Over the course of its time in power, the Buhari led administration has constantly been accused of infringing on fundamental human rights particularly the right to free speech. First, the Nigerian military announced it would begin to monitor social media for repulsive remarks against the President while the Minister for Information, Lai Mohammed, reviewed the National Broadcasting Code raising the fine for hate speech to N5 million from N500,000. More recently, it has emerged that Popular celebrities, Tiwa Savage and Don Jazzy were invited for questioning by the Department of State Services (DSS) to its Shangisha, Lagos office two weeks ago. Their invitation was based on remarks they had made in the public sphere leading the DSS to ask them to refrain from making degrading political utterances against the government.
Their crimes? Tiwa Savage had earlier called on the government to take more responsibility in curbing the incessant rape cases in the country starting a protest movement, “WeAreTired”. Later, Yemi Alade and Waje were also invited by the Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Zubairu Muazu, who asked them to refrain from making political comments against the administration. Tiwa Savage withdrew her hashtag while Don Jazzy toned down his social media posts.
The use of the DSS as an attack dog for the government, ever willing to pursue perceived offenders is in line with what we have come to see as part of the Buhari mode of operation. That said, it must not be normalized. Our cultural icons serve a purpose in that their platforms have the power to create change. We recently saw Manchester United footballer, Marcus Rashford prove this when in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic he challenged the British government to continue its policy of offering free school meal vouchers to deprived families, outside of term time. While Ms. Savage has generally been derided for her at times, regressive gender politics, in taking a stance against rape culture and challenging the government to play its part, she did the right thing as she built on the work of activists who have made this their life’s work and amplified the message.
Words matter but perhaps actions matter more as they tend to form the patterns upon which human behavior and our notions of what is right and wrong are built. It is for this reason that while this clampdown is utterly contemptible, there’s a graver significance at hand. In a paper published in the Vanderbilt Law Review in the 50s, Monica Youn highlighted the perils of a “chilling effect” i.e the indirect effect of deterring a speaker from exercising her First Amendment rights. A given law may lead to a particular consequence for an expressive act, such as the threat of criminal or civil sanctions, loss of state benefits, loss of privacy, or some other burden or penalty. Fear of that consequence may, in turn, deter the speaker from exercising her expressive rights. In a nutshell, the chilling effect leads to a fear of future consequences. What happens the next time a popular celebrity wants to speak out against the injustices faced by Nigerians? Do they speak out or shut up knowing that the state could potentially seek to prosecute them? It is because of this potential chilling effect that we must protect those who protest against the government by using our voices to protect them so as not to deter future protesters. Today, its Tiwa Savage and Don Jazzy. Tomorrow, it could be you or I. More importantly, instead of using its weight against innocent citizens, perhaps greater focus could be placed on improving the Nigerian economy in the context of depleted foreign reserves, a shrinking economy, and increased unemployment.