Recent development in Nigeria has continued to show that Nigeria’s political elites have remained bent on undermining any form of freedom the ordinary citizens have in determining how the nation is run. From the elections in Kogi which successfully denied citizens freedom to freely determine their leaders to the social media bill which seek to restrict free speech, Nigerians have been continuously relegated to the background in the affairs that affect their lives. Evaluation of these developments make one to begin to wonder if those that are supposed to hold the tenets of the Nigerian constitution where fundamental human rights and freedom are boldly enshrined are on the verge of capitulating to their own whims and ego.
A gentle reminder by Black’s Law Online Dictionary shows that freedom is the state of being free; liberty; self-determination; absence of restraint; the opposite of slavery. The power of acting in the character of a moral personality, according to the dictates of the will, without other checks, hinderance or prohibition than such as may be imposed by just and necessary laws and the duties of social life. The prevalence in the government and the constitution of a country, of such a system of laws and institutions as secure civil liberty to the individual citizens.
From the forgoing definition, one begins to question the level of freedom Nigerians are currently having to do as little as exercising their civic duties without coming at a cost. There is also no gainsaying that various sections of the Nigerian constitution has preserve certain freedom which include, but not limited to, Right to Life, Right to Dignity of Human Persons, Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion, Right to Freedom Of Expression And The Press, Right to Peaceful Assembly And Association, Right to freedom of Movement, etc. Despite the fact these ‘freedoms’ have been stated and regarded as enforceable rights, they are still being limited, constrained and even breached by those who are meant to implement and protect against violation.
A typical instance is the just concluded Kogi and Bayelsa elections which has raised more questions than answers as regards citizens freedom of expression and thus have kept people asking whether we are truly operating a democratic system as gunshots, killings and ballot snatching were the order of the day especially in Kogi State. As a matter of fact, the pre-election environment has already provided early warning signals of violence which in itself has hindered citizens freedom to vote and be voted for, due to fear of their lives. If citizens are reluctant to cast their votes due to the fear of being killed or harassed at polling units because of their party affiliations, where then is our Right to Freedom of Association?
The recent news of the death of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) women’s leader of Wada Aro Campaign Council, Ochadamu Ward Kogi, Mrs Acheju Abu who was burnt down to death in her apartment for exercising her right of freedom of association which is an abuse or rather a slap to the provisions of the constitution which is the grund norm of the society. It is even unfortunate that these offenders still walk the streets freely without any form of prosecution. This is not to talk about the various complicity in the just concluded elections which in many ways hindered citizens from exercising their franchise.
While limiting citizens freedom to express themselves as enshrined in section 39 of the constitution, the recent development in the National Assembly to criminalise what they describe as hate speech has further added salt to an already sour wound. The Bill which proposes the death penalty for any statement intended to demean or brutalize another or the use of cruel and derogatory language on the basis of real or alleged membership in a social group, has passed second reading.
What comes to mind here is: on what basis can someone judge the statement of another? Where there is a literal meaning, there is also the intended meaning of the speaker. There cannot be any clear-cut definition of the so-called hate speech and it can be used as propaganda in the hands of a party against an opposition party. Thus, this will further legitimize the desperate effort of the political class to subdue its agitating citizens. We are in a country where people do not want to argue with paramilitary officers for fear of being arrested even though no crime has been committed.
This is a clarion call for the government to ensure that the provisions of the Chapter Four of the 1999 Constitution are ultimately guaranteed; let us be truly free as defined in the second paragraph of this article.
Chisom is a Program Intern at YIAGA AFRICA’s Center for Legislative Engagement