By Godwin Onyeacholem
Despite persistent calls by authentic advocates of good governance for a conducive atmosphere for a thriving democracy and freedom in Nigeria, the reactionary wing of the ruling class and its agents are not giving any chance for that to happen. The more they are caught red-handed—with self-incriminating evidence—and exposed in the very act of a crime, the more they grow the liver to deflect and seek revenge.
Abdullahi Ganduje, the 72-year-old governor of Kano State, occupies the top rung of state officials who seem hellbent on punishing journalists for doing nothing other than acting in accordance with the demands of their profession. Recall that sometime in October 2018, Jaafar Jaafar, journalist and publisher of Daily Nigerian, published a roughly two-minute video showing Ganduje hastily shoving bales of dollars said to be totalling $230,000 in his kaftan as part of a $5millon bribe deal offered by contractors. That was one rare piece of investigative work with a telling impact.
The scandalous video reverberated across the country, drawing intensely cynical comments about the ruling All Progressives Congress government and its much-hyped fight against corruption. Obviously deeply flustered, Ganduje tapped Muhammad Garba, the state’s commissioner for information, to deny the genuineness of the video. Garba then released a statement saying there was no “iota of truth” in the entire package and describing the video as “cloned.” He said the governor would go to court to seek redress.
As the pall of embarrassment the video had generated thickened and widened, the presidency’s reaction was to promise a thorough investigation after President Muhammadu Buhari had reportedly seen the video. Of course, everyone knows Ganduje is a favoured ally of President Buhari. And as all persons lucky enough to be in the good books or enjoy the privileges of that exclusive corridor of influence, the outcome of that promised investigation was easily predictable.
Suffice to say, however, that at the time of writing this piece not a single presidential panel was known to have been set up to investigate the video, much less release any report in that regard. Nor has there been any official statement from the presidency beyond the claim to investigate. In fact, Buhari himself in one instance was to say that he marvelled at the technology behind the production of the video. So much for his vaunted fight against corruption.
But the Kano State House Assembly took a step that could be described as meaningful, even if conspicuously half-hearted in view of the well-known servile attitude of lawmakers to governors in this clime. The assembly set up a seven-man committee to unravel the validity of the video and invited Jaafar, who appeared and stood his ground that the video was for real. That was a golden opportunity for Ganduje to also show up at the hearing and counter the journalist with his own facts. He was nowhere in sight. And as expected, the committee has submitted no known report till date.
Since publishing the video, Jafaar has not known peace. Threats upon threats, and intimidation from known and unknown quarters have been piling up to make life difficult for him. Ganduje went to court as he vowed, but as can be seen, not to ask for justice but to conscript and deploy the court as a tool for intimidating and hushing up journalists like Jaafar and active citizens who are exposing wrongdoing and demanding accountability from leaders.
By going to court, Ganduje and others like him make it seem as though they are following due process. But it’s all pretense. What they are in fact engaged in is called Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, SLAPP for short. It’s a euphemism for an abuse of the law to shut down vital public interest oversight and public access to information. Often, these powerful wrongdoers who have been found out by the press and exposed in public know they have no case, yet they have continued to hire big lawyers and go to court ostensibly for redress, in most cases fishing around for pliant judges that will do their bidding, which is nothing but to exact revenge through heavy fines and muzzle the press thereby.
That’s exactly what Ganduje is doing to Jaafar, who has since fled the country following mounting threats to his life. Barely a month after the publication of the video, the governor sued him and Daily Nigerian for defamation at the Kano High Court and demanded N3billion as damages. Somehow, there was no progress on the matter and suddenly, in June this year, the governor withdrew the matter from court with no reasons. Daily Trust reported that the court fined him N800,000 for the action.
Many people thought with the withdrawal of the matter from court some relief had come to Jaafar. They were wrong. Ganduje travelled all the way from Kano to Abuja to turn the screw harder at an FCT High Court, this time asking for N5billion as damages for an alleged defamation. No citizen deserves this kind of orchestrated persecution, least of all a journalist who was simply doing his work.
Thankfully, Amnesty International (AI) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), as they would always do in matters like this, have called on Ganduje and the Nigerian government to ensure that neither Jaafar nor his family suffers any retaliation because of his journalism. If there is anything the journalist deserves, it is commendation for performing his constitutional obligation of holding power to account as enjoined by his profession, and for his patriotic act of embracing this government’s call for citizens to help fight corruption by reporting corrupt practices and other kinds of wrongdoing whenever they see one.
To that extent, Ganduje will do well to free Jaafar and his family from the prolonged trauma to which they have been subjected for about three years now. The fresh court case the governor has instituted in Abuja is totally unnecessary and should be withdrawn immediately so that the journalist can return to practise the profession that has been the only source of livelihood for him and his family.
This is also the time to appeal to lawyers to always support freedom of the press as enshrined in Section 22 of the 1999 constitution. Everything should not be about money. Lawyers should show an acute sense of discrimination in the briefs they collect. Journalists are not criminals; therefore, they should be supported to do their work in an atmosphere of freedom. Lawyers should learn to say NO to briefs seeking to intimidate journalists and wittingly gag the press or aiming to further harass or threaten citizens (whistleblowers), among whom you would count Jaafar, who have demonstrated the courage to report crime.
(Godwin Onyeacholem coordinates the whistleblowing project, Corruption Anonymous, at the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL).