An ambitious bill to send to prison for two years in Nigeria anyone who makes an allegation against a public officer or institutions on social media passed a second reading on Wednesday.
The bill, entitled “Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions” is in effect designed to protect looters in high places, notoriously the Senate, which is loaded with persons of questionable character. It is pompously described by its sponsors as being aimed at anyone who makes “an allegation or publish a statement or petition in the newspaper, radio, or medium of whatever description against another person, institutions of government, or any public office holder.”
Sources informed SaharaReporters that the second reading was led on Wednesday by embattled Senate President Bukola Saraki, who has been at the center of numerous corruption scandals published by the local and international media.
Documents had emerged from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Nigerian Police showing that Mr. Saraki stole more than N1 billion when he was a director at Societe Generale Bank of Nigeria (SGBN), which subsequently collapsed.
Later, as Governor of Kwara State, Mr. Saraki also stole millions of dollars from Kwara State accounts and various corrupt transactions often involving the purchase of luxury cars and homes, sometimes spending vast sums through an American Express card linked to him. It is as a consequence of this that Mr. Saraki now faces trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal for 13 counts of financial crime, money laundering, and unexplained assets. He has been attempting to use all manner of manoeuvres, including the Appeal and Supreme Courts, to abort the trial, sometimes shutting down the Upper House so that its less ethical members can accompany him to the court.
Senator Ibn Bala Na’Allah, a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC) representing Kebbi South, is the bill’s sponsor.
Senator Olujimi says the amount of falsehood flying everywhere is staggering and a scapegoat has to be made as deterrent for others.
— Nigerian Senate (@NGRSenate) December 3, 2015
In addition to the two-year in prison which the bill seeks, it also plans to deploy fines lavish enough to attract Senators of the best-paid legislature on earth. The fines vary, depending on the form of media from which the “allegation” originates. A “false allegation” made via radio, television or print, would carried a fine of N4 million ($20,000), while the same allegation, should it appear on social media, would attract a fine of N2 million ($10,000).
The authors of the bill were careful to include as many forms of social media as possible listing Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, SMS and WhatsApp as platforms upon which false allegations could be prosecuted.
Speaking with a SaharaReporters correspondent, Mr. Na’Allah confirmed that the bill carries a two-year jail sentence for posts and reports deemed “false.”
“I am surprised that any Senate member would deny they didn’t know of this bill, because I’ve presented it twice,” he told our correspondent, apparently referring to Senator Ben Bruce and former Akwa Ibom Governor Godswill Akpabio, who both claimed ignorance of the bill.
Revealing strong fear of social media and underlining the rush to steamroll the bill through the legislature, he said, “I presented the bill for its first reading on November 24th at the Senate and a second reading passed yesterday [December 2nd].”
That means that in one week, the bill received two readings.
Mr. Na’Allah’s statement came shortly after Senator Ben Bruce, a self-proclaimed free speech advocate, denied in a series of Tweets to SaharaReporters that he was supporting of the bill. He had never spoken out against it either.
In response to the repressive media bill, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) reported the Senate to the United Nations, for attempting to deny freedom of speech and jail critics of the government.
Writing to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the group said, among others: “SERAP also contends that the bill will restrain access to internet and social media, curtail the freedom of the press, and online content in illegitimate, disproportionate, or otherwise unlawful and abusive ways. The real targets of the bill are social media and human rights defenders that might be critical of government policies or report on corruption involving high ranking government officials.”
Last month the Head of Public Policy for Facebook in Africa arranged a training session for Nigerian Senators as part of the company’s outreach to the continent. The session was designed to help Nigerian Senators communicate more effectively with their constituents. When it was time for the training, most Senators ignored the trainers, claiming they do not need to learn how to post "status updates" on Facebook.
Yesterday, the Senate was caught in a firestorm after the public became aware of Mr. Na'Allah’s offensive bill targeting disaffected mass users of the Internet in Nigeria, but by then, the document had passed its second reading.
At a resumed hearing of the Upper House today, several Senators expressed support of Senator Na'Allah. Before the plenary, SaharaReporters confronted Na'Allah over the phone and he defended his bill, asserting that the "social media nuisance in this country is outrageous".
Efforts to obtain an original copy of the document have so far been unsuccessful. After speaking with our correspondent and promising to get a copy and send it over via email to SaharaReporters, Senator Na'Allah claimed he couldn't find the original copy in his office.
As the firestorm raged on social media, Senate President Saraki, acting through his social media aide, Banks Omishore, provided a sanitized version of the "bill argument" claiming there was no penalty attached to it.
By today, the Senate had dropped all pretensions about the offensive bill. In order to underscore its importance to its proponents, former anti-corruption lobbyist now Senator, Dino Melaye, launched an attack on SaharaReporters, moving a motion by which the Senate would censor SaharaReportes because, according to him, the website was "blackmailing and intimidating the Senate".
Three other Senators jumped on the bandwagon claiming that social media posting had damaged their "reputation." One of them who once faced trial over his links with Boko Haram, claimed—falsely—that SaharaReporters wrote that he bought 400 Golf cars for Boko Haram.
Senator Melaye who specifically lashed out at SaharaReporters has been the subject of a series of exposés from SaharaReporters which contradicted his unexplained property, luxury cars, and lifestyle in relation to his salary as a supposed anticorruption activist and lawmaker. Before running for the Senate, Melaye had profiled himself as an anti-corruption activist, running the “Anti-Corruption Network,” writing critical press statements and staging protests against corrupt individuals. Several persons in the now of his antics now claim he did so to shake down corrupt officials.
During an interview with SaharaTV correspondent Rudolf Okonkwo earlier this year, Mr. Melaye denied sending out tweets of his palatial homes and luxurious cars, inflicting his anger on Mr. Okonkwo.
SaharaReporters recently released photos of Mr. Melaye's fresh 2015 Rolls Royce Wraith, which is on display in one of his homes.
We also revealed that the former anti-corruption fighter recently built a multi-million dollar house in Abuja with an inbuilt elevator which takes him directly to his bedroom, just one floor up.
Speaking in the Senate chambers, Mr. Melaye said, “While I celebrate the social media as one of the actors, this Senate should not be blackmailed.”
In the lead debate for the bill, Senator Na’Allah pointed to the “frivolous accusations” public officials face as the reason why such harsh measures are required. He complained of “honest’ civil servants facing public humiliation due to false accusations against them.
Senator Na’Allah acknowledged the importance of the Freedom of Information Act, but expressed the undemocratic regret that providing the public with “unfettered” access to information led to the “waste of valuable time and resources”.
On his part, Mr. Saraki described the bill as “necessary” and promised that the Senate would not back down until it becomes law.
Just days ago, SaharaReporters revealed how Mr. Saraki engaged in a series of corrupt acts before he became Senate President, including a report about how he blackballed Central Bank officials into handing him huge sums of money as recently as May 2015 in order to cover up illegal withdrawals from the bank by a former NSA who diverted monies meant for arms purchases for the military to the re-election campaign of former President Goodluck Jonathan.
Shortly after SaharaReporters published the story, Saraki threatened to sue the website in all jurisdictions around the world.
He also reportedly got the back of a banker, Tunde Ayeni, who is also the Chairman of Skye Bank, to finance the lawsuit against SaharaReporters. A series of efforts to recruit private investigators and lawyers in New York was also leaked to SaharaReporters.
Our tweets relating to his legal plots might have led Saraki and his colleagues to refer SaharaReporters to various committees at the Senate, including Ethics, the Judiciary, and Information Communication and Technology.
Contacted as we prepared this story, a SaharaReporters and ethics-in-government enthusiast told the website to leave this message for the Senators: “Social media, and the media in general, will outlive you all, and report your story. It is the verdict of history.”