By Charles Otu
FEW days before the celebration of the World Press Freedom Day, marked globally on May 3rd every year, the Governor of Ebonyi State, Engr. David Umahi had been in the news sadly for deliberately and habitually misfiring against the noble men of the pen profession.
Recall that my colleagues; Chijioke Agwu of the SUN and Peter Okutu of the VANGUARD newspapers had recently and separately done reports; the former, stating the fact that Lassa fever was still ravaging Ebonyians and the latter raising the alarm about an alleged military invasion of Ngbo- a border community which had been at war with its neighbouring Agila community in Benue State.
In this era of Citizen’s journalism, some alarmed natives had shared a video of some village men and women crying about the loss of their sons and daughters during the alleged incident on the social media.
As those who truly know Umahi to be a brutal egoist anticipated, the State’s Chief Executive flew off the handle, egregiously raising his dictatorial sledgehammer in a State-wide broadcast against the two reporters for something which saner minds and democracies consider very trifling and merely nominal that an ordinary right of reply would have been enough!
In a thrill of honest but outrageous indignation, Umahi in his rascally modes of action proclaimed a life ban from any government facility for the two journalists. In his further voluntary exclamation which again, was altogether callous and cruel-hearted, the Governor decreed, “If you think you have the pen, we have the koboko”!
In his dreadful fantasy, grandiose delusion and repugnant ferocity, the said ban would be ‘For life’ and the Courts of Law (same Courts his government is still trying some journalists accused of libel)- which unlike the Constitutionally-unrecognized Fourth Estate of the Realm (the Press), is an entirely different arm of government with its supposed autonomy should be left out of the entire frightful brouhaha.
“Ebonyi people are so angry with the Press that I may not know when they may begin to attack Journalists in the State”, Umahi added glibly.
Both ‘sinning’ reporters had been arrested on Umahi’s orders and later released. Recall also that there was a viral video of the Governor saying on Television that he has “instructed the Local Government Chairmen to use their men to enforce minimum compliance which is the cane for anyone who came out without a facemask”. These ‘instructions’ are still being carried out to the later in markets, shops and other public places by his aides across the entire State!
Alas, some of his media hirelings who, of course have no media background and understanding, perturbed by what they still perceived to be their bosses’ sheer swagger in taming some ‘stubborn and unscrupulous’ journalists added to the profoundly obtuse stupidity of the condemnable broadcast by outrightly repudiating it before the weird public that the voice of their principal was ‘doctored’. That was at best another gaffe taken to far!
Even though Umahi’s unhidden disinclination to the two media reports he termed; ‘degrading Ebonyi State’ must have awoken and united the Press in its responsibility of gathering, processing and disseminating information to the Nigerian public as mandated it by Sections 22, 39 and 40 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), as they spoke with intense gravity, all condemning what could be rightly termed the ‘mad’ impulses of Governor Umahi, the fact remains that many Nigerian State actors easily get away with atrocious acts of impunity against media practitioners. There have never been, especially in recent times a collective strive to get truly and deserving justice for journalists attacked in the cause of performing their lawful assignments. At best, what we get are mere lines of Press Statements condemning such acts.
Howbeit, it is heart-warming that the media spoke firmly and in morbid fascination condemning Umahi’s unmitigated contempt for free speech and opinions which remains the cardinal point of any democratic governance the world over. Some newspapers devoted their front pages, some; their Editorial pages, others, through their Columnists, personality interviews and even through opinion articles in the battle to prove to Umahi whom a SUN Columnist rightly described as having become a “Local pandemic in the midst of a global pandemic” that the pen is yet mightier than the sword (Koboko, in this instance). The fact which was missing however is that he was not just becoming a ‘local pandemic’ or acting in a fit of a rage because of the global COVID-19 pandemic as he claimed in his apology, Governor Umahi had been a local pandemic in the lives of many Ebonyians, except perhaps, his family members and very few cronies who make miniature profits from his direct labour government.
His appointees, except a very few who have taken to their heels through resignations and the rest who were axed by Umahi perpetually live in morbid fear even after parting with his government. The Governor’s over a thousand Special and Technical Advisers dare not advise him on any issue or face sack and or relegation, some an outright ‘banishment’ from his ‘kingdom’ of Ebonyi. Many therefore live in unbridled sycophancy and pretense while trying to survive on at least a meal or two daily. To say that even his appointees cannot wait for 2023 to come so that the Umahi cup can pass them over is to put it whimsically mildly!
Good a thing the Governor has finally come down from his high horse in less than 72 hours and apologized to the two journalists, their media organizations and by extension, all media practitioners in the State. However, Umahi’s actions, inactions and unspoken disdain as a ‘resolute rascal’ against the gentlemen of the pen profession ought not to be swept under the carpet so easily by the media in Nigeria. At least, the bitter lesson he must have learnt is to take seriously, Napoleon Bonaparte’s disposition that: “Were it left for me to choose between ten thousand army and a pen, I will not hesitate a moment to go for the later”. Governor Umahi’s koboko (cockney horsewhip) has fatally crumbled before the pen and so did his fatuous indignation for gentlemen of the press, even though his apology was equally laced with his characteristic deplorable arrogance as against the thinking of many that such should have been handed with downright penitence, for want of a better expression.
As one who lives and practices journalism in Ebonyi (at least for about a decade now), it is incontrovertible that the Governor even before his last onslaught against the two Correspondents and particularly to his Social media critics, has essentially been an emperor behind a politician’s mask! It would be illuminating and ironical to the ears of many when one takes a look at Umahi’s promise in his inaugural address on May 29th 2015 while taking his Oath of Office after running his erstwhile boss, Chief Martin Elechi out of town and later, stock to not only pick the PDP Gubernatorial ticket but emerge albeit controversially as his successor.
In page 17 of the said address, he vowed, (against the background of his emergence);
“We offer our clean and immaculate hands of friendship. We place on the table an unconditional spirit of cooperation. We hold malice towards none. All Ebonyians are welcome to contribute their quota to the development of this beautiful estate that we call our common heritage”
Umahi continued that his will be, “A government that will listen and absorb the wisdom and counsel that will come from all citizens, young and old. We shall strive with our mightiest effort to give meaning to the concept of a government of the people, by the people and for the people. We shall do so precisely because we recognize that we are nothing without the people. We shall dedicate ourselves to building a community of common destiny where we may not all agree on all things, but we will all recognize the fingerprint of the Divine upon all humanity. In otherwords, we will welcome a healthy and progressive opposition,…”
It is rather a strange paradox to many that what has been obtainable in Ebonyi in the past five years of Governor Umahi’s reign is a blistering hack-down of any opposing view or idea! Beginning from the notorious June 2nd 2017 attack of this writer by some armed thugs loyal to the government who abducted and tortured him right inside the Government House for counseling the government to reconsider its vows and pacts with the Ebonyi masses as contained in its ‘bible’ (the inaugural address), to the shooting of another journalist the same day, it has been one crackdown after another even on Social media critics and opposition leaders in the State. Some of us were black-listed and had had remained ‘banned’ from the Government House since 2015 following his erstwhile Information Commissioner’s so-called accreditation of only ‘loyal’ journalists.
The entire scenario of media practice in Ebonyi is so indescribably awful that members of the Fourth Estate of the realm in their pallid agony suffer their pitiable fate in utter silence! Just before the life ban of two journalists, two other correspondents had secretly been suspended from entering the Government House a few months ago. Another was recently publicly derided in the most abhorrent manner by the Governor for simply asking him a question during a Media briefing on the kinds of palliatives he intends to provide for Ebonyians in this period of COVID-19 lockdown.
This however does not vitiate the merit in Umahi’s claim that over 90 per cent of journalists in the State, particularly those in the Correspondents Chapel receives a monthly paltry stipend from the government and it has been the culture almost since the creation of Ebonyi State. The present leadership of the NUJ in Ebonyi in its deferential and almost awestruck subservience to the State government has its own blames too for receiving ‘largesse’ from time to time for and on behalf of ‘all’ practicing journalists in the State, therefore not condemning any of the attacks meted out on its members which remains the highest since 2015 across the 36 States of the Federation.
As the umbrella body of practicing journalists across the country, NUJ and other media rights platforms and organizations take a sober reflection on this year’s celebration of World Press Freedom Day, they must put a check on the scandalous “awards for highest the highest bidders” given to all category of leaders who do not only undermine democracy but the veritable foundation upon which it is built- the Media! Granted that Governor Umahi has done marvelously well mainly in the area of road construction and flyovers particularly in the urban cities with his adroit use of concrete rigid pavement (cement) ‘technology’, his debilitating disdain for free speech and opinions which is the fulcrum of democracy and governance is awful and in the estimation of right-thinking individuals disqualifies him from any high honour and cerebral adulation.
As though prophetic and speaking directly to whoever (an Umahi that would later succeed him in 2015), Umahi’s predecessor, Chief Martin Elechi at the 2013 Democracy Day celebration lecture opined on page 4 of his Address: “The fundamental gain in democracy is, therefore freedom: freedom to choose who rule us, freedom to criticize programmes and policies of government and, most importantly, freedom to contribute by way of advice on how governance can be better improved”. Elechi lived true to these words as the press often took him and his government task even in the most critical times but Umahi, who served as his Deputy learnt nothing from this his boss’ school of Thoughts on democracy and governance.
The earlier the Press in Nigeria self-regulates itself and members, the better for our nation. For if our revered Nationalists like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo among others fought gallantly for the Independence of our nation through the power of the media, we must all be on our guards to defend, protect and preserve our fledgling democracy with the powers of our pen while being responsible and at the same time responsive to our collective Constitutional duties.
Governor Umahi and his fellow Hitlers in the corridors of power in Nigeria must therefore be made to understand that the power of the pen still topples down great kingdoms like card-houses and sticks foolscaps on the head of kings- like it has now done to him and his future political ambitions. The wise words of celebrated French journalist and Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Albert Camus, should be drummed into their heads that: “a free press can, of course be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad”.
Otu, an Ebonyi-based Journalist wrote from Abakaliki (07038104883)