Alone Among the Animals: Free Speech and Nigeria’s National Assembly

“We will always know what justice looks like, whether or not the Nigerian Senate takes seriously its obligations to make laws that enable justice to be served.”

Lady Justice statue on the Old Bailey, London
Lady Justice statue on the Old Bailey, London

There is a no more misused and misunderstood line from political philosophy than that “man is by nature a political animal.” Aristotle did not mean that human beings have a natural affinity for ‘politics’. Aristotle meant that it is given by nature for man to need the city-state. He meant that it was in our specific positions as citizens in the partnership of a polis that we are put into a necessary association with the law. Without the justice the state arranges, we would live either as beasts without virtue or as gods without hearth. The legislators housed in the Nigerian National Assembly know nothing of this.

Sponsored by Senator Ibn Na’Allah, ‘A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith’ passed its second reading in the Senate on the 1st of December this year. Largely targeted at those who seek to have public officials investigated, the bill reportedly stipulates that anyone wishing to file a petition intended to report the conduct of any persons must present a sworn affidavit confirming the contents of the petition to be true. For those who fail to provide a sworn affidavit in conjunction with petitions or complaints, the bill reportedly proposes a punishment of 2 years jail time or a fine of N200,000 or both. 

With our voices, we proclaim not only that which causes pleasure or pain but by speech we may show what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. What does harm and what is beneficial; in short, what is just and what is unjust.

Large portions of the bill, which also reportedly proposes that it be an offence to make allegations with “malicious intent to discredit or set the public against any person or group of persons, institutions of government”, could be considered a proposed and heavy handed amendment to the country’s existing laws of defamation and libel.  But the bill is reported to go on to also state that those who make abusive statements on social media including via twitter, text messaging and WhatsApp, which they know to be false against any person or government body will face 2 years imprisonment or a fine of N2 million or both.

What is perhaps the most alarming part of the continuing legislative fiasco is that senators have made little effort to hide the fact that this bill has been proposed specifically to protect themselves. Some senators have been reported to express frustration that they have been unable to maintain their social media platforms due to the rampant abuse they receive. Other senators are reported to be aghast at the stories they read about themselves in the presses. Senators believe, so we are told, that it is their right not to be blackmailed and abused.

In believing itself to require special laws that protect it from the rest of the population, the senate has mistaken Nigeria for its own personal fiefdom.

Some may feel sympathetic towards the senators’ concerns. That senators and politicians in general have been falsely accused in the presses must be a great deal of personal frustration to them. But the law was not invented to protect the privileges of the individually powerful. Under the legal positivist tradition, of which the Nigerian legal system is firmly a part, the law is to be general. The law communicates general standards of behaviour to the entire community. The law does not favour one section of society over another and any law that only regards a particular individual or section of the community is not only morally repugnant; it is factually a bad law.

In proposing this bill, what the senate has done is to say that the existing laws of defamation and libel do not suit its own particular needs against false and frivolous claims. In believing itself to require special laws that protect it from the rest of the population, the senate has mistaken Nigeria for its own personal fiefdom.

Ironically, it is the very façade of democracy as it is operated in Nigeria that gives the Senate the power and the position to repress our freedoms.

Further, so open textured is so much of the proposed bill that it would be more productive for lawyers and judges to identify those whose opinion of Nigeria’s public officials was without malice and mark them out for legal reward. Should the bill become law, those with any inclination to speak publicly and truthfully of their judgement of politicians and public officers would help an already burdened legal system by regularly handing themselves over for 2 year breaks at the nearest prison.

Part of the problem that has so far been neglected in the vigorous discussions currently taking place in Nigeria over Senator Ibn Na’Allah’s bill, is that the proposed law is situated within a specifically Nigerian cultural context. It is a context in which speaking truth to power does not sit comfortably. The notion that anyone, regardless of social status, or family name, can tell those in positions of authority precisely what they think of the latter has not quite caught on here. This is the part of the true meaning of democracy that the senators seek to make a crime. Ironically, it is the very façade of democracy as it is operated in Nigeria that gives the Senate the power and the position to repress our freedoms.

The danger the Nigerian Senate poses is to all Nigerians.

It is within this context of distorted ‘traditions’ in which respect is misunderstood to mean a blind deference to age, money, and political power that this bill must be understood. As with all things, it is the poor and the weak who will suffer the most should the proposed bill be enacted. But the long-term repercussions for allowing the bill to go through will be faced by us all.

If it were only that the danger this recent action of the Nigerian Senate posed to the federation was to shut up those who had little better to do than to write blog posts, the case would not be worth considering. The danger the Nigerian Senate poses is to all Nigerians. From those who are active on social media to those who think WhatsApp is a brand of potato crisp; from those who are interested in everyday politics to those who are not; from citizens alive to those not yet born. The danger is to demand that, by a general law, Nigerians cease to be thinking beings.

The law communicates general standards of behaviour to the entire community. The law does not favour one section of society over another and any law that only regards a particular individual or section of the community is not only morally repugnant; it is factually a bad law.

“Nature does nothing in vain”, asserts Aristotle, “and man alone among the animals has speech.” While the other creatures are observed to have voice, we alone appear to be capable of using our voices for moral assessment. With our voices, we proclaim not only that which causes pleasure or pain but by speech we may show what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. What does harm and what is beneficial; in short, what is just and what is unjust. It is in the realm of the state, justice belonging to it, that what it means for humans to have speech becomes apparent. As such, man is a political animal.

There is no exaggeration in the understanding that by what I say, I determine and show myself to others to be a being capable of thought, assessment, and action; that it is this that makes me distinctly human. The Senate’s conceit is to believe that though the law serves the purpose of adjudicating justice, by its ability to enact bad laws, the senate thinks itself capable of stifling our need for justice. We will always know what justice looks like, whether or not the Nigerian Senate takes seriously its obligations to make laws that enable justice to be served.

All References to Aristotle are from The Politics (Carnes Lord Translation) 

~EAMS

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s