Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

What The Papers Say

The Road To Alienation

The Guardian, Nigeria

The military administration has so far promulgated two decrees that offend the principles of civil liberty. These are the decrees on state security and the one that seeks to prevent public officers from allegations that might impugn their integrity. A third decree, the one governing the trials of detained former public holders, also contains several clauses that impinge on the operation of natural justice.

To be sure, these are unusual times and there is no doubt that certain unusual measures need to be taken to ensure the continued stability of the country. These unusual measures, in the tradition of military regimes, may involve some curtailment of civil liberties.

This, however, is no excuse for resorting to some seeming extremist measures such as the arbitrary arrests of citizens and the blanket protection of public officers. Under an all blanket, omnibus term, 'state security,' we are reaching a point, regrettably, when it is difficult to tell what constitutes an offence.

Over 100 days in the life of the administration, whatever consolidation that needed to be done ought to have taken place so that abnormal measures would no longer be necessary. To continue to rely on such measures is to promote a general atmosphere of insecurity, for if government feels itself insecure, who else has a right to feel otherwise?

To continue to rely on decrees that severely constrain civil liberties in order to whip everyone into line is to ignore the facts of history. It is to daily increase the danger of abuse and to alienate the critical areas of support the administration needs to guarantee its success in its tasks.

Many things are wrong. The government must recognise that while the security agencies are perfectly at liberty to invite anyone for questioning or help, this must not be done in disregard of the rights and liberties of the individual. There must be a strict observance of due process. And Nigerians are entitled to live outside a climate of fear.

There is no doubt that the military intervention was wholeheartedly welcomed by the general populace. This was not because Nigerians necessarily preferred soldiers to civilians but because a most infamous administration had squandered the immense promises of this country, leaving the society in ruin and sorrow and with no promise of peaceful change. The deliverance of December 31 must therefore not turn into disappointment.

Nigerians are an extraordinarily resilient people. They can recognize a sincere, committed leadership when they see one. Hence the support and solidarity, unprecedented in the nation's history, enjoyed by the Murtala Muhammed administration. That administration consequently needed no laws gagging the press, nor decrees consigning people to perdition in detention camps before it could set about its set goals. Even though Murtala himself lasted in office for only six months, those were heart-throbbing days when it seemed the unrealised possibilities of this still potentially great nation were about to be realised.

What Nigerians rightly demand of the present military administration is respect for the liberties cherished and taken for granted, as well as a programme of set objectives to get the nation moving again. Anything less detracts from - and indeed betrays - the expectations and promises of December 31, 1983.

A Muzzle For Nigeria

The Times, London

The new press laws promulgated by the Nigerian military government last week is an assault upon the freedom of journalists. It is particularly deplorable in Nigeria because a country with an autocratic military regime needs a free press to administer some sort of checks and balances, and because there is a tradition of freedom of the press in Nigeria: the country has the most varied, lively and independent newspapers in the continent.

The new decree creates the offence of inaccurate reporting and allows for trial by a special tribunal of three military officers under the chairmanship of a judge. The onus of proof will be on the defendant. The tribunal will be able to impose two years' imprisonment on a journalist or a fine of about £10,000 on a publishing organisation. The Government will also have the power to shut newspapers or radio stations for a year. No appeal will be allowed.

Almost from the time when it seized power on December 31 last year General Buhari's Government has let its patience with the press be known. Apart from making acid public comments, the regime has in detention two well known commentators, Tai Solarin and Haroun Adamu, whose main offence is thought to be the outspoken newspaper columns they have written. More recently, the diplomatic correspondent and the assistant news editor of one of the more responsible and thoughtful of the Lagos newspapers, the Guardian, have been detained; their offence stems from the leaked publication in the newspaper of diplomatic appointments (no considerations of national security were involved).

General Buhari has said that this sort of law is necessary to protect government ment from slanderous accusations and that discipline and responsibility are as necessary to the press as freedom. In fact, the Government already has the means to correct any inaccuracy it may detect since what its senior men say is invariably reported, and an operative Nigerian law of libel is there to help those damaged by untruths.

What the new law will do is to discourage the publication of stories embarrassing to the government. The mistake General Buhari makes is in thinking that unpublished stories die: in fact they continue to circulate as rumour gathering momentum. A secondary mistake is in thinking that sitting on the safety valve makes for safety.

Nigerian journalists treasure the words of a previous military ruler, General Yakubu Gowon. Asked in 1967 what he was going to do about the hostile press he was receiving he said: "I cannot tell them what to do since we do not dictate policy to any press here. They have been independent as they ought to be. The press has to tell the truth, to be objective and honest so that people can rely on what they print. They should tell us off when they feel we are wrong and comment when they feel it worthwhile. We can take it." General Buhari should be able to take it too.

talking drums 1984-04-30 New Naira notes - Cardinal Gantin - the military problem