The threat by the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, to prosecute “violators” of the government’s ban on Twitter operations in Nigeria lacks legal basis, some lawyers have argued.
The government, through the information minister, Lai Mohammed, had on Friday suspended Twitter operations in the country.
The crackdown on Twitter came two days after the social media platform deleted President Muhammadu Buhari’s controversial tweet seen as a veiled threat of violence against the Igbo ethnic group.
It is seen by many Nigerians as an attack on citizens’ right to freedom of expression and a step closer the execution of the government’s years-long ambition to impose regulations on the social media space in the country.
But since the ban on Twitter on Friday, many Nigerians have been using various Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications to remain active on the microblogging site.
Mr Malami, in reaction to the development on Saturday, ordered the Director of Public Prosecution of the Federation (DPPF), Umar Muhammed, to begin the prosecution of those bypassing the ban.
He directed the DPPF to liaise with the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy, National Communication Commission (NCC) and other relevant government agencies to ensure the speedy prosecution of the “offenders without any further delay”.
‘No constitutional backing’
But in separate telephone interviews with our correspondent on Saturday, lawyers argued that there were no constitutional provisions to support Mr Malami’s directive to the DPPF to try Nigerians for alleged breach of the government’s suspension of Twitter operations.
A legal practitioner and human rights activist, Malcolm Omirhobo, said it was unfortunate that the attorney-general was unable to offer sound legal advice to President on the Twitter matter and other issues in the country.
“The inability of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, to distill issues so as to guide the President and government properly on what decisions to take in issues of law and many others in the country is most unfortunate.
“Mr Malami’s directive to the DPP of Nigeria has no legal backing,” Mr Omirhobo said.
‘Use of Twitter not codified as an offence’
Also a constitutional lawyer, Daniel Bwala, agreed with Mr Omirhobo, that the use of Twitter had not been defined as an offence by mere suspension of the social media platform by the federal government.
According to Mr Bwala, “unless the use of Twitter is codified in law as an offence, you (the government) cannot prosecute any Nigerian for the use of Twitter.”
He explained, “The law of the land says nobody will be convicted or prosecuted for any offence that is not defined by law for which the punishment is prescribed in a written constitution.”
In a video post on Facebook, Mr Bwala, agreed with the government’s suspension of Twitter operations on the grounds the firm’s “double standards” in allowing other alleged violators of the company’s policy, but urged Nigerians to “discard the assertion by the AGF that people can be prosecuted for the use of Twitter” in Nigeria.
‘Tending towards dictatorship’
Another lawyer, Silas Onu, queried what law would be violated if a Nigerian used Twitter.
He noted that the action of the AGF was tending towards dictatorship.
“What law will be broken if someone uses Twitter? Some things done by this Attorney General truly do not deserve any response. Nothing is an offense unless it is clearly stated as such and punishment also prescribed for breaches. Therefore, the action of the AGF is tending towards dictatorship,” Mr Onu said.
‘Disregard prosecution threat’
While lampooning the minister on Twitter on Saturday, Inibehe Effiong, urged Nigerians to disregard his threat.
In his tweet, Mr Effiong, a human rights lawyer, said inter alia, “…this is supposed to be a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. Nigerians, ignore this infantile statement. It is brutum fulmen. Using VPN to bypass illegal suspension of Twitter is not a crime.”
‘Amounts to crime against humanity’
On its part, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), in a tweet said “arresting and misusing the criminal justice system to prosecute Nigerians using Twitter in Nigeria (on the basis of a public statement by the Federal Government) would amount to a CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY.”
Referencing Section 36(12) of the 1999 Constitution, another lawyer, Festus Ogun, explained,
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“Malami’s order for the arrest and prosecution of Twitter users has no stand in law. Section 36(12) of the Constitution provides that an arrest and prosecution cannot be made except by a law.
“Is Malami now a law unto himself?,” the lawyer wondered, adding that Nigerians would resist any attempt to deny them of their liberty.
Meanwhile, a group known as Youth Rights Campaign, has condemned the ban on Twitter, describing it as “an attack on democratic rights.”
In a statement by its national coordinator, Adaramoye Michael, the group demanded an immediate reversal of the ban.
“The Youth Rights Campaign (YRC) strongly condemns the recent suspension of Twitter in Nigeria. This declaration of suspension is dictatorial and a direct attack on the democratic rights of Nigerians to freely express themselves.
“We hereby call on the Federal government to reverse this suspension immediately. At the same time, we call for a halt to all attacks on democratic rights including reversal of the social media bill and indeed all measures aimed at curtailing civil liberties. We also demand the unconditional release of all political detainees.”
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