As President Muhammadu Buhari patiently awaits the social media and hate speech bills undergoing legislative processes in the National Assembly to get to his table for his final assent before they become laws in Nigeria, Nigerians have taken up the gauntlet to fight what they perceive as government’s move to suppress citizens’ inalienable rights to freedom of expression and speech.

For the government, the bills are good for the peaceful co-existence and survival of Nigeria as a country, and must eventually become laws. But, for many Nigerians, the bills when passed into law would shrink the democratic space, stifle the people’s freedom to challenge government’s bad policies, set the country backwards and ultimately midwife fascism and autocracy in the country; a situation they have vowed not to allow. The development has pitched the government against the people, with both sides flexing muscles and waiting for who blinks first.

Two senators representing Niger East and Niger North Senatorial Districts on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Mohammed Sani Musa and Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi have been in the news recently for initiating the bills to regulate the social media, and hate speech bills in Nigeria.

Senator Musa’s bill, which intends to regulate the social media, with the title, “Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulation and Other Related Matters Bill”, successfully scaled through the second reading on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday, November 20, 2019.

However, his counterpart, Senator Abdullahi’s bill titled, “A Bill for an Act to Provide for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches and for Other Related Matters,” not only seeks to control hate speech; but also pushes to ensure that those who are found guilty of hate speech face death penalty.

What the two gentlemen saw as their own little contributions to deepening the democratic space as well as bringing about growth and development in Nigeria is today generating so much controversy, both within and outside the country, with a cross section of Nigerians stoutly rising against the bills, which they have plainly described as government’s subtle means to gag the media, suppress the citizens’ freedom of expression and silence any kind of opposition’s voice in Nigeria. Although, Musa who initiated the social media bill had explained that the intendment of the bill was not to stifle free speech, but to address a growing threat, which if left unchecked, could cause serious damage in the polity and disrupt peaceful coexistence, Nigerians are not prepared to accept his explanation.

Since the introduction of the bills, various schools of thought have emerged. There are some Nigerians who believe that the development simply means that government has failed to meet up with the citizens’ needs and aspirations. They argue that the bills, when passed into law, would ensure that even though Nigerians are not happy with the government and their political leaders, they cannot complain. This is because any attempt to complain would amount to breaking either of the two laws which could lead to long term imprisonment or even death, depending on which of the two laws is infringed upon.

Again, there are people who believe that the promoters of the bills and the government have ulterior motives, otherwise why would they be pushing for such laws when the constitution has more than enough laws to take care of libel, defamation and sedition, which are what the bills when passed into law seek to address.

However, there is another school of thought which holds that senators are dancing to the drumbeats of the executive arm of government led by President Buhari, who is rumoured to be nursing a third term ambition.

Last week, an APC chieftain in Ebonyi State, South East Nigeria, Mr. Charles Enya, had approached the court to plead that the aspect of the constitution which denies Buhari the right to contest for the presidency a third time should be expunged from the constitution. He also asked that a similar step should be taken to pave way for state governors to also go for third term in office.

Although Buhari had publicly said he does not have any third term ambition and neither would he do anything that would endanger the constitution, while his party, the APC, has also publicly condemned Mr. Enya’s action, threatening to even expel him from the party for such an unconstitutional move, Nigerians are still not taking the matter lightly.

Close observers of political developments in Nigeria since the return of civil rule in 1999, would quickly make reference to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who at the twilight of his administration in 2007, was also rumoured to have had a third term ambition. Obasanjo, they said, was known to have dispelled the rumour at the time; but it eventually turned out to be true. If not for the doggedness and patriotism of the then fifth National Assembly and its leadership, coupled with constant pressures and protests by the civil society organisations and Nigerians at large, Obasanjo’s surreptitious plot would have pulled through.

It is the Obasanjo’s ugly history that the proponents of this theory don’t want to be repeated, as Nigerians learnt their lesson in a very hard way. And they also believe strongly that if Obasanjo could contemplate that, Buhari might not be an exception since both have military background and similar political trajectory of being military Head of State as well as civilian presidents. That is why in spite of the assurances from the president and his party, Nigerians’ scepticism remains strong and unwavering.

Yet, there are those who argue that instead of pushing for a law against hate speech, the senator should have considered a law against hate behaviour. Proponents of this view believe that it is hate behaviour that begets hate speech, and that without hate behaviour, there won’t be any hate speech. They cited instances of hate behaviour to include deliberate move by the government to ensure that certain section of the country is placed over and above other sections, flagrant disregard to court orders by the president, and failure of the party in government to deliver to the people its campaign promises among others.

In all of these, several questions agitate the minds of Nigerians. They want to know who determines what a hate speech is. They also want to know if one is deemed to have committed hate speech when one speaks truth to power or against government policies. For all they care, the bills when passed into law, will be anti-people, capable of sending Nigerians back to the Stone Age and as such, must be resisted by all lovers of civilization and modernity.

Political analysts are of the view that when the bills are passed into law, the rumoured third term ambition of Buhari, which has been vehemently denied, would resurface, and when that happens, the laws would be deployed to hound any voice that would rise against the president’s ambition. This is because anybody that criticizes or condemns the president’s ambition would have breached the hate speech law and would be decisively dealt with. To this group, if the bills are passed into law, Nigeria would have become a fascist and totalitarian state, where free speech is no longer guaranteed, and where the whims and caprices of the president and other political office holders can no longer be questioned or challenged by anybody.

Nigerians are equally angry that Senator Musa’s bill is an awful cut-and-paste job, copied from Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act No. 18 of 2019, which was signed into law on June 3, but entered into force on October 3, 2019. They wondered why Musa and his distinguished senatorial supporters are only interested in extinguishing in Nigerians any capacity to complain about misrule and not interested in copying Singapore’s experience of decent and effective government.

Opposition mounts

Since the introduction of the bills, there has been a groundswell of firm and stiff opposition from Nigerians cutting across political, religious, social and ethnic as well as professional divides. From the former president, Gen Ibrahim Babangida, to Ondo State Governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Matthew Hassan Kukah, Aare Onakakanfo of Yorubaland, Gani Adams, Civil Society Organisations and human rights groups and millions of Nigerians at home and in the Diaspora.

Babangida had stated unequivocally that nobody could muzzle the media, even as he insisted that there was no basis for the bill which had scaled the second reading in the Senate. He said the bill was an eye service by the sponsors and described the prescribed death penalty as crude and wicked.

The former president who bared his mind on the controversial issue at his palatial hill top home in Minna when the President of the Nigeria Union of Journalist (NUJ), Christopher Isiguzo visited him, promised to team up with the union and other stakeholders to protest the passage of the bill. He said: “I am with you on this. I will also talk to those of us who could be in position to bring sanity to bear on some of these things.”

Babangida, who said he has been following media publications on the forthcoming American election, argued that if American journalists were to be in Nigeria, they would all have been jailed. He challenged the media to remain strong and focused on what Nigerians want, adding that the country could only succeed if unfettered freedom is allowed without death threat.

For the United Nations envoy, Amina Mohammed, there is nothing bad in trying to regulate the social media to ensure a decent media space, but that is not to say that hate speech offenders should be put to death. She clearly stated that she would not support death sentence for hate speech offenders.

Founder of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, (ABUAD), Chief Afe Babalola also described the bill as a slide to dictatorship. He said the bill was needless, and unwarranted for anyone to contemplate another law to deal with false publication when there are laws already promulgated to take care of such situation. He spoke at ABUAD in Ado-Ekiti when the Ekiti State chapter of the NUJ presented an award of excellence to him.

Gov Akeredolu at the opening ceremony of the sixth biennial conference of the University of Ilorin Centre for Peace and Strategic Studies department last week, opposed the proposed death penalty for hate speech offenders in the country, and likened it to sentencing someone who steals N10,000 to death and freeing another who steals N1million. “When I was the president of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), I vehemently condemned capital punishment for criminals. I will be a turn-coat as governor to now support death penalty for hate speech offenders,” he said.

Also, the outspoken Catholic priest, Bishop Kuka, described the bill as a short walk to totalitarianism, even as he lamented that Nigeria has not been anywhere near democracy going by the real definition of the term ‘democracy.’

He said: “I have consistently tried to create levels of differentiation between democracy and dictatorship, especially dictatorships of the military variant as we have had in Nigeria. I have argued that Nigeria is still very far away from the goal posts of what could be called a democratic society. In my view, the environment does not as yet look anything democratic because the actors are largely strangers to the ethos of democracy, and what is more, too many of them are tied to the old order, not to talk of the fact that the presence of General – presidents suggest that we are still in the thrall of militarism.

“Democracy thrives on debate, consensus building, negotiation, persuasion, and argumentation, rule of law, process, and inclusion. The military thrives in a coup culture, secrecy, betrayal, violence, command structure, exclusion and lack of transparency. That explains why I have always warned against describing the current charade of violent elections as democracy.”

Former Minister of Education and co-founder of #BringBackOurGirls Movement, Obiageli Ezekwesili, has also urged women, especially those in political offices and women groups, to raise their voices against the passage of the hate speech bill. She made the call at a national women’s dialogue tagged, ‘WOMANIFESTO2019: What the Nigerian women want,’ held in Abuja last week. She described the bill as anti-people, as it seeks to stifle the voice of Nigerians. “Women will be the worst for it if the hate speech bill is passed because it is against the freedom of expression. The hate speech bill that they are talking about is not going to help the Nigerian woman when we are trying to say what women want,” she added.

The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), on its own part had also insinuated that the bill was either to Islamise Nigeria or skewed to make the alleged third term ambition of the president a reality. But, the spokesperson for the Senate, Godiya Akwashiki had debunked the PDP’s allegation, saying that the hate speech bill before the Senate is a private senator bill and not an executive bill. “It is the right of a senator to sponsor a private member bill. We also have the executive bill but the hate speech bill before the Senate today is a private senator bill. Mr. President has nothing to do with it and it has nothing to do with third term agenda,” Akwashiki added.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights, Liberty Access and Peace Defenders Foundation (HURIDE), has also issued a 21-day ultimatum to the National Assembly to throw away the bill, suspend the sponsors of the bill and tender unreserved apology to Nigerians.

A statement by HURIDE’s Board of Trustees chairman, Dede Uzor, said the reactivation of the bill was a clear indication that members of the National Assembly were despots disguised as democrats. “This bill cannot stand. It should be thrown into the dustbin of history, like its forebears, Decree 4, which was promulgated by Buhari as a military Head of State in 1983. He used it to imprison citizens without trial. The National Assembly should apologise to Nigerians for coming up with this obnoxious, Stone Age and anti-people bill. It is a revival of Decree 4 of 1983. It is shameful that our legislators allowed Buhari’s dictatorial tendency to loom large in a democratic environment,” Uzor stated.

Last week, scores of protesters stormed the National Assembly, demanding the immediate withdrawal of the bills aimed at regulating the social media and prescribing capital punishment for hate speech offenders. According to one of the organisers of the protest, Henry Shield, the protest was to express Nigerians’ displeasure and rejection of the two controversial bills. He also argued that there are existing laws in Nigeria which are appropriate for dealing with the issues that the bills are meant to address.

However, Senators Uba Sani and Oseni Yakubu who addressed the protesters on behalf of the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, assured that the bills would not be passed if they were rejected by Nigerians during the public hearing.

Sani, who represents Kaduna Central, said: “We have heard your agitation. We believe it is a very important agitation. Some of us in the chamber have also been involved in the struggle for the enthronement of democracy in the country. The two bills in question were introduced by some of our colleagues. Some of us in the National Assembly, including the Senate president, would appear at the public hearing. Whatever Nigerians want is what the Ninth Senate would do.

“The law is not about the 109 senators. It is about Nigerians. Democracy is about free speech, it is about the rule of law. That is why their voices are extremely important. That is why we believe that your agitation is valid and also in the best interest of our own country. We are going to certainly work with you on the day of the public hearing. I can assure you we are going to do whatever is in the best interest of our country.

“We are aware of Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act and some of us are on the same page with these agitations. We are not guided by any political affiliation. We are guided by the law and concerned about the progress of our country.”

Yakubu, who represents Kogi Central, also said: “I want to assure you that the Ninth Senate is not in any way an appendage of the executive. No single bill will pass without public hearing. We are here to make laws for Nigerians, not Senate. We are all here to protect the interests of Nigerians.”

But, many Nigerians will not buy into the assurances of the Senate; not when majority of Nigerians view the upper legislative chamber as a puppet and lackey in the hands of the executive. To this class of Nigerians, the Senate does not have a mind of its own; it is tenaciously tied to the apron string of the executive. “Can the Senate make any decision without the approval of the executive arm? It is not possible. This current Senate is a disappointment to Nigerians. No wonder the election of its leadership was a do-or-die affair for the executive arm. The coast is now very clear and Nigerians can now see the real intention behind the deep-in-neck involvement of the executive arm during that election. We cannot be deceived. What Nigerians want is outright withdrawal of the bills and not any public hearing,” they insisted.


Government’s stand

The minister of Information and culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed on Thursday, November 14, declared that there was going back on the plan by the Federal Government to regulate the social media in Nigeria. He made the government’s position very clear at a session with the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers in Abuja. He insisted that it was the right thing to do, adding that no amount of criticism would discourage the government from the plan.

Again on Monday, November 18, when he received a delegation from the NUJ, led by its national president, Chris Isiguzo, he insisted that the social media bill when passed into law would bring sanity into the system, stressing that those who are uncomfortable with the bill are the purveyors of fake news and hate speech.

Following the barrage of criticisms and protests that have greeted the pending bills, the Senate has promised to look into the hate speech bill and see how it could drop the death penalty aspect of it. And for the FG, only rejection by the Senate would save Nigerians from the troubles of the intended social media law.

As it is, Nigerians are waiting to see what the Senate would do in the next couple of days. Although, they have made their stand clear, which is that the two bills should be consigned to the dustbin of history, where they belong. But, can the Senate which many see as a rubber stamp of the executive muster the courage to respect the wishes and yearnings of Nigerians, whom they represent? Would they change overnight from being a lapdog to an attack dog, which not only barks but also bites? Answers to these and many more questions, as the saying goes, are buried in the belly of time.