Home Free HOW OUR UTTERANCES SHAPE NIGERIA & NIGERIANS’ PERCEPTION IN THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY

HOW OUR UTTERANCES SHAPE NIGERIA & NIGERIANS’ PERCEPTION IN THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY

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One of the most prominent features of democracy of the Fourth Republic in Nigeria is the fact that people have been re-awakened to know that they are truly the key components of governance. People have realized, more than ever before, that they could question their representatives in government and even remove inept leaders through the ballot box. People today are more willing to participate in events and processes that shape their lives. Since that great discovery was made, representative democracy remains the veritable means of ensuring wide indirect participation in governance by the citizenry. Over the past few decades, particularly during military rule, the polity in Nigeria has been greatly influenced and sensitized by the network of civil society organizations. The daring actions of Civil Society Organizations, particularly during military regimes have contributed to the advancement of democracy, with increasing consciousness that the masses must exercise governing power; directly or indirectly, through their representatives in government. However, the best is yet to come pertaining to accountability of the political class to the electorate.

Demand for accountability is largely exercised through free speech. People, every so often speak about ‘’Free Speech’’ as enshrined in the Constitution. One of the most important issues addressed by the United Nations, upon its formation is ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (1949) has as its Article 19 a clause that states that:  “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference; and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’’  The ordinary man on the streets would believe, erroneously though, that given constitutional provisions, he or she has the right to speak anyhow. This is far from the reality, as there are indeed boundaries to free speech. While it is universally accepted that laws and statutes are made to protect freedom of information and speech, there are also restrictions placed on a speaker or communicator. Today, freedom of speech, or the freedom of expression, is recognized in international and regional human rights laws. The right is enshrined in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Section 39(1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) guarantees freedom of expression as a fundamental right. It includes the right to hold opinions and express views by the people and the media.  The main objective is to enable the citizenry share or impart ideas for the purpose of informing and educating themselves. These objectives have been known to foster development, as well as peaceful and harmonious co-existence. There have been claims that Nigeria has the freest press in Africa.  Each time drums of war sound, and people speak forcefully, not minding the consequences, adrenaline of the concerned shoots up. Why? Because of the implications of such agitations expressed vehemently through public speeches. We can do with lesser tension if only all Nigerians on both divides perform our obligations as we should. Generally, it could be safely posited that most of us are not adequately aware of the effects of our utterances. They go beyond mere speaking to convey positive or negative messages. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo analyzed the negative trend of speaking ill-advisedly about Nigeria and Nigerians themselves at a Presidential Retreat on National Security held in Abuja in 2001. He declared:

‘’Nigerians must be aware of the harm, in terms of breaches of security, that they do to their country, through their own statements. Most of the reports used by non-Nigerians against us are mere collations of loose, unguarded, flippant, most untrue, but destructive statements, made or written by us about ourselves! This is unpatriotic behaviour at its worst. Foreign media use own perceptions about ourselves to support the negative political risk assessment for investment in our country. Of course, if Nigerians themselves say they are bad, it must be true that Nigeria is bad. And why should anyone want to invest in such a bad and high-risk country. On the other hand, without risk investments, we cannot make progress. Every year, the United States issues Country Reports on Human Rights trends worldwide. In the case of Nigeria, the entire content of that Report is sourced from national publications. Again, Nigeria is the source of its own indictment. What it boils down to, is that we must engage our brains and our patriotic sense before we make utterances that may have the potential of being used against us. Put another way, we must discriminate positively in the interest and security of Nigeria.  Bits and pieces of adverse comments put together can form a major breach of security for the nation.’’

THE MEDIA

A German media practitioner, Herman Ziock painted explicitly, the role of the media practitioner in the publication: ‘Man and the Press; German opinion on problems of Today.’  According to Ziock, the Press has two different responsibilities: ‘’It can be either the “bringer of light” or the “root of all evil, depending on those who make the press.’’ I have, on a few occasions invited attention to patriotism, as demonstrated by Reuben Abati, Chairman, Editorial Board of Nigerian Guardian Newspapers (as he then was) as response to a broadcast by the CNN entitled: “How to Rob a Bank” on Sunday June 11, 2006; which was unfortunately followed by an equally unpalatable derogatory publication on the BBC World Service. Both reports contained disparaging reports about Nigeria and Nigerians. Reacting to the stereotypes, Abati noted that: ‘’The truth of the matter is that Nigerians who are credit card fraudsters, the con-artists, the drug couriers, who seem to attract the attention of the international media constitute a minority of Nigerians. ‘’The majority of Nigerians is made up of honest, hardworking persons, who are trying to earn a living. ‘’There may be problems in terms of the value system, in terms of an obsession with money for its own sake. ‘’But there is nothing in Nigeria that is so different from other countries. ‘’There are more criminals in America than there are in the whole of Nigeria. How about the ENRON scandal, the mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, the robberies and killings on the streets of America: do these necessarily make every American a gangster? Indians and Koreans come to this country to do business and they treat our people badly, but I don’t consider either Indians or Koreans superior to Nigerians. If the CNN were to investigate Italians and Hispanics, its investigators would find a lot to put on air, except they may not consider it politically correct to do so”.

What may be the solution, as the world attempts to create a New World Information Order is what the celebrated strategic communication, late Prof. Alfred Opubor called ‘’Alternative Communication Systems.’’ Opubor, a professor of Mass Communications & Consultant to multilateral institutions; in a paper titled “Broadcasting, Peace and Human Development” delivered at the Tenth Anniversary Lecture of African Independent Television, Abuja, in December 2006, stated that: ‘’My primary interest and professional passion is the search for alternative communication systems and the building of appropriate institutions to enable Africans to explain and proclaim itself to Africa and the rest of the world. “Africa has been the victim of other peoples’ information domination. ‘’Historically, Africa’s image in the world has been largely managed by non-African interests and institutions. ‘’Those who had the means to create powerful channels to disseminate information widely, had pre-empted the definition of what was good, what was right, what was important and what was civilized. ‘’In general, even the achievements in science, in art and culture that were African in origin or inspiration, were often attributed to others, because their provenance was obscured in Africa’s inability to proclaim its stake. ‘’Through literature, visual arts, the mass media, and popular culture, the agenda of world discourse has been hijacked by other cultures and peoples for a long time.’’

INSPIRATION

How do we return Nigeria to its right position in global affairs? What are those issues that make people despondent and unpatriotic; promoting negative feelings and utterances?  And what could be done to address the situation? Much as governance is regarded one of the hardest of tasks, it is important to encourage dialogue, dialogue and dialogue. It requires that people be inspired to cultivate feelings of seeing hope in the present and the future. Accordingly, it is important to discuss ways and means of cultivating progressive habits that would promote peace and development without heating up the polity. Nelson Mandela’s admonition in his 1975 letter to Winnie Mandela is apposite here: “Difficulties break some men, but make others. ‘’No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying; one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.’’ In this connection, governance must take into account the provision of an environment in which people find happiness and fulfilment. Issues that demand attention include observance of the rule of law, that makes a Nigerian, no matter the status respect even minor regulations while on trips abroad, but return home only to flout similar regulations. Fair play, justice, and true democratic culture are additional ingredients. In the words of former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Anan, cooperation for development is necessary: ‘’It is necessary because without a measure of solidarity, no society can be truly stable, and no one’s prosperity truly secure.’’ Certainly, it is imperative that we all must be forward-looking and stand committed to the pursuit of excellence.
First published December 2017

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