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Bad omen for Nigerian democracy

Published by The Nation on Sat, 30 May 2020


UNDERTOWThe Fourth Republic is about 21 years old. Like the previous three republics, there is little to suggest it has come to stay, let alone flourish, if attitudes to the fundamentals of democracy do not change. Conventional wisdom suggests that Nigeria is running a democracy. In speeches and writings, it has become normal to describe the period since 1999 as democratic. But regardless of that manner of speaking, there is no consensus that what Nigeria is operating today is a democracy or that the politicians running it appreciate democratic principles. The haphazard and half-hearted approach to Nigerias difficult democracy since the beginning of the Fourth Republic indicates that troublous times lie ahead for a country that is in a quandary over what nature of democracy it should practice: Pakistani, Chinese or Egyptian model.A manifestation of this ominous trend is intolerance by the political class, particularly their loathing of free speech. Governors, ministers, commissioners, local government chairmen, councillors, policemen and all manner of public officials are completely intolerant of harsh commentaries about their character and policies. In responding to what they believe is unadulterated abuse by members of the publicwhether journalists or bloggersappointed and elected officials have themselves subverted the laws of the land and violated the constitution in their response to the vitriol served them by a frustrated public. Three fresh examples illustrate just how dangerous the trend has become, and how close to unravelling Nigerian democracy has come. Information minister Lai Mohammed, Abia State governor Okezie Ikpeazu, and an Ebonyi State council chairman Ogbonnaya Oko Enyim typify the official loathing of free speech and the distress that now afflicts democracy in Nigeria.It is indeed strange that after more than three eras of trying to get the fundamentals and practice of democracy right, Nigerians, particularly elected and appointed officials, have become even more alienated from the public and unsure of the kind of attitude that accords with a liberal political system. Typically, this behaviour manifests among those in office. Mr Mohammeds case involves a traditional poet, Rotimi Jolayemi, whose bold and rhythmic excoriation of the minister took the social media by storm a few weeks ago. Since then the Yoruba language poet has drawn the ire of the security services, particularly the police. Mr Mohammed dissociates himself from Mr Jolayemis misfortune, but few believe him.The poet, according to the police, disseminated his composition on April 14 or so, and since then, particularly on WhatsApp, the poem had gone viral and brought Mr Mohammed to public ridicule and opprobrium. In the poem, which drew upon many literary facilities, including puns, alliterations, traditional proverbs, and good old abuse and exaggerations, Mr Jolayemi was unsparing of the minister. The traditional poet also took the Humanitarian Affairs minister, Sadiya Umar Farouq, to the cleaners, alleging corruption against her, complete with a clip of the hearing in the National Assembly in which her feathers were considerably ruffled. The poet also made oblique references to her morals. Miffed beyond forbearance, the poet was ferreted out of his rat hole by the police for questioning and detained with contemptuous disregard for the constitution. His sins were too grievous to deserve constitutional protection.In the charge sheet against him, the police disclosed why they harried Mr Jolayemi. Said they: That you, Jolayemi Oba Akewi, male, aged 43, on or about the 14th day of April 2020 at Osolo Compound, Ekan Nla, Kwara State, within the jurisdiction of this honourable court did send audio message through your Android phone device to a group WhatsApp platform known as Ekan Sons and Daughters and which went viral immediately after it was posted for the purpose of causing annoyance, insult, hatred and ill will toward the current Minister of Information and Culture, Federal Republic of Nigeria, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, and thereby committed an offence contrary to Section 24(1)(b) of the Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention etc) Act 2015.The police rap sheet was silent on what pains the poet caused the Humanitarian Affairs minister. The oblique references the poet made concerning her were rather too delicate to be tabled before a judge for public titillation. Besides, unlike the case involving the Information minister, the other ministers case could lose focus and revolve around entirely unforeseen and tangential issues. For now, officials reason, better not to litigate those sort of things. However, without prejudice to what Mr Jolayemis lawyers might argue, or the success or otherwise of the attempt by Mr Jolayemi and his family to beg the minister to bury the hatchet, critics are questioning whether the poet had exceeded the limits of decency or Mr Mohammed had become unbearably thin-skinned.Mr Jolayemi was not immediately captured for interrogation. In the interim, his wife, Dorcas, and brothers, John and Joseph, were ambushed and hauled in for interrogation and partially used as hostages to arrest the fleeing poet. Before then, their phones had been bugged, and having established their communication with the fleeing poet, were arrested for obstruction of justice. Clearly, many issues pertaining to the sustenance of democracy arose as a result of the whole affair. First, did the police establish a prima facie case against the poet' Second, did the poet go beyond the boundaries of free speech provided for by the constitution' Third, did the police have a right to detain him for 17 days before charging him in court' Fourth, are the police empowered to hold anyone as hostage, contrary to the law, to entrap a fleeing suspect' Fifth, did the police obtain a warrant to bug the phones of those concerned, particularly Mr Jolayemis relations'All these questions strike at the root of democracy. How they are answered will indicate the state of health of Nigerian democracy. What is not in doubt is that when Mr Mohammed was a spokesman of the opposition party in the years before 2015, he and his partys supporters poured far worse scorn and invectives on the government of Goodluck Jonathan without attracting commensurate heavy-handedness. The Information minister has tried to distance himself from the whole saga, but few people are buying his excuses. He owes it to himself, his reputation, and democracy to approach the matter openly, courageously and lawfully while seeking redress to his image battered by the poet. Tomorrow, the shoe could be on the other foot, and democracy could once again be imperilled.If Mr Mohammeds lack of inspiring example is portentous, the other cases involving the Abia State governor and an Ebonyi State council chairman portend even much worse, bringing to the fore the dire condition in which Nigerian democracy is constrained. An Abia State lawyer, Gabriel Ogbonna, was alleged to have made some defamatory remarks about Gov Ikpeazu on social media and was arrested by the police on March 24, charged in court for cybercrime almost immediately before a magistrate who had no jurisdiction to hear the case, and admitted to bail some 14 days later. He is, however, still detained by the Department of State Service (DSS), his bail frustrated. Mr Ogbonnas case recalls the case of a Kano-based Islamic cleric, Bello Yabo, who took Kaduna State governor Nasir el-Rufai to task for keeping religious centres shut on the pretext of fighting COVID-19 pandemic. The cleric described Mallam el-Rufai in uncomplimentary terms, in one instance painting him as a little bird. Days later, the police were in Kano to haul Mallam Yabo to Kaduna for insulting the governor. But a son of Gov el-Rufai had a few weeks before threatened on social media to gang-rape the mother of a critic and also made hateful comment about an ethnic group, and no policeman nor law officer has whispered a word about the affair.The threat to democracy is so bad that even council chairmen now give free rein to themselves in dealing with impudent members of the public. Angry that an activist, Okochi Obeni, questioned his sincerity and integrity as a public official, the chairman of Afikpo North local government, Mr Enyim, allegedly dispensed with the niceties of law, and dispensed crude justice to the activist. The activist was lured into a trap, tortured, forced to recant his accusations, and left on the verge of paralysis. The police claim to have made some arrests, and said investigations were continuing, but little has been done so far, especially with the main suspect still walking free. In Nigeria, when it comes to public functionaries, law enforcement is customarily timid and toothless.Democracy is endangered because of the attitude of elected and appointed officials who obviously know or care little about democracy, about the justice system that has been compromised and castrated by the executive branch, about a conniving legislative arm that hero-worships or stand in awe of the executive, and about law enforcement and security agencies whose dignity has been taken away by years of mistreatment, poor remuneration, and misuse. If insulting public officials now warrants wholesale abuse of the rights and privileges of the citizenry conferred by the constitution, if no one else but civil society groups and the media are left to defend democracy and are themselves victims of horrendous abuse, democracy may be in far more danger than anybody thinks. It is doubtful whether Nigerians have ever had their rights, particularly free speech, so debased, surely not in the First or Second Republic. The Third Republic was aborted. The Fourth Republic is supposed to be a marked improvement over the other republics; instead it has arguably become less inspiring, indeed, bland and unremarkable. If the public will not rise as one man to defend their constitution, they will be surprised to find in the years ahead that they had carelessly lost it, or were compelled to live with a constitution so weakened and distorted by state officials that it is of little use to anyone.
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