Halfway into an interview with Deutsche Welle in January 2020, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, was asked what his position was on the Protection From Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill.
The controversial bill is better known as the social media bill, and passed first and second reading in the Nigerian Senate in November 2019, two months before Mohammed’s interview.
The bill had been widely condemned by Nigerians and local and international human rights organisations as another outlet for the President Muhammadu Buhari-led government to turn the screw on democratic liberties.
But Mohammed, the nation’s Minister of Information, had never heard about it.
“I’m not even aware of that bill. There’s no such bill before the House. I can say that authoritatively,” the 68-year-old replied to DW’s Tim Sebastian during the London interview.
The minister’s coy response was strange most especially because the bill puts the cherry on top of his unrelenting fight to control social media use in Nigeria.
Just a day before the introduction of an equally controversial social media regulation bill in 2015, the minister addressed a room full of bloggers and assured them the Buhari government had no interest in regulating social media and, by consequence, stifling free speech.
However, he warned that they must show restraint in dealing with issues of national unity and the country’s well-being.
Since that 2015 meeting, Mohammed’s disdain for the unrestrained freedom enjoyed by social media users in Nigeria has grown in leaps and bounds.
He has progressed through different stages – from telling Nigerians to self-regulate what they post online, to asking social media platforms to implement more specific codes of conduct to regulate user behaviour, and to the final stage which is his campaign to implement far-reaching social media regulation however he can achieve it.
The minister’s campaign has been largely wrapped around what he claims be a mission to clamp down on the dissemination of fake news and hate speech using social media platforms.
He has argued rather vehemently that an unregulated social media space where falsehoods are allowed to run free like wildfire is a recipe for future disaster.
Under his watch, the National Council on Information during an extraordinary meeting in 2017 proposed setting up a Council to regulate the use of social media in Nigeria.
This was followed by the launch of a national campaign against fake news and hate speech in 2018.
Mohammed has repeatedly warned that failure of the government to regulate the social media space in Nigeria could lead the nation down the same bloody path Rwanda witnessed in the 90s.
He believes a completely unencumbered social media space is ‘an epidemic that will consume the nation’.
There are valid concerns and honest conversations to have about social media regulation in Nigeria.
Mohammed’s lamentations about the sometimes irresponsible use of the space to spread falsehoods intentionally, unintentionally, and sometimes maliciously is a worrying trend that continues to worsen as time passes.
The speed at which such falsehoods can quickly spread nationwide, and worldwide, is also quite unlike any other form before it, and that is also a valid source of concern.
But in trying to find a solution, it is important to not lay the foundation for a bigger future problem.
When the social media regulation bill from 2015 was withdrawn, the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights, and Legal Matters expressed concern that it would do more harm than good, despite some of what it described as its well-intentioned provisions.
The most critical question to ask of any intending social media regulator is if they’re genuinely doing it for safety, or if they are doing it to more conveniently gatekeep information.
The biggest problem with Mohammed being the face of the campaign to regulate social media use in Nigeria is that nobody trusts him, or the government he represents.
After hiding away for more than three months in London treating an undisclosed illness in 2017, Buhari returned to Nigeria to issue a statement of strong disapproval against social media comments he said crossed ‘our national red lines’ by daring to question the country’s collective existence.
The president’s bitterness was not aimed at social media comments that were false, just ones that weren’t in line with his own idea of Nigerian unity.
And grey areas like that is why Nigerians will be apprehensive of attempts by the government to regulate and censor what is acceptable and unacceptable on social media.
Under Lai Mohammed’s influential direction, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has expanded its wings and grown ever more aggressively punitive in its treatment of Nigerian media organisations.
The commission in August warned broadcasters against allowing content that denigrates Nigerian values and culture, including the use of abusive language against leaders such as the president.
Outlandish and repressive codes such as this should give anyone pause when the same administrators express desire to regulate the last free space in a country with ever-shrinking liberties.
No one should hand over regulation of their speech to Mohammed who believes criticising the president in a form he doesn’t agree with is a national security threat.
Not the same man who stuck to the government’s misguided position that the terrorist group Boko Haram was technically defeated even when the bodies were still, and continue, piling up in the rural areas of the restive northeast region.
And it definitely doesn’t help that the government and supporters of social media regulation have looked the way of non-democratic nations for inspiration on how to legally shackle social media in a democratic Nigeria.
“If you go to China, you cannot get Google, Facebook, or Instagram but you can only use your email because they have made sure that it is regulated.
“We need a social media policy that will regulate what should be said and posted and what should not,” Mohammed said in October.
The honest conversations to be had around the responsible use of social media in Nigeria is being overshadowed by the government’s largely dishonest approach.
There’s a pervading sense of paranoia that the government is only in the business of social media regulation to save itself from the regular dose of embarrassment that the internet space has relentlessly caused it.
Even if the government is genuinely worried about safety, it’d find it an impossible task to communicate that concern effectively, especially with an arrowhead like Mohammed whose public image is the equivalent of a crafty fox.
The minister’s growing obsession with social media regulation is now so absurd that if a tree falls in faraway Kenya, he would find a way to blame it on social media users in Nigeria.
He’s a man with a hammer for whom everything else is a nail.
Attempts to regulate the social media will always invite presumptions about the suppression of the freedom of speech, despite Mohammed’s assurance that’s not what the government is hoping to achieve.
And for as long as he remains minister, there’s nothing to suggest the Nigerian public will ever trust his intentions, or his words.
This article was first published in December 2020.
Topnewstv Editor’s Opinion is the viewpoint of an Editor at Topnewstv. It does not represent the opinion of the organisation Topnewstv