Grimot Nane Zine

Gagging Social Media with Democratic Decree: Nigeria

Ouch! The Nigerian Legislative Houses will through a least beneficial and developmentally obtuse act of legislation, the “Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Related Matters” bill, sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah who decided that commentators on Nigerian politics and society will face a seven jail sentence or $25,000 / $10,000 fine for “abusive messages”. Nigeria’s military days may be here again but by democratic decree. The self-interest of those in power seeks to become unrestricted regardless of the constitution. Well, the people and their expressions do not count.

Why are the fines being costed in US Dollars? It is reasonable to believe that Nigerian legislators no longer use Naira.

Terms and phrases like “abusive messages”, “set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law” and “anyone who intentionally propagates false information that could threaten the security of the country or that is capable of inciting the general public against the government through electronic message.” These are nebulous terms that means nothing really and neither do they emanate from genuine legal nor governance vocabulary. They are intended to be interpreted in infinite ways to suit the intentions and insecurities of the politicians concerned.

My favourite writers on social media are Mr Ayee Dee, Hope Eghagha, Onye Nkuzi, Femi Aribisala, Peter Anny-Nzekwue and Ogaga Ifowodo can rip out the heart of a man or starve him of oxygen without using an iota of abusive language of any shade if they so choose. Words in the hands of literary artists can be used to create magic and miracles on paper that politicians cannot exactly “catch”. Can social media expression be stopped or stifled by an Act? What a waste of democracy!

Rightfully, there social media resistance to the Gagging Bill in the shape of #SayNoToSocialMediaBill movement and support for it. We should anticipate a new wave of social media exiles, yes, just like in military times.

Free speech as long as it is not false, libelous, slanderous or malicious is a central component of every formulation of democracy and individual liberty. However, in Nigeria like most countries of the world the major players in politics and business increasingly pay only ‘lip service’ to upholding democratic principles. Democracy has been reduced to a cynical means of legitimising the power of special interest groups, corporations and individuals; those who will hold a nation hostage for the fulfilment of their narrow interests. Holding the powerful to account though democratic appears to be an anachronism.

The age of “professional sycophancy” will be most desirable to Nigerian politicians. Fawning praise coupled with the totalitarian principle of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” is the target and expectation of the totally undeserving Nigerian politician. If politicians want praise and no criticism they should do exactly what the citizenry vote them in to do and stop thieving.

It is true that Nigerian politicians need some degree of good respect from the citizens they represent directly or indirectly. The big question is, have they earned such respect? Self-respect begets public respect and everyone respects those who respect their genuine and bona fide interests, rights and freedoms. But our legislators, executives and judiciary, many of them who act as scoundrels in everyday and political life do not respect the interests, rights and freedoms of its citizenry. Qui pro qou?

Journalism Is Not A Crime? In Nigeria journalism is formally becoming a criminal activity. The days when the dominators of the political economy of Nigeria could buy their way through the corporate media and present only one narrow strand of news and commentary seemed to be over with the emergence of social media. However, those days when the dominators could “buy stories” they did not like and “sell stories” that suited their interests houses may be returning thanks to the slammer!

On another note, there have been Special Advisers and Assistants who have on record serially insulted members of the public, most notably Doyin Okupe. How about the federal and state governments that have habitually issued false statements about individuals, events and projects to protect their interests? Or how about when elected and appointed politicians maliciously insult and smear each other in public? What Act will be passed to control and punish such behaviour by Big Men? Hypocrisy is all about “when they do it is a crime but when we do it is fine”.

National legislators are not patriotically and diligently pushing bills in the House of Senate or Representatives to end to “everyday” common problems, say, perennial electricity blackouts; child labour / abuse; under age marriage / pedophilia; wholesale unemployment; corruption at its highest; harrowing poverty and hunger; massive illiteracy; skill shortages; environmental crisis; potable water shortages etc. Yet, legislators have the time, energy, will and vehemence to propose, support and vote for bills in the House to end free speech with heavy penalties. Diligently protect their interests and names with all available powers is their business. With soldiers in democrats’ skins are there any dividends of democracy in sight?

Gubernatocrats “Baby Doc” Bukola Saraki and Godswill Akpabio, and others will definitely see social media and the freedom of expression it embodies as “nuisance” and “enemy of progress” even though they cannot deny that the state of governance in Nigeria is quite poor. Are “Decrees 2 and 4” on their way back into existence by democratic fiat? Apparently, President Muhammadu Buhari has distanced himself from the Act. This is one of the finest coincidences I have ever witnessed in Nigerian politics. Has Saraki paid thousands of prayer warriors again to “acquire” divine intervention?  Does Baba sorely miss Dodan Barracks? I shall bite my tongue. Journalists did not give in then, they will not do so now.

The bill has passed the second reading stage in the House even though President Buhari is said to have firmly claimed he will not assent to the passing of the bill because it is not constitutional. I shall bite my tongue, again. Attention!

Grimot Nane

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