I was actually thinking that the National Assembly promulgated a new law, which criminalized hate speech and fake news, and thus raised the punishment, in fines, to N5 million from an initial N500,000, until I read the position of chairman of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Mr. Ikra Bilbis, and the legal opinion of a former general-secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Nimi Walson-Jack, on the position of the law on the crimes of fake news and hate speech. It was not until I read both positions that I realised how dangerous Mr. Lai Mohammed (hereinafter, Lai) could be.
Summary of both exposes was that Mr. Lai had constituted himself into a parliament: defined a behaviour or practice as criminal, enacted a new bill to criminalise the practice, conducted the first, second and third readings of the bill, held the public hearing privately and, by himself alone, passed the bill into law, imposed N5 million as punishment for the crime, signed the bill into law all by himself alone and began implementing it against Nigerians. In just a single act, Mr. Lai rewrote a new law of the federation of Nigeria and brazenly, like he always did each time he was stating ‘alternative facts’, announced it to bewildered Nigerians like he had won a Champions League for impunity. History never recorded such an epoch-making human.
Mr. Bilbis, who sits in office as chairman of the NBC board, was, however, quick to remind Nigerians that Mr. Lai acted alone and without powers. Bilbis said Mr. Lai lacked the capacity to single-handedly change the broadcasting code or even impose a fine on those who violate it. Bilbis said: “Instead of studying and following the law, relevant rules and regulations, and direct the appropriate authorities as stipulated by the law to act on, he (Lai Mohammed) erroneously embarked on the review alone… the NBC was set up by law and there is an act that guides its operations. The honourable minister, therefore, cannot usurp the powers of the board as clearly stated in the act. Any such action by the honourable minister is illegal.”
In other words, Mr. Lai sought to change the broadcasting code and prescribe new crimes and punishment when he had no powers to do so. That was ingenious!
So, why did he travel on that road? Bilbis suggests and answers thus: “This noble observation of Mr. President was unfortunately misunderstood by the honourable minister of information.” Bilbis was making a reference to concerns at the Federal Executive Council over what was called ‘divisive broadcasts’ during and after the 2019 general election. In essence, because the President frowned at such ‘divisive broadcasts,’ Mr. Lai then took it upon himself to change the broadcast code and impose a new penalty for what he personally defined as crime, obviously because that would assuage the psychological state of the President and rein in the media. The same media that Mr. Lai, as opposition spokesman, used to freely insult and abuse the leadership then, and, also, the sensibilities of Nigerians. How things change!
Import of this position was that Mr. Lai had become so overzealous in his quest to stifle public opinion and muzzle free speech so as to be seen as working purposely to protect the government against the acerbic tongue of Nigerians who had become chronically fatigued by government failures and seeming lack of focus of their leaders. While Mr. Bilbis was reeling out his dissention against Mr. Lai and taking him to the cleaners as an usurper and a threat to the democratic ethos of free speech, a lawyer, Walson-Jack, was also penning down a short legal opinion wherein he said that there are no such crimes as ‘hate speech’ and ‘fake news’ in any Nigerian legal code, English or orthodox.
Walson-Jack said: “There are no offences or crimes in Nigeria known as, called, or referred to as either hate speech or fake news.” He further argued that “the combined reading of the powers of commission in Section 2 of the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission Act, to regulate and control the broadcasting industry, establish and disseminate a National Broadcasting Code and set standards with regard to the contents and quality of materials for broadcast; monitoring broadcasting for harmful emission, interference, and illegal broadcasting; and determining and applying sanctions, including revocation of license of defaulting stations, which do not operate in accordance with the broadcast code and in the public interest, still does not give it any statutory power or authority to create an offence through the broadcasting code.”
He further argued that “there is no provision for payment of financial penalties in the act. The power to impose a financial penalty can only be given to the NBC by the law. The NBC cannot give itself the power to create offences and penalties. That power must be specifically conferred on the NBC, which the NBC act has not. The NBC, therefore, has no power to make subordinate or subsidiary legislation. What the NBC has done in the code is a usurpation of legislative powers of the National Assembly.”
A complete reading of these positions exposes Mr. Lai’s aversion for democracy. He probably preferred military-style dictatorship. He probably is an intolerant fellow who hid under the gab of democracy to rise to public leadership. But it is also said that men of the sword do not usually allow other swordsmen to walk behind them with swords. It is sad that those who enjoyed the liberty of free speech and the freedom to use their oral skills the way they wanted without harassment from the government to rise to power now fear the same tools once freely available to them.
What Nigerians have seen so far is rather a progressive abuse and denial of their democratic rights. These same rights were enjoyed by the current leadership when it was the official opposition. When Nigerians gather to peacefully protest bad governance using only placards, they are either arrested or beaten up by the police, who they sustain with their taxes. The same police would rather protect and shield those who deliver bad governance to the people. The question is why is the government scared of the people? Why is Mr. Lai so scared of the same hammer he used to hit a nail onto another man’s coffin?
Abraham Lincoln was right when he said “nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a men’s character, give him power.”
Mr. Lai is now tested and his true character is now an open book. But Socrates said “the greatest way to live with honour in this world is to be what we pretend to be.” I had expected that Mr. Lai would, at least, have sustained the pretense and let all of us count him as genuine rather than blow the lid. You know, pretense is good.
The legendary Nat King Cole made a very good rendition of it in his song ‘Pretend’. He sang: “Pretend you’re happy when you’re blue; It isn’t very hard to do; and you’ll find happiness without an end, whenever you pretend.” Mr. Lai, why did you remove your cover?