This week I am leaving what I had planned to discuss, which would have been about the shape of politics to come in Abia State, my state, to do the discourse you have in your hands. This issue is very important. It has been handled by the framers of our Constitution, who made provision for freedom of expression, to hold thought, freedom of the press and other such provisions for citizens’ rights.
It is possible that what they gave to us may not have been very comprehensive and therefore requires addition, yet the truth is that there is always a better way to go about it and one of it must be that the movement should be from progress to greater progress and not from progress to retrogression as seems to be the case with the unreasoned attempt to make a fresh law on hate speech.
The issue of freedom and or liberty is a serious matter everywhere, even in nations we describe as developed today had tortuous moments attempting to work out the amount of rights citizens should enjoy. If you check the histories of nations like France, England, Germany, China, Russia and America, we would find that the issue of citizens’ rights was a very contentious matter and in some instances lives were lost over conflicts associated with it and those who go there would see that they don’t joke with all aspects of citizens’ rights, be it right to life, to express and hold opinion, to work, to education, to housing and to move and live anywhere. Before writing this piece, I viewed a video on how the Chinese cherish their rights, drivers who make a stop on zebra crossing experience rough times as citizens would climb the burnets of their cars to gain passage. The intention is to tell drivers that citizens have rights which cannot be easily trampled on by anybody.
From the above we can see that the issue of citizens’ rights is a very serious matter. Societies that want progress give it a serious and detailed thought but in our case anything goes, we hardly understand the seriousness of any matter, once a particular policy has been implemented somewhere we want to follow without a full grasp of what motivated the action. Many times we act on impulse and it is worse when our interests appear threatened. During the military regime the leaders harassed what we know as the formal media – newspapers and television – as if they were the only organs for effective communication. Our leaders don’t run on rationalization and they hate statistics with passion otherwise they would have been in a position to know that the human agent and town criers are also very potent in the conveyance of information whether of the good or bad. The truth is when we shrink the formal communication channels we give vent to the informal and when that is the situation the interest of the society is compromised to the extent of the interest of the news purveyor.
Today, we are making progress in the negative direction. As I said earlier, our target used to be to cage the formal communication system but today we are expanding the scope of operation to include the social media and the human element and we are not stopping there; we want to make a new law called Hate Speech Law that would erode whatever advantages the constitution has given us through the provision of the right of expression and to hold thoughts. The truth is that no nation that wants to make progress moves in this manner. Like lawyers would say it is a dangerous thing to probate and approbate, it is like a man of unstable mind, who definitely would achieve nothing. Nations that want to move forward expand the scope of freedom available to their citizens so that they can release the innate potentials buried inside them. This is why some of us are troubled when we see a few misguided ones among us try to initiate actions that close the space rather than expand it.
I gave a lecture on this topic last week to members of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Abia State Chapter, and I told them our leaders have time for frivolities and wrong actions because many of them in charge lack capacity for deep thinking and because most of them are incapable of high rationalization they have no choice but to fly low. It is this recourse that is responsible for the backwardness we see and the wrong prescriptions that add up to close the space and provoke conflicts many of them bloody. From the federal to the local government authorities the solution to every problem is force and closure of space. We talk about armed robbery, kidnapping and social tensions, the answer we get is recruit more policemen, buy new arms and deploy the army. Nobody is sane enough to talk about a population that is growing in geometrical proportions, job creation, credit facilities, social net, free education and food security. I can imagine the kind of calm and conviviality that will pervade the nation, especially the northern zone if our leaders at all levels sat down to fashion out qualitative programs targeted at our youths. I think that those pushing for hate law should have spent their time more productively fighting for a productive economy rather than their current endeavor which diminishes them and has the potential to break up this nation.
There is no ingenuity in what they are trying to do. Turkey has done it, Egypt has it, Uganda also had one and the latest is Tanzania and none of them is a stable democracy. Shooting and protest have become their common features. We don’t want that kind of situation rather we ought to be an example to the African continent. We have the competence and exposure. Challenges of nation building would always be there but we have to take from history and use our intellect to provide progressive and durable solutions. America’s first Constitution did not provide enough on civil liberty and when the First Amendment came it was solely devoted to the Bill of Rights and a cardinal provision under this was freedom of expression. The politicians like we see here tried to subvert it by arguing the way we do here that the provisions were not all encompassing but the judiciary insisted that freedom is freedom and nobody or anything should subtract from it.
In one of such judicial pronouncements, the Supreme Court said: “Freedom of expression is the most basic of democratic rights. Unless citizens can openly express their opinions, they cannot properly influence their government or act to protect other rights. They also cannot hear what others have to say and thus cannot judge the merits of alternative views. And without free expression, elections are a sham and a mere showcase for those who control what is on people’s lips and in their minds. The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty and thus a good thing onto itself but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole.”
America’s 14th amendment expressly states that no law should be made to contradict the constitutional enactment on freedom of expression. If you have problem why it must be abridged, the state with overwhelming evidence shows that the possible reason is that trouble could be provoked and the exigent reason would be that the state with all apparatus of state coercion cannot handle the outcome of public advocacy of any kind.