Nigeria: Lai Mohammed and the Social Media

7 November 2019
column

I was in Maiduguri in 1992 with the current Managing Director of 'The Nation' newspaper, Mr Victor Ifijeh, then a political correspondent for Concord Newspapers, to cover the National Assembly election under the 'guided democracy' of General Ibrahim Babangida. The battle for the Borno Central Senatorial district was between Hajia Kolo Kingibe, wife of then Social Democratic Party (SDP) National Chairman, Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe and Alhaji Ali Modu Sheriff of the National Republican Convention (NRC). In those days, Kingibe used to describe Ifijeh as 'the campaign manager of M.K.O. Abiola in Borno' because the latter had visited the state several times while working for the late Abiola's newspaper.

In the course of monitoring the keenly contested senatorial election, Ifijeh and I met with Kingibe who said, "Victor, I can imagine what Concord headline will be if Kolo loses this election. Okay, let me help you: 'Kingibe's wife floored'. We laughed over it and while we observed the election, the official result had not been declared before we left Maiduguri for Lagos. Ifijeh himself was not sure who had won the election by the time we arrived Lagos so he didn't file a report and did not go to the office. But the next day, relying on a news alert from the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), Concord newspaper (I suspect Mr Tunji Bello, then political editor) came with a lead story on the contest. Guess the headline? 'Kingibe's Wife Floored'.

Quite naturally, Ifijeh felt bad when he saw the newspaper but there was nothing he could do about it. A few days later, before addressing a press conference at the SDP national secretariat, Kingibe sighted Ifijeh and remarked, "Victor, you couldn't even resist the headline I gave you."

I recall that story against the background of memories that have flooded back in recent weeks on a WhatsApp group, cobbled together following the death of Mr Tunji Olawuni, a former political editor with Vanguard newspaper. Between Bosun Odedina (now Oluwabusayomi), Feyi Smith and Deba Uwadiae (now based in the United States), it was decided that a few of us who reported politics in the nineties be contacted to support the burial. Many joined us and the burial has since been done but the WhatsApp group remains, comprising mostly of majority of the Big Boys (and a few Big Girls) political reporters during the aborted Third Republic.

With all of us scattered across the world and after almost three decades, we are now able to reconnect, thanks to the power of social media. As we reminisce and recall salacious stories of mischief at a time when men were boys, there is a suggestion that we produce a book on the politics of the era in Nigeria. I don't know how that will work out but it is an interesting prospect.

However, what the virtual reunion has demonstrated is the power of social media to build stronger relationships while connecting long-lost friends and relations. Besides, with social media, every individual can now communicate their views over different topics with a large number of audiences, and elevate their voice. But it is not without its own downsides. From being a distraction in the workplace to the negative impact it has on mental health, there are serious problems with the social media. Perhaps the greatest danger is that social media has become a weapon for spreading information that is too often false and potentially damaging to the larger society.

It is within this context that we should interrogate the statement on Tuesday by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, that the federal government would regulate social media in Nigeria. These were his exact words: "Since we inaugurated our reform of the broadcast industry, many Nigerians have reached out to us, demanding that we also look into how to sanitise the Social Media space. I can assure you that we are also working on how to inject sanity into the Social Media space which, today, is totally out of control. No responsible government will sit by and allow fake news and hate speech to dominate its media space, because of the capacity of this menace to exploit our national fault lines to set us against each other and trigger a national conflagration. That is why we will continue to evolve ways to tackle fake news and hate speech until we banish both. This administration has no intention of muzzling the media or stifling free speech, our campaign is against fake news and hate speech. However, if you engage in disseminating fake news or hate speech, you need to be worried, because we will not spare you. We cannot allow fake news and hate speech to become free speech, because these Siamese Twins of Evil are capable of inflicting untold damage on our democracy and threatening our national unity. They represent a clear and imminent danger to our survival as a nation."

While hate speech has long been with us, what is new is 'Fake news'. Before I deal with the substance of this intervention, let me first address that. A recent European Commission Working Paper offers several definitional perspectives, using different sources that include, "News that is made up or 'invented' to make money or discredit others; news that has a basis in fact, but is 'spun' to suit a particular agenda; and news that people don't feel comfortable about or don't agree with"; "Verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and in any event to cause public harm"; "All forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit"; "Perceived and deliberate distortions of news with the intention to affect the political landscape and to exacerbate divisions in society" etc.

If we go by those definitions, there is no doubt that much of what transpires today on social media is not only fake but inimical to the development of our society. And there is a strong argument to be made for regulating such harmful contents in our country. This is also an ongoing global debate. In June this year, the Wall Street Journal posed a question, 'Should the Government Regulate Social Media?' to University students across the United States. As to be expected, opinions were diverse even though majority are for non-regulation. Zachary Handler, a history student at the University of California, Berkeley who endorsed regulation said that "elected governments across the world should step in to restore some degree of popular control to the institutions that now shape our public engagement and political debate."

Several countries are already implementing measures of control. Following the live streaming of the New Zealand shootings, Australia in April this year passed the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act which prescribes criminal penalties for social media companies, fines worth up to 10 percent of their global turnover and possible jail sentences for their executives. Earlier in 2015, the Enhancing Online Safety Act had been enacted with the appointment of an eSafety Commissioner with power to demand that social media companies take down harassing or abusive posts. In Germany, a regulation which applies to companies with more than two million registered users in the country empowers the authorities to review complaints and order removal of contents considered harmful within 24 hours.

What the foregoing clearly indicates is that the enactment of laws and regulations that protect all of us should not be controversial. But is that what the federal government is planning? I doubt. The publisher of Sahara Reporters remains incarcerated despite a controversial bail by an Abuja court. It is worth remembering that his main offence was sending "messages by means of press interview granted on Arise Television network which you knew to be false for the purpose of causing insult, enmity, hatred and ill-will on the person of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria."

I understand the frustration of the federal government and particularly that of Alhaji Lai Mohammed. Just six years ago, he was the toast of the media as he assailed then President Goodluck Jonathan whom he characterised in words that would be deemed 'treasonable' in today's Nigeria. What he forgot is that what politicians say and do when seeking power most often comes back to bite them when they eventually get what they want. In a piece titled "Goodluck to the President", published on this page on 31st May 2012 at a period Jonathan was marking his first year in office as elected president, I reminded him of what I told his handlers in May 2010, during the illness of the late President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua to whom I was spokesman at the time. I repeated that same story for the benefit of Buhari on 27th May 2015, two days before he assumed office.

My contention was that courting public adulation, as the Jonathan crowd did in 2010, and Buhari's people did in 2015, could ultimately prove to be counter-productive. To drive home my point, I used a fictional account of events which followed the death in 1997 of Princess Diana as depicted in 'The Queen', a multiple award winning 2006 British film starring Helen Mirren. As it would happen, the 'Change' agents were obviously too drunk on their electoral success at the time to pay attention so let me repeat the story as captured in the movie about the drama at Buckingham palace after the death of Princess Diana.

While Queen Elizabeth II saw Diana's death as a private family affair, then newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair exploited the situation by reflecting the public wish for an official expression of grief. This instantly earned Blair public acclamation while the Queen became so unpopular that many were even calling for the abrogation of the monarchy. The instructive dialogue from the encounter (as depicted in the film) goes thus:

Queen Elizabeth II: You don't think that the affection people once had for me, for this institution, has been diminished?

Tony Blair: No, not at all. You are more respected now than ever.

Queen Elizabeth II: I gather some of your closest advisers were less fulsome in their support.

Tony Blair: One or two but as a leader, I could never have added my voice to that chorus.

Queen Elizabeth II: Because you saw all those headlines and you thought: 'One day this might happen to me'...

Tony Blair: Oh... er...

Queen Elizabeth II: (cuts in): ... and it will, Mr. Blair; quite suddenly and without warning...

Now that the 'Change' exponents have moved from the passenger's side to the driver's seat of government and their ammunition of 'blame Jonathan' propaganda is exhausted as an excuse for every challenge, Alhaji Lai Mohammed contends that social media is the problem. He may need to look at himself in the mirror.

In all these, what the federal government should understand is that a nation divided along partisan, sectarian, geo-political and ethnic lines is a breeding ground for hate speech and the weaponisation of falsehood masquerading as alternative truths. The technology of social media only makes it easier for a thousand lies to multiply. It is in that context that the source of the current social media excesses in Nigeria can be located. While the negatives must be condemned, the immediate challenge is not to constrain free speech but to run a less divisive government. Moreover, a desire to sanitize free speech in the social media must not become a guise to gag and clampdown on regime opponents.

Reuben Abati's Day

Yesterday, Simon Kolawole and I (we share same birthday) received so many messages of goodwill. I was even indulged with a giant cake by my aburo, Tunde Ahmadu and his people at the Shehu Musa YarAdua Centre. Last night, Mrs Sandra Adio and my wife conspired to organize a surprise 'come and eat' affair that brought together unexpected guests. And an epidemic of birthday cakes! To my pastor, Eva Azodoh and his wife, Ngozi as well as Bolaji Abdullahi and his wife, Funmilola; Lot Egopija and his wife, Florence; Wole Apata and his wife, Nike; Mike Leramo and his wife, Mercy, I say thank you. I am also grateful to my friends, Waziri Adio, Biodun Adeniyi, Elizabeth Ekpenyong, Ola Awoniyi, Mrs Yinka Fagbenro and Mrs Fatima Modupe and all the young people, including Meton Egopija and Damola Leramo, who were around.

Meanwhile, today is for my aburo, Dr Reuben Abati. He may claim he is younger than me by just one day. But being Yoruba himself, he is well aware that those 24 hours are enough for me to demand he prostrates anytime we meet. I wish His Excellency, the Ogun State deputy gubernatorial candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2019 general election, a happy birthday.

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