When renowned columnist Mohammed Haruna was appointed INEC National Commissioner from North Central in 2016, he wrote a farewell article which was published in some national dailies. In that article, he reflected on what it took to become a newspaper columnist when they began writing in the late 1970s and what it took now; he also discussed the future of writing columns. One critical and interesting thing I understood from his submission was that the business of writing columns was no longer prestigious these days as virtually anyone with averagely good writing skills can become a columnist and with the rise in the popularity of social media, publishing and publicity was not much of an issue.
When I was done reading that article, I concluded that quackery had taken over the business of writing columns and opinion pieces. Until some ten to fifteen years ago, newspaper columns were written by patriotic, informed, experienced and privileged experts who have a full grasp of the past, a clear understanding of the present and insight into the future. Before now, many people buy newspapers only to read back page columns and some opinion pieces inside the paper. Today, as Haruna asserted, everyone with average understanding of issues can write on virtually anything and publishing is not his problem. This had led to the proliferation of our media spaces with heaps of debris that have helped in compounding instead of addressing issues.
The case of activism appears to be worse. While writing requires some basic and sometimes thoughtful skills even by Nigerian standards, activism appears to be a vague activity down here. You can hardly define what actually constitutes activism or what it takes to become an activist. This is why despite some decent efforts; we are still struggling to bring out significant and impacting relevance out of our different non-governmental struggles to change the course of events in this country.
While activism is conventionally used to refer to any direct or indirect action employed in attempts to bring about social or political change in a society, but for the sake of analysis in the Nigerian context, let’s just consider it to refer to any activity employed by people who have any cause or belief to express disagreement with government or its activities.
The lack of a defined framework for what activism should be has made virtually any anti-government activity irrespective of how silly to pass as activism these days. This is the reason why the boundaries between partisanship, opposition, advocacy, struggle, criticism, character assassination, abuse, irresponsibility and even treason is very blurred and indistinctive. The conflicting methods of carrying out all these are even more unclear, confusing and indistinguishable. This perhaps may be partly responsible for the reason why government find it so easy to declare groups as terrorists and dissenting voices as enemies.
In another clear and apparent inadequacy of government responses and attempts to have control over these activities, today invitations, arrests, kidnappings and abductions virtually look the same. People are arrested without warrants, sometimes in the most bizarre of circumstances in the name of holding them accountable for things they wrote, causes they advocate for or against and groups they align with, making government suspicious whenever any critic gets missing or harmed.
We cannot deny the fact that the position of activism in our society today is more of an avenue to get fame, relevance and money rather than the desired change it appears to be yearning for. The patriotism and sincerity required to change a country is simply lacking in our brand of activism. This is why everyone with a substantial following on social circles, no matter how ignorant or uninformed will quickly declare himself an activist and begin to see his opinion as an authority which attracts strong rebuke when challenged.
It is also glaringly clear that many of our so-called critics are using activism as a platform to make inroads into politics especially when the conventional way of doing so is dotted with so many barriers which they don’t have the financial and political power to overcome. This is why we see many so called activist accepting positions in governments that are clearly at variance to what they claim to stand for. It is also not unconnected with why so many of these activists failed in government when called to serve. For these reasons, we see activism working and leading to change of regimes in many countries including Africa, while it is close to insignificant down here.
Despite all these lapses, people in power should have no justification to harass and indiscriminately attempt to silence activists. It would be better to look inwards and attempt to correct or to take care of those issues which give the activists the avenue to rant and express disagreement. If leaders can have the attention to notice criticisms and critics, they should have the courage to address issues raised rather than attempt to suppress those criticisms. If politicians can accept praises unconditionally even if they don’t deserve them, they should have the bravery to tolerate criticisms.
I once received a call from an associate asking me to take down an article I circulated online. The article was a brief reaction around early 2016 when a State Government in Northern Nigeria published the extracts to one its weekly State Executive Council meetings and my attention was drawn to the approval of the council of hundreds of millions of naira to train selected youths on social media skills. I refused to take down the article. What I did instead was to reread the article severally and see if there was anything written that warrants even an apology, but I couldn’t find a single one. That associate of mine later opened up that my arrest was contemplated before they asked him to talk to me. It’s very sad that rather than digesting the suggestions I offered in that article, those responsible chose to indirectly threaten me. It is very wrong and unthinkable to attempt to suppress ones God-given rights to react to issues within the confines of the law.
The big mistake of people in power is wanting leadership without responsibility; they want to enjoy the privileges and paraphernalia of office but they don’t want to endure the burden and criticisms that comes with it. The best way to avoid too much criticism is for a government to play by the rules and deliver effectively. However, even the best of administrations never escape criticisms. A government that doesn’t obey the laws of the land is the biggest threat to the progress of any nation and the public officials that seek to enjoy the privileges of leadership without wanting to endure its burden of responsibility are the biggest liability to any government.
While government must trade with justice and tolerance in dealing with criticisms, activists must also operate with caution and responsibility. Governments are populated with human beings like you who have feelings and families. It is only natural if they get disturbed when you spread falsehood and half-truths against them. People must be well informed before they discuss issues. This, in addition to Mohammed Haruna’s wise words is the reason why for about seven years I have been very reluctant towards fully accepting the offer of becoming a regular columnist for many news outfits. When you are compelled to write every week, even if you may not have anything substantial to say in certain periods, you may end up going against the ethics just to produce something for the readers, especially if your knowledge of issues isn’t as deep as others might have been expecting.
For activists to make any significant progress in influencing how things are done in this country, they must do away with the bad eggs among them; those who are all out to abuse and assassinate the character of responsible people just because we have freedom of expression or because such people are in power or politics. We must never stand or support activist who area clearly unethical or whose motive is confirmed to be self-centred and self-serving. We must not continue to cheer people when they are busy spreading abuses against leaders only to start trending for their release when they get arrested. Critics must also be ready to tolerate and accept criticisms.
Another important thing is to adhere to international best practices in advocacy and campaigns for social and political change. We shouldn’t praise and criticize blindly; we should learn to agree with government and support it when it is right. Our obsessions should also not be on government and politicians alone. We have so many anti-people tendencies perpetrated in the private sector as well as many social community ills which we are largely ignoring.
Activism must also have some discipline, organization and focus as well as sustainability and non- political alignment to make meaningful impact. Nigerian activists don’t seem to have much synergy within their ranks; their activities are disjointed, uncoordinated and short-lived. When they occasionally come together, their incompatibility due to individual biases becomes irreconcilable. In this regard, we have a lot to learn from the proponents of the Bring Back our Girls Struggle which is by far one of the most organized, impactful and sustained non-partisan struggle in recent history. It had its own lapses during and after the struggle, but as a whole, it was spectacular and enduring.
Government and people in government are the biggest stakeholders in almost everything. If a government doesn’t have the endurance to tolerate criticism, how on earth does it think it has the competence to deliver? Public officers must look at the substance of criticism and not the critics, and this with the intention of addressing issues. When you are presiding over peoples’ common wealth, you must be ready to hear them out. If it is inevitable that activists or critics must be arrested, it should be done within the confines of the law and people’s offence must be clearly defined, and offenders or suspects must be properly charged to court rather than kept for days under secret custody.
All in all, no activism can change a society if its basic tenets are not laid on a solid foundation. For example, how do you make progress in a country which its constitution empowers leaders to become criminals without consequence?
I was recently introduced to an online forum of African discussants on how to influence and change the focus of governance in the continent and I was surprised when someone from far away Uganda asked me whether it is true that Nigerian leaders are so corrupt that they openly stash dollars in their pockets? I was thinking of an appropriate answer when another discussant from South Sudan quickly chipped in and said, he read somewhere that some people were recently arrested for organizing a revolution to change that situation. After some few laughs, many wondered if certain things reported about Nigeria are actually possible in such a powerful country. Referring to me, the moderator asked but where are you, the activists. I jokingly replied, I am not an activist.