By Sonala Olumhense
If someone lies against, or otherwise deceives you, it is natural that that you would be outraged. You would seek to expose him, and demand justice.
To that extent, I am fully behind the government of President Muhammadu Buhari in its determination to combat what it calls “fake news.” In its pushback, the government is attaching “hate speech,” but they are not related.
First: hate speech, an offence Nigeria is combating as if it has a global or international definition.
The problem is that Mr. Buhari’s government has only disingenuously copied this terminology from other climes (notably the United States), where such issues and stereotypes as race, religion, nationality, race, colour, descent, ethnicity or even gender(s) have led to conflict. If Buhari does not want to leave cultural and legal landmines all over Nigerian society, it must first produce a clear and domestically-relevant definition.
In a nation where plagiarism is as common as looting and certificate fraud, shamelessness in copycatting seems to have acquired mainstream acceptance in Nigeria. Officials appear to monitor foreign websites and speakers, gorging away at their high-sounding terminologies like a starving man at a one-chance buffet.
Boko Haram, they say pompously, must not be allowed to change “our way of life” or take away “our freedoms,” language and imagery imported from cultures that use them to summarise specific national experiences.
But our freedoms? We have none. Nigerians are the prisoners of wave after wave of narrow-minded and scurrilous pretenders who call themselves leaders or governments, each batch leaving us poorer and sadder than its predecessor.
Nigeria is the hostage of their incompetence, their shortsightedness, their malice and their compromises. Where others may keep jogging just to be certain they can stay where they are, our leaders and governments—particularly the current one—sprint in the other direction.
What freedom is there from the lying and deceiving of governments? What freedom is there from their indolence and incompetence?
While they fly their executive jets and go from one top hotel suite to another at taxpayers’ expense, where is the freedom from poverty and unemployment? What freedom do we have from the chaos and frustration of traffic jams or bribe-demanders?
What freedom is there from political parties that trade in powerful promises of performance and achievement only to exchange in currencies of excuses and blames?
Where is the freedom from cheap blackmailers who cannot complete one problem free road or rail plan, or indeed other simple infrastructure they run out to enjoy in other countries? Where is the freedom from roads that kill or from security agencies that disburse insecurity?
And the other one: “our way of life”?
Our way of life?
Our way of life is of hypocrisy. It is of corruption and convolution, and of deception and diminution of hope. That is why a party promises change, but once elected, changes the promise.
It is of officials who, once the oath of office is taken, act as if they will live in office forever, and as if all they have to do is look after themselves and read speeches they did not even review.
Our way of life is to perpetuate the status quo, or sink below it, leaving to die women in labour and on the streets children who are brighter than our own. Our way of life is to combat corruption with adjectives, knowing we fight on the side of corruption.
Our way of life is a kleptocracy and the recycling of people who know how to oil and service the kleptocracy. That is why we refuse to declare our assets while we preaching an interminable gospel of credibility. That is why you rarely hear of a leader or a governor who leaves office without controversy, or who can walk the streets after he has.
Our way of life is to ignore the man who can get things done in favour of the man who is related to us or the kleptocracy. Our way is to assail the problem with interlopers, hacks and quacks…and look for those adjectives when we are criticised.
This—not the borrowed images of “freedom” and “liberty—is our way of life. And it is why we lot more miles of propaganda than roads completed, and our conviction is our shallow as the pitiful drainages.
It is why our institutions are rotting and why we are the poverty capital of the world and why our police force is the world’s worst. It is why Finance Minister Zainab Ahmed says Nigeria’s debt—despite doubling in Buhari’s four years—is a non-issue; Health Minister Osagie Ehanire says Nigeria, having dispelled its own core of doctors, will now import similar professionals; and why Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai says his army is fighting Boko Haram with “spiritual warfare.”Little wonder Boko Haram is perpetually defeated. Technically.
Spiritual warfare? This would explain why even National Security Adviser Gen. Babagana Mongunu (retd) recently disavowed the $1bn the presidency withdrew from the Excess Crude Account(ECA) in December 2017 for security purposes.
The government then explained that half of the money was spent on buying the famous Super Tucano jets.
During his state visit last year, Buhari was careful to tell Trump that both countries have similar models of democracy “committed to the universal values of fundamental human rights and freedoms, free enterprise, social justice and the rule of law.” Naturally Buhari did not confess that Barack Obama had refused to sell those jets to him because of his poor human rights record.
But it turned out that Buhari spent the ECA funds without legislative authorisation, which Trump would never do; but also that Trump did not tell Buhari Nigeria may not see one of the jets before 2022. Defeated, technically.
Finally, the “fake news” war. This is another terminology the Buhari government has conveniently copied from Mr. Trump, who deploys it to in attack of mainstream media enterprises which report him negatively. He calls them the Fake News Media (FNM).
In Trump world, a report does not have to be fake to be “fake;” it only has to be unflattering or uncomplimentary.
This is the sub-text to the Buhari government’s onslaught on fake news, although he has not identified his FNM. While I support the idea of fighting misrepresentation in the media in principle, the truth is that there are adequate provisions in Nigerian law for this. Everyone knows that the government’s real mission concerns the reporting of its many flaws, foibles and failures.
In other words, no matter how it may deny it, the government—like Trump—is merely trying to beat back those who expose it. But beating up and imprisoning critics will not make a bad government praiseworthy.
It is deeply worrisome that a government which does not defend free speech; a government which harasses and arrests journalists, charging them with treason or terrorism; a government which holds the Freedom of Information Law in contempt and is the nation’s best-known purveyor of fakery in word, intent and character; wants to sanitise the news.
All because of leadership which mistakes power for responsibility. Sadly, that has become our way of life.