While as Africans we are brought up in societies where cultural norms frown upon utterances that are disrespectful to elders and those in authority (regardless of how relevant the comments might be to matters at hand), the influence of the outside world has led many of us to embrace new standards (and definitions) of what it means to be civilised/advanced.
Of these new standards/definitions, the most prominent are a set of "fundamental human rights" that includes the right to free speech.
However, events have shown that for many amongst the groups that seek to mentor our African societies during this era of adaptation (to new standards), the truth is something that needs only be revealed when it is convenient. This piece of hypocrisy is notable because absolute truth is the foundation upon which the integrity of any collection of words rests and, if things are not always spoken on as they truly are at the appropriate times, then our perception will never be in synch with our current realities.
One thing that has been re-confirmed by the recent uproar about the 'unauthorised leaking' of classified government documents by Wikileaks is that not even the so-called leaders of the 'free world' are able to practice free speech (i.e. the ability to speak the facts that you are aware of without any need to worry about repercussions).
Closer to home, a look into Nigeria's history (past and recent) tells us that those who wish to practice free speech in the civic space, regardless of whatever other abilities or status they possess, can be assured of at least one from two grim fates : marginalisation or elimination. In Nigeria, a person's prospects of attaining and keeping high office is directly proportional to his/her ability to dissemble and deceive. Which means that even those who are able to exercise power in a tyrannical manner still have to restrain themselves when expressing their thoughts in the presense of others.
Having said all this in direct reference to Nigeria, it must now be pointed out again that rulers who can/do freely speak their minds to those persons who are most able to affect the stability of their regimes are extremely rare to find (anywhere in the world).
In totalitarian states, while the supreme leader may be less concerned about what the masses think, he would be more circumspect with those who occupy the middle-ranks of the apparatus that the state's security depends on. In 'advanced' democracies, where politicians must periodically put themselves up for election/re-election, those for whose consumption the most carefully prepared exagerations, flatteries, and outright lies are prepared will be the electorates. In both types of societies, those who will rule must find a way to seamlessly integrate the security apparatus with the bodies that collate and deseminate information.
I will not spend much time speaking of societies that are openly run as tyrannies since such countries are the way they are because the opinions of only a few elites matter - in other words, since the powers-that-be in such societies make no pretensions towards seeking the enthronment of "free speech" -friendly regimes, it would be a waste of time to examine how the ideal manifests in them.
On the other hand, because democracies are meant to be societies in which the people govern (through freely chosen representatives), it will be more useful to look at a few of the reasons why, in most so-called democracies, the will of the majority counts for nothing.
Since it is rare to find a politician whose term of office can be accurately described as a fulfillment of the mandate granted by election, the fact that another set of politicians lied while seeking votes soon becomes obvious to observant members of the electorate because, soon after being sworn in, most start reversing the positions they had taken during the electoral campaign by embracing/implementing those policies (and practices) that they had spoken so vociferously against.
So once again, for the dissappointed electorate, the betrayals of those chosen to lead (in the hopes that positive changes would arrive) serve to reinforce the age-old view that politicians are by nature dishonest.
But the truth of the matter is that in the absence of a system that can guarantee a person's attainment to office with or without the popular mandate, any politician who seeks to win an election has to lie to the voters. This is mainly from the (justifiable) fear that if you tell the unvarnished truth, your opponents will use it against you.
In societies with distinct divisions where power can only achieved by winning the approval of a majority (from a cross-section of different interests), it becomes even more impossible to tell the truth about ones beliefs or/and intentions. In such situations, the people who are able to climb the ladder best are those who are most skilled at deception. But since deception implies that there is a hidden truth, the real beliefs and intent of these people will eventually become apparent - after all, they did tell all those lies for a purpose.
However, the more complex and distinct the divisions within a society are, the more unstable this system of best-liar-wins is. And even where it is able to be stable, all this means is that the current configurations are of the sort that make it easy for a more palatable set of lies to be enthroned after the previous set lose their digestability.
Unfortunately, this stability can only be temporary as it will require that the falsehoods be even more elaborate - for each new set to be even more removed from the facts than the ones before them - meaning that when the collapse finally arrives, it is catastrophic.
In societies where the collective mind is yoked to lies, the actual value of anything labeled as "free" is null because for lies to become dominant even within the mind, the first thing that must be eliminated is the capacity for free thought. And since humans are fundamentally defined as beings with minds, once free thought goes, what it means to be human is perverted.
And if while in this condition, ones expects that the same responsible corruptors will give (or permit) any type of 'freedom' to emerge by exercise of 'free speech', one does nothing more than perpetuate a destructive deception.
When some lies start to be seen as a neccesary/lesser evil or, when the consensus becomes firm about how "to lie is as an indelible part of human nature", the right to free speech, if it exists, becomes basically worthless in terms of the ever-existing need for societies to enhance civilization.
While to lie is something we learn how to do as we grow from childhood into adulthood, we are born with the inability to accept unpleasant/unpalatable realities with equanimity.
This is something which, as we grow, we may learn to suppress - failing which, it becomes a highly influential component of the processes through which we build relationships with others and, respond to the things that happen to us as we go through life.
Taken together, what is implied by the two assertions in the paragraph above is that we learn to lie in order that we may pacify or, deflect unwanted attentions/reactions from those around us. Therefore, while the impulse to lie may not be an indelible part of human nature, it is a consequence of the human need to form communal bonds - in other words, to tell lies is required if humans are to get along with each other.
The question now is, what is the value of the concept labeled "free speech" when in fact, we are often obliged to lie to our fellow humans?
Comprehending the worth of this concept is the first step towards overstanding its true purpose: Those who have successfully entrenched the consensus that free speech exists in some realms are able to use the allegedly reprehensible denial of this right to ones in other realms as a launch point for propaganda campaigns that are not only designed to reassure their own citizens that they are indeed greatly fortunate, but to also provoke discontent in those precarious societies whose instability provides great opportunities for vampires of various persuasions.
It must be stated at this point that though all that has preceeded these words may have implied that a state of real freedom is impossible to attain, it should be kept in mind that the difficulties are a consequence of the conditions that we live. In spite of the realities that would make us believe otherwise, to become utterly free is the only worthwhile pursuit that each individual has.