A hate speech bill is currently making its way through the halls of the National Assembly. It is a bill which in the annals of Nigeria’s legislative endeavour is likely to go down as the most obnoxious in Nigerian history.
It prescribes death sentence for any person found guilty of any kind of hate speech without defining precisely what a hate speech is and how a hate speech can be identified. It seeks the establishment of an “Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches” which shall enforce the hate speech laws across the country to ensure what it calls “the elimination of the menace.”
We believe that given the wording of the bill, the menace manifests when “a person who uses, publishes, presents, plays, provides, distributes and/or directs the performance of any material written and/or visual, which is threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour, commits an offence if such person intends thereby to stir up ethnic hatred, or having regard to all the circumstances, ethnic hatred is likely to be stirred up against any person or persons from such an ethnic group in Nigeria.”
For associated offences such as harassment on the grounds of ethnicity or what it calls “racial contempt,” a culprit shall be jailed for “not less than five years or a fine of not less than N10 million or both.” As for the Commission, it shall be headed by an executive chairperson appointed by the President on the recommendations of the National Council of State, and the commission shall “discourage Nigerians from promoting discrimination through the use of hate speeches, to get Nigerians to accept diversity and encourage full participation by all ethnic groups. It shall also promote educational programmes for public awareness and religious tolerance.
Nigerian civil society organisations have expressed their shock and outrage and have described the bill as draconian. These include the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, the Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria and others. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Aliyu Sabi-Abdullahi, (APC Niger), is the Senate spokesman. Most Nigerians are shocked that the bill, as tendentious as it appears, scaled through the first reading; that it did so at the Senate was an eye-opener.
The bill contradicts our basic laws just as it extinguishes our most basic rights. The 1999 Constitution is so clear and emphatic that this cannot be done, as per Section 22 which guarantees the freedom of the press and the responsibility of the press. It goes even further in Section 39 where it not only guarantees the freedom of expression, freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas, it secures the rights to disseminate them. The African Charter of Peoples and Human Rights which have been domesticated as Cap 10 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria and are in pari materia with the provisions of the Constitution; the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948; these fundamental laws ought to have precluded any discussion of the hate speech bill. The claim that existing laws of defamation have failed to check hate speech is so laughable to merit any comment. We are talking about laws that have faithfully served the civilized world for centuries.
Nigerians are beginning to compare the casualties from the destructive rampages of Fulani herdsmen to those of the civil war. Were those carnages perpetrated because of any hate speech? When did “hate speech” ever manifest in the polity as an issue, let alone being a “menace” as the purveyors of the bill want us to believe? Would a distraught woman in Benue State calling on Agatus to defend their homesteads and their farms not be guilty of hate speech?
The enemies of press freedom, the autocrats, and fascists are always on a fishing expedition, searching for soft targets to foist their dreadful ideas on the people. The hate speech bill should be seen for what it is – a fresh vexatious assault on our liberties, and declared dead on arrival.