It’s time to leave 1983 in 1983: President Buhari says yes to freedom of speech

Yesterday, President Buhari dissociated himself from the controversy surrounding the social media bill Senator Bala Na’Allah presented to the Nigerian senate. In a statement released by the president’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, it’s clear President Buhari does not support the bill. “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith” which has passed its second reading on the floor of the Nigerian senate, seeks to prosecute or fine individuals who make ‘false’ claims about government officials or institutions without an affidavit, with a particular focus on constricting freedom of speech on social media platforms such as Twitter and WhatsApp.

Vanguard Nigeria confirms that Mallam Garba Shehu, the president’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, said the bill was inconsistent with democratic ideals of free speech enshrined in the constitution of the country. He maintained that the president was not averse to lawful regulation, so long as it is done within the ambit of the constitution and noted that if the bill became law, public officials would have no way of assessing how the public feels about their governance.

Regardless of past criticisms on President Buhari’s supposed undemocratic tendencies due to his role as military dictator in 1983, the president is willing to guard against the constitutional violation of freedom of speech, which is a feature of democracy. During the presidential campaign, the opposition party tried to question Buhari’s capacity to be a democratic leader, due to his military background, which was futile considering former President Obasanjo was also a military dictator prior to his demoratic victory in 1999. On December 21, 2014, PDP, National Chairman, Adamu Mu’azu, pleaded with Nigerians not to vote Buhari come 2015, this he said was due to Buhari’s lack of experience in the democratic process. “There are many reasons why Nigeria must not return to a quasi-military dictatorship led by a warlord whose democratic credentials are suspect”, Mu’azu said.

In addition, many questioned the self-appointment of President Buhari as a petroleum minister, which notably Obasanjo did as well. In October 2015, two Ijaw groups; Ijaw People Development Initiative, IPDI and National Association of Izon Ebe Students told Vanguard Nigeria that the president had no constitutional right to occupy both positions. They warned that his occupation of both offices would leave a wrong impression on Nigerians. “We advise him on the implication and negative impression his resolve to occupy two offices ‎may create on his unpopular change agenda”, they wrote. Section 138 of the 1999 constitution actually prohibits the president from occupying two executive offices.

  1. The President shall not, during his tenure of office, hold any other executive office or paid employment in any capacity whatsoever.

While Buhari has struggled to control the narrative around his past as a dictator, Nigeria is not new to presidents who were former dictators. Rather than assessing Buhari’s inclination towards democracy on what he did or didn’t do in the 1980s, perhaps it’s time to take the president for what he’s saying now. And in 2015 Buhari is saying yes to freedom of speech and no to a ridiculous attempt to limit democracy in Nigeria.

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