By Kenneth Dareng
THERE are mixed reactions from Nigerians following the Senate’s re-introduction of a bill which was abandoned under pressure last year. The bill sought to impose the death penalty on “any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person.”
It will be recalled, the Senate was last year forced to drop its first attempt to enact the law, following massive public outcry that ensued after The Guardian publication of March 2018, exclusively reported that the lawmakers were desperate to pass the bill. According to the same publication this time of 13th November 2019, the bill tagged: “National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches,” is sponsored by the Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, Abdullahi Aliyu Sabi (APC, Niger State).
The publication added that, it was the 12th item on the order of the paper on the date of the first reading on the floor of the Senate and was granted automatic reading. Noting that; the death penalty is the most severe punishment provided by the bill which defines hate speech as: A comment that insults people for their religion, ethnic and linguistic affiliation, among others.
It stipulates: “Any Person who commits an offense 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”.
On offenses like harassment on the basis of ethnicity, racial contempt, the bill proposes not less than five year jail term or a fine of not less than N10 million or both.
“A person who uses, publishes, presents, produces, plays, provides, distributes and or directs the performance of, any material, written and/or visual which is threatening, abusive or insulting or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior commits an offense if such a person intends thereby to stir up ethnic hatred which is likely to be stirred up against any person or persons from such an ethnic group in Nigeria”.
According to the bill, “Conduct shall be regarded as having the effect specified in sub-section (1) (a) or (b) of this section if, having regard to all the circumstances, including in particular the perception of that other person, it should reasonably be considered as having that effect.
“A person who subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity commits an offense and shall be liable on conviction to an-imprisonment for a term not less than five years, or to a fine of not less than ten million naira or both.
The bill according to its sponsor is aimed at ensuring the elimination of all forms of hate speeches, promoting the elimination of all forms of hate speeches against persons or ethnic groups; as well as advising the federal government on the matter.
Other situations which the bill condemns are; “when a person subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity for the purposes of this section where, on ethnic grounds, he or she 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”.
The bill further stated that, the commission will be headed by an Executive Chairperson to be appointed by the president on the recommendation of the National Council of State, subject to the confirmation of at least two thirds majority of the National Assembly.
Other functions of the commission according to the bill; includes, discouraging persons, institutions, political parties and associations from advocating or promoting discrimination or discriminatory practices through the use of hate speeches; promoting tolerance, understanding and acceptance of diversity in all aspects of national life and encouraging full participation by all ethnic communities in social, economic, cultural and political life of other communities.
It is also to plan, supervise, coordinate and promote educational and training programmers to create public awareness, support and advancement of peace and harmony among ethnic communities and racial groups.
However, in spite of the noble intentions of the bill, some notable Nigerians including former Vice President and Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the February 23rd election, Atiku Abubakar, have cautioned the Senate against promulgating the anti-hate speech bill into law.
In a statement by his Media Adviser, Paul Ibe, Atiku noted that those now toying with the idea of an anti-hate speech bill, with punishment by death should exercise much caution.
Atiku further stated that; “The contemplation of such laws is in itself not just a hate speech, but an abuse of the legislative process that will violate Nigerians’ constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech.
“Those behind the bill should wake up to the fact that Nigeria’s democracy has survived its longest incarnation because those who governed this great nation between 1999 and 2015 never toyed with this most fundamental of freedoms. It is prudent to build upon tolerance inherited from those years and not shrink the democratic space to satisfy personal and group interests,” he advised.
Chieftains of two socio-cultural groups particularly kicked against the plan to establish an agency for hate speech. They urged Nigerians to resist every attempt by the Senate to aid the enclosure of the open space and turn Nigeria to a full-blown dictatorship.
Speciafically, Yinka Odumakin, spokesman of the Pan-Yoruba socio-cultural organization, Afenifere, was also quoted by the Guardian newspaper of 13th November 2019 as stating that the Senate was aiding and abetting full grown dictatorship in the country by wanting to take away the right of speech.
“The Senate is now behaving truly like a rubber stamp assembly. Of all the problems confronting Nigeria today, all they can be doing is to be thinking of establishing an agency for hate speech and death penalty for offenders.
“What constitutes hate speech? It is a subjective interpretation according to the whims and caprices of those in power. So all they are trying to do with the bill is to cow people to submission and propose for execution those who disagree with the way the country is being run.
“The way our Senate is doing is making many of us who fought for democracy ask: What did we fight against in the military rule that we are not witnessing in Nigeria today, especially with this kind of bill by the Senate? Nigerians should resist this attempt to turn the country to full-blown dictatorship”.
According a second republic politician and chieftain of the Igbo socio-cultural group Ohanaeze, Chief Guy Ikokwu who told The Guardian that the law of libel and defamation was enough to handle hate speeches. “They should define what hate speech means and judge themselves if they have never hated anyone in their lives and if they were found guilty. They should be the first to judge themselves. Our law of libel and defamation of character is very clear, so why would they want to fund an agency and even go ahead executing people?
“The law is enough under the dispensation of the rule of law and liberal development. Our laws guarantee freedom of expression, the Senate cannot make any law outside the constitution. We are not under a military regime; we are in a federal republic. If they want anarchy instead of liberal democracy, they should let everyone know where the country stands. This is getting too much, we cannot continue like this”.
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Mike Ozekhome was also quoted by the same publication as saying; “A bill sponsored by Senator Aliyu Sabi, who incidentally was the spokesman for the Senate in the 8th Assembly, is said to have passed the first reading. Part of the bizarre provisions in the said bill is the prescription of death penalty for makers of hate speech. What is hate speech by the way and who defines it? What is the true test of determining it? Is the test that of a government in power or that of the traumatized people or that of the National Assembly or courts or the executive? Just who?
“I have not yet had the opportunity to read the bill and so do not yet have the details of this unusual bill seeking the death penalty (by hanging) on alleged hate speech. I pray this provision is not true. I pray it is a mere moonlight tale.
“This bill should be deleted immediately. It should immediately be aborted and killed as a malformed embryo at its second reading gestation stage before it is allowed to be delivered as a social monster. I quickly warn that this maverick and intolerant government cannot be trusted by any sane person to fairly operate such a draconian piece of legislation introduced under a law that carries the death penalty for alleged hate speech”.
Ozekhome further queried; “When has merely made speech under section 39 of the 1999 Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression become, not just a treasonable felony (life imprisonment) but treason itself that is punished with death?
“Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Nigeria is a signatory to this international instrument”.
The Nation Newspaper of Wednesday November 13, 2019, also quoted the Minority Leader of the Senate, Eyinnaya Abaribe as saying that; the Peoples Democratic party (PDP) Senators would oppose the bill if it threatens the fundamental rights of Nigerians as guaranteed in section 39 of the constitution. Abaribe noted that there are already laws that deal with the issues the proposed bill seeks to regulate.
He urged Nigerians to ensure mutual respect while freely expressing their views. “There is no speed with which this bill is being passed. The first reading of a bill is automatic. We can’t make a comment on what is still on the first stage. What I can assure Nigerians is that this Senate can’t be a party to removing the rights of Nigerians under any guise. Section 39 of the constitution talks about our freedom as citizens. The 9th Senate will not abridge such rights.
“I don’t think Nigerians who fought and paid the supreme price to entrench this democracy will easily give it away and make us go back to the dark days. Rest assured when we get to that point, we will stand for the people. Every bill that passes must pass through the rigours to ensure that it protects the rights of over 200 million Nigerians.
“We have a plethora of laws than can be used to drive the question of driving a free society. While social media can be good, it can also be bad. I am a victim of the social media. As much as there is freedom, yours stops where another person’s own starts. We urge Nigerians not to propagate falsehood or fake news. Our job is to guarantee the freedom and rights of both sides”, Abaribe noted.
However, a Jos based legal professional, Barrister Callistus Umoh Johnson told the SUNDAY STANDARD that, “Despite the fact that section 39 of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria speaks on the freedom of speech and the right to express one’s opinion, people should not misinterpret the law to suit a personal interest.
But the question is, does any law give an individual right to spread falsehood and fake news? Imagine the kind of hate comments on the social media. Some people go as far as using Photoshop to malign the character of some other individuals. A good case in point is President Buhari who was at various times shown on the social media to be either “dead or to be an imposter.” Yet such people feel it is a normal thing to castigate others as far as the law can be broken without qualm.
Godwin Osodolor also bares his mind to the SUNDAY STANDARD and warned that; Tthis is not a banana republic where people disobey common laws of the land and behave the way they deem fit. It is very sad that Nigerians like building a molehill out of every situation. It is about time the rule of law is given a bite in this country. If you don’t set standards and examples with some bad characters, people will still behave as if they are in a jungle like animals. If you want sanity in this country, there must be relevant rules. Call it dictatorship which people must learn to obey so that we can promote harmonious and peaceful co-existence.”
Awalu Sani also told the SUNDAY STANDARD that the proposed bill on hate speech is quite timely in this country due to the fact that the nation is witnessing polarization along ethnic, political and religious divide more than ever in the history of the country. I am a Fulani man by birth from Kebbi State. However, it pains me whenever there is an attack on any community in Nigeria, it is considered Fulani/herdsmen attack.
“Does it not imply that some people are deliberately making a Fulani man to be hated across the land which he has the same right as a citizen to live in? Or how do you justify calling a particular ethnic group as ‘ritualists’ and armed ‘robbers.’ So we destroy one another and yet we don’t want to live with the consequences,” said Sani.
Also in his comments in The Nation of November 13, 2019, Festus Eriye posited that, “No one should downplay the gravity of fake news, ethnic slurs and comments that seek to denigrate and humiliate fellow humans on the basis of their race, ethnicity or faith.
“From the old Nazi Germany, to what used to be Yugoslavia and apartheid South Africa, wars have been fought and nations torn apart because of these same issues. Indeed, the scars left behind by those conflicts are yet to heal in some of these countries.
“Again, we have seen how the specter of fake news played a key role in the rise of President Donald Trump in the US. Today what was treated as joke a few years back has become an industry that has produced gigantic headaches for social media giants like Face book, Twitter and so on, whose platforms are used to spread false information”.
Eriye further stated that, “The great danger with the social media is spontaneity. People can react violently to a false post and lives would have been long lost before proper fact-checking can neutralize the fake news item. We have also seen that extreme terror groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have become quiet adept in using social media and have manipulated it over the years to project messages that seduce many to their cause.
“So whatever the government is planning is not strange. Countries as far afield as the United States, Britain, Germany, Singapore, New Zealand and Russia have introduced some form of legislation that seek to check hate speech and abuse of social media. Where specific legislation has been made they have been two types – those designed to protect public order and those for checking the dehumanization of people on the basis of ethnicity.
“More severe sanctions are often deployed for those activities and utterances that can lead to a breakdown of order. Therefore, what should worry us is the mindset driving the latest actions, the necessity of the new regulations and capacity for enforcement and potential for abusing a bad law”.
Festus Eriye also observed that; “It is easy to define fake news, but not so with hate speech. A tin skinned egoist would consider trenchant criticism sufficient ground to prosecute somebody. I see such elasticity in Senator Aliyu Sabi’s bill which prescribed the death penalty for hate speech. That proceeds from the notion of capital punishment as a cure for all crimes. But we have seen that it hasn’t deterred people from committing murder or armed robbery. Such extreme punishments are an over-cut for an offense that the world is still struggling to define.