DICTATORSHIP often rears its ugly head in highly disguised manners. When we are under the illusion that we are in a democracy, it is easy to ignore the traces of authoritarian rule that creep into our affairs.
A good example is what happened in Owerri on Monday. The Igbo Summit was meant to discuss the affairs of Ndigbo. It was an open meeting which was advertised and those who were to attend were known. The venue was not a secret either.
Three days to the event, it was becoming clear that some people would not want the meeting to hold. They started by blackmailing those who were to attend, raking up allegations against them and accusing them of supporting one presidential candidate, instead of the other.
Both those who accused and the people they accused had their rights protected by our Constitution which in Section 39. (1) states, “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”.
When the gathering assembled at a venue it had paid for, the doors were shut. The security people who prevented the meeting from holding claimed to be acting “on orders from above”, the opaque way of describing acting on behalf of the people in power.
Only a few weeks ago, a meeting in Enugu openly endorsed the candidacy of President Goodluck Jonathan in the 2011 elections. Nobody disrupted the meeting, in fact it was a carnival of sorts to celebrate the Goodluck candidacy.
Again, those who met in Enugu had their rights protected by the Constitution. In Section 40, there are provisions. “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests.”
The provisions are for every person. Those who met freely in Enugu enjoyed this right.
Why were others denied the same right in Owerri? These matters are supposed to make Nigerians ponder again, on the eve of independence whether 11 straight years of civilian rule has in any way made the Nigerian politician more democratic, more law abiding and more inclined to give others space to operate.
Who gave the orders to stop Ndigbo from meeting? Is this treatment meant only for Ndigbo? Do Nigerians from other geo-political zones consider themselves safe if one zone could be denied its fundamental rights?
Those who gathered in Owerri were not trouble makers. They were not frivolous people. Among them were former Ministers, former Governors. Former Vice President Alexander Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, who is said to support President Goodluck, was there.
When did it become an offence for people to discuss their place in Nigeria ? What was the offence, except the suspicion that the meeting could turn out a communiqué that might be unfavourable to one of the parties?
Every candidate in the election has pledged to play by the rules. The President has said he would work for a level playing ground. So on whose orders were the security people acting?
There is a big lesson for Ndigbo in this. They have given themselves so freely to all manners of characters under all types of conditions that they can be taken for granted. If Ndigbo cannot hold a meeting in Igbo land – the Constitution allows Nigerians to reside anywhere they like in the country – where in Nigeria can they meet? What does the shame in Owerri portend for the 2011 elections?
If people cannot be allowed to meet to discuss their affairs, would they be allowed to vote freely, whether at the party primaries or in the main elections?
Nigerians should understand that this affront is on everyone, it is not on Ndigbo alone. After the shame in Owerri where would be the next venue of similar assault on the right of Nigerians?
We salute the courage of those who gathered in Owerri. They confronted authoritarian rule by carrying on with the meeting on the lawns of the hotel, under the blazing sun.
Anti-democratic forces need to be confronted not dodged. The meeting in Owerri confronted dictatorship, Nigerians should be watchful, if a repeat of the event in Owerri is to be avoided.