Deputy Senate Leader, Bala Ibn Na’Allah, in this interview with SUNDAY ABORISADE, dismisses arguments against the ‘anti-social media bill’, insisting that the senate will go ahead with it
What informed your decision to sponsor the Anti-Frivolity Bill, otherwise known as the anti-social media bill?
First of all, I want to tell you that the social media is an important platform for the economic, social and political development of a country. But what we hate is its negative use which has a very damaging effect on our desire to develop as a nation. I am surprised that people are calling it an anti-social media bill. The title of the bill is ‘Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith.’ When it came out for a second reading, the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, suggested that we could even change it to ‘Public Petitions Procedure Law’ so that we can prescribe procedures for the way we do things in this country. We are not too far from forgetting the fact that we just finished a ministerial screening. I have served in the Public Petitions Committee of the House of Representatives for eight years. I am now the Deputy Chairman of the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions. You must give me the benefit of the doubt about my background and experience to know the dangerous implications of publishing frivolous petitions. What have the proponents of the protests against the bill been able to show clearly against it? Has any of them said the contents of the proposed bill infringed on the provisions of the constitution? Certainly not. All they do is to give a vague explanation that it is going to cage or gag people from expressing their opinion on public issues.
What are the dangers that the bill is expected to protect against?
We said that in the past, we had situations where simply because someone wants to remove the chief executive of a government agency or institution or even of a private firm, he or she goes somewhere and writes a fictitious petition to put the affected official and his or her family in trouble based on allegations that are not correct. Wherein then lies the wisdom of writing petitions based on falsehood when you have the opportunity of checking information about the activities of the person in the agency, firm or institution where he or she works courtesy of the Freedom of Information law which I helped to put in place? Even at that, we said fine, you are free to write whatever you want to write but you must accompany your document with a sworn affidavit. What we are trying to do is to bring you within the old act so that if what you write has been discovered to be untrue, then you should be ready to bear the consequence. It means you have lied on oath and this is known as perjury. The writer can be subjected to trial. This is how to bring sanity to the way we are doing things.
But one of the arguments of those who are condemning the proposed bill is that there are many aspects of our existing laws that take care of all you say your bill is designed to address?
As a parliament, we have flexibility. This is one example of sunset legislation. For God’s sake, if we say we are a country of godly people as we claim, what is wrong in asking people to go and tell the truth?
There are insinuations that the proponents of the bill have something to hide …
I am Bala Ibn Na’Allah, and have never changed from being who I was. I am challenging Nigerians now that whoever has anything against me should come and say it openly. God will not cover anybody who fails to expose my bad acts if any.
You can speak for yourself, but can you also say the same thing for your colleagues?
I don’t care about any other person. I am the one who brought the bill. I don’t want Nigerians to like me for doing the right thing; I want them to hate me for doing the right thing. The health bill of the United States of America was more controversial than this proposed bill but it was eventually passed. Are Americans not happy with President Barack Obama today? I don’t belong to the class of leaders that will tell their people lies simply because they want to be loved as leaders. I have no cause to do that. I believe in this bill and I challenge any lawyer to a national debate on it. They should come and tell me which provision of this law violates the provision of our constitution. I am interested in that.
Is it true that the Senate is considering dropping the bill because some Nigerians are protesting against it?
That is not possible. If I want people to demonstrate in support of the bill, I am capable of mobilising more than one million people to do that. But let me tell you that in this country, the era of renting a crowd, trying to swing people into doing the wrong thing has gone and it will never come back. Our investigation has shown that most of the people who write and publish frivolous petitions are criminals. Go and check what some of them write and publish on either social or traditional media; there is no single suggestion on how the country would be developed. Rather, what they have done is to recruit some boys in various places to look for civil servants who are crooks and bring up facts about their wrongdoing and publish it. Those ones would run to them and pay them money. You cannot continue to use social media to commit crimes and think that we will just be looking at you. I will not.
President Muhammadu Buhari has been quoted as saying that he was not part of the bill.
No, don’t misquote Mr. President. He, in a very clear term, said, that he would uphold the freedom of speech as contained in the constitution based on the oath of office he had taken but freedom of speech is not the only freedom that is contained in the constitution. The same responsibility he has to uphold the freedom of speech extends to his responsibility to defend the dignity of persons. While should we continue to allow a faceless person to continue to malign and bring repression on the people? In any case, Mr. President belongs to the executive arm of government and I have not seen anything wrong with what Mr. President said. In fact, we are on the same page. He even said he was not averse to any regulation that will take care of the matter provided it is done within the constitution.
But the bill was not given the desired publicity. Many Nigerians are still not aware of the details before you hurriedly passed it for first and second readings.
Don’t talk about the popularity of a bill. Whether we do something about social media today or not, this country will have cause to revisit it. Go and write it down. Wherein lies the wisdom of allowing the social media to go on rampage on their own, and then on the other hand, asking the National Broadcasting Commission to regulate the electronic media? Why don’t you remove the regulatory agencies in charge of print and electronic media so that everybody writes and publish whatever they like? That is when we will now know that we have freedom of speech and that everybody is free to say whatever they like. If there is any country that needs regulation on social media, it is Nigeria and this is because of its complexities. We have seen people going on social media putting a lot of things that are dividing the country and tearing it apart. The only reason we swore to an oath of office as leaders is because the public puts trust in us to have the ability to solve their problems. Hence, the oath of office requested us to do our duties without fear or favour, affection or ill will and then we will not allow our personal interest to affect our official conduct and decisions. On that I stand as a senator.
Why is the Senate in a hurry to pass the bill?
There is nothing like being in a hurry about this bill. The public hearing is going to take place. The bill is passing through the normal procedure. Every Nigerian has a representative in the Senate and I remember when I moved for the second reading of the bill, the Senate President asked whether any senator wished to speak against it or not. None of them spoke. Why didn’t the public speak through their representatives then? And now that everybody wants to claim credit, you think I should just sit down? Let me tell you, I am ready to give my life to doing what is good for this country. I didn’t come to the Senate because I like what I am doing. I am in the Senate for a purpose.
Some Nigerians believe that you are pushing for this bill on behalf of the Senate President who has cases in court based on petitions against him.
I am too old for the Senate President to toss around. Go and tell him I said so. Those who know me properly will tell you that I don’t have a boss. I am an independent person. There is nothing God has not done for me. For your information, I am a lawyer, pilot, senator and traditional ruler with three titles. Tell me, which of these jobs cannot give me food to eat that you think would make me to be following Saraki about? Whatever one does in this country, there are people who would want to read into it in order to discourage one. I don’t belong to the class of those leaders.
Civil society groups and owners of some online media organisations protested at the National Assembly, vowing to stop the bill through the court if you insist on going ahead with it. What do you say?
Let them go to court. I am a lawyer. Do you think I am afraid of the court? I have spent the best part of my life as a lawyer and I am sure that there is virtually no part of this country where people don’t know me as a lawyer. As to whether I am a ‘jagajaga’ lawyer or not is your own opinion, but I do know that based on my little understanding of the law, I possess the capacity to defend this