• Wednesday, June 12, 2024
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BusinessDay

Lai Mohammed, your phone will eventually stop ringing

Lai Mohammed

Shortly after being appointed minister of information late in 2015, Lai Mohammed went round the country meeting with members of the media, bloggers and social media influencers to thank them for the roles they played in the election of his principal and to seek their continued support. In one of such meetings with selected newspaper columnists and opinion-writers at the Zen garden in Ikeja, Mr Muhammed pleaded with us to take it easy on the government and refrain from harshly criticising the new administration. He also advised us to respect the office and person of the President and refrain from personal attacks on the president.

The background to the meeting was the harsh criticisms that greeted Mr Buhari’s slow and disinterested approach to governance which saw the government fritter away all the goodwill and market enthusiasm that greeted the election and assumption of power of the president.

Of course, Mr Mohammed tried to justify the president’s legendary ‘go-slow’ approach by pointing to the level of supposed rot the administration met on assumption of office and the huge effort it will take to clear the mess before setting the country on the path to sustainable growth and development. Crucially, Mr Mohammed also tried to defend the extra-legal actions of the government arguing that it was virtually impossible to effectively fight corruption and recover looted funds within the ambits of the law.

If I recall correctly, I was about the only person at the meeting that vehemently disagreed with the minister, reminding him how he, as spokesman of the opposition, harassed, criticised and even insulted President Jonathan on several occasions. “What is good for the goose is certainly good for the gander,” I reminded the minister. He never liked my argument and called me ‘nasty.’

I was baffled that in a democracy the minister of information will be directing senior members of the media and opinion moulders to censor themselves and I – a newcomer to the industry – was the only one openly disagreeing with the minister. Well, as a senior colleague was to later make me realise, you do not embarrass your host publicly even if you disagree with him. Besides, I was later to understand why the meeting was called in the first place. Having used the media to devastating effect against the previous administration, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Lai Mohammed, as the head of its information machinery, wanted to ensure the media is not equally used against the new government and that they have them on their side.

Well, it didn’t take long for Mr Mohammed to begin to unfurl the agenda of the government in terms of limiting free speech and the rights of citizens to criticise the government. Before long, various bills mimicking the infamous Decree 4 of 1984 which sought to criminalise criticism of the government both in traditional and social media began appearing in the National Assembly. The government even went further this time to clandestinely sponsor a phony and obnoxious bill before the 8th Assembly seeking to create a new federal agency that will be responsible for the supervision, coordination and monitoring of Non-Government Organisation and Civil Society Organisations in Nigeria. Although presented as a bill that sought to “ensure transparency and accountability in the ways and manners the NGOs collect moneys and use them for Nigerians,” it’s thinly veiled motive, as Senator Shehu Sani described it then, was to “reinforce those with tyrannical tendencies and further stifle rights to freedom of speech and assembly.”

Strident opposition to the bills by Nigerians, but most importantly, the falling out of the executive and the leadership of the 8th Assembly put paid to the efforts to pass the obnoxious bill.

Now that the executive has the exact kind of leadership it desired for the 9th National Assembly, those bills are reappearing or being skilfully tucked into other bills that will not easily raise suspicion of Nigerians. This was what happened with the recently signed Companies and Matters Allied Act 2020. The CAMA act was passed by the 8th National Assembly but the president refused assent due to some contentious sections of the bill.

Suddenly and without any fanfare, we were informed the president had signed the bill into law after a revised version was passed by the National Assembly. But a cursory look at the bill shows that the obnoxious provisions of the stillbirth NGO bill was smuggled wholesale into the revised CAMA. Particularly, section 839 of the revised bill empowers the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) to suspend the trustees of any Non-Governmental or Civil Society Organisation and appoint interim manager(s) to run the NGO/CSO at will. It also empowers the CAC, without recourse to the courts, to dissolve any NGO/CSO, seize all its money in the bank in collaboration with the banks for whatever reason it can cook up.

The APC, having successfully politicised most civil societies and recruited them to join its effort to defeat the then incumbent government in 2015, had never hidden its dislike for and intolerance of independent CSOs who are determined to perform their functions of mobilising society for collective action. The constant altercations between the Nigerian Army and the Nigerian government on one hand and Amnesty International, Transparency International and Human Rights Watch on the other are cases in point. The government is therefore determined to crush the last vestiges of independence and vibrancy in the domestic civil society space to prevent any form of mobilisation, criticism or actions against bad governance.

Some months before now, the government successfully amended the broadcasting code to practically outlaw criticism of the government in the media, destroy Nigeria’s free press and slow its market-led economic growth. Following heavy criticisms of the revised code, the Chairman of the Board of the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, Ikra Bilbis, has distanced the board from the review code, describing it as “an illegality perpetrated” by the minister of information and culture, Lai Mohammed, and the acting Director-General of the Commission, Armstrong Idachaba. He also accused the minister of usurping the powers of the commission to illegally amend the code.

Lai Mohammed, like all power-drunk officials, forgets easily where he came from. Without a free press and without freedom of expression and association, his party would never have been able to dislodge an incumbent government from power. But now that they have gotten to power, they want to criminalise dissent and free speech. But he fails to realise that he won’t be there for life. Sooner than he expects, his phone will stop ringing and the laws he helped enthrone may come to haunt him.