Abuja’s Codes Of Terror And Error

By Lasisi Olagunju

Whatever the party holds to be the truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the party.” – George Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

We are entering the era of enforced silence. When you firmly fold your lips, you are not likely to hop into trouble. That is the next harbour the ship of Nigeria is sailing to – the port of compulsory silence. This is not about noisy Twitter and its first cousins and the ongoing desperate efforts to murder them in Nigeria. This is about the real next level. Serpentine bills have slithered into our National Assembly seeking to stop the media, mainstream and new, from saying what they are not told to say or report what the people are not authorised to say.

The government is really tired of holding conversations with the people and explaining its acts and (in)actions. It earnestly yearns for the opposite of conversation: Silence. Quietness. Soundlessness. It is high time the leaky mouth of the media was sewn up. That is what the regime is working on – it wants a nation of castrated subjects with no rights to rights.  Enough is enough. The process is on.

“Power,” said George Orwell, “is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” How do you do that? The agencies are the media and the law. The House of Representatives currently has five dystopian, media-regulation bills from the executive. There is a bill to amend the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) Act and give it real teeth against the Internet and all its derivatives.

There is also the Advertising Code; then the Nigerian Press Council Amendment Bill, which seeks to “amend the Nigerian Press Council Act, CAP N128, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, to remove bottlenecks affecting Its performance and make the Council in tune with current realities in regulating the press and for related matters (HB 330).” The bill, if passed, will set a code of conduct for journalists, and give them sense which they currently lack. It will also make it compulsory for media practitioners to have ‘media’ university degrees. When that happens, which may be very soon, those who practise without ‘media degrees’ would be in the same league with common criminals.

If you are hailing the bills because you are APC or a supporter of the president and his ways, it is well with your soul. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a 2017 American television series adapted from Margaret Atwood’s best-selling novel titled ‘The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel.’ Set in Gilead, a fictional totalitarian state, the series contains chilling scenes of mind and mouth management by a fundamentalist regime. If you have not watched it, please read about it – or read the novel and follow the plot as it takes the reader along the appalling alley of a totalitarian regime where the victims are guided to choose “complicity rather than rebellion.”

The maids in that story wear masks; under the masks are three rings worn as mouth padlocks, which effectively ensure they don’t and can’t talk. But why? There is an official explanation for it: The handmaids took a vow of silence and put the rings on themselves. It is to insulate them from the trouble, which comes with talking. So, wearing the mouth fetters was a voluntary, self-censorship action. But it soon became a duty.  “That’s how these things start: they’re voluntary, then they’re encouraged, then they’re required,” the showrunner, Bruce Miller told a newspaper. He was right. When you enable autocracy with unquestioning endorsements, it soon demands compulsory acquiescence of you on all matters.

It is a shame that nothing appears to have changed today in the mindset that enacted the colonial Newspaper Ordinance No.10 of 1903 and Decree 4 of 1984. Governor William MacGregor, in defending the 1903 Act, said it was a measure designed “to make the press responsible.” General Muhammadu Buhari in explaining his obnoxious Decree 4 of 1984 told the National Concord (of February 16, 1984), in his very first official press interview as head of state, that it was designed “to check the excesses of the press in order to make it responsible.” It is interesting that 118 years after MacGregor, and 37 years after his own Decree 4, President Muhammadu Buhari in 2021 is still rolling out regulatory bills and measures to make the press ‘responsible.’

Nothing has changed from colonial to military to civilian democracy. The more things change, the more they remain same. The official arrogance and excuses for the fetters are so strikingly similar. From the ongoing Twitter-ban outcry and the regime’s insistence on making crime of free speech, it is not difficult to see that we are under a reign of terror and error. The joy is that the pushback is even stronger than it was in 1903 and 1984.

Is it not an irony that lawmakers who have resisted every move to prescribe university education as the minimum requirement for election into government positions are now insistent on making degrees compulsory for journalists before they can practise? The lawgivers won’t amend sections 65(2) and 131 of the Nigerian Constitution, which prescribe Ordinary Level School Certificate as all you need to become anything in Nigeria, including becoming the president. It is a nice idea to have well-trained, university graduates in media houses. It is also the ideal for media practitioners to operate within acceptable limits of decency and conduct. I vote for these ideals. But who determines the acceptable level of training and conduct? Partisan, regime big men somewhere who daily scan faces for ugly enemies to damage and disqualify? I agree with media trainer and rights activist, Comrade Lanre Arogundade that “a political and non-journalism office like that of the Minister of Information should not be given the power of approval over the code of conduct of journalists.”

A free press is every government’s nightmare – even in the best democracies of the world. Journalists are enemies. And how do you treat the enemy? The Encyclopedia of Superstition reports an incident in Monastir, Macedonia: A woman was seen twisting together two different kinds of yarn and then passed it through the eye of a large needle. This done, she was asked what enemy she had. She named one. She was told to sew up the mouth of that enemy “so that he may nevermore speak ill of her.” She did.

Then she named another enemy and repeated the mouth-sewing process. She mentioned the next enemy, sewed the mouth and the next mouth and the next. She did that repeatedly until her list of enemies was exhausted. The rulers we have would pay any price to have a nation of padlocked citizens. They see the unyielding millions as enemies – unwanted dots worthy of dissolution. They will put the country in chains for them to enjoy their enjoyment. They daily imagine how peaceful their world would be if they got critical, and even stupid lips stapled.  That is how dark forces treat real and perceived enemies.

There was a Dutch pirate named Dirk Chivers, a popular terror on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean during the 1690s. At a point in his career, he and an accomplice captured four vessels and sailed them into the harbour of Calcutta. They demanded a ransom of £10,000 and sent a chilling message to the governor: “We acknowledge no country, having sold our own, and as we are sure to be hanged if taken, we shall have no scruple in murdering and destroying if our demands are not granted in full.” Nigeria is a captured ship, the pirates acknowledge no people, no citizenry.

Going towards the midnight of end of tenure, they will do anything to keep the vessel. Chivers was quite notorious for his unorthodox savagery. He, at a particular point in 1695, seized two East Indian ships. Captain Sawbridge was one of the captured sailors. The captured man was terribly distraught. He wailed and whined – just like the Nigerian wailers. Chivers was very fed up with his teary captive; he got angry and took a vicious care of the unhappy man. He had Captain Sawbridge’s lips “sewn shut with a sail needle in response to his constant complaining.” We complain too much in Nigeria. The pirates who have captured the ship of our state won’t mind giving everybody the Sawbridge treatment. The process is on.

It is like slave owners having to deal with rebellious chattel slaves. Fortunately for the powerful, that was a trade with enough physical instruments of compulsory restraint. They were called barre de justice (bars of justice). There were padlocks for the mouth, manacles for the legs and iron collars for the captive’s neck. That is the ancient version of what today’s repressive government does to the people as it stifles the media and criminalises free speech. This government does not enjoy being held to account – either by the media or by the people. But media freedom and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights. They are also the lifeblood of democracy. The APC enjoyed both before it came into power. You cannot ride the horse of freedom to power and be scheming to slaughter the stud without being questioned.

Those who advocate and rationalise stifling the media; who play politics with free expression should remember something called ‘unintended consequences.’ Once you fling open the iron gates of a lion’s den, it will take more than wishful thinking to get the big cat reined in. Those you are hailing and pumping up today will soon use their six-packs to violate your rights; they will criminalise dissent and declare all opposition evil. Historian Amanda Goodrich recorded this for late 18th century England when the “ordinary people signed oaths of allegiance to the king, joined loyalist marches, burned effigies of radicals (and) attacked their homes…” What did the state give in appreciation of the ordinary people and their support? It cold-bloodedly stepped in and quashed free speech. It didn’t stop at that. Goodrich said it arrested writers, printers and publishers and got them prosecuted for seditious libel. In the end, the complicit poor ‘ate’ the largest portion of the resultant misery.Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday June 21, 2021

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