Freedom through vigilance
By Abdul Mahmud
The idea that freedom isn’t self-sustaining is as old as mankind. Through vigilance, it has been advanced and defended in struggles sustained by the sacrifices of those who tie their destinies to the destiny of humanity as an expression of commitment and value.
The power freedom mobilizes for sustenance exists outside itself. Consider freedom as a fragile flower and you will see that it is the interaction between the will and power of humanity that gives it the strength and vigour to flourish. So, freedom cannot flourish, or the power that lies outside of itself cannot draw humanity to challenge the tyranny of small men and women which threatens it, without humanity tending it.
Freedom is therefore a trumpet of wills calling on humanity to defend itself against the enemies of open society. Freedom is an eternal battle that goes on forever. As the conservative icon, Ronald Reagan famously described it, “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. They only way they can inherit the freedom we have known is if we fight for it, protect it, defend it and hand it to them with the well-taught lessons of how they in their lifetime must do the same. And if you and I don’t do this, then you and I may well spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in America when men were free”.
Only indolent citizens, as that old Irish politician, John Philpot Curran once cautioned, go to sleep, while tyrants prey on freedoms. “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance”, he warned over two hundred years ago. He is right. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. Those who keep vigil over freedoms, push the frontiers of society to secure permanence for freedoms, travel the long road to freedom that starts from the gates of prisons, and are driven by the desire to hand the lessons and victories snatched from the batons and truncheons of tyranny to generations after their own.
It is this desire that shapes all struggles, defines all eras and ages, and helps to enthrone vigilance. For without it, humanity will remain eternally chained everywhere, as Rousseau so cryptically warned in the opening of ‘The Social Contract’, “man was born free and everywhere he is in chains”, and bound to the prison that alienates him.
In ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, the poet, Oscar Wilde was more poignant: “every prison that men build is built with bricks of shame and bound with bars lest Christ should see how men their brothers maim”. In the same work, he described the indolent “as one who lies and dreams in pleasant meadow-land, the watchers… could not understand how one could sleep so sweet a sleep with a hangman close at hand”.
In the age of creeping tyranny, indolence is not the sure way of putting the spoke of tyranny out of the round, nor is it the surest way to defeat it. In fact, it reinforces the tyrannical culture which empowers tyrants and their supporters to close the gates of the prison against citizens, places the cheques of freedom they have refused to honour in envelopes they lick with their tongues to seal citizens’ fates’, and threaten critics with death as Chidi Odinkalu, Ahmad Salkida and Farooq Kperogi were recently threatened online. Some unlucky ones, like Abubakar Idris, AKA Dadiyata, disappear without a trace.
Constant vigilance protects freedom, not indolence. To be vigilant, citizens have to weaponize public engagement with superior sense, superior logic, superior arguments and better language. By doing this, they heed the Hallidayan logic of advancing the ideational and mobilizing the power and resources of language to give meaning to their cause.
Tyrants dislike free speech. They fear the power that comes with speech, so they shrink public space. This government has declared its dubious intent of shrinking public space with the fencing of the Unity Fountain in Abuja, and taking prisoners. Ohimai Amaize, the erstwhile presenter of ‘Kaakaki Social’, the embedded social media news analysis programme showing on Africa Independent Televion before it was axed, reportedly fled into exile when he was tipped of plans to silence him. The ivory tower has also seemingly taken its cue from the government. Ask Ifemosu, Adeyeye and Adebajo – all victims.
There are citizens who slouch their way around indolence to denounce the gains made from years of struggle. They prefer to sing the Lord’s Song in a country that has become a strange land to them. They don’t accept that they are afraid. They don’t accept that they have given up on their destinies. They don’t accept that they are ignorant of the historical battles and sacrifices that secured the freedoms they enjoy today.
They are ignorant of the women of Aba who in 1929 stared at the British colonialists eyeball-to-eyeball, the young Zikists who fought colonialism, students who in 1962 stormed the parliament in Lagos pressing for the abrogation of the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact and years later mobilized the streets to end the Structural Adjustment Programme. These are the unfortunate citizens who ask: who freedom epp?
There is something frivolous about this psychology that makes these citizens tolerate the shenanigans thrown at them. It is this psychology Fela deprecated in ‘Sorrow, Tears and Blood’: “my people sef dey fear too much, we fear for the thing we no see, we fear for the air around us, we fear to fight for freedom, we fear to fight for liberty, we fear to fight for justice, we fear to fight for happiness, we always get reason to fear: we no wan die, we no wan wound, we no wan quench, we no wan go, I get one child, mama dey for house, papa dey for house”. When you encounter citizens who carry chains like badges of honour, and to whom the fight for freedom from fear is a mirage, play Fela’s song in your head.
History is on our side. This history which began in Aba in 1929 still bears testimony to the supremacy of citizens’ will and power. It is a living history that has been recreated and re-enacted in other times. It a history that documents the triptych of commitment, sacrifice and glory, evoking memories of our heroes’ finest hours, just as it records the victory of memory over forgetting, and the triumph of the present twinning the past, so the future can be assured. When marchers for freedom sing, “when I remember the struggle, water run away mi eyes o, aye, aye, water run away mi eyes!”, they re-enact the many encounters with destiny, amid memories of sacrifice. They pay homage to the past, while giving a nod to the will to freedom.
Who freedom epp? This is the answer a sensible citizen would give: if you think freedom is unhelpful, try slavery!