It is amazing how Nigerian politicians fit into the titles of that maestro of crime thrillers, René Lodge Brabazon Raymond (aka James Hadley Chase). Any lover of Hadley Chase’s works would perhaps remember THE GUILTY ARE AFRAID – one of his novels featuring Lew Brandon, who went in search of the killer of his partner Jack Sheppey in a rich gangster-infested city on the US Pacific Coast.
That novel was written in 1957 when some of Nigeria’s current lawmakers were not yet born while some others were still running around naked in the rain singing:
‘Rain, rain, go away
Rain, rain, go away
Come and rain another day
Little Johnny wants to play!’
Fifty-eight years later, the message in that novel is ricocheting in the hallowed chambers of the Nigerian Senate and buzzing on various social media platforms as some rich and (famous?) lawmakers are reportedly pushing a bill to padlock the mouths of those who elected them. The bill purportedly states that:
“Where any person through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or through any social media posts any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2,000,000.00 or both fine and imprisonment.”
The proposed bill has another booby trap:
“Where any person in order to circumvent this law makes any allegation and or publish any statement, petition in any paper, radio, or any medium of whatever description, with malicious intent to discredit or set the public against any person or group of persons, institutions of government, he shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment term of two years or a fine of N4,000,000.00.”
When the malodorous aroma of the bill clandestinely being cooked by some senate elements first dissipated into the public space, there was instant outcry, with some tagging it a regressive march to social media dictatorship.
Bamikole Omisore, the Special Assistant on New Media to Senate President Bukola Saraki made a feeble attempt to deny its existence when he explained in a statement purportedly issued by his principal that the bill entitled An Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Related Matters “makes no mention of jailing social media users.”
But the sponsor, Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Ibn Na’Allah confirmed its existence in unmistakable terms.
“I am surprised that any Senate member would deny they didn’t know of this bill, because I’ve presented it twice,” he confirmed to a SaharaReporters correspondent, apparently referring to Senator Ben Bruce and former Akwa Ibom Governor Godswill Akpabio, who both claimed ignorance of it.
It soon turned out however that Godswill Akpabio was only reflecting his own will when the senate president came out to say that “no amount of attacks arising from it would make the Red Chamber abandon the proposed law.“
Saraki made the vow when Senator Dino Melaye, APC, Kogi West, raised the issue under matters of urgent national importance at plenary. Melaye himself had berated SaharaReporters after it published damning material claiming that Melaye is operating a foreign account in the US, posing as a student while he is an elected public officer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; a breach that could cost him his seat at the Nigerian Senate if he is successfully prosecuted by the Code of Conduct Tribunal which is currently trying Senate President Bukola Saraki, a close associate of Mr. Melaye’s.
The Kogi senator drew a line and threatened on twitter that SaharaReporters’ publisher, Omoyele Sowore, would go to jail if he dared to register the publication as a corporate entity in Nigeria.
Interestingly, the same Melaye has, in an in-studio interview with SaharaReporters trending on social media, called on Nigerians at home and in the Diaspora to support the Online media outfit, dubbing it “the conscience of the nation”.
Given the similarity between the offending section of the Frivolous Petitions bill and Decree 4 of 1984, there are insinuations that the government is trying to reincarnate that repressive decree which was promulgated by the Muhammadu Buhari military junta and which made it an offence for anyone to accuse a public officer of the government of any wrong doing, even if the allegation was true.
Section 1(1) of Decree 4 stated:
“Any person who published in any form, whether written or otherwise any message, rumour, report or statement or report which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the government of a state or a public officer to ridicule or disrepute shall be guilty of an offence under this Decree.”
Some observers have opined that it is more than mere coincidence that the anti-media bill is rearing its ugly head when Buhari is once again the head of government. The fact that a lot of people cannot differentiate between the legislature and the executive in a democratic dispensation is not helping this insinuation, even though the line between the two has been virtually obliterated over the years by the ruling-party-majority and Ghana-must-go syndromes.
It would be recalled that two Guardian journalists, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, were tried and convicted for contravening that infamous decree. Their charge read: ‘’That you Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor of the Guardian Newspapers, Limited, Rutam House, Isolo between 31st day of March, 1984 and or about the 1st day of April, 1984 at Rutam House, Isolo in Lagos , did publish ‘’False statement contrary to section 1(1) of the Decree No 4 of 1984.”
The “false statement” published by the duo was a story on diplomatic postings of certain Nigerian envoys, which had the headline: ‘’Haruna replaces Hannaniya’’ and another, “11 foreign Missions to be closed”. Interestingly, the stories were neither denied by the military regime nor was the newspaper asked to retract the publication.
On July 4, 1984, after two months of arguments and counter-arguments at the proceedings before the tribunal, the Chairman, Justice Ayinde found the journalists guilty of the offence. The tribunal accordingly sentenced Thompson and Irabor to one year each without option of fine while the Guardian newspapers was fined N50, 000. The verdict was a setback for journalism practice in the country as journalists and their media organisations resorted to self-censorship of news items for fear of being sent to prison under the repressive decree.
Immediately after a military coup ousted the Buhari/ Tunde Idiagbon regime, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida in a nationwide broadcast abrogated Decree 4 and ordered the release of the jailed journalists. Babangida also gave the assurance that the media would enjoy a level-playing field in the pursuit of their constitutional role which enjoined them to hold the government accountable to the people in the society.
Fast forward to 32 years later. Why would a democratic legislature embark on a mission to truncate that role? Who is afraid of the (social) media? What happened to the saying that a clear conscience fears no accusation? This is the crux of the matter and the title of an opinion piece on the subject by Lauretta Onochie.
In her piece, Social Media Bill, A Clear Conscience Fears No Accusation, Lauretta says:
“We as Nigerians must remember that the Senate is not part of the Presidency. The President Buhari I know will never support the gagging of the press, particularly the Social Media that played a major role in defending his integrity leading up to the elections that enthroned him as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He is an open book and has no need to fear being exposed. Our Senators must emulate our dear president and strive to live above board because a clear conscience fears no accusation.”
Indeed President Buhari has dissociated himself from the controversial bill. “Free speech is central to democratic societies anywhere in the world… without [it], elected representatives won’t be able to gauge public feelings and moods about governance issues,” the president said in a statement signed by his spokesman, Garba Shehu.
Whereas, naturally, some may have their reservations about Lauretta’s submission above on President Buhari, the truth remains that, as Hadley Chase titled two of his bestsellers, Goldfish has no hiding place and always, The guilty are afraid!
At the height of the political shenanigans that characterized the run-up to the 2015 general election, I wrote a piece entitled Remembering Hadley Chase. That was in August 2014. Events that played out subsequently, more or less vindicated my analogy. That piece, first published on Facebook on August 9, 2014, is reproduced below, as not much has changed in the character and attitude of our politicians:
Back in the day, when extra-curricular activities and hobbies for holidaying students and young school leavers were conservatively predictable, the few available options included reading novels and writing letters. Yes, you guessed right….not formal or official letters but secretive and confidential letters that began somewhat like, “My heart is pounding like a locomotive as I pick up my golden pen to write you this missive which I hope will meet you in a good condition of health. If so, doxology.” Those letters never ended without such expressions as, “I want you to be the only sugar in my tea, the only fish in my ocean and the golden mango in my basket of love…….” When such letters met with acerbic response, the writer was quick to fire back, “I have no basket for rotten mangoes”
Back then, in the late seventies and early eighties, we read books during the holidays, especially novels, plus one big book that almost every child was encouraged to read – the Holy Bible. I doubt whether most students of today still read during the holidays in the midst of Mixit, WhatsApp, Instagram, Playstation 1,2,3,4,5, Nintendo Wii, BBM, Twitter, 2go, Viber, Badoo, Youtube, etc. Maybe their thinking is, “Why should I read book when I can simply Facebook and have fun?” And this is not a subject you want to debate with them otherwise they would simply tell you, “Dawg, you are just beefing me because you weren’t so lucky!” Were we lucky or were we lucky?!
I recall that among my friends, we read, exchanged and re-read numerous novels by that maestro of intrigue and suspense – James Hadley Chase. Titles that readily come to mind include, Come Easy Go Easy, Safer Dead, Make the Corpse Walk, Tiger by the Tail, Goldfish Has no Hiding Place, Do Me a Favour Drop Dead, The Way the Cookie Crumbles, Consider Yourself Dead, The Things Men Do, The World in my Pocket, My Laugh Comes Last, Trusted like the Fox, Want to Stay Alive?, etc, etc.
I can imagine some of my friends from that era shaking their heads nostalgically when they read this piece.
Sadly, some Nigerian politicians are acting out these titles with reckless abandon. The political landscape is today dotted with gangsters, generously distributed across all political parties. Gangsters of the mould of Poke Toholo, the devious character in Hadley Chase’s ‘Want to Stay Alive?’. Gangsters who would not bat an eyelid before employing the ignominious means of blackmail or threat of impeachment to achieve their ends. Politicians who come so easily into power that they soon aspire to put the country in their pockets. Politicians who, like the fox, cannot be trusted; who want you to drop dead as a favour to them; who criticize their opponents for not being able to perform such an easy task as making a corpse walk; who ask you to consider yourself dead if you fail to dance to their music; politicians who think they are safer with their opponents dead and make sure that they die; unabashed cross-carpeting politicians whose golden parent parties suddenly become baskets of rotten apples as soon as they decamp.
In fact, the things men do in Nigeria in the name of politics make Judas Iscariot look like a saint. But let them be reminded that they, like goldfish, have no hiding place; that continuing to toy with the people is like holding a tiger by the tail and sooner, much sooner than later, their cookies will crumble and the people’s laugh will come last.