by Feyi Fawehinmi
On Saturday, on Twitter, I got involved in a long running debate about a post that appeared on Linda Ikeji’s blog relating to the one time actor and now Delta State Commissioner for Arts and Culture, Richard Mofe-Damijo.
The post itself was all of three lines which began by wishing him a happy 51st birthday and ended by informing her readers, rightly or wrongly, that he had moved into a new mansion which “is said to have cost” N250m.
It turns out that, beneath the cool exterior of Mofe-Damijo lies a prima donna as he then took to Twitter and in a series of tweets, began by “warning” Ikeji to stop spreading lies about him and then for good measure, he left us in no doubt as to what he thought was a ‘dignified career path’ and what wasn’t. He was also sure to let us know that he would ordinarily not “dignify her type” with a response but was only doing so because he had been inundated with phone calls from his friends asking what was going on.
From his tweets, it was clear his beef was with the value Ikeji had placed on his home although he didn’t quite tell us what the supposed real value is (probably recognising that that would be a lose-lose battle for him). It is my personal opinion that the commissioner is rather silly and takes himself too seriously. Ten years ago, acting in Nigeria was looked down upon, and actors were very easily referred to as ‘their type’. I am unclear as to what Mofe-Damijo is benchmarking as a “dignified career path” compared to Ikeji’s gossip blogging – his acting which brought him fame and fortune or his current government job?
But let’s leave that and move on to something more important.
In the course of the debates, I was sure to defend Ikeji, not because I have ever met her, or even read her blog – I don’t, but because I think there is a more important principle at stake.
It is also my personal opinion that the greatest words ever put on paper by a politician in any country is the American Bill of Rights, specifically the 1st Amendment. They are generally attributed to James Madison who had been mentored by the incomparable visionary, Thomas Jefferson, a man light-years ahead of his time. Madison himself went on to become President and would govern by the rights he had authored and learn to live within its constraints.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The emphasis is mine. Pause and think about the above statement for a minute. Madison wrote those words in 1789 or thereabouts. He went on to become president twenty years later from 1809 to 1817. The man was clearly thinking less about himself and more about the country because, enshrining such rights into the constitution is bound to be at best a nuisance for any leader.
Not only was Madison granting the press freedom by enshrining it in the constitution, he was making it impossible for the government to take that right away as that could only be done by the supreme court.
Madison, who was part of the establishment along with his mentor Jefferson, were essentially protecting Americans from the government they were part of. This is a hard concept to grasp. The government was effectively saying; “look, we don’t trust ourselves with power. Our tendency is to always trample over individual liberties especially as we have the guns and money, so we want you to be able to at least restrain us. And one of the ways you can do this is by being able to say whatever you want about us without us punishing you for it. You can also have a free press that can investigate us and write whatever they like about us and we wont be able to retaliate against them”.
Like I said, these are hard concepts. As an example, in Nigeria, those who wrote the constitution granted political office holders (themselves) immunity from prosecution and we cannot get them to take it away even after thirteen years of democracy. It is not enough that they have the guns and money, they also want to be able to rob us blind and for us not to be able to do anything about it.
When Americans hold their founding fathers in deep awe, it is because of things like these. When those men had a choice between self-aggrandizement and selflessness, they went for selflessness 100%.
To the second point – why freedom of speech? Why not freedom to yawn in public? Why did the American founding fathers consider this right so important that they felt the need to enshrine it in the constitution?
The simple answer is that yawning is unlikely to offend anyone, and even if it does offend, it is not a right that can be taken away. That is to say; even if you were to yawn in front of a government official who had access to soldiers and money, he cannot take that right away from you if your yawning were to somehow offend him.
But freedom of speech is serious business. Madison and friends knew that the whole point of freedom of speech is that is bound to offend someone from time to time. Without this ability to offend, freedom of speech is in-fact useless and there would be no point to it. It is fine if I was to say something that offended say a colleague at work, I could easily apologize and we would end it there. Essentially we are equals and we would deal with it as equals.
However it is a completely different ball game when someone in government is offended by something you say. If a fight were to ensue as a result, it could never possibly be a fair one. Government, like I said earlier, is leviathan by virtue of their access to guns and money. And most importantly, the right to free speech can be taken away by imprisonment or generally harm being done to you.
So we come to decision time – given that we know that the freedom of speech is bound to offend someone, especially people in government, and we also know that if an ordinary citizen were to get into a quarrel with the government, it can never be an equal fight – is this right to free speech as well as a free press worth defending inspite of its potential to cause offense? Madison thought it absolutely was.
Several years later, Madison’s judgement was proved correct when two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, took advantage of the press freedom rights to essentially bring down Richard Nixon with the Watergate scandal. Is it possible that Nixon could have been innocent of the allegations against him and those two journalists ended up tainting his name forever? The answer is it doesn’t matter.
What was more important was their right to investigate him and then write whatever allegations they had against him.
Now, I am not getting carried away here – Ikeji is no journalist. She sells gossip on her blog for which there is apparently a huge market in Nigeria. She did not create this market, she merely, like any smart entrepreneur, saw the current when it served and took it before losing her ventures…. to paraphrase the Bard.
Is Mofe-Damijo’s house really worth N250m as she suggested on her blog? The answer, again, is that it doesn’t matter. What is more important is that she has a right to publish it. Mofe-Damijo is a government official and Ikeji is a private citizen. She, like any other Nigerian, has a right to say what she hears or sees without fear of offending his feelings. Her right to say it, is far more important than the possibility that Mr Mofe-Damijo might get offended by it.
Nigeria is a country where 70% of all money in circulation is government related. A local government chairman is capable of taking away a citizen’s rights not to talk of someone higher up the political chain like governors and senators. Every day government tramples on the rights of ordinary citizens not just by arrest or physical harm but by sheer evil policies that are designed to serve their own interests above those of everybody else. And come election time, they do all they can to take away the last right we have – the right to kick them out of office if we are unhappy with them – by rigging elections and manipulating our votes with the sheer array of powers they have at their disposal.
In this fight between, we the citizens as David, and the government as Goliath, the right to be able to say what we want about them is the one stone we have in our sling. The Nigerian government would never have invented blogging, Twitter, Facebook or the internet if it was down to them. You only need to look at the tight grip they maintain on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) to understand how much this freedom of speech is able to offend those in power and how far they will go to curtail it.
I don’t know Linda Ikeji, and I don’t care for her blog. Not because I don’t like gossip, I actually do, but I prefer political gossip as opposed to the ‘celebrity’ variety she peddles. This is a matter of personal taste. I read Guido Fawkes blog here in the UK to get gossip on what’s going on in the corridors of power in Westminster i.e. what you wont read in The Guardian or Daily Telegraph. The entire point of that blog is to offend politicians specifically Labour politicians as Guido is of course Tory leaning. There are equivalent blogs on the left attacking politicians on the right.
But if she somehow offends a government official, then I know where my loyalties lie, absolutely no questions. Because it isn’t really about Ikeji – there is no way you can make a law to stop a blogger from speaking freely that it won’t be used for something else, this is the nature of government and what Mr Madison tried to guard against. Using a random example, when the UK government wanted to seize assets belonging to Iceland after that country’s banks collapsed in 2008, they used anti-terror laws to do it! Laws that were designed to protect citizens from terror attacks were somehow used to seize another country’s assets. Even though they were justified in seizing the assets, it goes to show what a government can do when it is determined to do it.
I hear Mofe-Damijo is exploring ‘legal options’ against Ikeji. I am desperately praying he does this. For one, it will help us know what is in Nigeria’s libel laws which were no doubt written before the internet was invented. It is also a battle he cannot win. If he takes offense at his house being valued at N250m, not only will he need to prove that Ikeji knowingly and deliberately overstated the value of his home, he will also need to tell us the real value. At that point it will then become a matter for the public to decide exactly how much is too much or too little for a commissioner of his stature. In a land where 70% of the people are poor, your guess is as good as mine as to what will be an acceptable value for his house.
I think Richard Mofe-Damijo, as is typical with government officials in Nigeria, was being a bully. I also find it hard to believe that Ikeji deliberately overstated the value of his home to get page views. At the very worst, she’s guilty of not double-checking her facts before publishing, a crime of which she is merely 1 in 1,000,000 guilty persons in Nigeria. But there’s nothing to say she won’t learn or get better in future. I don’t even blog regularly but over the years as I have gotten more people reading my posts, I have learnt to be a bit more accurate with my facts before publishing anything. It is what any normal person would do – the more readers you get, the more you are forced to be more responsible – and there is no evidence that she is an abnormal person.
The road is long for Nigeria and we will only get there by winning small battles that broaden the power base in the country and create a system where we at least have a voice that government is forced to listen to. Anything else is a recipe for Why Nations Fail.