Putting it so mildly, it is embarrassing to suddenly emerge the citizen of a country with the unenviable notoriety for allegedly stifling the right of expressing views. This is untrue, as nobody can teach my generation and older and mostly deceased journalists the sacrifice of losing personal liberty for the state of press freedom in Nigeria today. In my middle age, I, as an editor, had my share of detention without trial many times, the similar experiences of bosses like Babatunde Jose and Henry Odukomaya in their absence in detention for about a fortnight when the excellent Daily Times Group of old was shut down for that period.
In pre-Independence days, top journalists like Tony Enahoro, Ayo Ojewunmi (Omo Ekun) of Nigerian Tribune, Dapo Fatogun (Don Nugotaf) of Sunday Express, and P.C. Agbu of West African Pilot served time. In post-Independence military era, the most memorable journalists imprisoned were Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor of The Guardian newspapers. Unlike those dark days, no serious-minded observer, a Nigerian or foreigner, would compare press freedom in Nigeria today to any developing country. That is for a repeat. That clear fact is always conceded by media and authors in industrialised countries while our colleagues from African countries always envy us for our press freedom. The refrain is always that “At least, you people are lucky. You can make your politicians accountable without being arrested.”
The attempt to befog the issue that the showdown between Nigerian government (even President Buhari) is indolent, fraudulent and irritating. The disagreement is between Nigerian government and a foreign media organisation. It is mere patriotism to uphold the idea that these foreign-based media cannot continue to disseminate against Nigerian leaders whatever they cannot circulate against leaders and citizens of their own countries. That is the central issue. How does that affect anybody’s right to know what is going on in Nigeria? Those who know better in the home base of these media have so quickly educated these media platforms to negotiate their way into close collaboration with Nigerian government.
It is simple logic that any controversy has at least two sides and protesting foreign envoys in Nigeria should know that. What, therefore, is the mischievous impression that Nigerian government (or Buhari) just woke and clamped down on Twitter? Didn’t series of unpleasant incidents cause strong action against the social media? You (that is the average Nigerian) may quarrel with the severity of government action in this matter but nobody can fault the need for some action. If Nigeria’s President Buhari took ill while in office and was successfully treated and since resumed office, was it reasonable for a practising social media platform to be disseminating falsehood and hatred that Buhari had died and that the man in Aso Rock was a clone of the Nigerian President? In furtherance of that mischief, the social media displayed a coffin purportedly containing Buhari’s corpse. In which other country could these be tolerated against a leader? Britain? United States? Irish Republic? Component nations of European Union?
Would Buhari be the first to successfully receive medical treatment while in office? In any case, he recovered. But did the social media agree? What was the source of the coffin displayed on the social media purpotedly containing Buhari’s corpse or the source of that falsehood? At the outbreak of COVID-19 all over the world, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson fell victim and was hospitalised for over a fortnight. Indeed, contingency plans were concluded for succession. The man recovered. Did Twitter allow its platform to be used by irresponsible elements to misinform Britons that Boris Johnson had died and that the man in Downing Street was a clone of Boris Johnson? Similarly, former American President Donald Trump was admitted for over a week to be treated for traces of COVID-19. Did Twitter surrender its platform to be used to ridicule Trump for years thereafter that he had died and his clone was the one in White House? American President Joe Bidden recently missed his step while going into his official plane. He and Buhari are virtually the same age. Biden’s misstep lasted a couple of days on social media but Buhari, in Biden’s place, would by now still be the butt of ridicule on Twitter platform.
Was Twitter all along an innocent party? So was the pretence as the platform was portrayed as being harassed unfairly until a contributor demanded to know reason(s) for the organisation’s continued display of Nnamdi Kanu’s ever vexatious tweets. Only then were the tweets removed to defraud the platform’s followers that both Buhari and Kanu were treated equally and surely to get its suspension lifted.
By the way, could Buhari have been acting for himself or his government alone? Surely, his government alone? I had in this column supported some action against social media following the concoctions of views in the social media by operatives of the other side, to the effect that I opposed Yoruba Nation. I denied it on the first occasion but in their desperation on behalf of the other side they continued. In which case, I still support government clampdown on these fellows. I hold controversial, if unpopular, views on anything political. You go that way and I go this way. But, for God’s sake, I should be allowed to express such views before being fraudulently reported to have expressed views I never made. Other Nigerians have similarly denied views falsely credited to them by lifting such from Nigerian newspapers.
And how about malicious reports in social media that two of Buhari’s aides, Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu, had billions of dollars stacked in foreign banks? Was it also true that these social media were never registered or licenced to function in Nigeria? Also reported not to be paying taxes? Little wonder for their arrogant and tax-evading activities in Nigeria. Government must accordingly make social media practising in Nigeria liable for any libel or character defamation on innocent Nigerians.
However, Aso Rock blundered in its handling of the controversy in several ways. For example, it was not clear why government should mix up the intent of these social media provocateurs. It was clear, even from government side, that President Buhari’s tweet on Biafra, past and/or present was removed while Buhari’s Twitter account remained intact. What should, therefore, have been done was for Buhari to issue another tweet, even on the same or following day, to see if Twitter would carry it. Till today, it seems Buhari’s account still operates. If, however, Twitter did not carry the new posting, Twitter would have declared war and be so met. In which case, the punishment should have been for only the crime.
Criminal courts, over centuries, ensure distinction between murder, which carries death penalty, and manslaughter, which is punished with jail sentence. In both cases, apparently, there would be the victim, the deceased. But the circumstances should also have been considered. The tweet was removed while Buhari’s account not only remains intact but could be operated even right now, except that, for now, Buhari’s government has criminalised anybody operating Twitter untii the agency’s suspension is lifted.
Also, the government was in a rush to suspend Twitter INDEFINITELY. But obviously rattled by hostile reaction, the period of suspension was changed to TEMPORARY.
The most laughable was that government acted solely despite the widespread evidence even the most seemingly liberal governments, even in the western world, also have serious reservations about the recklessness of social media. Nigeria should have copied G7 nations, which recently met in London and unanimously ageed to raise corporation tax for big companies to minimum 15, thereby trapping Irish Republic from serving as a tax haven, to where big corporations like Apple run to site their headquarters for very low taxes. With the new corporation taxes, no company, wherever it may be sited, can escape commensurate taxes. That was what Nigeria should have initiated against the social media companies. And could it be true that a company making billions of naira daily and remitting same was not even paying one kobo tax? Well, removing President Buhari’s tweet will see to that.
Current criticisms of Twitter’s suspension? The normal bandwagon jamboree.
Gov. Uzodinma’s isolation
Imo State governor, Hope Uzodinma, lamented the other day that he alone was not able to end the current insecurity in his domain. He, therefore, called on prominent figures to speak our so that peace could be restored. The governor was specific about politicians, traditional rulers, businessmen, industrialists and the clergy to speak against the violence in the South East zone and Imo State in particular.
First, it is not clear who are the criminal culprits in either Imo State or South East zone in general. The political militants have denied responsibility for the violence in that zone, in which police stations and erstwhile well-secured offices of IndependentNational Elections Commission were always burnt almost as a policy on a regular basis. A few political leaders have not only exonerated political agitators but also expressed suspicion of the handiwork of external provocateurs. On the other hand, law enforcement agencies have pointed accusing fingers at political militants. Whichever side is responsible, the fact remains that the violence in the South East is becoming alarming, such that the (Nigerian) Northern Elders Forum lately surrendered that if South East zone is bent on seceding from Nigeria, that drastic steps should be conceded so that remnant Nigeria could have peace, especially Nigerians resident in the remaining zones, other than their own.
This was perhaps the background leading to Uzodinma’s frustration and implied political isolation. However, the governor might not be entirely correct in feeling isolated in the battle for security in Imo State, let alone South East zone. The current situation in South East is not unprecedented in Nigerian political history. The only problem is that the impression is always created that Nigeria has no history or that Nigeria emerged as a country only a couple of years ago. In the typical situation in South East, the main cause is accumulated various group dissatisfactions. The mob always holds sway and important personalities either align (albeit wisely) or at great risk should they openly dissent. It is a question of facing reality by top figures in society.
Would such men and women in South East (specifically Imo State) be the first in Nigeria to preserve their heads? In 1966, between May and August, especially the months before the overthrow of former Head of State, General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, the popular demand throughout Northern Nigeria was “Araba”, said to be the word for secession, and was accompanied with violence on non-indigenes. The demand for araba might be understandable but the magnitude of the violence was such that not one person throughout the North ever spoke against it or he would be pounced upon.
Again, at the outbreak of hostilities for the civil war, a seeming stalemate threatened. The Vice-President of the Federal Executive Council, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, called on Yoruba to support the war. The call was a decisive game changer. But not every Yoruba top-notcher agreed with Awolowo’s position. Yet, in view of the tension in the country, not a single Yoruba top-notcher openly spoke against his stand. Worse still, the current demand for Yoruba Nation discredits that policy.
Governor Uzodinma’s isolation or indeed frustration with the current insecurity in South East or Imo State can only be healed by time. Speaking out by top-notches in Imo State or South East zone can help end the violence but such top figures must be very courageous. At what price?