Opinion: Tam David-West and the danger of criticism

by Sabella Abidde

Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals of national adulation

At age 76, Prof. Tam David-West is still going strong. He is intellectually agile and physically fit.  His love for and of country is, today, as strong as it ever was. Considering his statements and activities in the last couple of months, there are no hints that he will slow down any time soon. He has been a consistent and honest critic, not just of President Jonathan and his government, but of all that is wrong with Nigeria. With his criticisms come suggestions, ideas, and policy statements that are designed to aid the President and assist in moving the country forward.

However, in the last couple of months, many Nigerians – mostlyof the Ijaw ethnic group –have wondered why the eminent professor seems to beat the President’s neck (even though bothmen belong to the same ethnic group). And of course, there are whispers — whispers that suggest the Professor hates the President. In an interview he granted the Sun newspaper (September 23, 2012), the professor had this to say: “I have nothing personal against President Goodluck Jonathan. I have never met him before and I don’t know whether I want to meet him. But the problem with him is that he believes so much on praises of sycophants.”

In essence, his criticism of the president should not be taken as a personal affront. The next statement by David-West is even more revealing. It is revealing in the sense that he believes that as a citizen of Nigeria, it is his duty to help make government and governing better. To this end, he quoted from Senator J. W. Fulbright’s 1966 seminal work, The Arrogance of Power, wherein the late US Senator said, “To criticise one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that the country can do better than it is doing.”

Senator Fulbright went on to say, “In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not its taste but its effects, not how it makes people feel at the moment, but how it inspires them to act thereafter. Criticism may embarrass the country’s leaders in the short run but strengthen their hand in the long run; it may destroy a consensus on policy while expressing a consensus of values. Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals of national adulation.”

David-West does not think that President Jonathan has done well in terms of governance. Accordingly, “Whatever areas I take to score Jonathan, I will not give him a pass mark. Security is worst in our history. Corruption is the worst. In fact, corruption is worst now…Long and short, Jonathan has not done well. If Jonathan is an examination paper for me to mark, in A grade, he is out. I will not give him B; I will not give him C. I will give him D. The totality is that he has not done well and the earlier he realises this better.” This pronouncement may be harsh; but really, this is the daily reality of the president’s performance.

Sadly, this is the type of verdict a few Nigerians of Ijaw extraction do not want to accept. This group of Ijaw believes that Jonathan must be supported at all cost. Hence, to act or to make pronouncements that are contrary to their alternate reality is considered sacrilegious. The leading reason for this line of thinking is that “it is our turn to chop.” Thus, no matter how inept the President may be, his presidency gives them (the Ijaw) easy access to the corridor of power and which enables them secure contracts and appointments and other advantages that have previously been unavailable to them.

The second group of Ijaw, even if smaller than the first are, frankly, duplicitous. In public, they sing the President’s praise and commend his fabled good-nature, his so-called transformative agenda, and his supposed vision and plan for the country. But as loud as they are, they cannot wait to spill the beans on the President’s public and private failings.  Their main concern, therefore, is the economic and political advantages they scramble to accumulate. Nothing more! They have no love or respect for the President. All they want is the money, or the means to make money.

The good news is that millions of Nigerians (Ijaw included) are like David-West: men and women who believe in the Nigerian Project; Nigerians who believe in holding their elected and appointed officials accountable — irrespective of region, state of origin or ethnicity. What this means, then, is that,for those of us who engage in open and honest criticism of the President, there are private and public costs. There are sanctions against those they claim have been “attacking and abusing the President.” In my state (Bayelsa), the penalties are not yet as steep as in Aso Rock.

I have never spoken or communicated with David-West, even so, I’d love to know whether or not he’s ever been subjected to abuses and vilifications and blackmail (by the President’s men or men claiming to be his defender). My voice is not as loud and steady and clear as that of the professor, but I have been subjected to all sorts of iniquities. For instance, there are competing projects that are designed to rubbish and tarnish my private and public reputation. And all manner of injurious and insidious fabrications against me are in the works.

I am not a novice, and so I know that as a critic, one must assume that one’s phone could be monitored; and one’s email system hacked into. Honest critics must be careful at whose home they eat and drink and get playful; and they must assume that one or two people around them are paid informant.This is not about being paranoid, it is the reality. As I think about what I have gone through the last couple of months, especially the last three weeks, I can’t but doff my hat to all the men and women who endured several years of physical and mental brutality in the hands of successive Nigerian governments. Hah, the dangers of criticism!

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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