Just over a year ago, in December 2019, Amnesty International called attention to the Nigerian Senate’s consideration of two inherently problematic bills that have the potential to deteriorate the personal freedoms of the nation’s every citizen. The National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech bill and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and other Related Offences bill both bestow upon Nigerian authorities essentially unchecked power to silence its own people. Through these legislations, government officials would be permitted to shut off the nation’s internet connection, place harsh restrictions on social media, and even arrest and imprison political dissidents for years on end, thereby inherently stomping out freedom of expression and opinion. Individuals partaking in activities such as criticizing the government, using satire, holding dialogues, and engaging in political commentary all can be targeted for no crime other than exercising their own freedoms.
Back then, Amnesty International Nigeria’s Programmes Manager, Seun Bakare, pleaded with the Nigerian government to reconsider advocating for the new legislation:
“Social media is one of the last remaining places here Nigerians can express their opinions freely. The harassment of journalists and bloggers and the introduction of the Cyber Crimes Act have already shrunk the civic space and created a climate of fear. We are urging the Nigerian authorities to drop these bills, which are open to vague and broad interpretations and impose incredibly harsh punishments simple for criticizing the authorities.”
Nigerian citizens themselves shared a similar sentiment and fear regarding the implications of implementing such restrictive policies. At a town hall in Abuja in February 2020, human rights activists and organizations expressed dismay at the legislations, one of whom lamented that “Nigeria is a country without consequences; that is why lawmakers elected by the people can introduce bills to gag the people.” A November 2019 survey revealed that out of 400 Nigerian citizen respondents, 87% were aware of the two bills, 52% felt that the hate speech bill would be harmful, and 44% felt that the government would benefit the most out of the hate speech bill. Similarly, 73% of respondents felt that “freedom of expression [would] be tampered with if the hate speech bill is passed into law” and 56% either “strongly agree[d]” or “agree[d]” that the hate speech bill would silence the press.
Now, in January 2021, it is no question that tensions have risen as the hate speech bill and internet freedom bill are still being considered by Nigeria’s National Assembly. Despite the massive deluge of criticism of the social media freedom bill and the presence of protesters at the Assembly, the legislation officially passed its second reading and was championed by four lawmakers. The bill, against all odds and against the will of the Nigerian people, is swiftly making its way into reality: “the bill is currently at the committee stage and the panel is expected to present its report to the Senate for further consideration and final passage.” Nigerian citizens were similarly agitated to see the hate speech bill is also well on its way to passage; back in 2019, he claimed that the bill would not be passed “if it will bring hardship to Nigerians”. However, even after receiving numerous pleads to trash the problematic legislation, it made it to the late 2020 National Assembly.