Nigeria: The Question of Human Freedom

11 December 2019
column

For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. - Nelson Mandela

First, for our compatriots in power today, a reminder of the obvious may be necessary: power is transient.

This is because there could be the temptation on the part of those wielding the instruments of power (including state apparatuses defined by the constitution) to rationalise the threats to freedom in the current socio-political climate.

Hence the word of caution that they should rather take a longer view of history as they approach issues.

Ordinarily, the sobering lessons of the polity in the last 20 years about the transience of power and the primacy of human freedom should have been an implicit check on the assault on liberty. Out of the four presidents that have so far emerged in this dispensation, two have been victims of remarkable denial of freedom in different circumstances.

They are President Olusegun Obasanjo, who held the reins of power from 1999 to 2007, and the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari. Obasanjo was in jail for about three years while the maximum ruler, General Sani Abacha, mounted a reign of terror on Nigeria. Barely a year that he regained his freedom, Obasanjo became president. About a decade before Obasanjo's incarceration, the military government of General Muhammadu Buhari was overthrown on August 27, 1985. For about 30 months after, Buhari was in detention until he was released after a clamour of sorts for his freedom.

More than 30 years later, Buhari is now in his second term as an elected president of the federal republic. Obasanjo and Buhari were once in power before their incarceration and they both returned to power after the denial of their freedom. Beside the two historical figures - Obasanjo and Buhari - there are other examples of those who wielded enormous powers at different levels at one time and at another time had their freedom denied. For instance, before his detention began in 1985, Buhari himself had detained several politicians who were in power in the Second Republic before the overthrow of the government President Shehu Shagari.

The logic of history is such that for anybody at all, the pendulum could actually swing from a period of freedom to that of moments of unfreedom and vice versa.

The foregoing well-known anecdote is recalled simply to demonstrate the point at issue: the question of freedom is basically about our collective humanity.

It is, therefore, a collective task of all - those in power now and the rest of us outside power- to protect human freedom and defend social justice.

Our collective humanity is always diminished when the freedom of a fellow citizen is denied and injustice is unleashed on the powerless. An atmosphere of freedom is indispensable for all-round human progress. Yet, those in power often toy with the freedom of others in order to maintain their temporary hold on power.

Those who relish the assault on the freedom of others often forget that their own freedom is philosophically in jeopardy. It is amazing how men of power sometimes seem oblivious of this glaring lesson of history.

Another teachable moment was provided by the post- apartheid story of the former South African president, Nelson Mandela. The South African Dutch Reformed Church not only supported apartheid; the church indeed provided theological arguments to rationalise the crime against humanity. The church later publicly admitted that its position was wrong and Mandela, as president, addressed the Synod of the church 1994. In his legendary spirit of reconciliation, Mandela invited the church to join, as a matter of "prophetic responsibility," in the task of "reconstruction and development" of the rainbow nation. After leaving office, he granted the church's journal, Verbum et Ecclesia, an interview in which he reflected on the relationship between the freedom of the oppressed and that of his oppressor. The sage, therefore, saw his task as that of making freedom universal in South Africa.

Mandela put the matter this way: "When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning."

The Mandela idea of freedom is the viable one for any leader with a historic sense of mission to build a nation and ensure all-round development which, crucially, should include widening the space of freedom and deepening social justice.

With the increasing threats to human freedom as exemplified by the number of persons who are in detention without trial or incarcerated despite court orders that they should be released, the job of the forces of genuine freedom is well cut out for them.

Doubtless, a ferment of illiberalism fares the polity that is supposedly aspiring to liberal democracy.

Daylight abuse of power is now officially rationalised. Arrogance of power is patently on display. State governments charge their critics with terrorism. The erosion of human freedom is at all levels of power. Some state agents talk as if the people enjoy freedom at the mercy of the state.

A very horrific expression of this illiberal order was the gangsterist arrest of the convener of #RevolutionNow, Mr. Omoyele Sowore, in an Abuja courtroom last week. Thereafter, government's publicists have subjected him to media trial equating Sowore with the murderous Boko Haram.

From the collective view of human freedom, the matter certainly transcends Sowore and whatever charges brought against the activist and politician. The same principle applies to all persons who are illegally detained in the cells of the police, SSS, Navy and other abodes of unfreedom all over Nigeria

To be sure, every freedom comes with responsibility. In fact, the laws clearly stipulate under what conditions the freedom of the individual could be restricted by the state. Hence, the state through its agent, the State Security Service (SSS), has invoked its powers within the law to prosecute Sowore for calling for a "revolution." However, the point that seems to be lost on the SSS is that the same law spells out how the state should prosecute Sowore and other suspects charged with various offences. This compliance with the law includes strict obedience of court orders and utmost accountability of state agents on matters of freedom.

The state must obey its own laws so that it would be on a higher moral pedestal to punish those who disobey the laws. Come to think of it, the Nigerian courts are not people's courts. They are establishment courts. So if the Nigerian bourgeois state desecrates its own courts (remember the judiciary is an arm of the government), it would surely be preparing a recipe for anarchy.

For clarity, the mentality that because you are in power you are more patriotic or you have a greater stake in Nigeria is a delusion of grandeur. The history of the struggles of the Nigerian people for freedom and social justice since the colonial days through the military rule readily attests to this fact.

Agencies of the state are to serve the people and not to oppress them.

Buhari should pay a greater attention to the worrisome trend because of his own antecedents.

During the 2015 and 2019 presidential campaigns, one issue that Buhari's opponents legitimately raised against him was the fear of descent of Nigeria into a full-blown dictatorship. The President, as a candidate, on both occasions appropriately responded that he had become a convert into liberal democracy. Those close to him say he often asks clinical questions about the rule of law. It is, therefore, inexplicable that Buhari could be so comfortable with the authoritarian streak running through his administration at the moment.

The president promised to improve the economy, ensure security and fight corruption. So both supporters and opponents of Buhari would expect him to be tough on mass poverty that defines the economy, ruthlessly fight Boko Haram, armed robbers and kidnappers that make highways unsafe as well as remain unyielding in combating corruption.

Certainly, no one expects Buhari to demonstrate his toughness by curtailing human freedom. Instead, it should be expected that upholding the rule of law and deliberately promoting national integration would be added to the Buhari agenda for Nigeria.

So yesterday, on the occasion of the International Human Rights Day, Aso Rock should be issuing statements in solidarity with the free people of Nigeria celebrating how the frontier of human freedom has been expanded in the last four years.

As a president who should be in the legacy mode by now, Buhari should be flaunting improved indices of socio-economic rights as well as benchmarks for civil rights in the Nigerian society.

Sadly, this was not the case.

The message encoded in the ultimatum issued by the coalition of civil society organisations is this: across the political and ideological spectrum there is a commonality of purpose on matters of freedom. Radicals, liberals and conservatives are in unison about the defence of liberty. This Nigerian reality should be treated by the Buhari administration with every sense of responsibility.

The president should, therefore, order a thorough-going review of the human rights situation in Nigeria so that all those illegally detained are released forthwith and all court orders are henceforth obeyed.

To do so would not amount to weakness on the part of the president, a retired general of the Nigerian army; it would only mean that he is keeping fidelity with the constitution on the basis of which he took oath of office again on May 29.

And that would be part of the legacy he should be seriously preparing now to leave behind at the end of his tenure in 2023.

Beckman, Optimist for Africa

By Issa Aremu

Björn Beckman, (BB), the celebrated Swedish political economist. was laid to eternal rest last Friday, exactly a month after he passed away in Stockholm, Sweden.

He died at 81. He was as much a mentor, teacher as a comrade of mine. Indeed himself and his wife, Gunilla are like the Diaspora Uncle and Aunty respectively, that's if they were not at home in Kaduna cooking and eating with us with my late wife, Hamdalat Abiodun.

In BB, I and many of his comrades in the labour movement that include Adams Oshiomohle, Jibril Ibrahim, Dr. Yahaya Hashim, Sokoto Muhammed, Salisu Muhammed, Yakubu Aliyu, , John Odah, Owei Lakemfa, Kayode Komolafe, Salihu Lukman and others saw intellectual integrity, alternative views, and rigor, friendship and generosity, brotherhood, not color and race.

Ideas undoubtedly unite humanity more than blood.

I learned how to cook and abandon my inherited patriarchal prejudice as a male child against the kitchen, thanks to the likes of Beckman and Yahaya Hashim who often took the lead in cooking while I was staying with hashim in Kano in the 80s.

Professor Claude Ake was a great African scholar Claude Ake who died on November 7, 1997, in the tragic ADC airline disaster. Ake just like BB nurtured our fertile intellectual minds in the late 70s as undergraduates of social science in Ahmadu Bello university, ABU Zaria and University of Port Harcourt where I eventually graduated, (no thanks to the discredited Ango Abdullahi VC dictatorship of early 80s in ABU!) .

Ake directly thought me political economy during my undergraduate days at Economics Department of School of Social Sciences, University of Port Harcourt (Unique Uniport!) in mid-80s. My greatest take away is in his original seminal work in which he audaciously damned social science as "Imperialism"

In my reflection on Ake's indelible intellectual legacy on African development in 1997, I wrote that "It would not be an exaggeration to say political economy as a tool for explaining socio-economic dynamics of Africa almost 'died' with the political economist himself."

But the amazing continuous intellectual outputs of Beckman and his numerous collaborative comrades, in the 90s and up to recent times elevated and popularized political economy as a tool for understanding Africa development process even more than where Ake stopped. Beckman's radical scholarship in Ahmadu Bello university was infectious and liberating, the climax the Karl Marx centenary conference in ABU, Samaru Zaria in March 1983.

Goal 17 of the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 emphasizes partnership as a critical success factor to promote development and eradicate poverty. Very few global scholars had actually practised remarkable partnership in scholarship in understanding Africa's development as Björn Beckman did. He was at home in selfless collaborative intellectual work with others in understanding our world.

Beckman left behind volumes of original intellectual work on African development process, inclusive of the state and non-state institutions, namely organised labour, students' movement and political parties. His intensive and engaging intellectual work was majorly about Africa. Africa has certainly lost another enthusiastic, optimistic and passionate scholar about the prospects of development and transformation, industrialisation, decent jobs creation, poverty eradication and popular democracy.

Two of Beckman's works always capture my imagination: Wheat Trap: Bread and Underdevelopment in Nigeria, and Union Power in the Nigerian Textile Industry: Labour Regime and Adjustment. The two works were in collaboration with his wife, Gunilla Andre. The Union Power in Textile Industry is a total commitment for me as an organiser in Textile Union. Issues addressed in this 300- page book are so integrated that one cannot read one chapter without the other. Like other seminal works such as his Wheat Trap and Industry Goes Farming, anybody familiar with Beckman and Andrea will agree that this couple did it again with refreshing original findings and conclusions.

The subject matter is the textile workers' union, its experiences, problems and achievements. This is a two-decade long study that covers the period of "dramatic change" in Nigeria involving boom, burst and adjustment.

From the rather "small picture of union power in textile industry, the author presents us with the biggest pictures of issues in societal development, industrialisation, production processes, power relations between the state and civil society etc. Which then makes this book a compulsory reading not only for unionists but all those interested in naughty issue of "development". The framework of analysis rests on controversial concept of labour regime. It deals with complex set of institutions, rules and practices and regulations that guide labour/capital relations. The finding is that in the textile industry, a "union-based labour regime" characterised by domination and contestation is entrenched.

The story of "how it all began at KTL" in 1984 offers a ready understanding of what the union-centered labour regime in practice looks like. A company confronted with multiple problems of aging machinery, changing demand, competition for newer plants, smuggling, shortage of cotton materials and 100% increase in official minimum wage wanted to shift the burden on labour through shutdown and wage cut.

The union rose to resist this "nonsensical piece of non-sense" and beat the management to it with all the resources at its disposal including the police.

In the end the company was forced to accommodate workers' interests in the course of the resolution of its crisis of production. Every page of these 13-long chapters is a celebration of this union based labour regime. The submission is that even in the condition of economic crisis, there has been "expansion" rather than "contraction" of union power in the textile industry. The result is that in the work place, constitutional regulation of conflict and legality had replaced hitherto arbitrariness of employers.

Drawing a bigger picture from this, the authors observed that the emergence of union power reflects the capability of Nigeria's society to manage conflicts through contestation and consensus building, representation and mediation as well as contribution to the 'democratic reconstitution of the state'. Judging by the ways the union had inadvertently compelled recalcitrant companies to adjust, the authors argue and convincingly too that 'union-based regime is consistent with modernisation of Nigeria's substantial textile industry, making it more productive and competitive'.

This discovery is definitely news worthy today that unions are being presented as obstacles to development that must be repressed (or is it crushed?) at all cost, both by International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and some authoritarian states.

As we mourn the death of Beckman, the progressive world received the news of the passing of Ben Turok, another Africa's leading thinker, optimist and activist of alternative inclusive development agenda.

Turok was also a trade union activist, editor, economic theorist, prolific author, philosopher and a staunch proponent of the later abandoned Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) in South Africa.

*Comrade Aremu is a Member of the National Institute (mni).

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