The disapproval of the social media and hate speech bills by a lot of nigerians is quite understandable.
The ignominy with which the Buhari administration has repeatedly made a mockery of the rule of law has made it almost impossible to trust him. But that is really as far as it goes. If you have any other excuse for being sceptical about these bills, then you probably need to find out more about them. Over the last couple of days, I have seen people I would have never expected to, hop blindly on the bandwagon and say the social media and hate speech bills are unconstitutional. As a matter of fact,nothing could be farther from the truth.Section 39 of the constitution guarantees freedom of speech but it doesn’t guarantee the dissemination of falsehood and the making of offensive statements capable of inciting trouble. Both proposed legislations are clear as to intent and it is preposterous for anyone to outrightly tag them anti-free speech. The honest truth is that what both bills seek to tackle are issues we would have to address at some point and like I have always said, Nigerians need to learn to better manage their displeasure with Buhari. That he has failed woefully doesn’t mean no good can come out of his administration or the party he represents. We mustn’t throw away the baby with the bath water. Ours is a delicately set society with various tribes and a very strong passion for religion. In as much as a lot of us wish to one day have a Nigeria where citizens will hold placards and demonstrate at the police headquarters for action to be taken against someone disrespecting their religion or tribe,we are a long way from that. Only God knows what would have happened if a lot of people took Femi Fani Kayode seriously. In criticizing the Buhari government for using an image of a fulani herdsman and his cows in a page he referred to as ‘accursed’ in the new nigerian passport, he said “fulani herdsmen are symbols of bloodshed, terror, mass murder, ethnic-cleansing, genocide, carnage, torment, trauma and evil“. This is just one of several times FFK has come out to say derogatory things about the Fulani. The hate speech bill aims to curb comments like this and if people like FFK tell you it is meant to steal away your constitutional right to freedom of expression because they will no longer talk like this and walk scot free, please disregard them. The more sensational a piece of news sounds, the faster it is likely to spread. Former Senator representing Kaduna North Central, Shehu Sani said he heard rumours N70M belonging to northern senators was carted away by monkeys and till this very moment, most people have come to regard the official position on that matter as ‘monkeys stole N70M’. When the Federal Government said the RUGA initiative meant to settle and confine cattle and livestock rearers to a particular space was optional and that only interested state governments could apply for it, mischief makers hit town with the news that Buhari was trying to ‘fulanize’ the entire country and wanted his people in place to seize every land. There were quite verifiable reports of the Jonathan administration approving what Reno Omokri has gone on to say was as much as N100bn for RUGA ( I re-emphasize the need to better manage our displeasure with Buhari) and when Gov. Atiku Bagudu of Kebbi state shed some more light on the initiative by saying the RUGA idea originally belonged to our colonial fathers, FFK said he should take ‘his accursed cows and do his RUGA there’. The government had to cancel what would have otherwise benefitted a community like Benue which has a very long history of farmer/herdsmen crisis. Politicians being politicians and knowing they count on the support of the majority, have had to shelve very well-meaning plans because of the shenanigans of a set of people skilled at exploiting public discontent to suit the objectives of their static and myopic minds. The more accepted position of RUGA as things stand is that Buhari’s plan to forcefully settle fulanis across Nigeria to ‘take over’ was fought and defeated. Like I said earlier, the social media law is something we were always bound to consider; if not now, then some time in the near future. We would be doing ourselves more harm than good in the great words of Benjamin Franklin by putting off until tomorrow what we can do today for obviously wrong reasons. Before anyone forms an opinion on these bills,it is important they read them or at the very least,endeavour to find out what they are really about. Some commentators have gone on to say the Cyber Crimes Act of 2015 has tackled what the Social Media and Hate speech bills seek to address but it is not so. Section 15 (Cyberstalking) makes mention only of falsehood meant to cause annoyance, needless anxiety and inconvenience to another. Injurious falsehood doesn’t have to be targeted at an individual alone. The Social Media bill not only deals with falsehood in a broader sense, it also mentions network providers that defy warnings to shut down such a subscriber and also seeks to punish the sponsors of these fake news. Section 18 of the Act speaks about racist and Xenophobic offences and it doesn’t speak about provocative and divisive statements leading to the death of persons. The one valid controversy the bill generated was the death penalty it sought to put in place for that offence which was widely deemed too harsh. Its sponsor, Senator Sabi Abdullahi has graciously removed that. I for one was worried about these bills turning out to be legislations President Buhari wanted in place to help achieve a 3rd term plan. But there is nothing in these bills that suggest they want to punish anything other than falsehood and comments capable of stirring trouble or that ample room has been left for them to be manipulated capriciously. Admittedly, they are coming at the wrong time. Buhari has proven over time to have no respect for the law and even a legislation seeking to control reckless and malicious speech is bound to be interpreted as an attempt to gag nigerians. There are concerns but most aren’t valid. What we really ought to be doing is pointing out dubious loopholes that will allow for these bills if they eventually become laws, to be used unjustly and not say they are ‘unconstitutional’ or an attempt to suppress free speech without making any sense of how they so do. Buhari may have given us reasons to hate him but we must also learn to keep an open mind regarding policies and weigh them like we truly want what is good for us.
Umar Sa’ad Hassan is based in Kano