PINigeria was born out of a young boy’s love for technology and his frustration at being unable to have access to computers until he was much older. He vowed then to do all within his power to ensure that young people have access to technology. At an older age, this boy, now a man, who we know as Gbenga Sesan started Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, a social enterprise that connects Nigeria youths with ICT-enabled opportunities. This was in fulfilment of that vow made years ago.
Unfortunately, as of late an occurrence in the Senate threatened that dream and Gbenga, unwilling to have threatened that which he and other Nigerians have worked to protect, organized the Internet Freedom Forum to counter restrictions on freedom and uphold the right for self-expression, both on the virtual space and in reality.
For two days, speakers from different African countries and beyond deliberated at Chelsea hotel, Abuja on the way forward and how to protect our rights from being violated through the introduction of the bill dubbed the Social Media Bill.
Individuals, corporate organizations and the government were well represented at this forum, each making public their opinion about the social media bill.
For two days, citizens of other African countries, like The Gambia, who have suffered the reality of lack of freedom of expression, were there to warn on the crippling effect of such reality to a nation.
“Our Democracy is in name only. The Gambia is not in favor of freedom of speech. I was put in jail for almost two years and my private accounts hacked because I wrote against the government. I have been away from The Gambia for a while now and cannot go back for safety reasons.”
One of the attendants who is a citizen of Gambia but has been away from his country for a while due to persecution by the government relayed his experience at the hands of the government of Gambia. “Our democracy is in name only. The Gambia is not in favor of freedom of speech. I was put in jail for almost two years and my private accounts hacked because I wrote against the government. I have been away from The Gambia for a while now and cannot go back for safety reasons.”
“There is mass deactivation of Sim cards by a committee in The Gambia, if they consider any content you put out offensive.” Demba Kandeh said.
“In the next few months, if this bill is passed, you might have to borrow money to bail me from prison because I will definitely disobey that law.”
Not willing to have such become the case in Nigeria, Gbenga Sesan during his session vigorously condemned all forms of gagging, stating that he was tired of being afraid to speak and will always express himself freely even if the bill was passed. He warned Nigerians of what was likely to happen in the future if the bill became law saying, “In the next few months, if this bill is passed, you might have to borrow money to bail me from prison because I will definitely disobey that law.”
The common consensus at the forum was that countries should look at positive internet legislation, rather than passing cyber crime bills.
To counter the Anti-Social Media bill sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah, PINigeria came up with the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill. This counter bill was launched on the first day of the Internet Freedom Forum.
“Join a political party, get elected and see what it feels like to be badgered by people on the internet.”
Present at the event was Honorable Chukwuemeka Ujah, Vice Chairman, House Committee on Telecommunications. He lamented the habit of young people to be disrespectful online stating that only those in government will understand how it feels to have their private life suddenly being made a matter for public scrutiny. He explained that he understood the standpoint of the Senators and why they might want to regulate social media due to the way it has been abused. To further drive his point, he invited Gbenga Sesan to “join a political party, get elected and see what it feels like to be badgered by people on the internet.”
“I believe in this bill and that’s why I want to support it. I am for freedom of expression but please there needs to be a balance.”
He, however, assured that in spite of his reservations about the internet being used for negative purposes and to pass wrong information, that he still believed in freedom of speech and he made a promise to ensure that the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill is passed. “I believe in this bill (Digital Rights and Freedom Bill) and that’s why I want to support it. I am for freedom of expression but please there needs to be a balance.”
“You go to saloons, people gossip and give fake information, yet you don’t ban them so why do you want to do that online?”
There were a number of people who didn’t agree with everything the Honorable said. One of such was Chris Ojidoh, a guest. According to him, “You go to saloons, people give gossip and fake information, yet you don’t ban them, so why do you want to do that online?”
Edet Ojo, while moderating one of the sessions used an analogy about knives to express his displeasure at the effort of the government to regulate social media. “Every home has a knife. Knives can be used to kill people, yet you don’t ban knives from homes or regulate how they are being used. We all agree that anyone who uses a knife to harm another should be prosecuted. Condemn the crime, not the platform.”
All through the duration of the forum, while participants networked, one thing was clear from the countenance of Gbenga Sesan and that was the fact that he meant business. It was easy to see that the threat to freedom of expression troubled him and he regarded the forum as his way to ensure it never became reality.
Though the Senate President, Bukola Saraki promised during the Social Media Week that the Social Media Bill will never see the light of day it was disturbing to have the bill revived and a public hearing fixed for the bill on Monday 7th of March 2016, just one day to the start of the Internet Freedom Forum. This new development, no doubt, must have contributed to the raw passion evident in every speech given by the Executive Director of PINIgeria while he was on the Forum’s panel.
“People in government need to be careful what laws they make today because tomorrow you will become an ordinary citizen and that same law will be used against you.”
In addition to making known the reasons why the ability to freely express ourselves is important to the citizens, Gbenga Sesan also pointed out to the leaders why it will do them good to be careful what laws they pass while in power. He used Dasuki as a case study. “Just a few months back Dasuki was in the government but had no idea that he would soon become a citizen fighting for his right.”
To those in power Gbenga Sesan admonished “Be careful what laws you make today because tomorrow you will become an ordinary citizen and that same law will no longer be favorable to you and even be used against you.”
At the end of the two day event, it was clear that he had done what he felt he needed to do to fight back an unfavorable future for technology in Nigeria. He however nurses the fear that the bill might still make it to become a law but he is also hopeful that there may be legal avenues to fight the bill if after all his efforts the bill gets passed.
Gbenga Sesan and the PINigeria team also intend to make Internet Freedom Forum a continual event and even hinted about the possibility of an IFF2016B.
From the start of IFF 2016 to the end it could be gleaned that that young boy of yesterday does not intend to sit still while someone denies him access to his beloved computer and technology again.
About IFF Host, PINigeria: PINigeria is a social enterprise that connects Nigerian youth with ICT-enabled opportunities. Having worked with government, civil society, private institutions and international organizations, PIN’s projects build on years of combined experience and focus on socio-economic development. Find out more about PINigeria on www.pinigeria.org
Lilian Chidiogo Ezejelue is a Broadcast Journalist/COO at CS News, a media organization that reports on Civil Society Organizations, NGOs and SDGs. She is passionate about equality, freedom and social Justice. Follow her on Twitter @lilydawordsmith