Social media has proved to be a powerful vehicle for bringing women’s rights issues to the attention of a wider public, galvanising action on the streets of cities around the world and encouraging policy makers to step up commitments to gender equality. Nigeria is not left out as social media has been used to bridge the gap that often separates grassroots women’s activism from policy-making processes. The explosion of social media and unprecedented use by women of new technologies represents important opportunities to bring gender equality and women’s rights issues to the forefront of both policies making and media attention. Since the introduction of the Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulation of other Related Matters Bill 2019, known as the “social media bill,” sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa, sailed through a second reading , there have been outcries Nigerians and it condemned and outrightly rejected a the public hearing. This article examines the implication the Bill will have on women rights movements in Nigeria if it is allowed to become a Law.
Social Media Bill 2019 and the Future of Women Rights Movement.
Women’s rights movement and Activist in Nigeria have used twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to transmit/re-transmit events live to a broader audience and have also used same to connect to global movements. Social media has also allowed gender activists to break established stereotypes and help advance gender equality.
Below are some areas I have identified that social media have helped to advance women rights movement in Nigeria and enabled/ encouraged younger generation of activist:
- Hashtag activism: Hashtag activism helped to mobilise public attention on women’s rights, increasing the visibility of issues that are under-reported in mainstream media. For example, in early 2019 Fakhariyya Hashim following the global #MeToo movement first used the hashtag #ArewaMeToo to break the silence on sexual abuse in northern Nigeria. The #ArewaMeToo hashtag got Nigerians especially women to speak up on sexual and domestic abuses as well as derogations they face.
- Tackling violence against women: Social media has helped women to share their experiences of violence with other victims thus creating safe spaces to exchange knowledge and information on their rights, legal processes and welfare services. An example is Osasu Paul-Azino who developed the HERfessions mobile app, an anonymous platform designed to support victims and survivors of sexual gender-based violence (SGBV); ensuring that any woman requiring assistance will be able to find support and have access to needed educational tools and resources. The platform also affords survivors the opportunity to engage in peer-to-peer interactions as well as consultations with trained psychologists, lawyers, and other stakeholders invested in educating, supporting, and counselling victims of gender-based violence.
- Public accountability towards gender issues: Social media has been greatly used to call for greater accountability towards gender equality. In 2019, there were several raids on women and girls in Abuja by security agencies. These women and girls were arrested by security agents for simply walking, standing or sitting on the streets, night clubs, homes and hotels in Abuja. Among these women were married women and girls from rich homes There were reported cases of rape, physical violence and sexual assaults by these security agents. Following this, the #abujapoliceraidonwomen and #endpoliceraidonwomen campaigns were flagged off on all social media platforms and physical protest were embarked on to condemn the violation of the rights of the women. There were demands for for the suspension and prosecution of the acting secretary of the FCTA, Hajiya Safiya Umar for overseeing the gross violations of women in Abuja. There were also nationwide street protests which provoked a discussion among political and civil society leaders about violence against women in the country.
Despite the high visibility and success of many of these campaigns, the extent to which women’s online activism has been able to shape and influence policy making remains patchy and unpredictable. This mirrors the struggle of grassroots women’s activism to be heard in decision making processes, and the broader marginalisation of women in public life.
As technology advances, it is pertinent that women rights movements should take the advantage to strengthen the voices and impact of women in Nigeria.
Highlights of the Social Media Bill 2019
- The social media bill aims to curb online falsehoods and mis- and disinformation. However, the real intent is not regulation, but rather, the annihilation of online freedom of expression, criminalization of government criticism and legalization of internet shutdowns in Nigeria.
- This bill aims to “prevent the transmission of false statements or declaration of facts in Nigeria,” according to Section 1a. It will ban the dissemination statements likely to be “prejudicial” to Nigeria, including subjects like public health, public safety “public tranquillity or public finances” and Nigeria’s “friendly relations with other countries.”
- The bill will also “detect, control and safeguard against coordinated misuse of online accounts and bots,” according to Section 1(c). In other words, everything is permissible to monitor and control in the proposed law — under the guise of fighting false information.
- The social media bill is omniscient since it will be binding for every Nigerian citizen, regardless of residence or geographic location, as long as the ambiguous “false statement of fact” is transmitted within the country. Section 3(a)( b)(i) of the social media bill states that:
“A person must not do any act in or outside Nigeria in order to transmit in Nigeria a statement knowing or having reasons to believe that it is a false statements of fact; and the transmission of the statement in Nigeria is likely to be, prejudicial to the security of Nigeria or any part of Nigeria.”
The use of “national security” is an excuse to justify the trumping of free expression. But it does not stop there, the Nigerian government is always right and cannot be criticized.
- According to Section 3(b)(vi), any statement that diminishes “public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of, in the exercise of any power of the government” is prohibited.
- According to Section 3(b)(v), this applies to any statement that: “incites feelings of enmity, hatred, directed at persons or ill-will between different groups of persons.” This is dangerous because it leaves regulators open to contradictory interpretations that could be abused by political actors. Who defines and approves what incites feelings of hatred? It means that seeking transparency or even daring to hold a politician accountable could be declared hateful.
- The punishment upon conviction for any provisions of the bill is a fine that ranges between 200,000 and 10 million naira [about $556 to $28,000 United States dollars], imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or both.
- Police licensed to shut down the internet. The social media bill also grants the government unlimited power to switch off the internet, through the “Access Blocking Order” as contained in Section 12, subsection 3:
“The Law Enforcement Department may direct the NCC [Nigerian Communications Commission – the regulatory agency for the telecommunication industry] to order the internet access service provider to take reasonable steps to disable access by end-users in Nigeria.”
- Internet service providers must comply with this blocking order or risk upon conviction a fine within the range of 5 to 10 million naira [$14,000-28,000 USD].
- In addition, the bill under consideration indemnifies the internet service providers from any “civil or criminal liability” incurred from a lawsuit brought against them for “complying to any access blocking order,” according to section 12 (5).
- The human rights violations get murkier because the law grants the police a legal license to command an access-blocking order at whim. Section 15a states that only the “initiative” of the police in face of “overwhelming sufficing evidence” is needed to cancel an internet shutdown in the country.
- Consequently, “no appeal may be made to the High Court” [Section 13(2)] by any party to revoke such a ban without first applying to the police to revoke an existing blocking order. The implications of this are obvious — no one can resort to the courts for redress in the face of this violation while the blocking order persists.
The Future of Women Rights Movements in Nigeria?
Women rights movements have come a long way in Nigeria and there is no doubt that social media has helped to advance the movement as identified at the beginning of this article. There is still a lot left to be done about the advancement of women’s rights in Nigeria. For instance, gender equality remains a big issue in Nigeria. And even though a lot has been published about the topic, it has not received significant attention. Also, the fact that Nigeria ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, women’s rights and gender equality are not getting the necessary attention required because of certain religious and cultural constraints that perpetuate gender inequality.
Gender discrimination is common in Nigeria because of the patriarchal nature of society. Women are marginalized both in their private and public life. At home, they are not considered equal partners when making decisions, even if they are expected to make substantial financial contributions to the household. Women are rarely considered for leadership positions of social institutions that include men. Political life in Nigeria is based on male norms and values, and men determine the standards for political participation and the rules that govern the electoral process, greatly limiting women’s participation in politics. This gender disparity is traceable to the perception that women are better subordinates, whose social rights and benefits should be subject to the dictates of men.
It is also quite unfortunate that the Nigerian Constitution, despite prohibiting gender-based discrimination, does not protect women’s rights. An ideal constitution would be drafted with the input of every segment of society, but the 1999 charter was made without consulting Nigeria’s women, and its language reflects this. For example, Section 26 of the Constitution says that a foreign woman married to a Nigerian man is eligible for Nigerian citizenship, but the same right is not granted to a foreign man married to a Nigerian woman. Section 131, which lists the qualifications for the office of the president, uses the word “he,” suggesting that only a man can be president. The Constitution generally uses the words “he,” “his” and “him,” and doesn’t include female pronouns.
How is this related to the social media bill? Nongovernmental organizations are working to advance women’s rights, with limited success so far. Advocacy groups have been championing the rights of women and campaigning against domestic violence and sexual harrassment, but a lot still needs to be done. It is highly condemnable to use laws to justify human rights violations and this is just what the Nigerian government intends to use the social media bill for. What this implies for women rights movements in Nigeria is that with a bill like this becoming a law, these women’s rights groups will be restricted, face more censorship and harassment. The resultant effect of this will be the silence of women’s voices online and a barrier on women’s activism online.
The extent to which women are represented in public life and in decision-making processes has a gendered impact on policy making. Increasing their political participation has been linked to more gender-responsive public policies. The only way forward is for women rights movements and advocacy groups to take advantage of the rise in new technology to strengthen women’s voice and impact in Nigeria in order to achieve equality in Nigeria. The passage of the Social Media Bill will truncate the efforts in achieving the advancement of women’s rights in Nigeria. It will also discourage younger generation of women activists and this can negatively affect the success of women’s online activism.
Nigeria is a democratic nation and a democratic government should not prosecute citizens for criticising its administration or leadership because that is part of their fundamental rights. Accountability is a necessary component in a democracy that promotes checks and balance as well as the public control over the use of resources. Let us join our voices today to SAY NO TO THE SOCIAL MEDIA BILL and the HATE SPEECH BILL.
Augusta Yaakugh is an Abuja based lawyer and rights activist. She is also the Executive Director of Lex Initiative for Rights Advocacy and Development (LIRAD).
 Brody, A. (2009), Gender and Governance: Overview Report, BRIDGE Cutting Edge Pack, April, http://www.bridge.ids.ac.uk/sites/bridge.ids.ac.uk/files/reports/Governance_OR_final.pdf.