Buhari Administration: A Call for Prohibition of Sycophantic Advertorials by Government and Public Institutions, by Jiti Ogunye

Jiti_Ogunye_849692523-211x300The practice of placing advertorials in the print media to felicitate with public office holders and their spouses when they attain political offices, on their birthdays, and when their administrations record certain accomplishments, which started as a “smallpox” of sycophancy, upon the return of Nigeria to civil rule in 1999, has now become a cancerous culture of public praise singing and commiseration. While private persons and corporate entities who engage in this practice, apparently to curry official favours, may claim that they have the right to do so, and that in any case they are spending their own money, public offices and public office holders who do so cannot so claim. Not only because the insignias and seals of these public offices and public office holders, including Nigeria’s Coat-of-Arms and the emergent coat-of-arms of Nigeria’s respective States, are usually emblazoned in the print media advertorials of these public praise singing and commiseration, but also because the addresses and statements in the advertorials unmistakably demonstrate that they are messages put out by, and paid for by institutions and agencies of State.

It is now very common to see the President of Nigeria, legislatures, ministries and ministers, commissioners and governors, government departments, agencies, security organisations, public health bodies and education institutions placing colourful and costly congratulatory and commiserative advertorials in the print media. Obituary advertorials by government or government bodies marking the passage of serving and retired public officers and their relatives, and mourning certain “eminent” Nigerians when they transit, paid for by government, are now a permanent feature of our print media.

We deprecate this practice. This is part of Nigeria’s culture of official profligacy, that we must seek to stop. In the needed advocacy to stop this culture of waste, we will be pleasantly surprised if the print media becomes a trumpet major and a conscientious partner. The reason we say this is obvious. The print media is the beneficiary of the pervasiveness of this culture. It is a revenue booster for the print media, proceeds of sales of copies of newspaper titles being insignificant. But the media can do and should do without this stream of income. Section 22 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides that “the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in (Chapter 2 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria) and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people.”

Instructively, in this Chapter 2, Section 15(5) provides that “the State shall abolish all corrupt practices and abuse of power”, and Section 17(1&2 [a]) in this same Chapter 2 provides that “the State social order is founded on ideals of Freedom, Equality and Justice; and that in furtherance of the social order- (a) every citizen shall have equality of rights, obligations and opportunities before the law”. If the State or state agencies and functionaries recklessly use state funds, that are not appropriated for felicitation or commiseration advertorials, to congratulate or condole with a few Nigerians, while the rest of the teeming populations of Nigerians are not so treated, can that act not be said to be corrupt and abusive of power? If the Nigerian State, States in the Nigerian “Federation”, and institutions of State, only felicitate and condole with the few rich and politically powerful Nigerians, and neglect the many that are poor and politically powerless, can the State be said to be according all Nigerians equal rights, obligations and opportunities?

For those who may argue that advert and advertorial placements in the print media by government ministries, departments, agencies and public institutions help to keep the print media alive and financially afloat, because that stream of income is their mainstay, considering the low incomes that are realised from sales of their printed copies, we disagree. The media receives a regular stream of advertorials on tertiary institution admissions, employment opportunity advertisements, advertisement of positions, open competitive bids, prequalification advertisements, publication of statutory notices and other advertisements made by public bodies and institutions. Certainly, the print media can do without these illicit incomes.

Section 42 of the Constitution entrenches the right to freedom from discrimination. It states that “(1) A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person:- (a) be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions are not made subject; or (b) be accorded either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any such executive or administrative action, any privilege or advantage that is not accorded to citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions.”

It is our considered opinion that the placing of advertorials in the print media by the government and its agencies and institutions to felicitate and condole with the few who are rich and politically powerful, and the non-extension of “any such executive or administrative action” to the many who are poor and politically powerless, who constitute the majority of our population, is a heartless breach of the provision of Section 42 of the Constitution.

Under Section 42(1)(b), equal privilege or advantage is to be accorded Nigerians of all “communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions”, without discrimination. It is our legal proposition that social, and economic statuses and ideological and political leanings or persuasions of Nigerians can put them in certain communities or make it possible for them to be said to have certain political opinions, to be covered by the clause, “communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions”, as provided by the Constitution. We argue that “communities”, as used in the Section, do not relate only to a geographical community, it can and, indeed, should be imaginatively and liberally extended to a social, economic, professional, occupational, and political communities. Thus, if the birthday of a governor is being marked by the State, with state funds, and an advertorial is placed in a newspaper to congratulate him, except such a gesture is captured by a State budget and extended to all citizens of the State, who are not governors of that State, the executive and administrative action is, in the eye of the Constitution, discriminatory, and is prohibited by the Constitution.

For those who may argue that our interpretation of “communities” under Section 42 is too elastic, forced and too wide, we hasten to stress that the words “communities” are not defined in the Section or in the Interpretation Section of the Constitution. In the absence of such definition, it will be presumptuous to casually conclude that it is only a geographical community that is implied in the provision. The ordinary dictionary meaning does not support such a conclusion. The Chambers Dictionary of English Language, 1998 Edition, at page 333, defines a community as “a body of people in the same locality; the public in general; people having common rights, etc; a body of persons leading a common life, or under socialistic or similar organizations; a group of people who have common interests, characteristics or culture… et cetera”

The principles governing the construction or interpretation of constitutional provisions, particularly upon the adoption of our presidential system of government, are well laid out in a number of decisions of the Supreme Court. The locus classicus decided by the Supreme Court is the case of Nafiu Rabiu v. The State (1981) 2 NCLR 293 at pages 326, and 302-303. In that decision, Sir Udo Udoma, JSC stated thus: “My Lords, it is my view that the approach of this court to the construction of the constitution should be, and so it has been one of liberalism, probably a variation on the theme of the general maxim ut res magis valeat quam pereat (meaning it is better for a thing to have effect than for it to be made void). I do not conceive it to be the duty of this court so to construe any of the provisions of the Constitution as to defeat the obvious ends the Constitution was designed to serve where another construction equally in accord and consistent with the words and sense of such provision will serve to enforce and protect such ends.” And Idigbe JSC shared the same position when he declared that “accordingly, where the question is whether the Constitution has used an expression in a wider or narrower sense, the court should always lean where the justice of the case so demands to the broader interpretation, unless there is something in the context or in the rest of the Constitution to indicate that the narrower interpretation will best carry out its object and purpose.”

The Supreme Court has followed this decision in many cases, including the case of Okotie-Ebor v. Manager (2004) 18 NWLR (Pt. 905) 242 at pages 289-290, paras. H-F. In that case Pats-Acholonu, J.S.C. (of blessed memory) stated at page 290, paras. D-F that “…it is the eternal duty of the (Supreme Court) to construe some provisions of the Constitution in a wider sense to give meaning and life to the law, bearing in mind that the primary law is for the living; that as much as possible, a holistic approach should be given to any provision with a view to expounding its scope. By so doing, the courts would be liberating wooly provisions of the Constitution that appear nebulous, and therefore make the law embrace all that would ennoble the society and would guarantee its fairness and space for growth and development so that in the final analysis it shall be understood by all that the law is made for men and women and not the other way round.”

We make these legal submissions to emphasise the point that the word “communities” as used under Section 42 is not restricted to only a geographical community. Therefore, if a government or a government agency places a colour advertorial in a newspaper at five hundred thousand naira (#500,000.00) per page to felicitate with an “eminent” Nigerian on his birthday, or to congratulate a governor for being awarded an honourary degree by a university- dignitaries or principalities who are members of the same social, economic or political community-, and other Nigerians of “other communities” are not so treated, the right of those other Nigerians to freedom from discrimination is violated, and this right can be enforced or protected by a legal action.

As Muhammadu Buhari, Yemi Osinbajo and other state governors elect take the oaths of their respective offices on May 29, 2015, these advertorials are bound to pour in. We, are, therefore calling on the new President of Nigeria and the Governors of the States to, respectively, make an Executive Order prohibiting the placing of discriminatory congratulatory or commiserative advertorials in the print media, by state or government functionaries, either with or without the use of state funds. An egalitarian society is not built by mere words, but by taking concrete steps and actions that promote equality of all before the law.

If this culture of wasteful and discriminatory congratulatory or commiserative advertorials is not prohibited, we shall, in the coming days, take out a civil action under the Fundamental Rights Enforcement Procedure Rules, 2009, to prohibit it. This is a Notice to Sue being served freely in public.

Jiti Ogunye, lawyer, public interest attorney, legal commentator, author, and essayist, is the Legal adviser of Premium Times.