By Tonnie Iredia
The Military in Mali was no doubt living in the past when on March 21, 2012, it imagined that if it effected a change in its nation’s government, civilians would once again be as gullible as before to rejoice over it. That didn’t happen and is not likely to happen any more in any part of Africa as everyone now appears to know that government by the gun is anachronistic.
It is only democracy that has anything to do with the people. In fairness to the Nigerian armed forces however, there is much today in our nation’s development to be credited to them. They made our new capital city-Abuja- a reality; they created new states and local government areas and built roads, bridges, airports, hospitals, schools etc.
But like every military entity, they mortgaged the freedom of the people; they banned, proscribed and ransacked media houses and contrary to the norms of civilized societies, they detained people at will and presumed every accused person guilty before trial.
At the end of military rule, we started and have continued to have a breath of fresh air especially with the recent creation of a regime of freedom epitomized by the Freedom of Information Act. We thank God that we are now in a democracy where people are expected to be equal before the law and where arbitrariness ought not to be allowed in the management of public affairs.
Indeed, the underlining factor of democracy is freedom hence the constitutions of many democratic societies guarantee not only the freedom of speech and association but also the all-important freedom of movement. But are Nigerians really free to move about?
Abuja residents can hardly answer the question in the positive considering the many no-go areas in the city. No one can pass with ease through any area near a police or military building. The situation is the same around churches and embassies that are adorned with several ‘no- parking’ signposts.
While the security challenges the nation has had for awhile may justify the trend, other avoidable restrictions to movements foisted on the people by the privileged few is not similarly explicable. One of them is known as ‘VIP Movement’-a term which refers to the keeping of the ordinary man at a standstill for longer than makes sense whenever the powerful is around.
Its worst form which emerged with the return to democracy in 1999 is observed more with air travels where flights can neither take-off nor land because certain big men and their spouses plan to also fly so many hours later.
At its height, ‘Non-VIP’ passengers prayed daily for their aircrafts not to crash while roving around in the sky to make room for easy and safe VIP movements. That this happens less frequently these days which is a credit to the present administration suggests that the feature was and is an avoidable occurrence of man’s insensitivity to his fellows.
State governors also contribute to the animal farm type of movements in Abuja. They all have offices and residential accommodation in the city where they actually spend more days than in their state capitals so as to appropriately monitor and personally take delivery of the monthly federal allocation.
Unfortunately, it leaves Abuja residents with the dilemma of coping with 37 siren formations all whipping the people off the roads. Many privileged Nigerians listed in the ‘Order of Precedence Act’ are part of this scheme which turns the ordinary citizen into an object rather than the subject of governance.
An obvious piece of evidence that the feature is avoidable is the fact the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) who is the over-all head of one of the three arms of government is not part of it. Anyone can actually drive past him before realizing it was him.
Yet, smaller men in the judicial corridors of power exhibit so much impunity that occasionally, the rest of us regret why we have them up there. The other day, a magistrate in Lagos using her power to direct the police, reportedly goaded them to manhandle journalists in her court as if she was repelling trespassers from an inherited family property.
If attacks on the freedom of journalists are dismissed as part of the hazards of their profession, how best should avoidable daily restrictions to the freedom of movement of the individual in Nigeria particularly metropolitan Abuja be captioned?
While those who are positioned to control movements in the city often display a lack of sense of geography, in view of the roads they block at will, there is always the visible aspect that the pains of their decisions on the ordinary citizen do not matter.
Only last month, with one day to the national convention of the ruling political party, everybody was diverted away from every road in the central area making many residents to first navigate to the outskirts of the town so as to fathom any other route back home.
Again in the morning of Saturday, April 07, 2012, some VIPs decided to jog from around Aso Drive to the federal secretariat. They took along with them an ambulance and perhaps some other not too easily identifiable instruments of power.
They moved on that public road like people in their courtyards and coerced everybody to maintain their jogging pace thereby adding no less than one hour to what was required to cover the short distance. No one doubts the fact that jogging is a good sport.
Those who wish, can jog thrice a day and thereafter do whatever they wish because we are in a free society, but a society can only be adjudged to be free if what each person chooses to do, is not allowed to obstruct the legitimate choices of other people.
To correctly assess the Abuja jogging of April 7th, 2012 may be hard because the exactly nature and number of those who made up the jogging team were unknown. From the serene environment, it didn’t look like a political class affair.
Indeed, if politicians were among the group, it certainly would have had more glamour. There probably would have been heralding ornaments like colourful flags or even a mobile restaurant for tea break. Rather, the team looked more like a small group of security operatives doing a fitness test to combat an up-coming challenge.
If so, perhaps the alarm by the United States during the week that Nigeria was not doing enough to combat its security challenges is a non-issue. Security is a secret matter, so America cannot understand our formula. Thus, the jogging may have had its own significance.
That it may have adversely affected the freedom of the individual may not matter. Oh yes, some people may have missed their flights and other appointments for that day. What appears to matter for now is that Abuja- Nigeria’s new capital and reportedly the fastest growing city in Africa is a place where vehicles like human beings are made to jog by the powerful.