THE ASSAULT ON FREE SPEECH

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The Nigerian constitution guarantees freedom of expression

The recent arrest and detention of Salihu Yakasai by the Department of State Services (DSS) was a worrisome development. Following the abduction of 279 female students at Government Secondary School, Jangebe, Zamfara State, Yakasai, a media aide to Governor Abdullahi Ganduje had tweeted: “Clearly, we as APC government, at all levels, have failed Nigerians in the number one duty we were elected to do which is to secure lives and properties. Not a single day goes by without some sort of insecurity in this land. This is a shame! Deal with terrorists decisively or resign.”

It is not the first time Yakasai would publicly criticise the federal government. He was suspended by his principal last October following another tweet where he wrote: “I’ve never seen a government with zero empathy like that of Buhari. So many times when his people are going through a difficult time and expect some sort of tap on shoulder to reassure them that he is in charge, he failed to do so.” Unable to accept such consistent errant behaviour from a close aide, Governor Ganduje authorised Yakasai’s sack this time. But when his family declared him missing, accusing fingers were pointed at the DSS. Initially, the Kano State directorate released a statement that he was not with them. Following a social media campaign, DSS headquarters in Abuja confirmed holding him on some spurious grounds. Although Yakasai has since been released, it is shameful that the DSS had to dabble into the issue in the first place.

In a democracy, we must protect the atmosphere of confident self-expression, the right to personal beliefs without molestation, the liberty to make choices and affirm personal convictions. This brazen assault on the fundamental rights of citizen Yakasai is flawed because it represents a crude attempt to truncate free expression and muddy our collective psyche and conscience. It undermines that respect and love of discourse and robust engagements that define the modern age.

Section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution provides that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information without interference.” Similarly, Article XIX of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” By the same token, Article IX of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights provides that “Every individual shall have the right to receive information and the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.”

Nigeria is a democratic nation that guarantees the rights of citizens, including their freedom of expression, within the ambit of the law. While nobody can question Governor Ganduje for sacking an aide who takes delight in embarrassing him on social media, the fact also remains that Yakasai committed no crime for which he should be arrested by the DSS. But we also understand the intolerance in the system and the manner the security agencies have become organs for regime protection – now interchangeable with national security. With the example set in Abuja, the freedom of citizens who disagree with governors is increasingly being conscripted in many of the states. The All Progressives Congress (APC) enjoyed unfettered freedom when in opposition. The federal government must therefore be told in clear terms that Nigeria is a democratic nation and must follow the constitutional process to redress any infringement of the law.

Arbitrary arrest and detention of Nigerians for frivolous reasons must stop.