A First Lady has since evolved into an institution much bigger than the fashion icon and hostess of the State House. Dame Patience Jonathan, is the mother of the nation following an unchanging tradition. Because of their relations with the leader, First Ladies have become very influential advisers and in many cases, the “eyes and ears” of presidents and prime ministers. They function as the human or, if you like, the compassionate side of the leader.
The President’s time is taken up much of the time by cabinet members, advisers and such other experts discussing state issues, some of them concerning war and peace. There are matters of political survival to think about, as are matters of power and influence at home and abroad. In a country that has a daily food budget of N1,114,353.34 for the State House and N308,219. 18 for the Vice President in the 2013 budget, how would the Nigerian leader know the cost of a mudu of Garri, a litre of kerosene or sachet water? If she thinks well and works well, a first lady is an asset to her husband and the country. I believe in all seriousness that Dame Patience is a moderate person given what we have seen in the past in the Villa and that she is a useful companion to President Jonathan. Is that not why we have so visibly missed her for the nearly two months that she disappeared from our radar?
I will tell one example of why she was so badly missed. But before I do that, I will express the hope that Mrs. Jonathan and all the other officials in the public domain, learn a thing or two from the terrible press she suffered because of her unexplained absence. Nature it is said, abhors a vacuum. Public officials in those kinds of position owe a duty to explain some actions they consider private whether they are willing to accept it or not. The public’s right to know under our constitution is not an absolute legal right but a moral right. But public figures who fail to respect it and embrace non-disclosure pay a price, which is sometimes irredeemable. When official information is withheld, rumour takes over, and in country such as ours, the “bush telegraph” actually travels faster than radio and newspapers.
Early this year, the Emirs and Chiefs of Northern Nigeria called an important meeting in Kaduna. They convened following the spate of ethnic and religious crises that had seized the North. The meeting was very well attended. They met and approved their resolutions on how security will be helped and resolved to pass their recommendations to the Northern States Governors’ Forum.
The Emirs and Chiefs, for whatever reason, said that this meeting was a secret meeting and declined to publicly issue a statement. They all left. Believe me, two days after, a mischievous publicist seized the vacuum to launch a well coordinated publication in the nation’s press, saying that the Emirs met on a single issue – to raise a memo to President Goodluck Jonathan on the plight of Major Hamza Al-Mustapha who, two weeks earlier, had been convicted of murder by a Lagos High Court. The story went on to detail facts that suggested that Al-Mustapha was a victim of political persecution and that the Northern Emirs and Chiefs had decided that enough was enough. This was classically an opportunistic action, an action that nonetheless forced the Emirs and Chiefs to later come out with the reasons for their meeting. But the damage had been done.
Reading Mrs. Jonathan’s painful account of how badly hurt she was by the negative reviews her absence elicited, including what she called the wish by enemies that she died because people don’t come out of the Aso Rock Villa alive, you will sympathize with her over this self-inflicted pain. A single paragraph stating that the First Lady had gone for a two-month rest, or medical checkup, had that been the case, would have cleared the need for Nigerians to seek explanation for her absence from the bush telegraph. And, by the way, why did she find it necessary to thank “a majority of Nigerians” for their prayers if she wasn’t undergoing treatment? Why would anyone lap unsolicited prayers, especially where the prayers are not needed?
My subject today, Desmond Utomwen, a Senior Correspondent with the News Magazine, missed the First Lady more than all of us did and I just hope that her intervention with the President on his matter is not late.
Desmond just won a case at the Abuja High Court which awarded him the sum of N100 million for the violation of his rights by the Nigerian Police and the Guaranty Trust Bank, GTB.
On Friday December 11, 2009, the reporter was on duty covering the protest by a section of the public in Area 3, Abuja, following fraudulent withdrawal of depositors’ cash via the Automated Teller Machine, ATM. A combined force of the police and the bank officials “brutalized and beat him to a pulp”. As a consequence, he sustained severe injury and lost a digital camera, a recorder, company ID and N2,000 cash.
After several demands, both the Police and the bank refused to take responsibility, failing to treat and compensate him for the losses.
From here, the chambers of the activist cum civil rights lawyer, Festus Keyamo, took up the case. After a fierce legal battle, Desmond won. He won because there was no dispute about the fact of the maltreatment. The bank said the policemen were responsible. The police said no, it was the bank officials who beat him.
In his judgment, Justice U. P. Kekemeke determined that “the actions of the respondents amount to a violation of the reporter’s right of freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, right to own movable and unmovable property and right to freedom of the press and expression as enshrined in Sections 34, 39 and 44 of the 1999 Constitution”. The Court ordered both the police and the bank to pay N100 million to Desmond as exemplary damages and to return all his items seized by them.
For Desmond to get this compensation to heal the physical and emotional wounds; for the nation’s institutions to imbibe a lesson on the respect the rights of everyone including Journalists, there is a duty on the part of the government to ensure that the police and GTB go through the pain of paying this penalty. A proactive First Lady like Dame Patience has a call of duty to prevail on her husband, our President, to persuade the bank to accept the decision and to stop the police outright from appealing this case. Under the existing court rules in the country, a human rights case such as this can be determined within a month of action. This one has taken three years to run its course. The police and the GTB should not delay this payment any further through frivolous appeals. For a President who dared the nay-sayers to write his name in the annals of our media history by signing the Freedom of Information Act, Desmond’s landmark victory is another opportunity to achieve another record in the expansion of the media space in our country.
Welcome back, our beloved mother of the nation.
Garba Shehu, former President of the Nigeria Guild of Editors, writes a weekly column for PREMIUM TIMES