On Osinbajo and the media

IN previous columns, I have described Yemi Osinbajo as possessing social, symbolic, and political presence—qualities that, I pointed out, Muhammadu Buhari sorely lacks.

It was my way of saying that Osinbajo has the capacity to initiate motions without movement, which creates the illusion of presence, particularly considering the stultifying stagnancy that characterises Buhari’s pretence to being president of the nation.

The cabal of farouche, provincial power brokers in the presidency that habitually belittles him and visits symbolic violence on him no longer has any use for him and have not only denuded him of the crumbs they allowed him access to, they also want to get rid of him.

The tensile stress that the coordinated assault on him by his Aso Rock masters has activated has caused him to unravel quickly.

As of the time of writing this column, he has sued—or has threatened to sue—”one Timi Frank and another Katch Ononuju” whom he said have“put their names to”what he said are“odious falsehoods” against him. He also threatened to sue RootsTV and Google over a YouTube video he said injured his reputation.

He curiously added, “I will waive my constitutional immunity to enable the most robust adjudication of these claims of libel and malicious falsehood.”That’s obviously a poorly worded attempt to say he will waive his constitutional immunity to allow for a fair investigation of the allegations of corruption against him.

But, as I pointed out in my September 25 social media updates, that is not only disingenuous, it also betrays how utterly little Osinbajo remembers about law, which he studied up to the level of a master’s degree.

Legal experts have pointed out that Osinabjo cannot validly relinquish his constitutional immunity against prosecution by mere self-indulgent Twitter proclamation while he still holds on to his office. If he were serious about giving up his immunity from prosecution to clear his name, he would have offered to resign while he is prosecuted on condition that he would be reinstated after he is found innocent. That was what the government he is an appendicular component of said to CJN Walter Onnoghen.

Most importantly, though, a Supreme Court precedent has established that presidents, vice presidents, governors, and deputy governors cannot voluntarily waive their immunity.

As human rights lawyer Inibehe Effiong pointed out, “The Supreme Court decided in 2001 in the case of Tinubu v. I. M. B. Securities Plc that the constitutional immunity under Section 308 of the Constitution cannot be waived. In the said Tinubu’s case, former governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu decided to waive his immunity to defend a civil claim initiated against him. The Supreme Court barred the then governor of Lagos State from proceeding with the suit.”

Incidentally, Osinbajo was Lagos State’s Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice when this case was adjudicated. It makes you wonder what he really remembers about law.

Outside of law, though, this is also about power asymmetry.

Osinbajo is the second highest office holder in the land. Everyone who can conceivably probe him is below him in the bureaucratic pecking order. Waiving his immunity by mere verbal proclamation while he is still in office is both insincere and invalid.

Perhaps the most laughable of Osinbajo’s litigious antics is his threat to sue Google (which owns YouTube) for hosting an alleged libelous news video by Roots TV. It betrays his double-dyed ignorance of US media law, which has jurisdiction over Google.

I teach media law at an American university and can bet my bottom dollar that any US judge will dismiss Osinbajo’s suit with the Latin legal maxim de minimis no curatlex, which means, “the law does not concern itself with trifles.”

For starters, as I said of Abba Kyari in a September 15, 2018 column when he sued the Punch, Osinbajo is a public official whose conduct—both in public and in private—the public is justified to be inquisitive about and to scrutinise.

Being a public official comes with a lot of perquisites and privileges, including being in the public consciousness, being able to influence the direction of national conversations, and having the symbolic resources to counter, or at least respond to, injurious information.

In recognition of the influence and power that public officials—and public figures—wield, US courts impose a higher burden of proof on them to prove a case of libel against the media and the public.

What would be libelous if written about a private figure isn’t libelous if written about a public official.

Private citizens (who also aren’t public figures) have no symbolic resources to robustly respond to injurious falsehoods against them. That’s why they need the protection of the law. But public officials and public figures have the social and symbolic capital to respond to any libel against them.

For instance, Osinbajo’s tweet denying the allegations of corruption against him and threatening to sue the purveyors of the allegation was headline news in all Nigerian news outlets and dominated social media chatter for days. That’s a lot of power. That’s why it’s almost impossible for public officials and public figures to win libel cases in the US.

In my forthcoming book, I pointed to several suits that were filed against Sahara Reporters in US courts by Nigerian government officials, all of which were dismissed. Osinbajo’s case against RootsTV and Google will suffer a similar fate.

But it’s obvious that Osinbajo is pursuing a legal intimidation tactic that we call SLAPP in American media law. The acronym stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.” It’s a type of flippant lawsuit whose purpose is to terrorize critics into self-censorship, not necessarily to seek redress for injury to reputation.

Like Abba Kyari in 2018, Osinbajo wants to cower people into silence and muzzle public conversation about an issue that has tickled the sensation of vast swathes of Nigerians. The tactic seems to be working.

The Vanguard has retracted an unfavourable story about him and apologised. Roots TV has also deleted the video that got his hackles up. Newspapers and social media commentators are now guarded.

But this tactic dramatises Osinbajo’s powerlessness. When he imagined himself to be powerful, he didn’t sue his critics. He caused them to be imprisoned or fired from their jobs. Deji Adeyanju was arrested and jailed for calling Osinbajo “Ole!” on Twitter.

In a June 2, 2018 story titled “Nigerian Woman Loses Job after Criticising Vice President Osinbajo Online,” Premium Times reported that a young lady by the name of Bolouere Opukiri was fired from the presidential amnesty office because she wrote tweets that were critical of Osinbajo.

The dimming of the “star boy’s” lights is nothing short of karmic retribution. He deserves no pity.