Free Speech and the Fight Against Corruption

Posted by News Express | 28 May 2016 | 3,679 times

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From the onset I seek to make my humble submission that free speech – or what is generally regarded in our clime as freedom of expression (Section 39 (1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria of 1999 (as amended) – is a desideratum, and a necessary requirement for waging successful battle against such social menace as corruption.

President Muhammadu Buhari, who would be one year in office on May 29, 2016 as a democratically-elected and-inaugurated President of Nigeria, has made the fight against corruption his administration’s centrepiece. Let me state right away that – although President Buhari has a military background with an antecedent that is less than salutary, in terms of respect for fundamental human rights of citizens – he is now more than ever obliged to become the number one respecter of the constitutional freedom of expression or free speech, if his administration is to make any considerable mileage in the crusade against corruption and economic crimes. This is in addition to becoming a respecter of the Due process of the Law. On the issue of corruption, we shall read what the international organisations have said about the menace and the threats it poses to the economic stability and growth of Nigeria.

The World Bank and other development partners, such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), have over the last few years and weeks estimated that Nigeria has lost over US$400 billion to corruption and economic brigandage associated with some government officials in Nigeria. 

In the last one year, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation is reported to have withheld tons of billions of dollars from Nigeria's statutory federation accounts. A new analysis from the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI), a United Kingdom-based natural resources accountability group, has shown that under President Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has continued to withhold billions of dollars in oil sale revenues from the treasury. The report, which is entitled ‘NNPC still holds blank check’, is a follow-up to a 2015 report on the activities of the NNPC by the NRGI.

It noted the corporation still holds on to oil revenues without effective rules or oversight.

It explained that despite President Buhari’s personal resolve to curb graft in Nigeria’s oil industry, the corporation in the second half of 2015 made up to $6.3 billion from sales of export crude, domestic crude and oil from its subsidiary, the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company (NPDC), out of which only $2.1 billion was entered in the Federation Account.

 According to it, the NNPC retained 66 per cent of sales proceeds from these three types of transactions. This, it noted, was 12 per cent higher than what it retained between 2013 and 2014. These heartrending reports are made possible because the research agency operates from a European clime whereby the RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF SPEECH is sacrosanct.

The other day, the Nigerian government was credited as stating that the nation as a political and corporate entity is broke or insolvent. It is generally believed that the inability of government officials to save the excess revenues that accrued to Nigeria when crude oil sold far above the budget benchmark for many years accounted for the adverse economic situation that confronts us, especially with the rapid collapse of the international selling price of crude oil in the international market. 

Because Nigeria failed to save and build a good-enough sovereign wealth fund, the nation can barely service it's basic obligations of paying monthly salaries to both the federal civil servants and their counterparts in the 36 States of the federation. 

With the possible exception of a few states, such as Lagos and Anambra, all other states are broke and so rely on financial lifelines from the Central Bank of Nigeria to pay salaries of their workers, even when the status of their internally-generated revenue profiles are shrouded in secrecy, and non-state actors are not allowed access, even with the Freedom Of Information Act. 

Sadly, the political office-holders of both the national and state governments have remained adamantly insensitive as to continue to embark on their merry-go-round foreign trips on first-class tickets, in the fraudulent guise of searching for the elusive foreign investors. A former governor of Abia State, Chief Orji Uzor Kalu, has revealed that on the average, each travelling governor gets N35 million upfront as allowances for such frivolous trips. 

The National Bureau of Statistics recently churned out frightening statistics of an economy that has reached the precipice of recession, just as the rate of unemployment has hit a catastrophic peak. Crime rate is high even as corruption is said to be the master of all social crime in Nigeria given that this menace has led to the crippling effects in all facets of our national life: with health, educational, power and housing sectors in virtual state of dysfunction and collapse. 

More Nigerians die from preventable diseases, such as diarrhoea and malaria than anywhere else in the world. The state of our health care system is deplorable, when compared to that of South Africa. Foreign fund paid to Nigeria’s health ministry for treatment of HIV/AIDS patients have all been stolen, forcing the donor agencies and the international community to react in a very unpleasant way.

The question is: How do we combat these hydra-headed challenges that have combined to cripple the giant called Nigeria and made us the laughing stock of the international community? 

As stated earlier, one way to ensure that the justice system works and successfully undertakes the dispensation of justice in the law-based crusade against corruption is by liberalising the space for FREE SPEECH in Nigeria. ‘If you see something, you must say something.’ This singsong in the anti-graft sector makes no meaning if the necessary laws to safeguard the lives and maintain the secrecy of whistle-blowers are not in place. And, even if the people are bold enough to publicly speak out, there are institutionalised inhibitions that are formidably mounted against such people by the powerful forces that constitute the largest chunk of those who are politically exposed and have soiled their hands by stealing Nigeria blind. In the last one year, the enjoyment of Right to Freedom of Expression has suffered abysmally, as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and Department of State Service are unleashed on a grand scale to go after dissenting voices, some of whom are whistle-blowers and credible critics. But Nigerians have also recorded a Pyrrhic victory in the crusade to institutionalise respect for Freedom of Speech.

This is why it is commendable that the Nigerian people, and the Media being the fourth estate of the realm recognised under the Constitution in Section 22 shouted to the roof tops in condemnation of the frivolous legislation proposed by an otherwise serious-minded lawyer – Mr Ibn Na’Allah from Kebbi State – who is in the Senate for the first time, although he has had stints in the House of Representatives almost three times.  

He had proposed for the outlawing of whistle-blowers’ job through his bill which he callously titled Frivolous Petitions Bill. The Senate President, Mr Bukola Saraki, the British-born politician from Kwara State, stood his ground with the Nigerian people in rejecting this proposed legislation. This decision of the Senate logically brings us to the same argument that the best way to fight corruption to an end is by respecting the constitutional right to freedom of expression or free speech, as the Americans call it.  

From a scholarly website, we learnt that among other cherished values, the First Amendment of the US Constitution protects freedom of speech. The US Supreme Court, we were told, often had struggled to determine what exactly constitutes protected speech. Nigerians will inevitably benefit from knowing all these salient attributes of the concept of free speech. The following are examples of speech, both direct (words) and symbolic (actions), that the court has decided are either entitled to First Amendment protections, or not.

The First Amendment states, in relevant part, that: “Congress shall make no law...abridging freedom of speech.” Freedom of speech includes the right: Not to speak (specifically, the right not to salute the flag). West Virginia Board of Education v Barnette, 319 US 624 (1943). On students wearing black armbands to school to protest a war (“Students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.”) Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 US 503 (1969). On use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages: Cohen v. California, 403 US 15 (1971). On contributing money (under certain circumstances) to political campaigns: Buckley v Valeo, 424 US 1 (1976). Advertising commercial products and professional services (with some restrictions): Virginia Board of Pharmacy v Virginia Consumer Council, 425 US 748 (1976); Bates v State Bar of Arizona, 433 US 350 (1977). To engage in symbolic speech (eg, burning the flag in protest): Texas v Johnson, 491 US 397 (1989); United States v Eichman, 496 US 310 (1990).

US courts ruled that free speech isn't the following: Right to incite actions that would harm others (e.g. “[S]hout[ing] ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.”): Schenck v United States, 249 US 47 (1919). To make or distribute obscene materials: Roth v United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957). To burn draft cards as an anti-war protest: United States v O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968). To permit students to print articles in a school newspaper over the objections of the school administration:  Hazelwood School District v Kuhlmeier, 484 US 260 (1988). On students making an obscene speech at a school-sponsored event: Bethel School District #43 v Fraser, 478 US 675 (1986). On students advocating illegal drug use at a school-sponsored event: Morse v Frederick, US (2007).

Let me conclude by advocating strongly for this government: that, much as it advertises itself to the international community as being basically resolved to fight corruption to a standstill; the Buhari administration should also accept the constitutional imperative that freedom of expression is a desideratum to a successful crusade against corruption. Freedom of speech would enable Nigerians to more basically point out the loopholes and suggest strategies going forward with the war on corruption by the agencies set up under the law to battle this scourge. It’s only in an atmosphere devoid of harassment by EFCC and DSS, of dissenting voices and leading non-state actors, that President Buhari can more meaningfully actualise his dream of bringing corruption to a halt in the remaining three years of his four-year tenure.

RIGHTSVIEW appears on Wednesdays, in addition to special appearances. The Columnist, popular activist Emmanuel Onwubiko, is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA). He can be reached via 08033327672 (sms only) or via

Source: News Express

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