The conviction of Citizen Lawal Izala

THE constitutional order that engenders civil liberties and freedom of citizens is perhaps the most significant dividend of democracy. Any impairment of such freedom, including freedom of speech, under whatever guise is not just undemocratic but illegal. And while the definition of decency may be stretched to encompass respect for authorities and giving honour to whom honour is due, it remains within the realm of morality, not law. And in any case, victims of the authorities’ apparent ineptitude in the performance of their primary responsibility of ensuring security and welfare of the citizenry can hardly be expected to be overly courteous or accord officials of governments with unearned respect. It is within this context that we situate the conviction of Citizen Lawal Izala for criticising President Muhammadu Buhari and the governor of Katsina State, Aminu Bello Masari.

The 72-year-old man was jailed because he allegedly insulted President Buhari and Governor Masari. The court found him guilty of ‘inciting civil disobedience and disrespect for authorities through demeaning utterances.’ It is unclear on what basis his statement was even classified as insult: was a man who lost family members and 15 cows to bandits and cattle rustlers expected to applaud the leadership under whose watch he suffered such colossal losses? Or must he keep quiet just because some people would feel insulted and exasperated for expressing his frustrations about the sordid state of affairs, which of course is the reality? It is not unusual that political leaders, including presidents, are insulted all over the world; that is democracy. Or is the country in a dictatorship?

Lawal Izala would still have remained behind bars but for the laudable espirit de corps displayed by some Nigerians in raising and paying the judgment money of N30,000 imposed on the man in lieu of 18 months’ imprisonment. It is imperative that leaders learn humility and tolerance, especially in a clime where official performance of basic duties of governance falls markedly below standards. Citizen Lawal had lost family members and 15 cows due to official incompetence and/or negligence, yet he was expected to keep mute or shower praises on government officials.  Clearly, the man’s ordeal speaks to the inability of the ruling elite in Nigeria to have a comprehensive appreciation of their role in society.

While it is somewhat easy for the rulers to jump on infractions against them, they hardly attach the same importance and promptness of action to their own responsibility to the society. The truth is the jailed man was evidently appalled by the insecurity in the land that led to his cows being rustled and felt that he should vent his anger on those saddled with providing that security, which justifiably should be the president and the governor. What is wrong in venting his spleen verbally: is it because there is adequate security and he said something to the contrary or the political leaders to whom he directed his anger have no responsibility for providing security?

Ordinarily, what Lawal Izala deserved was sympathy for being a victim of the glaring insecurity in the land and not prosecution and incarceration, but apparently the government preferred that he should bottle up his anger or suffer in silence. This kind of reaction to the distress of citizens caused by the apparent failure of the government would only make citizens sadder and desperate in seeking other, and perhaps more deadly, avenues for venting their anger. And that would be unfortunate for the society. It is saddening that the government chose to punish a man who was already distraught when it should have simply overlooked his seeming indiscretion or at best let him off with a warning to be more discreet in his public utterances in the future. But he was sentenced perhaps to deter those who may want to complain in future about the grief and losses which absence of good governance has foisted on them.

The truth is that this despicable official path of shutting people up in the face of travails occasioned by its incompetence or failure cannot be a solution. Rather,  it is the root cause of the public outburst, namely the absence of good governance, that should be tackled head-on. Without doubt, the conviction of Citizen Izala will remain a sore point in the country’s democracy. It is thus crucial to urge the Judiciary to be wary of unwittingly enabling totalitarianism. It is unprofitable for anyone to live in self-denial or play the ostrich about the appalling level of security in the land and it is even more dangerous to forbid citizens from airing their views on how the sordid state of affairs has impacted them. Otherwise, citizens’ pent up anger may be difficult to manage when it explodes in the fullness of time.



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