Drawing the lines to promote freedom of expression
All over the world, the role of cartoonists in nation building is well acknowledged. Deploying humour, pun with contextual use of visual allusion, cartoonists believe in the might of their brushes, which they use to interrogate different issues of concern as citizens of a country.
They are professional pictorial satirists who daily reduce official and societal foibles into commentaries garnished with comical graphics. Sometimes, they are victimised in the course of carrying out their professional duties.
In 2015, French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, was the target of a massacre by Islamist gunmen. Twelve people, including some of France’s most celebrated cartoonists, were killed when brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi went on a gun rampage at the paper’s offices in Paris.
In 1945 and 1966, celebrated visual artists and cartoonist, Akinola Lasekan was incarcerated for cartoons which the colonial administrators and the Aguiyi Ironsi-led military regime considered very offensive. Lasekan produced scathing editorial cartoons which caused sleepless night for the colonial administrators and the military regime.
Nigerian cartoonists are represented under the umbrella of Cartoonists Association of Nigeria (CARTAN). Some notable cartoonists include, Jossy Ajiboye, Chuks Anyawu, Cliff Ogiugo, Amusa Sango Ayo Ajayi, Kenny Adamson.
Others are: Olaseinde Obe popularly called Obe Ess, D.D Onu, Albert Ohams, Femi Adedeji, Franklin Oyekusibe, Mike Asukwo, Mustapha Bulama, Paschal Anyaso, Dada Adekola, Victor Asowata, Leke Moses, among others.
In an interview with The Guardian, Chief Executive Officer/ Executive Director, Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ), Motunrayo Alaka said cartoonists, apart from calling out high handedness of those in authority, also wield lots of humour, which makes the message they pass travel than other forms.
She said images are powerful, effective and subtle than other forms of journalism. She recalled the military era, where cartoonists like Lasekan deployed his works to promote freedom of expression.
According to her, “at WSCIJ, we take cartoons very seriously. In many media houses, those departments are not as large as they used to be because of digitisation and because of convergence. But we still support cartoonists with awards and training.”
She argued that cartoonists are good example of what freedom of expression can be, saying it is not easy to sue cartoonists for libel because their works are extremely expressive and delivered with humour.
Ahead of 2023 general election, she suggested cartoonists could investigate candidates and do cartoon stories. She advised: “They can profile candidates on their impacts, engage in civic education so that we can awake national consciousness. There is a lot of apathy to governance and politicians are having field day because nobody will ask questions. So, we need to get cartoonists to do civic engagements on leaders’ impact.”
Lecturer, Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos, Dr. Akin Onipede, at a recent online exhibition said one of the surest ways of accurately gauging the pulse of the nation is through cartoons and illustrations by editorial cartoonists and commentators in the visual genre.
He recalled that during the military era, draconian decrees were promulgated to cage the voices of the press, where Tunde Thompson, Nduka Irabor, Nosa Igiebor and others were lucky to escape with jail terms and detention, unlike Ken Saro Wiwa, Dele Giwa and Bagauda Kaltho who paid dearly with their lives.
However, he argued that the Nigerian cartoonists survived, not because they shirked their responsibilities as opinion leaders and moulders during the period but because of the manner of delivering debilitating punches cleverly coated with humour.
He said they did not only provide visual accomplishments to news reports and features, they also held public office holders accountable with large doses of humour intended to deter and reform them.
He, however, said there is no gagging of the Nigerian cartoonists. To him, “the die is cast already as Nigerian cartoonists are reinvigorated and resolute in charting a part of rectitude for the nation by prodding and holding into the feet of those elected into position of authority.”
Speaking in a similar vein, lecturer, Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos, Dr. Ganiyu Jimoh Jimga, said cartoonists, bloggers and other journalists have been persecuted for expressing dissenting views on governance.
He observed that many who questioned the state on socio-political anomalies were charged with cybercrime and terrorism under the Cybercrime Act of 2015 and Terrorism (Prevention) (Amendment) Act of 2013.
As watchdogs of the society and custodians of a genre that relies on counter-discourse narratives, he noted, these limitations pose great challenge to political cartoonists.
However, he said: “It is important to draw the line without undermining creativity and audaciousness. I am very sure that violent reactions which trail Charlie Hebdo cartoon publications were not desired by those cartoonists. It is important to evaluate potential consequential effects. ‘This should be seen as delimitations and not limitations. And of course not what Clare Boronow tagged, as “fear-induced censorship” where a person remains silent out of fear of illegitimate sanction or reprisal, either by the government or by private party.”
He disclosed that delimitations he suggested could be achieved through ingenious use of metaphoric allusions in cartons through humour and contextual use of visual allusions without saturating the content and context of their messages.
West African representative of Cartoonist Rights Network International (CRNI) and Cartoon Editor, Sun Newspapers, Albert Ohams admitted that Nigerian cartoonists have been at the forefront of nation building by informing the public and criticising government policies that don’t go well with the populace.
He said cartoonists have used their brushes to talk about corruption, freedom of speech, terrorism, illiteracy and all forms of societal ills. As watchdogs of the Nigerian press, he noted that cartoonists have also been in the campaign against oppression, nepotism, ethnicity, religious bias and all evils plaguing the Nigerian state.
“Fortunately, Nigerian cartoonists have had a field day in this democratic dispensation, doing their work without fear or favour;” he said. On how government could encourage cartoonists, he said, “the government pretend not to take us serious but they read our works and I believe it impacts positively on them.”
He suggested that the government could partner with cartoonists to build a strong and healthy society by engaging them to support government policies that impacts the masses.
For example, he revealed that Chairman/ Chief Executive Offficer, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA,) Brig. Gen. Mohamed Buba Marwa, recently engaged some cartoonists to disseminate information against drug abuse that is ravaging the youths. We have also done some cartoons on COVID-19, domestic violence and gender equality.
“Nothing stops the National library from engaging cartoonists to change the narrative of poor reading culture among the youths. Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) can also engage cartoonists to disseminate information on the electoral process, the importance of electronic voting as well as voter education. We don’t just criticise, we can also help build a better society;” he stated.
Veteran cartoonist, Dada Adekola of Vanguard Newspaper, said cartoons, especially editorial cartoons, shape public opinions on societal issues, serving as a corrective measure.
Adekola, who is also the newly elected president of CARTAN, said during the military era, the business of critical, satirical and creative offering took the centre stage among the voices that ousted the junta. Even in this dispensation, he insisted that cartoons and cartoonists are still as creative and critical as ever.
Taking the advantage of a strong visual impact, he stressed that the cartoonist expresses himself assiduously at the slightest opportunity to contribute to the progress and moral upliftment of the society. He said what would take a full page to explain, a single panel of cartoons sums it up.
Speaking on his plan for the association, he stated that “to be at the driver’s seat of a vehicle that housed highly cerebral individuals like CARTAN, is a huge responsibility and also an honour. My tenure will expand horizons of possibilities in terms of welfare and professionalism of CARTAN members especially in this age of dwindling newspaper business; increase members’ participation on our social media platforms; drive revenue through programming and not forgetting consideration for healthcare plan.”