With your permission dear cherished readers, this author feels led to repeat a story once told here. As part of a 2010 social awareness exercise for an Executive Management study team at the Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania USA and courtesy of Professor Kelwyn Smythe, participants (including this author), were required to list out on a flip chart, the topical events which defined the politics and socio-economic tempo in their respective continents as well as regions, on a decade by decade basis, from the 1950s to the 21st century. While the other parts of the world – Europeans, Americans and even the far-flung Pacific zone were recording significant milestones that impacted their zones and beyond to the wider world, the African group was having difficulty in putting in a more complimentary light, the stories of stagnation on the continent along with other maladies which dwarfed the modest contributions of the continent to the advancement of life for its peoples and the wider world.
While other parts of the world were recording advances in science and technology and expansion of socio-political liberties for their citizenry, the African group had to contend with the agonising search for less offensive words for the reality of despotic leadership, coups, wars, famine, terrorism and in recent times uncontrolled emigration to foreign lands by the youthful population. Simply put, the African group had the task of braving the pejorative implications of ‘dishonesty’ for not presenting their continent as ‘bad market’ in such a global forum.
The joker, however, came when during the formal presentation of the regional submissions and Africa presented its polished narrative on the continent without any mention of the prevalence of HIV- AIDS scourge. Needless to state that the African presentation was interrupted by shouts from the audience asking “what of HIV- AIDS”? Africa’s response was simple and ingenious. “HIV- AIDS was not indigenous to the continent but was imported from outside”. And the reasoning behind this response was based on two premises. Firstly, was the now receding fact that HIV-AIDS did not originate from Africa. Secondly was the contention that even without including any mention of the scourge, the ordinarily depressing picture of the continent was painful enough for ‘Team Africa’ to present before such a distinguished peer group.
An immediate dividend from the Wharton exercise was the appreciation of the wide contextual discrepancy between Africa and the more developed parts of the word, and why it has been so. Their societies did not jump to where they are today by any sudden midnight flight, but through painstaking efforts directed at seeking what is best for their people. From the submissions by the various regions could be seen in definite cadences, the progressions of development activities from the good to the better and on to the best. However, the striking revelation from their tales of progress was the congruence between the march of advancement and the expansion of the scope of civil liberties as expressed in free speech in pursuit of populist causes.
An ensuing debate on Africa, went far beyond the traditional tendency of blame gaming and condemnation of the real as well as perceived perpetrators of the continent’s handicaps, to new thinking which runs on the doctrine of free and open speech. Participants were wondering aloud how life on the continent would be if there was an expansion of civil liberties in Africa that would allow Babels of voices, out of which could emerge condensed view-points that shall be determined purely by superior logic. The new thinking hence calls for a wider threshold of tolerance from the authorities, in other to absorb all shades of expressions from the public, ranging from the guarded speeches to the uncouth vituperations.
It is in this context that some recent responses by the Nigerian government are generating concern in discussion circles as they tend to conjure fears of a new wave of mind control and suppression of free speech, in the country. Seen in perspective, the Nigerian government needs to brace up to the challenge of accommodating dissenting speech among the citizenry, no matter how acrimonious such may be. For instance, in a recent BBC interview, the Attorney General and Honourable Minister of JustIce of the Federation Abubakar Malami went to town in justifying the arraignment of Mr Omoyele Sowore for calling for a revolution in Nigeria. By the way, Mr Sowore is facing a seven-count charge linked to a treasonable felony.
While the court process is ongoing, with open discussions on the merit of the case remaining statute-barred, the entire scenario still offers implications that place the government in an awkward position as being intolerant of opposing views. Just as many voices have counselled against the arraignment of Sowore, others have endorsed the actions of the government in caging him. However, whatever aspect of the matter which each sympathizer is bringing up, the argument against his incarceration and arraignment is simply based on the ultimately benign impact of his enterprise. A thousand Sowores chanting down the streets of Lagos and Abuja, with oversized megaphones will only be seen by many Nigerians outside those locations as another bunch of rabble-rousers. It takes much more that such efforts, to move this country an inch forward.
In fact, his cause has been boosted further by the incarceration than his direct efforts. In comparative terms, a single pronouncement by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami easily dwarfs Sowore’s entire campaign. His inadvertent lionization through incarceration, therefore, remains counter-productive as it has turned a small matter into a huge drama of making Sowore a martyr. He would simply have been left alone and just denied the use of public space to prevent the hijack by hoodlums, of whatever rally he had planned in the face of likely breakdown of law and order. Of a truth, given the current state of affairs in the country, the government could actually tap more dividends from the see the need for more Sowores to speak up. After all, the African proverb has it that talk, no matter how plentiful, cannot fill a basket.
Hence, rather than chasing dissenters underground, the administration has the more beneficial option of parading its repertoire of revolutionary positives associated with its tenure in office. For instance, the recent diplomatic sortie to South Africa by the Nigerian government, to mend fences with that country in the wake of the xenophobic attacks, is a masterstroke by the administration with bright prospects for shoring up its rating both at home and abroad. The early presentation next Tuesday of the 2020 budget estimates by President Muhamadu, in a bid to return the country’s budget cycle to the January to December template is another master stroke for the administration. And there are many more where those came from.
Incidentally, while the administration may have gotten it right with these two revolutionary measures, and enjoys accolades for doing so, it may also misfire in other issues and attract criticisms for itself. Meanwhile, criticisms are not intrinsically harmful especially if they are constructive. In fact, criticisms often help to condition behaviour.