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The guardrails are finally off

The 8th National Assembly under the leadership of Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara could be accused of many things. But it could not be said to be a rubber stamp legislature. It vigorously resisted the manifest wish and plans of President Muhammadu Buhari to control all arms of government upon coming to power in 2015.  No wonder they were always at loggerheads. The level of tension between the two arms could be seen in the record number of bills passed by the National Assembly but refused accent by the president. That tension in a way, slowed down the president, as he himself confirmed recently, and prevented Nigeria’s precipitous descent into dictatorship.

It was clear from day one that President Buhari was out to emasculate other arms of government. Since he could not get his favoured candidates to head the National Assembly in 2015, he shifted his focus to the judiciary while waiting for 2019 to complete the takeover. The regime’s willful disobedience of legitimate court orders, invading and arresting judges of the Supreme Court at their homes, harassing and intimidating judges that deliver judgements deemed unfavourable by the government or some of its agencies were the first signs that it was out to emasculate the judiciary but most of us were deceived by the so-called fight against corruption and we cheered the president on.

The takeover of the judiciary was completed with the ruthless and extra-legal removal of the Chief Justice from office on the eve of the 2019 elections. It not only sent shivers down the spine of other judges, it ensures the administration will always get its wish and the judiciary remains under strict control.

The project of full takeover of all arms of government was completed in 2019 when the government got its wish by installing its preferred candidates as leaders of the National Assembly.  To confirm the rubber-stamp status of the 9th National Assembly the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, recently declared that “any request that comes from Mr President is a request that will make Nigeria a better place…[and] the Senate will act expeditiously to ensure” its speedy passage.

Enter the Social Media and Hate Speech Bills. Both bills seek to stifle free speech and prevent criticism of the government. Under the proposed social media legislation, sponsored by Muhammad Sani Musa (APC Niger East), and which has passed second reading in the Senate, one could be arrested for making statements on social media deemed “likely to be prejudicial to national security”,  sway elections or “diminish public confidence” in Nigeria’s government.  The bill also seeks to authorise the state to cut off the internet access of those that violate the regulation.

Of course, the bill is a reincarnation of the infamous Decree 4 of 1984 that prohibited journalists from reporting anything that could embarrass the regime, even if it were true.

It is unfortunate that the APC, having greatly benefited from, and used the social media to great effect to vilify the past administration, get it voted out of power and won election on its platform, is now hell bent on taming that very medium

The Hate Speech bill, sponsored by Sabi Abdullahi (APC, Niger North), Deputy Chip Whip of the Senate, seeks to regulate what it calls hate speech and prescribes life imprisonment and the death sentence for offenders.

It is unfortunate that the APC, has greatly benefited from, and used the social media to great effect to vilify the past administration, get it voted out of power and won election on its platform, is now hell-bent on taming that very medium. The party and its officials appear to have become fearful of the very medium they use to ride to power being used against them.

Since coming to power in 2015, President Buhari has been desperate to curtail free speech and trying in various guises to resurrect the infamous decree 4.

It began early in the life of the administration with the anti-social media bill sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC Kebbi South), which seeks to “to criminalise anyone disseminating via text message, Twitter, WhatsApp, or any other form of social media an “abusive statement” intending to “set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law”.

When that bid failed at the National Assembly, another phony bill seeking to regulate Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) came up. The bill, sponsored by Umar Buba Jibril, APC Kogi West sought for the establishment of yet another federal agency to supervise, coordinate and monitor NGOs with sweeping powers to regulate their conduct and grant a license for operation renewable every two years. Without such license, no NGO can operate and the agency could refuse renewal for no reason. What is more, only the license of the agency (not registration with the Corporate Affairs Commission) confers legal personality and perpetual succession on NGOs.

When these efforts failed again, the government, in 2017, started railing against hate speech, with the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, likening it to terrorism and vowing to clamp down on perpetrators. Although Osinbajo never defined what exactly he or the government meant by hate speech, the army provided a precise definition when it announced that it was creating “strategic media centres” “to monitor social media in order to sieve and react to all anti-government, anti-military, and anti-security propaganda”.

With this, the government could conveniently lump any statement or criticism by group or persons which caused it consternation, into its amorphous definition of hate speech and promptly clamp down on such groups or persons.  This is precisely the pretext for clamping down on media houses, Non-governmental Organisations, Civil Society Organisations, international NGOs, relief agencies, journalists, social and social media activists since 2017. One could only imagine what would happen if these bills are now passed into law.

While the bills suffered stillbirths at the 8th Assembly because Saraki and Dogara ensured the independence of the legislature, they are almost certain to be passed into law by this current rubber-stamp National Assembly. And with Buhari controlling all the arms of government, all forms of opposition to the government is about to be outlawed. Perhaps, that is why the resistance to the bills by Nigerians is quite vociferous. But Nigerians may have woken up late to the game plan. Now that all the guardrails are off, there is nothing to stop or delay the sure descent into dictatorship.












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