Nigeria: The Social Media Bill

13 November 2019
opinion

It wasn't long ago that Bala bn Na'allah introduced a bill seeking to jail critics in the Senate. His desire was to see government critics without accompanying sworn affidavits locked up for at least six months with heavy fine. Na'allah's wish was to enlarge the number of those with criminal records and history of bankruptcy. Maximum penalty for flouting his suggestion would have been two years in jail with a fine as much as N200,000. Thanks to the clamour of men and women of goodwill and that of President Muhammadu Buhari of the Change era who distanced themselves from the bill. The president said then that he was committed to free speech. Today, that same government's Next Level has witnessed the worst press infractions in 34 years.

As at the time of writing, Omoyele Sowore and his comrade, Mandate were still languishing in DSS vaults after meeting record bail conditions. Dadiyata has been missing for over 100 days and a young journalist is imprisoned in Calabar for criticising Ben Ayade. When the system works against you, there is enough rogue legislation in the armoury to get you. Remember we were colonised by the British who introduced every law in the system to prevent the challenge of its authority. At flag independence, we adopted every colonial law in force in England as of 1800. Sad enough, not much has changed - for the better.

Musa's fresh wish is for anyone that 'throws anything on social media' to face the full wrath of his draft. If he gets his request, anyone even satirically using the picture of a politician on a social media post could face three years in jail or a fine of N150,000. Cartoonists beware! The medium by which the transmission was made could be vicariously liable.

Musa represents Niger State in the senate. He's eager to copy extant laws in Indonesia, Philippines and Egypt, which has draconian social media laws. He's blind to laws in England granting social welfare; the one in Canada that compensates citizens whose vehicles are damaged by poor road maintenance.

It's not known how many times Musa goes to Minna or his local government since he 'won' his senate election. One assumes his amphibious vehicle's electronic suspension grants legislative immunity against potholes and gullies. Musa's fellow Nigerlites swear that the Abuja-Suleja-Minna road is a death trap but Musa is more concerned with trifles. Musa wants a new definition of patriotism in the age of social media and unless we shame him into withdrawal, he would have his way in legislative infamy. His bill is inchoately titled 'Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019'.

The dynamism of our legislators is unrivalled. They once craved to bar citizens from physical contact claiming to be under threat. We had to show them global best practices where the legislature is open even in states living under palpable fear of terror attacks to get them to back down. In Nigeria, legislative dynamism is measured by the number of bills introduced or passed not by its impact on the lives of the electorate.

Our legislators never cease to increase their own allowances, to buy SUVs and of course marry new wives while sexually harassing their female clerks and short-changing their personal staff.

Issues that Malaysians have jumped over include talking about good roads and transportation. Egyptians have uninterrupted electricity. Filippinos have social infrastructure. Italians have an effective judicial system and Australians have an excellent education, health and social structure - why Senator Musa picked on draconian social media law beats imagination.

Nigeria has an amorphous constitution that'll take us nowhere but our legislature has no sincere interest in amending it. Our budget in their hands would pass with heavy padding to their own whims.

Social media is a tool for social transformation. Musa should know this, because he used a Twitter handle during campaigns. Social media is like his new SUV - capable of taking him to his desired destination or to jannah. Musa should decree that his he and his colleagues travel by road everywhere without escort.

Nigeria has more than enough laws to deal with anything in our country. The DSS didn't need one to keep Omoyele Sowore in indefinite detention. It could kidnap any citizen from their homes or at ports of entry and make them disappear. Nigerian prisons are the worst in the world, poorly built, hardly maintained, over congested and ill-equipped to reform even subtle criminals. About 60% of inmates in detention are awaiting trial people. Thousands are incarcerated at the whims of people in government. What we do not need is any more laws to send anyone there.

Judicial reform is the starting point of social re-engineering. We don't need people in jail who should be making appointment with their shrink or social workers. We don't need bail-able infractions leading to long jail terms. A dynamic legislature should pre-occupy itself with these issues not a place in global infamy. Senator Musa should withdraw this bill. It'll serve no useful purpose - worse still, he could later become a victim. There's a precedent in Indonesia.

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