Friday, November 14, 2008

Yar'Adua: Two decisions, different effects

PRESIDENT Umaru Musa Yar'Adua took two decisions this week that should impress his supporters and daze his critics. Incidentally, both decisions were driven by provocative actions that affected Yar'Adua directly and indirectly. Outraged by the bestial and brutal treatment of a young woman - Uzoma Okere -- by naval ratings (let's call them naval rookies because that's what they demonstrated by their appalling action) in Victoria Island last week, Yar'Adua requested his Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshal Paul Dike, to investigate the incident.

But just as Yar'Adua was trying to recover from the anger that had swelled up to his nostrils by the sheer brutalisation of an unarmed woman, a report published in the Leadership newspaper which raised serious questions about Yar'Adua's health triggered off another bout of presidential exasperation. It is embarrassing enough for a president to be confronted with regular rumours of his health which he has laboured to explain repeatedly to a sceptical public. But when a newspaper published a dubious report about the president's health and backed it up by claiming that the president failed to show up at certain public events which he was scheduled to attend, the president's patience snapped. We'll return shortly to this report. But first, let us examine Yar'Adua's decision to inquire into the bashing of Uzoma Okere.

Yar'Adua's decision to order an investigation into the rough treatment of Uzoma Okere struck the right chord in the public. As I argued last week, the president has a duty of care to investigate the inhuman treatment of Uzoma so that he can understand what happened, why it happened and the right course of action to take. The president had to act for a number of reasons: the bashing of Uzoma was in bad taste; it sent a wrong message about the limitless powers of men in uniform; and the incident took place in the public domain. Uzoma's treatment received national and international attention because it was disgustingly high-handed. It was recorded on video and distributed worldwide. The image of Nigeria was on trial, including the way men treated vulnerable women in our society. In this digital age, abuses of human rights which are documented and circulated electronically tend to attract immediate national and international outrage. Photographic images serve as eyewitness accounts of news events. And so did the video account of Uzoma's ordeal.

The naval rookies who brutalised Uzoma, as well as their boss who failed to stop the bashing, must be sweating about how to defend their action. Without prejudging the outcome of the official investigation, no one who saw the video would claim that the incident was a fictional account of what happened. The moral character test for the naval personnel involved in that dishonourable incident is to adduce acceptable reasons to justify why they had to clobber a defenceless woman so badly and still strip her naked in public. Stripping Uzoma naked was the ultimate humiliation and abuse. There are more decent ways to restrain an angry woman than stripping her naked. No man would ever wish to see his wife or daughter or sister humiliated in the manner that Uzoma was treated last week, regardless of the degree of provocation - if any.

Whatever might be the outcome of the investigation, Yar'Adua and the Navy hierarchy must take appropriate action to underline the point that wearing the naval uniform is not a licence to torture or kill any member of the public. As Uzoma's father, a retired army colonel, told the Punch in an interview published three days ago: "I wore the uniform for so many years; and I don't think I went out of my way to humiliate anybody. The mere fact that you are in uniform should make you humble because you are one out of so many." It is in this context that we must commend the ban placed by Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola on use of sirens by governors and government officials moving about in Lagos. For once, we should be free to move about in Lagos without fear of sirens. The ban should be extended to other parts of the country. Surely, what is good for Lagos residents must be good for people in other states.

Sirens constitute public nuisance in Nigeria. Their indiscriminate use should be outlawed. For years, sirens were used as symbols of authority to oppress and harass ordinary road users particularly during the era of military rule. Uzoma's experience at the hands of the naval rookies last week represents a sad throwback to the culture of intimidation that was practiced and sustained during military rule. In more organized societies, sirens are used in restricted circumstances and for specially approved purposes such as when ambulances are dashing to or from an emergency call or when the police are chasing law breakers. I have seen governors and premiers in foreign countries attend public functions without the blare of sirens.

Now, back to Yar'Adua's decision to sue a newspaper over the report of his health. What did the Leadership newspaper say last weekend about Yar'Adua's health? According to The Guardian of last Sunday, the Leadership newspaper claimed in its Saturday edition that: "Yar'Adua has not attended any public function in the last two days... His deteriorating health prevented him from attending yesterday's (last Friday's) Jumma'at prayer at the National Mosque. Earlier, he had also failed to show up at Sheraton Hotel, where he was billed to attend a function along with the visiting German president. No excuse was advanced for the president's absence on both occasions."

Yar'Adua and his aides were rankled by that report particularly when Yar'Adua knew he attended the events but the newspaper report claimed he didn't. He had photos and credible evidence to show that he was present at those public events. On the basis of perceived inaccuracies in the newspaper report, Yar'Adua directed his lawyers to commence legal action against the Leadership newspaper. Presidential adviser on media and publicity Olusegun Adeniyi was left to defend his boss by picking out the flaws in the report. Hear him: "There is no truth in the entire report and the lies on which it hangs are so easy to disprove that the only reasonable conclusion is that the publishers of the newspapers ran the report in furtherance of their reprehensible efforts to embarrass the President and destabilize his Administration... If it had any regard for the truth at all and made the least effort to confirm the veracity of the assertions in its report, Leadership newspaper would know that the claim that Yar'Adua has not attended any public function in the last two days is a big lie."

The tone of Adeniyi's rebuttal pointed to the seriousness with which the Presidency viewed the newspaper report. There are a few comments to be made about the aptness or inappropriateness of a president taking a newspaper to court over a report on the president's health. First, by taking the newspaper to court rather than arrest or detain the journalists or send troops to the newspaper premises, Yar'Adua has chosen to put into practice his rule of law creed. That is an acceptable way to proceed.

Second, Yar'Adua's decision to go to court suggests that he would devote greater time to vetting daily press reports about his health rather than concentrate on the job of governing the nation. The key challenge is: would the president and all his assistants have all the time to comb every paragraph of every newspaper report in search of potential defamatory material? Obviously Yar'Adua is acting on the basis that a lie published in the media which goes unchallenged is likely to be accepted by the public as truth. But if Yar'Adua is prepared to take legal action in order to correct every inaccuracy in the press, he must also be prepared to lodge countless legal actions every week.

Third, Yar'Adua's reaction to media reports about his health highlights a greater need for the Nigerian press to show greater responsibility. The right to publish does not include the right to defame or injure the character of anybody. Press freedom carries with it parallel obligations and responsibilities. The social responsibilities of the press were outlined as far back as the mid-20th century when Theodore Peterson wrote: "Freedom carries concomitant obligations; and the press, which enjoys a privileged position under our government, is obliged to be responsible to society for carrying out certain essential functions of mass communication in contemporary society."