As Nigeria joins the rest of the globe to mark the World Human Rights Day, December 10, a major democratic right, the freedom of speech, continues to be under threat in the country.
In today’s Nigeria, talk is no longer cheap. Those who open their mouth wide enough to verbalise opinions that offend the status quo should be prepared to walk the path to Stalin’s Gulag in Buhari’s Nigeria.
Is the situation so bad, or a hyperbole is here unveiled? The most obvious pointer is the Hate Speech bill currently in the works at the National Assembly, where what you say from your mouth could lead to your being put to death.
Another bill is the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019, which seeks to regulate the messages being posted on the Internet.
Both bills have similar goals and have the potentials to greatly restrain the use of the social media and could also be abused.
However, even without both bills, Nigeria already has existing laws that are used to curb free speech.
Nigeria’s democracy is in a state of flux. Many commentators have agreed that although Nigeria seems to be doing fairly well in the conduct of elections, democratic values are yet to take roots despite running a democracy for 20 years.
Democracy which is often described as “the government of the people by the people and for the people,” is anchored on the rule of the Constitution which guarantees certain fundamental rights.
The right to free speech is pivotal in assessing the depth of democratic ethos within a given political system. To abridge such rights or silence the freedom of the people to express themselves “is a descent to dictatorship.”
This is the submission of one of Nigeria’s legal luminary, Afe Babalola, in his recent reaction to the introduction of the bill to prohibit hate speech.
The present Muhammadu Buhari administration has since its inception continued to develop sensitivity to criticisms. Its reactions to dissenting voices is laying credence to earlier warnings from the opposition that the “born again” posture of Mr Buhari as a military-turned democrat was a ruse, bracing it with the argument that a leopard cannot change its spots.
The harassment and arrest in recent past of political opponents, journalists, clerics and other citizens who make critical statements either in the social media or in the traditional outlets have multiplied before our faces to an ominous proportion.
A recent report explained how attacks on the press and free speech have worsened under Mr Buhari’s watch.
Also, the hot air coming from the security agencies is forcing many into self-censorship, or better still reducing the citizenry to the famed “suffering and smiling,” as waxed by Fela Anikulapo Kuti of blessed memory.
Decree 4 resurrected?
Although Decree 4 of 1984, promulgated by the military government of General Muhammadu Buhari with the title, “The Protection Against False Accusations Decree No.4, 1984,” is no longer in force, its philosophy is still driving the current security architecture.
Section 1 of the law provided that “Any person who publishes in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message, rumour, report or statement […] which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offense under this Decree.”
The modus oparandi is almost predictable. After a criticism of the government, there is a likelihood of an SSS invitation or visitation, depending on what is applicable or possible in the given circumstance.
Even though there are civil laws that deal with issues of defamation or libel, an offensive criticism could be interpreted as a hate speech or incitement against the government, depending on the mood of the arresting agency.
The fears of a return to the dark days of military dictatorship are palpable.
The detention of the publisher of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, by the SSS, despite repeated orders of the court for his release, also cast shadows on the efficacy of the rule of law in a fledgling democracy like Nigeria’s.
Mr Sowore’s offence is his involvement in the #RevolutionNow protest which sought to call attention to the misgovernance in the country.
Ordinary citizens paying price for “free speech”
Sometime in 2017, a female employee of the Presidential Amnesty Office, Bolouere Opukiri, lost her job for criticising the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo and the First Lady, Aisha Buhari, on Twitter.
Ms Opukiri had described Mr Osinbajo, who was then acting, as “a novice” for travelling out of the country at a time President Buhari was away in the UK for medical treatment. She also took a swipe at Mrs Buhari for her railing against some ‘hyenas’ and ‘jackals’ within her husband’s inner circle, suggesting that Mrs Buhari might not be as ‘classy’ as former first lady, Patience Jonathan.
She was dismissed a week later on argument that her comments was in breach of the civil service rules (PSR) 030407, which defines “false claims against government officials.”
Although she claimed she was merely expressing her fundamental right to free expression, the authorities thought otherwise.
She was later recalled after much public outcry.
Policeman runs into trouble
Also in August this year, a police inspector with the Yobe State Police Command, Sunday Japhet, was arrested for allegedly insulting President Buhari, Vice President Osinbajo and the Inspector General of Police on his Facebook page.
The police officer said he was only venting his anger at the inhuman treatment meted out to him and his colleagues and duty by their superiors, and calling for action.
The State Commissioner of Police, Sunmonu Adeyemi Abdulmaliki, while confirming the arrest of the policeman, said he had been transferred to Zone 12 Zonal headquarters in Bauchi where he would be appropriately handled.
Mr Japhet, on August 9 took to his Facebook page and wrote: “This is Nigeria, with a president who want to fight corruption and tackle insecurities, with the vice who claimed to be a man of God without truth, with many elected senators, with IGP that we think things will change, its a pity for them, those that lead this country.
“I pray that this demonstration that is going to happen on 14 /8 in Maiduguri, Yobe, Adamawa and other places that mobile police on special duty are going to hold for their allowances be the beginning of something in this great country led by evil men.
“We are inviting all the media to be there for us, this people call their self leaders are all aware that this money use to be in some people joint account to get interest, then after 3-4 months they pay, no one will say he don’t know what is happening that this money is not paid.
“God will come down himself to help Nigerian if really this is Buhari handling this country this way. I better die for truth than to be seeing nonsense.”
He was punished for his vituperations.
Rejected for being ‘hard’ on Buhari
Earlier in the year, the fiery columnist and social critic, Festus Adedayo, lost a job as the Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to the President of the Senate for being critical of the APC-led government.
His writings immediately became his undoing as soon as he was announced as the spokesman for the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan.
The APC “mob” expectedly descended on him, calling for his immediate sack for criticising the government of Mr Buhari. The wife of the president, Mrs Buhari, weighed in with her tweet, also calling for his sack.
His appointment was rescinded within hours.
Pastors, Imams ‘watch your sermons’
An Islamic cleric, Idris Abdullaziz, was in May 2019, arrested and detained by the SSS for his attacks on the Buhari government during his periodical sermons.
Although he was later released after a gruelling encounter with the nation’s secret police, the Bauchi-based Imam vowed to continue to deliver his criticism in line with Islamic injunctions.
“I was told categorically that I have been abusing the president in my sermons and other majlis (gatherings) and that they have the records. I challenged them to play one for me, but they could not present any as evidence,” he told journalists after his release.
“I told them that I criticised former President Goodluck Jonathan more than I criticise President Buhari. I told them that I will not be biased and keep quiet when things are going wrong. My criticism is now more pronounced because there is so much suffering and President Muhammadu Buhari is a northerner. It will be unfair of me to have criticised Jonathan, a Christian and spared President Buhari, because he is a Muslim.”
Also in May this year, another Islamic teacher, based in Mr Buhari’s Katsina, Aminu Usman, popularly called Abu Ammar, was also invited by the SSS after preaching what was considered offensive to the government.
He was alleged to have berated the President Buhari’s administration over the worsening insecurity across the country.
Despite his arrest and intimidation, he had also vowed not to relent in his criticisms of the government, saying he was mandated by the Holy Quran to do so.
The Christian clergy are also not left out.
Sometime in January last year, the SSS attempted to arrest a Pentecostal pastor, Isa El-Buba, after a controversial sermon which went viral.
He had called on Nigerians to use their voter’s cards to ensure the Buhari government was not re-elected. He had referred to the President as a “wicked” leader who should not be allowed to continue in office given his tacit support for the killings across the country.
Mr El-Buba, the General Overseer of the Evangelical Outreach Ministries International, in Plateau State, was immediately placed on surveillance and was invited for questioning after a failed attempt to pick him up from his Jos headquarters.
Johnson Suleiman, head of the Omega Fire Ministries, was also a guest of the SSS in January 2017 after he made a controversial statement criticising the federal government over the killings by herdsmen in the country.
His statements were considered inflammatory and inciting against the state. He was released soon after public outcry.
Journalists, bloggers’ rattled
The Kaduna State Police in April 2016, arrested and charged Jacob Dickson, a reporter with Authentic Daily for incitement.
He had written a story which ‘offended’ Governor Nasir El-rufai. The story noted that angry youngsters pelted the governor with stones and booed him while on a visit to a community to media in a crisis.
His arrest was on the same day the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, delivered an address on behalf of President Buhari to a meeting of the Federation of African Journalists hosted by the National Union of Journalists in Abuja.
Mr Dickson was detained and arraigned before he was released on bail in the sum of N200,000.
PREMIUM TIMES’ Samuel Ogundipe was arrested by the SARS in August 2018 over a report on the former Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris. He was arraigned and prosecuted by SARS for refusing to disclose the source of the story.
Abubakar Idris, popular on twitter as Dadiyata, and known for his vocal criticism of the Kano State Governor, Umar Ganduje, was seized from his home in Kaduna.
He has since not been seen or heard from.
The state government had denied links to his predicament and his family helplessly await any clue about his whereabouts.
Stephen Kefas, an activist, is a known critic of Mr El-Rufai. He was arrested in May in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, but was transferred to Kaduna on the orders of Governor El-Rufai for reposting a Facebook article by Sahara Reporters exposing the detention of the “Kajuru 9” elders.
He has been held for more than three months.
Agba Jalingo, a journalist, was arrested by the Nigerian Police Force in August 2019 and has been charged for “treason and involvement with the #RevolutionNowprotests”.
But Mr Jalingo has said the real reason he was held was because he had exposed corruption by the governor of Cross River State, Ben Ayade.
Jones Abiri, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Weekly Source newspaper, was re-arrested in May after a two-year detention without charge by the SSS, who accused him of terror related activities.
He has also been released after a global outcry but is still being prosecuted.
Following responses and reactions from the president’s media office, there is a sustained argument from his camp that the president could not ask any person or the security agencies to restrain anyone’s rights.
It is however trite to understand that Mr Buhari’s ‘body language’ and silence in the face of these violations is all that is needed for actions to be taken against critics of the government.
According to Mike Ozekhome, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and critic of the government, “the Nigerian government has been tested and known to be very allergic to constructive criticisms. Its skin is very negatively thin against criticisms as regards citizens’ genuine concerns.”
“It is a government that listens to itself, sets its own examination questions, marks them by itself and award marks to itself. Citizens’ opinion does not matter.”
The signs are not encouraging. If it becomes life threatening to voice ones opinions about how the nation should be governed, then we can conclude that we are is still deep in the woods.
Activists argue that the resistance to this slide backwards must be sustained by all citizens standing together. To do otherwise is to bring to naught all the democratic achievements since 1999.