BY OCHO BABA… It is no longer news that Comrade Usman Okai Austin who earned for himself the title CFR (Certified Feather Ruffler) was on Sunday 9th April 2017 taken incognito by men with two Hilux vehicles in a gestapo style who were later confirmed to be members of the dreaded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). My regular comic tonics have been truncated albeit temporarily. For a comedian that has been taken too seriously by the State with an inscription on his Facebook timeline that looks like a plate number inscription that reads “INSURED BY MAFIA” with a sub “YOU HIT ME,WE HIT YOU”. The reason he was so clandestinely ambushed was not immediately known until he was arraigned before the Kogi State Magistrate Court in Lokoja on Tuesday 11th April 2017 on the following trumped up charges namely:
1. Inciting the society against the Government of Kogi State.
2. Causing disappearance of evidence, handsets.
3. Conspired with some criminal elements to burn IGR house in Lokoja.
4. Publication of false articles in social media to embarrass Gov. Bello and his cabinets.
5. Published the death rumor of Governor Yahaya Bello.
As frivolous as the above charges seem, the manner and circumstance surrounding his arrest no doubt sparked an uproar that leaves much to be desired. For an offense that cannot be considered heinous except when being overrated by the complainant, one would wonder how and why tax payers money would be used to embark on a reconnaissance mission from Kogi to Abuja the Federal Capital Territory just to pick up a blogger and back again. As long as his crime is not societally inimical to the development and progress of his people, he will be long admired and sought after for whatever belief he stands for. No thanks to the leadership of Kogi State Government. It should be noteworthy that it’s not about the messenger but the message. You don’t hate the player, you hate the game. Bound Usman Okai but that doesn’t castrate the message, it will keep resonating. In any case, Austin by our laws is presumed innocent until pronounced guilty by the court. Usman Okai Austin is not just a brother and a friend but a man with an indomitable courage, an opposition figure in the struggle for good governance and citizenship engagement not minding his modus operandi. Unfortunately, the State by their actions and inaction’s has succeeded in binding him with a cause all well-meaning Kogites are yearning for. He is now a necessary evil.
Love him or hate him, his mode of advocacy has been notorious on the social media with a blow by blow detail and account of every action undertaken by the leadership of Kogi State Government since inauguration in January 2016. The news of his arrest has further raised the bar of his personality across creed, tribe, party and interest groups. It is currently serving as a tonic amongst political guardians and gatekeepers who have taken a 4 year recess into an inevitable interregnum that calls for soul searching. Like sim cards, they have been activated. This divine New Direction mandate must have come with a cost that far outweighs its benefits unlike any other political investment they’ve done in the past. It has however become obvious that its greatest inspiration and altar call comes from the social media. This explains the unprecedented number of recruits in the media team and its recurring presence daily on notable news bar of front-line broadcast houses, off-course everything is news. One will only hope the same treatment and patronage is being given to the state owned media agencies.
Social media has been the cause of the leadership of the State acting against its citizens across the nation, as in the sad but altogether avoidable case of Austin Okai and too many others to mention. However, in our current age, where information becomes available seconds after something happens, this mechanism runs the risk of gaining ire from the ever conscious, sensitive and connected public. Indeed, it takes considerable political will – or pressure – to run this mechanism, knowing that the public will indeed object. But this also leads us to ask whether we are allowed to have opinions, even if they are not approved of. Are we allowed to form ideas based on what we see, hear, and know? Or must our ideas be state-endorsed to be valid? The cyberspace represents an addictive true public sphere in our daily lives today, a place where we can gather and confer in an unrestricted fashion. There we can express our opinions, and more importantly, perhaps, we can also hear dissenting opinions.
However, social media, being an instantaneous method of information dissemination and a tool for immediate community organizing, will always present a threat to a government that has something to hide. And so it is inevitable that the freedom afforded by social media will always come under fire with legislated restrictions such as SEDITION which I consider the compound name the state intends to use to drive a wedge to halt dissenting voices as they have found in Austin Okai and others that may follow. The theory behind the use of such restrictions, has roots in political gamesmanship. Silence the opposition, maintain strict control of the media through existing laws and wind-fallen bailout resources, and the public will not know any better.
As the State leadership bask in the euphoria of its 5 minute relief of the arrest of the Comrade Usman, it has clearly disregarded the fact that democracy is an ideology of equality. Essentially, it gives each citizen a voice in the appointment of representatives to carry out the will of the people. Under the circumstance, one may posit that democracy has become a failed experiment in our dear State.
We know as a fact that the offense of sedition attempts to strike a balance between Freedom of expression and the security of the State. But, in discussing or criticizing government, a person is allowed to keep his opinions within the limits of fair criticism. What is not permitted is to criticize the government in a malignant manner. Therefore, what the offense of sedition seeks to achieve is the prevention of an unconstitutional overthrow of government or a breach of peace through virulent and malignant attacks on the government or a class. The question now is, after a categorical denial by the spokesman of the Governor and attempts by vuvuzelas loyal to their cause to prevaricate facts that tend to portray Usman’s arrest as a staged managed decoy, could the Certified Feather Ruffler himself still be seen to have the capacity of inciting the people to public disorder, overthrow the leadership and take control of government? Someone must have been overrated. The knack to further interrogate this inquiry shows the level of character, tact and strategic thinking that envelops the occupants of Lugard House. They have just made a legend out of Usman Okai Austin.
One hallmark of civilization is the guarantee and preservation of the right to freedom of expression. The case is now the contrary in our Kogi State where absolutism and tyranny triumph as any expression of dissent from governmental positions is not merely a treasonable act to be punished but a sacrilege to be abhorred. Once, there was the invasion of the premises of African Independent Television (AIT) and the subsequent arrests, detentions and arraignment of two journalists for the offense of sedition. The whole media cathedral was agog with calls for concern and re-examination of our jurisprudence of human rights as is evident on the social media today in solidarity to Comrade Usman Okai. The outrage is indeed a clarion call also to critically examine the state of our laws and make a balance between the continued sustenance of sedition as an offense in our criminal statute and fundamental right to freedom of expression and speech.
It is outrageous enough that some perceived government functionaries systematically uses willing specialized security task force as a political police, but digging up an archaic law that was rendered obsolete by an Enugu appeal court ruling in 1983 for use against citizens perceived as opposition who just raised issues of public concern is the sneakiest kind of political dirty trick. In any case, sedition could be invoked only if it can be proven that a speech incited people to violence and would result in public disorder. A person has every right to discuss any grievance or criticize, canvass and censor the act of government and their public policy. He may even do this with a view to effecting a change to the party in power or to call attention to some of the weaknesses of the government so long as he keeps within the limits of fair criticism. At the risk of being repetitive, what is not allowed is to criticize the government in a malignant manner which has to be proven beyond reasonable doubt. Eminent lawyer Gani Fawehinmi of blessed memory was once quoted protesting angrily: “Sedition cannot be used against any Nigerian. It is a dead law.” West African Bar Association President Femi Falana asked in an article: “What will the government gain from intimidating the press in a manner that is unconstitutional?” To what end is the Attorney General of Kogi State Government endorsing the suing of Comrade Usman Okai Austin for charges on sedition?
To put things humbly in my opinion, the matter of sedition in this scenario under whatever guise it’s being presented is of two kinds informed by: artificially induce poverty and disenchantment….The causes and motives are, class struggle; irrational taxes; alteration of laws, tradition and customs; breaking of privileges; general oppression; fusion of power; unitary administration; advancement of unworthy persons, strangers; dearth’s of experienced appointees; political liabilities; factions grown desperate; and whatsoever in offending people joineth them in a common cause.’ The cue of every leader, of course, is to divide his enemies and to unite his friends. ‘Generally, the dividing and breaking of all factions…that are adverse to the state, and setting them at a distance, or at least distrust, among themselves, is not one of the worst remedies; for it is a desperate case, if those that hold with the proceeding of the state be full of discord and faction as is evident in Lugard House and even beyond, and those that are against it be entire and united.’ A better recipe for the avoidance of revolutions is an equitable distribution of wealth: ‘Money is like muck, not good unless it be spread.’ Three bailouts complimented with statutory allocations yet the status quo is worse Pre-2016. Once you become the beneficiary of a travesty, sedition becomes a willing act that is instigated by the bad blood created out of a crisis situation that ultimately makes a leader become a recluse. It doesn’t matter if the criticisms that leads to such an act is fair or malignant.
Besides the present ordeal of our friend and brother, there is a strong need to question the continuation of sedition laws in our democracy for at least three reasons. First, they were framed by colonial ‘rulers’ to suppress dissent raised by the ‘ruled’, and is out of sync in a democratic republic in which political sovereignty rests with the citizens. Second, despite the weight attached to conventions on fundamental human rights, there appears to be little political restraint in invoking it while incarceration of dissenters of all hues continues and driven by vendetta. Third, the existing provisions of the Nigerian Penal Code (NPC) are sufficient to address all threats to violence and public order. In faraway India, a volt faced Supreme Court judgment reversed a 54 year old ruling and held thus that “only a “violent revolution” against the government attracts the charge of sedition.” We pray that the custodians of our laws will someday use the same prism that was used to look deeper and re-echo its obsoleteness as was determined by a Court of Appeal judgment in Enugu in 1983. Sedition cases in recent times are usually abandoned, withdrawn or ADR optioned, this is because such cases can at best be described as ill-motivated, inhibitory, oppressive or better still a standard feature that reeks with fascist, tyrannical, undemocratic or totalitarian tendencies. In this era of free democracy where one good turn deserves another, the resolve of the people will once again be tested and the verdict given in a timely manner. A free expression of disapprobation against the ruling government’s action with an intention to better the condition of the people is not and can never be treason. I perceive that an important factor that must have driven the arrest of Usman Okai Austin under sedition is the tendency to have taken his expressions out of context and is then deemed seditious. Once such a biased, subjective and complacent mindset has been established, only the portion of the speech/expression that is seen as seditious is isolated from the context in which it was made. For instance, there is enough evidence to make a theoretically and factually sound statement that grave violations of rights to earn wages and salaries in Kogi State have spanned an average of over 12 months. However, expressions surrounding this issue, once devoid of the factual content is increasingly seen on social media and in the public sphere as anti-government. Such cognitive dissonances signal a democracy, which is weakening in terms of civil society and public debate, even while procedurally it remains strong.
Read also: The Fall and “Rise” of Saraki
Much depends upon the democratic spirit in the society. Freedom of speech and expression and freedom of communication has a preferred status in a democratic society and must be guarded zealously. Sedition is a serious crime against the state no doubt — threat to the stability and challenge to the authority of the state — not merely opposition, however strong or resistance to the policy of the government. The state, in this regard, cannot be confused with the government of the day. Governments are generally opposed to any dissent or opposition to their policy or programme and are tempted to invoke all measures, including sedition to suppress the opposition. The political movements generally involve inflammatory speeches. Unless these speeches, directly and immediately, are likely to lead to violence, they should not be branded seditious. It is true that it is difficult to decide where to draw the line. But is also true that the line has to be drawn, as far as possible, in favor of free speech
In the times of old, a seditious murderer and criminal was exchanged for Christ in the interest of the establishment. The same sedition is about to be used by the State to hang a crusader in order to suppress his right to free speech and expression using state apparatus to advance the insensitivity of the state to further harangue the plight of its already disadvantaged citizens. It has become the government’s choice weapon to choke dissent. The use of the law of sedition against those who have not bought into the project of a parochial and authoritative leadership is not coincidental. Though the judiciary has held that critiquing the state does not amount to sedition, the existence of the law on the books acts as a political tool to deter free speech. It has remained under the cover of ‘reasonable restrictions’, but the pattern of usage suggests that it is used more for political reasons. To interfere with the freedom of speech and opinion is the worst form of tyranny possible and every Kogite whatever his affiliation or inclination, ought to stand up and effectively protest against the infringement of his much valued right, It’s Austin today it could be you tomorrow. This doctrine holds its origin from the attributes and activities of our colonial masters. Today, Kogi State Government has breathe life into this law thus animating it for the purpose of muzzling dissenting voices, neocolonialism by this action has taken its root in Lugard House. Only this time around, amongst people of the same race, color, tribe and nationality.
As the next transition draws neigh, alignments and realignment across the length and breadth of the state continues to become inevitable in the face of absolutism. The gorge between the government and the governed continues to widen like the Grand Canyon. The crave to exercise their franchise in a few months’ time to ensure that political correctness does not defy the logical configuration and factors that determines a people oriented leadership in Kogi State is gradually being bred with optimism.
May we all live to see interesting times.
RipplesNigeria ….without borders, without fears