafter to oppose the return of Goodluck Jonathan in very churlish and undemocratic terms. Whereas, Waku expressed his freedom of speech and the right to be silly, he abused the rights of others. Those delegates who had chosen Jonathan over the other contenders were expressing their rights to freedom of choice. Waku did not show any respect for their rights to that choice.

Waku's aim is nothing short of incendiary: to fan the fires of contention and discord to a greater blaze. He will not succeed beyond the immediate notoriety of his media outburst. Nigerians of all shades of opinion and persuasion are united in their determination to make the Nigeria project a proven success. As the calendar unfolds to another date with democracy in April, every true patriot has only one true option left- to go out and cast their votes for the candidate of their choice. That is the essence of democracy and the rule of law. Muscle flexing on the streets and inflammatory commentary in the media will not help us achieve the country of our dreams.

After 50 years of independence as a sovereign nation, no one can truly deny unless in jest, that Nigeria has come of age. It behooves our politicians to act in every possible way to show that they are mature and patriotic. For this reason, we celebrate Waku's freedom to be silly even as we rue the fact that despoiling the office of the president is not a civil offence in our beloved country.

• Makama writes from Abuja