President Muhammadu Buhari returned to a pet peeve in his Independence address to the nation. He denounced the manifestations and direction of discourse in cyberspace in Nigeria. He then threatened a possible clampdown.
Mr President stated, among others, that “Our attention is increasingly being focused on cyber-crimes and the abuse of technology through hate speech and other divisive material being propagated on social media. Whilst we uphold the constitutional rights of our people to freedom of expression and association, where the purported exercise of these rights infringes on the rights of other citizens or threatens to undermine our national security, we will take firm and decisive action.”
Buhari spoke of the need for all “to exercise restraint, tolerance and mutual respect in airing their grievances and frustrations.” He asserted that “whilst the ongoing national discourse on various political and religious issues is healthy and welcome, we must not forget the lessons of our past -lessons that are most relevant on a day such as this.”
He then declaimed: “The path of hatred and distrust only leads to hostility and destruction. I believe that the vast majority of Nigerians would rather tread the path of peace and prosperity, as we continue to uphold and cherish our unity.”
The irony is that the presidential declaration is a return to a past that continues to colour and affect perceptions of his temperament and ability negatively. During his first journey in the headship of Nigeria, the then General Buhari acquired notoriety for his inflexibility and intolerance of open national discourse. Two ill-intentioned pieces of legislation gave that regime the ring of infamy.
Decree No 4 of 1984, the Public Officers Protection Against False Accusations Decree, gagged the press with obnoxious fines, led to the jailing of two journalists of The Guardian and created a siege mentality. Similarly, Decree No 2, The State Security (Detention of Persons Decree) prepared the ground for repression by cancelling all fundamental rights of citizens granted by the 1979 Constitution. It allowed the military to detain, indefinitely and without trial, any person suspected to be involved in “acts prejudicial to state security” or contributed to economic adversity of the nation.
More than twice under PMB, government through the legislature and other means has attempted to clamp down on the rights of citizens to free and open discussion of issues that affect them. These issues are political, economic, social and otherwise. They are contrastingly pleasant and unpleasant. Both are par for the course.
Free speech comes with the package called democracy. It is also guaranteed by our constitution as a right of citizens. It is a right that we urge the government of Nigeria to protect rather than demonise and deny citizens its use.
We must appeal to Mr President to “exercise restraint, tolerance and mutual respect” in airing his “grievances and frustrations” with free speech in Nigeria. There are enough legal and constitutional safeguards against abuse. Our laws protect individuals and governments from abuses of the freedoms. The protection extends to cyberspace with Nigeria having one of the most comprehensive legislation to guard against abuses in the Cybercrimes Act, 2015. That legislation came into effect fortuitously a few weeks to the ascension of office of Mr President and his party.
We believe that a clear reading of history and its lessons will advise the federal government under President Buhari against possible clampdown and limitations on free speech. As a born-again democrat that he claimed on the hustings, Mr President should work with all parties to expand the space for free expression of ideas necessary to move the nation forward in the information and knowledge age rather than in closing the space.