Nigeria’s creeping cloud of autocracy

In dealing with the palpable darkness that is set to envelope our nation when the Social Media Bill is passed, we seem to have been barking off the wrong tree. Up till now, our President, on whose shoulder rest assent of the bill when (not ‘if’) passed has said nothing against it. This prompts the question whether the statement that the president is a ‘converted democrat’ is valid only during elections.

In our clime, public opinion is effective only twice. First, when a politician is seeking public endorsement; and two when facing reelection. Rigging has even changed status; it works for a favoured candidate against the will of the people. Agents of coercion enforce the will of the kakistocracy.

The Nigerian politician in opposition would call a cow his brother just for access to power; they wouldn’t bat an eyelid at slaughtering the beast once in. Both the Social Media Bill and the Hate Speech Bill meant to push us back to Stone Age where the military dumped us were sponsored by party loyalists from a single state with a benign concentration of retired autocrats.

Using the little freedom it has before the dark clouds turns its day into night, social media activists have identified and isolated five arrowheads of this regression in the Senate excluding the leadership that is primed to do the executive’s bidding. While bills with impact on people’s lives gather dust on the table of our overpaid and underperforming legislature, these obnoxious ones have been given the Q-move.

There is a curious semblance between the character asking the courts to grant the president and governors third terms and the sponsors of gag bills. The ruling kleptocracy feigns disapproval at Third Term but supports gag bills with flimsy excuses.

It may be however, that their anger is basically against seeking a third term so soon after a renewed mandate has just been obtained by hook or crook. Would the anger be different if the court was approached two years into the renewed mandate or would subtle opponents just shrug its shoulder and ask for the now uncertain rule of law to take its course?

These conjectures are worth discourse since our elders say that – ruwa baya tsamin banza, sai da dalili – where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The executive wants these bills in place. They mean business. This is not a threat and the spate of arrests, disappearances and intimidation of critics and the media confirms this.

Over the weekend, three signs confirmed that the presidency wants a space with no opposition. This is how Festus Keyamo, quondam activist and one of the president’s favourite ministers, saw it: ‘Those so-called overnight Social Media ‘activists’ who oppose Social Media Bill should first stop blocking those who irritate them with insults, unblock all those they have blocked and apologise to them. You can’t be intolerant and ask others to be. Practice what you preach.’

Zahra Indimi (nee Buhari) in her N10k public event tacitly supports the bill because; she was allegedly bullied on social media and blamed for her father’s actions.

Her mom, Mrs. Aisha Buhari told an audience in a widely circulated audio clip that if China could gag its over one billion people, it shouldn’t be a difficult task for Nigeria to gag its 180 million!

It is no longer news that the president feels that his family should be differentiated from his actions. However, this is a very difficult task, as his family never rejects an opportunity to be involved in politics. You cannot engage people and expect no retort.

These statements are the strongest proof so far, that any public opposition to the two bills are just a waste of time. From all indications, government has made up its mind to close up the critical space and make public dissent go away. Dictatorship has crept in on us by votes or a parody thereof.

Keyamo’s half-witted tweet forgets that social media space is a public space with private restrictions. It is like a house in a condominium having restrictions and boundaries such as rules of trespass and noise pollution. Those who introduced social media realized that bullies could walk roughshod on others and introduced needed safeguards and safe space in blocking. Government could close its eyes and ears to criticism; it has no moral or constitutional right to stop it. Public office does not give such warranties.

Public servants are hires paid by the people to work for them. Accepting the job comes with universally rules of heckling and criticism. Keyamo’s current salary and perks come from taxpayers. His actions and those of his employers are subject to public scrutiny – it’s in the job description. This is why it is called a democracy as every 100 Level student of law and jurisprudence knows from the treatises of Locke, Montesquieu and eminent jurists whose rulings have morphed into universal democratic conventions. Anything less and it would be an autocracy.

Mrs. Buhari should realise that the Chinese make no pretense at democracy. They don’t elect leaders; an omnipotent politburo imposes its will on their nation. Those who dissent are called dissidents and thrown in jail or hounded to exile. By choosing to be called a democracy, Nigeria has taken a different route. We organize a semblance of polls and field candidates who make promises to guarantee our liberties. We have a parliament albeit lame duck and until lately a vibrant court system. As long as it is called a republic with a constitution, a parliament and a court system, it would never assume the characteristics or the notoriety of China’s autocracy.

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