At a time Nigeria requires a robust conversation about its politics, economy, ethnic relations, unity, and indeed, future, the country’s over-indulged lawmakers, egged on by a president who is anything but a democrat, are placing a deathly ban on free speech. This proposed ban must be opposed and defeated by any means necessary!
Two dangerous bills are currently in the National Assembly seeking not only to establish an “Independent National Commission for the prohibition of hate speeches” but to curtail free expression and take state repression of alternative voices to a whole new level by making the right to hold contrary views a capital offence. Social media and the civic space are the new arenas in Gen. Buhari’s renewed war against Nigerians; a war that goes back to 1984. And he isn’t alone. That other interloper, our First Lady, has already warned that, “If China can control 1.8billion people on social media, I see no reason why Nigeria should not attempt controlling only 180million people.”
There are enough reasons to oppose these bills. One, they are a throwback to the dark years of repression that saw the humiliation, harassment disappearance and assassination of journalists and social activists; two, the bills are being proposed in the regime of a military dictator-turned politician—a self-professed born again democrat—whose antecedent does not speak of one in tune with the tenets of an open society; three, the proposed laws do not take into account the country’s current realities; realities that include a bulging youth population weaned on a regular diet of technology and free flow of information; four, and importantly, these bills bear the telltale signs of the precursor of a political agenda that typified the second term of the regime of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo.
For these reasons and more, those who cherish freedom and are concerned about the prospect of Nigeria sliding into one-man rule or the rule of a triumvirate, must band together and say unequivocally that we shall never travel this road again. Our country has a long history of murderous attacks on the media, civic space and freedom of expression. And unless we halt the current slide, this history will repeat itself with very tragic consequences.
Last week, the Punch newspaper, in a well-crafted editorial highlighting the creeping fascism in the country noted, “As a symbolic demonstration of our protest against autocracy and military-style repression, Punch will henceforth prefix Buhari’s name with his rank as a military dictator in the 80s, Major General, and refer to his administration as a regime, until they purge themselves of their insufferable contempt for the rule of law.”
Mr. Buhari and his handlers did not disappoint. They responded the way a regime and its courtiers who are out of touch with reality would respond. For them, Buhari “earned” the rank and, therefore, should not be concerned that he is being referred to as a general. By that logic, it seems they are tacitly agreeing that Gen. Buhari has not earned the title of president, much less a democrat, if they are not concerned that he is being addressed as a general in a democratic dispensation. For a man who ran for president on four occasions, shed tears when he lost and publicly confessed that he is a born-again democrat, that must sting even if he and his adulators pretend they are unperturbed.
Of course, Gen. Buhari has not hidden his disdain for the rule of law. Several actions of his regime foreshadowed the decision of the Punch newspaper, but none was more egregious than the events of Friday, December 6, where agents of the State Security Service (SSS) invaded the Federal High Court in Abuja to abduct Omoyele Sowore and Olawale Bakare, two activists who had been granted bail—after more than 120 days in illegal detention on allegation of announcing a revolution on TV—and had subjected themselves to trial.
In August 2018, Gen. Buhari gave a foretaste of what Nigerians should expect when he appeared at the Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and averred that, “Rule of Law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest.” Under the regime of Gen. Buhari, the rule of law and due process—the legal requirement that the state must respect all legal rights that are owed to a person—the pillars of democracy, have come under severe attack.
Individual, media and civic freedom has been subordinated to the power and authority of Gen. Buhari and his security agencies. There is a name for this: fascism! Under the current regime, we have seen the invasion of the National Assembly by the SSS. We have witnessed flagrant abuse of due process, the desecration of our courts and the strangulation of the judiciary by the same SSS. Now, they have descended on the last bastion of our democracy: the media and civil society.
As pro-democracy and civil society organizations, journalists, civic activists, etc., gather in Lagos on Tuesday, December 17, for this year’s pro-democracy conference, they need to pay close attention to the theme of the conference, “reviving popular action for democracy and freedom in Nigeria.” Nigeria returned to “democracy” in 1999. Twenty years after, the country is still fighting for its rulers to keep faith with the fundamental tenets of democratic governance. Every day, reactionary forces continue to undermine our hard-won victories; they constantly chip away at the prospect of an egalitarian society; they scorn the need for a robust media and civic space and social progress.
What this tells us is that as citizens, we must, as the late great pan-Africanist, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, admonished, “organize rather than agonize.” We have travelled this road before and no matter how hard they try, this is one battle Gen. Buhari and those who seek to steal our freedoms can’t win.
We stand in solidarity with all prisoners of conscience in Nigeria: Omoyele Sowore, Olawale Bakare, Agba Jalingo and other journalists and civic activists in prisons across the country and call for their immediate and unconditional release. That is the only way to restore the democratic credentials of the Buhari regime.
(Onumah is author of "We Are All Biafrans": A Participant-Observer’s Interventions in a Country Sleepwalking to Disaster.)