“The Senate has said its proposed bill, which sets out to heavily punish those who “falsely” criticise government officials and institutions, is misunderstood.
The bill [is] titled: “Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith”, sponsored by Bala Ibn Na’allah, a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress from Kebbi State…”
– Premium Times
In literature, we try not to judge a book by its cover. But in legal matters, we can’t but judge by the cover. What is the meaning of ‘frivolous petitions’? And since when does this Senate have power to decide what a frivolous petition is?
If a petition is frivolous, the judge can determine that and throw it out. And that is NOT an offense. But until a case has been heard and the facts have been presented and vetted under the specs of the law, there is no telling that the case is frivolous! This bill isn’t a limited attack on our freedom of expression, though that appears to be the immediate target. This bill is an attack on our entire democratic process. That may not be the intent of the Senator proposing this bill, but then this is what it is. The Senate cannot decide what is ‘un-petition-able’ without clamping down on the powers of the judiciary and the sovereignty of the people. That is unacceptable.
And tell us, please, would the petitions against the Senate president in connection with his declaration of assets hearing qualify as frivolous under this bill? Would petitions against political and ministerial candidates qualify as frivolous under such a bill? Would public petitions demanding for government action on issues of Labour, delivery of services and government policies qualify as frivolous under such a bill? Would we have to go to courts or the police to get permission to make petitions? What if we want to make petitions against the police?
This bill is irrelevant and I am awestruck that it even came up at all. What is the agenda at play here? I believe we have more than enough laws on libel, slander and defamation of character already. I am alarmed that this bill is targeted at PETITIONS and not slander, libel or defamation of character, etc… We know that in law, a case may be won or lost based on such technical points as ‘petition vs. libel’.
This bill endangers our democracy, transparency and accountability in governance. I suppose this new administration would understand that, taking into consideration the fact that the party now in power has been in the opposition for upward of ten years, albeit in varying forms. We have heard astounding revelations of fraud, misappropriation of funds and massive leakages and in nearly every case, past governments denied it, called it frivolous and tried their best to stamp out both the revelation and the seer. But at the end of the day, when the facts come into public view all Nigerians see that those claims were not as frivolous as the government would have had us believe.
It is in the nature of governments all over the world, none excluded, to cover up messy details such as lost, stolen or mismanaged public funds. It is in their nature to cover up every messy detail about their operations. If all governments in the world have such laws in place against ‘frivolous petitions’, how do we guarantee accountability, legal redress and justice? How do we ensure that whistleblowers are safe? How do we audit our condition as a country and prevent colossal disasters? There is a greater good in restraining governmental powers to guarantee democratic process and ensure transparency, responsiveness and accountability on the part of government. For this reason, democracies are careful not to pass such bills against ‘frivolous petitions’. Such contraptions are found only in authoritarian societies.
Nigeria has come through a tough path to attain the democratic process we have today. If we let this bill pass, it will certainly derail whatever progress we have made till date. It is counter productive and it should be struck out. I maintain that we have enough laws on ground to address issues of slander, libel and defamation of character. Petitions, whether frivolous or not, are matters for public hearing and under the purview of the judiciary. The freedom to make wide ranging petitions must be preserved as a means for people to dialogue and not resort to violent protests or worse.
I appeal to the Senate therefore, in view of preserving our democracy, ensuring transparency, dialogue and accountability in governance, to kindly throw out this bill. I believe that this is the position of the majority of Nigerians. In a democracy, the will of the people should prevail. Nigeria is a democracy. That much is embedded in our Constitution.