The Sun News

A state government’s war on free expression

I was filled with indignation and scepticism when I read a news report on the detention and ongoing trial of Dr. John Danfulani, a former lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the Kaduna State University (KASU). The story was published in the Vanguard of Friday, 28 October 2016.

Danfulani’s cardinal sin, according to the report, was that he published on Facebook comments deemed to be provocative and seditious. For his alleged offence, he is now being prosecuted by the Kaduna State government. According to Vanguard, Danfulani was compelled to quit his job at the university in August this year, following his suspension for upsetting Governor Nasir el-Rufai through his social media commentary that was described as critical, inflammatory and rabble-rousing.

According to the news report, when the case came up for hearing, the prosecutor made reference to a comment allegedly posted by Danfulani on Facebook on 28 December 2015. In that post, Danfulani was alleged to have made adverse comments about shortage of petrol in the state, excessively high foreign exchange rates and a large number of school-age children, who were not attending school in the northern parts of the country. The prosecutor claimed the essence of Danfulani’s critical comments on Facebook was to incite hatred against the state government. However, when the charges were read out to Danfulani, he promptly pleaded not guilty. The case was to resume on 7 November.

A report of this nature would make you wonder whether we are in a democracy or in a totalitarian state. It is only in a dictatorship that citizens are denied the right to freedom of expression. But we are in Nigeria, a country that celebrated the return of democracy in May 1999. That was more than 16 years ago. Is Nigeria retrogressing or moving forward? A country that claims to be a democracy must adhere to and respect the principles of democracy.

It is quite bizarre that an elected state government should seek to suppress a citizen’s right to free speech, the public’s right to know, and the public’s right to debate government matters.

The Kaduna State government has no business restraining the freedom of citizens to express their views on how they are being governed. Rather than preoccupy itself with monitoring, harassing, and intimidating citizens, who publish critical comments against the government, the Kaduna State government should aim to provide to the citizens basic amenities and infrastructure, such as good roads, well-equipped hospitals that will take care of the healthcare needs of the people, potable water, steady electricity, and other important services.

A government that runs after citizens and incarcerates those who make adverse comments against the state must be looking for enemies. It is only an authoritarian government that worries about what the citizens are discussing in the public sphere. A productive and high achieving government that is focused and forthright has no reason to fret about what the citizens are discussing in their private and public spaces. A government that has a clear set of objectives and clear timelines for achieving its objectives should not be distracted by, or overly concerned about, conversations that take place in the public domain.

John Stuart Mill, the 19th century utilitarian philosopher, an impenitent libertarian, who campaigned vigorously for free speech during his lifetime, argued imposingly that if a society silenced an opinion, it could also suppress the truth. An incorrect opinion, he reasoned, could contain some elements of truth vital for uncovering the whole truth. Mill called for an “open marketplace of ideas” because he believed that was the right forum where the “weak and the strong”, men and women, “minorities and majorities” should freely express themselves in their search for the truth.

In many undemocratic societies, various forms of restrictions are placed on citizens’ right to express themselves. The overriding aim of all constraints is to hinder the publication or broadcast of material that state officials deem inappropriate for public consumption.

The arrest, detention and ongoing trial of Danfulani for views he expressed on social media tantamount to squashing a housefly with a jackhammer. No matter how incendiary his comments might have been, arresting and putting him on trial can never be justified. That highhanded action has made the man an overnight star. I do not see how the trial of Danfulani would help to strengthen democracy and social cohesion in Kaduna State and beyond.

When citizens express critical opinions about failure of governance, they do so in the hope their views would equip political leaders with important ideas that would facilitate informed decisions about how to provide for citizens’ welfare and wellbeing. Criticisms should never be regarded as a toxin. Most times they are constructive expressions of views that should help state officials to govern in the best interests of citizens.

If the Kaduna State government is uncomfortable with critical comments expressed by Danfulani, the best way to deal with him and his comments is not to order his arrest and incarceration. Gagging citizens who express critical opinions directed at state and national political leaders will not augur well for the future of democracy in Nigeria. Such a short-term measure will never fix any problem. When citizens who express their views are shut down by the state, civil society will configure other credible pipelines through which people can continue to express their opinions.

In democratic and undemocratic countries, citizens are in the vanguard of social and political change. True democracy guarantees everyone the freedom to express their views. Opinions might be critical or favourable to state officials. The idea that state governors can determine whether citizens can express their views, how those views should be expressed, and the nature of the views to be expressed, is detrimental to democracy.

Democracy is imperilled the moment civil society is banned from contributing to or participating in the public sphere. Democracy is enhanced and strengthened when citizens freely convey to political leaders their opinions on the nature of governance. Political leaders are not all-knowing, and certainly they are not endowed automatically with full knowledge of all things.

A docile civil society endangers democracy. It is not helpful to democracy. An uncritical civil society contributes to the political, economic, social and educational underdevelopment of society. It is not only the press that has professional responsibility to scrutinise national leaders. The right to free expression is a right that is guaranteed to everyone. That right is guaranteed in our constitution and in Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression – and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any medium and regardless of frontiers.” Kaduna State officials should be reminded that Nigeria is a signatory to Article 19.

Monitoring, harassing citizens and censoring their opinions in the public sphere are not what politicians are elected to do.

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, summarised some of the factors that inspire citizens to rise against their political leaders. He said: “The most compelling reasons for revolution throughout the ages are injustice, crushing poverty, marginalisation, rampant corruption, lawlessness, joblessness and public disaffection with the ruling elite.”

No citizen of Kaduna State deserves to be arrested for expressing their views about how the state is being governed, regardless of whether the views are considered to be confrontational and disrespectful. I am not persuaded that state governors, who enjoy immunity from prosecution should have the right to prosecute citizens. If governors can sue, citizens should have the same right to take legal action against the governors. The law must operate on a level playing field.

In undemocratic countries, agents of state adopt diverse strategies to cow citizens and to restrict their right to express themselves. During military rule in Nigeria, for example, various tactics were used to suppress freedom of the press and freedom of expression. There were military decrees, such as Decree 4 of 1984 that was rolled out to protect state officials and to eliminate speculative reporting by the media.

In a country, such as Nigeria in which accountability is detested by public officials, you can expect civil society to hold political leaders to account. In a democracy, knowledge must not be constructed to look like the exclusive property of political leaders. Knowledge is open and must be frequently contested in a free marketplace of ideas. That is one of the pillars of democracy.

A number of lessons must be absorbed from this ill-informed decision to arrest Danfulani and to put him to trial. First, the Nasir el-Rufai government must treat citizens with some degree of respect. Citizens are not a group of kindergarten children whom the government can force-feed inaccurate information. Second, there is nothing to justify the action taken by the state government to arrest and prosecute a citizen who expressed his views about the government. Third, secrecy in government is more destructive than openness and honesty. Fourth, rumour thrives when official sources of information have been hijacked, compromised and contaminated.

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