By Tonnie Iredia
The insurgency which began in the Northeast some years back has had a major impact on social life in the country. Several negative happenings; banditry, kidnapping etc. are largely seen as the impact of insurgency. If nothing else, it has pushed the term ‘security’ far above all other sectors of the nation.
In fact, the budgetary provisions for security have on an annual basis become larger than that of many other sectors combined. Yet, the nation is still in crisis. A major reason why the situation has lasted this long is because as big as Nigeria is, she has been unable to defeat a handful of insurgents due to the latter’s reliance on guerilla tactics- a strategy of irregular, hit and run set of attacks. Interestingly, our innovative politicians appear to be following the footsteps of the tactics by introducing guerilla legislation.
A cursory look at the intermittent attempt to shut down free speech in the country will no doubt reflect, hit and run, irregular guerilla legislation. Here, an overview of the efforts will suffice. In an attempt to muzzle dissenting voices and stifle free speech under the cloak of national security and defamation of character, Senator Ibn Bala Na’Allah (APC, Kebbi South) sponsored a Bill in 2015 that was described as an ‘Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith.’
The Bill intended to make it unlawful for anyone to submit any petition, as well as statement intended to report the conduct of any person for the purpose of an investigation, inquiry without a duly sworn affidavit confirming the content to be true. It was overwhelmingly rejected by Nigerians.
The Senate was forced to withdraw the Bill on two grounds. First, it was not supported by President Muhammadu Buhari and second the relevant Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters also found that most of the provisions of the bill had already been covered by other extant laws of the Federation.
After the withdrawal of the Bill which many thought would bring respite to the subject, two Senators from the same state – Niger, began their own scheme to introduce two Bills different in title but similar in content and intention to stifle free speech in the country.
The first of the bills, titled ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019’ was sponsored by Mohammed Sani Musa (APC, Niger East). As usual because of the guerilla disposition of the senate to laws relating to media and free speech, articulate members of the red chambers distanced themselves from the Bill leaving only a few with problems of public perception.
Among them was Senator Elisha Abbo (PDP, Adamawa North) who was earlier caught on camera doing what Igodomigodo would categorize as ‘vandalistic deliverance of blows’ with a young lady. Besides the woman-battering senator, there was also Senator Abba Moro (PDP, Benue South). Moro was not long ago Nigeria’s Minister of Interior who presided over a phantom hire for jobs at the Immigration Service which led to the death of many young Nigerians.
Moro was probably still haunted by media publicity of public condemnation of his performance. As if in partnership with falsehood, Senator Musa’s Bill created offences for which truth was not to be accepted as a defence!
The second similar bill was on Hate Speech sponsored by Senator Sabi Abdullahi, (APC, Niger North). Following widespread criticisms, the Hate speech Bill was formally disowned by the Senate. The then acting spokesperson of the senate, Godiya Akwashiki told the media that contrary to general impression, the bill was not the idea of the 9th Senate; but rather the handiwork of Abdullahi, based on his conviction.
The seeming merit of the Hate Speech Bill was its sponsor’s presupposition that it could dissuade violence. Unfortunately, members of the political class to which Abdullahi belongs are the greatest culprits of false statements which are made and denied now and again even where documentary evidence abounds. Yet, he is more keen on making laws that are targeted at the media and no other group.
How we wish all those anxious to control the media can get better educated that all apprehensions about poor media reportage are covered by existing laws such as the Penal Code, the Criminal Code, the cybercrime Act, the Law of Defamation, the Nigerian Communication Commission Act etc.
With the contents of the Social Media and Hate Speech Bills, it became obvious that our senators were and are still working at cross purposes with themselves. They introduce a bill, withdraw it, and then reintroduce it severally with new titles. When the Human Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) petitioned the Senate President, Dr. Ahmed Lawan on the recurring efforts to silence Nigerians, he gave assurances that the National Assembly would not pass any anti-people laws.
It is also hoped that our legislators would not overregulate the media space in such a manner that Nigerians may become confused as to what can or cannot be said. In truth, many Senators and other politicians do not appear willing to be held accountable which they hope they can easily achieve by constraining the media and free speech. They seem to be unaware that just as the Constitution gives them functions so does it mandate the media under Section 22 of the same constitution to make the government accountable to the people.
If media professionals are caged through a multiplicity of laws who then would ensure that those in power are compelled to account to the people? In a country where government is not accountable to the people, the whole talk of power belongs to the people is reduced to a slogan in place of democracy
It is not an overstatement to imagine that it is the oxygen supplied by the legislature that has made the executive to become quite confident and active in the current drive to constrain free speech in the country. At a point the Federal Inland Revenue Service FIRS was contemplating introducing communication tax.
According to the former Chief Executive of the FIRS, Babatunde Fowler, our people can afford to pay because they are always talking. We can only hope that the new boss is not similarly inclined. To do so would be to negate section 39 of our constitution which expressly provides for not just freedom of expression but also freedom as per subsection 2 to use whatever medium to receive and express opinions
In the last couple of weeks, moments of tension in the country have probably pushed government officials into seeking to control twitter and other digital platforms of the social media. While it can momentarily assuage government feelings, there are negative consequences.
Luckily President Buhari has washed his hands off the scheme. All government officials ought to note that the control of free speech can render the public docile and unable to meaningfully contribute to national development. It can also intimidate media professionals to lose their discretion, Under the circumstance, government messages to the public would neither be creditably delivered by the media nor believed by the people.
By the time the current actors leave the public scene, they would have irreversibly turned back the engine of societal development. We therefore need to watch it because as we say in my part of the country, anyone who goes blind to avoid seeing his enemies would also not see his friends.