December 14, 2015

The Nigerian Senate and our freedom

On October 1, 2015, the intrepid Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El-Rufai, announced to the nation that the previous Jonathan government spent some N64 billion on Independence Day celebrations.   It turned out that El-Rufai was wildly off the mark; he had greatly massaged the figures.

The Jonathan administration actually spent N333, 600, 000  over four years on Independence Day festivities. This correct figure was confirmed by the Office of the Secretary General of the Federation, OSGF.   How did the truth emerge?   A group called BudgIT Nigeria applied to the OSGF under the Freedom of Information Act.

Well, the Freedom of Information Act is in trouble.   So also is the Cyber Law.   Just a couple of weeks ago in the Senate, the Senate Leader, one Ali Ndume, got up and opined that the Freedom of Information Act as well as freedom of speech “must be looked into.”   It got worse.

Ali Ndume had been contributing to a debate in the Senate to introduce a bill to restrict and punish social media use in Nigeria! I kid you not. Even Afghanistan and Iran have got it better in that regard.

The current government, including majority of representatives at the legislative level, rode into office on the back of a change mantra a lot of which was driven home by (mostly young people on) social media. Now in office, the same people that used and profited handsomely from the social media suddenly find that these tools are abhorrent and negative.   It has to be done away with or severely curtailed with associated heavy punishment for infringements as defined by our senators.   How’s that for irony?

Six months in office I can only remember the Senate for three things: A long and unsavoury leadership tussle; protection of their various allowances and entitlements, including something they called wardrobe allowance; and a very slap-dash ministerial screening exercise.   The rest of the time, the distinguished people took prolonged recesses.

Now they are back, their first job is to restrict social media use. An All Progressives Congress led Senate!   It is beyond mind boggling. The anti-people bill is being sponsored by  Senator Ibn Na’Allah of Kebbi State. The most noteworthy thing about Na’Allah, a lawyer and a former car dealer, is that he reportedly bought a plane in 2009 and claimed that it was cheaper for him to maintain his aircraft than to maintain some cars in his garage.   Ali Ndume’s grouse was that a while ago, he was accused of providing Boko Haram with some golf buggies.   Senator Malaye was particularly bitter about Saharareporters.   Also, there was a picture of a champagne bottle adorned with the Senator’s face suitably flanked by the Senate’s mace that recently made the rounds on social media.   Dino didn’t like that.

Keeping the details of their bill from some of the more serious-minded senators, this group presented their Anti-Social Media Bill on the floor of the Senate.   Amazingly, in just 14 days, their bill got its second reading.   Of course Senator Malaye led the debate.   Dino used to be an activist of sorts in Nigeria.   He was promptly supported by various others; most notably Ali Ndume and one elderly looking Peoples Democratic Party female Senator from Ekiti State.   Ekiti is supposed to be the home of well learned folks. Anyway, after their very negatively-charged debate, their self-induced hysteria and contrived indignation, the Senate President, Saraki, referred the whole matter to a Senate Committee to work out the fine details.

This is what the sponsors of the Bill want:

Up to two years in prison or N2 million fine or both for anyone disseminating via text message, Twitter, WhatsApp, or any other form of social media an “abusive” statement.

A sentence of up to seven years in prison or N4 million fine for anyone who intentionally propagates false information through electronic message intending to “set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law.

Imprisonment for six months without an option of fine for any person who unlawfully uses, publishes or cause to be published any petition or complaint not supported by a duly sworn affidavit.

In other words, do not criticise any government official or institution.

The whole thing beggars belief.   Of all the challenges presently confronting Nigeria, our senators are more concerned about the intrusion of, and how they are portrayed on social media.

Happily, President Buhari has disowned the Senate and their perfidious bill, and rightly so.   The last thing he wants to be reminded of is Decree 4.   Personally, I do not know anyone who is not alarmed and disgusted by what the Senate is doing.   Already, a group in America has begun to lobby their senators in the US Congress to place our anti-social senators on a No-Fly list – you know, the way such lists are routinely imposed on tyrants and other jump-up dictators across the globe.

So where does all of this leave us?   We have to fight for our right, that’s where.   Already, there’s a feeling that the country is being dragged backwards anyway.   When you try to articulate this, you are called a wailer by the Buharideens.   But that shouldn’t stop us from getting in touch with our legislative representatives to register our disapproval of the Anti-Social Media Bill.   Similarly, we should be pressing whatever is left of the civil society to organise us and themselves into a cohesive  opposi-tion to what is looking like a major encroachment on free speech and our collective freedom. We must all stand up and challenge the tyranny of the privileged.

We should never submit ourselves to thought-control. We would never allow our voices to be muzzled because some folks don’t want to be challenged in this 21st century.   If this is how they feel, they should have steered well clear of public office.   There are sufficient provisions in our statutes to counter libel and slander.   Let aggrieved senators use that. North Koreans, we are not!

Michael Egbejumi-David a commentator on national issues, wrote from Lagos.