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National Security Has To Be Balanced With Human Rights – Akano


Remi Akano is a public affairs commentator. In this interview with EJIKEME OMENAZU, he spoke on the hate speech and social media bills as well as the human rights records of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. Excerpts:
How do you see the recent decision of The Punch Newspapers to be addressing President Muhammadu Buhari in his Military title of Major General and his administration as ‘Regime’?
There are two ways to look at it. First, if Nigerians think Buhari is becoming dictatorial and no one is talking about it, what the newspaper has done is proper. What the Punch did is symbolic. It is the duty of the media to focus on the ills of society. They did not abuse. They took a position. The Nigeria media are beginning to lose the right of being philosophical in looking at issues. There is a continuing debate between national security and freedom. We want freedom of speech. But, free speech has responsibilities. How does society handle those who exceed their rights, threaten society and the rights of others? That is why there are laws. National security is dynamic because things change which existing laws do not serve. The debate between national security and freedom is what the media should open up.
When the existing laws were made, they were for traditional media. You can identify everyone and there was training. Today, there are millions of ‘journalists’ trained and untrained. We have new problem in our hands. I expect the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) to create study groups.
However, Punch’s action was in reaction to Sowore’s case, Hate Speech Bill and Social Media Bill. Sowore’s case is political. He was not arrested because he is a journalist or because he runs Sahara Reporters. He ran an election and lost and started to talk of a revolution. When you are talking of revolution against government, you are talking about the government. He was also talking about Days of Rage. So, we must be careful.
The invasion of the court room was a sad day for me. It is the lowest we have sunk in desecrating the temple of justice. Punch has done well. But, we need to go deeper. We need to look at the laws. When some of us in the media work for government, we say they have changed. It may not be because of money. It may be because of what they now know.
What is your take on the Hate Speech Bill now being considered at the National Assembly?
There is a baby and bath water syndrome in the way we discuss issues. Post Rwanda, hate speech has become an issue. Those who died are dead. We are in a desperate situation. We look at the possibility and high probability of abuse of laws and policies. What are repercussions of hate speech? Is hate speech on the increase? If so, how do we deal with it? Should we pretend it does not exist? If I am a lawmaker, I will still recognise hate speech. But, what I will do is to bring together the existing laws and enact them. It is okay to criticise the Hate Speech Bill. But, we need to find a solution to a new problem.
The law of libel does not take care of hate speech. It is not about name calling. It should take care of public issues. We should bring it to public discourse, especially the elite. Many think their position is that of God. I don’t see level headedness, intellectual or philosophical calmness to look at issues and take good position.
To impose capital punishment for hate speech is wrong. The world is moving away from capital punishment. We must look at the bill, remove those things that are wrong in it and look at those things that are good in it and adopt them. That too is my reaction to the Social Media Bill. There should be repercussions for bad behaviour, but the person must be given the chance to change.
How do you see the recent invasion of the Federal High Court in Abuja by operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) to re-arrest Omoyele Sowore?
Laws, constitution and simple decency ought to be assured. Certain things should not happen here in Nigeria. There may be some exaggerations on both sides. But, one thing is clear. Sowore was coming out of the court and saw that he was going to be re-arrested. He returned to the court room while the court was still in session. He was not likely to vanish from the court room. The security agents should have surrounded the complex and waited for him.
Besides, the DSS just released him on bail and he has a respected lawyer in the person of Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). So, why the desperation? DSS cannot arrest someone in the court. It was barbaric. What DSS did amounted to contempt. This attack on the judiciary had been on. But, when security men beat up a judge in Ekiti State, it was not APC that was in power. But, it came to a head now. The invasion of the legislature too did not start under the APC regime. It had been going on even during the time of Obasanjo when he would take some lawmakers to somewhere to impeach sitting governors. Who are those people doing these things? They are men. They had fathers. Will their fathers be proud of them? There are things my children cannot do, no matter where they find themselves.
There has been a lot of noise over human rights abuses under President Buhari’s administration. How do you see the development?
I do not do blanket criticism. I look at things objectively. There is need to strike a balance between national security and human rights. In the West, homosexuality has become human rights. But, we have resisted it. However, rights are not absolute. It is not fixed. It is a dynamic situation. When we talk about human rights, where does it start? Where does it end? Each case should be looked at on its merit. I laughed at a prosecutor who went to court and said that Buhari was abused and the one in Cross River State where someone is arrested for writing something against the state government.
But, people should be responsible for what they say or how they say it. There should be responsibility over how we speak and write. People say a lot of falsehood in the social media and forward it to several people. Do we still say there should be no regulation for social media? Human rights, social responsibility are here to stay. But, we live in a dynamic society. Our laws should also be dynamic.
What is your view on the Aisha Buhari’s statement against Garba Shehu, a presidential spokesperson?
The problem is the result of power play between the cabal and appointees of government. There is a dichotomy in government between the kitchen cabinet and the real cabinet. If the cabals give instruction and an appointee refuses to obey, they can orchestrate the removal of the appointee. If Garba Shehu is instructed by the cabal to do something and he obeys them, it depends on him. There is no hard and fast rule about it. It is tricky. Few of such things have happened under President Donald Trump. In our own case, it is the dichotomy between the kitchen cabinet, the personal staff of the president and the cabinet proper. I am glad that Garba Shehu has been quiet and has not responded. I believe they are resolving it internally, which is how it should be.
Before this present crisis, Aisha said there were certain things spokespersons of government should not respond to, like party issues. She returned from a trip and heard about her marriage being threatened at the airport. She spoke and they stopped it from being aired. Her family and that of the minister mentioned were affected. If they had arrested some people, people would have complained. Pat Utomi recently complained about people using his social media account to insult people. It is beyond hacking. We need to do something about the evils of social media.
How do you see the reported hike of the budget by the National Assembly? Some people regard it as padding the budget. How correct are they?
That is a debate we need to have. Padding is a wrong word. Padding entails smuggling things into the budget. But, what is the limit or the power of the legislature over a budget? Some say they have the power to ensure that what is budgeted is achievable. They use the document for oversight functions. Thus, it is expected that they can reduce, but not to add. It is still believed that if you can reduce, you can add. One of the variables is the price of oil with which they fixed the budget, the borrowings and the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR). There is the belief that only the executive can determine the number of barrels and the price of oil.  Thus, amending the variables may be voo doo.
The legislature may not have the figures to determine these variables. Elsewhere, the legislature has Budget Office which determines these things. But, that does not exist here in Nigeria. The Speakers, the Senate Presidents and some Principal Officers may have people that do these things for them.
But, the extent the legislature can increase depends on the percentage of the budget. There should be a percentage that the executive may see as possible. What are the addictions seen as possible. What is the addition for? We should learn to debate without imputing motives. It is not issue of right or wrong.
President Buhari has sent a request for the approval of fresh foreign loans when the country is still neck deep in debt. Do you see his action as wise?
I have my attitude towards borrowing. Borrowing for what? What are they borrowing for? I will rather borrow to do certain things now than wait till when the cost of the project may be higher, provided it is not consumption. The earlier you do a capital project, the better, subject to the need to make repayment. If I were the legislature, I will like the executive to justify the borrowing and repayment plan. It makes sense to borrow than allow inflation to catch up with the project.
How do you see the influence of the Aso Rock cabal in the running of the Buhari administration?
They exist everywhere. In the presidential system, they are the offices that exist to work with the president, like the Chief of Staff. There is no way you work with people regularly and they will not have influence over you. In companies, Managing Directors have Personal Assistants, Executive Secretaries and Executive Assistants. They are the people that bounce and do things with the Managing Directors. They may be paid lower than he General Managers (GMs). But, they are closer to the MDs more than the GMs. But, how can there not be abuses? What do they do or write on behalf of the principal? Do they influence processes? They are purely to protect the interest of their principal. If they abuse their position, it can affect governance. They are the inner caucus, the kitchen cabinet. The name, cabal, gives them bad connotation. But, their existence and influence is real.
Junaid Mohammed recently said that the North will not allow an Igbo to become president until Igbos assure on their commitment to one Nigeria. What is your take on this?
What Junaid Mohammed said made sense against the background of Biafra agitation. If there are people in South East who are vociferous abut Biafra, it means that the Igbos are one leg in Nigeria, and one leg outside Nigeria. For me, what would have resolved the issue was when Nnamdi Kanu was calling for a referendum. Perhaps the country should have listened and cooperated and we had a referendum. If they had done it, we would have discovered that there are more Nigerians in South East than Biafrans. But, the leaders think otherwise. I think 95% of our brothers in the South East are Nigerians. The only 5% are those who make Igbos to play into the hands of people like Junaid Mohammed.
Secondly, the fact that there has not been a president from South East is injustice. Those who have been there should not be talking about who should not.
Thirdly, I think we should be thinking of how to rest the current political class. We need a Third Force, a Nigerian Intervention Movement. Before former President Olusegun Obasanjo came to the picture, some people were trying to build a movement. We need to build a new set that is distinct from the current set of politicians. If they had formed a powerful Third Force, there would have been a run off in the last presidential election. Obasanjo came and brought confusion in the movement that was being formed and they split. But, we need fresh air in the Nigerian political system.
I don’t know any of my friends in South East who support Biafra. And I have many. If we had allowed the plebiscite to go on, Nnamdi Kanu would have known that there are more Nigerians in the South East and Junaid Mohammed would not have had opportunity to be saying what he is saying. But, I blame the leaders.
How do you see the election violence in Kogi and Bayelsa elections?
Kogi election was war. If I am from Kogi State, Yahaya Bello would not have contested again. I would be so ashamed. You know that you filed. Yet, you go for second term. Politicians have continued to buy and sell votes. They used to be decent about it, distributing rice and souvenirs. Now, people’s votes are bought with N5, 000. When huge money is spent, why won’t you have violence in elections? The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) does not have the structure to monitor election expenses the way it is done elsewhere. May be, we should adopt electronic voting and electronic transmission of votes. If the Electoral Act Amendment Bill was signed into law, it would have reduced the corruption of the electoral system.
I think the time has come to look at our electoral laws. The current legislature should revisit that law before 2020. We should have an Electoral Act of our dream. Then, we will reduce the value of violence. If snatching of ballot boxes will not help you, you will not carry thugs and go to the polling stations. We do not have to be at the polling stations at the same time.

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