By Jerome-Mario Utomi
In the month of December 2019, an opinion article entitled Sowore, And Silence from Unusual Quarters by this author appeared in some national dailies.
It precisely focussed on the protracted roller-coaster relationship that existed between the Nigerian Department of Security Services (DSS) and Omoyele Sowore, a Nigerian human rights activist, pro-democracy campaigner, former presidential candidate, and founder of an online news agency, Sahara Reporters, who was arrested by the DSS on August 3, 2019, after calling for a protest tagged Revolution-Now.
Essentially, despite the fact that at that time, the executive was accused by Nigerians with critical minds of the abridgement of people’s right via gradual and silent encroachments, arrogation to itself the power to ignore the legitimate legislative directives and acts free of check of the judiciary and abuse of the rule of law, the bedrock of democracy.
The piece, contrary to these arguments, partially absolved the executive of those strategic interplays, conflicts and considerable uncertainties of that period. It, however, blamed frontally ex-human rights activists-turned public office holders for the wave of unchecked, unaccountable use of power by the present administration which has resulted in mistakes, abuses, the reward of incompetence and encouraged dishonesty.
Aside from the fact that these men, prior to May 1999, when democracy re-emerged on the nation’s political space, fully participated in challenging, questioning, fought for the right to organize, the right to free expression, the right to assemble freely, the right to free movement and ultimately, the right to life, and in the process, forced the military to leave, the article noted that when some of these former civil rights advocates were elected into public offices and others appointed, Nigerians felt that they will help stamp out third-world behaviours/problems in the country and assist the country improve not only in economics but also in the social order and social climate. That was precisely the expectation of Nigerians.
However, present instinct resulting from the recent out of ordered events in the country explains that the nation has experienced much faster changes, with a rapid rise in injustices and it is occurring faster than ever before.
Social commentators’ attributes the development to government insensitivity but mental records in this instance again indicates that the inability of the ex-human rights advocates turned politicians to condemn, correct injustices/policies by the government they are part of, multiplies absence of better governance, natural resources mismanagement by government and increases chances of conflict in the country.
Out of many, two examples of such disappointments/failures of these ex activists in recent time includes; their inability to condemn; the human tragedy that took place on Tuesday, October 20, 2020, at the Lekki tollgate where hundreds of youths keeping vigil to demand an end to police brutality were visited with the cruelty by shooters believed to be officers of the Nigerian military.
The second of such example is the controversial N9 million fine slammed on African Independent Television (AIT), Channel Television and Arise TV, by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), which has raised serious questions on how sensitive the media regulatory body is, on the issues affecting the society and generality of Nigerians. Each of the television houses is to pay a sum of N3 million apiece for what the NBC called unprofessional conduct.
About the Lekki Toll Gate saga, the tear-jerking concern is that these innocent youth’s embodied themselves with new knowledge of developed nations and felt the need to create the new Nigeria of our dreams. Yet, for all their efforts, they ended up with disappointment as their idea about how Nigeria should progress has now placed them at odds with the present administration.
They spoke up – says Ms Oduala, one of the organisers, not because they wanted to overthrow the government but because they wanted the police to stop killing Nigerians. They did not carry arms, or incite any insurrection. The only weapon according to her, was peaceful protest enshrined in Section 40 of our 1999 Constitution.
“At every point, they maintained calm and educated our followers – reiterating throughout the protests that they were not there to fight the government but to ask for change and to follow through to make sure that change was effected.”
Indeed, this is not the moment to mention names of ex activists that failed Nigerians particularly the youths with their silence, as the list is endless and cuts across all strata and arms of government.
But it is now evident that they were never for the people but power-seekers, searching out the power institutions of the society to use as vehicles to achieve their political ambitions..
If not, how could they have approved and endorsed the deployment of soldiers to Lekki Toll Gate to attack Nigerian youths that did not attack and posed no threat to the nation? How could they have allowed the same government to freeze the bank accounts of some of these participants with no opposition expressed? How could they have become confused about the difference between real threats and illusionary threats? How could one who calls himself and has a background in human rights activists fail to question all these abnormalities? Is this unusual silence not a pointer to how ‘vital’ they considered their former constituency-the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and the people?
Were these ex-activist now in government not part of the people that in the past condemned social ills such as; the excruciating ordeal of two journalists with the Guardian Newspapers -Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson jailed by a military tribunal on the 4th of July, 1984 for reports that were not lacking in merit but asymmetrically viewed to have contravened the same infamous decree 4? So, what has changed to warrants silence over the present predicaments of Channels, Arise and AIT?
As Nigerians wait for answers to the above questions, there are so many truths this piece would want to underline.
First and very fundamental is that with or without the support of these ex activists, the global community is in agreement that the media will continue to support the fundamental needs of the country, and, the positive purpose of the elected government if it will not in any way dent/obstruct the media’s primary responsibility to the masses in a democratic society which among others includes -inculcating and reinforcing positive political, cultural, social attitudes among the citizenries. Create a mood in which people become keen to acquire skills and disciplines of developed nations.
Secondly, as captured by a commentator, journalists (as well as broadcasters) are to watch and not to be watched over. They are to watch over crimes, injustices, malpractices, and every other act that is deemed unfair and unlawful. Professionally, they are competent to carry out their duties as the fourth estate of the realm…. They are not the kinds of dogs with ropes tied round about their necks, and so having no freedom of speech and expression. The fact that they are watchdogs means they know what to do, where they are going, and how to discharge their duties as when due. That is, their decision and direction should not be dictated by any force or power whatsoever.
Another striking point is that Nigerian youths who recently engaged in actions such as peaceful protest are not necessarily the creators of violence. What is happening is merely an important phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace. What youths are doing in the words of Martin Luther King Jnr., is bringing to surface the hidden tension that is already alive to where it can be seen and treated. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up. But must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicine of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
In conclusion, while it is imperative to remind the human rights advocates turned politicians that it is morally justified and globally acceptable to criticise a government that you are part of, it is of greater importance to tell President Muhammadu Buhari that leadership is more than just ability. It is a combination of courage, determination, commitment, character and ability that makes people willing to follow a leader.
Jerome-Mario Utomi is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), Lagos.
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