Friday 21st February 2020
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Don’t call me at 9 O’clock – Nnimmo Bassey

Once upon a time, there were very few television stations in operation in Nigeria, and they only operated for a few hours a day. In those days most stations came on in the afternoon and went off at about midnight. The stations would open with a hissing sound which was followed by the national anthem before the presenters popped up to give a rundown of the programme of the day. Watching TV was a big deal as not every family had one. It was not unusual to see kids peeping through the window into their neighbour’s homes to snatch a few minutes of their favourite programmes.

Nnimmo Bassey  Don’t call me at 9 O’clock – Nnimmo Bassey photo 1
Nnimmo Bassey, Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)

In the 1990s many states in Nigeria had television stations, but they were obliged to join the national station at 9:00pm for the network news. That was prime time and it was a standard routine for some of us to watch at least the headlines. Watching the news was important if you wished to keep abreast of the thinking of the military dictatorships that held sway at that time. The radio was also useful, but in the tumultuous days of pro-democracy agitations, it was wiser to tune to foreign stations to confirm the reason for the commotion on your streets rather than tune to the local stations. It was that bad.

As twisted as some of the official media had become in those days, they provided fairly good sources of information if you learned the art of paying attention to what was not said. On one occasion watching a special broadcast by a military governor following a major uprising in my city gave some of us an inkling as to who the jackboots were targeting for arrest, assault and incarceration.  And we took some preventive measures that were partially successful, at least for a while. But that is a story for another day.

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At a point, using the publicly owned mass media for propaganda to promote self-succession or transformation became the standard fair, especially in the regime of General Sani Abachi. There were advertisements extolling “who the cap fit.” Although the general was known to always spot a beret, he was getting itchy to switch over to a taller hat. The national network news at 9:00pm became so cluttered with officially sanctioned alternative news that there was little room to actually get to know what the real situation in the country was. It was at that time that my family decided that having that news hour as our family time was more productive than opening ourselves to servings of officially fabricated fake news.

So, for over 20 years it has become a tradition in my family that we dedicate 9:00-10:00pm as a time for coming together. This has meant keeping the phones aside and ensuring that no one watches television. Although this has become a family tradition, we have thought it wise to regularly remind ourselves of the origins of this routine.

In recent times, the travails of Omoyele Sowore, Col Sambo Dasuki (retd), Sheik Zakzaky, Agba Jalingo, Jones Abri, and some judges arrested in peculiar manners, and for sundry reasons, have raised a number of questions on the state of the democratic space in Nigeria.  The brushes of these Nigerians with the law, judicial processes and security agencies have led many to ask questions about the direction suggested by the drift. One of the key indicators that things are not well has been the role of the judiciary in protecting the human rights of citizens and then the obedience of court orders by security agents and actions and statements from the executive arm of government. An alarming apogee was reached when Sowore was wrestled down in the hallowed chambers of justice and whisked away into another round of detention while he had been released on bail.

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The assault of Sowore rightly drew national and global condemnation, thanks to the wide sharing of the sordid spectacle through social media. We should note here that because President Buhari appears to be a man of few words, his spokespersons have resorted to speak even when silence would be more salutary. The unsavoury courthouse incident was presented as being essential for national security and other nations were told to mind their business. The Department of State Services (DSS) came up with the story that the incident was stage-managed and that Sowore was actually wrestled down, and rough-handled, by his supporters to give the security outfit a bad name.

What they could not deny was that they were the ones that took him back into custody.

It has been so bad in recent days that a presidential spokesman even justified the presence of a cabal in Aso Rock, claiming that this was simply equivalent to having a kitchen cabinet. Unfortunately, a cabal cannot be equated to a “kitchen cabinet” in the Nigerian context. It is a much more sinister construct, speaking of a clique that works assiduously to subvert public interests while ensuring the rule of personal or sectional interests.

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In all, we can say that the brashness displayed by the security forces, sections of the judiciary and the executive are very troubling indeed and needs to be checked before things deteriorate further. The spokespersons of the president and the governors should probably use this holiday season to have a retreat, to retool and to be reminded that abusive and unrestrained language cannot be the hallmark of governance or diplomacy.

So, Sowore was released from incarceration on Tuesday, December 24, 2019 on the directive of the Attorney General to the DSS to let him regain his liberty. The same Attorney general had stated on Monday 16 December 2019 that he could not ask the DSS to release Sowore. Femi Falana, Sowore’s lawyer, had on the previous Friday asked the Attorney General to seek the release of his client since he had taken over the case from the DSS.

It came as a surprise that a few days later, he did not only ask the DSS to release Sowore but cited Section 150 (1) of the Nigerian constitution to back up his directive. It was a long, tortuous road to obeying court orders, especially when the case of Colonel Dasuki is also taken into account. Will that constitutional provision now be routinely respected or is what has transpired a fluke?

At 9.00pm on Tuesday, December 24, 2019 I tuned into the Network News to see if the release of Sowore and Col Dasuki, the most significant events of the day, would make the headlines. They did. Does that mean that things have changed significantly? Is it time to adjust the family tradition? Should I begin to take calls at 9:00pm? Whatever is the case, have an eventful New Year.

Nnimmo Bassey is Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)

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