Heckling is part of the democratic process - Jideofor Adibe

News that President Muhammadu Buhari was interrupted and booed intermittently by some lawmakers while presenting the appropriation bill to National Assembly recently has been trending on the social media. Also trending is a list of the lawmakers said to have booed the President during the rowdy session. As should be expected, PDP issued a statement claiming it had it on good authority that the presidency was compiling names of its members that participated in heckling the President either for DSS/Police to invite them on trumped up charges or for EFCC to find something to rope around their necks.

There are a few observations around the incident:

One, heckling is an old tradition used to sustain free speech principles in a democracy. It simply means interrupting a public speaker with derisive or aggressive comments or abuse. It has several synonyms including jeering, taunting, jibing, shouting down, booing, hissing, interrupting, harassing, shouting catcalls or barracking (informally). Some believe that heckling is to the preservation of democracy what periodic revolution is to watering of the “tree of liberty” (according to Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States). This is why virtually all leaders in democracies are heckled from time to time. For instance as far back as 1884 in the US, Democratic candidate during the election of Grover Cleveland who fathered an illegitimate child, was frequently greeted in campaign rallies by Republican opponents with baby-like cry, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”.

Quite often it is how the speaker handles the heckling, not the art of heckling itself that makes the difference. For instance Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a Dream Speech’ was largely a product of heckling, when one of his supporters, Mahalia Jackson, kept interrupting his prepared speech with, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” The heckling forced Martin Luther King to stop reading from his prepared speech and improvised the remainder of the speech, which is now the best known part of that speech. Several leaders have generated memorable quotable quotes in response to hecklers. For instance on November 25 2013, 24-year old South Korean heckler Ju Hong, who had no legal documentation in the USA, shouted at Obama to use his executive power to stop deportation of illegal immigrants. Obama’s response was: “If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so….But we're also a nation of laws, that's part of our tradition…. And so the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws. And what I'm proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal.”

Like any free speech form, heckling ceases to be protected speech if it violently violates the right of others to free speech. In such rare cases, law enforcement agents are called in. I watched the Buhari speech on Youtube but did not think the heckling got even close to violating his right to free speech. He was able to conclude his speech with a budget proposal of N8.83 trillion for 2019.

I also think Buhari’s response to the heckling was dignified: “The world is watching us and we are supposed to be above this,” he said calmly.

Two, as we approach 2019, we must understand that we are at the heat of the campaign season, and that campaigns are not called ‘wars without weapons’ for nothing. It is not an arcane academic seminar where people are expected to discuss issues devoid of sentiments and emotions. Campaigns are designed to appeal to emotions and sentiments, which is why it is said that politicians campaign in poetry and rule in prose. So the heckling of Buhari and its aftermath is part of the campaign. For one, Buhari made a number of claims that some people felt belonged to the realm of alternative facts and no one really should expect the opposition members to keep quiet while he derived political mileage from misleading information (especially where they would not be given opportunity to rebut his claims). In fact those who complain about the booing of the president choose to forget that some were also cheering him and calling him ‘sai baba’. So basically if a candidate enjoys applause, he/she must also accept that heckling comes with the territory. You cannot enjoy omelette and hate cracking eggs or enjoy rainbows but cannot put up with the rain.

Three, it is also possible that the indignation (feigned or real) by the APC over the ‘disrespect’ shown to the President is part of the campaign for the moral high-ground. In this case Buhari’s supporters want to present PDP members as a bunch of disrespectful people without home training or respect for constituted authorities. PDP on its own played the victim card by claiming that it had it on good authority that the presidency was collecting the names of its members who heckled the President for EFCC or Police/DSS to contrive charges against them.

Four, in a democracy, it is normal for political leaders and candidates for offices to be aggressively interrogated using various speech forms, including heckling and caricatures. Political leaders are not deities – as some of their cronies would want us to believe. Even the use of brinkmanship in defence of alleged hate speech against such contrived deities is itself political. There is a difference between culturally offensive speeches and hate speeches. While many people are uncomfortable with offensive speeches, they remain nonetheless protected speeches that contribute to the marketplace of ideas which sustains a democracy.

Five, for our democracy to survive, there is a need to resist the groupthink mentality of some fanatical supporters – across the parties. In groupthink, loyalty to the group requires individuals to avoid raising controversial or non-conforming issues and ideas or even offer alternative solutions. One of the consequences of this is that the “in-group” often significantly overrates its own abilities in decision-making, significantly underrates the abilities of its opponents (the “out-group”) and believes passionately, even irrationally, in the inherent morality and rightness of the cause(s) it espouses. Groupthink can produce dehumanizing actions and utterances against the “out-group” in the forms of stereotyping, hate speech or even premeditated violence. Groupthink is not just instinctive conformity, it is also conformity for fear of being maligned, regarded as a traitor or being shunned or even ostracized by the ‘in-group’ especially where you have several self-appointed ‘mind-guards’ or conformity police defending the in-group’s symbols or assumed values.
Essentially, just because some people idolize Buhari does not mean they should expect everyone to accept their opinion. The freedom of speech people expect in a democracy is not just the freedom to say that 2+2 =4, but also that the same freedom accorded to some people to believe that a particular candidate is the best thing that has happened to the world since the invention of mobile phone is extended to other groups to believe that the same candidate is no better than a dog shit. To fail to do this will not just be against the law of equity but will also amount to weaponizing democracy.

Six, as 2019 nears, we are likely to witness various speech forms, tricks and strategies geared at winning votes or valorising one’s political base. Vice President Prof Yemi Osinbajo for instance recently did the latter when he urged his Yoruba listeners to vote for Buhari so South-west would be in a pole position to produce a president of Yoruba extraction in 2019. Many politicians in South-east and various parts of the North are also playing similar games. Of course politicians know there are no guarantees in any political permutation and that power is never given on a platter. My fear however is that the very respected Vice President dabbling into such speech forms himself (they are usually made by surrogates) could boomerang on him. The Great Zik of Africa for instance committed a similar gaffe in an address delivered to the Igbo State Assembly at Aba, on Saturday, June 25, 1949. Zik was quoted as saying: “It would appear that God has specially created the Igbo people to suffer persecution and be victimized because of their resolute will to live. Since suffering is the label of our tribe, we can afford to be sacrificed for the ultimate redemption of the children of Africa.” I believe the Aba speech did incalculable damage to Zik’s stature as a nationalist, and suspicions of him, (which were always there from the time he joined the Nigerian Youth Movement in 1937, heightened). Several Nigerian leaders, including Buhari and Awolowo, have had to live on the shadows of innocent speeches made to valorise their bases. This is why it beats my imagination, why the VP chose that route – when there are more than enough surrogates in Yorubaland to do so.

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