Opinion

Allowing criticisms of government is overdue in Nigeria

Tonnie Iredia

Unlike today’s fresh journalists, those of us who joined the profession in the early 70s had golden opportunities of attending professional training courses outside Nigeria. One of the courses I attended which has remained indelible to me even after several years of retirement from service was on how to develop journalistic courage.

Interestingly, it is not the content of the course that has refused to go, but the impact of an inscription on the office door of one of the resource persons. It read as follows: “If you speak, you will die. If you don’t speak you will still die.” The author’s explanation of the purport of the inscription, was that those who are always petrified of speaking should realize that because such fears would not stop the ultimate reprisal- death, they stood the chance of dying without speaking.

Of course people have a right to speak whenever they have something they wish to convey to other people. That is the whole essence of the constitutional freedom of speech provided that in the exercise of his/her freedom, no one defames any other person. Indeed, in a free world, every country has since the 1970s been encouraged by UNESCO to operate as a communicating nation. If however people don’t feel obliged to talk to one another, there are by far too many cogent reasons for them to talk to government. First, it helps to shape public policies because people’s preferences are best reflected in what they say instead of what they fail to disclose.Second, it is through feedbacks from people in a particular community that government can monitor and form judgment on the degree of success of public policy execution in each community.

Government is therefore better positioned to comprehend public rating of her performance. In other words, it is in the interest of government to listen to public criticisms no matter how scathing they may appear to be. Where the criticisms are generally factual and devoid of malice, they constitute what can reasonably be deemed to be constructive and ought to be used by a good government to make amends. It is in fact ill-adviable for government officials to denounce public criticisms on the ground that they are restricted to only areas where government has not done well without correspondingly reflecting her areas of success. The point must also be made that where critics are pragmatic enough to offer solutions or alternative options, their criticisms are elegantly coated in a positive garb.

Considering that the third world accommodates an appreciable number of tyrannical government officials, it is heart warming that Nigeria has some citizens both now and in the past who were and are always available to speak truth to power. Here, one remembers with eternal gratitude, the selfless fight against bad governance by the late irrepressible Gani Fawehinmi to enthrone justice and equity in the land. Another great example of crusaders that cannot be forgotten in hurry is Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie. The Cardinal it was who courageously berated government for running down hitherto viable private schools which she took over without establishing any formidable strategies to run them. The courage to call out the government on many current political and socio-economic policies that are feebly formulated and ineffectually executed has been the main concern of Bishop Mathew Kukah of the Sokoto Catholic Diocese.

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Only last week, another Catholic Bishop, John Ebebe Ayah of the Uyo Diocese joined the list of moral teachers and social reformers who are always drawing attention at the appropriate time to matters of public interest calling for change. At a Thanksgiving service organized in honour of newly appointed Justice Emmanuel Agim Akomaye of the Supreme Court, Bishop Ayah subtly rejected a donation made by Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State to the bewilderment of the congregration. In the words of the Bishop, “I want to appreciate the governor and tell him to package whatever he has for me, add to it and use it to pay the salaries of workers.” The Bishop according to the media received thunderous ovation from the congregation establishing clearly that someone needed to let political leaders know that irregular payment of workers’ salaries ought to be deprecated.

But was the top clergy playing to the gallery with no evidence that Governor Ayade belongs to the league of state governors that toy with workers’ pay? Those who listened to Ayade’s immediate rejoinder after the Bishop threw the bomb may have felt that it was an unfair attack because the governor reportedly confirmed that his administration has been faithful and consistent in the payment of salaries for well over seven years. However, there is doubt if the governor was not merely playing Nigerian politics where truth is often denied with confidence and oratory. This is because a group of civil servants in Cross River had recently protested publicly on the streets of Calabar that they had not been paid any salary since they were recruited in 2018. Besides, there was the report from far away, Geneva, Switzerland that Ayuba Wabba, President of the Nigerian Labour Congress ( NLC) named Ayade of Cross River State and three other governors: Darius Ishaku of Taraba, Bello Matawalle of Zamfara and Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia as the only four who are yet to pay the approved minimum wage in their states.

It is significant that the minimum wage story came up; because one of the most insensitive things in our clime is the payment of huge salaries and allowances to top political office-holders who consistently insist that government cannot afford to meet the small figures that are to be paid to junior workers and university teachers. Failure to pay minimum wage is not only a social problem but also a legal issue because the minimum wage was approved by law, making it an offence to not pay it. Those who are ready to speak truth to power should direct attention to more than the executive arm of government. For example, Nigerians have remained perturbed about the huge allowances of members of the Nation Assembly. Although the legislators often speak of only their basic salaries, the huge allowances they allegedly pay themselves without the approval of the Salaries and Wages Commission have remained worrisome. Under the relevant subheads, it is alleged that newspaper allowances of a legislator are far in excess of the salary of the highest paid university teacher.

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Nigerians must continue to talk because many well-placed persons often hoard sensitive information away from those in top leadership positions until it is too late to nip the problem in the bud. It worthy of note that governor El Rufai is a good example of a leader who interrogates a public story at the appropriate timeThe other day, it was him that was quoted by several media sources as the first to inform President Muhammadu Buhari of threats against his persons by insurgents. At the 7th Wole Soyinka Centre Media Lecture Series in Abuja in 2015, the governor had called for the dissolution of what he called the “corrupt” Nigerian National Petroleum Company NNPC or stand the risk of itself being destroyed. In 2017, it was the same governor that wrote a private letter to the president to apprise him of the negative comments by many Nigerians about his government and steps that can be taken to improve governance and move the country forward. Just four days ago, El Rufai also informed the president that terrorists were creating a parallel government in Kaduna. What the governor appears to be anxious to confirm is that it is better to speak before one dies.

In contrast, there are governors and other officials close to the corridors of power who operate the “silence is golden” approach in the new age of information technology in which the old order of stifling information and criminalizing dissent have become obsolete. Also overtaken by events is the old practice of placing the public media in a cooler in the hope that not much would in the process be said about government. It is time for political leaders who incarcerate journalists and political opponents on account of their view points to close shop.

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