ALERT: Free Speech Endangered in Nigeria. Our Citizenship Under Attack

In what is clearly a brutal assault on free speech, Omoyele Sowore was arrested.
In what is clearly a brutal assault on free speech, Omoyele Sowore was arrested.
By Yemi Adamolekun, Abiodun Baiyewu, Cheta Nwanze, Chidi Odinkalu, Gbenga Sesan. (Statement endorsed by PREMIUM TIMES.)

In a worrying trend, speaking out is becoming more dangerous in Nigeria as curbs on free speech, and repercussions for taking stances opposed to the government of the day are on the rise.

First, it was publisher Jones Abiri, who was arrested and held by agents of the state for two years without access to legal representation. He has been re-arrested this year and is currently held on impossible bail conditions.

African Independent Television and RayPower FM were forced off the air.

Citizens Audu Maikori and Ohimai Amaize have been persecuted for saying things powerful people didn’t like.

This trend of assaults of free speech appears to have accelerated as we note the arrest of Steven Kefason and efforts to erase his online presence.

IG Wala was sentenced to seven years in jail for organising a peaceful demonstration. (PREMIUM TIMES: He was actually jailed for making ‘unsubstantiated allegations’ against a public official).

Then this week we have seen the arrest of Abubakar Dadiyata Idris. And most recently, the arrest of Omoyele Sowore.

This (attack on free speech) is worrying, especially in a country where insecurity is demonstrably on the increase, and the indices of human progress are on a steep decline. Without a contest of ideas fuelled by dissent, Nigeria will grow more ignorant, timid, and ultimately, impoverished.

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Thirty-five (35) years ago, the military promulgated laws like the Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree No. 4. Of 1984 and the State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree No. 2 of 1984 to muzzle free speech and expression, preclude access to the truth and vanish perceived regime opponents. It feels like our country is back to the future.

Free speech in Nigeria is under attack in various ways and our right to be citizens of a country we can call our own is now clearly under attack from our own government.

First, as seen by the actions against AIT, the muzzling of Nigeria Info’s Nelly Kalu or the arrest of Premium Times’ Samuel Ogundipe is repression targeted at the media. This has had the effect of for example, slowing the flow of reportage about the war against Boko Haram. A society which lives in darkness will one day wake up to find itself overrun.

Second, there is a worrying rise in violence by the state, and procured protests by non-state actors paid for by state agents. Members of the secret police barging into people’s houses in the dead of night, or kidnapping men in front of their families in the early evening, all without proper arrest warrants speaks to a repressive state. Sponsored protests against organisations with a track record of holding various governments to account are proof that things are truly bad.

Third, troll farms are growing, mostly paid by state agents to frighten or crowd out independent voices from the digital spaces.

Fourth, the idea that there are national red lines which some groups may not cross, though it may sound innocuous, breeds resentment and makes for distrust and greater instability. Enshrined in the spirit of the 1999 Constitution which the current government swore to uphold is a duty to uphold the right to offend.

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Fifth, our security services, which appear unable to offer any effective response to any form of outlawry from Boko Haram, bandits, armed herders, cultists, kidnappers and thugs appear, nevertheless, to have formed a habit of hunting peaceful citizens exercising lawful rights with live bullets on the streets of Nigeria’s major cities.

Despite years of military dictatorship, Nigeria has somehow always had a vibrant, if flawed, public space for discourse. Barbaric crackdowns on free speech are a direct assault on years of our history, and an attempt to return the country to the dark days of suppression. Enough is enough.

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