President Muhammadu Buhari is moving to limit Nigerians’ right to free speech and association and has made at least three attempts since 2015 to pass various legislations limiting free speech and association after largely riding on the back of free speech to attain power in 2015.
The latest is the hate speech bill now before the National Assembly which seeks to extend the definition of defamation while curbing free speech. Introduced by Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi (APC, Niger), the bill sought to prescribe the death penalty for some offenders.
Despite being sponsored by a senator, the bill is the actualisation of the promise of members of the executive last year.
On August 16, 2017, the vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, at a security meeting of the National Economic Council, promised that the federal government would soon come up with a legal framework to penalise hate speech. “…we have drawn a line against hate speech. It will not be tolerated. It will be taken as an act of terrorism and all of the consequences will follow,” he said.
But even before Osinbajo spoke, minister of interior, Abdulrahman Dambazau spoke on efforts that have been put into the drafting of the bill. “What we have done now is to submit a draft bill to the Ministry of Justice on hate speech which will go as an executive bill after passing through the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation to the National Assembly. The draft contains the law and punishment for hate speeches.
The bill seeks to define hate speech in relation to a person who “uses publishes, presents, produces, plays, provides, distributes and/or directs the performance of any material, written and/or visual, which is threatening, abusive or insulting or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour”. It also speaks of motive: “if such person intends to stir up ethnic hatred”.
“You will certainly harvest abuses if we go by the Senate’s definition of hate speech. Every Nigerian, including those who are alleged to have indulged in hate speech, enjoys a constitutional right to freedom of expression. It will only take a court to take away those rights in specific circumstances. Anything short of that will amount to a breach of that right,” said Malachy Ugwummadu, president of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR).
The first attempt to circumscribe free speech was made in 2016 with the anti-social media bill purportedly sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC Kebbi South). The bill, which provided for an “Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Related Matters” seeks to clampdown on “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.”
The bill was far reaching in what it seeks to achieve and is reminiscent of Decree No 4 of 1984 that prohibited journalists from reporting anything that could embarrass the regime, even if it were true and was deployed to jail Messrs Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson of The Guardian on July 4, 1984.
The bill went further to propose “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”.
Knowing how unpopular the bill was, the Senate made attempts to keep it secret – and succeeded until after the second reading of the bill before it was exposed to the public. Despite the many protestations, work continued on the bill until it got to the public hearing stage where it met its eventual death.
But even as the anti-social media bill was defeated, the government has continued to harass and persecute social media activists and journalists all over the country. On February 17, 2017, Audu Maikori, the president of Chocolate City Group was arrested in Lagos after a petition was filed by the Kaduna state government over a story he published on his social media pages. He was released on February 19 on bail but was arrested unlawfully again between March 10 and 13 2017 for the same offence and charged to court in Kaduna. A federal high court in Abuja, in October 2017, ordered the Kaduna state governor Nasir El-Rufai, and three others to pay N40 million as damages to Maikori for his unlawful arrest and detention. Regardless, the Kaduna state government is still prosecuting Maikori for allegedly spreading false rumours.
Equally, blogger, Kemi Olunloyo, spent months in Port Harcourt prison first, on the orders of the Inspector General of Police, and later on the orders of the court, over her story on the alleged adultery between actress Iyabo Ojo and Pastor David Ibiyeomie of the Salvation Ministries in Port Harcourt.
But besides going after its known critics, the government also does not hesitate to clamp down on its supporters and social media activists who step out of line. That was the case of one Abubakar Sidiqu Usman, a fanatical pro-Buhari supporter, blogger and social media soldier who, besides vigorously championing the cause of the Buhari administration and urging it to go harder (read become more tyrannical), also specialises in harassing and heckling all those arrested or questioned by either the Department of State Security or any of the anti-corruption agencies on social media.
Usman received his own bitter pill when he published an unfavourable story about the Chairman of the EFCC, Ibrahim Magu. According to reports, operatives of the EFCC stormed Usman’s house in the early hours of the morning in commando fashion, fully armed to the teeth, to effect his arrest in the presence of his terrified wife and children for allegedly “cyber stalking”.
It took the widespread condemnation of his arrest by Nigerians and journalists nationwide for him to be released on administrative bail 36 hours after. Usman, who was hosted by President Buhari alongside other bloggers in 2016 in recognition of the good job they did to ensure his election, wondered aloud: “This is a government that I fought for but occurrences like these are not the experiences that myself and millions of Nigerians fought for. I hope we can use this to rectify the wrongs in our system towards the attainment of a more sustainable democracy.”
Another move to silence free speech is through the Non-Government Organisations (NGO) and Civil Society Organisations supervision, coordination and monitoring bill still in the National Assembly. The bill seeks to establish yet another federal agency that will be responsible for the supervision, coordination and monitoring of Non-Government Organisations and Civil Society Organisations in Nigeria. According to the bill, sponsored by Umar Buba Jibril, Deputy Minority Leader, an All Progressive Congress lawmaker from Kogi state, since June 2016, the agency will issue licences to all NGOs, which will require renewing 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.
The board of the agency can also capriciously waive all the requirements of the law, including registration. More outrageously, the minister of Interior will be empowered to direct the board as he deems fit, including, presumably, to register or deregister any NGO. The bill also requires all NGOs to submit reports to the agency of their money, where they get them from and how much. All NGOs must also receive permission of the board before spending their monies. The agency is also planned to enjoy special immunity under the law and from process such that any judgement against it cannot be enforced except with the express permission of the attorney general of the federation.
But the intention behind this bill cannot be disguised. As Senator Shehu Sani rightly said at the time, it will only “reinforce those with tyrannical tendencies and further stifle rights to freedom of speech and assembly.”
Meanwhile, while waiting for the current version of its anti-free speech legislation to pass, the government has intensified its clampdown on journalists writing unfavourable and embarrassing stories. On February 28, 2018, the Department of State Security, DSS, arrested an editor with the Daily Independent Newspaper, Tony Ezimakor, over a story he wrote alleging corruption between Nigerian government officials and Swiss Foreign Service agents in the deal to secure the release of the Chibok girls. Millions of dollars was allegedly paid to the Boko Haram terrorist group and millions was equally siphoned in the negotiation process. The DSS wanted Ezimakor to reveal his sources but his refusal led to his detention for five days. It took the spirited campaigns of press and human right bodies and the threat to occupy the DSS office to get the journalist released.