At the time President Muhammadu Buhari was elected the president of Nigeria, a lot of Nigerians were hopeful. I was one of them.
We were all encouraged by the General’s antecedent of fighting corruption and were looking forward to combatting what we thought was the height of corruption at the end of President Jonathan’s term in office. Many Nigerians had a lot to castigate the then ruling party, PDP, for, especially as the new party came to power on the campaign promise of “change”.
However, a year into Buhari’s administration, a journalist, Jones Abiri, was picked up by State Security Service (SSS) agents on the ruse of terrorism, and detained from 21st July, 2016 without being charged, a trial, or access to a lawyer; while concealing his fate or whereabouts from his wife and children, depriving him of his liberty and placing him outside the protection of the law for 2 years and 6 months until an investigative journalist, Peter Nkanga, broke the story and everything began to unravel.
In fact, it was I who took his wife and children to see him for the first time after that long period at Keffi Prison where he was being detained before we perfected his bail. That was how I became more attuned to the impunity in the Buhari administration.
The government was never held accountable, and even the fundamental rights enforcement suit attempt by Femi Falana, SAN on behalf of Jones was never regarded as anything but child’s play – as we saw a government that blatantly refused to comply with the court’s judgements.
To further make us understand his agenda, President Buhari walked into Nigeria’s largest annual legal gathering, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) 2018 National Conference, and stated unequivocally that “…the Rule of Law must be subjected to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest…”
It couldn’t have been clearer that this President, who claimed to believe in Nigeria’s toddling democracy was indeed not prepared to abide by the tenets of that democracy. It became apparent that something had truly changed in the country’s history and the battle line had been drawn.
From that point on, different actions against the civic space began to unravel. The civic space which is built on freedom of expression, association and assembly took great hits like never before since the country’s return to democracy. The government started taking different routes to shut it down. This manifested in several actions and omissions of the three arms of government in one way or the other.
For the legislature, bills directed towards clamping down on the civic space were sponsored with the aim of shutting down the civic space. There was the NGO Regulatory Bill in 2018, which on close scrutiny was targeted towards clamping down on organisations, especially those pressing for accountability from politicians, for example, Amnesty International Nigeria.
In 2019, the National Assembly introduced the Hate Speech and Social Media Bills. These bills were also aimed at suppressing freedom of expression as guaranteed under the 1999 Constitution (as amended). Then there was the amendment to the 6th Edition of the Nigerian Broadcasting Code (NBC) in 2020, which was declared unconstitutional by the court in 2022; and the proposed amendment to the Nigerian Press Council Act, which was vehemently opposed by the media and CSOs in Nigeria. There was no doubt that the Buhari administration was adverse to accountability; was hell bent on repressing freedom of expression and sought avenues to control freedom of expression through the passage of obnoxious and undemocratic laws.
There were the actions of the executive through the office of the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed. The Minister was not subtle in his threats to gag the press! This took the form of stringent and arbitrary policies, as well as the military-like wielding of the power of the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the Minister of Information. The Minister under the excuse of not wanting the government to be ‘embarrassed’ curtailed and in fact, boldly suppressed the media; and asked it to only publish censored information.
There were several sanctions to media houses, through the instrumentality of the NBC. The NBC on different occasions restrained media houses from passing across information to the citizens of Nigeria, contrary to the Constitution. At one point the NBC, as was reported, by a letter to media houses, issued a warning with respect to the factual crisis occurring in western Nigeria between indigenes and militia-herdsmen. There was so much emphasis on the need to protect the corporate existence of Nigeria and not to ‘embarrass’ the country and its government.
The Buhari administration, in order to erase all doubts as to its intolerance to the democratic freedoms to expression, association and assembly, gave Nigerians two major events that further buttressed its censorship with impunity. These were the events of 20th October 2020 in Lagos, when its law enforcement agencies shot sporadically into the crowd of unarmed, unsuspecting, innocent and peaceful Nigerian protesters demonstrating against police brutality in Nigeria – #EndSARS – there case pending before the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court. The other is the shutting down of social media platform – Twitter – for 222 days, which resulted in economic losses of about N546.5 billion. We challenged this in court and the ECOWAS Court declared the federal governmnent’s action to be illegal, unconstitutional – contrary to the freedom of expression, and a breach of the right to access the internet.
Furthermore, in 2021, emboldened by the federal government’s war against freedom of expression, the state governments of Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto, and Kaduna, shutdown telecommunications services for a period spanning up to six weeks, under the guise of fighting terrorism, without recourse to the due process of law that requires checks and balances and judicial oversight. This was achieved in partnership and cooperation with the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC), the ‘supposedly’ independent regulatory authority for the telecommunications industry in Nigeria.
In all of these, bloggers, social critics, and activists didn’t stand a chance against the instrumentalism of Nigeria’s Anti-terrorism Act as amended in 2013, which gave the SSS powers to arbitrarily detain and ‘remove’ from circulation persons suspected to speak against the government.
Till date, a certain individual, Dadiyata, a social media critic has been missing since 2nd August 2019. Dadiyata was picked up in the same Gestapo style that Jones Abiri was seized in 2016 and has not been found as at the time of this article.
It was brutally clear that the Buhari government understood from the onset the role of the civic space in ensuring accountability and transparency and was well prepared to counter it. The President knew that he was elected as a democratic president and still deployed and achieved autocratic ideals throughout his administration.
There is no doubt that any government that is willing to sacrifice the rule of law for national security did not intend to be democratic. The foundation for a thriving democracy is that the rule of law must never be sacrificed under any circumstance or guise. The role of the rule of law in preserving democracy cannot be overemphasized. In fact, both should be considered as conjoined twins. The supremacy of the rule of law allows for a thriving and healthy civic space, which invariably enriches democracy.
The civic space is a dynamic environment that exists to promote accountability, transparency, and in general, help to put the government on its toes. It defends citizens’ rights to information, expression and resolve for good governance.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:
“If space exists for civil society to engage, there is a greater likelihood that all rights will be better protected. Conversely, the closing of civil society space, and threats and reprisals against civil society activists, are early warning signs of instability. Over time, policies that delegitimize, isolate and repress people calling for different approaches or legitimately claiming their rights can exacerbate frustrations and lead to instability or even conflict.”
Thus, good governance in a democracy is predicated on the principles of accountability and transparency. This cannot be achieved if information that is essential for the public interest is prevented or suspended through actions like shutting down the internet, which has become the life blood of societies in this digital age.
In conclusion, any government that is willing to throw out the rule of law is directly informing its citizens that it would wage war against the civic space and is unlikely to be held accountable, especially in a fragile democracy like Nigeria’s.
Ogunlana is a digital, media, gender and human rights advocate and the executive director of DigiCivic Initiative – a nongovernmental and public interest-driven organisation.