Monday, November 3, 2008

Nigerians have lived through some interesting political times. In the past, a specific military regime took the time to publicly flog civil servants for arriving to work late. Under various dictators, independent thought was punished, some, like journalist Dele Giwa were blown apart to bits. And, of course, no reasonable Nigerian can forget the distinctly dark terror that was the Abacha regime, although some would rather rewrite that part of Nigeria's history. Then, Nigerians spoke in hushed whispers about the various rumors surrounding the late General and the many who crossed his path, only to never be heard from again.

Despite these realities, the advent of 'Nigerian democracy', though imperfect, brought a glimmer of hope to the people. Most Nigerians did not expect things to change over night, but they were confident that with democracy, Nigeria would inch closer to becoming a truly democratic nation where human rights and constitutional freedoms are afforded to all and protected by all. Nigerians became more boisterous in their political opinions and actively participated in civil society. Nigeria, via its government, even championed itself as a defender of African democracy and peace. In 2003, it was Nigeria that brought an end to a coup in neighboring Sao Tome & Principe by negotiating amnesty for the coup plotters and returning the deposed democratic President to power. Nigeria encouraged its neighbors in the sometimes insecure West African region to strive for peace and democracy as the path to development and stability. 

Unfortunately, in recent days, the Nigeria government has chosen to arrest, detain and deprive of legal counsel, bloggers who for whatever reason have written stories that are embarrassing to the office of the Presidency and other powerful political elites. First was Jonathan Elendu, who was detained and allegedly tortured over the course of 11 days by the SSS. He has been released but is not free to return to his family in the US. The most recently detained blogger is Emeka Asiwe of huhuonline.com who was arrested almost a week ago and has not been heard from since. This drastic turn from a path towards creating a better democratic Nigeria is disturbing and requires everyone, Nigerian or not, to consider the possible consequences.


Like any other country, Nigeria is far from perfect. It is a new democracy struggling to find its feet and create a democratic system that is uniquely Nigerian. Nigeria faces incredible challenges such as the tensions in the Niger Delta, poverty - with over 9 out of 10 Nigerians live on less than $2 a day, high illiteracy levels, a pitiful life expectancy rate of 47 years, an over hyped reputation for being a nation of scammers, PPP  (and its consequences) and an ever expanding list of issues too numerous to currently address. Consequently, the nation embarked on a rebranding effort to change its public image i.e. the Heart of Africa project, consistent incentives to repatriate skilled Nigerians living abroad (the "brain gain" phenomenon), and even a continuing effort to transform Lagos (the nation's financial capital) into a global economic and financial market.

However, the arrest of two political news bloggers within weeks of each other begs the question of whether this administration is truly committed, as it has always claimed, to the "rule of law". This question is raised because it is difficult to see how the law punishes, instead of protects, freedom of speech and expression. How does Yar'Adua's "rule of law" message gel with the continued detention of a blogger, in this case Asiwe, even though Nigerian law requires that all detainees be charged within 48 hours of arrest?These contradictions are not healthy for a young democracy , especially one that is watched by its brothers and sisters on the continent. Additionally, these arrests simply give Nigeria's detractors one more concrete reason to distort what Nigeria is and who the Nigerian people are. They confirm, for those who are naive, the many negative ideas that are out there about Nigeria. Why would we want to give such ammunition considering the reputation Nigeria already has and the painstaking efforts that the average Nigerian takes to overcome such stereotypes? President Yar'Adua has repeatedly pledged to make Nigeria a top 20 economy by 2020. But, apart from maybe China, every other country in the top 20 has a boisterous democracy that respects, for the most part civil and human rights. Even the Chinese authorities have realized that to compete, the civil society must be allowed to express its ideas and the Communist Party of China is cutting citizens some slack.

This new trend of arresting Nigerian residents who live abroad upon arrival in the country will also act as a deterrence in the effort to bring Nigerians home. The reality is that most Nigerians abroad have an opinion on the path the country is taking and have likely expressed it publicly and even on the internet. Could these people also be subject to random arrest, detention and torture? Since when did it become a crime to have an opinion? What about Nigerians in the country. Must they return to the times of Sani Abacha and not trust their pastor for fear that he might contact the SSS? Why continue to breed the distrust that already exists amongst Nigerians by creating an environment of fear? Nigerians are a passionate people, and that passion should be tapped into, not repressed, if Nigeria is to truly accomplish the feats its leaders have declared that it will. Clamping down on free speech and expression is not the way to achieve Nigeria's goals.

The Nigerian government must remember that given the choice between reacting harshly to critiques and erasing the small gains that have been made in reinforcing the image and credibility of the nation, the choice should be obvious. For Nigeria to achieve the success it dreams of we must all treat each other better and remember that we can only achieve the goal together.Bloggers like Elendu, Asiwe and others potentially being "hunted" by the Nigerian authorities should be left alone to practice their constitutionally granted rights. As such, Elendu must be allowed to return to his family in the Michigan and Asiwe should also be allowed to return to his family in Massachusetts. Other critics and opponents should be released from detention and allowed to live their lives in peace.

Freedom is a birthright that should never be tampered with. Granted, it can result in unpleasantness, but ultimately, people who are free are of more benefit to any nation than those who live in chains. The choice is ultimately ours to make. But, I believe that we cannot afford to turn away from democracy, no matter how bitter it might taste sometimes.

Related Articles of Interest:
- "Free Jonathan Elendu Now!"
- Blogger, Jonathan Elendu, Still In Custody
- Nigerian Blogger Arrested!!!
- Channels TV Shut Down By Yar'Adua
- Suppression In A Democratic Regime

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joicee said...

This is a well written piece. I cannot for the life of me fathom the reason why the bloggers were arrested. It seems to me that this present govt is worse than the previous. The current president comes across as very mild, docile even, but so far there has been a lot of arrests made of journalists who simply had an opinion about him and this leaves me seriously scratching my head. He is a baba-go-slow when it comes to fixing the infrastructure and basic amenities for the nigerian people, but suddenly becomes baba-sharp-sharp when trying to protect his "image".

N.I.M.M.O said...

Powerful post as usual, Solomonsydelle. In fact, now you are beginning to sound like a Naija politician. I hope its a sign of things to come.

Personally, I have a problem with writers
describing Nigeria as a 'young (nascent) democracy'. It is wrong. There has been some form of guided democracy in Nigeria since way back in the 1940s under Gov Macpherson or someone else. Can't remember who now.

As at October 1, 1960, Nigeria became an independent democracy. It is true that we have had some unfortunate hiatuses (hiati?) in the form of military coups and all that, but those unfortunate incidents should not define us.

Nigeria IS a democracy that has had too many military interventions in its history. For 28 out of 48 years, one may say it has been too military but remember we always had a Constitution that was not abrogated - but just suspended while the military ruled and looted.

It's like armed robbers entering a home and holding a family hostage at gun point for hours or even days. I don't think the press or anybody will refer to the house as becoming that of the armed robbers at any point during the siege. Eventually, they will leave and the house still belongs to the owners. Such is it with Nigeria.

It is when politicians try to rewrite history that they make statements with words like 'nascent democracy' therein as if they are the first to practice democracy in Nigeria. Some may even declare their girlfriends' birthdays as 'Democracy Day'. I cannot say more than that. LOL!.

South Africa had an oppressive apartheid regime for over 60 years but South Africans today do not refer to that unfortunate period of their history as defining their national character.

Rather they celebrate their ability to overcome the evil of apartheid together and move forward therefrom. Remember too that even all through that dark period, South Africa was referred to as a 'democracy'.

Nobody can move forward if he continues to look backwards. He will fall yakata. We must learn to define ourselves by our hopes of the future and not by our failings of the past.

20-20/20 is still some ways away. We will make it.


N.I.M.M.O said...

SSD, I am trying to get into the habit of commenting on your posts, you find me reading and commenting immediately. Also, my internet access is effing up so I cannot postpone. At this rate I may be commenting on every line of text.

You said:
'This new trend of arresting Nigerian residents who live abroad upon arrival in the country ...'

I do not think this is true. many planes come into Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt airports everyday bearing hundreds of Nigerians living abroad but I don't think anybody is arrested just like that.

We may refer to the SSS as 'mad dogs' but we will agree that there is a method to their madness. 'Na who chop gbi, go die gbi' as Yoruba people talk am. I cannot say more than that.

Every Nigerian blogger has an opinion on the way government of Nigeria runs the country and we express our frustrations on our blogs every time. It is a right nobody can take away.

However, I personally have a problem with people trying to present opinions as facts. Opinions are five kobo a dozen. Facts are sacred.

I also agree with you that the arrests may sort of confirm, for those who are naive, the many negative ideas that are out there about Nigeria.

However, I find it interesting that some Nigerians are usually quick to say negative things about Nigeria. If you call your own mother a witch, why should blame anyone for not eating in your house.

With some Nigerians as citizens, who needs detractors?

N.I.M.M.O said...

Its N.I.M.M.O Again! LOL!

(I hope I've not caught the Verastic bug).

How do you define someone as an 'online journalist'?

Over the weekend, I was with friend who is a staff of a newspaper in Nigeria and is also a member of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ). I took him to task on the issue of Jon Elendu, about how the press was rather silent on it and all that. Of course, I didn't let on that I was a blogger too.

His questions actually stumped me:
'Is he a journalist?'.
'Well, he is an online journalist' I answered. 'So, who is an online journalist? Is he a member of the NUJ? Or any union or association of journalists in the US? Is he registered or affiliated with any mainstream newspaper house or media house in Nigeria or elsewhere?'

I could not answer any of those questions. He said a lot more but the long and short was that he refused to be responsible for the welfare of people with whom he has no affiliation - professionally or otherwise.

I cannot go into too much details but I will just say that Politics, especially the Nigerian brand is a dirty game, you cannot play with politicians without getting stains on your raiment. It is a contact sport.

Maybe we should start thinking of forming an association of bloggers or 'online journalists' (when we define who is one).

N.I.M.M.O said...

SSD, I am looking for some confirmation on this Asiwe Asiwe story. I have not seen it in any newspaper here and even the huhuonline.com website is not opening the story. Can you help?

OK. I'm out.

I won't make any comments again.

At least until tomorrow. LOL.

Anonymous said...

Association of Nigerian bloggers Ke!!! Count me out. 'Na dat one dem go take finis us patapata.

Irrespective of what anybody has to say, I still insist that nobody, should be allowed to operate above the RULE OF LAW! If those bloggers have a case to answer, why not prosecute them in a court of law. That way, everyone will have facts and figures to contend with.

But a situation where the prosecutor and the judge is one and the same, that cannot be seen as democracy except if we are now having our own HOME-MADE brand of democracy which others have to learn from :-(

The government have better issue to spend time and energy on than running after bloggers. What does it cost to set up a Nigerian blogger to counter whatever "rubbish" that is published against the POWERS THAT BE.

Too many jobless graduates will gladly take up the task and do a wonderful job of it at less than $1000 per month. You bet it will become the most popular blog in Nigeria because, NTA and all the Radio stations will give it free publicity.


@ Joicee: Good to see you here. Thanks for coming. The truth is I don't know what is going on, but I believe in democratic principles as a means to gurantee the freedom, development and success of Nigerians. I understand that Nigerian democracy will be different from democracy anywhere else, but I just don't want us to turn away from a beneficial path.


@ N.I.M.M.O.: Ah, where do i start? lol! I agree, Nigeria has had 'brushe' with democracy in the past, but as this is the first time in Nigeria's history where one democratically elected President has been followed by another democratically elected President (yes, I know of the issues from the election), I can't help but think of Nigeria as a young democracy. Besides, if you talk to any political scientist, they would likely agree despite your obviously correct assertion. They would agree with my assessment because Nigeria despite previous brushes with democracy is still struggling to establish clear democratic principles and systems. Nevertheless, I acknowledge and somewhat agree with your point.

As to Nigerians being arrested upon arrival, how do you know that many have not been arrested? Just because we don't hear about it in the news does not mean that people aren't being detained. COnsidering the lack of information on Elendu and Asiwe's arrest, I could posit that we simply do not know if that is the case. What we do know, is that 2 bloggers who focus on the issues you and I like to pay attention to were arrested. That, is enough for me to see it as part of a larger pattern of events I have been watching. It could be nothing, and if that is the case, like everyone else, I will be glad. But if this is a part of something larger, we all need to tread carefully.

"If you call your own mother a witch, why should blame anyone for not eating in your house."

lol!!! ut unfortunately, you are 100% correct. Rebranding, in my opinion, must happen at home. This is part of my argument about PPP, hopefully someone will see your comment and think about stepping up the internal message for Nigerians.

As to who is a journalist, that is an issue that has plagued journalists all over the world. The advent of blogging and its influence has complicated things. However, with regard to Elendu, even the International PEN has taken up the cause for freedom of speech for bloggers. So, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if a person is a blogger, journalist or simple uneducated market woman. Every Nigerians has the right of free speech and expression. Journalists should be the first to defend that right, I think. But, to each his own.

I must also thank you for pointing out that I did not link to the Punch newspaper article that reported Asiwe's arrest. I apologize for that mistake. I was extremely tired when I wrote this post, though that is no excuse. Thanks again, my broda.

@ Naija Ecash: "What does it cost to set up a Nigerian blogger to counter whatever "rubbish" that is published against the POWERS THAT BE. "

I have always wondered why the government hAS NOT TAKEN THAT APPROACH, AS FAR AS i KNOW. Maybe they have and we just don't know. Maybe they are working on it, but it would just be better to uphold the consitution and continue to improve the country for everyone at this point.

Thanks for swing ing by!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful written piece! Now get ready for your arrest when you come home

Signed Yar'adua

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