I got a birthday present recently. It was both unique and peculiar on one hand, but on the other, was dejavu, journey down a familiar road. In its essence it showed how a mute conspiracy crushes free speech in Nigeria more ferociously than terrorists killing editors of Charlie Hebdo, yet no one says Je suis Nigerienne. What makes it even more sad is that the conspirators in the Nigerian case are not misguided anarchists like the terrorists, but do include corporate Nigeria, supposedly enlightened government officials and educated bureaucrats. Even institutions and multilaterals seem to be sucked into this conspiracy, sometimes unwittingly.
The gift came from a call from the World Bank, a leader from which a keynote address was to come at the annual meeting of the Center for Values in Leadership (CVL) the annual lecture. Hours after receipt of the presentation and conclusion of travel and hotel arrangements for the World Bank Representative an apology call came. The problem was politics. Even though the organizer was an NGO and that the lecture from 2014 was given by the Minister of Agriculture to the acclaim of thousands of viewers in halls across the country, with Google hangouts and live television coverage. Then there was nothing political to it. But a week before the 2015 lecture, staying with the same theme of leadership and poverty but, this time, with emphasis on the ultra-poor, I had written a reaction to a debate stirred by former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor Chukwuma Soludo who had problems with how the economy was being managed. Even though World Bank Insiders were kind enough to say my Intervention was balanced and thoughtful, it was enough to be political that I mentioned I was a card carrying member of the APC.
My experience suggests that if I had said I was a card carrying member of the PDP there would be no consequence. The bottom line is that this CVL lecture, held on my birthday, was okay as long as it was about cheerleading the party in power. It was not the first time the annual programme was experiencing this manner of subtle gagging. Add that to my experience producing Patito’s Gang and reactions to my business and economic interests from column writing, and you see a pattern of threatening free speech.
A few years ago CVL established a partnership with the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs for the purpose of these annual lectures aimed at setting agenda for confronting a social challenge and providing Young professionals who are leader wannabes on where and how to develop a sense of service. When Professor Joy Ogwu who established the partnership moved on, the new Director-General was advised that I had become politically active and so it would be inappropriate to hold those colloquiums at the NIIA. Another D-G would reverse that a few years later but those kinds of experiences are symptomatic of an assault on a fundamental human right, and a major key to democratic society and human advance from freedom of expression.
The mortgage of free speech is best seen in the Patito’s Gang story which shows how corporate Nigeria, the powerful who profit from the extant order, and public officials who hate to account to stakeholders, detest freedom of expression. The extent of the hypocrisy and quiet conspiracy against voices not cheering of the current order first struck me early in life of Patito’s Gang in 2000.
A good friend who was Chief Executive of a bank called to express his excitement at both the production quality and content. When I saw how pleased he was with it I told him we would be looking forward to advertising support from the bank. He was honest enough and gracious enough to observe that the programme made more than fair effort to speak truth to power and that meant power could see advertisement from a company as supporting discomfiture for power. He would therefore rather that we let him know any day we would discuss sports. He was prepared to pay twice as much for such an episode. The outcome was that for more than a decade a good part of my personal income amounting to tens of millions of Naira, a year, went into producing episodes of the TV series and paying multiple networks to air the episodes. Nigeria has a peculiar TV broadcast model where content poor stations instead of paying producers for content, charge them for airing the show.
At some point, a good #450 million, mainly income from my consulting and corporate Governance role incomes had gone in there.
All the traditional reasons for advertising platforms such as reach, passion of the viewers, etc seemed not to matter. But I deliberately decided to deny myself much to keep the programme on air as it clearly advanced the common good.
To be sure that it was not set up as opposition to power, efforts were made to ensure a spectrum of opinion, for and against, were available on the show. The only requirement was uninhibited free speech that did not label or scandalize anyone but sort to hold power accountable by brining sunlight into the public choice process.
At the risk of becoming bankrupt I stopped the production of Patito’s Gang after more than 500 episodes in ten and half years. The whys were so loud that nine months later I resumed production. This I was determined not to pay for airtime after spend so much in producing the show. If the outflows from my pocket were the only source of assault in free speech. I experienced, it would not be so bad.
Many times executives of parastatals that I offered professional services as a management consultant would rather say they could not keep our services because someone on Patito’s Gang spoke critically about the government, or delay our due payments for months if not years to frustrate us.
For a good quarter century I have struggled to step aside being economic hostage with business interests threatened because of commitment to free speech and refusal to be bought into silence. It cannot continue.
How does a country make progress that will reduce poverty if even the mare modest voices are found so offensive that the only voices are those of power and those determined to fight power on reasoned or unreasonable terms.
What has emerged in Nigeria is a new dangerous mercantilism in which business interests in collaboration with partners in power act to squelch thought.
To save Nigeria, it is important to strip the veil on this persistent but subtle war against free speech in Nigeria which pushes people who question the order as unjust, turn insurgency.
–Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of entrepreneurship, founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership