Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Comment - Futile Search For Freedom

Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, leader of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria has on quite a number of occasions now expressed his opinion that he saw no need for the existence of a free press in his scheme of things.

He told a correspondent of the London Financial Times that he did not consider a free press in Nigeria as a measure of strength, on the contrary, he saw it as a sign of weakness. In his wide-ranging interview with the National Concord, he was a little more categorical. He intends to tamper with those sections of the suspended 1979 constitution which guaranteed press freedom; he knows Nigerians, he was quoted as saying, and knows they cannot handle press freedom.

Some sections of the Nigerian press have started trying to persuade the Head of State to amend his opinions about the press and allow them their freedom.

The irony of the situation obviously escapes both the Head of State and those sections of the press that are trying to convince him to please give them their freedom: The very idea that there can exist a "free press" in a situation when other freedoms have been withdrawn is a forlorn hope.

Press freedom does not and cannot exist in a vacuum thus the minute the military seize power and throw the constitution overboard, it is gratuitous to even think about press freedom and the Head of State need not have even bothered to spell it out and the journalists are wasting their time and everybody else's by asking questions on the subject.

But then the reality of the situation will be felt not only when zealous military governors order irritating journalists to be locked up or when editors discover that they will be carrying many denials to their stories the day after. Military people being notorious for shooting their mouths off and considering the consequences of what they have said only after they read them in cold print. The current situation over the three ex-governors of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) illustrates the situation very vividly.

Many newspapers have been advocating quite glibly the proposition that all the politicians are guilty until proved innocent - the fundamental right of a person being presumed innocent until proved guilty was regarded as a favour that could not be extended to the politicians.

The Chief of Staff Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon announced to the press that three UPN ex-governors had admitted having received "kick-backs" from a company that had won a contract for work in the states controlled by them.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo the leader of the UPN decided that this was too much for him to take and embarked on his own investigations - his findings and his statement on the subject, we have published elsewhere in this issue. The merits and demerits of the events as presented by Chief Awolowo will undoubtedly be subjected to both public opinion and the special tribunals when they are set up, but it is important at this stage only to highlight some of the issues raised by his statement.

He could not get access to the three ex-governors who have been accused - worse than that 'convicted' having received the 'kick-backs' because visits to the politicians being held in the kiri-kiri prison have been banned.

Whether they indeed signed statements admitting such an offence therefore and under what circumstances they did so can only be in the realms of guesswork Chief Awolowo has offered what he considers to be a perfectly legitimate explanation for a transaction between the ex-governors and the company and suggests that this explanation has been available and been offered to the military investigators.

He then laments the fact that the reportage of the incident and consequent remarks seem to have endorsed the guilt of the three gentlemen before they have even come up for trial. No newspaper in the country had considered the possibility of the existence of an explanation other than what Brig. Idiagbon offered; newspaper comments tended to be along the lines of 'oh, so the progressive governors too were involved in receiving kick-back .. having, of course already decided that the unprogressive governors are guilty. It is worth noting also the increase in the number of paid advertisements especially from companies denying any improprieties after newspapers have published sensational stories from the soldier-politicians.

The media have obviously been happy enough to have abandoned their enquiry role since the coup d'etat and have settled into being simply a transmitter of the opinions that seek to justify the military action. Having accepted that, even if the 'freedom' were possible, it is curious what could be done with it. They don't seem to be interested in pursuing lines of enquiry that could possibly contradict the military line or that could be seen as vindicating anything that happened in Nigeria these past four years.

In such circumstances, it is clear that Gen Buhari is justified in denying any attempts at talks about freedom of the press, the press itself having drawn the lines of limitation already.

The fact of the matter is that unless fundamental freedoms can be guaranteed for the most hated politician in Kiri-Kiri it is futile to speculate about freedoms for any section of the society.

If nobody can question even in a court of law a decree that enables citizens to be locked up without any charges all in the name of 'state security' how can there exist in the same society any pretence of a free press? And it does not end at free press, it includes trades union rights, freedom of association and expression, religious freedoms and all the other freedoms taken for granted under the protection of a constitution. The judiciary for example will be deceiving itself if it hoped to be able to dispense justice when fundamental human rights have been taken away and when people are accused, charged, tried and convicted by one pronouncement of a soldier in a hurry.

It is as the old song goes…

talking drums 1984-02-27 ghana's aimless revolution - pro buhari demonstration in London