When General Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s most brutal dictator died, the New York Times ran this headline: “Sani Abacha, 54, a beacon of brutality in an Era When Brutality was standard”.
It is a puzzling description because, four months before his death, a group called the Youth Earnestly Ask For Abacha organised a Two Million Man March for Abacha. The YEAA itself was just one of many groups which looked to “extol the virtues of Abachaism”.
The YEAA was led by Daniel Kalu and among the speakers at the Two Million March were: Chief Arthur Eze, Alhaji Maitama Bello, Chief Segun Odegbami, Senator Jim Nwobodo, Uche Chukwumerije, Sam Mbakwe, John Fashanu, among others.
How did a brutal dictator amass such support? The answer is at once simple, yet complex.
It starts with Nigerian poverty and an absence of national values. In a nation where extreme poverty and a lack of opportunities prevail, politics has remained the easiest route to prosperity.
Given how difficult winning elections are, the next best thing to political power is access.
Here’s the first lesson: in the event that you ever get close to the corridors of power, never lose access. One must do what everything to remain close to the powers that be.
This is how yes men are created and Nigerian politicians, with fragile egos need these people around them.
To paraphrase the late Ken Saro Wiwa, “Bad governments do not act alone. They are supported by a gaggle of politicians, lawyers, judges, academics and businessmen, all of them hiding under the claim that they are only doing their duty, men and women too afraid to wash their pants of urine.”
It is against this background I read Henry Okelue’s article titled “If Social media gets regulated in Nigeria, we the users are to blame”.
Okelue’s article refers to the “protection from internet falsehoods and manipulation and other related matters” bill which passed its second reading recently.
The bill prescribes jail time for transmitting facts which “diminish public confidence in the performance of any duty or function, or in the exercise of any power by the government.”
Summary: If you criticise the government, you will end up in jail.
Muhammadu Buhari’s past shows a worrying hatred for criticism or accountability. As Military Head of State, he passed Decree No.4: “The Protection Against False Accusations Decree” Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor of The Guardian were tried under this decree.
Yet, Henry Okelue has devoted some 500 words to argue that social media has become a “global phenomenon” and that “social media regulation is now near inevitable”.
Okelue’s article is riddled with falsehoods, poor analysis and a shallow conclusion.
Here is Okelue’s first Falsehood:
“The United Kingdom has come up with a set of rules for social media companies that will regulate how social media is used in that country. It will include fines, blocking of the sites of such social media companies, and prosecution of senior officials of such companies. This will be done by the setting up of a regulator to police the content shared on the platforms in the country to make sure offensive material is removed as soon as possible. Offensive material in this case include terrorist content, child sex, posting of people’s nudity without their consent, hate crimes, harassment, sale of illegal goods, cyber-bullying, trolling, and spread of fake news.”
The author with a bold faced lie, lifts the first paragraph of this article by Forbes but curiously leaves out the most important fact: that the regulations are concerned only with making online users safe.
The UK Government in its Online Harms White Paper makes this clear in its executive summary:
The government wants the UK to be the safest place in the world to go online, and the best place to start and grow a digital business. Given the prevalence of illegal and harmful content online, and the level of public concern about online harms, not just in the UK but worldwide, we believe that the digital economy urgently needs a new regulatory framework to improve our citizens’ safety online. This will rebuild public confidence and set clear expectations of companies, allowing our citizens to enjoy more safely the benefits that online services offer.
- Executive Summary (Online Harms White Paper)
Okelue also goes on to cite India’s draft policy which will force internet companies to remove content deemed as unlawful by law enforcement agency. The draft, which many commentators have criticised as an attempt at censorship will see internet companies , not users face civil or criminal liability if they do not proactively take down unlawful content.
How are progressive countries discussing social media regulation?
Most Social Media companies argue for self-governance and constantly update their policies as government scrutiny increases. Here’s a look at YouTube’s Guidelines for removing problematic content quickly. Facebook, which has received unending criticism constantly updates its community guidelines.
But governments in many countries do not think these companies are doing enough and are holding Social media companies, not users responsible for fake news and hateful content.
The Live-streaming of the ChristChurch Massacre moved this conversation forward and now governments want Social media companies to act quickly to remove content that is obviously extremist and hateful.
While Social media regulation is inevitable, the responsibility to regulate lies squarely with the companies. Okelue’s mention of Germany to advance his argument is naive in this sense, given that the Netz DG law which he references deals mainly with Social media companies deleting hateful and fake news.
I would recommend to Okelue this fantastic piece of writing by the Financial Times. There is no doubt that articles like this will deepen his understanding and help him see the need for rigor.
The Nigerian government scarcely needs to be reminded that we have slander and libel laws. The Government of Kaduna state has, on several occasions been clear that it will not hesitate to charge individuals who make false claims to court. It has also followed through on the threat more than once.
If slander and libel laws exist, why is there a new bill trying to stifle public commentary about the government?
The answer of course will lie in the fact that the government does not want to be criticised or held accountable.
This is why Henry Okelue’s conclusion is the most worrying aspect of his article. As he limps to a conclusion, he states:
“It is my opinion that with freedom of expression comes responsibility. This responsibility is the duty we owe ourselves to continuing to make our platforms of expression free from rules and hurdles. Rather than coming up with excuses for abusers of the platform, people we know are willfully propagating damaging, false narratives, we should adopt a self-regulating stance. By this I mean calling out and shutting up these individuals and handles, rather than, because of our political, ideological, or social biases, continue to egg them on while laying blame elsewhere. Not a few people have been victims of the abuse of social media, private and public citizens alike. If tomorrow regulation is put into how we use social media, the blame is squarely on us. If we had insisted on all of us using these platforms responsibly, this days of government regulation might never have come”
While I welcome Henry Okelue’s response, I will, in my conclusion recommend to him this brilliant piece of writing from Farnam Street: The Work Required To Have An Opinion.
Olowogboyega Olumuyiwa, a writer who lives in Lagos. I’m on Twitter as @olumuyiwa__