Nigerians have lived through some interesting political times. In the past, a specific military regime took the time to publicly flog civil servants for arriving to work late. Under various dictators, independent thought was punished, some, like journalist Dele Giwa were blown apart to bits. And, of course, no reasonable Nigerian can forget the distinctly dark terror that was the Abacha regime, although some would rather rewrite that part of Nigeria's history. Then, Nigerians spoke in hushed whispers about the various rumors surrounding the late General and the many who crossed his path, only to never be heard from again.
Despite these realities, the advent of 'Nigerian democracy', though imperfect, brought a glimmer of hope to the people. Most Nigerians did not expect things to change over night, but they were confident that with democracy, Nigeria would inch closer to becoming a truly democratic nation where human rights and constitutional freedoms are afforded to all and protected by all. Nigerians became more boisterous in their political opinions and actively participated in civil society. Nigeria, via its government, even championed itself as a defender of African democracy and peace. In 2003, it was Nigeria that brought an end to a coup in neighboring Sao Tome & Principe by negotiating amnesty for the coup plotters and returning the deposed democratic President to power. Nigeria encouraged its neighbors in the sometimes insecure West African region to strive for peace and democracy as the path to development and stability.
Unfortunately, in recent days, the Nigeria government has chosen to arrest, detain and deprive of legal counsel, bloggers who for whatever reason have written stories that are embarrassing to the office of the Presidenct and other powerful political elites. First was Jonathan Elendu, who was detained and allegedly tortured over the course of 11 days by the SSS. He has been released but is not free to return to his family in the US. The most recently detained blogger is Emeka Asiwe of huhuonline.com who was arrested almost a week ago and has not been heard from since. This drastic turn from a path towards creating a better democratic Nigeria is disturbing and requires everyone, Nigerian or not, to consider the possible consequences.
Many Issues to Worry About
Like any other country, Nigeria is far from perfect. It is a new democracy struggling to find its feet and create a democratic system that is uniquely Nigerian. Nigeria faces incredible challenges such as the tensions in the Niger Delta, poverty - with over 9 out of 10 Nigerians live on less than $2 a day, high illiteracy levels, a pitiful life expectancy rate of 47 years, an over hyped reputation for being a nation of scammers, PPP (and its consequences) and an ever expanding list of issues too numerous to currently address. Consequently, the nation embarked on a rebranding effort to change its public image i.e. the Heart of Africa project, consistent incentives to repatriate skilled Nigerians living abroad (the "brain gain" phenomenon), and even a continuing effort to transform Lagos (the nation's financial capital) into a global economic and financial market.
However, the arrest of two political news bloggers within weeks of each other begs the question of whether this administration is truly committed, as it has always claimed, to the "rule of law". This question is raised because it is difficult to see how the law punishes, instead of protects, freedom of speech and expression. How does Yar'Adua's "rule of law" message gel with the continued detention of a blogger, in this case Asiwe, even though Nigerian law requires that all detainees be charged within 48 hours of arrest?
These contradictions are not healthy for a young democracy , especially one that is watched by its brothers and sisters on the continent. Additionally, these arrests simply give Nigeria's detractors one more concrete reason to distort what Nigeria is and who the Nigerian people are. They confirm, for those who are naive, the many negative ideas that are out there about Nigeria. Why would we want to give such ammunition considering the reputation Nigeria already has and the painstaking efforts that the average Nigerian takes to overcome such stereotypes?
President Yar'Adua has repeatedly pledged to make Nigeria a top 20 economy by 2020. But, apart from maybe China, every other country in the top 20 has a boisterous democracy that respects, for the most part civil and human rights. Even the Chinese authorities have realized that to compete, the civil society must be allowed to express its ideas and the Communist Party of China is cutting citizens some slack.
Draconian Measures Will Only Deter Progress
This new trend of arresting Nigerian residents who live abroad upon arrival in the country will also act as a deterrence in the effort to bring Nigerians home. The reality is that most Nigerians abroad have an opinion on the path the country is taking and have likely expressed it publicly and even on the internet. Could these people also be subject to random arrest, detention and torture? Since when did it become a crime to have an opinion? What about Nigerians in the country. Must they return to the times of Sani Abacha and not trust their pastor for fear that he might contact the SSS? Why continue to breed the distrust that already exists amongst Nigerians by creating an environment of fear? Nigerians are a passionate people, and that passion should be tapped into, not repressed, if Nigeria is to truly accomplish the feats its leaders have declared that it will. Clamping down on free speech and expression is not the way to achieve Nigeria's goals.
Is It Worth It?
The Nigerian government must remember that given the choice between reacting harshly to critiques and erasing the small gains that have been made in reinforcing the image and credibility of the nation, the choice should be obvious. For Nigeria to achieve the success it dreams of we must all treat each other better and remember that we can only achieve the goal together.Bloggers like Elendu, Asiwe and others potentially being "hunted" by the Nigerian authorities should be left alone to practice their constitutionally granted rights. As such, Elendu must be allowed to return to his family in the Michigan and Asiwe should also be allowed to return to his family in Massachusetts. Other critics and opponents should be released from detention and allowed to live their lives in peace.
Freedom is a birthright that should never be tampered with. Granted, it can result in unpleasantness, but ultimately, people who are free are of more benefit to any nation than those who live in chains. The choice is ultimately ours to make. But, I believe that we cannot afford to turn away from democracy, no matter how bitter it might taste sometimes.
By Solomon Sydelle of Nigerian Curiousity