Any student of autocratic rule will tell you that free speech is always the first casualty of a budding despotism. So, watching the viral video of how development economist, polymath and former Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) deputy governor, Obadiah Mailafia, spurted out his seismic allegations against runners of the Nigerian state last week, my hunch squealed to me that he would be Tai Solarin in a matter of days. Solarin was a social critic and educationalist.
As at 1989, the Ibrahim Babangida government had literally become a sturdy despotism, encompassed on all fronts by rife allegations of corruption. Military authorities, in cahoots with their civilian accomplices, were rumoured to be pilfering state money with the insatiable zeal of kleptomaniacs. In one instance, the African Contemporary Record, a reference annual devoted to contemporary Africa, alleged that widespread corruption had hit the roof in Nigeria’s military government. It alleged in its publication of May, for instance, that a Lt. Colonel got caught while spiraling N4 million worth of contraband out of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos.
In the thick of this, an allegation of monumental heist by the military president, allegedly published in the May 1989 issue of American Ebony magazine, revved a students’ riots that month. Solarin was the most available scapegoat and veritable object for deconstruction. Pronto, Babangida’s security goons alleged that Solarin circulated the allegation. The State Security Service (SSS) did two things. First, it got the publisher of Ebony to denounce such publication and to claim that Ebony had not published anything on Nigeria since 1977. Second, the SSS got an asthmatic Solarin to climb a multiple-storey building and immediately upon arrival, set him up for an NTA-covered interrogation. Panting and looking miserable, the interrogator was heard asking, “Dr. Solarin, if I was your student and I did what you just did, will you award me an A, B, C or F?”
Last week, the Buhari government reversed governance to that 1989 mode. For lending his voice to the slide of security under the Buhari government, aired in an interview, Mailafia was given the Solarin treatment by the offspring of Babangida’s SSS, the Department of State Security (DSS), and the organ of the interview, a Lagos-based private radio station, Nigeria Info, was single-handedly slammed with a N5 million fine by one of Buhari’s coronet tyrants, minister of Information, Lai Mohammed.
As I reflected on the above, I seemed to slide into a trance. Eric Arthur Blair, globally known by his famous pen name, George Orwell, came visiting. Blair, or George, had become quite old, frail and grizzled. Born on June 25, 1903 in Motihari, India, the English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic wore an old Ludlow suit jacket made of English Donegal wool. As he took his seat inside my overgrown garden, he politely asked if he could smoke his Cheroot cigar. His hands shaky, he brought out the half-smoked crumpled cigar, tore off its edge, flung the stub beside him and lit it as painstakingly as a nurse jabs a syringe into the vein. With the same unsteady hands, George drew the thick grey smoke into his lungs, rudely spewed the remainder out, a quantum of which landed on my resenting nostrils. I feigned being choked by the smoke, even as I coughed repeatedly.
“You will wonder where my manners are,” he said in a hardly audible but gruffy voice, laughing at a God-knows-who in a very nauseating manner. “Profound apologies to you, my Nigerian writer friend,” he said. In pronouncing the Nigerian, George couched it with such high dosage of sarcasm that you could not but grasp the resentment, disdain and disregard with which he held either me or my nativity.
Amid inhaling and exhaling the cigar, George dropped his hand inside the pocket of his jacket and brought out two seemingly crumpled books. They were his two world classics, Animal Farm and 1984, which he again rudely tossed at me. I looked at them carefully, wondering why the old man was engaged in this blizzard of suspense. With a determined mind to shake him off this choreographed and needless suspense, I told the old man that I read those books over thirty years ago. I went ahead to tell him how his hatred for Stalin had bred such an unflattering satire, while reflecting on his choice of the setting of 1984 in a totalitarian superstate named Oceania.
“Read them all over again,” George prodded. “You were right about Stalin and the totalitarianism which provoked those two books. Read them again, young man and tell me if Stalin is indeed dead.”
I gave the two crumpled books looks that seemed to last an eternity. By the time I looked up, my guest was gone, leaving only the acrid smell of his Cheroot cigar hovering all over me like some stubborn apparition. And I woke up. I had been dreaming all this while after all! Sunlight had taken over the day. I then walked to my study, fished out the two books written by my dream guest and began to read them all over again.
While both books are strict warnings against totalitarianism and the creeping evils of authoritarian government, Animal Farm is specifically an allegorical novella that depicts the gradual negative slide of the Russian Revolution of 1917, down to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. It is a biting social criticism against an audacious and brutal dictatorship, woven around a cult of personality, and perpetuated by a reign of terror against the people. It shows how a government, which came into office claiming to be the people’s messiah, could easily morph into becoming their nemesis. 1984, on its own, is a commentary on an attempt by government, as reflected in the Oceania all-controlling Party, which attempts to brainwash the people into becoming an unthinking populace. It seeks unearned allegiance to Big Brother, The Party, using propagandistic language referred to as Newspeak, with its limiting of free thought. The Party’s doctrines are sacred and designed to limit free thought. The government in power enforces this obedience through the deployment of the Thought Police, like the Buhari’s DSS, and conducted a surveillance of free speech through the organ.
In a few days, I was done with the re-reading of the two books. One evening, as I sat on the couch of my living room, I suddenly beheld George again. He held his old walking stick and wore the same threadbare jacket. This time, he seemed to have acquired greater energy and verve. Barely exchanging greetings and rudely taking his seat without my prompting, he had the old cigar stuck to his brown lips again. He asked for his crumpled books, which I volunteered to him. Then he began what looked like an inquisition, as if I was in a consequential examination session.
“Where can you locate that poorly-run Manor Farm located close to Willingdon, England, in your country, Nigeria? Who are the replica of that irresponsible, alcoholic farmer, Mr. Jones and human representatives of the other characters in Animal Farm?” he asked.
I was prepared for this. So, I began. The ouster of Mr. Jones and his governance of the Manor Farm, I told George, had all the trappings of and could comfortably answer to the description of that 2015 All Progressives Congress (APC)’s nocturnal overthrow of Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and the drunken government he ran. The highly exalted boar called Old Major, I told the old George, has all the dimensions of Bola Tinubu, who roused all manner of shenanigans to get the APC into government, and his sobering abandonment by those he helped into office. The revolutionary song, “Beasts of England” has affinity with the shout of “APC! Change!”; a mantra that the party sang to hoodwink the people. The 2019 election and PDP’s attempt to come back to the Villa, I told George, was a replica of “Battle of the Cowshed,” Mr. Jones’ attempt, in consort with his associates, to retake the Manor Farm.
Old George nodded in extreme satisfaction.
And I continued. 1984 is even the severest clone of Buhari’s Nigeria. I submitted to George that indeed, while the 1948-written book was an imagined future of a society that is bereft of reason, he was making a dystopian peep into Nigeria. That future is here with us in a Buhari who is a fitting replica of the Orwellian Big Brother. The difference between him and Stalin, I told George, is that while Stalin personally supervised the Iron Curtains rule, for reasons that we are left to guess, Buhari has mentally abdicated office and gone aside like Baal, god of the Sidonians, in the Battle at Mount Carmel, leaving the stage for puppet tyrants to have a field day.
Old George seemed interested in this comparison and asked me to explicate.
Between Lai Mohammed and the security goons, they approximate the Oceania State, where anyone who dares to think differently from paddlers of Nigeria’s sinking ship of state is rewarded with public opprobrium. While in Oceania, it is torture, in Nigeria under Buhari, it is a public example, the like of which Mailafia was subjected to by the SSS last week. It is the recompense for anyone who dares to tread the path of free speech. Critical elements in Nigeria are monitored repeatedly and the APC party propaganda makes it look like we are being administered by men with the best intentions for us.
Under Buhari, Nigeria has slid into a dystopia, appropriating the Orwellian state. In one breath, Mohammed aspires to be 1984’s hero, Winston Smith of the Outer Party, whose job is to rewrite history in his Ministry of Truth. In another breath, it appears sacrilegious to make that comparison because, Mohammed, judging by his antecedents and the damage to Jonathan he wreaked with free speech, appears to have a sobering understanding of the danger of free speech and thought, a sledgehammer on unaccountable governments, the like of which Buhari runs.
I told old George that this same minister, notorious for filling the space, like the Orwellian Boxer, with phony constructions, laughable untruths and earth-shaking allegations against the Jonathan government in the run-up to the 2015 election, now determines the colour of hate and its victim, just like in Orwellian 1984. While The Party deploys the Thought Police for the persecution of individuality and independent thinking, determining what is wrong or right in 1984, in Buhari’s Nigeria, it is becoming a crime to have an opinion against the calamity that the government has become.
While not finding excuse for Mailafia’s scary allegations against the Buhari government, it is obvious that the inexplicable chaos, slaughtering of defenceless people in Kaduna, unexplained atrophy of Nigerian troops at the Boko Haram warfront (troops hitherto garlanded by the United Nations for their bravery in peacekeeping operations in the 1990s) cannot but give rise to speculations that high ranking government officials have more sinister plans for Nigeria afoot. An otherwise flippant Nasir el-Rufai has lost his voice as his people are slaughtered. Buhari is too far away from this hemisphere to even know that Nigeria is at war under him. So, why give Mailafia the Solarin treatment in the Ebony magazine allegation fiasco when, like Babangida’s, this government has lost any claim to believability and is viewed as enemy of its people?
When the SSS, on Friday last week, issued a statement claiming that there were plans to destabilise Nigeria, it was clear that the Service was merely engaged in puerile equivocation, I told old George. Can the SSS claim not to know the locus of unrest, needless tension and the growing disenchantment of the people of Nigeria? It goes without saying that the only person working assiduously to destabilise Nigeria is the No. 1 resident of Aso Rock Villa, the president himself, in cahoots with his associates. Once Buhari stops mis-administering Nigeria, makes life liveable for the people, advertises his ability to administer the country himself, as against by proxy, stops this descent into anarchy and provides a concrete future for the people, every machination of anyone else to cause chaos would be foiled by the people themselves. If Nigeria under Buhari continues to be tossed hither thither like a miserable leaf on the river as this by social, political and economic tides, it will be susceptible to any force within and without.
Old George seemed to like this pontification. For once, I saw a wry smile playing at the corner of his mouth.
No matter the attempt by Mohammed and his coronet tyrants to criminalise free speech in Nigeria and DSS’ move to Solarinise Mailafia and the few voices of dissent against the swift slide of affairs in Nigeria, I again submitted to old George, these will fail. Nigerians believe the former CBN deputy governor and disbelieve Buhari’s DSS’ attempt to ‘villainise’ him. A government which stands by while thousands of Nigerians are killed by a mix of spiraling corruption, insecurity and economic naivety cannot but be the villain. A government that jailed Olisah Metuh for stealing N400 million and whose moral emblem, Buhari, laughably mis-nicknamed Mai Gaskiya, was seen in public exchanging what appeared like a coquettish smile with a man who allegedly stole N700 million, cannot but be disbelieved. A government which publicly pardons and celebrates Boko Haram killers of our people, incinerates billions of naira of budget on armaments, while waving its hands helplessly in the sky as thousands of our people are killed, cannot but receive our disdain.
“Old George, that is my submission; that is the Nigerian dystopia you created in 1948,” I concluded, like a famished advocate in the presence of a judge.
Old George stood up all of a sudden, forlorn and confused. He looked older and very miserable. Like a man in a trance, he took his stick and began to walk away tremulously. He faded into the dark before I could pick myself up.