Back to the Bad Old Days: Freedom of Expression ‘Under Siege’ in Nigeria
By: Bill Snaddon
In May 2015, with some fanfare, Muhammadu Buhari reassumed his throne as president of Nigeria. This time, though, he won the prize in a democratic fashion—and he was keen to tell the world just so. The former dictator, who ruled this West African nation as a military man for a brief spell in the mid-1980s, was now, in his own words, a “converted democratic.”
“I cannot change the past,” said the 72-year-old, “but I can change the present and the future.”
Hope was high for Africa’s most populous and pluralistic country. Today, estimates put the population at 180 million, made up of almost 420 ethnic groups. And depending on which economists you consult and which numbers you believe, Nigeria in 2014 became Africa’s largest economy—worth about $500 billion. South Africa has recently reclaimed the title of “Africa’s biggest economy,” but, as we speak, the economic outlook in both countries is less than impressive.
Nigeria’s outlook for freedom of expression is similarly dire, following the same downward trend as its currency, the Naira, which continues to slide against the US dollar.
My questions on free expression, mostly, led me to Tade Ipadeola, poet, lawyer, and president of PEN Nigeria Centre. Ipadeola’s poetry collection The Sahara Testaments won the prestigious Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2013.
Via email, I asked Ipadeola if President Buhari is the born-again democrat that he claims to be and what the future holds for Nigeria. We also delve into questions of religion, terrorism, media, politics, dogs, and more.
Bill: What is the current state of free speech in Nigeria? Is the trend getting better or worse—more free or less? More fear or less fear?
Tade: Exactly 30 years ago this month, Nigeria experienced its first letter bomb assassination of Dele Giwa, a charismatic investigative journalist. Next year, it will be 50 years exactly since Wolé Sóyínká was locked away in solitary confinement for his commentary on the Nigerian state at the time, when the civil war was looming, as it is now. A great number of writers and journalists have been killed, imprisoned, and physically and psychologically savaged by state and non-state actors since these events. It is a good time to ask after the health of freedom of expression in Nigeria.
Sadly, the candid answer is that despite the passage of time, the evolution of new media channels, and an increase in the number of professional and amateur reporters, freedom of expression is still under siege in Nigeria. The climate of fear that Wolé Sóyínká wrote about is here. We are in a kind of fear-smog in Nigeria right now. The main factories producing the smog are the dying institutions of state and radical religion. One cannot read or be seen with a copy of The Satanic Verses in northern Nigeria even today. The eye of the gathering storm is the intersection between the state and radical religion.
It was reported in September 2016 that several journalists, bloggers, and media workers were beaten, arrested, and detained. A media freedom advocate with the Committee to Protect Journalists, Peter Nkanga, said: “The impunity with which Nigerian security forces have recently attacked the press is reminiscent of Nigeria’s darkest days of military rule.” Would you agree with this assessment? Feel free to elaborate on the current state of media freedom in Nigeria.
Lately, we have had a surge in the number of incarceration of bloggers and journalists under various provisions of Nigerian law. The newest threat to freedom of expression is the Cyber Security Law (2015), which, under section 26 provides for “cyber stalking.” The law has been used to hound no less than six investigative journalists and bloggers since coming into effect.
Right now, some states within the Nigerian federation are still using criminal defamation laws to hound journalists and bloggers. At least two persons are in jail awaiting trial currently under one such charge. A man is in a Nigerian jail right now for naming his dog Buhari. The police charged the man with an offence called “conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace.” The man claimed to have named his dog Buhari because he admires the president. We are perhaps one step behind Turkey in our retention of insult laws.
For a while, since the return of democratic rule in 1999, there was a lull in attacks against free expression but the honeymoon is over. From every indication, the beast of censure is back.
I think the current frenzy in security circles against traditional newspapers and bloggers began in 2014 when investigative journalists began asking hard questions about the sudden wealth of some army generals, even as the war against the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram was going badly. Two national newspapers were shut down. We haven’t had that kind of scenario since the days of military rule.
Only in May of this year, 2016, was the Nigerian senate forced to withdraw a bill, the Social Media Abuse Bill, after it had gone through public reading twice. These developments are a setback for a country that should be at the forefront of open societies in Africa and the world.
As far as you know, are there any other journalists or writers in jail in Nigeria at the moment? If so, is there any one case that should be getting international attention but isn’t?
Ahmed Salkida has been in and out of custody since he started covering Boko Haram in Nigeria. Bloggers are now at greater risk than professional journalists who have editors and lawyers to protect them.
Right now, there is a man, Jonah Okah, in a public jail while awaiting trial for criminal defamation. What makes this case different is that the offense of criminal defamation for which he is charged is a throwback to the colonial era and he was arrested for a Facebook post. The Okaka prison in southern Nigeria where Jonah is being kept had earlier been the jail where nationally decorated poet Nengi Ilagha was kept until mid-2016.
This case represents the evils of even vestigial anachronistic laws of this nature, which a corrupt system can use to keep writers in jail. In a country where a matter may not come to trial in two years, it is pure torture.
The Committee to Protect Journalists places Nigeria on its unflattering ‘Impunity Index’, which lists nations that do not bring the killers of journalists to justice, for 2015. Why do think Nigeria has a prominent place on this list?
Generally, the law enforcement and the judiciary have been reduced to mere shadows in Nigeria over the years. The police have only two functional forensic laboratories for the whole country. State prosecutors are overworked and underpaid; judges are overwhelmed by an avalanche of cases.
It is not only journalists and writers who have been murdered in Nigeria. In 2001, the nation’s attorney general, Chief Bola Ige, was assassinated in his own home. The government says the police are reopening the case this year but there is already a vote of no confidence in the law enforcement agencies. The unresolved murders of journalists and writers have not helped matters.
Indeed, I cannot recollect a single instance in which the state secured a conviction against the killer of a writer or journalist.
How does Nigeria find its balance between defeating the deadly Boko Haram terrorist group and allowing unfettered and free debate? Can these two things go hand in hand?
If Nigeria is to rid herself of Boko Haram and every other incarnation of extremist religious groups, there has to be open and frank debate about what we want as a country. There isn’t any other way in a democracy. Indeed, what the radical clerics want is for their word to be law, not subject to rational discourse. We know how that story ends. Fatwas and decrees issued by whoever deems himself the Mahdi, the prophesied redeemer of Islam. There has to be a debate about ways and means to objectives. The media is doing a yeoman’s job in this regard but censures and taboos make any kind of robust engagement practically impossible.
The questions to be addressed are serious indeed and I’m afraid that the country hasn’t really started. There is renewed agitation for self-determination by groups in the south and in the Niger Delta. There is a massive resurgence, or recrudescence if you will, of ethnic nationalism. Some of these go back to long before the Nigerian civil war. The sense that sections of the country feel alienated from the rest has not been stronger in my experience than what we have at the moment. The roots of Boko Haram have been traced to opaque electoral dealings in the north east of Nigeria. The same touchstone gave rise to the militants of the Niger Delta.
Unfortunately, the battle against Boko Haram, essentially a Sunni group, has not garnered the kind of debate that will enable society to overcome it, since most of the politicians in the north—as well as most owners of print and electronic media—are also Sunni who fear that engaging the phenomenon publicly can ruin them or actually get them killed.
Nigeria has a population of 180 million people (seventh largest in the world) and an economy worth more than $500 billion (21st in the world). Depending on whom you ask, Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa. Notwithstanding reports of current economic trouble, Nigeria is on the rise and is predicted to have a larger population than the USA by 2050. How important is free speech and free expression in ensuring Nigeria continues to grow? Do you worry that Nigeria might follow China’s lead and go down a ‘development first’ path where civil liberties and human rights are compromised so long as the economy is growing?
Nigeria is the most pluralistic country in Africa with almost 420 ethnic groups in constant flux. In the future, she also aspires to be a major work and leisure destination for millions of people. We cannot stress the importance of constant open dialogue within the country enough. For there to be meaningful dialogue, everyone should be free to express his or her thoughts and convictions. It is this ambience that fosters constructive dissent, significant collaboration, and even social and technical innovation.
Since the return of democratic rule in 1999, the country has been making slow and painful progress along the pathway of respect for human rights. But I’m afraid the country is suffering a relapse into a monologic, monocultural framework. We have a statist president at the moment and he has been shuttling to countries where the dominant ideology is for the cat to catch the mouse, whatever color the cat is.
I also worry that the emphasis right now is on retributive justice, when what we sorely need is distributive justice. We cannot overestimate free speech in a country that is supposedly rising. As a country, we do have some very dubious claims to preeminence in demographics and economics, at least in Africa, but the claims are just that, dubious claims. There isn’t a single city or town in Nigeria with an accurate census. How, then, can we claim to be 170 or even 180 million people? If indeed Nigeria were that demographically endowed, she would be a global exception to a rule of human geography, which says that human population decreases toward deserts.
I am worried that the playing field in my country is not level. I am even more worried that even if the field were to be leveled somewhat today, it wouldn’t really do much to redress the fundamental flaws in how the country defines itself. A level playing field is no use to the mouse if it has only cats to contend with.
The greatest danger to Nigeria is not president Buhari’s affiliation with the Chinese model of governance: this alliance is a child of economic necessity. The real threat is a tendency to foist a Sunni theocracy on Nigeria through her alliance with Saudi Arabia. The foolishness of that kind of thinking should be clear to see for anyone who has been in power before, but that is the reality today when the president is actually convinced that he presides over moral reprobates and therefore must learn greater discipline as the Sharia dictates.
The international media cautiously welcomed the arrival of Muhammadu Buhari back to presidency in 2015. He was, of course, Nigeria’s head of state in the 1980s for a short and rocky period when he led the country as military ruler. Do you believe him when he says he is a “converted democrat”? How much influence does he have over such a sprawling country? In your mind, is he the leader to usher Nigeria into a new age of peace and prosperity?
Much of the cautious optimism and goodwill that President Buhari enjoyed before coming into office for the second time has been squandered by him in what might be described as a succession of unforced economic, political, and social errors. The national currency, the Naira, is today worth less than half of what it was worth upon Buhari’s inauguration. His fiscal and economic policies sent panic into the market, spooking investors away from the marketplace. Falling out with key groups within his own political party, a penchant for political brinkmanship, and insensitivity towards victims of cattle herdsmen violence, especially in the east of Nigeria, have lost the president many followers.
The more serious errors are social, in my opinion. For example, when the army killed hundreds of Shi’ite Muslims in the north of Nigeria, the president (being Sunni himself) ought to have demonstrated greater tact in resolving the conflict. What happened instead was a proscription of the Shi’ite movement.
(In Nigeria, the Sunni form of Islam commands about 80 percent of the population, making Shi’ites a minority alongside Sufis and the Ansari sects from Pakistan.)
In the wake of the killings by the army and the government panel of inquiry, the official response of government was to ban the Shi’ite movement last week. Yesterday, another Shi’ite member was shot dead in the north. This is, to say the least, unwise. Radical sects like Boko Haram began in precisely this way.
Nigerians and those who placed almost messianic confidence in the president were deeply mistaken from the beginning: nothing has changed in the modus operandi of Buhari’s government. It is still condescending towards dissent and contemptuous of due process.
World media might have chosen—out of some notion of chivalry—not to remember that this was the man who, rather than applying through proper channels for the repatriation of Umaru Dikko in the ‘80s, opted instead to have agents of the state kidnap and then attempt to smuggle the victim out of the U.K. in a crate. Dikko was a minister in Nigeria’s government before Buhari’s first stint as leader from December 1983 to August 1985.
Ignoring the fact that this was the man who introduced retroactive criminal offenses punishable with death is another instance of selective memory. At least three Nigerians were publicly murdered under the narcotic prohibition and punishment laws of the first incarnation of Buhari’s rule. Electricity generation under Buhari actually plunged below 4000 megawatts. This is in a country that ought to be generating at least 200,000 megawatts. There is no power even for printing presses to function.
It’s an emphatic no from me. President Buhari is not the leader Nigeria has been waiting for. His vision is too provincial and he has occupied himself with creating cattle ranches across Nigeria instead of a dynamic state. There is a mind-boggling misplacement of priorities in budgetary allocation since his inauguration in May 2015. One would expect greater efforts at reconstruction and restoration of the northeast of Nigeria, ravaged by Boko Haram. But we find instead quadruple allocations to the north central zone, where the president comes from. All of this undermines any confidence even the most dogged, rational supporter of Mr. Buhari may have left.
When commentators talk of Nigeria, they will often say that the country has a “Muslim north” and a “Christian south.” Is the divide as black and white as this? Is there an aspect of Nigeria’s religious story that outsiders don’t know but should? I ask this particularly in light of the growing religious intolerance in many Western countries that are becoming more fearful of Muslims.
Of course the reality is a lot more nuanced than the generic description of Nigeria’s religious DNA suggests. A good number of Nigerians are animists, for example, and a growing number are atheists. The ideological left in Nigeria, like the ideological left in most Western countries, does not want to engage with the reality of radical Islam. The hard right in Nigeria, like the right wing in most Western countries, has become adept at playing religious blocs against each other for political power.
Having said that, however, the southeast of Nigeria, homeland to the Igbo, for example, is 90 percent Christian. In the southwest, Christianity claims only about 45 percent of the population. In the north, Islam claims a comfortable 80 percent of the population.
Coming back to the question of the need to engage with radical Islam in Nigeria, the truth is that every single religious crisis in Nigeria since independence has had a sect of Islam at the forefront. The most prominent banned book in the north of Nigeria, The Last Imam, is by a northern Muslim who is critical of the clerics in the region and of the Wahhabi jurisprudence they teach.
The contest for space between Sunni and Shi’ite groups in the north is well known. Also well documented are purges directed against Igbo traders in the north. Igbo traders, as mentioned earlier, are mostly Christians. I think a great number of these conflicts would be eliminated if factories worked in Nigeria. Also, there will be less friction if there is more and better education.
A people with a history of internal trade reaching back centuries have been needlessly carved up by politicians using religion.
If you were the president of Nigeria, how would you foster a greater respect and tolerance for free speech?
I would make primary education both free and compulsory. I would make secondary education across Nigeria a state-subsidized social project. I would have public libraries in every town with a population of 50,000 or more. I would have students read a poem a day from all over the world. I would encourage students to study sciences.
I would facilitate travel by rail within the country, as was the case in my teenage years. I would ensure that the project of translations across languages becomes a priority, like it is in India. I would provide bursary equally for sciences and the humanities at all state universities and I would encourage students to have real pen pals across the country. I would ensure 100 percent Internet penetration. Finally, I would ensure that Nigeria is a country without a single banned book.
Feel free to add anything you wish
The secret police (DSS) of Nigeria on October 8, 2016, began a literal nocturnal crackdown on judges of superior courts across the country. At least one Supreme Court judge was involved. The DSS justifies the arrests by saying that they found huge amounts of cash in the homes of the judges. So far eight judges are in custody.
This development is like the Turkish phenomenon. The danger, apart from the crude methods deployed against the judiciary, is that we cannot be sure that evidence wasn’t planted in these raids. This development further reinforces the fear that president Buhari never learned any real lessons about democratic rule. He is under tremendous pressure to justify his image as a strongman. Unfortunately, Nigerians and the world see through the ruse.
Tade Ipadeola is a lawyer, poet, and winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2013. He is also President of PEN Nigeria Center.
Bill Snaddon is a freelance journalist