By Bamidele Ademola-Olateju
The government of President Goodluck Jonathan has defaulted to pervasive use of the nation’s security apparatuses to enforce Prior Restraint on the Press, members of the opposition and certain individuals and it is very unfortunate. The use of Prior Restraint which is widely understood to be unconstitutional has become this regime’s preferred mode of gagging us and abridging our constitutional rights to free speech and assembly. Why do we have to suffer repercussions from the government for our speech, be it popular or unpopular in a democratic society? If anyone wants to muzzle the press, it shouldn’t be Goodluck Jonathan. Here is a man who became president because civil society groups like the Save Nigeria Group and outspoken individuals like the late Prof. Dora Akunyili fought to ensure that the constitution of Nigeria is upheld for him to succeed President Umaru Yar’Adua.
It is the exercise of free speech and the pressure from civil society that ensured Goodluck Jonathan ascendancy as Nigeria’s president today. Without mincing words, the confiscation of print runs of major newspapers and the use of tear gas on a sitting governor on political campaign, the grounding of private jets belonging to members of the opposition among others are troubling indicators of where our constitutional rights stands in Nigeria of today. These egregious violations of our fundamental rights points to Mr. Jonathan’s prolonged romance with all kinds of unethical misuse of power and his tenacity at becoming muffler of critical speech through a long menu of direct and indirect tactics. He certainly has no qualms violating the basic freedoms enshrined in the constitution in cahoots with the totalitarians in his party.
Thanks to the media age and modern telephony, Nigerians, especially the burgeoning youth demographics are no eunuchs without values or beliefs. We are informed, incensed and alert to the shenanigans of the political class. For a review, Chapter IV, Article 39, Subsection 1 of the Nigerian Constitution states that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” In furtherance to this Article 40 states: “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests”.
Last week, some soldiers, who claimed they were acting on orders from above, embarked on wholesale confiscation and destruction of newspapers. They brutalized vendors, distributors, waylaid vehicles and paralyzed the distribution network of the Daily Trust, the Punch, the Nation, Leadership and Vanguard newspapers. Is it the duty of soldiers or law enforcement to prevent free speech, disrupt free assembly and enforce policies of political office holders that so blatantly infringe on the rights protected under the Nigerian Constitution? It is easy to just shrug off these wanton display of lawlessness, especially when no one was physically injured or arrested. It is easy to say that the soldiers were just doing their jobs. It is easy to hide under the pretext of looking for arms, terrorist links or that they were acting on spurious and cooked intelligence. It is easy to say they are trying to protect the general public but no one is fooled; they have only succeeded in mocking the Jonathan’s administration. What is the excuse for firing at Dr. Kayode Fayemi and his party men and women on the campaign trail? Why was a young man killed for attending a peaceful political rally? The government of Goodluck Jonathan has offered itself as a reliable index for paranoia. It does not matter whether government means to do good or ill; the abridgment of any person or group’s rights is not only impermissible but it is actually a criminal overreach. It is a violation that attracts judicial mediation.
It is easy to sit by and watch as our rights are slowly taken away in installments but should we? We must never sit on our hands and accept unconstitutional infringements and unjust police action, as if we are living in a dictatorship or a police state. We must resist, fight back and speak out against the tyranny of a misguided collective whose sole aim is to impose a one party state that broods no dissent. We must not stop at complaining on Facebook and Twitter, we must resist and challenge the arbitrary use of the nation’s scarce resources, police brutality and army arrangement.
Infringements by the government, its agents and law enforcement on our constitutional rights are never light and should never be taken lightly because they are never minor. They are not what we should shrug off, be indifferent to or stay quiet about. Things are usually not as they seem. For the most part, especially in our immature and spoils laden political space, abrogation of citizens right is a precursor for oppression. The constitution guarantees us certain fundamental rights such as the right to speak our mind, to peacefully assemble and to worship whatever god we please.
The clampdown on the press should be seen not only as an assault on press freedom, we must see it for what it is, that is; a way to intimidate us as 2015 approaches. Thanks to the online version of the newspapers, online only newspapers and blogs, these serial violations would have posed an even greater danger to Nigerians who will otherwise have no other outlets to tell the story of what is happening here to the rest of the world. We cannot allow this to have a chilling effect on press coverage of what is going on in Nigeria.
Mr. Jonathan and his government should realize that Nigerians will not be silenced, we will continue to share our stories through social media. We will continue to tell Nigeria’s story to the world and defenders of freedom everywhere will help us magnify our struggles for a new Nigeria. Now more than ever, we must never be afraid to stand up for those rights when they are threatened, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Since smaller evils lead to bigger evils, today’s minor infringements on our rights will lead to bigger violations tomorrow. Refuse to be cowed, refuse all forms of oppression and suppression. Liberate yourself! Expose evil things and report yourself!
Bamidele Ademola-Olateju is on Twitter:@olafunmilayo