Nigeria #EndSARS : Why social media bill threatens death penalty ‘for hate speech’

By 'Tofe Ayeni

Posted on Tuesday, 24 November 2020 17:17, updated on Monday, 30 November 2020 12:22
nigeria sars
Nigerians take part in a protest against alleged violence, extortion and harassment from Nigeria's Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), in Lagos, Nigeria October 11, 2020. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

The latest round of protests against police brutality in Nigeria exploded in October. Although these protests were by no means the first of their kind or even the first time the protesters had used the hashtag #EndSARS online, the necessity of social media in bringing the youth together to fight for a common cause cannot be overstated.

But this round of #EndSARS protests reached the globe in a way that had not been seen before, and social media was directly responsible for that. The hashtag went viral, attracting celebrities from across the globe who spoke up to draw attention to the plight of the Nigerian youth.

READ MORE Nigeria: Beyoncé, Davido, and the #EndSARS pile on

Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) is notorious for bribing, stealing, raping, and murdering citizens. Aside from the fact that many of these citizens have actually not committed crimes, no police force should respond to criminals in unlawful ways.

Social media support

Awareness was not the only reason why social media has been so important. Social media allowed:

  • Funds to be raised to feed protesters, pay for their hospital treatments, lawyers, etc.
  • Lawyers to be called to go to courts at short notice to help protesters.
  • Food vendors to announce free food at different locations.
  • Co-ordination of logistics about upcoming protests (ex. timing, location, etc).
  • Real-time updates to keep people in the loop as to what was happening at all times – including which armed forces were at which location.

The Massacre on 20 October

However, the necessity of social media was made particularly clear on the 20th of October, following the killing of peaceful protesters in Lagos by the Nigerian army and police forces.

READ MORE Lagos burns after army accused of ‘Lekki massacre’

Although the government has denied any fatalities at the scene and has at different times denied knowledge, or involvement, in the calling of the military, Nigerian celebrity DJ Switch recorded events as they unfolded live on her Instagram account.

Through this, and other recorded accounts that had time stamps, CNN was able to conduct an investigation that does prove that the Nigerian military killed peaceful protesters on this date, protesters that were at the time singing the national anthem and waving the national flag.

The youth versus the system

Although Nigeria has an overwhelmingly young population, the ratio is inverted at the public office level, with the youth making up but a small minority in government.

#EndSARS was a youth-led movement, given SARS is known to target young men and women whom they suspect of fraudulent work (based on the types of cars they drive, the way they dress, their hairstyles, the types of gadgets they own, and a variety of other unrelated observations).

READ MORE Young Nigerians rise up to demand a different kind of freedom

One such typical target could be Shola Akinlade, CEO of Nigerian fintech Paystack. Akinlade is a young man with dreadlocks who works in the tech industry and has achieved great success. His profession means that he is likely to have tech gadgets on hand. According to SARS logic, this would be evidence of involvement in fraudulent work, and so he would be targeted.

However, Akinlade is bringing investment into the country in ways the government is unable to do so. The Nigerian political elite – for reasons partly due to age and partly due to stubbornness – is out of touch with the digital economy.

READ MORE Africa’s youth: Busting myths and creating change

With Nigeria’s economy being in its current fragile state, the government needs to employ the youth and utilise their advanced knowledge of the ever-changing technical world, to ensure that the country can also live up to its full potential.

Resentment of their courage?

But sadly, the reality of the situation is quite different. The government seems not only to ignore the youth but perhaps resent them for their courage to speak up for their rights.

In the aftermath of the Lagos protests, one lawyer Moe Odele, known as @Mochievous on Twitter, was stopped at the airport, and her passport was seized.

Odele had been very active in ensuring that all arrested protesters were provided with lawyers. But when the government seized her passport and refused to allow her to leave the country, she was not given an explanation. To date, it has not been returned to her. One can only assume her passport was taken in connection to her work with the protesters.

A 20-year-old journalist and university student, Pelumi Onifade, went to cover an attack on a government facility by hoodlums in the aftermath of the Lekki Massacre. Instead, he was killed by police forces, and his body was dumped at a mortuary.

Many more journalists have been arrested, many without being charged for anything, and the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission has released various statements warning local news sites about anti-government rhetoric, even going as far as to fine local media companies for reporting the #LekkiMassacre.

Throughout all of this, one thing has become apparent: the power of social media as an indispensable tool.  Nigerian youth are determined to ensure that the government can no longer deny their wrongdoings.

In response, two bills from the Senate

Following calls for government accountability, two bills have re-emerged in the Nigerian Senate. One even went as far as proposing the death penalty for those found guilty of ‘hate speech’.

In 2015, Senator Bala Ib Na’Allah sponsored an anti-social media bill titled ‘A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith’. After the bill passed the second reading, President Buhari distanced himself from it, recommitting to the fundamental human right of freedom of speech. As a result, the lawmakers were forced to withdraw the bill.

However, on 5 November 2019, the bill was re-introduced in the Senate, now sponsored by the Niger East Senator Mohammed Sani, and renamed the ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019.’

The death penalty was originally listed as punishment for ‘hate speech’ but this clause has now been removed.

Then, following the ‘Lekki Massacre’ on 20 October 2020, the government launched a fresh campaign to regulate social media, aiming to allow law enforcement to shut down the internet at will. This bill was sponsored by Borno Senator Mohammed Tahir Monguno, and called the ‘National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech’ and says that:

  • Internet providers who do not comply will pay a N10 million fine or face a three-year jail term;
  • There is N300,000 fine for making statements that “diminish public confidence”.

It only needs one more reading to become the law. 

How will these bills affect the youth and social media use?

If these two bills are passed, the government will have the ability to control the internet and social media. It will silence the voices of the youth that have been amplified and heard in recent weeks. Perhaps quietening those very voices is the ultimate aim of the government.

The social media ban is an attack on the youth, an attack on free speech, as well as on digital politics and the digital economy.

Apart from ensuring a lack of government accountability, it is unclear what else banning social media can or will achieve.

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