By Alade Fawole
Up front: this write-up is not about fake news! It is instead about the reckless and unguarded utterances and statements of our public officials that are capable of delegitimizing the country and its governance institutions at home and de-market Nigeria in the eyes of the rest of the world. While it is true that Nigeria has a terrible image problem across the globe, mostly on account of pervasive official corruption that has vitiated its development for several decades now, Nigerians themselves, ostensibly in exercise of the guaranteed freedom of speech, do willfully delegitimize and de-market their country for purely selfish or self-serving partisan political purposes. All manner of political desperadoes and their co-travellers, mostly political jobbers who have nothing to offer Nigerians by way of fresh and innovative ideas and solutions to our myriad problems of underdevelopment and the crisis of the nationhood, backed by an array of ethnic jingoists, tribal rabble-rousers, failed and lapsed politicians seeking relevance, and even politically motivated religious merchants, regularly spew out ruinous garbage.
But by far the most galling is not the desperate politicians seeking electoral success by all means but those who are already involved in governance at all levels. Nigerian officials (elected and appointed into public offices at state and national levels) do willful and irreparable damage to the country’s image during election cycles. Legislators, ministers, serving state governors, commissioners and others often make gratuitous official statements that, deep down, threaten the fabric of national unity and call into question not only the quality of governance but the integrity of the Nigerian state itself. I don’t have a serious problem with political parties, civil society organizations and other private groups and private individuals making various self-serving superlative claims, but it is a different ballgame entirely when officials of the Nigerian state make public statements that invariably subvert the integrity of the state and de-market it in the eyes of the rest of the world. And they do this by careless utterances and reckless official statements that are neither backed by fact nor analysis; issuing appeals to foreign governments and international organizations to intervene in matters that are essentially of domestic jurisdiction, unwittingly handing over Nigeria’s sovereignty to outsiders. Do these people have any sense, or they have been dulled by sheer desperation for public office?
Whilst freedom of speech and the other basic freedoms are integral to liberal democracy, and they are explicitly spelt out and guaranteed in the 1999 Constitution, and whose enjoyment by the citizens should not be hindered, shouldn’t the freedom of state officials holding sensitive public offices in terms of public utterances and statements on partisan political issues be further guided by some constitutional requirements? Let us remember that as officials and agents of the government, they can longer publicly express a purely personal opinion on official state matters. Though they swore to uphold the constitution many are fond of making reckless and unguarded public statements that are readily capable of causing disaffection, havoc and disunity which, if made by ordinary folks may attract arrest and prosecution. For example, when state governors openly accuse the INEC, without fact or shred of evidence, of intention to collude with the government in order to rig elections in favour of the governing party at the national level, they call into question the integrity of the entire electoral process. When state governors brazenly accuse the police and other security agencies of planning to rig elections in favour of the federal government, they invariably delegitimize the outcomes of such elections in the eyes of the rest of world.
What irks me is whether these people ever realize that the rest of the attentive world will assign a considerable weight to such utterances? Will it be asking too much that officials of the state should be circumspect in their outbursts so as to avoid jeopardizing the interests of the nation? Must they set the country on fire just to win elections? In the 2000 presidential election in the US, then Vice President Al Gore won the most votes but the US Supreme Court later ruled in favour of his rival, George W. Bush. Al Gore neither called the integrity of the election into question nor derided the Supreme Court. Instead, he demonstrated statesmanship, sagacity and maturity when he said: “Now the US Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt. While I strongly disagree with the court’s position, I accept it.” He continued: “While we yet hold…and do not yield…our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to a political party. This is America and we put the country before party. We will stand together behind our new president.” To have done otherwise might have set the country ablaze.
That’s the quality that statesmen are noted for! The opposite, unfortunately, is usually the case in Nigeria over electoral contests which are seen and fought as bloody zero-sum games! In Nigeria, winners of elections in their triumphalist jubilations and gloating often fail the test of magnanimity. Losers, on the other hand, are also bereft of gallantry, and blame their opponents, the electoral umpire, security agencies and everyone else, for their loss. It never occurs to them to do a careful and honest assessment of what might have led to their failure. An example is former President Goodluck Jonathan who lost to Muhammadu Buhari in the 2015 presidential election and who has found it difficult to accept that he actually lost. Instead, and as is reflected in his book, My Transition Hours, he is still laying the blame for the electoral loss at the feet of the opposition party, the INEC, civil society organizations, the mass media, and even former US President Barack Obama, all who he believes conspired against him. No wonder there are very few, if any, statesmen in Nigeria!
Why are adult Nigerians in public office not capable of such of statesmanship and consideration for national integrity? Shouldn’t there be sanctions for public officials who make incendiary public statements? Or is it fair for them to set the nation on fire while they and their families are enjoying state protection? Chinua Achebe was right all along: the trouble with Nigeria is squarely the inability of its leaders to rise to the stature and responsibilities of leadership!
While not advocating gagging public officials, we need a mechanism to make them understand the weight of their public utterances can bring odium to our country in the eyes of the world. There must be a way to call to order and discipline public officials who make reckless and incendiary statements that are capable of delegitimizing our governance institutions and give Nigeria a bad image abroad. When damage is done to the country’s standing in the world, it is innocent Nigerians that bear the brunt while applying for visas at foreign embassies here in Nigeria and shabby treatment at entry points into foreign countries. How can we complain that the rest of the world has no respect for us when our own elected and appointed public officials willfully and carelessly de-market the country through irresponsible conduct?