There are two unfolding scenarios in the ongoing trial of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Mazi Nnamdi Kanu (MNK). One is, perhaps, the unintended elevation of the IPOB leader to a cult status by the government. The other is the gradual abridgement of freedom of expression and creeping emasculation of the public space. Both have far-reaching implications on the country. We shall take them one after another.
From the moment the government announced the re-arrest and repatriation of Kanu, through the Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Abubakar Malami, it left some gaps that raised questions. Malami was evasive, thereby giving room for speculations. As if that was not enough, all known principles and procedures for extradition were not followed. International Law recommends that extradition of a fugitive or person declared wanted by a home country can only be executed after a pronouncement by a court of competent jurisdiction in his country of refuge assenting to the request by his home country. There was no record of such steps being taken on Kanu.
Not doing so has nourished the insinuation in some quarters that he was kidnapped by the agents of the state. This impression is increasingly turning him to a folk hero among his followers and an object of interest for those who had earlier dismissed him as a rabble rouser. This was manifested on Monday when he was billed to appear in Abuja Federal High Court. Even as the session did not hold because officials of the Department of State Security (DSS) failed to bring him to court, his image loomed large in the South East, to the point of business activities being grounded in some parts of the zone. Some did so in solidarity with the detained activist, others stayed off the roads out of fear of the likely reactions by his supporters. Whichever way it is looked at, Kanu is gradually being seen as a freedom fighter being tormented by the state because of the cause he believed in. This is dicey.
It relives the picture of Kenya painted by award-winning novelist, Professor Ngugi wa Thiongo, on how the people reacted to trial of the country’s freedom fighters by the British authorities in 1952. In particular, the trial of Kenya’s foremost revolutionary, Dedan Kimathi, stood out prominently. Kimathi had originally taken off as a deviant but his exploits in refocusing Mau Mau (an underground movement against the colonialists) and the manner British authorities captured, tried and executed him ended up making him a rallying figure for Kikuyu and Kenyan independence struggle. He is today a reference point for nationalism and patriotism in the country. The Federal Government is unwittingly elevating Kanu to that status among the Igbo of the South East.
But if we explain the poor handling of the Kanu case as a desperate move in caging one considered a present danger, there can be no explanation on the obvious abridgement of the public space through suppression of the press that was on open display at court. In a sad reminder of the dark days of the military, the DSS barred some media houses, mostly those believed to be critical of the government, from covering the trial on flimsy excuse of crowd control.
That speaks volumes on civilian autocracy and the government turning full circle in demonstration of dictatorship. It is a mockery of democracy and an assault on freedom of information. A colleague, Sunny Igboanugo, captured it succinctly that journalists and lawyers are stakeholders just as the security operatives in such a high-profile judicial event. It does not lie on security operatives to determine media organisations to cover the event.
That a country like Nigeria with laws on Freedom of Information and a signatory to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights could still engage in this despicable act remains a sad commentary on the President Muhammadu Buhari administration.
Former chairman of Lagos State chapter of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Lanre Arogundade, got it right in his remarks that limiting the number of media organisations to cover the trial was “a dangerous precedent that should be rejected. It has no basis in law and it is a violation of the independence of the judiciary and the right of the media to report an issue of public interest.”
Nigerians of good conscience must stand up to condemn this subtle gravitation to dictatorship by the government. It seems a tradition for castration of the press giving pleasure to any government headed by Buhari. Recall that, in 1984, as military head of state, he promulgated Decree 4 (Public Officers Protection Against False Publications) that was aimed at journalists that published materials considered embarrassing to the government. Two former journalists of The Guardian Newspaper, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson, were sent to prison for refusing to divulge the source of a story, which allegedly embarrassed the military junta. We may be seeing the return of that era in another guise. The signs are getting clearer.
The other day, the Nigerian Press Organisation, comprising the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and NUJ, rose up to the House of Representatives on a bill seeking to amend the Nigerian Press Council Act. The proposal, tagged “Bill for an Act to Amend the Nigerian Press Council Act, CAP N128, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004”, sought to regulate the print media and related media houses, impose sanctions on perceived areas of infringement, including fines and terms of imprisonment against journalists and media houses. It was sponsored by Olusegun Odebunmi of All Progressives Congress, the President’s political platform. But following outrage from media organisations and several groups, it had to be suspended for “further consultations”.
The consultations could be part of the ugly show demonstrated by the DSS during Kanu’s trial. If that was it, it won’t be out of estimation. But then, Nigeria is in for a rough deal. Unpopular regimes in Africa and the Third world, usually resort to annihilation of the media to mask their failure. Samuel Doe administration did so in Liberia when it was obvious that it had lost touch with governance. Idi Amin Dada of Uganda did so, ditto with Gnasingbe Eyadema of Togo and Mobutu Sesesekou of Zaire. They all had much in common with President Buhari. They were military men at some points. That leaves much for reflection.