By Isaac Asabor
When Ernest Hemingway was inspired to say that “A writer’s problem does not change. … It is always how to write truly and, having found out what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it,” he was unarguably stressing the expediency of freedom of speech. Despite the fact that he produced most of his works between the mid-1920s and the mid-1950s, and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, before he gruesomely committed suicide in the summer of 1961, there is no denying the fact that his thoughtfully crafted words, which are today copiously been cited to inspire others, remain apt within Nigeria’s democratic ambience.
Be that as it may, it is not an exaggeration to say that in this part of the world that men of God are brazenly denied their rights to freedom of speech as they are more often than not attacked whenever they tend to express their rights when are on the pulpit. The argument has always been that they are not entitled mix religion with politics while sermonizing. In as much as those in the school of thought that subscribed to the view that men of God should not in any way comment on the state of the economy or governance, it is expedient to say that they are entitled to rights to freedom of speech as they no doubt have earthly residency to speak on the state of the economy just as they have heavenly citizenship to exclusively talk about undiluted words of God to their congregations.
Against the foregoing backdrop, it is germane to say that freedom of speech, as enshrined in section 39 (1) of the Nigerian constitution on the one hand, and as enshrined in article 19 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the other hand, is sine qua non in a democratic dispensation. Explanatorily put, everyone, whether a pastor or not, has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
At this juncture, it is germane to opine that if there is any man of God whose comments on the state of the nation have always caught flaks, he is unarguably Rev. Father Ejike Mbaka, the spiritual director of Adoration Ministries in Enugu.
In the same vein, Nigerians cannot forget in a hurry how often Bishop David Oyedepo of Winners Chapel has come under attack for criticizing those in government for mis-governance or attacked for criticizing government’s policies. A case in point in this context was his criticism of the reopening of markets while churches remained closed in Nigeria during the COVID-19 provoked lockdown in 2020. It would be recalled that his criticism was necessitated by somewhat discriminating measures adopted by the federal government to curb the spread of COVID-19, particularly when the government banned religious gatherings till further notice.
While speaking during the Covenant Hour of Prayer programme of the Church, he said the continuous closure of churches was suspicious.
Still in the same nexus, it would be recalled that controversies trailed the comment made few years ago by the founder of Omega Fire Ministry, Apostle Johnson Suleman that Christians should defend themselves, even if he was misquoted to have said that Fulani herdsmen should be killed. As twisted, they had alleged that he told his members to kill any Fulani herdsman they find around his church premises. Following his comment, the Department of State Security Service (DSS), attempted to arrest him but the then Governor of Ekiti State, Ayodele Fayose, foiled the attempt.
There is no denying the fact that the foregoing throwback to the past in this context are explanatory enough for anyone to understand the fact that men of God are easily followed by their traducers in government ostensibly to mischievously deny them their rights to freedom of speech.
It is salient in this context to note that whenever a man of God makes any comment erroneously interpreted to be hate or inciting speech by the government, it will automatically become a subject of conversation among Journalists, writers, social media buffs, politicians, students and businessmen. Worse still, there is nowhere the issue will not be broached or discussed, from the rational to the mundane, without finding the concerned man of God, and to some extent giving him a bad name in order to literarily hang him.
If I may ask, is it really unscriptural, as many have assumed, for men of God to criticize people in government, or the policies implemented by them. To my view, it is not in any way wrong provided it is not inciting.
The reason for taking the foregoing position on the issue cannot be farfetched as there are stories of advocacy throughout the Bible; think of Moses, Daniel, and Esther. To secure the Israelites’ freedom, Moses uses his connection to Pharaoh to speak for the people. Daniel speaks up on behalf of himself, his friends, and his faith when he and his friends were taken from their own people and delivered to King Nebuchadnezzar.
Esther was willing to risk everything to save her people. “… I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). By using her influence with the king to speak for the Jews, she puts her status as queen, and even her own life, on the line. And it works: King Ahasuerus hears Esther’s pleas. She and her people were saved.
God also calls each of us to be good stewards of our gifts. As Pastors or Prophets, men of God have the gift of influence with the government. When they steward that gift well, leaders can make decisions that fight the systemic causes of poverty, conflict, and injustice. One determined voice can help change lives around the country, and that voice could belong to any of these men of God that are more often than not literarily harassed and shut down when they speak. It is like when Mordecai says to Esther as she is considering whether she should speak for her people: “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).
It is unarguably sad that the government is by each passing day deepening its predilection to stifle the collective voice of men of God. This brings the question asked by Peterside Ottong, a Nigerian reggae musician, in his music album in 1989 to relevance, 32 years down the line. The question, after more than thirty years, is yet to be answered considering the fact that millions of people are seemingly searching for prophets who will begin to speak to those in power on their behalf. But it seems impossible as their comments are usually unduly faulted, and described as hateful or inciting.
In fact, given the fact that our political leaders do not listen to the voice of the “common man”, Pastors and men of God, who ought to be speaking on their behalf, are surprisingly been compelled to remain silent on critical national issues. In fact, it is so appalling that Pastors, who most of us reverently see as our own modern day prophets, are seemingly finding it difficult to call our errant political leaders to order when their performances are seen to have fallen far below expectations.
To my view, men of God should at all times be given the liberty to express their rights to freedom of speech. Against the foregoing backdrop, permit me to ask again, “Who Says Men Of God Are Not Entitled to Freedom of Speech?”