Last month, the video recording of a speech which one of my colleagues in the Department of English University of Lagos Nigeria Professor Austin Nwagbara gave at a meeting of Nigerians in Accra went viral and ultimately cost the professor his sabbatical appointment at the University of Education Winneba Ghana. Once again, the saga brought to the fore one of the fundamental truths about freedom of speech and how most African governments and authorities react to citizens who freely express themselves against the existing status quo.
Professor Nwagbara was verbally harassed and arrested by the Ghanaian Police when he presented himself to answer questions on the assertions in the video. Some Ghanaians took offence on the pungent but factual presentation which the academic gave. But for the strong presence of the Nigerian High Commissioner to Ghana and his surrogates perhaps Nwagbara would have been kept behind bars and charged to court. Also the Academic Staff of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) took a principled position on the matter and warned that no harm must befall Nwagbara. As the professor confided in us, there are many Nigerians in Ghanaian jails, on frivolous charges. The Nigerian government ought to take note of this intelligence and act on it.
What was Nwagbara’s offence? He addressed an essentially Nigerian gathering in a Ghanaian town, Winneba. Professor Nwagbara made the following points: Nigerians are constantly harassed in Ghana; they have been given a bad name and so have a bad image; Nigerians are highly skilled and are needed to develop the universities in Ghana; Nigerians have to reverse the negative image; they need to strategize on how to change the negative perception; education in Nigeria is better and cheaper yet Nigerians flock to Ghanaian universities, paying an average of ten thousand dollars per session to study; these same Nigerians would not agree to pay a tenth of that amount to be educated in public universities in Nigeria; that Nigerian manpower drives development in Ghanaian universities yet Nigerians teaching in Ghanaian universities are not respected. He concluded that there is this rivalry between Ghana and Nigeria starting from the early years. His assertion that late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe mentored the young Kwame Nkrumah and linked him up with his alma mater in the US did not go down well will Ghanaians. For expressing these views in a private gathering Professor Nwagbara’s was arrested and put through mental torture and harassment. Without going through due process the University authorities claimed that they had ‘dismissed Professor Nwagbara from the university!
Nwagbara addressed his kith and kin, safe in the arms of his brothers and sisters. Somebody in the audience recorded the speech, most likely without permission and somehow the video found its way into social media. It was a compelling presentation that addressed xenophobia and the humiliation which some Nigerians receive from citizens and officials of some African countries. His speech was not seditious. It was not insulting. He simply stated the facts as they are and called on Nigerians to develop a strategy that would ensure their collective survival.
The last point about survival strategies is very important. With the rise of nationalism, these days, foreigners in or migrants to relatively prosperous countries are viewed with hostility and suffer humiliation at the slightest provocation. The South African example is a case in point. To put things in perspective though, Nwagbara did not migrate to Ghana to live permanently. He went as a professional whose services were needed in the educational system in that country on a one-year sabbatical leave. If a professor could be so ill-treated one can imagine the lot of ordinary Nigerians who are legitimately trying to eke a living in Ghana. Sadly, this
Freedom of speech, in any circumstance, is a right. It refers to that freedom which an individual has to express thoughts and ideas as freely as possible. Freedom of speech as enshrined in most charters is not meant to destroy. It is an acknowledgement of the fact that often holders of power do not relish truth being spoken to them. Power exists at different levels. There is individual power just as there is collective power. In Nwagbara’s case, the authorities did not want to listen to the other side of the narrative. They were embarrassed by the fact that was expressed; not because the narrative was false, but because their truth was thrown at their faces right in their own soil. If a Ghanaian had made the same speech perhaps the outcome would have been different.
Nwagbara also took on the Nigerian side: we need to get our act together. Yet there was no umbrage from government or fellow academics. It would seem therefore that freedom of speech is taken for granted here in Nigeria. When the truth about an institution or society is expressed by an outsider, we often rush to defend the institution. In other words, as an outsider, Nwagbara was expected to keep shut while feasting of the table of his hosts. But this is not the way of academics or a man who is trained to conduct rational inquiry into any subject matter.
The action of the Ghanaian authorities therefore was and is tantamount to enemy action. We often read about embassy staff abandoning Nigerians when they face some challenges outside the country. Nwagbara did not suffer that fate. Indeed the High Commission stood by him till he was assured of his safety in the warm embrace of kith and kin. I look forward to the day when a strong foreign policy framework would protect n9gerians that are badly treated. There are reciprocal actions when dealing with other nations. Too many Nigerians have suffered terrible acts of punishment in India, South Africa, Libya, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and some countries in North Africa. Of course this is not to say that any Nigerian who runs afoul of the law in other countries should be exonerated just because they are Nigerians. I expect our government to always insist on the rule of law and fair treatment of all Nigerians who are alleged to have broken the law.
Finally the Professor Nwagbara case shows how intolerant the world has become and how petty some state officials could be on the issue of freedom of speech. It also makes nonsense of the big brother image which Nigeria always projects on the world stage. We need to polish our image, make Nigeria safe by creating jobs and standing firmly on issues that affect citizens whether at home or abroad. Fortunately an alternative institution for Nwagbara’s sabbatical leave is not a problem. As I told him he has become a celebrity of sorts and anywhere free speech is discussed in Africa, he would be a reference point since BBC has interviewed him we could safely assume that his name has travelled before him and the benefits of the experience will certainly surpass the trauma.