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‘Hate-speech bill meant to enforce integration’

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Toluwani

Vocal lawyer and human rights activist, Mr. Toluwani Adebiyi in this interview with Assistant Editor, Law and Foreign Affairs, JOSEPH ONYEKWERE, takes a swipe at critics of the hate-speech bill, saying it should have been promoted because it was meant to enforce ethnic harmony and integration. According to him, the bill should have been couched to read “a bill against ethnicity hatred/violence” instead. He also spoke about insecurity, social media bill, judicial reform and electricity tariff hike.

What is your view about the rising cases of insecurity manifesting in the adoption of judicial and security officers in the country?
It is a sad reflection of the decadence of the society we find ourselves and indeed a loss of touch with reality and responsibility of those whose duty it is to secure the society. A situation where those who are to protect us are no longer safe is a serious one. A Divisional Police Officer (DPO) was kidnapped recently and an orderly who was to protect a judge was killed. These are personels who are armed or supposedly armed, so what happens to the armless? It is indeed a sorry case! May God have mercy on us.

How did we get to this state and what do you think can be done to address it?
It is the non-challant attitude, insensitivity, doing the minor and leaving the major, coupled with bad coordination/supervision of the relevant agencies of government that is causing the escalation. It is not that we don’t have the required manpower in the security agencies, but are they well equipped? Some of these guys are so good that with ease they tactically get things done, but are they sufficiently facilitated? The government needs to be more conscious, proactive, serious and dedicated to security issues. Imagine the level of insensitivity to safety and security of citizens perpetrated through Dasukigate. Foreign financial aid was given in a bid to end Boko Haram, but what happened? Few people shared that money for personal gains, while thousands of Nigerians were dying. Unknown to the evil perpetrators, it wasn’t money they were sharing, but human lives/blood. That was money meant to deliver lives from destruction! It was siphoned and citizens were denied the opportunity to live. What a great abomination and national shame? It was not only a sin against the nation, but against fellow mankind, who have been losing their lives to the insurgents. As a result, Nigeria soldiers became easy prey to Boko Haram fighters. Their substandard weapons were nothing to be compared to the highly sophisticated enemies’ weapons. The soldiers protested, but were court-martialed, only to later discover that the money meant for them to use and end the battle had been siphoned by some leaders headed by the then National Security Adviser. What a great wickedness and high level of insensitivity? Were it to be in some nations, none of those involved will be alive today. That’s why Boko Haram and other acts of insecurity continue to threaten till today. The continuous existence of Nigeria as a nation is a miracle. Until personal interest is put aside and loving Nigeria more than personal interest is entrenched, it will be difficult to have the Nigeria of our dreams.

What do you think about the hate-speech bill, which proposes death penalty for offenders?
I have been restraining myself from making any comments until I have read through and digest the 24 pages of the ‘’hate-speech’’ bill. It is totally a bill against ethnicity hatred/violence; a bill to enforce or ensure ethnicity harmony and integration in Nigeria. Going by the content, form and character of the bill, the word ‘’hate speech’’ does not qualify for its usage. It is a bill against ethnicity hatred/violence and would have been more appropriate to go by that name. Nigeria as a nation has come of age. We should be more sound, reasonable and logical in our reasonings. Mere hearing of bill against “hate speech’’, what comes to the mind of every well-meaning and right thinking Nigerians is (1) that the bill is fundamentally undemocratic; (2) that it will limit freedom of expression, thereby violating section 39 of the 1999 constitution; (3) that it could mean an end to constructive criticism of the government and (4) that it could be a device to readily trap government oppositions.

For God sake, that is not true of the bill. I went through the bill’s 24 pages. It is a different thing entirely, but a well-meaning and patriotic Nigerian who hears of death penalty for any ‘’hate speech’’ will quickly and in all sincerity say that our senate is not initiating death penalty for looters, Boko Haram fighters, killer herdsmen and kidnappers, but only for ‘’hate-speech’’.
Section 4(1) of the bill provides: ‘’A person who uses, publishes… or directs the performance of…, which is threatening, abusive or insulting… commits an offence if such person tends to stir up ethnicity hatred, or intends to stir up against any person from such an ethnic group in Nigeria.
Section 4(2) provides: ‘’Anyone who commits an offence under this section shall be liable to life imprisonment and where the act causes any loss of life, the person shall be punished with death by hanging’’. Picking ‘’hate speech’’ and death penalty in isolation of other contents, intents and purposes of the bill and without reading the bill but spreading such ignorance and fickle mindedness, is totally unfair to me. If for instance, I am the Jagunmolu (chief warrior) of Yorubaland and I come out to declare that the Hausas and the Igbos in Yorubaland or Lagos are the ones destroying our community, and that the Yorubas should take up arms to chase them out and consequently, shops belonging to these ethnic groups are destroyed, that will be a life imprisonment for the Jagunmolu. If any life is lost, then it is death by hanging.

Again, for instance as a Yoruba man, I am a Director/HOD in a federal establishment, Madam Haruna and Mr. Chukwu Obinna are posted to that Department and I don’t like their faces because they are Hausa and Igbo and so I begin to intimidate or frustrate them, that is ethnicity hatred that can lead to violence. So, section 5 applies and the penalty is not death if found guilty, but five years imprisonment or N10 million fine. Using this God forsaken word ‘’hate-speech’’, will lead to lots of abuse and misinterpretation of the Act, promoting and provoking meaningless litigation.

The recent alleged derogatory public remarks by Timipre Sylva, calling a serving judge a harlot is only a criminal contempt ex facie, a punishable executive recklessness that should not be allowed to go unpunished because it is a flagrant desecration of the temple of justice and I weep for this nation. But going by the wording of this bill of which all intent and purpose is to prevent ethnicity hatred/violence, Sylva’s act does not qualify as hate speech under the bill, as wrongly misconceived by many, including me (before reading the bill).

Section 3(1) of the bill is of great interest. It provides: ‘’…on grounds of ethnicity, a person puts another person at a particular disadvantage when compared with other person’s from other ethnic nationality of Nigeria’’, the implication of that provision is that President Muhammadu Buhari can no longer make 12 political appointments and all of them from the core North to the disadvantage of other ethnic groups. When he leaves office, action on ethnic discrimination can be brought against him, even the same way that true but selective allegations of corruption was brought against the opposition when APC deposed PDP. As it is, shortly before the president leaves office, under the bill, he cannot remove all heads of government establishments and put there men from Daura or core North, so that he can continue to rule Nigeria from the corner of his sitting room. If APC loses power to the opposition, within 12 months, the Act can be invoked against him with severe punishment. Is this bill good or not?

On February 6, 2019, there was appointment and subsequent deployment of 37 command Commissioners of Police for the 36 states and FCT, following the recommendation of the IGP. Serially checking the list using name identification reveals that only Damian Chukwu and Celestine Okoye are the only two from Southeast appointed, whereas by principle of equality of States an appointment should be made from each state of the federation to make it five appointments from southeast. In the future, such act can be interpreted to be against section 3(1) of this bill under ethnic discrimination, which means that it an appointment to the disadvantage of one ethnic group compared with other ethnic group/s in Nigeria. The bill will enhance ethnicity harmony and oneness. It will also prevent what seems or that can be interpreted as ethnicity hatred. So, I insist that the name be changed from bill against ‘’hate-speech’’ to the more appropriate bill against ethnicity hatred/violence.

Now that the Senate said it has abandoned the bill due to the criticisms, what is your advice?
We should be honest with ourselves. A U.S envoy, Jerry Howard not only read through the bill, but went to meet the Senator who sponsored the bill with his team. He reviewed the bill and came out to say that the bill is impressive, that it could solve Nigeria’s ethnicity problems and human rights abuse. Our problem in this country is that many of us are too busy to read and investigate before jumping to conclusions. You can now see the problem created by the wrong title ‘’hate speech’’? Going by the contents of the bill, the appropriate title should be bill against ethnicity hatred/violence as I earlier said. Everyone, including the lawmakers should go and read through the bill. They should go through it line by line. No one should conclude based on what people who have not read the bill or those who read but did not understand are saying. Whosoever claims to have read it and still complaining, in all respects and in all sincerity should re-read with understanding. More importantly, the title must be changed.

Have you also read the social media control bill and what is your take on it?
Though I’m yet to read the bill, but we are all aware of misrepresentations or false alert perpetrated on social media daily. No matter how good a thing is, it will always have its bad side. I was driving to court one day and was on the 3rd mainland bridge when I got a WhatsApp message that the bridge was shaking and would soon collapse. All I could courageously say in response is that one way one day everyone will die, but one thing I know for sure is that my own time to die is not now. So, whatever happens today on the bridge, I shall survive it. It was nothing but a false alert. Most information are not verified before posting; mostly affected and battered are those in power. We all remembered the experience of former President Goodluck Jonathan and his wife. It was so embarrassing, yet they didn’t do anything to suppress/curtail that right of expression. This government should get use to it. It is not what people call you that matters. Jesus Christ was called names and insulted, yet he remained focused. The government should remain focused on its mission to deliver this nation from economic hardship and prevailing insecurities. They should give us the Nigeria of our dream and stop trading on distractions.

A non governmental organisation, Access to Justice has sued the Federal Judicial Service Commission, National Judicial Council and others over alleged breach of procedure in appointment of judicial officers. What is your take on judicial reforms so we won’t be having such scenarios?
The judiciary, the third arm of government for long has remained under the colonization of the executive and so has not been truly independent. There are laid down procedures, even on appointments, but everything has been politicised and destroyed on the altar of personal interest. I remember when I was in year two at the university, I was appointed a judge in the Student Union Judiciary. In my year three, while I was having about four seniors ahead of me on the judiciary list, the powerful Students’ Senate decided to make me the next Chief Judge of the Student Union Government (SUG) because of what they called my brilliant and matured performance in the panel I headed over disputes on SUG presidential election, but I rejected the offer. When they would not yield to that, a day before the final approval by the senate and the announcement, I resigned from the judiciary. The right person to be appointed then was shocked and grateful. My sacrifice was not unto him, but to uphold the integrity and sustenance of the SUG judiciary. Radical change in the judiciary is in the hands of members of the judiciary; no amount of reform put in place by the government can reform the judiciary. It is the judiciary that can reform itself, the judiciary knows where the problem is and they know what to do. To this effect, the National Judicial Council (NJC) and particularly the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) cannot be separated from the radical change to make the judiciary truly independent and remove it from the executive colonisation. We still have many wonderful judges in the country that if the NBA can stand its ground, become vibrant and give the judiciary the necessary backing, the judges will courageously do far more better.

The recent derogatory remark by a serving minister against a judge, calling the judge harlot readily comes to mind. It is good that the NBA National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kunle Edun made a release to condemn that punishable desecration of the temple of justice, but can that be enough? It is high time we moved away from making press releases to condemn; we need action! We need a radical NBA like the era of Alao Aka Bashorun that will make representation to the Senate to demand for Timipre’s removal. We want a radical NBA that will make representation to the presidency for the minister’s removal. We want a radical NBA that will head to court to institute contempt proceeding against the erring minister. If the umbrella (protecting) body continue to fail in doing the needful, most judges will continue to remain in their cast iron shell of fear, fear of losing their jobs and fear of intimidation by the colonial executive. The judges cannot come out publicly to defend themselves, it is the responsibility of the bar to do that. Until the radicals, the progressive activists and not activists by mouth take over the leadership of the NBA to lead an unstoppable rescue mission of our legal system, no change or true reform will be feasible.

The government will see no reason to respect us if we don’t by ourselves restore our dignity and lost glory. We should stop remaining voiceless on bad government policies, accountability and transparency. The unending electricity problems and insecurity in the country require the input of NBA. We want a radical NBA that will be at the fore-front, spearheading the handling of those issues in court and making the government to do the right thing. The type of NBA leadership that when the government remembers its existence, it would not want to disobey court’s order. These are the fundamentals to radical change and enduring reforms of our legal system.

What is the state of the legal action you filed against the hike in electricity tariff without adequate compliance with the enabling law?
The matter was won at the Federal High Court. From that single matter, five different appeals emerged – three by National Electricity Regulation Commission (NERC), (two interlocutory and one substantive), one by the 11 DISCOs and one by a busy body Company (that’s what the Appeal Court called them in its judgement) that ought to supply meters to Nigerians. One of them was quashed in our favour, the others, two interlocutory and two substantive were remitted to the Federal High Court for retrial without the Court of Appeal reversing the unlawful hike and an order to maintain the status quo. The question now is, at the end of the new trial, would the high court order the NERC and the DISCOs to increase the tariff already increased, if determined in their favour? And if it is our claim not to increase tariff that succeeds, would the court now order them not to increase tariff already increased since February 1, 2016 in defiance to a subsisting court order? Whichever way, no meaningful or sensible judgement can emerge from the new trial without having first reversed the unlawful hike by the Court of Appeal. Thus, maintaining the status quo, with that vital and many other errors in Appeal Court’s judgement, we are left with no option other than to proceed to the Supreme Court. The truth of our agitation and the falsehood of their defence, today speak for themselves. Has the power Sector improved since then? No. Have they supplied prepaid meters to all consumers in Nigeria in consonance with the agreement to do so within 18 months of privatization? No. Have they stopped the unlawful and wrongful estimated billings as rightly and sincerely admitted by Tony Anka (who replaced Sam Amadi and perhaps the reason his appointment was not confirmed), as published in Sunday Punch of July 31, 2016 and the Guardian of July 24, 2016? No.

Are they now selling the prepaid meters which ought to be given free of charge, the cost of same having been integrated into and for long paid by consumers as reflected in Multi Year Tariff Order (MYTO 2) of June 1, 2012, tariff hike, evidenced by the letter dated September 16, 2012, titled: ‘’Consumer Protection Letter-knowing your Rights about Meters’’ and signed by Sam Amadi, the then Chairman of NERC? Yes. It is nothing but shame, shame, shame to all who are involved in the exploitation and I weep for this nation.


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