Stifling Our Voices

By Matilda Ajibola

A bill proposing the death penalty by hanging for those guilty of “hate speech” was introduced recently in the Nigerian senate. This bill has passed the second reading and is probably preparing for the third one. In a country where there has been numerous freedom of expression violations, ranging from unlawful detentions, media harassment for disseminating government propaganda, cracking down on and arresting social media users and branding them “unpatriotic,” and several other violations. This bill should not be enacted because it puts a threat to Nigerians’ lives and their freedom of expression and should therefore not be approved.

As amended, the right to free speech, expression and association are protected by section 39(1-2) of the Federal Republic of Nigeria’s 1999 constitution. (1) Every individual shall have the right to freedom of speech, including the freedom to hold opinions, receive, and give ideas and information without hindrance. As one of the fundamental human rights, freedom of expression is also outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, Nigeria, a member of the UN Human Rights Council, has a legal duty to respect, preserve, advance, and uphold the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. Sadly, the nation is taking the exact opposite action.

In Nigeria, journalism is quickly evolving into a somewhat risky profession to pursue, especially if one wants to be objective and serve as a watchdog for society’s commitment to freedom of expression. Several journalists were punished under the Cybercrime Act, and Terrorism (Prevention) (Amendment) Act 2013, among other crimes, for reporting on the 2019 general elections in Nigeria. Some were subjected to significant attacks. The Terrorism (Prevention) (Amendment) Act 2013 prescribes the death penalty for guilty individuals. Where is the freedom to speak freely? Another incident that bears a striking resemblance to it was the recent suspension of Twitter by the Nigerian government after the social media platform removed a contentious post from President Buhari for breaking its community guidelines. President Buhari had promised to deal with troublemakers in Nigeria using “the language they understand,” alluding to the 1967–1970 civil war, which resulted in the deaths of millions of Nigerians. Following that, Twitter and other social media services were told to register in Nigeria and abide by local laws before being granted operating licenses. Millions of Nigerians were denied access to the social media platform while some media organizations had to remove their Twitter accounts during this period.

In a video that went viral on October 4, 2020, The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (created in 1992 to combat robberies and other serious crimes), officers are shown pulling two guys from a hotel and shooting one of them outdoors. The SARS unit,

notorious for human rights crimes like rape, torture, and killings, had been the subject of multiple complaints from Nigerians before the video went viral. The Nigerian government consistently responded to these concerns with hollow promises of reform, but the SARS continued to operate with impunity. After the video went viral, Nigerians became unwilling to endure this blatant violation any longer, resulting in one of the largest protests the country had ever seen. Over two weeks, tens of thousands of young Nigerians demonstrated. Their demand was straightforward: “#EndSARS.”

One would assume that these cries for help would prompt the government to act and protect the rights of its citizens. Instead, the government sent in the Nigerian army to forcibly put down a peaceful demonstration at the Lekki toll gate by firing at the demonstrators. Amnesty International reports that “at least 12 people were killed at Alausa and Lekki Toll Gate Lagos on that day alone.” The second anniversary of this grave human rights breach in Nigeria is on October 20, 2022. Nevertheless, the Nigerian government still refuses to acknowledge and hide the facts surrounding those abuses. Who then gave the orders for the shootings?

These measures violate the rights to freedom of expression, information access, and press freedom. A person’s ability to freely express their thoughts and communicate with others upholds their value as a member of society. It enables them to reach their full potential as humans. Because it is an end in and of itself, freedom of expression requires the most robust defense from society. We should speak up. We have the freedom to support the power structure or criticize them and peacefully protest their policies. We have the right to voice our opinions, spread knowledge, and call for a better world.

Matilda Ajibola is a graduate student in the Ethics, Peace, and Human Rights department at American University in Washington, DC. She holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Nigeria. Witnessing several breakdowns and breaches of human rights in Nigeria sparked her interest in human rights and justice. Through several non-profit organizations, she has invested her time and energy in human rights activism and peacebuilding. At the nexus of academia and government, she intends to continue using her knowledge and abilities to effect change.

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