By Martins Oloja
It is important for us to tell Nigeria’s leader and his men that they need to invest in public relations and strategic reputation management at this time. It is serious and urgent. There have been too many public relations disasters that no one is managing for them at the moment. Don’t get it twisted, it is not about competence of the media and communications managers in the presidency. It is about the image of Nigeria that President Muhammed Buhari is leading at this time. It is beyond blame-game debate. They need to recognise first that reputation management is quite critical in today’s governance and leadership process even as disruptive and innovative technologies keep shaping forces of globalisation and its discontents.
Meanwhile, there have been so many policy instruments and bills that are demonising democracy on the watch of President Buhari. Hate speech and social media bills are part of them. Such strange bills are not capable of enhancing values that define and deepen democracy in the most populous black nation on earth. Recent staggered elections in Bayelsa and Kogi states have also diminished the majesty of democracy in the country. Obnoxious police checkpoints on federal highways and inside Lagos city that even the untrusted Senate warned about last week have become a burden on road users, transporters and a blight on democracy. The raging war between the Police Service Commission (PSC) and the Inspector General of Police (IGP) over who has authority to recruit and promote police officers is also shameful. Even a recent court ruling on the controversy can’t be helpful in the long run.
But of all these blighters and darks spots, the most telling on the character and colour of Buhari government has been the desecration of the temple of justice last Friday by the State Security Service operatives. Their overzealousness has dented the image of this government. Most people who had hitherto remained neutral and reticent about the Sowore saga are now wondering what the publisher and politician from Kiribo, an Apoi town in Ese-Odo Local Government in Ondo has really done beyond what he advertised in his #RevolutionNow strategy paper. It is, therefore, time to advise all the president’s men that the way the world is tagging the Buhari administration with disobedience to court orders after removing a Chief Justice of the country through an Administrative Tribunal is a dangerous perception that needs to be halted. The Buhari administration needs resourceful reputation managers to assist in this regard. It is again urgent.
It they don’t know the value of reputation management, they should check the account of some international media organs on what happened in an Abuja court last Friday. One version reported that, ‘The ongoing court trial of Omoyele Sowore, a New-York based Nigerian journalist and prominent activist, has taken a worrying turn and added to growing concerns that Africa’s largest democracy is slowly becoming intolerant of political dissent and defaults to tightening press freedom when it is under pressure…’
One day after Sowore, a Nigerian-American, was released on bail following a court order, he has been detained yet again in controversial circumstances. In dramatic scenes in court today (Dec. 6), agents of Nigeria’s Department for State Security (DSS) attempted to arrest Sowore, resulting in a scuffle involving his lawyers. Following the incident, Femi Falana, one of Nigeria’s most prominent lawyers and lead of Sowore’s legal team, confirmed the activist was back in DSS custody…
Sowore is the publisher of Sahara Reporters, an online news publication that focuses on uncovering political scandal and corruption in Nigeria. He was also a presidential candidate in Nigeria’s last elections in February…
Sowore was first arrested on August 3, 2019 on charges of treason with the government claiming the activist planned to overthrow the current administration after he called for a protest dubbed “Revolution Now.” He also faces money laundering and cyber-stalking charges.
Despite a judge granting him bail in October with the case ongoing, he had been kept in DSS custody until his initial release last Thursday. Protests clamouring for his release on bail on Nov. 12 also reportedly resulted in a clash with the agency’s officers. While the reason for his re-arrest remained foggy at the weekend, his legal team branded it as a disregard for the rule of law. He was in custody for 124 days. Detained with him was Olawale Bakare. He was charged to court and the trial Judge, Hon. Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu, granted both men bail in rather curiously stringent conditions. When reviewed later, they met the conditions, but the DSS failed to release them. They gave curious alibi including, “the sureties didn’t come for them”. A series of protest and Justice Ojukwu’s threats didn’t change the obstinacy of the security operatives. But on Thursday, the angry Justice Ojukwu gave the DSS authorities 24 hours to obey Court orders and release them on bail. Besides, she fines the DSS one hundred thousand (#100, 000). The same day some elderly women from Sowore’s Village in Ondo, travelled to Abuja and protested bare-breasted, asking for his release. And a few hours later, the DSS released both of them and paid the fine to the delight of the people. Sowore and his partner came out of the detention smiling with victory sign. But the joy turned to sorrow and anxiety the following day. On Friday morning, he was in Court before Justice Ojukwu so that the Judge could confirm that the DSS authorities complied with her order. She did and adjourned the case till February 2020. She was on record to have praised the secret service authorities for obeying her order, reminding the agency that, “nobody is above the law”.
But confusion ‘broke bone’ as the next case was called and Sowore stepped out of the Court. Over a dozen DSS armed officers were waiting for the two accused outside. They made to arrest him and so struggle ensued and he rushed back to the Court for protection. But the secret service officers did not beat a retreat from the Court chambers. They wrestled Sowore to the ground. And in the melee, Justice Ojukwu and a number of counsel fled just as some of the lawyers and spectators rose spontaneously against the curious ambush and assault on the judiciary. In the end, despite all the efforts, they were taken away from the Court and the people lost their power to the superior firepower of the security agents.
Sowore’s lawyer, Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) who once expressed some displeasure about the way the Justice was handling the case described the Friday drama as shocking even as he said, “Nigeria has never experienced anything like this before…This development is horrendous, bizarre and a barbaric contempt of Court never witnessed under even the most brutal of past dictators that has ever ruled Nigeria… Under the military regime, the so called enemies of the government would not be arrested in the web of the Court, which is considered a sanctuary. What we witnessed today is alien to Nigeria”. There was a report that Justice Ojukwu was so shocked by the development that she fled her Court. And so doubtless, what happened last Friday was a reproach to the nation. And so the state actors whose action and inaction triggered this shame in a democracy should be investigated and sanctioned. Before that, responses have been pouring in as our democracy is being ridiculed by state actors.
In an emailed statement, Bob Menendez, a US Senator from New Jersey, where Sowore’s family is based, described his (Sowore’s) rearrest as a “blatant miscarriage of justice, which is symptomatic of closing political and media space in Nigeria.” Menendez says he’ll be working with the US Ambassador to Nigeria to secure Sowore’s release.
The conclusion everywhere has been that the Friday incident has compounded growing concerns around deteriorating freedom of speech and press rights in Nigeria. Sowore’s continued detention follows worrying cases of detention of journalists over the past year. In some cases, there have been outright disappearances of prominent government critics.
“The attempted abduction and eventual re-arrest of prisoners of conscience Omoyele Sowore and Olawale Bakare, including the desecration of the Nigerian judiciary by SSS officials tells a bigger story of impunity and flagrant disregard for the rule of law by the Nigerian government,” said Amnesty International Nigeria in a statement shared on social media. Those fearful reality is also corroborated by independent observers: Nigeria is ranked 120th of 180 globally—and a lowly 34th of 53 ranked African countries—on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
Those who manage the reputation of this administration should therefore note that the arrest, inside a law court, reflects poorly on the administration of president Muhammadu Buhari especially given his checkered history with the press, as a former military head of state in the 1980s. There was a comment at the weekend that Buhari had sought to play down his dictatorial past during a successful presidential campaign in 2015 as he was branded a “reformed democrat.”
And there’s little doubt that Buhari’s administration and his ruling party the All Progressive Congress, which has control of the Senate, are keen to tighten controls on some forms of free speech. There is now a clear correlation between appearance of the draconian hate speech and social media bills and the democrat who has not been reformed, after all. As another international news network noted at the weekend too, specifically, activists have raised concerns around two bills currently being considered by the Nigerian Senate which are believed to target freedom of expression online, including one which proposes the death penalty for those found guilty of “hate speech”.
The government supported National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech bill and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and other Related Offences bill could give Nigerian authorities arbitrary powers to shut down the internet and limit access to social media. It could also make criticizing the government a punishable offense with penalties of up to three years in prison.
We can’t run away from these challenges as Nigeria belongs to us all. The only way we can assist the government is to tell it some inconvenient truth. Yes, truth that can set it free from the public perception tragedy it has found itself in. It will be more tragic to think in the presidency that the state security service can be made by the powers that be to be above the law. The late Justice Alfred Thompson Denning’s warning is useful here: “Be ye never so high, the law is above you”.