First, it was the controversial N8.64 billion wardrobe allowance for the then newly sworn in legislators. Then the most incredulous and shocking one so far…in what was described by the Senate President, as “a watershed moment in our vision to take lawmaking back to the people,” the Senate President’s Suggestion box was launched. Just in case you haven’t been in tune with happenings in Nigeria’s political space; Yes, you read right. Suggestion boxes were launched in the chambers of the nation’s highest law making body. In the 21st century. In this digital/technological age. Ribbons were used for decoration and a tape was cut (you get the drift…all the works were in place) to launch suggestion boxes by our senators. Then, the latest may just be the final straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back- the proposed clampdown on social media critics who “falsely” criticize public officials or institutions.
Since its inauguration in June, it is safe to say that the Nigerian Senate has been on a roller coaster of gaffes in the course of discharging its duties. What is not certain is if these series of errors have been committed as a deliberate affront to the people of Nigeria, or if they are a reflection of innocuous mistakes made by a “teething” Senate. The proposed social media bill is one gaffe too many, and our lawmakers may just have bitten more than they can chew if the outrage on social media is anything to go by. It is sad and unfortunate that Senator Bala Ibn Na’allah, a member of the “Change” chanting All Progressives Congress could conceive this idea, let alone propose it to his colleagues. It is worse that it is actually being considered to be passed into law.
During the launch of Saraki’s suggestion box, the Senate President reiterated the legislator’s commitment to ensuring Nigerians are given the opportunity to engage the upper legislative house robustly by encouraging an enabling environment for feedback from the ordinary man on the streets. In his words ” a strong feedback mechanism that is non-discriminatory, direct, open-minded, uninhibited and continuous…” hence the decision to make suggestion boxes available for that purpose. It is baffling that the lawmakers expect that Nigerians scattered all over the country should have access to a box that is placed in a guarded location like the National Assembly complex. One wonders what other medium provides all the characteristics listed by the Senate President aside the social media. A platform that they have now ironically declared war on.
The bill which has quickly scaled through two readings within the first two weeks of its introduction states that “abusive” posts with intent to set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law could face imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.” How will the lawmakers determine the fine line between expressing a strong opinion and an intent to set the public against a person? They also clearly forget that the Nigerian constitution aligns directly with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says “Everyone has a right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This not only means that the proposed bill is unconstitutional, it also translates to the fact that our lawmakers are infringing on the right of Nigerians to freely express themselves.
During electioneering, the same politicians who are now seeking to muzzle users of social media deployed media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to drive their narratives and political campaign. A number of them employed Twitter overlords and celebrities to campaign for them via these sites. But for some reason, they seem to have suddenly developed amnesia now that they have benefited from social media. In this day and age where information and free speech is encouraged, who contemplates stifling the voice of the people? In the first place, why should a servant of the people be averse to criticism? The ordinary man who is not in government gets criticized daily. As a matter of fact, whether a person is in the private or the public sector, it is virtually impossible to live a life that is devoid of criticism, and even insults from time to time. It’s the way the world works! Anyone who desires to do anything tangible or make a significant contribution to humanity must be ready to face opposition. This should be a no-brainer for our lawmakers.
In a country where major challenges in security, the health sector, education, the petroleum sector and virtually every sector of the economy remain an embarrassing albatross, it is heartbreaking to realize that the people whom Nigerians spent hours in long queues, and the scorching sun voting for have turned around so soon to stab them in the back. It may interest our lawmakers to know that a huge percentage of the people who actively use social media are the youths, and any attempt to stifle the voice of this category of people (many of whom are already frustrated by the system due to the pervading unemployment and a country that increasingly shows them that they hardly matter in the scheme of things) will be resisted to the uttermost. Already the “Say No To Social Media Bill” and “March On Nass” hashtags have been trending on Twitter. There have also been talks of moves to recall Senator Bala Ibn Na’allah by his constituency. A step in the right direction if you asked me.
I am also aware that a few Senators have distanced themselves from the obnoxious bill. This is good, but they will only be taken seriously when they speak against it on the floor of the house, just like President Buhari has done. How can our lawmakers quickly forget the huge role social media played in fighting societal ills and advancing worthy causes such as the “Occupy Nigeria” movement, the Ebola awareness campaign and the “Bring Back Our Girls” hashtag which went viral quickly and ended up getting worldwide attention.
Social media is the place of solace for the ordinary Nigerian. It is provides an avenue for him to air his views and vent his frustrations about issues freely. To attempt to take that away from him would be tantamount to embarking on a suicide mission. The draconian bill must not see the light of day.