No, this headline is not about yesterday, Saturday, June 12. It is about another June 12 some 28 years ago. It was the date of a duly conducted election that was annulled because the winner, Moshood Abiola, was unacceptable to the military overlords of the time. And Abiola happened to be the first southerner elected to the executive office. Not surprisingly, the annulment set off political upheaval that was unequalled since the civil war and that has not been equalled until now.
The military dictators at the time were certain that the way to quell the upheaval was to muzzle the press. So, they set about imprisoning journalists and proscribing newspapers and magazines, including the PUNCH. For a period of about six months, Nigerians couldn’t read the papers that accounted for an estimated 50 per cent of the newspaper/magazine market.
At the helm at the time was no other than the despotic General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (retd). More widely known as IBB, his gap-toothed smile reputedly could part the Red Sea. And he was so deft in political maneuvers that he was nicknamed Maradona, in tribute to the Argentine soccer star who once scored a goal with his hand and declared it an act of God.
But none of these attributes shielded Babangida from the critical sting of a growing independent press. So, he jettisoned the political charm and turned draconian. With him at the helm, the Supreme Military Council promulgated a number of decrees to give the regime licence to silence critics. Most notable among them was the Treasonable Offences Decree which called for the death penalty for criticisms deemed to undermine the government.
Babangida, his successor General Sani Abacha and their fellow officers didn’t reckon with one reality: emerging technologies of information dissemination such as desktop publishing, the Internet and mobile phones. Nor did they reckon with the resolve of a number of journalists who took advantage of those technologies to defy all attempts to muzzle them. The repression gave rise to guerilla journalism. The generals were confounded to find that shuttering news houses and stationing soldiers at editors’ homes didn’t necessarily keep publications from making it to the newsstand. And the headlines were as damning as ever.
Fast forward to June 2021, and the elected government of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) is embarking on much the same course. This time the administration has banned Twitter, arguably the most democratic medium for disseminating news and information.
The ostensible reason is the much the same as the rationale for shutting down publishing houses in the 1980s/90s: the administration claims that twitter is being used to destabilise Nigeria. The problem is not insurgents and bandits. Nor is it parochial and shortsighted policies. It is that a small percentage of the people use twitter.
We are supposed to believe that it was coincidental that the ban was declared just days after Twitter deleted Buhari’s inflaming braggadocio. “Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War,” Buhari tweeted. “Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”
The tweet encapsulates why Buhari is leading Nigeria to ruin and why he never should have been elected president in the first place. It is a tweet that conveys a lack of the very qualities that a president should possess, especially at a time of political crisis: grace, wisdom and temperance. Buhari was, in effect, stoking the restiveness in the South-East in much the same way that playground bullies taunt their adversaries.
What the apparently unreformable president doesn’t seem to realise is that the civil war wasn’t a walkover, as he insinuates. It dragged on for about 30 months, with federal troops repeatedly losing territories they had captured. If a civil war breaks out in today’s Nigeria, there won’t be the kind of coalition that made possible the ending of the East’s first secession. Nigeria is a lot more fragmented now. Moreover, the casualty will be more widely distributed. The estimated half-a-million to two million deaths during the civil were disproportionately in the South-East zone. This time round, other zones are likely to get a larger share.
It is estimated that overall about 100,000 soldiers died in the war, of which the federal side accounted for a sizable number. The president must have heard of Abagana, the town in Anambra State, where hundreds of federal soldiers died literally in a flash. There Biafran soldiers ambushed a convoy of Nigeria’s 2nd Division, hitting a gasoline tanker with a home-made rocket. The tanker exploded with such force and conflagration that it sent armoured vehicles airborne and charred everything and everybody in the vicinity. General Murtala Muhammed was there but somehow escaped death. As a field commander himself, Buhari must have witnessed the death of quite a few of his own soldiers.
It all makes his tweet so lacking in good judgement. It is not merely provocative to current secessionist agitators, it is an affront to all those who lost someone in that war. That includes me, by the way.
Much as I am reluctant to add to the narrative of bitterness, I have to say that my most enduring memory from my boyhood is having to hold my younger sister in my arms and watch her die in pain. About 10 days earlier, she had been hit by shrapnel from a federal air raid in a village just south of Bonny, where we had taken refuge. In the absence of proper treatment, the wound became infected by tetanus. If you know anything about tetanus, you know that my sister died a horrendous death. So, anyway one looks at it, Buhari’s tweet is callous.
But then, we have all said things that we wish we hadn’t or pressed “Send” only to realise that we shouldn’t have. In many such cases, there is no undoing. We writers feel indebted to editors who keep our embarrassing errors from reaching the public. For Buhari, it was a little too late. Still, rather than reacting with indignation, he should have been thankful to Twitter for deleting the tweet. It was something he should never have thought of, let alone express in a mass medium. That he reacted with indignation indicates that the tweet wasn’t a case of indiscretion or impulsiveness. He stands by it because it embodies him.
Any wonder Nigeria is in tatters under his leadership. Had General Yakubu Gowon been of the same mindset, the war of unity would probably not have been won. And had he been lacking in graciousness at the end of the war, Biafra insurgency would have commenced right away.
It’s noteworthy that Twitter banished the mighty President Donald Trump for posting inciting comments. Buhari did much the same but got away with a mere deletion of his tweet. Yet he lashed back. Trump couldn’t retaliate against Twitter. Now, he is the lone voice in the international community applauding Buhari for banning Twitter. But Buhari shouldn’t find comfort in that. The repression of the 1980s/1990s didn’t muffle Nigerians. Today’s ban of Twitter will fail even more decidedly.
Besides pouring kerosene on the fire in the South-East, Buhari’s tweet and banning of Twitter are likely to cause long-term economic damage. “Nigeria’s decision to suspend Twitter indefinitely could backfire for the government and cost the country economically in terms of new investments into its technology sector,” Jeffrey Conroy, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University, wrote recently in an article posted by Quartz Africa. “And Nigeria has been among the best-performing African countries in attracting investments for technology start-up business. The ban could threaten that status.”
Even before the spat, Twitter announced in April that it would be locating its Africa headquarters in Ghana rather than Nigeria. The company cited Ghana’s better record of freedom of expression. As though coordinated, Amazon opted for South Africa for its Africa headquarters. The Buhari administration keeps shooting itself in the foot, and in the process the Nigerian people.
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