Lessons from the information minister
When Alhaji Lai Mohammed described the shootings of #EndSARS protesters at Lekki Toll Gate as a ‘massacre without bodies’, he was not merely exercising his linguistic prowess. Rather, he was tugging at something fundamental, the powerless of justice in the absence of reasonable evidence. Alhaji Lai Mohammed is Nigeria’s current Minister of Information and he speaks for the Muhammadu Buhari –led Federal Government. Therefore, we will not be in error to take the Minister’s description as the official position of the FG on the Lekki shootings. Whether we like it or not, the Minister and the government for which he speaks have taken side with the law. They understand its weakness and have taken advantage of it – and there is no known law against that in the court of law superintended by humans.
Those who are aggrieved by their position will have to wait for emergence of inviolable evidence against the official position. While the waiting lasts, we, especially the #EndSARS protesters, can take three important lessons from the Minister’s response to the Lekki Toll Gate shootings.
Omniscient or clairvoyant, the Honourable Minister did not need the outcome of the ongoing panel set up by Lagos State Government to declare the Lekki Toll Gate shootings a ‘massacre without bodies’. The Honourable Minister is certain that no evidence will ever be found to substantiate the claims that there were killings at Lekki Toll Gate on 20 October 2020. The confidence with which the Honourable Minister deploys the ‘massacre without bodies’ label is next only to that of a notorious criminal who successfully destroys all pieces of evidence against him, leaving his track clean and the justice system helpless. Here the Honourable Minister displays the understanding that justice answers only to evidence, and evidence proved beyond reasonable doubts. Of course absence of evidence is not an absolute proof that a crime did not happen; the absence only and sadly stands in the way of justice. That is the first lesson: inviolable evidence is central to the pursuit of justice. Not a million screams on social media can exchange for hard, verifiable evidence.
In the past few years, the Honourable Minister of Information has been outspoken against explosion of fake news on social media platforms. He has been going around the country to market social media regulation as an all-powerful cure for fake news. The Executive Government the Honourable Minister represents and the Legislature do not hide their opposing stance to social media; they both want some measure of restraint to freedom of speech on social media. Thanks to the efforts of the Honourable Minister, the notoriety of social media platforms for aiding the spread of fake news and hate speech in Nigeria has been a part of national conversation for over four years. The conversation has been predominantly about the subversive potentials of social media, eclipsing the democratic potentials of the platforms.
Based on the direction of national conversation, social media stand discredited in Nigeria as sources of authentic evidence. That is the second lesson: a compelling case building in support of a cause is critical to dislodging the opponents’ case against it. Those who believe in the democratic affordances of social media have to build in its favour a compelling case as the Honourable Minister of Information has been doing against it in the past four years.
Meanwhile, Alhaji Lai Mohammed did not invent the strategy of discrediting information platforms to control the public mind. The now outgoing President of the United States of America Donald J. Trump does it even better. The first task President Trump accomplished to gain the control of the public mind was to brand as ‘fake news’ media houses that are ideologically at variance with him. It worked like magic or how else does one explain a typical Trump supporter cursing CNN and praising FOX for publishing the same election figures, with the two media platforms diverging only in interpretation of the figures? Despite days of aggregating evidence to prove the integrity of the election, CNN, in its capacity as a major media arm of the Democratic Party, could not allay the fears of Biden supporters over Trump’s refusal to concede, neither could it win over with hard evidence the followers of Trump. When a platform is discredited, everything that comes from it becomes suspect to those sympathetic toward the source of the discredit.
Back to Nigeria, the current government especially has so much created a dreadful image of social media that many Nigerians, especially politicians, daily live in fear of the platforms. For those in that category, to believe evidence from social media is to validate the platforms as sources of authentic evidence which may work against them in future. Hence, they side with official narratives. Here is the third lesson: in the battle for the control of the public mind, reliance on a discredited platform is a disadvantage. As it stands today in Nigeria, social media have become too discredited and too convenient to take the central stage in the quest for the illusive good and responsive governance.
Government response to the peaceful and well-coordinated #EndSARS protest calls for reflection on the part of the protesters and not for a rush into another protest. Retreat is not cowardice. The kind of organisation, coordination, and networking witnessed during the protest will achieve even more if they are sustained and properly channelled. Besides mutating into politically conscious groups, in the immediate, #EndSARS protesters can deploy those values into demanding accountability from the government on the same social media, but this time based only on compelling evidence. If this path is taken, we will rid social media of the bad label and rescue the public mind from government officials who have appropriated for themselves the loyalty of public institutions which rightfully belongs only to the state – the citizens.
Oladapo wrote from University of Ibadan.