By Tonnie Iredia
Apart from electioneering periods when some politicians project their opponents as non-Nigerians for the purposes of de-marketing such opponents to voters, the general presumption is that all our political leaders are bonafide Nigerians. Occasionally however, some of them behave like foreign oppressors. In fact, the average Nigerian politician is yet to depart from the attitude of our early leaders who stepped into the shoes of the white colonial masters and lived in the government reservation areas (GRA) while the masses were consigned to squalor. 59 years after the British left Nigeria, we have white leaders in black skin who want other citizens to tighten their belts to meet austerity while they earn 300 percent of their salaries in retirement after working for a maximum of only 8 years. Today, there are senators who initiate bills that are akin to those made during the era of the ‘divine right of kings’ when the goal was to disallow free speech and preserve the privileged position of the ruling class. When it is convenient especially when they are in the opposition, they shout the indispensability of a free press to democracy but at the slightest opportunity, they seek to make laws that criminalize political dissent and free speech.
The most prominent inclination of the moment in our undeveloped clime is how to make laws to check hate speech and fake news. Accordingly, there is now before the senate the Anti-hate speech bill sponsored by Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, the Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate. At the same time, there is another bill designed to regulate the use of social media in Nigeria, introduced by Mohammed Sani Musa, Chairman, Senate Committee on Services. Musa’s goal is to curb fake news on the internet. Before Senator Biodun Olujimi got back her stolen mandate, her opponent Senator Adedayo Adeyeye who served briefly as Chairman Senate Committee on Media and Publicity sought to bar the media from covering the budget defence of certain bodies. His colleague, Senator Sandy Obuh (Cross River) openly supported him by applauding secrecy in governance.
Painfully, none of these anti open-government senators seems to recognize the existence of several laws dealing with the same subject. For example, efforts to convince them that the words of their proposed laws are in all respects same as those of the Cyber Crimes Act of 2015 appear to have failed. Since 1961, we have always had the law of defamation whose main purpose is to protect everyone from being hurt by reckless statements made by other persons. Any person whose reputation is so attacked can successfully sue if there is proof that the offending statement lowers the complainant in the estimation of people or causes him either to be shunned or avoided or exposed to hatred, contempt or ridicule. Libel, that is defamatory statements in a permanent form such as a written statement requires no proof and therefore as the lawyers would say are actionable per se. At the same time, Slander, a verbal statement which is usually less serious may be similarly treated in a few cases such as when a Lady is described as a prostitute; as one top politicians allegedly called a high court judge last week. If extant laws are so detailed, what is the rationale for the current penchant for laws? Could it be that some legislators so much admire the vestiges of colonial rule that they want to return the old law of sedition in its crudest form? Do they know that originators of sedition laws have long repealed them in their own country?
These questions are pertinent because the way new laws are being pursued gives the impression that they would run on auto gear. In which case, once they are made those who breach them would be auto identified, auto tried and auto sanctioned suggesting that challenges such as poor detection, apprehension and arrest would vanish, no police, no court adjournments etc. There are however a few posers. With the new auto laws, what would be the fate of Joseph Odok, a Nigerian lawyer and critic and Agba Jalingo, a Magazine Publisher who have for months been in detention in Calabar for allegedly criticising Governor Ben Ayade? Would the auto laws have stopped the international listing of Jalingo among the “World’s 10 Most Urgent Cases” of threats to Press Freedom? Again, how else would the new auto laws have dealt with Yahuza Tijani, a student of Bayero University Kano who is in jail without trial for allegedly using a Facebook post to insult wealthy Kabiru Isma’il – a member representing Madobi state constituency at the Kano State House Assembly?
If as at today, certain citizens can use their wealth or influence to incarcerate fellow citizens, what would happen when more laws are enacted to ostensibly deal with every observable infraction in the land? Here, we need to watch our current descent into a repressive entity which is clearly contrary to the democratic ideals our people have always chosen. Fake or hate news is no doubt undesirable and none has received the support of anyone including those preaching caution. Our premise is that the solution does not lie in the churning out of repetitive draconian laws. It is worse that the laws are not only more in number but have also turned out to be more intense. At the height of the authoritarian colonial dispensation, laws did not carry death penalty. In the case of Sedition, for instance, clause 7 prescribed a maximum of 15 years in jail for offenders, but today lawmakers are calling for capital punishment. Are such imperialist tendencies not informed by the awareness that only the poor will be punished?
This seems to explain why the proposed hate speech bill resurfaced last week after it was thrown out by the immediate past senate in March 2018. But then, is hate speech the only evil calling for attention in our clime today that every effort is directed to it? Even the executive is not left out. The week before, Information Minister, Lai Mohammed announced that broadcast stations in Nigeria that air hate speech and inciting comments will now attract a N5 million fine. This according to the Minister is part of the broadcast regulator’s reforms to deal with hate speeches, inciting comments and indecency. But no one is doing anything about the unpatriotic activities of those making it hard for our nation to develop. Why is there no bill seeking to punish with death, heinous economic crimes like budget padding? In 2016, a major newspaper published its findings that “although constituency projects are advertised as required by law, legislators have devised dubious ways of ensuring that only companies fronting for them or those belonging to their cronies are pre-qualified.” When will someone propose laws to stop fraudulent constituency projects?
If those guilty of hate speech must die by hanging how best should we punish those who burn their political opponents alive during elections? This is a poser of the week for our neo-colonialist legislators.