Aminu Waziri Tambuwal is the governor of Sokoto State, the seat of the Caliphate. He’s a privileged leader. He governs the state where the great Usman Dan Fodio had his foothold. It’s the state of the Sultan. History flaps its wings on Sokoto. Tambuwal is a journalist, lawyer, former lawmaker (in fact a former Speaker of the House of Representatives) before becoming the g overnor of the historical and influential state of Sokoto. He’s a rounded democrat.
On Thursday, November 28, he stood before the cream of Nigerian editors to deliver an address. Sokoto was hosting the 15th All Nigeria Editors’ Conference (ANEC), the flagship annual conference of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. Tambuwal was attending as host governor. But he did more than being a good host. He pointedly outlined the clear and present dangers that assail our democracy. The tenor of his speech resonated with the editors. Theme of the conference was: A Distressed Media: Impact on Government, Governance and Society. It was a theme birthed by both circumstance and necessity.
True, global media is challenged. But it’s worse here. Nigeria media is under the hemlock, treading its darkest path to Golgotha. Shrinking revenues, excruciating government policies and obnoxious legislations that hamstring its liberty to freely obtain and disseminate information without interference. These are ominous signs that imperil the media space. Some politicians intent on hiding under the rule of law to perpetrate heinous acts of primitive criminality have rushed two bills to the National Assembly: Social Media bill and a bill that seeks to criminalise hate speech (whatever that means). Indeed, these are trying times for those who eke out a living by disseminating information. It was therefore easy meat for editors to focus on the travails of the media at this year’s ANEC.
As a member of the Planning Committee and Chairman, Local Organising Committee of the conference, my colleagues and I were cautious in picking those who would serve as resource persons. We settled for a mix of veteran journalists who flaunt careers in politics and public service, senior editors who are still actively engaged in the media, journalism teachers and young editors whose enthusiasm and vibrancy added zest to the discourses. And our choices were apt. It turned out a festival of professionalism, intellectualism and hands-on experience. At the end, it was roundly agreed that the media is challenged. But there was also unanimity on the fact that there is hope, albeit a whimper of it, for the media. But we did not lose sight of the greatest enemy of the media: operators of our democracy. Very curious irony.
One speaker who strengthened our hands was Governor Tambuwal. He did not mince words in condemning some acts that set out to gag free speech and free press. He did not feign ignorance of the unrelenting attacks on the media by those who profited the most from the same media. He voted for press freedom. He toasted to free speech. He said democracy can only grow in full robustness if the press is free and the people are free to express themselves. He spoke like a good lawmaker. He spoke the language of a development-centric governor; he talked like a lawyer who believes in the sanctity of the rule of law. His voice bore the tone of a journalist constitutionally-certified to freely receive and freely disseminate information without interference.
Just a few lines from him: “I also urge the media to beam the searchlight on some untoward developments in our polity. I am talking of the gradual erosion of our democratic gains. Our laws are now being obeyed in the breach. Freedom of speech, expression and association are under severe threat. Anti-democratic elements are being emboldened by the day.
“The latest move that has shocked Nigerians is the Anti – Hate Speech Bill that prescribes death penalty for offenders. This is quite scary and has indeed set people thinking on the true intention of the proponents of the bill. There are enough provisions in our laws to deal with people whose actions can undermine national unity and cohesion. Such draconian legislation has no place in a constitutional democracy like ours.
The media must remain vigilant. You have a responsibility to educate and mobilize Nigerians to defend this democracy. We cannot operate a democracy like a military dictatorship. The storms are gathering. We must join hands to checkmate anti-democratic elements and return our country to the path of constitutionalism, progress and development.”
Tambuwal said much more. And why wouldn’t he? Nigeria’s democracy is gravely under threat. Dissent, disagreement, criticism, debate, diatribe and other basic ingredients of democracy are being treated by the Nigerian government in 2019 as elements of insurrection. They are not. I can understand the military not accepting that freedom of speech is crucial and critical for the sustenance of democracy, but it beats common sense when a democratically elected government would abuse the law, desecrate the court and the hallowed chambers of the National Assembly, disobey court orders as a routine, haul journalists into detention at the whims of power brokers and expect the rest of us to remain inert. Mute. Silent. And cowed! You cannot build democracy in this manner.
President Muhammadu Buhari started well. In the early months, he spoke like a democrat and acted like one. But not anymore. Whether by his consent or not, his administration has veered dangerously into the dingy, terrifying abyss of dictatorship. I have interacted with top politicians including some governors of his own political party, the APC. They are not happy that court orders are arbitrarily disobeyed. Some point to the excesses of the state actors…the Army during election, the police and the State Security Services (SSS), self-styled the Department of State Services, DSS. They cringe. They wince at the brutal abridgement of people’s rights, including the trite right of freedom of expression. These are aberrations in a democracy.
In the words of Tambuwal, you cannot run a democracy like a military dictatorship. The Buhari government is jittery. It has no reason to be. Is the President not aware of the seeping instances of dictatorship all around him? Is he not aware of the maniacal brutality of the SSS and the Army? The moment a democratic government abhors and banishes criticism and dissent, it has become fascist.
Unfortunately, Buhari has a brood of mindless defenders. The manner they attacked The Punch newspaper for its symbolic nomenclatural prefixation of President Buhari as Major-General Buhari betrays their zero tolerance for dissent. Buhari does not need this horde of gratuitous cheerleaders. Buhari does not need a government without free press and free speech. He must worry about his place in history. Even if he’s not seeing, the world is watching. Time is a recorder of history. Buhari became a president on account of free speech; he must not and should not close the door against free speech now that he is in power and with power. To do so is to write his own history with the darkest tar only reserved for despots, tyrants and absolute rulers. He does not need such insignia. Leadership is about legacy. And legacy can be noble or ignoble. The choice is his to make.