The right to criticise

Mallam Nasir El-Rufai calls himself a Certified Ruffler of Feathers, and indeed, he has been ruffling the feathers of the current administration a lot in the last few weeks. The general public would assume however, that since Boko Haram -or whoever is using their name- have ruffled those feathers more vigorously for a lot longer, they deserve the undivided attention of the State Security Service.

This is not the case. Instead of devoting every available resource to the gathering of intelligence on the group, especially human intelligence, they somehow found a few spare men to arrest him at 5.25am, July 2nd at Abuja International Airport. In times past, we would have found out about this only the next day through the print media, but the power of a tweet is quickly supplanting them, to the extent that tomorrow’s news might as well be yesterday’s.

What crime did Mallam El-Rufai commit to warrant such VIP treatment from the SSS? Did he throw a bomb into a group of patrons at a beer parlour in Maiduguri? No. Did he detonate the bomb that went off at Police HQ? No. His crime was that he dared query the size of the nation’s defence budget, relative to the nation’s defencelessness. Ever since the elections ended, he has written a series of brutal critiques on a variety of platforms, pointing out the cold, hard facts of President Jonathan’s more than one year at the helm. In an attempt to counter him in the press, first George Kelly (Coordinator of ‘the Jonathan Project’, which published a quite flimsy advertorial in THISDAY yesterday), and Reno Omokri have resorted to personal attacks, scarcely addressing any of the issues raised. Perhaps, that is because there is simply no answer.

That having failed, the recourse is to barely disguised intimidation. It is a throwback to a darker, more sinister time we would rather forget. The SSS seems good for only two things: ‘screening’ ministerial nominees, and ‘inviting’ citizens for ‘chats’ at the Yellow House. It seems like our security agencies remain stuck on May 28, 1999. The quiet effectiveness necessary in a democracy is absent. Bombs are going off left and right, but no heads are rolling, no one is being brought to justice and those politicians who are supporting these groups remain unknown, yet the softest of targets remain the focus.

For quite some time, intolerance of dissenting views has been on the rise. Every valid issue that was brought up pre-election was successfully framed as North v South, Christian v Muslim and those-in-government v those-who-were-left-out. When inconsistencies and missteps continued to mount, Nigerians said: ‘we are voting for the man, not the party’.

The verdict on the direction of this administration cannot be passed for now, but one thing is clear: the arrest of Nasir El-Rufai is an utter disgrace even to this wasteful, inefficient and dysfunctional democracy we call our own. We had better pray (like we always do) that this is not a sign of things to come.

What gives agents of the state the right to deprive Nasir El-Rufai of his right to criticise the running of a country that he has served? Indeed, the insights of former government officials are important in understanding the motivations of those who control the levers of power. So long as they stick to the facts, their views will be a welcome addition to what should be an ongoing national conversation, a habit we badly need to cultivate in these climes.

This administration has only succeeded in increasing his already considerable profile, while they look small in the process. To get arrested, all Mallam El-Rufai had to do was stick to the facts and figures. Until those facts begin to change, this new policy of intimidation is a lose-lose situation. Until we reduce the mindless, zombie sycophancy practiced by jobbers, rent-seekers and outright charlatans so that we can, first of all, come to terms with where we are as a country, and have an honest intellectual debate about the solutions, we will continue to go round and round in circles.

The President will be better served by making the tough choices he needs to make for his four years to be a success. The reputation of our security agencies will also be improved by focusing all their attention and resources on issue number 1: disrupting, dismantling and defeating Boko Haram and other security threats, not waiting at airports like errand boys for opposition figures to enter the country. I hope another bomb doesn’t have to go off to remind them of this.

Oh wait. Another one went off yesterday.

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4 thoughts on “The right to criticise”

  1. May God save us from this sham we call democracy, if everyone who criticize(d) the government is either invited to a chat in the yellow house or pulled into the government to shut them up as we have seen this passed week, I wonder where we would end up.

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