Were Wilson Tagbo of the “One Week, One Trouble” fame to be a living person, he would be amazed at the pitiful attempt of Nigeria’s political actors to imitate his exploits. Theirs however, is more like “One Week, One Affront”. This week’s affront is a plan to gag Nigerians.
In a routine sitting in the highly exalted Red Chambers, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC, Kebbi South) proposed “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith”. The bill seeks amongst other things, to prevent Nigerians from spreading malicious information via traditional and internet media. It proposes punishments ranging from fines as low as ₦200,000 to as high as ₦4 million, to jail sentences as high as 2 years. Surprisingly, within less than two weeks of its introduction, the bill has passed two readings. This is in a Senate known for snail walking.
At face value, the bill appears logical and needful. “Lots of misinformation is being peddled by some Nigerians, bla bla bla…, so we need to stop them”. However, as is important in this kind of scenarios, the motives are more relevant than whatever is in the bill. What is really driving Senator Bala and other “distinguished” senators to stand behind this bill?
In the last administration, Nigerians came to experience a new form of freedom. Like a pubescent boy discovering hair in his armpits, many Nigerians came out of successive military and pseudo-military regimes to discover that their mouths had other uses apart from eating. The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act surely helped in this regard, though it is still not yet fully obeyed. The FOI Act was aided by an administration apparently content with letting Nigerians say whatever they wanted, whether true or not, regardless of the amount of vitriol released. The APC rode to power on the back of this freedom. Why then does it want to deprive Nigerians of this “fundamental right to be wrong”?
Perhaps surprisingly, the bill appears to have some form of bipartisan support. Several senators across party divide concur with their colleague’s proposal. To them, it is the solution to a serious national problem. Do we have a problem with misinformation? Yes. Is this bill the best way to solve the problem? No.
Instead of this offensive bill, the Senators could rather reinforce existing libel laws, if any reinforcement is deemed necessary. This bill could easily serve as a de facto gag for Nigerians, depriving them of a voice that helps call out misbehaving government agencies and officials. When you say that a Nigerian must have hard evidence and a sworn affidavit before he/she can publicly expose alleged misdeeds of a government official, you will end up creating a climate of fear. Most Nigerians, in morbid fear of jail or fines, knowing that the judicial process is “naturally” skewed against them, will rather keep silent in the face of glaring misdeeds. This may be the aim of the senators. Maybe they don’t want Nigerians to complain about them or their highly-placed friends.
If this bill becomes an Act of Parliament, an unfriendly government may use it to enforce a form of martial law on public speech. Even if we were to assume, based on the perceived goodness of President Buhari, that he would not attempt to morph into a civilian dictator, how can we be sure that a future administration would not try that route? Why store nuclear bombs near potential “terrorists”?
The Nigerian Senate has pressing issues to address rather than to expend limited time on an unpopular bill. The Petroleum Industry Bill and several other bills have been lying dormant, gathering dust in the Red Chamber. The APC has also not introduced bills to strengthen the fight against corruption and aid socioeconomic growth and development. These bills were promised during the electioneering season. Nigerians will value such bills more than laws that limit their ability to talk freely.
Let me conclude with two quotes. I’m not sure of the first’s author; it says, “He who climbs with a ladder should not destroy it in a bid to prevent others from following his footsteps”. The second quote is a tweet by JJ Omojuwa: “Change your dress sense when people make jokes about it. Don’t change the law on how to make jokes”. This is a summary of this anti-Nigerian bill.
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