By Akeem Soboyede
In George Orwell’s novel, 1984, a larger-than-life “Big Brother” superintends over the affairs of subjugated members of society. He is aided in this nefarious role by minions who staff an odious “Thought Police” that victimizes and tortures perceived adversaries of the state, even for alleged “mind crimes” (however plausible), among other cruelties.
In Major-General Muhammadu Buhari’s Nigeria of the year 1984, the term that ruled the land was “Decree 4”, a nomenclature for a draconian piece of military legislation that prescribed jail terms for journalists who published what the-then military government headed by the country’s present leader literally perceived as “uncomfortable truths”, no matter the veracity of such reports. Two Nigerian journalists at that time felt the decree’s cruel sting when they were tried and jailed under its martial fiats.
The application of Decree 4 and other draconian edicts under the Buhari military government only helped build a reputation for the man who would later become Nigeria’s democratically-elected President as a Big Brother-type dictator who brooked no criticism nor counsel, however factual or well-intentioned. That image, of course, was not wholly-deserved: it subsequently came to light after the demise of the Buhari military administration that many of his influential subordinates in the same military government he led actually trampled—and very visibly so—on the fundamental rights of Nigerian citizens in order to literally give the tough-looking leader a bad name in order to hang him later with a successful coup d’etat.
Which they did. Anyone remembers the well-publicized raid ostensibly “ordered” by Head of State Buhari on the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s house in Apapa, Lagos in 1984?
While this may yet be a far-fetched rationalization, it appears certain Fifth Columnists are also now hard at work in the incumbent, democratically-elected government of President Muhammadu Buhari. Only a few days ago one Daniel Elombah published a quite riveting piece (which I recommend to everyone who has not yet read it) on the acts of intimidation, torture and false imprisonment, among others, that he and other members of his family suffered in the early hours of New Year’s Day, at the jackboot hands of certain members of the Nigerian Police.
According to Elombah, who is a London-based lawyer he, his brothers and other members of the family were rudely roused from their sleep in the most raucous and indecent manner, without even the simply courtesy of being told why they were subjected to such treatment by agents of the Nigerian state. Leaving their targets’ aged mother, wives and little children alarmed and hypertensive in their jackboots’ wake, the armed state agents who intruded into the Elombah country home then forced the brothers into vehicles that traversed 500 bumpy and treacherous miles from that home in the Eastern part of Nigeria, before finally coming to a halt in Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja.
According to Daniel Elombah’s account, further interrogations by their state abductors revealed the “New Year Day arrests” had allegedly been ordered by Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris. The latter was allegedly piqued by a publication that had allegedly appeared in an online medium, Elombah.com, founded and run by Tim Elombah, one of the brothers abducted during the dawn raid on New Year’s Day. Subsequent explanations that the said offensive publication was neither penned by Tim Elombah nor published on his website as alleged by his traducers were discounted by the Police interrogators, who then proceeded to charge Tim Elombah with many crimes—including alleged blackmail—while parading him in handcuffs.
Acts such as the ones described in detail by Daniel Elombah in his account of his family’s nightmarish experience certainly do no credit to the government of a retired military general who, before his Phoenix-like rise to the Presidency of Nigeria in 2015, humbly and creditably declared himself a “reformed Democrat”. It is certainly not democratic nor an exemplar of a reformed past to scale the walls of the home of citizens engaged in peaceful slumber, not give an immediate reason for their mass abduction masquerading as “arrests” and then arraign one of them on charges that evidently do not even satisfy the basic elements of such an indictment.
I recall that sometime in 2015, not too long after the swearing-in of President Buhari sequel to his well-deserved victory in the presidential polls earlier that year, I wrote an article drawing attention to the clear-and-present danger represented by certain anti-media laws and practices in Nigeria, with the focus in that article being the cynically-named Cybercrime (Prohibition) Act of 2015, particularly Section 24 (1) (a) (b) of that law. The Act had been used to corrall and unjustly-imprison two online media practitioners at that time.
This particularly-vile legislation had been promulgated and signed into law in the waning days in office of former President Goodluck Jonathan and was clearly aimed at Nigerian journalists who have since revolutionized the use of online media in shining the light on rampant acts of iniquity that hold sway in Nigeria, especially among the archetypal “high and mighty”, particularly the politically-connected.
This piece of legislation specifically seeks to punish any online publication or information that is “….grossly offensive…or knowing to be false [causes] annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult…” In retrospect, that particular provision could have been lifted verbatim from the even more odious Decree 4.
Ironically the same former President Jonathan has directly and through the activities of such proxies as his ex-media aide Reno Omokri, largely used articles and rebuttals published on online media to burnish his personal image and the acts of his government that have come under intensive and very negative scrutiny since he departed office!
I equally believe much of such defenses and rebuttals launched by Omokri and others on Jonathan’s behalf since May 29, 2015 have not only been perceived as “false” by many now ensconsed in the corridors of power in Nigeria, the latter have also undoubtedly found the bulk of such missives (especially those by Omokri) “annoying”, Inconveniencing”, “dangerous”, “obstructive”, insulting”, etc.
Even worse is the growing trend by those who wield any kind of power and influence in Nigeria to proclaim any publication which seeks to expose their iniquitous acts as “blackmail”. The IGP allegedly used that term to describe the publication he supposedly used as an excuse to detain the Elombah brothers and haul one of them before a Court on patently-dubious charges. It is equally the term-of-art that has been variously employed to justify the apparent and continuing physical, mental and psychological torture of blogger Kemi Olunloyo, who remains in detention as of this writing for publishing materials numerous third parties who should know have testified to their veracity or have acknowledged as substantially true.
Needless to add, spurious accusations of “blackmail” against those who expose or seek to shine a spotlight on the illegal / corrupt acts of public office holders and the personal malfeasance of individuals who hold public office or are well-connected should not be used to innoculate such against exposure of their wrongs.
The “reformed Democrat” in Aso Rock (and I do believe President Buhari really is one) should take action to stem this growing tide of public officials and well-connected private citizens who use the instrumentalities of the Nigerian state (and in many cases, ill-gotten personal resources) to harass, assault, jail or otherwise injure patriots who do their bit to create a Nigeria of which we can all be proud.
– Soboyede is a former Editor with THISDAY Newspapers in Nigeria and a US-based attorney.