Mr President, your critics are not your enemies! -By Fola Ojo

Filed under: National Issues |

Mr President, your critics are not your enemies!


The ever-rowdy and crowded Murtala Muhammed Airport, Ikeja, Lagos, was my choice of departure en route my base after a four-week holiday in beautiful but sweltering and sultry Nigeria. Arriving the airport and in obedience to the Customs and Immigration prescribed compulsory rituals, I proceeded to the individual information screening counters before whom all men must appear prior to boarding a flight out of Nigeria. I filled out all the forms including the new “EBOLA” health form, whatever that was.

At the first counter, a lady wrapped in traditional attire courteously swung her right hand demanding my Nigerian passport. She then did some finger-fights with the buttons on her desktop computer for about three minutes, apparently satisfied, she said “Thank you, Sir; go to the next counter”, as she waved me to the Immigration counter. My journalistic credo and instinct urged me on to ask her what the procedure she just went through was for. “We just want to know if you can travel”, she responded calmly.

I queried some more. “So, there are some people who are not allowed to travel”? “Yes”…, her response came with some firmness in her voice. She continued, this time a bit more militarist typical of any Nigerian security official bestowed with the power to overpower the powerless; “Some people have been insulting and criticising President Jonathan. You know the man is trying his best and he is not even fighting with anybody. He is a gentle man and he is not even responding to all their insults”. I then poked further asking if someone who does not poses a clear and present threat and danger to Nigeria, but only criticises the President, is forbidden to travel out of his own country. Probably conscious that she might be blabbing too much, she said; “Well, I am not a politician, I am DSS, and we are just trying to help the man”.

This was the kind of discussions I love to bury my head in, but I was already tired from the bustle of Lagos and I just wanted to get out fast. But before I left, I sermonised a little bit. “Anyone who is president will be insulted and criticised. Every Nigerian president has been insulted and criticised, that is how it is all over the world. I live in America, Ma. There are many Americans who speak worse things about Barack Obama. Some have even threatened to kill him. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. But the government shouldn’t take away the rights of citizens to freely move about because they criticise the president”. “You are right, Sir…the insult is just too much against him…Thank you, and have a safe trip,” she concluded.

The prevalent twists and turns in the Nigerian political environment are not only stomach-turning, they are heart-wrenching. My brief encounter with the obviously partisan security official confirmed that there is a new shake and shift in Nigeria’s polity and politics. In our new Nigeria, if you speak against the President, your freedom will not only be restricted, worse punitive measures may be unleashed. The unwholesome trend of events now is that whenever the Nigerian president asks us to jump, rightly or wrongly, jump we must. If we don’t, then, we have become his enemies. Friends, this country is daily drowning in its own body-fluid, and an environment of political asphyxiation is no doubt now here with us. I am not sure if this new wave of opposition-suppression is a direct order from the Presidency, or it’s just a bunch of overzealous, pandering, fawning and sycophantic government apparatchiks scribbling their own scripts. Wherever the dart is being fired from, it is ugly.

A few examples we remember. During the Osun State governorship election in August, security operatives, masked-men and marksmen numbering about 90,000 were massively deployed to take over security of the state. They were wielding and brandishing guns and gleefully shooting into the air to cow down all opposition against the major party. Opposition men were arrested and thrown behind bars without telling them what their offences were. Does this new trend of opposition-suppression now inform why one impugning Governor-Elect slapped and disrobed a sitting judge with the help of security men, and no word of reprimand from the Presidency? Does this also inform why seven Assemblymen in Ekiti State chased out 18 legislators and their Speaker while our security agencies watched and applauded on the order of the Governor? The opposition was run out of town illegally, and the Presidency keeps mute. Does this inform why twice in just two weeks, Nigeria’s security men raided the opposition offices and carted away men and materials belonging to the opposition party? Doyin Okupe, Senior Special Assistant to the President, had already forewarned us. He promised that severe government punishment awaits anyone who criticises his boss. It is now very obvious that if you camp with the opposition in today’s Nigeria, you are perceived an enemy of President Goodluck Jonathan.

This is what the President’s men are missing. Those who criticise Jonathan are not his problems, the challenges Nigerians face daily are. The falling prices of oil and the eviscerating value of the naira are the problems. Disappearing Nigerian money in batches through corruption and cronyism is the problem. China, we heard, constructed the world’s largest 22,000 MW hydro-electric plant for $25bn. Nigeria spent $35.45bn for 2,500 MW, yet supply is epileptic in some places and non-existent at all in others. In 16 years, three presidents from the same political party have not been able to complete a 180km Abuja-Lokoja road. The Enugu-Onitsha Expressway was awarded by the Obasanjo administration. Up till today, a journey that is supposed to take about an hour takes four when there is a downpour. The Enugu-Port Harcourt Road, Uyo-Calabar Road, and Lagos-Ibadan Expressway are all in the same purulent mess. These are the problems the opposition aren’t. N20bn pension fund was stolen, the thieves were identified, but they are walking around free today with no comeuppance. These are the problems, the opposition aren’t. Boko Haram brigands who hold states in the Nigerian sovereign territory hostage, took over government houses and parliaments, seized a serving service chief’s town with audacity, walked into our churches and mosques defiling our holy places with innocent blood are the problems, not the opposition. About 15,000 Nigerians have been slaughtered by Boko Haram, more than the number of casualties in the first US Gulf War of 1991. Can this government just focus on tackling problems besieging Nigerians instead of creating more by hounding the opposition with guns and goons all over the land?

In Nigeria, Sani Abacha and Ibrahim Babangida couldn’t shut down the opposition with all their armaments because no government succeeds long-term in suffocating opposing voices. That is why Mr. President must caution his men in blue and black. Opposition members are not the President’s enemies; they just don’t buy into his worldview, and his style of governance and type of policies are not good fits for them. That is called democracy. It is a form of government where men are free to disagree even with a president without a threat of harm and hurt.

These words spoken August 8, 1950, by the US president Harry S. Truman should serve as a reminder to those who hold power today. Truman highlighted the danger in the attempt by any government to silence the opposition: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”