By David Hundeyin
As the de-facto leader of his political party which holds a majority in the National Assembly, it is time for Mr. Buhari to have some frank and much-needed conversations with his party members in and around Three Arms Zone about what year it is and which country we are in.
In November 2019, there was a furore in the Nigeria civil society space when two bills were introduced into the House of Representatives. Officially known as the “Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019” and the “National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches Bill, 2019”, they quickly gained public notoriety as the “Social Media Bill” and the “Hate Speech Bill.”
There is little to say about these controversial pieces of legislation that has not been said already, but it is always worth pointing out that since the return of electoral democracy in 1999, these were two of the most anti-democratic and aggressively-worded bills ever proposed. There were clauses that contradicted separation of powers as stipulated in the constitution, clauses that placed unelected bureaucrats above the Supreme Court, clauses that made Nigerians guilty until proven innocent – it was a mess.
After a few weeks of rancour, both of these bills were quietly put on ice, pending another attempt at sneaking them through at a time when public attention is elsewhere. It is important for Nigerians to note that the bills in question have not been withdrawn, but are merely in cryogenic sleep, waiting to be reactivated at the right time.
This is why the time to demand for their unconditional withdrawal is now. It is always much easier to prevent bad legislation from passing than to get rid of it after it becomes law – especially when the proposed law would give unelected people the power of emperors and reduce Africa’s largest democracy to the level of the tiny South Asian island state they were allegedly plagiarised from.
Nigeria is not Singapore
In what has since become a recurring theme with legislation aimed at curbing social freedoms and shrinking the democratic space in Nigeria, both of these bills were largely sourced from similar laws in the South Asian island of Singapore. For different reasons, Singapore has become regarded as the gold standard of society and government that Nigeria should aspire to. In the popular Nigerian imagination it exists as a paradise state – a utopia with perfect social cohesion, world class infrastructure and a great economy.
From the point of view of the current Nigerian government, the fact that Singapore apparently achieved such results without bothering itself with little things like democratic debate, free speech and political representation is proof that Nigeria can be successfully governed and developed using the authoritarian template of Lee Kuan Yew. Far from being the utopia it is often portrayed as however, Singapore is in fact a conflict-riven society with deep social and ethnic divisions that are barely covered by an external veneer put in place by a dictatorial regime.
For example, Singapore ranks at number 158 on the 2020 Global Press Freedom Index – 43 places below Nigeria at number 115. There are intractable problems with ethnic discrimination and racial stratification that Lee Kuan Yew’s iron-fisted tenure intensified and masked. These draconian anti-free speech laws were used to persecute Singaporean political dissidents and pro-democratic individuals, with unreasonably long prison terms and even forms of torture like daily floggings being commonplace.
The Hate Speech bill in particular, is absolutely incongruous with the reality of Nigeria as a multi-ethnic electoral democracy with up to 500 distinct languages and dialects covering 993,000 sq km. In Singapore, it may have been possible for the government to enforce its single media narratives on barely 5 million people from two major ethnic groups – one of which is an overwhelming majority population – packed into just 721.5 sq km. For reference the Lekki Peninsula in Lagos (755 sq. km) is significantly bigger than Singapore and it has greater ethnic diversity.
Trying to replicate that model in a country ? the size of the USA with three equally populous majority groups and several minority groups which themselves are the size of mid-sized European countries, can only end in disaster. If the dangerous, autocratic powers being created by these bills come into effect, there is almost no possible scenario where it will not end up with a small group in power using tyranny as a political strategy.
Nigeria will once again start having thousands of political prisoners, unexplained disappearances, kangaroo courts and political exiles. Opposition politicians including those in office will inevitably be targeted, and even those on the right side of power will have to watch their backs constantly as the incubating strongman becomes impulsive and paranoid.
We have all been there before,
While we may hold elections and have all the paraphernalia of a democratic state, creeping authoritarianism is good at insinuating itself into the national fabric and spreading undetected before people become aware. It is useful to think of these repeated attempts to legislate away Nigeria’s internal freedoms as an animal virus trying out different mutations before eventually finding one successful one that makes the jump to humans. Like our current battle against the novel coronavirus, the best strategy is widespread awareness and prevention.
This sensitisation and constant vigilance is a key part of the work that several CSOs like the Centre For Liberty carry out, with support from Voice Nigeria. It is however important to make the point that we will all be individually affected if Nigeria incrementally makes its way down the slippery slope to totalitarianism again. Such legislation is not just a problem for CSOs, journalists and politicians – it is a problem for every Nigerian who wants life, liberty, prosperity, health and hope for the future. This is our collective fight.
For anyone who has kept abreast of legislative and regulatory developments in Nigeria since President Muhammadu Buhari’s reelection in 2019, it comes as no surprise that no fewer than four separate attempts have been made to gut Nigeria’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech through the back door. In an analysis last year, I wrote that even though the bills were stood down from consideration, there would certainly be a ‘next time.’
That next time came in May in the form of the proposed Infectious Diseases Bill which like its Singaporean-influenced cousins, also proposed to end most constitutionally guaranteed freedoms including assumed innocence, right of legal recourse, property rights, freedom of speech and Habeas Corpus. Happening quietly and almost simultaneously, was an undebated amendment to Nigeria’s broadcasting code, which also quietly attacked the freedom and objectivity of the media by gutting its economic independence and sneaking in yet another prohibition on social media content.
All four legislations and regulatory codes have these elements in common:
1. They completely disregard the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Nigerians including assumed innocence, freedom of speech, freedom of association, Habeas Corpus, and especially the right to fair hearing and legal recourse, instead elevating unelected Director Generals into unquestioned Führers who exist above the court system.
2. They attack the economic and property rights of ordinary Nigerians, with special focus on those of media platforms and journalists, effectively trying to make the State its own regulator, and the sole determinant of what can and cannot go into the civil space for public discourse.
3. They elevate the government’s desire to control narratives above the citizens’ right to free speech by arbitrarily labeling such as ‘Hate Speech’, without any clear and justifiable explanation of what exactly such consists of. Such sweeping powers make these laws the perfect vehicle for open widespread censorship and castration of the civil space, including shutting down NGOs, censoring print and broadcast media and using internet blackouts to target social media users.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has overseen the period with the most frequent and brazen frontal attacks on press freedom, democratic engagement spaces and public discourse since the start of the Fourth Republic. Mr. Buhari’s antecedents as a military dictator under whom “Decree 4” entered the Nigerian political lexicon are well known. Prior to taking office, Mr. Buhari went to great lengths to assure local and international stakeholders that he would not attempt to repeat the mistakes of 1984.
Now is the time to walk that talk. As the de-facto leader of his political party which holds a majority in the National Assembly, it is time for Mr. Buhari to have some frank and much-needed conversations with his party members in and around Three Arms Zone about what year it is and which country we are in.
The so-called Social Media Bill and ‘Hate Speech Bill’ must be withdrawn from consideration unconditionally, so that Nigeria can continue on its long but promising road to becoming a prosperous open society. Everyone from concerned individuals to civil society organisations to people in and around the government must recognise that the highway to destruction is paved with good intentions. Most people involved in drafting and pushing these pieces of legislation do not necessarily have any intention of creating and nurturing a monster. However, out of 10 attempts to create a “Singapore”, 9 will yield an authoritarian hellscape with none of what makes Singapore great and all of what makes it terrible.
And even the one time that you get a “Lee Kuan Yew,” Singaporeans will tell you that it is not at all what it is made out to be.
David Hundeyin is a Public Affairs Analyst.