That hate speech bill and democracy
In a rather macabre and vexatious manner the Ninth Senate, already opprobrious in the eyes of the Nigerian people, further dug itself into the dungeon of infamy when it proposed and gave a second reading to a bill, which prescribes the death penalty for anybody found guilty of hate speech.
The bill ‘‘National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches (Establishment) Bill 2019’’ was proposed by Senator Sabi Aliu Abdullahi (APC Niger State) who incidentally is the Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate. Across the country, there has been public outrage and outcry about the retrogressive and insensitive character of the men and women who occupy the National Assembly on matters that affect the people.
What spirit moved the proposers of the bill to prescribe the death penalty, the people ask. What laws have the Senate passed to curb the fatal level of corruption in the country, that criminal malaise that has made the country a laughing stock in the comity of nations? Has life become so cheap to our legislators that the first line of punishment is the termination of life? Are there no extant laws that can be invoked to punish offenders? What happened to libel, slander laws, cyber-crime act, etc? Once again, we are at odds with the leadership of the Senate for giving space to such an obnoxious bill!
Hate speech is any ‘‘abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or ethnic group.’’ It is condemnable in all its ramifications. No individual or group should be allowed to spew hatred into the public space, particularly in a country as diverse and fractured as Nigeria. All over the world, hate speech has received increased attention, particularly on social media where people hide behind the computer or a palm-held device to utter extremely provocative and incendiary statements. We are aware of the role, which hate speech played in the build-up to the outbreak of hostilities in the Nigeria civil war from 1967 to 1970. We are also aware of the hate speech that led to the loss of lives in the aftermath of the presidential election in 2011. The Rwanda genocide that almost ruined that country also arose from promoting hate on account of ethnicity. We, therefore, recognize how serious the enthronement of the culture of hate speeches can do to a people or a nation.
However, we are at a loss over the choice of death for perpetrators of hate speech. The bill proposes that “any person 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.” The bill’s provisions also include when “a person subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity for the purposes of this section where on ethnic grounds, he unjustifiably engages in a conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating that other person’s dignity; or creating an intimidating, degrading, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment for the person subjected to the harassment.” Is Senate preparing the nation for a return to authoritarian rule?
Already, Nigerians are worried about the level of fear, which security agencies have planted in the hearts of citizens. Omoyele Sowore, publisher of the online news outlet Sahara Reporters, Sambo Dasuki, and El Zakzaky are examples of citizens whose rights have been trampled upon by the Federal Government. The Federal Government had also hinted that it would regulate social media. In one of the south-south states, a journalist has been detained on account of what he published about corruption in the state. Politicians who dare express opposing views to the incumbent government are routinely harassed by the anti-corruption agencies in the land. The thinking is that the Federal Government is trying to stifle criticism or dissent by draconian laws. We may need to remind the government and the National Assembly that the 1999 Federal Constitution guarantees freedom of expression. There should be no subterfuge whatsoever to deny citizens the majesty of democracy.
Democracy thrives on free speech, that is, the freedom of individuals to express themselves even if their views clash with those of the incumbent government. The same constitution provides enough legislation on persons who go above the acceptable limits of inter-ethnic or group relations. In other words, we have enough laws to punish persons who make libelous statements or who make incendiary speeches. We, therefore, without equivocation call on the Senate to drop that obnoxious bill without much ado.
There was a report last night that the framers of the obnoxious hate speech bill have removed the death penalty provision in the proposed law. That is not enough. The bill should be killed in public interest. The bill is out of sync with the spirit of democracy and ought not to have been written in the first, and having been written it ought not to have come into the public space.
Nigerians are appalled that some proven thieves and fraudulent politicians have got away with blue murder after raping the nation by excessive pillage. Some who had cases pending against them still got appointments from the Federal Government. These are persons who need to face the long arm of the law with stiff punishments. The Senate should make laws that will protect the people from the rapacious actions of their so-called leaders. We are certain, though we do not recommend it, that if a stiff law had been passed to check fraud there would have been reactions from the people. But how can such laws be passed by a legislative house that has people facing trial for fraud sitting in the supposed hallowed chambers?
We call on the Senate to rise to the lofty ideals behind making laws. Lawmakers ought to be above board. The hate speech bill is designed to drive fear into citizens and the opposition. To be sure, the commission, if approved, will be tale guided by the executive arm of government just as the anti-corruption agencies are beginning to become attack dogs of the incumbent APC government.
Rather than help the spirit of democracy, the hate speech bill is the result of a warped mind, a mind locked in the horrible days of military dictatorship when a decree made it an offence for a newspaper to publish any material that could embarrass a government official even if the information was true. If the Senate wants to retain a modicum of respect, they should simply perish the thought of passing a hate speech bill. That bill is a blight on the majesty of democracy in the most populous black nation on earth.
No comments yet