Is Umahi a Dictator in Disguise?
Ojo Maduekwe writes on Thisday
When Ebonyi State Governor, David Umahi ordered security officials to shoot on sight anyone infected by the Coronavirus that tried to escape from isolation centres in the state, there were divided opinions as to the justification of the order. The debate was whether he went overboard, or was being decisive in responding to the crisis.
Considering that the Covid-19 pandemic has depleted the world population by 219,287 and counting as at April 29, 2020, there were people, who argued that any infected person that refuses to quarantine is a health risk, and therefore, it’s justifiable if tough measures were taken to ensure the preservation of the wellbeing of others.
Understanding Umahi’s actions or policies through measures he’s taken to fight the Coronavirus in Ebonyi would be difficult; however, when other past and recent actions are considered, it becomes easy to see that many of the governor’s actions that were sometimes disguised as tough and decisive, were nothing but dictatorial.
In October 2019, the governor was said to be on his way back to the state capital, Abakaliki, from his Uhuru, Ohaozara hometown, when his convoy reportedly met a roadblock along the Onicha road in Onicha Local Government Area of the state by mourners at a wake-keep.
The following day, while narrating the incident to some guests, governor Umahi decreed that, “Next time the ADC should order a shoot.”
Not satisfied, he also ordered a ban on wake-keeps in the state from extending beyond 10pm. “I want it to be announced that henceforth, no wake-keep should go past 10pm. If you must pass 10pm, take a written permission from the chairman of the local government.”
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According to him, if a problem occurs from the wake-keep, both the chairman and the person that requested for extra-time will be held responsible.
A recent event once again has proven that Umahi may have some streak of dictatorial tendencies in him. In a statewide live broadcast, he stated that he was banning for life, the state correspondent of the Sun newspaper, Chijioke Agwu, and his Vanguard counterpart, Peter Okutu, from entering the Ebonyi Government House or any other government facility within the state.
The journalist’s offences were simply doing their job. Mr. Agwu did a report on the Lassa Fever outbreak in the state, and Mr Okutu reported on an alleged military invasion of the Umuogodoakpu-Ngbo community in Ohaukwu local government area.
While the governor ordered the arrest of Agwu, the Ohaukwu LGA chairman, Mr. Clement Odah, in the footsteps of governor Umahi, ordered for the arrest of Okutu.
The International Press Centre (IPC) was right in describing the journalist’s arrest as “executive lawlessness”, and asked anyone who feels aggrieved to exercise right of reply or better still, seek redress in court. Anything other than that is dictatorial, more so when the governor threatens members of the press with “koboko” (horse whip).
Criticising Umahi’s action, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) said the Constitution guaranteed the press the right to freedom of expression, as well as the right to impart and disseminate information. According to the association, the ban was an unfortunate and sad reminder of the rule by force under the military regime.
When he masks his actions as fighting for the “common man” (or in another demeaning phrase that he used, “a smaller person”) like he did with the roadblock incident, unknown to the governor, he reveals another side of himself – a deceitful side. It is not the safety of the people that would push him to order for the indiscriminate shooting of the same people, who elected him to serve. Rather, as he insinuated, it is his bruised ego.
“It is very illegal to block the governor. And if anybody is killed in the course of that, it is allowed in law,” the governor was reported as saying.
A bruised ego is what would make a governor, over a minor incident, boast that those he’s supposed to govern would “go to prison”, and then summon the chairman of the affected LGA, House of Assembly members and coordinators and his Senior Special Assistant on Security to identify people, who blocked the road for a peaceful wake-keep.
It seems the public should be more concerned with happenings in the state. In the early part of March 2020, the governor in a 13-point communiqué signed by the Secretary to the State Government, Mr. Kenneth Ugbala, directed security agencies in the state to “shoot at sight and possibly kill anyone who tries to kill any Ebonyian.”
The reason was to stem a communal clash by youths of the two communities of Ohankwu and Amana over a contentious ownership of a mining site in the area.
Gradually, what is being witnessed could be the unmasking of a dictator in Ebonyi, a state where the governor could order an arrest for simply observing a loved one’s wake-keep, order the extrajudicial killing of people at any given event, and then try to ban for life journalists, who report happenings in the state from accessing public facilities.
Even though he’s bowed to pressure by recanting, for the governor to even consider that he could take away by an executive fiat the media’s right to freedom of expression leaves much to be desired.
This is why the press must intensify its watchdog role, because a governor, who sees the media as “a child” that he can “beat with one hand and bring back with the other hand” surely has more dictatorial tendencies than he is currently exhibiting.