Why is the Akwa Ibom State government fighting blackmailers and false alarmists masquerading as bloggers and online publishers? Nseobong Okon-Ekong explains
Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State is a peacemaker, mediator and problem solver. Even his most ardent critics dare not call him a brawler.
They might not like the way he treats his predecessor, Senator Godswill Akpabio with deserving courtesies in the face of apparent provocation. They still can’t fathom why he didn’t unleash his supporters who were anxious to go for the jugular of the front-liners of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state in the 2019 national elections, as well as, his tranquil disposition, that commends him to follow the Biblical injunction to pursue peace with all men. They do not admire that he convinced violent agitators to lay down their arms and become reformed and useful members of the society again or his perceptible political slogan, “Only God.”
But this calm character may very well be Udom’s Achilles heel. Having positioned the government he heads as calm, without appurtenances of the uproarious, it is now difficult to do any other thing than turn the other cheek in the face of annoyance.
That is why many stood with him despite the obvious flaws that returned an almost 100 percent success to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Akwa Ibom in the 2019 national elections. Udom, they argued, is too meek and suave to condone rigging, vote buying and other forms of electoral malpractices.
From rallying the support of his immediate constituency in Onna local government area and the larger Eket senatorial district through location of choice multi-million Naira industries in that locale, he has since advanced quietly to position his men in the recent election of ward and local government executives of the party in Akwa Ibom. Yet, many doubt the strength of the governor to get things done his way, albeit quietly.
By the piece, Udom is wearing down opposition, as reformist politicians across party lines throw their weight behind his purported candidate for the 2023 governorship contest.
Now he is confronted with a challenge that can ruin his sophisticated reputation. How does he deal with irritants on social media?
Akwa Ibom is in a class of its own when it comes to pervasiveness of the media. With a population of 5.451 million people spread across 31 local government areas, a 2012 UNESCO List posts an impressive 70.7 percent literacy level, ranking it 7th among Nigeria’s 36 states. Perhaps, this explains the popularity of all forms of media platforms in the state. It may not be wrong to number blogs and online media in their hundreds, energized by a youthful population who are inspired, but restless. In a state where there is hardly any other avenue for gainful employment than participation in partisan politics, these youths have constituted themselves into an immense lobby group that can be deployed by powerful politicians to wreck havoc on their opponents. They are the ‘Boko Haram’ of the Akwa Ibom environment who were once by their paymasters to carry out dirty jobs, but having become with earning cheap money by ruining peoples character, having chosen to carry on with that way of life.
Sometimes, these bloggers and online publishers are fired on their own steam to prosecute a personal agenda that eventually recommends them to men in power. So, in the Akwa Ibom governor’s communication team, there is a Commissioner for Information and Strategy, a Chief Press Secretary/SA Media, SA New Media and SA Local Media, to mention a few, that is apart from sundry public relation consultants.
At any point in time, the media space in Akwa Ibom is a cauldron of repressed anger. It graduates to a steamy broil close to or in an election year, when all hell is let loose and every weapon of warfare appears fair in the hands of the mighty.
It is this chaotic media milieu in Akwa Ibom that respected journalist, Ray Ekpu sought to draw a meaning from when he said that a distinction should be made between journalists and bloggers, who he described as “N5000 dirty job artists.” Expectedly, the bloggers spared no concern for Ekpu’s age and professional integrity as they came for his head. As the leadership of the umbrella body of bloggers, Coalition of Online Publishers, in the state would later admit, Ekpu was unlucky to be caught in the middle of a longstanding faceoff between mainstream journalists and bloggers.
Bloggers and online publishers are no respecter of persons and institutions. They are likely to do maximum damage on someone’s reputation, not caring if they are damned.
This past week, an uncanny scenario played out in Akwa Ibom to underscore the menace of blogging and online publishing without adherence to a body of rules.
On April 27, a Chief Magistrate in Uyo, capital of Akwa Ibom State ordered a certain George Udom to be admitted to the Ibom Specialist Hosptial where his sample was to be taken and tested for possible COVID-19 infection. Udom describes himself on the social media as an Information Technology Consultant with designation as Principal Consultant, SROC and Partners. He also runs another thriving platform, SROC Reporters, where he aggregates contents. Udom is further known as a political analyst and commentator, who once introduced the Office of the Citizen as the highest office in the land.
The Police in Akwa Ibom had arraigned George Udom, 39, on a two-count charge bordering on defamation. According to his lawyers, “While in Court, he developed an allergy and coughed uncontrollably suggestive of a possible contagious infection. Consequently, the presiding Chief Magistrate ordered that he be isolated for 14 days and subjected to a medical test for COVID -19 at the Ibom Specialist Hospital.”
He was also accused of defaming the character of a cleric, Umoh Eno, by publishing on Facebook that his mother and maid died of COVID-19. Mr Eno is the owner of a popular hotel, Royalty Hotels, in Eket.
The police told the magistrate that Mr. Udom’s claims were false and punishable under Section 383 (1) (b) and Section 384 of the Criminal Code, Cap 38, Vol. 2, Laws of Akwa Ibom State.
Mr. George Udom pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The previous day, April 26, Udom had published and an extremely inflammatory and unsubstantiated post on his Facebook post, capable of causing stampede and commotion, which implored people to “run and hide!” from impending COVID-19 death and that a good number of members of the state executive council were infected with the virus. The statement read in part, “If you’re in Akwa Ibom state at this moment, run and hide for your dear life! We have a lot of unrecorded death on ground in relation to COVID-19 and still spreading like wildfire. As we speak, we have about nine commissioners who have tested positive and receiving treatment at home. The mother of the owner of Royalty Hotel and the maid just died having COVID-19 symptoms and when the test came out it was positive.
The mother of the Royalty Hotel (sic) also owns a fast food And (table) water company. After her return from the US she became sick and died and same with her maid… Meanwhile the son is positive and this (sic) people before their death had contacts with other persons. As at today Sunday 26th April 2020, a pastor is currently on self isolation and receiving treatment. Two members of his congregation who visited the man of God prior (to) his isolation for counseling for not feeling too well died at home and that prompted the pastor to go for test which came out positive. The authorities are fully aware of the situation and are just trying to carry out some sort of damage control. It will amaze you to find that even under this lockdown, those in authority are (sic) still travel to and from Lagos using government pass and escorts. People of God, if you’re in Akwa Ibom state at the moment, run and hide for your dear life! Do not say I didn’t warn you! My name is George Udom and I love Akwa Ibom state.”
The Akwa Ibom State government’s response has been condemned as intimidation, harassment and humiliation in some quarters.
It is not the first time this kind of saga would play out, where citizens deliberately create panic, raise false alarm and malign individuals in government and the larger public still expects the official to acquit himself without seeking redress in court.
Before the current case, a banker, Michael Itok is currently languishing in detention for allegedly insulting Governor Udom on his Facebook page. He was arraigned before a magistrate court in Uyo, by the State Security Service, SSS, for writing numerous articles against the Akwa Ibom Governor and other officials of the state government. The offences are punishable under Section 6(1) (f) of the Akwa Ibom State Internal Security and Enforcement Law, 2009.
As many commentators have noted, there is an underlining partisan leaning by these persons who have dented the governor’s reputation. Recently, a popular female restaurateur who is a member of the APC posted a video that went viral, accusing Governor Udom of not being able to grapple with the factors that have caused widespread hunger and poverty in the state. George Udom, the latest person making capital of his nuisance value against the governor is an avowed loyalist of the APC.
Akwa Ibom is in a class of its own when it comes to pervasiveness of the media. With a population of 5.451 million people spread across 31 local government areas, a 2012 UNESCO List posts an impressive 70.7 percent literacy level, ranking it 7th among Nigeria’s 36 states. Perhaps, this explains the popularity of all forms of media platforms in the state. It may not be wrong to number blogs and online media in their hundreds, energized by a youthful population who are inspired, but restless. In a state where there is hardly any other avenue for gainful employment than participation in partisan politics, these youths have constituted themselves to an immense lobby group that can be deployed by powerful politicians to wreck havoc on their opponents