Some years ago, I was billed to travel to Europe. It was actually my third time outside my country. On the first occasion, my former company had sent me to Idi-Iroko, a border town in Ogun State, to investigate a story concerning smuggling activities in that town. I posed as a teacher on holiday with his wifey, intent on augmenting my meager salary with part time trade in palm and vegetable oil. These were the hotcakes at that time. When my story hit the newsstands, immigration personnel seemingly implicated in the smuggling scam were up in arms, in a manner of speaking. They sent word that I had become persona non grata and that if I were to show my face again at any border, they would kick my butt in. Therefore, when this company was travelling to Porto Novo, Benin Republic, on a training seminar, and I was again sent to cover the seminar, concerned members of staff advised me against travelling via that same route. But I did. I believed that I had done nothing wrong and it was that conviction, and God being on my side that sustained me. Nevertheless, I took certain precautions before I set off. Before and after the seminar, immigration personnel put the participants and members of staff of my former company through hell checking and cross checking and double checking everyone on that entourage. Whether or not they were looking for me or just putting on an act that they were doing their jobs, I cannot tell.
Now to the Europe trip. At that point where you are cleared to board, a uniformed official I had never met walked up, smiled and greeted me as if we were buddies. He called my name, asked how my company was doing and bade me goodbye. I asked how the hell he came to know me that well to call me by my first name, and he smiled again, bade me goodbye once again. Was I shocked or surprised that a total ‘stranger’ in uniform knew me? Yes and no. Yes, because I had already put the Idi-Iroko incident behind me and no, I was no longer surprised because I soon recollected it and realizing that there was no way in hell that security people couldn’t have a dossier on a journalist of 20 years standing as a columnist.
But it is not the being-a-columnist-for-20-years-standing aura that tells me that journalists or anybody in the public eye is a goldfish in a bowl. It would be an irresponsible thing if the SSS people do not keep tabs on the goings and comings of her intelligentsia. After all, didn’t they say the computer is mightier than the gun or sword? And if the truth be told, this kind of thing happens everywhere else. The CIA, the MI5, FBI, and the defunct KGB all keep and kept tons and tons of tabs on everyone they consider a problem or prospect. I have a book here in front of me called SPY TRADE, and part of it is a chronicle of what used to happen in the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR. Under the KGB, everyone was under radar to the extent that if that radar was on you, it included your father, mother, brothers, sisters, your dog or even what kinds of vegetables you had in your backyard garden. Thus with the collapse of the USSR, the KGB was disbanded but the need to keep tabs continued especially with the new forms of terrorism prevalent today. That is why again, the new effort to keep tabs on people was supposed to deter. Security in most civilized countries is top priority nearly because of the belief that the price for freedom is eternal vigilance: they bug phones, read private incoming mail and use CCTV cameras on sub and railways. All of this is proactive and is in tandem with Ronald Reagan’s principle of ‘deterrence’: ‘Deterrence means simply this: making sure that any adversary who thinks about attacking the United States or our allies or vital interests concludes that the risks to him outweigh any potential gains. Once he understands that, he wouldn’t attack’, Reagan had said.
But the case is different here. Look at the predicament of the Nigerian-American columnist and professor who came home recently. The security people seized both his passports and asked him to report for an interrogation. When he showed up, the SSS made him understand that his name was on a watch list simply because the government of Umaru Yar’Adua did not like him. Oh, they are sorry, they told him, his name should have been struck off, with the unfortunate demise of Mr President. Kai, the thing is shameful Walahii!
But again, this is not what I want to talk about today, no. While I can come to terms with having my name on an SSS watch list because I am an important person, and because I am a columnist or a journalist, having it there because a government does not like me is another matter altogether. It ordinarily means that we are in a monarchy like that of a Louis XIV whose proclamation that ‘I am the State!’, was one spark that ignited the French Revolution.
I am happy that that columnist and professor did not plead with them to remove his name from that list. Let them continue to watch us if they like. As long as we are not breaking the law, as long as our criticism [whether benign or malignant] is to improve our country, let them watch us. The only problem with this kind of watch or witch list is that it detracts from the real enemies of the state. I want to assert that it was because they were so engrossed with watching journalists and those who do not pose any grave threat to Nigeria, that they could not quickly apprehend or deter those who imported arms from Iran into the country. In fact, if they were watching those who are politicians by day and terrorists by night, the October 1, Christmas and New Year bombs may not have detonated. So, what the SSS should do, is co-opt and work with journalists or columnists as partners in progress instead of witch haunting or watching them, thank you.