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11Jan/111

Nigeria: Free Speech And Media Activism: Dangerous But Potent Deterrent To Official Corruption

By Adebayo Adejare

"While I recognize the business of the politician, I call on all of us citizens to also know what our business is. It is to refuse to give the government our silence. It is to fight the government from hiding information and persecuting those who tried to make it available to us — Kole Omotoso" (Famous Nigerian Author and Scholar)

Sometime in March 1975, late Tai Solarin, renowned social critic and proprietor of the famous Mayflower School Ikene, wrote and secretly circulated a short article titled "The Beginning of the End." It was a scathing criticism of Yakubu Gowon's corrupt administration and the article turned out top be as prophetic as that government was toppled in a palace coup d'etat within a few months of the article. Such is the repression and violation of fundamental human rights and freedom visited upon people of the third world especially the mass media by military dictators. It was in the same regime that a journalist was arrested, detained and had his hair shaved clean for daring to interrupt the River State Governor's motor convoy.

In 1984, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson were convicted and sent to jail for violating the Buhari regime decree No. 4 purporting to protect public officers from false and malicious publications. Dele Giwa of Nigeria was bombed to death by agents of Nigeria's Babagida's military dictatorship in Nigeria on account of his professional duties as a journalist. The Concord Newspaper was humiliated by court process on account of its exposure of secret gifts by Babangida's corrupt military Junta to echelons of the Nigerian judiciary. The notorious Abacha regime closed and torched Rutam house premises of the Guardian Newspapers and also proscribed the Punch.

Elsewhere in Chile, an author wrote a book in 1998 titled "The Black Book of the Chilean Justice System" exposing the corrupt activities of the judiciary in Chile. He was, of course, pursued by govt. for prosecution at the instance of the aggrieved justices. Salman Rushdie wrote a book titled "Satanic Verses" about twenty years ago and has had to remain in hiding due to death sentence passed on him by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran.

All over the developing world intolerance to criticism and sheer repression of self expression appears to be the rule. Even in so-called democratic civilian setting in Nigeria, the court cases typify the characteristic of intolerance to criticism exhibited by the leadership. But why would any public officer reject transparency and insist on secrecy? It is largely because of the massive corruption and abuse of office that are perpetrated on the people by the leadership in third world nations. The result is mass impoverishment of their peoples and social degradation compounded by capital flight and scaring of foreign investment.

The methods used by leadership to muzzle speech and cover up crimes against the state and individuals vary from regime to regime but it is in the military setting that the crudest form of repression has taken place. Some have said that Nigeria has been much better of than most African countries on this matter just because journalists and others were not disappearing or being murdered the way Idi Amin effectuated atrocities against the Ugandan people. But does it really matter the methodology? Has the proceedings of Nigeria's Oputa Human Rights Violations Probe Panel not dispelled such illusion? What difference does it make to go by bomb as Dele Giwa did or by lethal injection as Yar'Adua or by hanging as with environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa?

The journalism profession has topped the list of death ridden jobs nay highest-risk jobs due to human hatred of exposure, criticism and desire to cover up crime which is as old as the Biblical murder of Abel by Cain hence the hazardous nature of the profession. The only difference between military and civilian repression is methodology. While the military is violent brazen and often with naked impunity, civilians are often covert and sophisticated. Buhari dictatorship in Nigeria used legislation (notorious Decree 4) and tribunals to suppress free speech. Babagida Junta preferred to carrot and stick approach bribing its way to suppress negative publicity but secretly eliminating journalists and others who are adamant e.g. by letter-bombing as in Dele Giwa's case. The regulatory power of the state over newspaper and other media as well as the laws of sedition have been manipulated as a sword of repression rather than a shield to protect the administration from false and malicious criticism. So also the law of contempt as in the victimization of Daily Times's Olu Onagoruwa and Tunji Oseni over their article titled "Zik and Tax" in 1979.

The reality is that free speech remains the greatest pillar of our fledgling democracy hence the Nigerian press must wake up with new vibrancy to its role as a watchdog of our liberties and prosperity. Corruption by public office holders remains the greatest threat to our economic revival and development. It deters foreign investment, retards economic and social development perverts justice morals and ethos and breeds distrusts and political instability. President Obasanjo's launched a Campaign of National Re-birth and Anti-Corruption Crusade. He also created the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) The challenge before President Goodluck Jonathan is to sustain the momentum with the Press as an ally.

The Nigerian press today has the patriotic duty of examining performance of public office holders and exposing corruption including waste, fraud and abuse of office in addition to its traditional vigilance to expose assaults upon our fundamental liberties and individual rights. Tax evasion would not be so rampant as it is today had Nigerians maintained the momentum with which the Murtala/Obasanjo Military Administration combated the malaise through the media 1975-79.

Social Critics and non-governmental organizations who helped expose the Military's atrocities (but now in hibernation) are constrained in the matter unless there is adequate Media coverage. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword even in a largely illiterate Society like ours. The media performed well under Gowon regime (1966-75) by exposing the corrupt activities of a ministers (late Joseph Tarka) as well as a serving Governor (Joseph Gomwalk) but we are yet to witness similar activism. But the corrupt Junta of General Ibrahim Babangida "cleared" late governor Muhammed Lawal despite glaring evidence of graft tabled by Dr Seni Bello, the state's finance chief. Babangida's corrupt dictatorship wallowed in and fostered a culture of corruption. The euphemism "settlement" was created during his tenure as he utilized state resources to pacify press, opposition and the military in a fruitless bid to attain life Presidency. His side-kick, Sanni Abacha simply follwed the evil tradition.

The Nigerian society is still smirting under the effects of the corrupt culture nurtured under these outstandingly evil and corrupt dictators. Homeland loot recovery remains fraustrated and overseas loot recovery has only been partially successful.

As Andrew Young, an American friend of Nigeria remarked during a television interview in August 2000 public officers who loot the treasury impoverish the entire society and endanger its very survival. Recovery of loot is a difficult exercise but prevention is better than cure. Steadfast commitment of individuals and the media is indispensable to prevention and exposure of waste and corruption in public administration and the nurturing of a culture of a probity integrity and transparency in public office.

The role of the Nigerian Presidency and leadership as creators of public wealth and managers of prosperity must be highlighted by the media. Policy should be debated so that errors and loopholes for waste and embezzlement are exposed and averted rather than trying to recover loot that has left the shores of Nigeria.

Tafa Balogun, Fabian Osuji, Egbo- Egbo, DSP Alamieyeseigha, Lucky igbinedion and others will forever feel victimized unless the crusade continues and other culprits brought to book. Equal treatment before the law is mandatory for justice to be done. The EFCC opened cases against thirty-two out of thirty-six "Obasanjo" Governors but has been able to conclude about four! Anti-corruption campaign is not limited to serving Public Officers but must be even more vibrant against ex-public officers who are adept at deflecting attention from their past corrupt misdeeds to those of incumbents.

The massive plundering of our national resources as was practiced by the erstwhile evil dictators (Ibrahim Babangida and Sanni Abacha) is fast to becoming a model for our largely untutored and permissive new-breed politicians even in our democratic order. President Goodluck Jonathan must continue the anti-corruption campaign with similar gusto as President Obasanjo despite blackmail and sponsored accusations of selective prosecution.

The Tai Solarins, Aper Akus, Godwin Dabohs and all whistle-blowers of our society are ready but they need the support and vibrancy of the Media to succeed. The advent of the internet has boosted our chances at exposure. Even the international law and diplomatic regimes are favourable in view of the extra-territorial application of anti-money laundering laws. But there is fear of retaliation by corrupt public officers. That should not force us to relent. Our Society would remain in economic doldrums and persist in grinding poverty rendering constitutional protection of free speech meaningless unless the plundering of our public resources by Public Officers is exposed and checked. This highlights the importance of the Freedom of Information Act which, when passed, would enhance our anti-corruption efforts.

On this matter of corruption and loot recovery, silence cannot be said to be golden but could be taken to be consent or compelled because of involvement, connivance or benefit or just plain guilty conscience. The challenge of combating corruption is as vital as combating the tyranny of military rule. The job cannot be left to Law enforcement alone. We must resist the temptation to give looters in government our silence. We must demand transparency in Government. The job of Media Practitioners and Patriotic Citizens is to debilitate the fraudulent bloated ego of corrupt Public Persons through exposure, public censure, and demand for removal from office as well as prosecution. We must also discourage media assignments to launder image for corrupt personalities or to blackmail law enforcement. Isn't it a shame on our local Media that public affairs they neglected to cover despite their exaggerated claims to investigative journalism were were spilled world-wide through the Wikileaks saga.

Nigerian Media Practitioners need to brace and live up to societal expectation by helping to stem corruption thereby enhancing our national survival. No excuses are acceptable. As a Society, we must be unrelenting in our pursuit of loot with zeal similar to that with which the American Government has fought the WAR ON TERROR so that the message will sink that there will be no place for looters to hide or rest.

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  1. A Virile press is the conscience and voice of the people, it plays and optimises this Role only in an atmosphere of complete freedom termed “press freedom” an atmosphere where ideas, information and opinion are expressed freely without intimidation, fear or favour.


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