So what does it mean to lose your freedom of speech? Let me tell you a story of what it means to me. I know that having your freedom of speech curtailed is not having people – no matter how many – disagree with you. It is risking jail, torture, death and/or disappearance each time you speak. I have lived in a dictatorship. An actual one.
The above piece started out very differently, it was going to be more prose-y than poetical. It was meant to be a recollection of Ilorin, Nigeria in the 90s. The streets were filled with armed soldiers. Always. They would sit in great numbers in front of the post office in Ilorin, staring you down. While we were doing end of secondary school exams, there were often fully armed soldiers ‘invigilating’ exams. Every public space was suspect. Everyone was a suspected state informant. A conversation with a colleague about the state of the nation could get you arrested. Fear.
When Fela died, we could not mourn him. He had been a strident government critic, so mourning Fela publicly was seen as anti-government sentiment. In a country where all 5 political parties had chosen the same presidential candidate – who just happened to be the military head of state. We could not mourn. Not in public. And everywhere was public.
Despite this, some people had surreptitiously put up posters around town with the words ‘FELA LIVES!!!’ One of these posters was put on the outer walls of the main post office. I was passing by one afternoon when I saw the soldiers who sat there pointing their guns at any one who dared stop to look at the poster. They went for a short break and this young man, 18 years at the most, stopped to read the poster. He was one of those people who was in the habit of reading stuff out loud. He was reading the poster and had his back to the now-returning soldiers.
The soldiers, about 6 of them armed and muscled and hardened by life and strife, set upon this young man, dragging him to the ground, punching him. They then dragged him into one the buildings nearby, pointing their guns at those who had stopped to watch. We all engaged in rapid conversations with our feet. I don’t know if that young man survived.
I don’t if he made it home. I don’t know if his family ever found out what happened to him. We just went back to living our lives. There was nothing we could do without risking death. There was no higher power to report to. The only power was the power of the gun. That is what it means to have your freedom of speech curtailed. It was not fear of people not liking you. It was not fear of people not agreeing with you. It was not fear of not being popular. It was fear of never speaking again. The freedom to speak is the freedom to live.