Nigerian social media Bill under fire as first lady suggests emulating China

New rules would criminalise insulting the government online with three years in jail

Activists are rallying in Nigeria after the country's first lady proposed using China as a model for how to control citizens' social media use.

"If China can control over 1.3 billion people on social media, I see no reason why Nigeria cannot attempt controlling only 180 million people," Aisha Buhari said at the weekend.

“We should either fasten our seat belt, get up and do the needful or we will all regret it very soon.”

Aisha is the wife of Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator who has been in power since 2015 and was recently re-elected.


Her comments come as a “social media Bill”, which would criminalise insulting the government online with three years in prison, is debated by parliament.

“Dear Aisha Buhari, in China, if a government official is found guilty of corruption, he/she will be shot to death and the bullet is paid for by his/her family,” tweeted one Nigerian, Obinna Nwosu, in response. “How about we copy this from China, not just social media control?”

The social media Bill going through parliament is called The Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill. According to Human Rights Watch, the Bill prohibits making statements on social media that are "likely to be prejudicial to national security" and "those which may diminish public confidence" in the West African country's government.

Nigerian activist Deji Adeyanju called the Bills "draconian". "They seek to take away the right to freedom of expression of the citizens which are constitutionally guaranteed in section 39 of our constitution."

‘The last hope’

Mr Adeyanju, who has previously been arrested under charges including “defamation” for protesting against the police and military, said social media is “the last hope of the common man in Nigeria”.

“Every arm of government has failed [so] the people resort to social media to vent their anger and frustrations against the government,” said Adeyanju. “To try to regulate it or shut it down will be taking tyranny to the next level.”

Journalist and former government employee Ohimai Amaize agreed, saying the social media Bill is an attempt to shut down the voices of those “critical of the excesses of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency”.

Mr Amaize left Nigeria for the US six months ago after he says he received a tip-off saying he would be arrested and framed under charges related to his work curating social media opinions, which he presented on television programme Kakaaki Social.

“The truth is, this current government understands the power and influence of social media. President Buhari rode on the wave of this same social media to become president in 2015. He knows the power that comes with the territory and he doesn’t want to be put under the scrutiny of public opinion,” Mr Amaize said. “His background as a military dictator is what you see playing out through this assault on freedom of expression in Nigeria.”

The Nigerian government did not respond to a request for comment.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa