By Chief Mike A.A. Ozekhome,SAN, OFR, FCIArb, Ph.d, LL.D Constitutional Lawyer And Human Rights Activist
These are indeed trying times. Nigerians cannot eat. Fact. No fuel to drive cars or power generators. No security of lives and property. The free air of freedom generously donated by God Himself is now being expropriated.
Kassim Afegbua is not just a journalist of glittering credentials. He is a focused social critic and an objective interrogator of government policies. Fearless, daring, brave and conscientious, he speaks truth to power; even to his fast dwindling amorphous political Association called APC.
Kassim was one of those who led the social media blitz to install President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015.
He was passionate that PMB was the messiah Nigerians have been waiting for. But, like others in his league of hoodwinked patriots, he later felt disappointed. He became angry at the sheer ineptitude, directionlessness, opaqueness and double speak of the government. He left the trenches of governments defence and climbed the hill of constructive attack, with a critique catapult in his hand. On television, print and social media, he cried blue murder at governments glaring failure.
The government did not like this. He, like other repenting Nigerians, must continue to defend the government, whether it performs or not. An opportunity came for the government to extract its shylocks pound of flesh. Thus, when on Sunday, 4th February, 2018, Kassim issued a blistering statement on behalf of IBB, advising President Buhari not to seek re-election in 2019, the government struck. The piece of advise was not new. Only few weeks earlier, combative Obasanjo had said more. But, IBBs statement through Afegbua ruffled feathers in high quarters, and unsettled calculations, coming from no other person than the evil genius himself, who had overthrown the dictatorial military government of then General Muhammadu Buhari on 27th August, 1985.
Pronto, the IGP, Ibrahim Idris, who inspite of relocating to Benue State on PBMs orders has not been able to halt deadly herdsmens carnage and blood-letting, ordered Kassims arrest for issuing a fake statement. God! IBB, on whose behalf the statement was issued, did not deny it. He owned up to it.
The action of the Police is not only bizarre; it is brazenly unconstitutional, illegal and immoral. There was nothing that Afegbua, nay IBB, said in the statement that is not true. It is just that truth is bitter.
Criminalizing freedom of speech inspite of the clear provisions of section 39 of the 1999 Constitution reminds one of the locust days of Decree No 4 of 1984, which criminalized free speech, even if the words spoken were true. It was under PMB. And two well known victims of this atrocious Decree were Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson of the Guardian stable. So, 1984 is repeating itself.
The Afegbua case is a classical one of an unfortunate descent into dictatorship, despotism and absolutism. The action is an attempt to gag Nigerians from speaking and to instill morbid fear into them ahead of 2019. It will not work. It has never worked. There was nothing in Afegbuas statement that was inciting, hateful or defamatory. Even if it was, the Court of Appeal has, since 1985, settled it. It was in the case of Arthur Nwankwo v The State (1985) 4 NCLR 228, where the Court of Appeal had warned public officers in Nigeria to embrace criticism as part of their life. Late Olajide Olatawura JCA (as he then was), said:
The decision of the founding fathers of this present Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech which must include freedom to criticize should be praised and any attempt to derogate from it except as provided in the Constitution must be resisted. Those in public office should not be intolerant of criticism. Where a writer exceeds the bounds there should be a resort to the law of libel where the plaintiff must of necessity put his character and reputation in issue.
Kassim Afegbua should institute a suit, claiming damages against the Police, to serve as a deterrence to other law enforcement agents.