The Punch’s Crusade Against Aregbesola – Prof. Sola Adeyeye

Sola AdeyeyeNewspapers have a critical role to play in any society. This is why I agree with the American statesman and former president, Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote: ‘If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter’. Jefferson simply meant that a well informed society is more important than political governance per se.

If newspapers, according to Jefferson, are preferable to government, then they have greater responsibility than governments. A newspaper has the duty to inform, educate and work towards a better society. In this third duty, it is looked upon to act as the gadfly and rein in the government on its excesses. It is also expected to fight the cause of the common man and work towards the enthronement of justice in society. These are not easy tasks as toes will be stepped on and it will take great courage for a newspaper to remain focussed on its mission.

However, this is only the good side. A newspaper can be as tyrannical as an evil government; it can hide under a seemingly noble mission to perpetrate evil. It can project a lie as truth and a truth as lie. It can also foster its own agenda on the public and masquerade it as an altruistic public service. A newspaper can hoist and sustain an evil government as well as seek to pull down a good one. These are not postulations. They are complex issues that emanate from the contradictions of media practice in any society.

It is with this in view that I am saddened by the editorial of The Punch of Tuesday, January 21, 2014 on Governor Rauf Aregbesola titled ‘Aregbesola’s misguided church project’. The editorial was an undisguised attack on the Osun governor for the policy of his administration on proposing. a 200,000 capacity crusade ground in the state. The language was intemperate and disrespectful of the office and person of the governor and a poor attempt at ridiculing him before his constituents and in decent gathering. Such words like ‘misguided’, ‘misadventure’, ‘queer concept’, ‘obtuse thinking’, ‘oddity’, ‘Greek gift’, ‘a shocking lack of understanding of what constitute the core functions of government’, ‘a bribe’, ‘baleful political gimmick’, ‘hypocritical dalliance in religion’ etc were freely used.

This is rather disturbing. An editorial is the voice of the newspaper – what the owners are saying on any issue and it carries the biggest weight. That is why it is often very thoughtful, incisive, well researched, well argued and written in persuasive and diplomatic language. Regrettably, these are clearly missing in this particular editorial.

This leading article accused Governor Aregbesola of profligacy and misdirected government spending – a clear misprioritisation of government expenditure. It accused the governor of dragging government into matters of religion. It also portrayed the governor as a manipulator trying to bribe the Christians, in light of previous allegation of his bias against them in the state. It ended with not so subtle incitement of Christians against the governor.

First, having been very close with the governor and part of his campaign team, let me say that the worship centre is not a hurriedly put together policy. He had enunciated this as part of his campaign promise as far back as 2006. Much later, he reiterated the promise soon after his inauguration at an event at my alma mater, Ilesa Grammar School, on December 4, 2010. This was not done in the closet; it was in the full glare of eminent personalities such as Pastor Enoch Adeboye, Justice Belgore, Oba Adekunle Aromolaran and others. This project was also announced to Pastors Adeboye and Mathew Ashimolowo during their different visits to the governor in December 2012. It was also repeated by the governor at the convocation ceremony of Joseph Ayo Babalola University at Ikeji Arakeji.

Evidently, The Punch did not carry out due diligence on the matter or else it would have been restrained. How could the governor be accused of acting in bad faith by fulfilling a campaign promise, in a democracy?

Secondly, government did not buy the land as erroneously alleged by the paper. It was a freewill donation by the people of the community through their traditional ruler, Loja Adelekan of Odo-Iju in Atakunmosa West Local Government. The compensation recently paid that was mischievously reported by The Punch was the government’s way of supporting the people of the community for their high sense of patriotism. It is a voluntary gift from the community.

Thirdly, The Punch’s notion of separation of state from church is false. Where it began in Europe and the Americas, it was to stop the state from adopting Christianity as state religion; promote it above others and criminalise non-participation and membership by citizens. It does not connote absolute disengagement from religious activities. In the United States, for instance, the community church is part of the soul of the community through which the government sometimes relates with the citizens on matters such as civil rights, sex education and HIV prevention.

In the United Kingdom, the Queen is the Head of State and Head of the Church of England. Her titles include ‘Defender of the Faith’. How then do we separate the Church from the state? It was atheists and modern day liberals who wanted God and every religious symbol removed from the public space that recreated the concept in their own image by asking for prohibition of prayers and bible in schools, removal of crosses and biblical images from public places and refrain from mentioning God in what might constitute a public gathering. This of course is not separation of state from church. It is waging a systemic war against organised religion with the consequence of citizens now having utter disregard for human lives and we now have school children taking guns to school and hacking their teachers and colleagues to death.

In our land, at the inauguration of public officials and before courts, we are made to swear by Bibles and Qurans and end our oaths with the sentence ‘So help me God’. Is there a delinkage therefore between state and faith? We may pretend. But religion remains part and parcel of our daily life.

That same Tuesday, interestingly, The Punch also reported that the Kaduna State Government will spend N121 million on Mosques and Churches. I sincerely hope that this piece of news will demand an editorial from the newspaper, given its self appointed task of ‘separating government from religion’.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo was a committed Christian and his Action Group (AG) had an official Christian chaplain. That was the spiritual guide of the party. Yet he was the first to establish Muslims Pilgrim Welfare Board when he saw the hardship Muslims went through while performing the Holy Pilgrimage to Mecca.

We cannot also pretend there is no economic side to religion. Every year, millions of people make the pilgrimage to Mecca, Jerusalem, Rome and other religiously significant places. There are religious monuments and shrines in France, Greece, Spain, Italy, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Israel and other places that have practically fallen into state ownership, maintenance and control.

It should therefore not be surprising that the motivation for the Open Heaven Arena project is the realisation that Osun State, particularly Ijesaland, is notable for producing many of the Christian leaders in the country. These include Pastor Adeboye, Pastor WF Kumuyi, late Prophet Timothy Obadare, Prophet Gabriel Fakeye, Pastor Mathew Ashimolowo and many others. This is a huge tourism potential that could help shore up the revenue profile of the state. Apart from being a centre for spiritual retreat, there is an eminent economic sense in having 200,000 people visit your state at least once in a week. If each visitor spends at least N1,000.00, the state’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could be boosted by N10.8 billion in a year.

However, this editorial is not about a worship centre but a demonstration of deep hatred and animosity against the person of Governor Rauf Aregbesola and his administration with the malicious intent to pull him down. On a regular basis, The Punch takes an astigmatic look at every intention and policy of Aregbesola’s government, savagely attacks him and portrays him in bad light, sometimes using half truths and outright falsehood. Last week alone, the newspaper did two feature articles and a news item on Aregbesola, all hostile, biased and unfavourable. There was a time the paper reported that Governor Aregbesola bought cars for traditional rulers when nothing of such happened.

The Punch has taken a very hostile and adversarial position on school uniform, school reclassification and now the revival ground. The interest of The Punch in Governor Aregbesola’s is beyond the ordinary. In these instances, there is an unmistakable instigation of Christians against the governor with the capability of triggering religious crisis, if not for the maturity of the good people of the state. The paper has fanned the embers of religious schism in Osun and by extension in the West, where hitherto none has existed and where people have lived in harmony for centuries.

There is a pattern of jettisoning objectivity and every rule of professionalism. Discourse degenerated to personal abuse, name calling and utmost disrespect for the person and office of the governor. This is a great disservice to the memory of the founder of this newspaper.

I began with responsibility. A newspaper is a public trust with a mandate that is superior to the personal interests and fancies of its minders. I daresay it is a sacred responsibility that should not be abused. The Punch has over the years built a reputation as a liberal medium in the quest for societal liberation. It is my sincere wish that it will learn a lesson or two on fairness and balance. When a newspaper deliberately diffracts facts to serve its prejudice, both the public and the newspaper are ill served.

Prof. Sola Adeyeye, Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, National Assembly Complex. Abuja, FCT