Lai Mohammed and the All Progressives Congress (APC) rode the wave of political opposition using the media as its key tool in the build-up to the 2015 elections. Naturally, Mohammed was deployed as the Minister of Information making him the government’s official spokesman. Now, he stands at the forefront of the government’s efforts to limit our collective right to freedom of expression part of a persistent assault on human rights by the Buhari administration.
The Social Media Bill, was sponsored in 2006 and twice in 2019 bearing titles, Frivolous Petitions (Prohibition) Bill 2015 aka Social Media Bill(sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah representing Kebbi South), National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate(sponsored by the deputy chief whip, Aliyu Abdullahi, Hate Speech Prohibition Bill 2019 (Mohammed Tahir Monguno of Monguno/Marte/Nganzai Federal Constituency Borno State), Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulations and Other Related Matters Bill 2019(sponsored by Muhammad Sani Musa of the Niger State East Senatorial District). The bills were opposed by members of the house for not reflecting an iota of democracy.
The year 2020 has not been any different. In August, Mr. Mohammed through the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) increased the fine for hate speech from N500,000 to N5 million. In the last week, the NBC fined media channels including AriseTV, Channels TV, and African Independent Television (AIT) for covering the #EndSARS protests despite its warnings. His resolve to control free speech became alarming when he pushed again for the regulation of social media at the parliament on Tuesday drawing parallels to China.
When we went to China, we could not get google, Facebook, and Instagram. You could not even use your email in China because they made sure it is censored and well regulated.
He also cited the use of social media to rally against police brutality and corruption.
They mobilised using social media. The war today revolves around two things. Smartphones and data and these young men don’t even watch television or listen to the radio or read newspapers. We are sitting on a time bomb on this issue of fake news.
Social Media as a Tool for Change
In a digitized world, information travels faster and is more accessible and this does admittedly leave a susceptibility for false news. However, there’s a counterpoint to be made that social media is a self-regulating space and fake news is something that tends to be filtered out via fact-checking platforms. Nigerians have actively engaged this tool in the quest for continuous civic engagement. When 276 girls were abducted on the night of 14th-15th April 2014 from a secondary school in Chibok, Borno. Former Nigerian Minister, Oby Ezekwesili and two other Nigerian campaigners launched the hashtag #bringbackourgirls evolving into a global movement with protests holding in Nigeria and major Western cities like Los Angeles and London by the 3rd and 4th May. The campaign was for a while Twitter’s most tweeted hashtag. By 11th May, it had attracted 2.3 million tweets and by 2016 it had been retweeted 6.1 million times.
More recently, video footage of members of the notorious Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) fleeing with a white SUV jeep after killing its owner in front of Wetland Hotels in Ughelli, Delta surfaced on the internet, it triggered nationwide protests against the unit amidst calls for urgently needed reform of the Police Force. When the government sought to use violent means and the army to quell the momentum, it was through social media this was documented and claims made by the Nigerian Army were disputed.
Knowing what we know, it is clear that Buhari’s past in the military still influences his world view. During his first dance as a military leader, his regime was marked with rampant violation of human rights particularly freedom of expression. Journalists like Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thomas of the Guardian were imprisoned for a story on diplomatic postings in 1984 highlighting the government’s attitude to dissent and its willingness to use its power to neuter those tasked with calling it to account. With five years of an eight-year gone, it could be argued that while President Buhari might not face direct consequences, it is important that a lot of those seeking to benefit from his platform must be made to feel the heat. Social media is one of the most potent tools in holding our elected officials to account and canvassing to create the change we desire and it is important that as we seek a vision of a Nigeria that works, it is left free from the clutches of a government which has proven it does not mean well for the people it governs.