An unusual tragedy occurred in an obscure Polish city called Gdansk last Monday. The Mayor of the city was stabbed to death on stage during a charity concert – in full glare of a capacity audience.
Mayor Pawel Adamowicz, 53 had been elected six times over a period of twenty years because he was loved by his people with whom he mingled freely. His murderer took advantage of his free lifestyle and stormed the stage with a 14.5-centimeter knife to commit the crime. He gained access to the event with a fake Press Card.
The assassinated Mayor had once belonged to a political party known as the Civic Platform early in his political career. But not even his defection from the party diminished his popularity with his people as he continued to win elections as an independent candidate. His murder sent shockwaves not only in Gdansk but in the whole of Poland.
The proud murderer stood his ground. He shouted from the stage that he had been wrongly imprisoned under a previous government led by Civic Platform. He said his name was Stefan and that “I was jailed but innocent. … Civic Platform tortured me. That’s why Adamowicz just died.”
The murder has put the ruling right-wing party in Poland – the Law and Justice Party – on the spot. The party has been accused of creating an atmosphere of hatred against Adamowicz and other liberal politicians through hate speech; and that this helped to instigate the murder.
The government of Poland is now fighting hard to clear its name with its officials pushing back against that accusation, strongly denouncing the attack and stressing that the 27-year-old perpetrator had a history of violent bank robberies and possible mental illness. The spokeswoman for the ruling Law and Justice party Beata Mazurek said the attack should be “absolutely condemned by all, regardless of what side of the political spectrum they are on. She insisted politicians in Poland need “greater responsibility for words, for deeds” because “there is no shortage of madmen on both sides” of the political scale. Ruling authorities also sent a government plane to transport the mayor’s wife, who had been traveling, from London back to Gdansk.
The government’s critics, however, said that they believed that animosity voiced against Adamowicz by ruling party officials, sometimes carried on state television, as well as by extremists, played a role.
But all these accusations and counter accusations are all too late; a valuable life of a man who offered selfless service to his community and country has been lost with dire consequences on the politics of the whole country.
As we approach election day in Nigeria, events in far away places like this one in Gdansk should worry all of us. The election of this year is particularly dull and colorless with politicians showing themselves short on issues but tall on toxic, abusive and aggressive debates. It is this mental status of political leaders that instigates their hypnotized followers to thuggery and crime.
In the case of Poland, the danger signals were already there. Ahead of local elections last October, All-Polish Youth, a far-right organization, issued fake death certificates for 11 liberal politicians, mostly associated with Civic Platform, including Mr. Adamowicz. The prosecutor’s office refused to investigate the initiative, calling it “an expression of opinion,” not “incitement of hatred.”
Mr. Adamowicz opposed that decision, and said just a week before his death: “This wasn’t a regular expression of opinion; they truly crossed the line. I’m not going to leave it like this.”
The charity event, the scene of the murder is Poland’s biggest annual fund-raiser and has been organized since 1993 by the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity. Over the years, the organization has raised about $266 million to provide medical equipment to Poland’s underfunded hospitals. The president of the foundation, Jerzy Owsiak, was so outraged by the murder that he resigned.
“This hatred, which is deep-seated in people, exploded in an extreme way,” Mr. Owsiak, a fierce critic of the governing party and a frequent object of attacks from right-wing politicians, told reporters. “I’ve been fighting those who threaten me for 25 years. Poland’s justice system and police are completely helpless.”
Nigeria needs not to be in that situation of complete helplessness. We have gone through wrenching experiences as a country and received sufficient warning. Early last year, I had a fire side chat with Professor Jubril Aminu who has seen it all in Nigeria’s political development. As we got to start our chat about the state of affairs in Nigeria, he fired the first shot against my profession saying journalists played a leading role in precipitating the political crises of 1966 in Nigeria which led to a civil war.
“I have mentioned their names at different meetings. People like Nelson Ottah and Peter Enahoro, I don’t care about them; they didn’t care about Nigeria, so there is no reason why I should respect them. There are many others and even recently, we are getting some of them,” he stated.
He said it was regrettable that even a great journalist and a patriot like Babatunde Jose failed the test in 1966 when he wrote an editorial in the Daily Times advocating the dissolution of Nigeria.
But such antics as issuing fake death certificates to opposition politicians as was done in Poland is not only found in Poland. We have our Nigerian version also. Minister of Information was at People’s Daily newspaper last year to wage a campaign against fake news. “Fake news” he told us as we gathered in our board room to receive him “is not a Nigerian problem. It is a global problem and every country is evolving ways of dealing with the problem.
“Here in Nigeria, our approach is to appeal to the sense of responsibility of media practitioners, bloggers and social media influencers. We are not toeing the path of coercion or censorship. We are not advocating the enactment of new laws, because we believe there are enough laws in our law books to deal with this problem. We believe in the capacity of the media to self- regulate, so as not to self- destruct.”
The good news is that the Minister himself knows he has a tough job to handle here. As he observed in our meeting at the People’s Daily Board Room, “the purveyors of fake news in Nigeria have not relented. If anything at all they are perfecting their strategy of using fake news to distort the campaigns for next year’s elections. No doubt…they have used fake news to aggravate the herders- farmers clashes”.
Those words were issued last year. We are now a few days before the elections. If we are not careful, fake news or hate speech could easily plunge us into a huge national cataclysm.