Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Crumbling Democracy Still In Practice And Press Freedom

BY AMBROSE EHIRIM


Illustration by Ed Stein, Rocky Mountain

I had argued with my friend and colleague, Austen Oghuma, March 31, 2010 while we drove to the LAX Weston Hotel for Donald Duke's presidential campaign launch, that for Duke to begin his campaign from the shores of America was uncalled for, and that, if it's anything serious regarding presidential politics, his bid for the presidency should begin from his home base, Cross River State, the state he had governed twice and from around which he has been given the green light to test the presidency. That would have been logical and would have made sense, I said.

But Oghuma would argue that Duke's approach toward launching his presidential bid in North America was necessary to engage Diaspora Nigerians and facilitate a process the Diaspora "must be involved" and participate in Nigeria politics if democracy, though still fledgling, should be kept intact and viable. And, that, given the opportunity for a Diaspora significant role with regards to the adequate and appropriate patterns toward the nation's political process, and based on a Diaspora know-how in the formations and applications of democratic fabrics, that sooner than later, democracy would begin to yield dividend as in other thoroughly, practicing and upheld democracies; even though Duke's strategy of the American political campaigns is seen as irrelevant, that the Nigerian public should exercise patient, and, that it takes time for such applications to take form.

Rightly so, as I would assume, thus agreed we are still in the learning process of the democratic experiment, and taking his words for the confidence he had in a becoming Nigeria democracy with expectations on the basis the Nigerian intellectual community and political class, that there is every indication that Nigeria is heading in the direction to channeling the course of its destiny. "Time," Oghuma would conclude is of essence and as it would eventually happen, would be what mattered and considered.

On the contrary and what had resulted to our discourse, my argument had been, I was not sure why he (Oghuma) had thought Duke was the man of the hour to fix Nigeria's troubling state, and never-minding all the assumptions that Cross River State, the state that Duke had privilege for two terms as governor and the concept he had a lot to show he was tailored for the nation's top job considering his stewardship and an acclaimed job, well done, as his admirers made us believe and my continued insistence that there was no need for Duke to be in Los Angeles to launch his bid for the presidency.

Reaching the LAX Weston Hotel and headed for the basement where Duke had engaged his Nigerian audience and supporters of his presidential politics, we found Duke at the podium narrating his ordeal and how he should also be included as one of the "cabals" who had gone to an elite school which bears witness to his qualification as a Nigerian presidential material. This was at a time the word "cabal" had been thrown in as a Nigerian political jargon, and had to be used for its importance and the difference it made between the ordinary Nigerian politician, the ruling elite and, the both combined gun runners and rapists of the nation's treasury -- the killer squad with cash and firepower.

Duke was not a different politician, the very idealist that would effect change and the kind of leadership Nigeria had wanted in all its years of searching for responsible governing bodies even if it doesn't have to be a democratic fabric modeled after the Western Hemisphere.

And Duke without knowing and not paying much attention, had thought he had assembled the best of Greater Los Angeles Nigeria Diaspora to help run his campaign in Southern California so folks invited would buy into his war-chest which would help him fight his opponents in Nigeria, sustaining his credibility to garner votes, votes enough to see him through his party's primaries and the hope he would be elected president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

As it would happen, Duke's Los Angeles area presidential campaign organizers -- Ebube Wadibia, Uzo Diribe, Acho Emeruwa and others -- were dreaming like never before; they had put up a stunt and had convinced and persuaded Duke to stop by if he really wanted his coffers to have the kind of volume, filled up to the brim, he had anticipated so as to fight the nasty jungle politics in Nigeria where he'd have enough cash to recruit thugs to beat up their opponents, in some cases, eliminate them, when being on the way becomes a distraction. To cement Duke's presidential bid platform, the staff led by a team of Wadibia, Diribe and Emeruwa had urged every Nigerian Diaspora in Greater Los Angeles to commit $25.00 monthly contribution for the Duke's presidency cash flow in order to raise $500,000 before legitimate campaigns begins in all around the cities and localities in Nigeria, and in addition marketed the campaigns and strategies in online forums and social media platforms compelling the most vulnerable and gullible that the time has come for change which starts from lodging Duke in Aso Rock from a Diaspora influence, especially of the Greater Los Angeles group of Duke's political action committee.

In what had been some kind of noise about Duke's exploratory team and presidential campaign advisers, the Greater Los Angeles social media connection coupled with expectations a potential Diaspora is well tuned to situations  which ensures the platform of the organizers conforms to standard and respects ones right to free speech without a replica of bullying in the jungle where journalists are assaulted and kicked in the arse and nothing happens.

The hoodlums who had organized Duke's campaign in Los Angeles were no different from their native land counterparts. They had the same attitude. I had thought to myself how the hoodlums got to the United States in the first place, and whether they have been familiar with the First Amendment which had given the citizenry the right to free speech, the right to free press, the freedom to assemble and as the list goes on, what had given them the audacity to deny me the right to express myself or take pictures of events in a public forum of a presidential candidate.

Unfortunately, though, the confused and disorganized bunch, the organizers of Duke's campaign and its clueless batch of the Los Angeles Diaspora whose only hope had been a Duke ticket, miscalculated with Duke's mandate for the anticipated break they'd looked forward to, becoming desperate by every second.

When I was chased out by the mobs, I did not realize it was really happening until I hopped on the elevator heading upstairs to where I had parked my car. Few weeks after the Duke's campaign hoodlums confronted me, I bumped into Julius Kpaduwa who was also at the said event and, who had said to me he did not know I was the one the mobs had come after.

But while I exited the basement, the said hall of Duke's campaign launch, I did not hesitate to sound a note of warning to the organizers that what they had done only happens in a country like Nigeria, and that a clueless Diaspora bunch had added more insult to dishonor, considering what had happened to me on the night of Duke's presidential campaign launch at the LAX Weston Hotel.

The hoodlums never stopped tampering with press freedom. Like Martin Akindana and his gang of skirt wearing moderators at Naija Politics, the Yahoo Groups discussion forum, the Los Angeles hoodlums took it to a whole new heights censoring all my write-ups. Good thing I have websites and related blogs where my works can be seen; and good thing, the control freaks at the Yahoo Groups don't own any of the fora. If they had, only God knows.

It also goes without saying that journalists who write and report what they've observed, are victims, too, when the politicians and their loyalists go after them hiring hit-men and assassins whose pocket had been stuffed with cash stolen from the nation's treasury.

I bear witness to this. On that so-called "Duke's Presidential Campaign" bid at the LAX Weston Hotel, I had arrived with Oghuma and was not really interested in popping up questions on why Duke had traveled from Nigeria to the United States to launch and begin his campaign for the presidency. I had only gone there with my camera, what photojournalists normally do in occasions of that nature. Upon arrival, Oghuma and I, located a seat while Duke spoke from the podium, narrating Nigeria's power politics and how the cabals run every show, and the cabals thinking that the entire Nigeria and its resources belongs to them, thus to use it the way they want it.

I had always not agreed with the negativity surrounding Nigerian politicians and how they keep a tight lip regarding the way journalists are treated, the general dislike of folks from the press who are out there as watch dogs, telling the truth as it unfolds within the nation's political landscape, but pursued, and compelled to cease and desist from what was obvious in their reportage -- the simple truth.

It has been a commonplace scenario where journalists  are victims of their own profession; to observe and write a report on a variety of its discipline -- international journalism, collaborative journalism, investigative journalism, photo-journalism, link journalism, community journalism, civic journalism, interactive journalism, and the committed citizen journalism and, as the list goes on and on -- with locations where the events may have occurred or erupted; and upon published in the nation's dailies and community outlets, are then sought by hired assassins for elimination in order to hide the truth, and not to be told again.

Even in a presidential campaign without media coverage such as Duke and while he spoke from the podium, I started taking pictures, a move that was not at all, out of character. But there will be a problem. Before I knew what was going on, I was surrounded by a mob of Duke's admirers and supporters who had been irritated by my photo op, to catch up with the events of a Nigerian politician who had been talked into kick-starting his bid for the Nigerian presidency in the United States. It was ugly.

At the time of the Diribe-led mob against my photograph opportunity for a memorable and notable event, one thing had crossed my mind -- if I was actually in Nigeria and faced by those not tolerant of press freedom, the kind of mob that approached me  on that March 31, 2010 -- honestly glad to be in America.

The attempt to eliminate journalists was practically begun during the Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida military regime and criminal mafia. With the military enacted Decree No. 2 which had empowered the junta's national security agents to arrest and detain subjects considered security risks, the junta Babangida begun the mobilization of uniformed military personnel in a continuous harassment and intimidation of journalists including journalists who worked for government owned media outlets -- Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, News Agency of Nigeria, Daily Times -- and, also, including editors of the independently owned press (National Concord, Daily Champion, Nigerian Chronicle and the list goes on and on). Not even his own cronies in the military he spared. Before anybody could figure out what Babangida's motive had been while he wrestled power from the Muhammadu Buhari-Tunde Idiagbon tandem of destroying all aspects of civil liberties, the Babangida-led military juntas had no explanation to what had happened to Mamman Vatsa and the rest implicated in trumped-up charges and summarily executed. It was during the Babangida military junta that Newswatch founding member Dele Giwa was murdered with a letter bomb delivered to his house. His killers are yet to be found.

Prior to the Babangida military juntas and crime syndicate, the Buhari-Idiagbon dictatorships had experimented on the free press, and had locked behind bars two journalists -- Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson -- for not revealing their source of alleged government classified document. Irabor and Thompson would spend time in prison for information needed to be known by the general public on what draconian laws and dictatorships had been up and about. The same juntas also clamped on Barthlomew Owoh, Lawal Ojulope and Bernard Ogedengbe, summarily executing them by firing squad in an ex post facto law, a law the juntas had made illegal when it was not criminal at the time committed.

And before the Buhari-Idiagbon military juntas, another bully, Olusegun Obasanjo, during his regime shut down the Newbreed magazine in 1977 on the basis of interfering with the government of the time, the military juntas had thought posed security challenges on Chris Okolie's news-story on Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu who was then in exile, in Ivory Coast. The same Obasanjo regime rolled out military tanks on university students who were picketing on the hike in school fees by the government.

Enter the Fourth Republic in what had begun on Obasanjo's declaration of "no sacred cows" which would be followed by series of religious unrests, the Sharia debacle, kidnapping, curse words initiated by Obasanjo himself on citizens, and all kinds of social problems while the presidency "dey kampe."

Obasanjo had arrived the Fourth Republic with the same military mentality. On November 20, 1999 and barely six months in office, Obasanjo gave orders to his kin, Col. Agbabiaka and his command to go ahead and demolish Odi, an oil community  and oil wells controlled by Shell Petroleum, and predominantly an Ijaw enclave in Bayelsa State. About 2500 civilians were killed in the raid and many more injured, displaced and desperate while Obasanjo justified the actions on the grounds 12 members of the Nigerian Police Force were slain by a set of gangs.

It was also in Obasanjo's second coming, in a civilian outfit,  that members of the Nigerian Army invaded Choba, Rivers State, and carried out a mass rape on women, upon conflicts between the community and the Wilbros Oil Company. The soldiers were never brought to justice while Obasanjo smiled it away.

Despite all the games Obasanjo had played and the atrocities committed during his presidency, pushing the government that would stall when he handpicked a bedridden Umaru Musa Yar'Adua to succeed him, a subdued Nigerian public did nothing with what was obvious that all about its democratic fabric had been hijacked.

And Egbon Jonathan fell for the trap. Nothing had worked in Egbon Jonathan's administration by way of tight security to check Boko Haram, kidnappers, nihilists in every angle and the ability to curb corruption which seemed to be baked in every Nigerian gene. His strategy, so far, has not worked, and he has not shown he'd be working on it. For one born poor and privileged to have earned degrees in zoology and, eventually dabbling into politics, abandoning his responsibilities of teaching in the classroom where he belonged while catapulted as deputy governor of Bayelsa State, and within a short time frame elevated to governor of Bayelsa; Egbon Jonathan was just lucky, a symbol of his first name. He would be favored by Obasanjo as running mate to Yar'Adua, a duo that would sweep the polls to continue with Obasanjo's doctrine after a third term bid failed.

But that luck, as his name indicates, would be messy throughout his tenure with an upcoming general elections to be held in 2015 now full of uncertainties. Egbon Jonathan's luck has waned from a series of disturbances and advisers who had been misleading by a wave of recklessness not to have employed diplomacy in resolving cases that have overwhelmed the nation -- Boko Haram, kidnapping, bribery and corruption, oil thefts and as the list goes on -- with an exhausted option.

Not much to say, but apparently, the terrorist group Boko Haram is still whole and feasible, and an Egbon Jonathan-led administration have patently failed to stop them while aware the money managers of Boko Haram are alive and well in his cabinet. A nation in crisis, and that's all it is with the present administration.
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